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Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies

How we can position the study of non-religion within the discipline of Religious Studies? Sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Those of you who have been listening to the Religious Studies Project for some time will be somewhat familiar with the emerging sub-field of ‘non-religion’ studies. Perhaps you have listened to our podcast with Lois Lee, the founder of the Non-religion and Secularity Research Network, and wanted to know more? Or maybe you have heard Chris’s incessant ‘yes, but what about the ‘ non-religious?’ question in interviews and roundtables and wondered what this all has to do with Religious Studies? Whether or not either of these happened, we hope that you will enjoy this roundtable discussion with Dr Louise Connelly, Christopher Cotter, Dr Frans Jespers, Ethan Quillen, Dr Steven Sutcliffe, and Dr Teemu Taira.

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.

At the suggestion of Dr Steven Sutcliffe, Chris convened a group of scholars to discuss the study of non-religion within a Religious Studies framework. How do we define non-religion? What does such a demarcation have to offer our discipline? What is the scholar’s role in assigning labels such as ‘religious’ or ‘non-religious to individuals or groups who may eschew such labels? Are the ‘spiritual but not religious’ to be considered ‘non-religious’? And why would we even want to use the term ‘non-religion’ anyway? These questions and more form the basis of what became quite a lively discussion.

L Connelly ImageLouise Connelly, Ph.D., currently works as an Online Learning Advisor for the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh. She also teaches short-courses in Hinduism and Buddhism through the Office of Lifelong Learning at the University of Edinburgh. Her Ph.D. thesis is titled “Aspects of the Self: An analysis of self reflection, self presentation and the experiential self within selected Buddhist blogs” (University of Edinburgh). Her research interests include early Buddhism, visual culture, the use of social media, and Buddhist ritual and identity in the online world of Second Life. Her recent publications include ‘Virtual Buddhism: An analysis of aesthetics in relation to religious practice within Second Life’, Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet (2010); ‘Virtual Buddhism: Buddhist ritual in Second Life’ in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, Campbell (ed.) (2012); and Campbell and Connelly, ‘Religion and the Internet’ in the Encylopedia of Cyber Behavior,  Zang (ed.) (2012). See her personal blog or website for a full CV.

 

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, oracademia.edu page for a full CV.

Frans Jespers is associate professor of Science of Religion at the Faculty of Theology of Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands (Frans, please do send a bio when you get a chance – sorry about our lack of information in English!)

 

 

Steven Sutcliffe is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh where he teaches and researches in the areas of ‘new age religion’ and ‘holistic spirituality’, in the effects of the discourse and practice of ‘religion’ in contemporary culture and society, and on theory and method in the study of religion, including the history of its modern academic study. He is the author of Children of the New Age, editor of Religion: Empirical Studies, and co-editor (with Marion Bowman) of Beyond the New Age.

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see www.teemutaira.wordpress.com.

Religion in the 2011 UK Census

An ’emergency broadcast’ from the Religious Studies Project… featuring George Chryssides, Bettina Schmidt, Teemu Taira, Beth Singler, Christopher Cotter, and David Robertson.

The results of the 2011 census were published this Tuesday (11/12/2012), and immediately the media -old and new – were occupied with statistics about “religion” in England and Wales in 2011 as compared to 2001. We couldn’t avoid the opportunity to comment, and to apply the sort of analysis RS scholars are singularly qualified to apply. What did the census actually say, and how did the press report it? Why does it matter, and how can we use the data more constructively?

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.

Some data:

Thanks to all for taking part at short notice:

 

George D. Chryssides is Honorary Research Fellow in Contemporary Religion at the University of Birmingham. He studied philosophy and theology at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford, and has taught in several British universities, becoming Head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton in 2001. He has a particular interest in new religious movements, on which he has published extensively. Recent publications include Christians in the Twenty-First Century (with Margaret Z Wilkins), published by Equinox (2010). His second edition of Historical Dictionary of New Religious Movements is also out, dated 2012. His website, www.religion21.com, includes several resources which may be useful, including “From Jesus Christ to Father Christmas — an attempt to define the scope and subject-matter of Christianity”. You may also wish to see Russell T. McCutcheon’s edited volume The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion.

Dr Bettina Schmidt is Senior lecturer in the study of religions in the School of Theology, Religious Studies and Islamic Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity St. David. Her PhD concerned ethnicity and religion, focusing on Santeria and Spiritism in Puerto Rico (University of Marburg, 1996), and she went on to post-doctoral work in cultural theories and Caribbean religions (University of Marburg, 2001). Dr Schmidt has worked as a lecturer in anthropology for various German universities, as well as Visiting Professor at the City University of New York and of the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad in Cusco, Peru. At the moment she is member of the board of editors of the journal Indiana, an annual journal of the Ibero American Institute in Berlin, and of the journalCurare, a journal of medical anthropology and transcultural psychiatry, published by the AG Ethnomedicine, and Secretary of the BASR.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see www.teemutaira.wordpress.com.

Beth Singler is a PhD candidate at Cambridge University, UK. Her research focuses on New Religious Movements of the 20th and 21st Centuries, particularly those with an online community or an experimental relationship with popular culture. Beth’s MPhil research on the development online of a religion of Anorexia has been presented in papers at Interface 2011 (“Theology in the 3rd Millennium: Studying New Religious Movements on the Internet, the Case of the Pro-Ana Movement and Anamadim”) and at BASR 2011 (“When Ritual Cannot End – The Pro-Ana Movement and Anamadic Asceticism”). Jediism was the focus of a paper for BASR 2012, (“Jedi Ltd. or Limited Jedi? Jediism and the Changing Domains of Religious Conflict in New Religious Movements”) and she is currently working on a chapter examining how online New Religious Movements such as Jediism and Freezone Scientology deal with disputes and legal issues for a forthcoming book on religion and legal pluralism. Her PhD thesis examines the evolution of a New Age category of Self, Indigo Children, and has the provisional title: “The Indigo Children: New Age Experiments with Self and Science”. See her Academia.edu page for more details, or follow her @bvlsingler on Twitter.

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Recent publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2013). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.

Book Reviews

When we were contacted earlier this year by a couple of publishers asking if we’d be interested in reviewing books, we immediately thought “Yes – but how?” We’re not a journal, and didn’t want to do the traditional journal review, but we do love books, and especially talking about them. So when Chris suggested we could combine several reviews into a roundtable format, we thought we had to give it a try.

For this first try at a new format, we thought it best to invite a few trusty friends. After many attempts, we finally managed to get David Wilson to a recording. He reviewed Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief, edited by Marion Bowman and Ülo Valk (2012: Equinox). He calls it “a valuable contribution to the task of increasing scholarly awareness of the need to attend to the variety of local practices that are accepted as ‘religious’ but which have tended to be overlooked when investigating religion in terms of ‘world’ religions“. It doesn’t offer easy answers, however, and “like many of the dialogues it explores, this collection is courteously, but deliberately, disruptive“. Read his full review here.

Chris reviewed Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present, edited by David Goodhew. The book purports to ‘provide a forceful critique of the notion of secularization’ “by focusing upon the attendance and membership of Christian churches – the very thing which formed the empirical basis of the secularization thesis“. While he has issues with the volume’s theological imperative and uncritical acceptance of the secularisation thesis, Chris pointed out that it demonstrates “the potential for scholarly theories to, in some cases,  become self-fulfilling prophesies when released into the real world“. You can read his full review here.

Jonathan – philosophical as always – asked to review  Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality: Testing Religious Truth-claims by R. Scott Smith (Ashgate 2012). He was less than impressed. As an introduction to naturalism, the philosophical position that there are no non-empirical entities, it is unsatisfactory, because it is “a thinly veiled Christian apologetic dressed in a philosophical discussion about naturalism”. His full review can be read here.

Finally, I reviewed Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox, 2012). It is essentially an introduction to critical theory (a “socio-functional” approach which seeks to expose the assumptions which a given group takes for granted) as applied to the study of religion, and aimed at an undergraduate level. “Religion” is a powerful tool in the naturalisation of socio-epistemological norms, of course, but the book is most interesting pedagogically, in offering “a potential alternative Introduction to Religious Studies course than the “here are the world religions” approach that concerns many of us”You can read my review here.

This has been enjoyable, but a lot of work. Please let us know if you found it useful and/or entertaining. We’re open to hearing about other books you’d like us to review, or if you’d like to take part in a future recording (for example, at the next BASR conference…). And we are enormously grateful to Ashgate and Equinox for providing us with books to review.

Secular Sacreds and the Sacred Secular

In recent years, the centrality of ‘the sacred’ to the academic study of religion has come under sustained attack in recent years due to the apparent (un)conscious assumption amongst its advocates of an ‘ontological phenomenon that transcends signification’ (Lynch 2012, 15). It is against this backdrop that Gordon Lynch sets out – in his recent book, The Sacred in the Modern World, and in his interview with Jonathan Tuckett – to rehabilitate the ‘sacred’ as a viable academic concept, to map out a cultural sociology of the sacred, and to ‘conceptualise the focus of [the sociology of religion…] beyond the study of traditional, institutional forms of religion’ (2012, 3).

In this response I shall utilise a case study amongst notionally ‘nonreligious’ undergraduate students (Cotter 2011), in combination with my engagement with Lynch’s book (which I would thoroughly recommend), as a springboard to suggestively open up the complex relationship between the concepts religion, nonreligion and the secular.

Some Terms

The academic study of religion and related categories is populated with reified, mutually constitutive dichotomies – religion/secular, sacred/profane, religion/nonreligion, sacred/secular for example. However, I suggest that it is generally unhelpful to speak of rigid dichotomies when considering these terms, and in some contexts it makes sense to refer to two triads – sacred/mundane/profane and religion/secular/nonreligion – from which terms can be combined to provide compound designations which apply to distinct real-world phenomena.

Let us defer to Lynch for an understanding of the first of these triads. He defines the sacred as ‘what people collectively experience as absolute, non-contingent realities which present normative claims over the meanings and conduct of social life’ (2012, 29). Against this backdrop, the profane is defined as ‘the evil that threatens this sacred form and pollutes whatever it comes into contact with’ whilst the mundane constitutes ‘the logics, practices, and spaces of everyday life’ (2012, 26). There are a number of things which I find compelling about this account: firstly, this makes no ‘claim that there is an actual ontological referent for sacred forms (ibid, 15). Secondly, it provides a space for the mundane, and allows us to potentially conceptualise degrees of sacredness/profanity and commitments to multiple sacred forms. Finally, as Lynch effectively demonstrates in the interview, this account shows that the sacred is not an exclusively religious category. As Kim Knott (2013) writes, citing Viekko Antonnen:

The ‘sacred’ (or its equivalent in other languages) can be attributed by people in non-theological as well as theological contexts, irrespective of the nature of their belief systems: ‘It is not a uniquely religious category…’ (Anttonen 2000, 274)

Turning to religion/secular/nonreligion, I take Lois Lee’s definition of non-religion, as ‘anything which is primarily defined by a relationship of difference to religion’(2012a, 131), and the secular as a space where ‘religion is not the primary or immediate reference point’ (Lee 2011, 3). From this it is clear that nonreligion’ does not simply refer to everything which is not explicitly ‘religious’. It is also clear that the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘nonreligion’ are, ‘semantically parasitic categories’ (Fitzgerald 2007, 54). This also enables me to run away from the problem of defining religion until another time, because in the context of the examples below, definitions of ‘religion’ (and its semantically parasitic other, ‘nonreligion’) were left open to the interpretation of my research participants

With these basic and brief understandings of these terms in mind, it makes a great deal of sense for Kim Knott to write that:

“… those forging social identities in secular contexts – who draw on non-religious commitments and beliefs including atheism, humanism and secularism – mark as ‘sacred’ those occasions (such as marriage), persons (a lover), things (a ring), places (a registry office) and principles (equality and justice) that they value above all others, and that they see as set apart and inviolable: those things that may be deemed to be both secular and sacred.” (2013)

A Scottish Example

My study – which will only be given the briefest of introductions now – involved engaging with the narratives of undergraduate students at the University of Edinburgh via electronic questionnaires and semi-structured interviews, taking Abby Day’s ‘researching belief without asking religious questions’ (2009) approach as a basic model. Ultimately, the students were classified into a ideal-typical five-fold typology of naturalistic, humanistic, spiritual, familial and philosophical, with a key outcome being that these types were ‘independent of religious categories’ (Quack 2011, 2) . Full details of results, sampling strategy, methods, interview schedules etc can be found in my dissertation.

Secular Sacreds

In terms of beliefs and self-identification, many of the students were what could be described as substantively nonreligious i.e. the terms with which they described themselves, and their reported beliefs, stood in contradistinction to what they understood to be ‘religion’ (for a rigorous and in-depth treatment of substantive nonreligiosity, see Lee (2012b)). This nonreligiosity manifested itself in diverse ways which were always linked to particular ‘secular sacreds’, which corresponded to my five types. To take the example of Courtney – a 21 year-old ‘humanistic’ student from the US – discourse became noticeably hostile when ‘religion’ was considered in conjunction with ‘sacred’ humanitarian values (in this instance, when the topic of ‘Faith Schools’ was raised):

Eugh. I don’t… I just… ew it, it [the term] gives me a visceral reaction because I believe so strongly that if… due to my own experience of, you know, if you don’t tell a kid about religion they’ll turn out atheist because everyone’s born an atheist, like I… I truly believe that and I just, I mean it’s… I hesitate to use such a… like a militant sounding phrase but it’s indoctrination of children and it just… it makes me very uneasy…

Then we have Niamh, a 19 year-old student from England, who is an example of what I would term a ‘familial’ student. For these students, beliefs, faith and values were frequently located in the ‘sacred’ family unit. In the following section of interview, Niamh has just described how her Protestant grandmother disowned Niamh’s father when he married her Catholic mother. Her father then went through a particularly traumatic emotional period after his own father died, since he had effectively been ostracised from the family:

…but after all of that with my mum and dad I just stopped going [to church] altogether… like I’d been quite religious before that but I just stopped… like… partly because I was too busy trying to get my mother out of bed, but partly because I just didn’t… I just thought it was a pile of crap basically, like… em… and, yeah that kind of… because up until then I suppose I had quite an easy life, like we’d never had a lot of money but I’d always had… emotionally there’d always been everything there, eh, and then suddenly there wasn’t and I had to sort… I suppose it made me like… because now if my … my mum stuck by my dad through everything, and that kind of made me feel like now I have to… you know you don’t give up on relationships even if… even if they’re going to shit you don’t… you don’t give up, you stick by people because if you don’t they might be in a mess, like my dad basically said if my mum had left him he’d have sh’… he’d have killed himself, so like now I like sort of have this view that you stick by people through as long as you can bear to, you know, and I guess that affects a lot…

I’m not saying that these are the only sacreds in their lives but that through their narratives they were the primary sacreds by which they were classified in my typology. If it comes down to the wire, to use a phrase from Kim Knott’s forthcoming chapter, these ‘trump’ other sacred values. Niamh actually placed a great deal of importance on her former religion but was willing to abandon it because of what it had done to her relationships: ‘it [religion] was always about family relationships and politics, basically, it was never about faith’. Courtney seemed to really value her nonreligiosity, but was willing to set it to the side when humanitarian issues were at stake: ‘I’d prefer if [charities] were secular, but I’m not going to quibble when you’re doing charity’. Although religion and nonreligion were referred to in both quotations, they were of secondary importance to the sacred values concerned, which could be described as their secular sacreds. Therefore, in this situation we have substantively nonreligious students, whose lives are oriented around a number of secular sacreds with different degrees of sacredness and which trump both religion and nonreligion.

This understanding of secular sacreds should not be seen as implying that these sacreds are solely the domain of secular individuals, and although I can understand Lynch’s uneasiness about the term, I agree with Knott (2013) that the addition of ‘secular’ is necessary at this stage, due to the uncritical conflation of ‘sacred’ with ‘religious’ in much prior scholarship.

The Sacred Secular

In terms of the relative importance (‘salience’ – see Day 2011) and practice of religion, many of these students appeared functionally secular, i.e. ‘being nonreligious’ was generally unimportant and had little impact upon day-to-day life. Few were members of ‘nonreligious’ organisations, and some participated in religious activities for the sake of relatives, or persisted in communal religious worship regardless of disagreements with many fundamental aspects of the religion’s teaching or personal crises of faith. Although I don’t have space to go into my deliberations here, evidence such as this led me to conclude that ‘being nonreligious’ does not play a major part in most of these students’ lives.

However, stating that one aspect of a person’s life is not the most important does not imply that this aspect is unimportant. Most claimed that their nonreligiosity came to the fore when challenged by particular situations – particularly when their sacred values are challenged.

‘The “sacred” can be located in reversible category positions, whether in things pure or impure, licit or forbidden (taboo), fixed or unfixed, violable or sacrosanct.’ (Anttonen 2005, 198) Various things, places and people are set apart according to time and context. The boundaries that become the focus of sacred-making discourse and activities have the potential to erupt as sites of struggle but for much of the time lie dormant and, as such, invisible. (Knott 2013)

At such moments of eruption, the interaction of religion with personal sacreds precipitated the recognition and reaffirmation of subjective nonreligiosity. In fact, in some cases, the sacred in question was the ‘secular’ itself, which was profaned by the incursion of religion into individual narratives. For instance:

…everyone’s always talking about like religious tolerance and that. I’m definitely tolerant towards people of all religions and no more so to like one than any other, um, but I’m not really tolerant of like public religion. I really dislike public religion and the fact that we’ve got an established church [in the UK … and that] everything’s allowed to be sort of quietly… quietly influenced by religion, and that annoys me.  (Harriet, 19, F)

There is a lot here which I think could be developed, and which I intend to develop during the course of my PhD, but basically what I wanted to suggest was that nonreligion is a complex substantive phenomenon characterised by a relationship of difference to prevailing religion, and the adoption of secular sacreds by individuals and, perhaps, sacralising the secular itself. Reframing understandings of (non)religion according to types of sacred which are independent of religious categories, allows (non)religious identities to be conceptualised to acknowledge the simultaneous intersection of multiple subjectively compatible (yet seemingly contradictory) religious and/or nonreligious identities, and paves the way for scholars to take religion seriously whilst avoiding unwarranted reverence. Paradoxically, if it provides robust models which work regardless of individual self-descriptions, it could also add to the growing critique of the usefulness of ‘religion’ as an analytic category.

[NB – This response is based on a presentation given at the BASR conference in Winchester, September 2012.]

References

  • Anttonen, Veikko. 2000. ‘Sacred’. In Guide to the Study of Religion, ed. Willi Braun and Russell T McCutcheon, 271–282. London: Cassell.
  • ———. 2005. ‘Space, Body and the Notion of Boundary: A Category-Theoretical Approach to Religion’. Temenos: Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion 41 (2): 185–201.
  • Cotter, Christopher R. 2011. ‘Toward a Typology of “Nonreligion”: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Unpublished MSc by Research Dissertation, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh. http://www.academia.edu/1329691/Toward_a_Typology_of_Nonreligion_A_Qualitative_Analysis_of_Everyday_Narratives_of_Scottish_University_Students.
  • ———. 2012. ‘Scottish Students, Their Secular Sacreds, and the Sacred Secular: Borders, Boundaries and Transgressions in the Study of “Nonreligion”’. In  University of Winchester.
  • Day, Abby. 2009. ‘Researching Belief Without Asking Religious Questions’. Fieldwork in Religion 4 (1): 86–104.
  • ———. 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Knott, Kim. 2013. ‘The Secular Sacred: In-between or Both/and?’ In Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Lee, Lois. 2011. ‘NSRN Glossary (unpublished Paper)’. In NSRN Terminology – Virtual Conference: Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://nonreligionandsecularity.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/nsrn-glossary-28-aprl-2011-lois-lee1.pdf
  • ———. 2012a. ‘Research Note: Talking About a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’. Journal of Contemporary Religion 27 (1).
  • ———. 2012b. ‘Being Secular: Toward Separate Sociologies of Secularity, Nonreligion and Epistemological Culture’. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Cambridge: University of Cambridge.
  • Lynch, Gordon. 2012. The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Quack, Johannes. 2011. ‘Modes of Non-religiosity’. In  NSRN Terminology – Virtual Conference: Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://nonreligionandsecularity.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/nsrn-terminology-conference-5-may-2011-johannes-quack-nonreligion-stream1.pdf.

Druidry and the Definition of Religion

Contemporary Druidry often presents itself as the native spirituality of the British Isles. However, there is not one form of Druidry and there are also significant numbers of Christian and atheist Druids as well as those that combine Druidry with Wiccan or other perspectives and practices. From international organisations to local ‘groves’, there are diverse types of Druid groups, as well as lone practitioners. Chris and David are joined this week by Dr Suzanne Owen to talk in-depth about this fascinating subject, and its implications for wider understandings of the category ‘religion’.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Redefinition of the eclectic group identity.

The modern roots of Druidry, detailed in Ronald Hutton’s Blood and Mistletoe: the History of the Druids in Britain (Yale UP, 2009), began largely with the seventeenth and eighteenth century antiquarians who formed various societies and fraternities, some of which still exist. Many features of contemporary Druidry originated with Edward Williams (1747-1826), who took the bardic name Iolo Morganwg and founded the Gorsedd (gathering of Bards). It is difficult to determine a common element between the various groups, though many contemporary Druids recognise awen, the ‘inspiration’ of bards and Druids, and have an interest in trees and tree lore. To find out more, have a listen to the podcast and/or check out some of Suzanne’s publications.

Suzanne Owen lectures at Leeds Trinity University College, UK,  in all aspects of Religious Studies (especially method and theory and south Asian traditions) and researches indigeneity and contemporary indigenous traditions, particularly in North America. She is currently co-chair of the Indigenous Religious Traditions Group for the American Academy of Religion. Her PhD from the University of Edinburgh focussed on the sharing of Native American ceremonies and included fieldwork among Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland. More recently, she has been researching Druidry and has given papers on this topic in relation to indigeneity or religion at several international conferences, and written the following piece for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, which listeners should be interested in: Religion / Not Religion – A Discourse Analysis.

This interview was recorded at the University of Edinburgh in April 2012, and we are very grateful for Suzanne’s help in compiling this post and, of course, for a great interview.

Suzanne and David at the 2012 BASR Conference in Winchester

Non-religion

The two concepts of non-religion and secularity are intended to summarise all positions which are necessarily defined in reference to religion but which are considered to be other than religious. […This encapsulates] a range of perspectives and experiences, including the atheistic, agnostic, religiously indifferent or areligious, as well as some forms or aspects of secularism,  humanism and, indeed, religion itself. (Lee 2009)

It is fast becoming a tradition in ‘nonreligion’ research to acknowledge that Colin Campbell’s seminal call in Toward a Sociology of Irreligion (1971) for a widespread sociological analysis’ of ‘nonreligion’ had until very recently been ignored (Bullivant and Lee 2012). Although there has been a steady stream of output on secularisation, and more recently on atheism, these publications rarely dealt with ‘nonreligion’ as it is ‘actually lived, expressed, or experienced […]in the here and now’ (Zuckerman 2010, viii). One scholar who has been leading the way in theorising and empirically populating this emerging field is Lois Lee, the founding director of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, who joins Chris and Ethan in this podcast, recorded in May 2012 in Edinburgh.

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

Dr Lois Lee is Associate Lecturer in Religious Studies and Sociology at the University of Kent. Her work deals with theories of thought and action in differentiated and highly mediated societies, and her empirical research has focused on British nonreligious and secularist cultures. She is recently completed her doctoral thesis at the University of Cambridge and is currently developing the thesis into a monograph, provisionally titled, Separating Sociologies: Religion, Nonreligion and Secularity in Society and Social Research. She was guest co-editor of a special issue of Journal of Contemporary Religion, entitled  ’Nonreligion and Secularity: New Empirical Perspectives’, with Stephen Bullivant (January 2012). She has publications in (or forthcoming in) the Annual Review of Sociology of Religion, Journal of Contemporary Religion, Studies in Ethnicity & Nationalism and Critique and Humanism, and will contribute to the forthcoming Oxford Handbook to Atheism (2013). Lois is founding director of the NSRN, the co-editor of its website, co-editor of the journal Secularism and Nonreligion (NSRN and ISSSC), and features editor for the LSE-based journal, Studies in Ethnicity & Nationalism (Wiley-Blackwell). She lectures and teaches the study of religion (and nonreligion), sociology of religion, social theory of modernity, introduction to sociology, and qualitative social research methods.

Lee’s basic definition of ‘nonreligion’ is ‘anything which is primarily defined by a relationship of difference to religion’ (Lee 2012, 131), yet related to this relatively simple definition are a host of conceptual, methodological and terminological issues. At an individual level, when they are given discrete options, many otherwise ‘non-religious’ individuals will inevitably self-categorise themselves using ‘religious’ labels (for a variety of different reasons, see Day 2011; Edgell, Gerteis, and Hartmann 2006). However, the labels that individuals utilise are rarely as important as the contexts in which they use them, their motivations for doing so, and the meanings attached to them. When permitted to select multiple (non-)religious identity terms, many welcome the opportunity to articulate multiple identities. Different identities may be enacted in different contexts (Cotter 2011b), and a superficial non-religiosity can mask beliefs and practices sometimes termed ‘spiritual’ by the individual in question. To complicate matters further, people are apt to utilise (non-)religious terminology in situations where their sacred values are (un)consciously called into question, yet for much of the time these sacred values and the associated terminology ‘lie dormant and, as such, invisible’ (Knott 2013).

Institutionally, there are many organisations which can be explicitly labelled as ‘non-religious’, each exhibiting a collection of distinct-yet-interrelated attitudes and emphases (see Pasquale 2010, 66–69; Cimino and Smith 2007, 420–422; Budd 1977, 266), and in which much of what actually happens on the ground is arguably mundane and/or secular. However, the non-religious tend not to join specifically non-religious groups (Bullivant 2008, 364), and it is therefore unclear how representative these groups are likely to be. Other public institutions – such as a museum, a hospital chaplaincy, or a ‘religious’ NGO –  can be similarly ambiguous. ‘Religious’ institutions are utilised by non-religious people for a variety of reasons (Day 2011), and if we attend to the materiality and embodiment of public and private social interactions it becomes clear that a sound, a smell, or the mere presence of another person, can change the sacred, profane or mundane nature of (non-)religious and secular experiences.

The ambiguities described in the previous paragraphs suggest that scholars attempting to engage with non-religion face particular terminological and methodological challenges. Terminologically, it is self-evident that the categories of ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’ are ‘semantically parasitic categories’ (Fitzgerald 2007, 54). This relationship has led to a situation where the prevalent terminology used to refer to the non-religious in the social science of religion has often been ambiguous, imprecise, and even biased and derogatory (Cragun and Hammer 2011; Cotter 2011b; Pasquale 2007; Lee 2012). Methodologically, there is the attendant risk of constructing non-religion simply through the act of study. By asking questions specifically relating to (non-)religion, studies can exclude the possibility of (non-)religious indifference, whilst religion concurrently ‘serves as a “language” in which many people who may no longer be associated with any religious organisations still choose to express their strongest fears, sorrows, aspirations, joys and wishes’ (Beckford 1999, 25). The researcher must therefore be aware both of the limitations of the narrative interview, and of the different meanings attached to terms in different discourses (Stringer 2013). All of these issues and more are complicated by problems of locating potential research data for all but the most explicit forms of non-religion and by emergent problems in the assessment of religion-equivalent non-religious practices, and, indeed, the appropriateness of doing so (Cotter 2011a; Cotter, Aechtner, and Quack 2012). This interview with Lois Lee addresses these issues and more, and provides a valuable reflexive discussion on what ‘nonreligion’ is, and why we might be interested in studying it from a Religious Studies perspective.

The following quotation from Frank Pasquale serves as a suitable point of conclusion:

The closer people’s worldviews are probed – even among self-described secular or nonreligious individuals – the more difficult it is to neatly place many into the major categories that frame Western discourse on “theism” and “atheism” or “religion” or “irreligion” (2010, 63)

As we are all aware, study of ‘religion’ (and by definition, ‘nonreligion’) generally occurs within a Western, Christianised context which tends to assume a position of normative religiosity, and reify an academically constructed dichotomy between ‘religion’ and ‘nonreligion’. Whilst this interview (and many ongoing studies) focuses on one side of the ‘religion’-’nonreligion’ dichotomy, ultimately it can be seen as an attempt to ‘argue for the currently unfashionable side of [a] polar opposition, […] to unsettle the assumption that any polarity can properly describe a complex reality’ (Silverman 2007, 144).

Listener’s may also be interested in our previous interview with Callum Brown on Historical Approaches to Losing Religion, and with Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation Thesis.

References:

  • Beckford, James A. 1999. “The Politics of Defining Religion in Secular Society: From a Taken for Granted Institution to a Contested Resource.” In The Pragmatics of Defining Religion: Contexts, Concepts and Contests, ed. Jan G. Platvoet and Arie L. Molendijk, 23–40. Leiden: Brill.
  • Budd, Susan. 1977. Varieties of Unbelief: Atheists and Agnostics in English Society 1850-1960. London: Heinemann.
  • Bullivant, Stephen. 2008. “Research Note: Sociology and the Study of Atheism.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 23 (3): 363–368.
  • Bullivant, Stephen, and Lois Lee. 2012. “Interdisciplinary Studies of Non-religion and Secularity: The State of the Union.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 27 (1).
  • Campbell, Colin. 1971. Toward a Sociology of Irreligion. London: Macmillan.
  • Cimino, Richard, and Christopher Smith. 2007. “Secular Humanism and Atheism Beyond Progressive Secularism.” Sociology of Religion 68 (4): 407–424.
  • Cotter, Christopher R. 2011a. Qualitative Methods Workshop (NSRN Methods for Nonreligion and Secularity Series). NSRN  Events Report Series [online]. NSRN. http://www.nsrn.net/events/events-reports.
  • ———. 2011b. “Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students”. Unpublished MSc by Research Dissertation, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.
  • Cotter, Christopher R., Rebecca Aechtner, and Johannes Quack. 2012. Non-Religiosity, Identity, and Ritual Panel Session. Hungarian Culture Foundation, Budapest, Hungary: NSRN. http://nsrn.net/1523-2/.
  • Cragun, R., and J.H. Hammer. 2011. “‘One Person’s Apostate Is Another Person’s Convert’: What Terminology Tells Us About Pro-religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion.” Humanity and Society 35: 159–175.
  • Day, Abby. 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Edgell, Penny, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann. 2006. “Atheists as ‘Other’: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society.” American Sociological Review 71 (2) (April): 211–234.
  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Knott, Kim. 2013. “The Secular Sacred: In-between or Both/and?” In Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Lee, Lois. 2009. “NSRN Website – About”. Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://www.nsrn.co.uk/About.html. (Accessed March 2011)
  • ———. 2012. “Research Note: Talking About a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 27 (1).
  • Pasquale, Frank L. 2007. “Unbelief and Irreligion, Empirical Study and Neglect Of.” In The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, ed. Tom Flynn, 760–766. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.
  • ———. 2010. “A Portrait of Secular Group Affiliates.” In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, 43–87. Santa Barbara: Praeger.
  • Silverman, David. 2007. A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Qualitative Research. Los Angeles, Calif: SAGE.
  • Stringer, Martin D. 2013. “The Sounds of Silence: Searching for the Religious in Everyday Discourse.” In Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Zuckerman, Phil. 2010. “Introduction.” In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, vii–xii. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Religion, Space and Locality

Over the past decade or so, the academic study of religion has become infused with a (re-)appreciation of the importance and impact of space, place and location upon its field of study. Of course, scholars have for a long time been aware of the need to situate ‘religion’ in context, however, the spatial analysis goes far beyond mere description of physical or cultural spaces, attending to the materiality and embodiment of ‘religious’ actions, thoughts, feelings, expressions etc and the reciprocity between individuals and the many different physical, social, intellectual, emotional, historical etc spaces in which they move.

At a basic level, we can all think of obvious examples of formalised sacred spaces – but what about the religious character of ostensibly secular locations such as street corners, restaurants, or university campuses? What has been the effect of the development of, and engagement with, the internet? What about physical spaces which are transitory in nature, such as shared or multi-faith worship spaces, airport prayer rooms, or sports halls? What are the effects of our own bodies and the embodiment of others? What are the spatial properties of extension through time and across the globe? In this podcast, Chris is joined by Professor Kim Knott, Professor of Religious and Secular Studies at Lancaster University, and author of The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis (2005), to discuss these questions, to present the methodology she developed to attempt to tackle such questions, to give practical examples of this methodology in a number of different contexts, and much more. In fact, the air conditioner in the room where this interview was recorded acts as a prime example of the impact that a ‘space’ can have…

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

In the conclusion of her recent article in the journal Religion (2009), Knott asks ‘What are the scholarly merits of studying religion in local perspective?’ She replies:

An examination of specific places (whether physical, social or discursive) and localised religious groups, places and activities challenges the conception of ‘World Religions’ as unities focused on discrete, systematic sets of traditions, and normative beliefs and practices. In fact, it is possible that some religious people and organisations forged in particular localities become more interconnected and akin to each other than they are to those at a distance with whom they share a formal religious identity. […]

Studying religion in locality also signals a move away from the modernist regime of collecting, classifying and comparing data towards  seeing religion as a plural, dynamic and engaged part of a complex social environment or habitat that is globally interconnected and suffused with power. Re-engaging it with what has traditionally been seen as its ‘context’ helps us to reconnect ‘religion’ with those other categories – ‘society’, ‘politics’ and ‘economics’ – from which has been separated for the purpose of classification and study (Fitzgerald, 2007). In focusing intensively on particular bodies, objects, groups or places, we begin to see the difficulty and erroneousness of distinguishing ‘religion’ from other social fields in order to investigate it without meaningful reference to its context. Such an act of scholarly reconnection inevitably requires a multidisciplinary and polymethodic process that brings a researcher into engagement with others within and beyond the study of religions who approach the study of that body, object, group or place and what goes on within it from sociological, geographical, cultural, historical, anthropological and economic perspectives using a variety of fieldwork and textual methods. (2009, 159)

Kim Knott is Professor of Religious and Secular Studies at Lancaster University. She works on contemporary religion and the ‘secular sacred’, and their interrelationship. She developed a spatial methodology in Jolyon Mitchell, in L Woodhead and R Catto (eds), Religion and Change in Modern Britain (2012). She participates in a large programme of research on ‘Religion and Diversity’, funded by the SSHRC in Canada and hosted at the University of Ottawa, and has been an international advisor in international projects on ‘The Religious Lives of Migrant Minorities’, ‘Religious Pluralisation in Europe’, ‘Living with Difference’, and ‘Multi-Faith Spaces’. She has been on working groups, commissioning panels and advisory boards for several UK research council research programmes: ‘Religion and Society’, ‘New Security Challenges: Radicalisation – A Critical Reassessment’, and ‘Connected Communities’. She is currently on the editorial boards of the journals Religion, South Asian Diaspora, Journal of Contemporary Religion and Fieldwork in Religion and was General Secretary of the European Association for the Study of Religion (2005-10) and President of the British Association for the Study of Religions in the 1990s. A full bibloography and more information can be found on her departmental web page.

[From 1 October 2012 she will also be Chris’s supervisor when he begins his PhD in Religious Studies at Lancaster University]

This interview was recorded at the Why are Women more Religious than Men?” and David Morgan on Material Religion.

References:

  • Knott, K. 2009, ‘From locality to location and back again: A spatial journey in the study of religion’, Religion, 39:2, 154-60.

Why are Women more Religious than Men?

The relationship of religion to gender is a highly complex and disputed area. However, it is well-documented that (to take some UK-based examples), ‘men are proportionately under-represented’ in (mainstream ‘Christian’) ‘religious’ services (Brown 2000, 193), and ‘women outnumber men on all indices of religiosity and spirituality’ (Day 2008, 267). In fact, Marta Trzebiatowska and Steve Bruce, the authors of the forthcoming Why are Women more Religious than Men? (OUP, 20 September 2012) unambiguously state in their abstract that, simply, ‘women are more religious than men’.

In this interview with Chris, recorded at the BSA’s Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference in March 2012, Dr Marta Trzebiatowska us a fascinating whirlwind tour through the masses of sociological research which have been done into this area in recent years.

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

Explanations for this disparity in levels of religiosity include suggestions that ‘religion’ emphasises ‘‘feminine’ qualities of relationality and emotional expression’ (Aune and Vincett 2010, 222), and that ‘men tend to exhibit a greater degree of skepticism than do women’ (Bryant 2007, 844). It has been proposed that women explain their ‘religious’ experiences ‘in terms of protection [and] belonging’ (Day 2008, 274) and ‘value being caring and expressive, being a person through reciprocal relationships, and appreciate the value of improving the quality of subjective-life [in contrast to men, who concentrate] on improving the quality of life by way of autonomous, individuated and competitive agency in the world’ (Heelas et al. 2005, 110). Trzebiatowska extensively examines and critiques such explanations and concludes, with Bruce, that

the gender gap is not the result of biology but is rather the consequence of important social differences —responsibility for managing birth, child-rearing and death, for example, and attitudes to the body, illness and health — over-lapping and reinforcing each other. In the West, the gender gap is exaggerated because the social changes that undermined the plausibility of religion bore most heavily on men first. Where the lives of men and women become more similar, and where religious indifference grows, the gender gap gradually disappears.

For discussions on these issues and more, we recommend that you check out Marta’s other work, the references cited in this post, and the recently launched (2011) online journal previous interview with Lisbeth Mikaelsson on Religion and Gender.

Dr Marta Trzebiatowska is Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen. Her research focuses on ‘taking religion seriously’ and on the relationship between religious discourses and gender politics. More specifically, she focuses on sociologically examining the ways in which religious women construct their femininity under circumstances commonly perceived as restrictive, or even oppressive, by secular feminists. She is the author of a number of articles and chapters in these areas, including Habit does not a nun make?: Religious dress in the lives of Polish Catholic nuns (Journal of Contemporary Religion) and When Reflexivity is Not Enough: Researching Polish Catholics (Fieldwork in Religion), and is co-author, with Steve Bruce, of the OUP Book Why are Women more Religious than Men? (2012).

This interview is the second in our series on Material/Embodied Religion, which started last week with David Morgan on Material Religion, and concludes next week with Professor Kim Knott on Religion, Space and Location.

References:

  • Aune, Kristin, and Giselle Vincett. “Gender Matters: Doing Feminist Research on Religion and Youth.” In Religion and Youth, edited by Sylvia Collins-Mayo and Pink Dandelion, 217–224. Surrey: Ashgate, 2010.
  • Bryant, Alyssa N. “Gender Differences in Spiritual Development During the College Years.” Sex Roles 56 (2007): 835–846.
  • Day, Abby. “Wilfully Disempowered.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 15, no. 3 (2008): 261 –276.
  • Heelas, Paul, Linda Woodhead, Benjamin Seel, Bronislaw Szerszynski, and Karen Tusting. The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

Material Religion

The study of religion and materiality is an important and fast-growing sub-discipline in the contemporary Religious Studies scene. According to the editors of the premier journal in this area, the aptly named ‘Material Religion‘, scholars in this area

explore how religion happens in material culture – images, devotional and liturgical objects, architecture and sacred space, works of arts and mass-produced artifacts. No less important than these material forms are the many different practices that put them to work. Ritual, communication, ceremony, instruction, meditation, propaganda, pilgrimage, display, magic, liturgy and interpretation constitute many of the practices whereby religious material culture constructs the worlds of belief.

In this interview with Chris, Professor David Morgan takes the listener on an exciting tour of what this field has to offer, providing his own definition of material religion, and discussing empirical case studies and theoretical insights relating to religion in popular consumer culture, the sacred gaze, space and place, the internet, and more.

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

David Morgan is Professor of Religion with a secondary appointment in the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1990. He has published several books and dozens of essays on the history of religious visual culture, on art history and critical theory, and on religion and media. His most recent book is The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (California, 2012). Recent works include: The Lure of Images: A History of Religion and Visual Media in America (Routledge, 2007) and two volumes that Morgan edited and contributed to: Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief (Routledge, 2010) and Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture (Routledge, 2008). Earlier works include Visual Piety (University of California Press, 1998), Protestants and Pictures (Oxford, 1999), and The Sacred Gaze (California, 2005). Morgan is co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion, and co-editor of a book series at Routledge entitled “Religion, Media, and Culture.”

This interview was recorded at the Religion and Society Programme‘s ‘Sacred Practices of Everyday Life’ Conference in Edinburgh in May 2012, and we are very grateful to all involved for facilitating this discussion. It also forms part of a short series of podcasts on Material/Embodied religion, continuing next week with Marta Tzrebiatowska on “Why are Women more Religious than Men?”.

Roundtable: Building an Academic Career

Jonathan, Chris, Kevin, Carole and the back of Louise’s head…

David was taking the photos this time

During her recent trip to the UK, the Religious Studies Project managed (with the promise of copious Pink Gin) to persuade Professor Carole Cusack to take part in a roundtable discussion. She suggested that we discuss how to build an academic career – advice which she has been generous with to many people in the past. That having been agreed, we rounded up a few of our regular discussants – and, for the first time, Louise Connelly, our hitherto silent third partner – in the imposing setting of the University of Edinburgh’s Rainy Hall. We think we managed to produce something which should be of at least some use to any aspiring academic in the social sciences… we’d love to hear if you think so too!

David: “Don’t wait to be given permission… if it is interesting, it will work!”

In these financially hard times, the role of the academic is changing; the reasons for people going to university are changing; and universities are constantly changing the configuration of their departments. Topics covered in this discussion include:

  • the importance of publication, and the relative merits of different publications;
  • getting teaching experience;
  • services to the discipline and the community
  • conferences and networking (Chris Cotter, of course)
  • what to put in your CV
  • how to keep up-to-date with your field
  • and much more…

It is worth mentioning, of course, that this is all just advice and should be taken as such. The experience of others may be entirely different and we cannot, of course, be held responsible for any unforeseen consequences of following the advice contained herein.

Carole: “One of the tragedies of academic work is that it sees no audience […] if [theses] only see an audience of two or three examiners they are essentially exercises in waste.”

Links mentioned in the podcast (likely not comprehensive):

Carole: “You can’t double-dip: [if] you put something into research [on your CV], it doesn’t go somewhere else”

 

Participants:

“Roundtable Regular” Kevin Whitesides completed his B.A. in Religious Studies at Humboldt State University. He has recently completed an MSc dissertation at the University of Edinburgh on ’2012′ millennialism as part of a broader emphasis on countercultural transmission. Kevin has contributed articles to ‘Archaeoastronomy’ and ‘Zeitschrift fur Anomalistik’, has contributed chapters for two anthologies on apocalypse and prophecy, and has presented widely on the ’2012′ milieu at academic conferences and universities.


What is Phenomenology? for the Religious Studies Project.


David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Forthcoming publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2012). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.


Carole M. Cusack (Associate Professor in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney) trained as a medievalist and her doctorate was published as Conversion Among the Germanic Peoples (Cassell, 1998). Since the late 1990s she has taught in contemporary religious trends, publishing on pilgrimage and tourism, modern Pagan religions, new religious movements, the interface between religion and politics, and religion and popular culture. She is the author of The Essence of Buddhism (Lansdowne, 2001), Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, 2010), and The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), 2011. She has published in a number of edited volumes, and is the editor (with Christopher Hartney) of Religion and Retributive Logic: Essays in Honour of Garry W. Trompf (Brill, 2010). With Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney) she is editor of the Journal of Religious History (Wiley) and with Liselotte Frisk (Dalarna University) she is editor of the International Journal for the Study of New Religions (Equinox). She serves on the Editorial Boards of the journal Literature & Aesthetics, and of the Sophia Monograph Series (Springer).


Christopher R. Cotter recently completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. He is currently taking a year out from study to present at conferences, complete various writing projects, and work on projects such as this. His PhD research at Lancaster University (commencing October 2012) will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.


L Connelly ImageLouise Connelly, Ph.D., currently works as an Online Learning Advisor for the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh. She also teaches short-courses in Hinduism and Buddhism through the Office of Lifelong Learning at the University of Edinburgh. Her Ph.D. thesis is titled “Aspects of the Self: An analysis of self reflection, self presentation and the experiential self within selected Buddhist blogs” (University of Edinburgh). Her research interests include early Buddhism, visual culture, the use of social media, and Buddhist ritual and identity in the online world of Second Life. Her recent publications include ‘Virtual Buddhism: An analysis of aesthetics in relation to religious practice within Second Life’, Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet (2010); ‘Virtual Buddhism: Buddhist ritual in Second Life’ in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, Campbell (ed.) (2012); and Campbell and Connelly, ‘Religion and the Internet’ in the Encylopedia of Cyber Behavior,  Zang (ed.) (2012). See her personal blog or website for a full CV.


“Thanks for Listening”

It was somewhat fitting that this roundtable ends with these sage words from Mr Whitesides. We were very privileged to enjoy Kevin’s company during his eventful year in Edinburgh, and look forward to welcoming him back to the Religious Studies Project in the future. We hope you shall join us in wishing him the best for the coming months back at his home in California.

In the picture below, Dr Steven Sutcliffe, Dr Arkotong Longkumer, David Robertson and Kevin himself made some music at a recent University of Edinburgh event. We won’t embarrass them by putting up the video though…

Editors’ Picks 3: Jay Demerath on Functionalist Religion and the Substantive Sacred

Week three of our Editors’ Picks. Chris tells us why he (and his fiancée) liked Jay Demerath’s interview on substantive and functionalist definitions of religion.

Could the difficulties associated with the academic conceptualisation of “religion” be overcome by changing our focus instead to “the sacred”? Jay Demerath tells Chris why we should define religion substantively – that is, in terms of specific attributes like rituals, deities or dogmas – but the sacred in terms of the function it serves in the lives of individuals and cultures. From this perspective, religion can be considered one of a number of potential sources of the sacred.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. Please take a moment to rate us while you’re there.

Jay Demerath is currently the Emile Durkheim Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he has been a faculty member since 1972, including ten years as Chair. Prior to UMass, he received a 1958 A.B. from Harvard and a 1964 Ph.D from the U. Of California, Berkeley before rising from Instructor to Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and serving as Executive Officer of the American Sociological Association. Among his many publications, he is author or editor of fourteen books, including the award-winning Crossing the Gods: World Religions and Worldly Politics (2001) and the recent Sage Handbook for the Sociology of Religion (2008). The current Chair-elect of the Religion Section of the American Sociological Association, he is also past-President of the Eastern Sociological Society, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Association for the Sociology of Religion.

Of particular relevance to this interview is his paper from 2000, The Varieties of Sacred Experience: Finding the Sacred in a Secular Grove, from the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 39, p. 1–11. Here’s the abstract:

This paper contends that the social scientific study of religion has long labored under a chafing constraint and a misleading premise. It suggests that our primary focus should be on the sacred, and that religion is just one among many possible sources of the sacred. Defining religion “substantively” but the sacred “functionally” helps toresolve a long-standing tension in the field. Broadened conceptions of the sacred and of “sacralization” help to defuse the conflict among the two very different versions of secularization theory: the “all-or-nothing” versus the “middle range.” Meanwhile, a conceptual typology of the sacred pivots around the intersections of two distinctions (compensatory vs. confirmatory and marginal vs. institutional). This generates four distinct scenarios: the sacred as integrative, the sacred as quest, the sacred as collectivity, and the sacred as counter-culture. The paper concludes with three admonitions for research in the area.

Roundtable: Critics or Caretakers?

Anna, Ting, and the bear…

Here we are with yet another roundtable for you, following on from our epic compilation episode where world-famous academics answered the question, ‘Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?’ This discussion brings together a number of aspiring academics to reflect on some of the issues brought up in that podcast in a friendly and hilarious manner. The question cuts to the core of what academics who study religion are doing… are they taking care of religion? Are they antagonising it? What should they be doing? And judging by the various long tangents through which discussion meanders, the question certainly sparked our interest.

The participants were Katie Aston, Anna Clot i Garrell, Christopher Cotter, Ting Guo, Ethan Quillen, David Robertson and Jonathan Tuckett (biographical statements below). All of us had listened to the bulk of the podcast mentioned above… BUT none of us had yet heard Russell McCutcheon’s response to it (so, apologies that we probably fall afoul of his excellent critique).

If you are new to the podcast – this is not what we usually do. If you are a regular listener – you might enjoy this, or you might not. We hope you pick the former…

Jonathan: “…every action is going to be illegal to some state, it’s just a case of which state you’re pandering to at that point”

Discussion flows through what an academic ‘caretaker’ would look like, to whether we are being caretakers of the academic discipline of Religious Studies simply by perpetuating the discussion of religion. We discuss the nature of the ‘sacred’, the idea of ‘critical religion’, and get in to talking about ‘cultural Christians’, the ‘spiritual but not religious’ and the age-old problem of defining religion… and the newer but semantically parasitic problem of defining ‘nonreligion’.

We debate and attempt to answer such questions as:

  • If our research uncovers material which is relevant to the real world… make sure that people know? Should we be public intellectuals?
  • Should we just tell the truth no matter what the consequence?
  • Does this discussion depend on which definition of ‘religion’ we work with?
  • Where would we draw the line between being a scientific academic, and taking action against the conduct of a group we are studying?
  • Are ‘we’ in a position to judge? Would we be judging from intellectual grounds or ethical grounds?
  • Anna: What is the nature of academic criticism, as opposed to criticism in the common parlance?
  • Should we be methodologically atheist? Methodologically agnostic? Are these the same thing?

David and Anna showcase some hooded sweatshirts.

We should warn you that this is a little rough around the edges. The idea was not to present anyone with a sophisticated discussion, but to give you an idea of the vast amount of issues which a simple question can raise, and encourage others to have such discussions themselves and maybe come to different conclusions. It’s uncensored… it’s fun… we had a good time. Please don’t take anything too seriously… but try to enjoy it, to engage with us, to disagree with us, to criticise us. That’s what we’re here for. There is also a lot of discussion of paedophilia… this came up early on as a hypothetically abhorrent practice which some ‘religious’ group might engage in. As it is pretty difficult to trump this in terms of abhorrence we returned to the issue somewhat more regularly than it warranted. Suffice to say, this was most definitely a hypothetical example.

This podcast was recorded in Chris’ place of gainful employment – the University of Edinburgh Visitor Centre – and we are very grateful to them for providing the space. The participants were also all brought together by the Religion & Society Programme’s ‘Sacred Practice of Everyday Life’ conference, and we were very grateful to Linda Woodhead and the other organisers for allowing the Religious Studies Project to attend and record a number of podcasts with participants (to be released from September 2012).

Ethan: “When you define religion as a scholar, you’re essentially putting the last nail in your own coffin.”

Some choice quotations:

Ethan: “so, essentially what you’re promoting is that we all need to be defence attorneys?”

Chris: “Are we as scholars of religion by the very fact that we are scholars of religion… being caretakers?”

Katie: “Can I just clarify that I’m not a scholar of religion? Coz I’m not…”

Ethan: “That’s like saying it’s raining outside, this umbrella isn’t working, so I’ll open this canopy instead.”

And just so that we have a ‘proper’ academic involved, here is the quotation from Donald Wiebe which Chris cites in the recording as an example of the ‘critic’ side of the dichotomy:

 “Just as the knowledge produced in the humanities and by social scientists may bear on human problems and public concerns, so also the knowledge produced by students of religion may bear the same relationship to such issues. In this regard, however, it is important to note: first, that the “linkage” between the knowledge produced and the problems resolved is “external,” that is, it is of the same order, so to speak, as that between the natural sciences and engineering; second, that even though religious studies research may be relevant in that fashion, working out the policy/resolution implications of that knowledge is not the task of the student of religion. To take on that assignment is the task of policy makers, politicians, therapists, conflict managers, and other “public intellectuals.” And it is important, I think, that the scientific character of the study of religion not be compromised in any way by bringing such tasks in to the purview of Religious Studies”

Wiebe, Donald 2008. ‘The Scientific Study of Religion and Its Cultured Despisers’ in Willi Braun and Russell McCutcheon (eds.), Introducing Religion: Essays in Honor of Jonathan Z. Smith. London: Equinox, p. 477.

The Participants:


Having completed a BA (hons) in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 2006, Katie Aston went on to complete her Masters in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths University, with a dissertation investigating gender performance within contemporary Stand Up comedy in London. Building on a pilot study of the Atheist Bus Campaign,  she is currently undertaking an ethnographic study of non-religious value construction and material cultures. She is looking specifically at rationalism and the role Christian heritage within non-religious individuals and organisation, taking a historical perspective from the freethought archives of Bishopsgate Institute. Katie is an Assistant Editor at NSRN Online, the web presence of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network.


Anna Clot i Garrell is currently a PhD candidate in the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). She received her degree in Sociology from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in 2010. In 2009, she became part of the research group ISOR (Investigations in Sociology of Religion) directed by Dr. Joan Estruch, collaborating in the research project Evangelical Churches in Barcelona: doctrinal heterogeneity, immigration and evangelization strategies directed by Dra Maria del Mar Griera. In 2011, she completed a Master of Arts in Religious Studies at Lancaster University and was awarded with the Ninian Smart prize for the best dissertation in Religious Studies for the dissertation Exploring New Religious Expressions in Catalunya supervised by Dr. Andrew Dawson. She is interested in the transformations of religion and the emergence of novel expressions of religiosity in the secular sphere and traditional religious contexts.


Christopher R. Cotter recently completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. He is currently taking a year out from study to present at conferences, complete various writing projects, and work on projects such as this. His PhD research at Lancaster University (commencing October 2012) will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Deputy Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.


Ting Guo is a PhD candidate in religious studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her thesis is on the philosophy of artificial intelligence and how that might contribute to understanding the meaning of spirituality and who and what we are in the Information Age. She is also interested in the religious landscape in East and Southeast Asia, in particular the phenomenon of “underground church” in China, the notion of neo-colonialism, and Chinese diaspora in Britain.


Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.


David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Forthcoming publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2012). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.


What is Phenomenology? for the Religious Studies Project, as well as recording a number of interviews.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studying “Cults”

Although “cult” and “sect” are used as technical terms in religious studies, in their popular usage, “cult” tends to refer to a New Religious Movement [NRM] or other group whose beliefs or practices are considered reprehensible. Since such pejorative attitudes are generally considered inappropriate for the academic study of religion, scholars have tended to adopt the nomenclature of NRMs to refer to “a wide range of groups and movements of alternative spirituality, the emergence of which is generally associated with the aftermath of the 1960s counter-culture” (Arweck 2002:269). In this interview with Chris, Emeritus Professor Eileen Barker (LSE) takes us through the academic study of NRMs from the 1960s onwards, engaging with the particular challenges and successes which have been encountered by academics in the field, and reflecting on some of the more colourful aspects of this area of research.

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.

Eileen Barker OBE, FBA, is Emeritus Professor of Sociology with special reference to the study of Religion at the London School of Economics. She has been researching minority religions and the responses to which they give rise since the early 1970s. Her study of conversion to the Unification Church for her PhD, led to an interest in a wide variety of movements, and she has personally studied, to greater or lesser degree, over 150 different groups. She has over 300 publications, translated into 27 languages. She travels extensively for research purposes, particularly in North America, Europe and Japan, and, since collapse of the Berlin Wall, in Eastern Europe and, more recently, China. She was the first non-American to be elected President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

She is also the founder of INFORM (Information Network, Focus on Religious Movements), an independent charity that was founded in 1988 with the support of the British Home Office and the mainstream Churches. It is based at the London School of Economics. According to Inform’s website, “the primary aim of Inform is to help people by providing them with information that is as accurate, balanced, and up-to-date as possible about alternative religious, spiritual and esoteric movements.”

Among Professor Barker’s publications, the following may be of interest (those which are open-access are indicated with an asterisk):

Reference:
Arweck, Elizabeth 2002. “New Religious Movements” in Religions in the Modern World, edited by Linda Woodhead, Paul Fletcher, Hiroko Kawanami and David Smith. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 264-288.

Roundtable: Can We Trust the Social Sciences?

We have another ‘treat’ for you this week – we’ll let you decide whether that was an accurate description or not – in the form of another roundtable discussion, with a slightly different group of people. This was recorded late on the 28th of March at the University of Chester during the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL for short)’s conference (although, of course, this is an ‘unofficial’ discussion).

Ethan: “We ask a question on a survey, we get an answer… and then we have to fill in the space…”

The topic of discussion grew out of a presentation delivered by Callum Brown at the University of Edinburgh (at the same time as we recorded our podcast with him) on the topic of “People of no religion: The demographics of secularisation in the English speaking world since 1900”, which presented, amongst other things, some conclusions from large-scale demographic surveys of religious identification. Ethan Quillen disagreed forcefully that conclusions drawn from questionnaires and censuses can be used to draw large-scale conclusions, and tabled the motion, “Can We Trust the Social Sciences?”

If you are new to the podcast – this is not what we usually do. If you are a regular listener – you might enjoy this, or you might not; either way, we are back to normal with Jolyon Mitchell’s interview on Religion, Media and Violence on Monday. For an interesting and more rigorous response essay to this podcast, please see Tim Hutchings’ A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion.

David and Ethan

David and Ethan

Conversation ranges from the strengths and weaknesses of such data, whether there is more to the social sciences than quantitative methods, and the place of the social sciences within a multi-disciplinary Religious Studies field. Can we trust social sciences when we study religion? Is a social scientific approach the future of religious studies? What is an alternative to a social scientific approach?  These questions and more form the basis for what we intend to act as a bridge between our previous roundtable (“What is the Future of Religious Studies?”) and our forthcoming roundtable (“Should scholars of religion be critics or caretakers?”), timetabled for release on 6 June 2012.

Discussion largely focussed upon Quantitative Methods… something which future podcasts with Ariela Keysar and David Voas shall be focusing on more explicitly:

Do social scientists depend upon assumptive reasoning when it comes to filling in the blanks in their data? Does a decline in church attendance mean a decline in conviction, or simply a decline in one’s attendance at church? By providing boxes do we force people into boxes? What does one individual tell us about a category? What is it specifically about religion that makes this such an issue? How do we trust people to answer in a certain way?

Kevin: “Aren’t you better hypothesising by going out and asking people questions than by sitting around and hypothesising?”

Reference is made to the panel session on Religious Conspiracies at which David, Kevin and Ethan had presented earlier in the day. We also refer to Tom Rees’ excellent Epiphenom blog. Ethan plays Devil’s advocate, whilst Chris throws himself on the pyre and asks Ethan what he thought was wrong with his approach in his MSc Thesis.

Mat: “It’s not perfect, and I would love to go out and buy a tailored pair of trousers but… I’m not gonna get it. So I’ll go out and buy a pair that are closest to my size, and that’s the most economic way…”

It was late… two thirds of the panel had been up since 7 am travelling down from Edinburgh.

The conclusion? Should there be a balance between quantitative and qualitative approaches? Well… yes. But individual scholars may have to side with one or the other. We need a holistic approach, and this isn’t generally something one scholar can accomplish by themselves…

Sponsored by Pepsi Max, and pink gin.

Katie clearly found Ethan “hilarious”

The Discussants:

Katie Aston

Having completed a BA (hons) in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 2006, Katie went on to complete her Masters in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths University, with a dissertation investigating gender performance within contemporary Stand Up comedy in London. Building on a pilot study of the Atheist Bus Campaign,  she is currently undertaking an ethnographic study of non-religious value construction and material cultures. She is looking specifically at rationalism and the role Christian heritage within non-religious individuals and organisation, taking a historical perspective from the freethought archives of Bishopsgate Institute. Katie is an Assistant Editor at NSRN Online, the web presence of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network.

Christopher R. Cotter

Chris recently completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. He is currently taking a year out from study to pursue PhD applications, present at conferences, and work on projects such as this. His future research will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Deputy Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Matthew Francis

Matthew graduated from Leeds with a joint-honours degree in Philosophy and Theology and Religious Studies. He subsequently undertook a Masters by Research, where he examined the ideas of Georges Bataille in relation to the problem of meaning in death in contemporary society. Matthew is the Postgraduate Officer for the Sociology of Religion study group (SocRel) of the British Sociological Association (BSA). He has taught on undergraduate and postgraduate modules on subjects including the Sociology of Religion and Religion in Modern Britain.

Matthew recently completed an AHRC-funded PhD at Leeds, which investigated the move to violence in the beliefs of groups. He is the editor for RadicalisationResearch.org, an AHRC/ESRC funded website which provides a resource for policy-makers and the media on radicalisation and extremism, and works at Goldsmiths University managing the Religious Literacy Leadership Project.

Ethan Quillen

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.

David G. Robertson

David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Forthcoming publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2012). For a full CV and his MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see his Academia page or personal blog.

Kevin Whitesides

Kevin Whitesides completed his B.A. in Religious Studies at Humboldt State University. He is currently developing an MSc dissertation at the University of Edinburgh on ’2012′ millennialism as part of a broader emphasis on countercultural transmission. Kevin has contributed articles to ‘Archaeoastronomy’ and ‘Zeitschrift fur Anomalistik’, has contributed chapters for two anthologies on apocalypse and prophecy, and has presented widely on the ’2012′ milieu at academic conferences and universities.

Podcasts

Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies

How we can position the study of non-religion within the discipline of Religious Studies? Sounds like a bit of an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Those of you who have been listening to the Religious Studies Project for some time will be somewhat familiar with the emerging sub-field of ‘non-religion’ studies. Perhaps you have listened to our podcast with Lois Lee, the founder of the Non-religion and Secularity Research Network, and wanted to know more? Or maybe you have heard Chris’s incessant ‘yes, but what about the ‘ non-religious?’ question in interviews and roundtables and wondered what this all has to do with Religious Studies? Whether or not either of these happened, we hope that you will enjoy this roundtable discussion with Dr Louise Connelly, Christopher Cotter, Dr Frans Jespers, Ethan Quillen, Dr Steven Sutcliffe, and Dr Teemu Taira.

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.

At the suggestion of Dr Steven Sutcliffe, Chris convened a group of scholars to discuss the study of non-religion within a Religious Studies framework. How do we define non-religion? What does such a demarcation have to offer our discipline? What is the scholar’s role in assigning labels such as ‘religious’ or ‘non-religious to individuals or groups who may eschew such labels? Are the ‘spiritual but not religious’ to be considered ‘non-religious’? And why would we even want to use the term ‘non-religion’ anyway? These questions and more form the basis of what became quite a lively discussion.

L Connelly ImageLouise Connelly, Ph.D., currently works as an Online Learning Advisor for the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh. She also teaches short-courses in Hinduism and Buddhism through the Office of Lifelong Learning at the University of Edinburgh. Her Ph.D. thesis is titled “Aspects of the Self: An analysis of self reflection, self presentation and the experiential self within selected Buddhist blogs” (University of Edinburgh). Her research interests include early Buddhism, visual culture, the use of social media, and Buddhist ritual and identity in the online world of Second Life. Her recent publications include ‘Virtual Buddhism: An analysis of aesthetics in relation to religious practice within Second Life’, Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet (2010); ‘Virtual Buddhism: Buddhist ritual in Second Life’ in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, Campbell (ed.) (2012); and Campbell and Connelly, ‘Religion and the Internet’ in the Encylopedia of Cyber Behavior,  Zang (ed.) (2012). See her personal blog or website for a full CV.

 

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, oracademia.edu page for a full CV.

Frans Jespers is associate professor of Science of Religion at the Faculty of Theology of Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands (Frans, please do send a bio when you get a chance – sorry about our lack of information in English!)

 

 

Steven Sutcliffe is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh where he teaches and researches in the areas of ‘new age religion’ and ‘holistic spirituality’, in the effects of the discourse and practice of ‘religion’ in contemporary culture and society, and on theory and method in the study of religion, including the history of its modern academic study. He is the author of Children of the New Age, editor of Religion: Empirical Studies, and co-editor (with Marion Bowman) of Beyond the New Age.

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see www.teemutaira.wordpress.com.

Religion in the 2011 UK Census

An ’emergency broadcast’ from the Religious Studies Project… featuring George Chryssides, Bettina Schmidt, Teemu Taira, Beth Singler, Christopher Cotter, and David Robertson.

The results of the 2011 census were published this Tuesday (11/12/2012), and immediately the media -old and new – were occupied with statistics about “religion” in England and Wales in 2011 as compared to 2001. We couldn’t avoid the opportunity to comment, and to apply the sort of analysis RS scholars are singularly qualified to apply. What did the census actually say, and how did the press report it? Why does it matter, and how can we use the data more constructively?

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.

Some data:

Thanks to all for taking part at short notice:

 

George D. Chryssides is Honorary Research Fellow in Contemporary Religion at the University of Birmingham. He studied philosophy and theology at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford, and has taught in several British universities, becoming Head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton in 2001. He has a particular interest in new religious movements, on which he has published extensively. Recent publications include Christians in the Twenty-First Century (with Margaret Z Wilkins), published by Equinox (2010). His second edition of Historical Dictionary of New Religious Movements is also out, dated 2012. His website, www.religion21.com, includes several resources which may be useful, including “From Jesus Christ to Father Christmas — an attempt to define the scope and subject-matter of Christianity”. You may also wish to see Russell T. McCutcheon’s edited volume The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion.

Dr Bettina Schmidt is Senior lecturer in the study of religions in the School of Theology, Religious Studies and Islamic Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity St. David. Her PhD concerned ethnicity and religion, focusing on Santeria and Spiritism in Puerto Rico (University of Marburg, 1996), and she went on to post-doctoral work in cultural theories and Caribbean religions (University of Marburg, 2001). Dr Schmidt has worked as a lecturer in anthropology for various German universities, as well as Visiting Professor at the City University of New York and of the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad in Cusco, Peru. At the moment she is member of the board of editors of the journal Indiana, an annual journal of the Ibero American Institute in Berlin, and of the journalCurare, a journal of medical anthropology and transcultural psychiatry, published by the AG Ethnomedicine, and Secretary of the BASR.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see www.teemutaira.wordpress.com.

Beth Singler is a PhD candidate at Cambridge University, UK. Her research focuses on New Religious Movements of the 20th and 21st Centuries, particularly those with an online community or an experimental relationship with popular culture. Beth’s MPhil research on the development online of a religion of Anorexia has been presented in papers at Interface 2011 (“Theology in the 3rd Millennium: Studying New Religious Movements on the Internet, the Case of the Pro-Ana Movement and Anamadim”) and at BASR 2011 (“When Ritual Cannot End – The Pro-Ana Movement and Anamadic Asceticism”). Jediism was the focus of a paper for BASR 2012, (“Jedi Ltd. or Limited Jedi? Jediism and the Changing Domains of Religious Conflict in New Religious Movements”) and she is currently working on a chapter examining how online New Religious Movements such as Jediism and Freezone Scientology deal with disputes and legal issues for a forthcoming book on religion and legal pluralism. Her PhD thesis examines the evolution of a New Age category of Self, Indigo Children, and has the provisional title: “The Indigo Children: New Age Experiments with Self and Science”. See her Academia.edu page for more details, or follow her @bvlsingler on Twitter.

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Recent publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2013). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.

Book Reviews

When we were contacted earlier this year by a couple of publishers asking if we’d be interested in reviewing books, we immediately thought “Yes – but how?” We’re not a journal, and didn’t want to do the traditional journal review, but we do love books, and especially talking about them. So when Chris suggested we could combine several reviews into a roundtable format, we thought we had to give it a try.

For this first try at a new format, we thought it best to invite a few trusty friends. After many attempts, we finally managed to get David Wilson to a recording. He reviewed Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief, edited by Marion Bowman and Ülo Valk (2012: Equinox). He calls it “a valuable contribution to the task of increasing scholarly awareness of the need to attend to the variety of local practices that are accepted as ‘religious’ but which have tended to be overlooked when investigating religion in terms of ‘world’ religions“. It doesn’t offer easy answers, however, and “like many of the dialogues it explores, this collection is courteously, but deliberately, disruptive“. Read his full review here.

Chris reviewed Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present, edited by David Goodhew. The book purports to ‘provide a forceful critique of the notion of secularization’ “by focusing upon the attendance and membership of Christian churches – the very thing which formed the empirical basis of the secularization thesis“. While he has issues with the volume’s theological imperative and uncritical acceptance of the secularisation thesis, Chris pointed out that it demonstrates “the potential for scholarly theories to, in some cases,  become self-fulfilling prophesies when released into the real world“. You can read his full review here.

Jonathan – philosophical as always – asked to review  Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality: Testing Religious Truth-claims by R. Scott Smith (Ashgate 2012). He was less than impressed. As an introduction to naturalism, the philosophical position that there are no non-empirical entities, it is unsatisfactory, because it is “a thinly veiled Christian apologetic dressed in a philosophical discussion about naturalism”. His full review can be read here.

Finally, I reviewed Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox, 2012). It is essentially an introduction to critical theory (a “socio-functional” approach which seeks to expose the assumptions which a given group takes for granted) as applied to the study of religion, and aimed at an undergraduate level. “Religion” is a powerful tool in the naturalisation of socio-epistemological norms, of course, but the book is most interesting pedagogically, in offering “a potential alternative Introduction to Religious Studies course than the “here are the world religions” approach that concerns many of us”You can read my review here.

This has been enjoyable, but a lot of work. Please let us know if you found it useful and/or entertaining. We’re open to hearing about other books you’d like us to review, or if you’d like to take part in a future recording (for example, at the next BASR conference…). And we are enormously grateful to Ashgate and Equinox for providing us with books to review.

Secular Sacreds and the Sacred Secular

In recent years, the centrality of ‘the sacred’ to the academic study of religion has come under sustained attack in recent years due to the apparent (un)conscious assumption amongst its advocates of an ‘ontological phenomenon that transcends signification’ (Lynch 2012, 15). It is against this backdrop that Gordon Lynch sets out – in his recent book, The Sacred in the Modern World, and in his interview with Jonathan Tuckett – to rehabilitate the ‘sacred’ as a viable academic concept, to map out a cultural sociology of the sacred, and to ‘conceptualise the focus of [the sociology of religion…] beyond the study of traditional, institutional forms of religion’ (2012, 3).

In this response I shall utilise a case study amongst notionally ‘nonreligious’ undergraduate students (Cotter 2011), in combination with my engagement with Lynch’s book (which I would thoroughly recommend), as a springboard to suggestively open up the complex relationship between the concepts religion, nonreligion and the secular.

Some Terms

The academic study of religion and related categories is populated with reified, mutually constitutive dichotomies – religion/secular, sacred/profane, religion/nonreligion, sacred/secular for example. However, I suggest that it is generally unhelpful to speak of rigid dichotomies when considering these terms, and in some contexts it makes sense to refer to two triads – sacred/mundane/profane and religion/secular/nonreligion – from which terms can be combined to provide compound designations which apply to distinct real-world phenomena.

Let us defer to Lynch for an understanding of the first of these triads. He defines the sacred as ‘what people collectively experience as absolute, non-contingent realities which present normative claims over the meanings and conduct of social life’ (2012, 29). Against this backdrop, the profane is defined as ‘the evil that threatens this sacred form and pollutes whatever it comes into contact with’ whilst the mundane constitutes ‘the logics, practices, and spaces of everyday life’ (2012, 26). There are a number of things which I find compelling about this account: firstly, this makes no ‘claim that there is an actual ontological referent for sacred forms (ibid, 15). Secondly, it provides a space for the mundane, and allows us to potentially conceptualise degrees of sacredness/profanity and commitments to multiple sacred forms. Finally, as Lynch effectively demonstrates in the interview, this account shows that the sacred is not an exclusively religious category. As Kim Knott (2013) writes, citing Viekko Antonnen:

The ‘sacred’ (or its equivalent in other languages) can be attributed by people in non-theological as well as theological contexts, irrespective of the nature of their belief systems: ‘It is not a uniquely religious category…’ (Anttonen 2000, 274)

Turning to religion/secular/nonreligion, I take Lois Lee’s definition of non-religion, as ‘anything which is primarily defined by a relationship of difference to religion’(2012a, 131), and the secular as a space where ‘religion is not the primary or immediate reference point’ (Lee 2011, 3). From this it is clear that nonreligion’ does not simply refer to everything which is not explicitly ‘religious’. It is also clear that the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘nonreligion’ are, ‘semantically parasitic categories’ (Fitzgerald 2007, 54). This also enables me to run away from the problem of defining religion until another time, because in the context of the examples below, definitions of ‘religion’ (and its semantically parasitic other, ‘nonreligion’) were left open to the interpretation of my research participants

With these basic and brief understandings of these terms in mind, it makes a great deal of sense for Kim Knott to write that:

“… those forging social identities in secular contexts – who draw on non-religious commitments and beliefs including atheism, humanism and secularism – mark as ‘sacred’ those occasions (such as marriage), persons (a lover), things (a ring), places (a registry office) and principles (equality and justice) that they value above all others, and that they see as set apart and inviolable: those things that may be deemed to be both secular and sacred.” (2013)

A Scottish Example

My study – which will only be given the briefest of introductions now – involved engaging with the narratives of undergraduate students at the University of Edinburgh via electronic questionnaires and semi-structured interviews, taking Abby Day’s ‘researching belief without asking religious questions’ (2009) approach as a basic model. Ultimately, the students were classified into a ideal-typical five-fold typology of naturalistic, humanistic, spiritual, familial and philosophical, with a key outcome being that these types were ‘independent of religious categories’ (Quack 2011, 2) . Full details of results, sampling strategy, methods, interview schedules etc can be found in my dissertation.

Secular Sacreds

In terms of beliefs and self-identification, many of the students were what could be described as substantively nonreligious i.e. the terms with which they described themselves, and their reported beliefs, stood in contradistinction to what they understood to be ‘religion’ (for a rigorous and in-depth treatment of substantive nonreligiosity, see Lee (2012b)). This nonreligiosity manifested itself in diverse ways which were always linked to particular ‘secular sacreds’, which corresponded to my five types. To take the example of Courtney – a 21 year-old ‘humanistic’ student from the US – discourse became noticeably hostile when ‘religion’ was considered in conjunction with ‘sacred’ humanitarian values (in this instance, when the topic of ‘Faith Schools’ was raised):

Eugh. I don’t… I just… ew it, it [the term] gives me a visceral reaction because I believe so strongly that if… due to my own experience of, you know, if you don’t tell a kid about religion they’ll turn out atheist because everyone’s born an atheist, like I… I truly believe that and I just, I mean it’s… I hesitate to use such a… like a militant sounding phrase but it’s indoctrination of children and it just… it makes me very uneasy…

Then we have Niamh, a 19 year-old student from England, who is an example of what I would term a ‘familial’ student. For these students, beliefs, faith and values were frequently located in the ‘sacred’ family unit. In the following section of interview, Niamh has just described how her Protestant grandmother disowned Niamh’s father when he married her Catholic mother. Her father then went through a particularly traumatic emotional period after his own father died, since he had effectively been ostracised from the family:

…but after all of that with my mum and dad I just stopped going [to church] altogether… like I’d been quite religious before that but I just stopped… like… partly because I was too busy trying to get my mother out of bed, but partly because I just didn’t… I just thought it was a pile of crap basically, like… em… and, yeah that kind of… because up until then I suppose I had quite an easy life, like we’d never had a lot of money but I’d always had… emotionally there’d always been everything there, eh, and then suddenly there wasn’t and I had to sort… I suppose it made me like… because now if my … my mum stuck by my dad through everything, and that kind of made me feel like now I have to… you know you don’t give up on relationships even if… even if they’re going to shit you don’t… you don’t give up, you stick by people because if you don’t they might be in a mess, like my dad basically said if my mum had left him he’d have sh’… he’d have killed himself, so like now I like sort of have this view that you stick by people through as long as you can bear to, you know, and I guess that affects a lot…

I’m not saying that these are the only sacreds in their lives but that through their narratives they were the primary sacreds by which they were classified in my typology. If it comes down to the wire, to use a phrase from Kim Knott’s forthcoming chapter, these ‘trump’ other sacred values. Niamh actually placed a great deal of importance on her former religion but was willing to abandon it because of what it had done to her relationships: ‘it [religion] was always about family relationships and politics, basically, it was never about faith’. Courtney seemed to really value her nonreligiosity, but was willing to set it to the side when humanitarian issues were at stake: ‘I’d prefer if [charities] were secular, but I’m not going to quibble when you’re doing charity’. Although religion and nonreligion were referred to in both quotations, they were of secondary importance to the sacred values concerned, which could be described as their secular sacreds. Therefore, in this situation we have substantively nonreligious students, whose lives are oriented around a number of secular sacreds with different degrees of sacredness and which trump both religion and nonreligion.

This understanding of secular sacreds should not be seen as implying that these sacreds are solely the domain of secular individuals, and although I can understand Lynch’s uneasiness about the term, I agree with Knott (2013) that the addition of ‘secular’ is necessary at this stage, due to the uncritical conflation of ‘sacred’ with ‘religious’ in much prior scholarship.

The Sacred Secular

In terms of the relative importance (‘salience’ – see Day 2011) and practice of religion, many of these students appeared functionally secular, i.e. ‘being nonreligious’ was generally unimportant and had little impact upon day-to-day life. Few were members of ‘nonreligious’ organisations, and some participated in religious activities for the sake of relatives, or persisted in communal religious worship regardless of disagreements with many fundamental aspects of the religion’s teaching or personal crises of faith. Although I don’t have space to go into my deliberations here, evidence such as this led me to conclude that ‘being nonreligious’ does not play a major part in most of these students’ lives.

However, stating that one aspect of a person’s life is not the most important does not imply that this aspect is unimportant. Most claimed that their nonreligiosity came to the fore when challenged by particular situations – particularly when their sacred values are challenged.

‘The “sacred” can be located in reversible category positions, whether in things pure or impure, licit or forbidden (taboo), fixed or unfixed, violable or sacrosanct.’ (Anttonen 2005, 198) Various things, places and people are set apart according to time and context. The boundaries that become the focus of sacred-making discourse and activities have the potential to erupt as sites of struggle but for much of the time lie dormant and, as such, invisible. (Knott 2013)

At such moments of eruption, the interaction of religion with personal sacreds precipitated the recognition and reaffirmation of subjective nonreligiosity. In fact, in some cases, the sacred in question was the ‘secular’ itself, which was profaned by the incursion of religion into individual narratives. For instance:

…everyone’s always talking about like religious tolerance and that. I’m definitely tolerant towards people of all religions and no more so to like one than any other, um, but I’m not really tolerant of like public religion. I really dislike public religion and the fact that we’ve got an established church [in the UK … and that] everything’s allowed to be sort of quietly… quietly influenced by religion, and that annoys me.  (Harriet, 19, F)

There is a lot here which I think could be developed, and which I intend to develop during the course of my PhD, but basically what I wanted to suggest was that nonreligion is a complex substantive phenomenon characterised by a relationship of difference to prevailing religion, and the adoption of secular sacreds by individuals and, perhaps, sacralising the secular itself. Reframing understandings of (non)religion according to types of sacred which are independent of religious categories, allows (non)religious identities to be conceptualised to acknowledge the simultaneous intersection of multiple subjectively compatible (yet seemingly contradictory) religious and/or nonreligious identities, and paves the way for scholars to take religion seriously whilst avoiding unwarranted reverence. Paradoxically, if it provides robust models which work regardless of individual self-descriptions, it could also add to the growing critique of the usefulness of ‘religion’ as an analytic category.

[NB – This response is based on a presentation given at the BASR conference in Winchester, September 2012.]

References

  • Anttonen, Veikko. 2000. ‘Sacred’. In Guide to the Study of Religion, ed. Willi Braun and Russell T McCutcheon, 271–282. London: Cassell.
  • ———. 2005. ‘Space, Body and the Notion of Boundary: A Category-Theoretical Approach to Religion’. Temenos: Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion 41 (2): 185–201.
  • Cotter, Christopher R. 2011. ‘Toward a Typology of “Nonreligion”: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Unpublished MSc by Research Dissertation, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh. http://www.academia.edu/1329691/Toward_a_Typology_of_Nonreligion_A_Qualitative_Analysis_of_Everyday_Narratives_of_Scottish_University_Students.
  • ———. 2012. ‘Scottish Students, Their Secular Sacreds, and the Sacred Secular: Borders, Boundaries and Transgressions in the Study of “Nonreligion”’. In  University of Winchester.
  • Day, Abby. 2009. ‘Researching Belief Without Asking Religious Questions’. Fieldwork in Religion 4 (1): 86–104.
  • ———. 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Knott, Kim. 2013. ‘The Secular Sacred: In-between or Both/and?’ In Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Lee, Lois. 2011. ‘NSRN Glossary (unpublished Paper)’. In NSRN Terminology – Virtual Conference: Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://nonreligionandsecularity.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/nsrn-glossary-28-aprl-2011-lois-lee1.pdf
  • ———. 2012a. ‘Research Note: Talking About a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies’. Journal of Contemporary Religion 27 (1).
  • ———. 2012b. ‘Being Secular: Toward Separate Sociologies of Secularity, Nonreligion and Epistemological Culture’. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Cambridge: University of Cambridge.
  • Lynch, Gordon. 2012. The Sacred in the Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Quack, Johannes. 2011. ‘Modes of Non-religiosity’. In  NSRN Terminology – Virtual Conference: Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://nonreligionandsecularity.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/nsrn-terminology-conference-5-may-2011-johannes-quack-nonreligion-stream1.pdf.

Druidry and the Definition of Religion

Contemporary Druidry often presents itself as the native spirituality of the British Isles. However, there is not one form of Druidry and there are also significant numbers of Christian and atheist Druids as well as those that combine Druidry with Wiccan or other perspectives and practices. From international organisations to local ‘groves’, there are diverse types of Druid groups, as well as lone practitioners. Chris and David are joined this week by Dr Suzanne Owen to talk in-depth about this fascinating subject, and its implications for wider understandings of the category ‘religion’.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Redefinition of the eclectic group identity.

The modern roots of Druidry, detailed in Ronald Hutton’s Blood and Mistletoe: the History of the Druids in Britain (Yale UP, 2009), began largely with the seventeenth and eighteenth century antiquarians who formed various societies and fraternities, some of which still exist. Many features of contemporary Druidry originated with Edward Williams (1747-1826), who took the bardic name Iolo Morganwg and founded the Gorsedd (gathering of Bards). It is difficult to determine a common element between the various groups, though many contemporary Druids recognise awen, the ‘inspiration’ of bards and Druids, and have an interest in trees and tree lore. To find out more, have a listen to the podcast and/or check out some of Suzanne’s publications.

Suzanne Owen lectures at Leeds Trinity University College, UK,  in all aspects of Religious Studies (especially method and theory and south Asian traditions) and researches indigeneity and contemporary indigenous traditions, particularly in North America. She is currently co-chair of the Indigenous Religious Traditions Group for the American Academy of Religion. Her PhD from the University of Edinburgh focussed on the sharing of Native American ceremonies and included fieldwork among Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland. More recently, she has been researching Druidry and has given papers on this topic in relation to indigeneity or religion at several international conferences, and written the following piece for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, which listeners should be interested in: Religion / Not Religion – A Discourse Analysis.

This interview was recorded at the University of Edinburgh in April 2012, and we are very grateful for Suzanne’s help in compiling this post and, of course, for a great interview.

Suzanne and David at the 2012 BASR Conference in Winchester

Non-religion

The two concepts of non-religion and secularity are intended to summarise all positions which are necessarily defined in reference to religion but which are considered to be other than religious. […This encapsulates] a range of perspectives and experiences, including the atheistic, agnostic, religiously indifferent or areligious, as well as some forms or aspects of secularism,  humanism and, indeed, religion itself. (Lee 2009)

It is fast becoming a tradition in ‘nonreligion’ research to acknowledge that Colin Campbell’s seminal call in Toward a Sociology of Irreligion (1971) for a widespread sociological analysis’ of ‘nonreligion’ had until very recently been ignored (Bullivant and Lee 2012). Although there has been a steady stream of output on secularisation, and more recently on atheism, these publications rarely dealt with ‘nonreligion’ as it is ‘actually lived, expressed, or experienced […]in the here and now’ (Zuckerman 2010, viii). One scholar who has been leading the way in theorising and empirically populating this emerging field is Lois Lee, the founding director of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, who joins Chris and Ethan in this podcast, recorded in May 2012 in Edinburgh.

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

Dr Lois Lee is Associate Lecturer in Religious Studies and Sociology at the University of Kent. Her work deals with theories of thought and action in differentiated and highly mediated societies, and her empirical research has focused on British nonreligious and secularist cultures. She is recently completed her doctoral thesis at the University of Cambridge and is currently developing the thesis into a monograph, provisionally titled, Separating Sociologies: Religion, Nonreligion and Secularity in Society and Social Research. She was guest co-editor of a special issue of Journal of Contemporary Religion, entitled  ’Nonreligion and Secularity: New Empirical Perspectives’, with Stephen Bullivant (January 2012). She has publications in (or forthcoming in) the Annual Review of Sociology of Religion, Journal of Contemporary Religion, Studies in Ethnicity & Nationalism and Critique and Humanism, and will contribute to the forthcoming Oxford Handbook to Atheism (2013). Lois is founding director of the NSRN, the co-editor of its website, co-editor of the journal Secularism and Nonreligion (NSRN and ISSSC), and features editor for the LSE-based journal, Studies in Ethnicity & Nationalism (Wiley-Blackwell). She lectures and teaches the study of religion (and nonreligion), sociology of religion, social theory of modernity, introduction to sociology, and qualitative social research methods.

Lee’s basic definition of ‘nonreligion’ is ‘anything which is primarily defined by a relationship of difference to religion’ (Lee 2012, 131), yet related to this relatively simple definition are a host of conceptual, methodological and terminological issues. At an individual level, when they are given discrete options, many otherwise ‘non-religious’ individuals will inevitably self-categorise themselves using ‘religious’ labels (for a variety of different reasons, see Day 2011; Edgell, Gerteis, and Hartmann 2006). However, the labels that individuals utilise are rarely as important as the contexts in which they use them, their motivations for doing so, and the meanings attached to them. When permitted to select multiple (non-)religious identity terms, many welcome the opportunity to articulate multiple identities. Different identities may be enacted in different contexts (Cotter 2011b), and a superficial non-religiosity can mask beliefs and practices sometimes termed ‘spiritual’ by the individual in question. To complicate matters further, people are apt to utilise (non-)religious terminology in situations where their sacred values are (un)consciously called into question, yet for much of the time these sacred values and the associated terminology ‘lie dormant and, as such, invisible’ (Knott 2013).

Institutionally, there are many organisations which can be explicitly labelled as ‘non-religious’, each exhibiting a collection of distinct-yet-interrelated attitudes and emphases (see Pasquale 2010, 66–69; Cimino and Smith 2007, 420–422; Budd 1977, 266), and in which much of what actually happens on the ground is arguably mundane and/or secular. However, the non-religious tend not to join specifically non-religious groups (Bullivant 2008, 364), and it is therefore unclear how representative these groups are likely to be. Other public institutions – such as a museum, a hospital chaplaincy, or a ‘religious’ NGO –  can be similarly ambiguous. ‘Religious’ institutions are utilised by non-religious people for a variety of reasons (Day 2011), and if we attend to the materiality and embodiment of public and private social interactions it becomes clear that a sound, a smell, or the mere presence of another person, can change the sacred, profane or mundane nature of (non-)religious and secular experiences.

The ambiguities described in the previous paragraphs suggest that scholars attempting to engage with non-religion face particular terminological and methodological challenges. Terminologically, it is self-evident that the categories of ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’ are ‘semantically parasitic categories’ (Fitzgerald 2007, 54). This relationship has led to a situation where the prevalent terminology used to refer to the non-religious in the social science of religion has often been ambiguous, imprecise, and even biased and derogatory (Cragun and Hammer 2011; Cotter 2011b; Pasquale 2007; Lee 2012). Methodologically, there is the attendant risk of constructing non-religion simply through the act of study. By asking questions specifically relating to (non-)religion, studies can exclude the possibility of (non-)religious indifference, whilst religion concurrently ‘serves as a “language” in which many people who may no longer be associated with any religious organisations still choose to express their strongest fears, sorrows, aspirations, joys and wishes’ (Beckford 1999, 25). The researcher must therefore be aware both of the limitations of the narrative interview, and of the different meanings attached to terms in different discourses (Stringer 2013). All of these issues and more are complicated by problems of locating potential research data for all but the most explicit forms of non-religion and by emergent problems in the assessment of religion-equivalent non-religious practices, and, indeed, the appropriateness of doing so (Cotter 2011a; Cotter, Aechtner, and Quack 2012). This interview with Lois Lee addresses these issues and more, and provides a valuable reflexive discussion on what ‘nonreligion’ is, and why we might be interested in studying it from a Religious Studies perspective.

The following quotation from Frank Pasquale serves as a suitable point of conclusion:

The closer people’s worldviews are probed – even among self-described secular or nonreligious individuals – the more difficult it is to neatly place many into the major categories that frame Western discourse on “theism” and “atheism” or “religion” or “irreligion” (2010, 63)

As we are all aware, study of ‘religion’ (and by definition, ‘nonreligion’) generally occurs within a Western, Christianised context which tends to assume a position of normative religiosity, and reify an academically constructed dichotomy between ‘religion’ and ‘nonreligion’. Whilst this interview (and many ongoing studies) focuses on one side of the ‘religion’-’nonreligion’ dichotomy, ultimately it can be seen as an attempt to ‘argue for the currently unfashionable side of [a] polar opposition, […] to unsettle the assumption that any polarity can properly describe a complex reality’ (Silverman 2007, 144).

Listener’s may also be interested in our previous interview with Callum Brown on Historical Approaches to Losing Religion, and with Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation Thesis.

References:

  • Beckford, James A. 1999. “The Politics of Defining Religion in Secular Society: From a Taken for Granted Institution to a Contested Resource.” In The Pragmatics of Defining Religion: Contexts, Concepts and Contests, ed. Jan G. Platvoet and Arie L. Molendijk, 23–40. Leiden: Brill.
  • Budd, Susan. 1977. Varieties of Unbelief: Atheists and Agnostics in English Society 1850-1960. London: Heinemann.
  • Bullivant, Stephen. 2008. “Research Note: Sociology and the Study of Atheism.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 23 (3): 363–368.
  • Bullivant, Stephen, and Lois Lee. 2012. “Interdisciplinary Studies of Non-religion and Secularity: The State of the Union.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 27 (1).
  • Campbell, Colin. 1971. Toward a Sociology of Irreligion. London: Macmillan.
  • Cimino, Richard, and Christopher Smith. 2007. “Secular Humanism and Atheism Beyond Progressive Secularism.” Sociology of Religion 68 (4): 407–424.
  • Cotter, Christopher R. 2011a. Qualitative Methods Workshop (NSRN Methods for Nonreligion and Secularity Series). NSRN  Events Report Series [online]. NSRN. http://www.nsrn.net/events/events-reports.
  • ———. 2011b. “Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students”. Unpublished MSc by Research Dissertation, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.
  • Cotter, Christopher R., Rebecca Aechtner, and Johannes Quack. 2012. Non-Religiosity, Identity, and Ritual Panel Session. Hungarian Culture Foundation, Budapest, Hungary: NSRN. http://nsrn.net/1523-2/.
  • Cragun, R., and J.H. Hammer. 2011. “‘One Person’s Apostate Is Another Person’s Convert’: What Terminology Tells Us About Pro-religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion.” Humanity and Society 35: 159–175.
  • Day, Abby. 2011. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Edgell, Penny, Joseph Gerteis, and Douglas Hartmann. 2006. “Atheists as ‘Other’: Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society.” American Sociological Review 71 (2) (April): 211–234.
  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Knott, Kim. 2013. “The Secular Sacred: In-between or Both/and?” In Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Lee, Lois. 2009. “NSRN Website – About”. Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network. http://www.nsrn.co.uk/About.html. (Accessed March 2011)
  • ———. 2012. “Research Note: Talking About a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 27 (1).
  • Pasquale, Frank L. 2007. “Unbelief and Irreligion, Empirical Study and Neglect Of.” In The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, ed. Tom Flynn, 760–766. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.
  • ———. 2010. “A Portrait of Secular Group Affiliates.” In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, 43–87. Santa Barbara: Praeger.
  • Silverman, David. 2007. A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Qualitative Research. Los Angeles, Calif: SAGE.
  • Stringer, Martin D. 2013. “The Sounds of Silence: Searching for the Religious in Everyday Discourse.” In Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular, ed. Abby Day, Giselle Vincett, and Christopher R. Cotter. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Zuckerman, Phil. 2010. “Introduction.” In Atheism and Secularity – Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions, ed. Phil Zuckerman, vii–xii. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Religion, Space and Locality

Over the past decade or so, the academic study of religion has become infused with a (re-)appreciation of the importance and impact of space, place and location upon its field of study. Of course, scholars have for a long time been aware of the need to situate ‘religion’ in context, however, the spatial analysis goes far beyond mere description of physical or cultural spaces, attending to the materiality and embodiment of ‘religious’ actions, thoughts, feelings, expressions etc and the reciprocity between individuals and the many different physical, social, intellectual, emotional, historical etc spaces in which they move.

At a basic level, we can all think of obvious examples of formalised sacred spaces – but what about the religious character of ostensibly secular locations such as street corners, restaurants, or university campuses? What has been the effect of the development of, and engagement with, the internet? What about physical spaces which are transitory in nature, such as shared or multi-faith worship spaces, airport prayer rooms, or sports halls? What are the effects of our own bodies and the embodiment of others? What are the spatial properties of extension through time and across the globe? In this podcast, Chris is joined by Professor Kim Knott, Professor of Religious and Secular Studies at Lancaster University, and author of The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis (2005), to discuss these questions, to present the methodology she developed to attempt to tackle such questions, to give practical examples of this methodology in a number of different contexts, and much more. In fact, the air conditioner in the room where this interview was recorded acts as a prime example of the impact that a ‘space’ can have…

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

In the conclusion of her recent article in the journal Religion (2009), Knott asks ‘What are the scholarly merits of studying religion in local perspective?’ She replies:

An examination of specific places (whether physical, social or discursive) and localised religious groups, places and activities challenges the conception of ‘World Religions’ as unities focused on discrete, systematic sets of traditions, and normative beliefs and practices. In fact, it is possible that some religious people and organisations forged in particular localities become more interconnected and akin to each other than they are to those at a distance with whom they share a formal religious identity. […]

Studying religion in locality also signals a move away from the modernist regime of collecting, classifying and comparing data towards  seeing religion as a plural, dynamic and engaged part of a complex social environment or habitat that is globally interconnected and suffused with power. Re-engaging it with what has traditionally been seen as its ‘context’ helps us to reconnect ‘religion’ with those other categories – ‘society’, ‘politics’ and ‘economics’ – from which has been separated for the purpose of classification and study (Fitzgerald, 2007). In focusing intensively on particular bodies, objects, groups or places, we begin to see the difficulty and erroneousness of distinguishing ‘religion’ from other social fields in order to investigate it without meaningful reference to its context. Such an act of scholarly reconnection inevitably requires a multidisciplinary and polymethodic process that brings a researcher into engagement with others within and beyond the study of religions who approach the study of that body, object, group or place and what goes on within it from sociological, geographical, cultural, historical, anthropological and economic perspectives using a variety of fieldwork and textual methods. (2009, 159)

Kim Knott is Professor of Religious and Secular Studies at Lancaster University. She works on contemporary religion and the ‘secular sacred’, and their interrelationship. She developed a spatial methodology in Jolyon Mitchell, in L Woodhead and R Catto (eds), Religion and Change in Modern Britain (2012). She participates in a large programme of research on ‘Religion and Diversity’, funded by the SSHRC in Canada and hosted at the University of Ottawa, and has been an international advisor in international projects on ‘The Religious Lives of Migrant Minorities’, ‘Religious Pluralisation in Europe’, ‘Living with Difference’, and ‘Multi-Faith Spaces’. She has been on working groups, commissioning panels and advisory boards for several UK research council research programmes: ‘Religion and Society’, ‘New Security Challenges: Radicalisation – A Critical Reassessment’, and ‘Connected Communities’. She is currently on the editorial boards of the journals Religion, South Asian Diaspora, Journal of Contemporary Religion and Fieldwork in Religion and was General Secretary of the European Association for the Study of Religion (2005-10) and President of the British Association for the Study of Religions in the 1990s. A full bibloography and more information can be found on her departmental web page.

[From 1 October 2012 she will also be Chris’s supervisor when he begins his PhD in Religious Studies at Lancaster University]

This interview was recorded at the Why are Women more Religious than Men?” and David Morgan on Material Religion.

References:

  • Knott, K. 2009, ‘From locality to location and back again: A spatial journey in the study of religion’, Religion, 39:2, 154-60.

Why are Women more Religious than Men?

The relationship of religion to gender is a highly complex and disputed area. However, it is well-documented that (to take some UK-based examples), ‘men are proportionately under-represented’ in (mainstream ‘Christian’) ‘religious’ services (Brown 2000, 193), and ‘women outnumber men on all indices of religiosity and spirituality’ (Day 2008, 267). In fact, Marta Trzebiatowska and Steve Bruce, the authors of the forthcoming Why are Women more Religious than Men? (OUP, 20 September 2012) unambiguously state in their abstract that, simply, ‘women are more religious than men’.

In this interview with Chris, recorded at the BSA’s Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference in March 2012, Dr Marta Trzebiatowska us a fascinating whirlwind tour through the masses of sociological research which have been done into this area in recent years.

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

Explanations for this disparity in levels of religiosity include suggestions that ‘religion’ emphasises ‘‘feminine’ qualities of relationality and emotional expression’ (Aune and Vincett 2010, 222), and that ‘men tend to exhibit a greater degree of skepticism than do women’ (Bryant 2007, 844). It has been proposed that women explain their ‘religious’ experiences ‘in terms of protection [and] belonging’ (Day 2008, 274) and ‘value being caring and expressive, being a person through reciprocal relationships, and appreciate the value of improving the quality of subjective-life [in contrast to men, who concentrate] on improving the quality of life by way of autonomous, individuated and competitive agency in the world’ (Heelas et al. 2005, 110). Trzebiatowska extensively examines and critiques such explanations and concludes, with Bruce, that

the gender gap is not the result of biology but is rather the consequence of important social differences —responsibility for managing birth, child-rearing and death, for example, and attitudes to the body, illness and health — over-lapping and reinforcing each other. In the West, the gender gap is exaggerated because the social changes that undermined the plausibility of religion bore most heavily on men first. Where the lives of men and women become more similar, and where religious indifference grows, the gender gap gradually disappears.

For discussions on these issues and more, we recommend that you check out Marta’s other work, the references cited in this post, and the recently launched (2011) online journal previous interview with Lisbeth Mikaelsson on Religion and Gender.

Dr Marta Trzebiatowska is Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen. Her research focuses on ‘taking religion seriously’ and on the relationship between religious discourses and gender politics. More specifically, she focuses on sociologically examining the ways in which religious women construct their femininity under circumstances commonly perceived as restrictive, or even oppressive, by secular feminists. She is the author of a number of articles and chapters in these areas, including Habit does not a nun make?: Religious dress in the lives of Polish Catholic nuns (Journal of Contemporary Religion) and When Reflexivity is Not Enough: Researching Polish Catholics (Fieldwork in Religion), and is co-author, with Steve Bruce, of the OUP Book Why are Women more Religious than Men? (2012).

This interview is the second in our series on Material/Embodied Religion, which started last week with David Morgan on Material Religion, and concludes next week with Professor Kim Knott on Religion, Space and Location.

References:

  • Aune, Kristin, and Giselle Vincett. “Gender Matters: Doing Feminist Research on Religion and Youth.” In Religion and Youth, edited by Sylvia Collins-Mayo and Pink Dandelion, 217–224. Surrey: Ashgate, 2010.
  • Bryant, Alyssa N. “Gender Differences in Spiritual Development During the College Years.” Sex Roles 56 (2007): 835–846.
  • Day, Abby. “Wilfully Disempowered.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 15, no. 3 (2008): 261 –276.
  • Heelas, Paul, Linda Woodhead, Benjamin Seel, Bronislaw Szerszynski, and Karen Tusting. The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

Material Religion

The study of religion and materiality is an important and fast-growing sub-discipline in the contemporary Religious Studies scene. According to the editors of the premier journal in this area, the aptly named ‘Material Religion‘, scholars in this area

explore how religion happens in material culture – images, devotional and liturgical objects, architecture and sacred space, works of arts and mass-produced artifacts. No less important than these material forms are the many different practices that put them to work. Ritual, communication, ceremony, instruction, meditation, propaganda, pilgrimage, display, magic, liturgy and interpretation constitute many of the practices whereby religious material culture constructs the worlds of belief.

In this interview with Chris, Professor David Morgan takes the listener on an exciting tour of what this field has to offer, providing his own definition of material religion, and discussing empirical case studies and theoretical insights relating to religion in popular consumer culture, the sacred gaze, space and place, the internet, and more.

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

David Morgan is Professor of Religion with a secondary appointment in the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1990. He has published several books and dozens of essays on the history of religious visual culture, on art history and critical theory, and on religion and media. His most recent book is The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (California, 2012). Recent works include: The Lure of Images: A History of Religion and Visual Media in America (Routledge, 2007) and two volumes that Morgan edited and contributed to: Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief (Routledge, 2010) and Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture (Routledge, 2008). Earlier works include Visual Piety (University of California Press, 1998), Protestants and Pictures (Oxford, 1999), and The Sacred Gaze (California, 2005). Morgan is co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion, and co-editor of a book series at Routledge entitled “Religion, Media, and Culture.”

This interview was recorded at the Religion and Society Programme‘s ‘Sacred Practices of Everyday Life’ Conference in Edinburgh in May 2012, and we are very grateful to all involved for facilitating this discussion. It also forms part of a short series of podcasts on Material/Embodied religion, continuing next week with Marta Tzrebiatowska on “Why are Women more Religious than Men?”.

Roundtable: Building an Academic Career

Jonathan, Chris, Kevin, Carole and the back of Louise’s head…

David was taking the photos this time

During her recent trip to the UK, the Religious Studies Project managed (with the promise of copious Pink Gin) to persuade Professor Carole Cusack to take part in a roundtable discussion. She suggested that we discuss how to build an academic career – advice which she has been generous with to many people in the past. That having been agreed, we rounded up a few of our regular discussants – and, for the first time, Louise Connelly, our hitherto silent third partner – in the imposing setting of the University of Edinburgh’s Rainy Hall. We think we managed to produce something which should be of at least some use to any aspiring academic in the social sciences… we’d love to hear if you think so too!

David: “Don’t wait to be given permission… if it is interesting, it will work!”

In these financially hard times, the role of the academic is changing; the reasons for people going to university are changing; and universities are constantly changing the configuration of their departments. Topics covered in this discussion include:

  • the importance of publication, and the relative merits of different publications;
  • getting teaching experience;
  • services to the discipline and the community
  • conferences and networking (Chris Cotter, of course)
  • what to put in your CV
  • how to keep up-to-date with your field
  • and much more…

It is worth mentioning, of course, that this is all just advice and should be taken as such. The experience of others may be entirely different and we cannot, of course, be held responsible for any unforeseen consequences of following the advice contained herein.

Carole: “One of the tragedies of academic work is that it sees no audience […] if [theses] only see an audience of two or three examiners they are essentially exercises in waste.”

Links mentioned in the podcast (likely not comprehensive):

Carole: “You can’t double-dip: [if] you put something into research [on your CV], it doesn’t go somewhere else”

 

Participants:

“Roundtable Regular” Kevin Whitesides completed his B.A. in Religious Studies at Humboldt State University. He has recently completed an MSc dissertation at the University of Edinburgh on ’2012′ millennialism as part of a broader emphasis on countercultural transmission. Kevin has contributed articles to ‘Archaeoastronomy’ and ‘Zeitschrift fur Anomalistik’, has contributed chapters for two anthologies on apocalypse and prophecy, and has presented widely on the ’2012′ milieu at academic conferences and universities.


What is Phenomenology? for the Religious Studies Project.


David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Forthcoming publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2012). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.


Carole M. Cusack (Associate Professor in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney) trained as a medievalist and her doctorate was published as Conversion Among the Germanic Peoples (Cassell, 1998). Since the late 1990s she has taught in contemporary religious trends, publishing on pilgrimage and tourism, modern Pagan religions, new religious movements, the interface between religion and politics, and religion and popular culture. She is the author of The Essence of Buddhism (Lansdowne, 2001), Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, 2010), and The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), 2011. She has published in a number of edited volumes, and is the editor (with Christopher Hartney) of Religion and Retributive Logic: Essays in Honour of Garry W. Trompf (Brill, 2010). With Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney) she is editor of the Journal of Religious History (Wiley) and with Liselotte Frisk (Dalarna University) she is editor of the International Journal for the Study of New Religions (Equinox). She serves on the Editorial Boards of the journal Literature & Aesthetics, and of the Sophia Monograph Series (Springer).


Christopher R. Cotter recently completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. He is currently taking a year out from study to present at conferences, complete various writing projects, and work on projects such as this. His PhD research at Lancaster University (commencing October 2012) will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.


L Connelly ImageLouise Connelly, Ph.D., currently works as an Online Learning Advisor for the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh. She also teaches short-courses in Hinduism and Buddhism through the Office of Lifelong Learning at the University of Edinburgh. Her Ph.D. thesis is titled “Aspects of the Self: An analysis of self reflection, self presentation and the experiential self within selected Buddhist blogs” (University of Edinburgh). Her research interests include early Buddhism, visual culture, the use of social media, and Buddhist ritual and identity in the online world of Second Life. Her recent publications include ‘Virtual Buddhism: An analysis of aesthetics in relation to religious practice within Second Life’, Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet (2010); ‘Virtual Buddhism: Buddhist ritual in Second Life’ in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, Campbell (ed.) (2012); and Campbell and Connelly, ‘Religion and the Internet’ in the Encylopedia of Cyber Behavior,  Zang (ed.) (2012). See her personal blog or website for a full CV.


“Thanks for Listening”

It was somewhat fitting that this roundtable ends with these sage words from Mr Whitesides. We were very privileged to enjoy Kevin’s company during his eventful year in Edinburgh, and look forward to welcoming him back to the Religious Studies Project in the future. We hope you shall join us in wishing him the best for the coming months back at his home in California.

In the picture below, Dr Steven Sutcliffe, Dr Arkotong Longkumer, David Robertson and Kevin himself made some music at a recent University of Edinburgh event. We won’t embarrass them by putting up the video though…

Editors’ Picks 3: Jay Demerath on Functionalist Religion and the Substantive Sacred

Week three of our Editors’ Picks. Chris tells us why he (and his fiancée) liked Jay Demerath’s interview on substantive and functionalist definitions of religion.

Could the difficulties associated with the academic conceptualisation of “religion” be overcome by changing our focus instead to “the sacred”? Jay Demerath tells Chris why we should define religion substantively – that is, in terms of specific attributes like rituals, deities or dogmas – but the sacred in terms of the function it serves in the lives of individuals and cultures. From this perspective, religion can be considered one of a number of potential sources of the sacred.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. Please take a moment to rate us while you’re there.

Jay Demerath is currently the Emile Durkheim Distinguished Professor of Sociology Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he has been a faculty member since 1972, including ten years as Chair. Prior to UMass, he received a 1958 A.B. from Harvard and a 1964 Ph.D from the U. Of California, Berkeley before rising from Instructor to Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and serving as Executive Officer of the American Sociological Association. Among his many publications, he is author or editor of fourteen books, including the award-winning Crossing the Gods: World Religions and Worldly Politics (2001) and the recent Sage Handbook for the Sociology of Religion (2008). The current Chair-elect of the Religion Section of the American Sociological Association, he is also past-President of the Eastern Sociological Society, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Association for the Sociology of Religion.

Of particular relevance to this interview is his paper from 2000, The Varieties of Sacred Experience: Finding the Sacred in a Secular Grove, from the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 39, p. 1–11. Here’s the abstract:

This paper contends that the social scientific study of religion has long labored under a chafing constraint and a misleading premise. It suggests that our primary focus should be on the sacred, and that religion is just one among many possible sources of the sacred. Defining religion “substantively” but the sacred “functionally” helps toresolve a long-standing tension in the field. Broadened conceptions of the sacred and of “sacralization” help to defuse the conflict among the two very different versions of secularization theory: the “all-or-nothing” versus the “middle range.” Meanwhile, a conceptual typology of the sacred pivots around the intersections of two distinctions (compensatory vs. confirmatory and marginal vs. institutional). This generates four distinct scenarios: the sacred as integrative, the sacred as quest, the sacred as collectivity, and the sacred as counter-culture. The paper concludes with three admonitions for research in the area.

Roundtable: Critics or Caretakers?

Anna, Ting, and the bear…

Here we are with yet another roundtable for you, following on from our epic compilation episode where world-famous academics answered the question, ‘Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?’ This discussion brings together a number of aspiring academics to reflect on some of the issues brought up in that podcast in a friendly and hilarious manner. The question cuts to the core of what academics who study religion are doing… are they taking care of religion? Are they antagonising it? What should they be doing? And judging by the various long tangents through which discussion meanders, the question certainly sparked our interest.

The participants were Katie Aston, Anna Clot i Garrell, Christopher Cotter, Ting Guo, Ethan Quillen, David Robertson and Jonathan Tuckett (biographical statements below). All of us had listened to the bulk of the podcast mentioned above… BUT none of us had yet heard Russell McCutcheon’s response to it (so, apologies that we probably fall afoul of his excellent critique).

If you are new to the podcast – this is not what we usually do. If you are a regular listener – you might enjoy this, or you might not. We hope you pick the former…

Jonathan: “…every action is going to be illegal to some state, it’s just a case of which state you’re pandering to at that point”

Discussion flows through what an academic ‘caretaker’ would look like, to whether we are being caretakers of the academic discipline of Religious Studies simply by perpetuating the discussion of religion. We discuss the nature of the ‘sacred’, the idea of ‘critical religion’, and get in to talking about ‘cultural Christians’, the ‘spiritual but not religious’ and the age-old problem of defining religion… and the newer but semantically parasitic problem of defining ‘nonreligion’.

We debate and attempt to answer such questions as:

  • If our research uncovers material which is relevant to the real world… make sure that people know? Should we be public intellectuals?
  • Should we just tell the truth no matter what the consequence?
  • Does this discussion depend on which definition of ‘religion’ we work with?
  • Where would we draw the line between being a scientific academic, and taking action against the conduct of a group we are studying?
  • Are ‘we’ in a position to judge? Would we be judging from intellectual grounds or ethical grounds?
  • Anna: What is the nature of academic criticism, as opposed to criticism in the common parlance?
  • Should we be methodologically atheist? Methodologically agnostic? Are these the same thing?

David and Anna showcase some hooded sweatshirts.

We should warn you that this is a little rough around the edges. The idea was not to present anyone with a sophisticated discussion, but to give you an idea of the vast amount of issues which a simple question can raise, and encourage others to have such discussions themselves and maybe come to different conclusions. It’s uncensored… it’s fun… we had a good time. Please don’t take anything too seriously… but try to enjoy it, to engage with us, to disagree with us, to criticise us. That’s what we’re here for. There is also a lot of discussion of paedophilia… this came up early on as a hypothetically abhorrent practice which some ‘religious’ group might engage in. As it is pretty difficult to trump this in terms of abhorrence we returned to the issue somewhat more regularly than it warranted. Suffice to say, this was most definitely a hypothetical example.

This podcast was recorded in Chris’ place of gainful employment – the University of Edinburgh Visitor Centre – and we are very grateful to them for providing the space. The participants were also all brought together by the Religion & Society Programme’s ‘Sacred Practice of Everyday Life’ conference, and we were very grateful to Linda Woodhead and the other organisers for allowing the Religious Studies Project to attend and record a number of podcasts with participants (to be released from September 2012).

Ethan: “When you define religion as a scholar, you’re essentially putting the last nail in your own coffin.”

Some choice quotations:

Ethan: “so, essentially what you’re promoting is that we all need to be defence attorneys?”

Chris: “Are we as scholars of religion by the very fact that we are scholars of religion… being caretakers?”

Katie: “Can I just clarify that I’m not a scholar of religion? Coz I’m not…”

Ethan: “That’s like saying it’s raining outside, this umbrella isn’t working, so I’ll open this canopy instead.”

And just so that we have a ‘proper’ academic involved, here is the quotation from Donald Wiebe which Chris cites in the recording as an example of the ‘critic’ side of the dichotomy:

 “Just as the knowledge produced in the humanities and by social scientists may bear on human problems and public concerns, so also the knowledge produced by students of religion may bear the same relationship to such issues. In this regard, however, it is important to note: first, that the “linkage” between the knowledge produced and the problems resolved is “external,” that is, it is of the same order, so to speak, as that between the natural sciences and engineering; second, that even though religious studies research may be relevant in that fashion, working out the policy/resolution implications of that knowledge is not the task of the student of religion. To take on that assignment is the task of policy makers, politicians, therapists, conflict managers, and other “public intellectuals.” And it is important, I think, that the scientific character of the study of religion not be compromised in any way by bringing such tasks in to the purview of Religious Studies”

Wiebe, Donald 2008. ‘The Scientific Study of Religion and Its Cultured Despisers’ in Willi Braun and Russell McCutcheon (eds.), Introducing Religion: Essays in Honor of Jonathan Z. Smith. London: Equinox, p. 477.

The Participants:


Having completed a BA (hons) in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 2006, Katie Aston went on to complete her Masters in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths University, with a dissertation investigating gender performance within contemporary Stand Up comedy in London. Building on a pilot study of the Atheist Bus Campaign,  she is currently undertaking an ethnographic study of non-religious value construction and material cultures. She is looking specifically at rationalism and the role Christian heritage within non-religious individuals and organisation, taking a historical perspective from the freethought archives of Bishopsgate Institute. Katie is an Assistant Editor at NSRN Online, the web presence of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network.


Anna Clot i Garrell is currently a PhD candidate in the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). She received her degree in Sociology from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in 2010. In 2009, she became part of the research group ISOR (Investigations in Sociology of Religion) directed by Dr. Joan Estruch, collaborating in the research project Evangelical Churches in Barcelona: doctrinal heterogeneity, immigration and evangelization strategies directed by Dra Maria del Mar Griera. In 2011, she completed a Master of Arts in Religious Studies at Lancaster University and was awarded with the Ninian Smart prize for the best dissertation in Religious Studies for the dissertation Exploring New Religious Expressions in Catalunya supervised by Dr. Andrew Dawson. She is interested in the transformations of religion and the emergence of novel expressions of religiosity in the secular sphere and traditional religious contexts.


Christopher R. Cotter recently completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. He is currently taking a year out from study to present at conferences, complete various writing projects, and work on projects such as this. His PhD research at Lancaster University (commencing October 2012) will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Deputy Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.


Ting Guo is a PhD candidate in religious studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her thesis is on the philosophy of artificial intelligence and how that might contribute to understanding the meaning of spirituality and who and what we are in the Information Age. She is also interested in the religious landscape in East and Southeast Asia, in particular the phenomenon of “underground church” in China, the notion of neo-colonialism, and Chinese diaspora in Britain.


Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.


David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Forthcoming publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2012). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.


What is Phenomenology? for the Religious Studies Project, as well as recording a number of interviews.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Studying “Cults”

Although “cult” and “sect” are used as technical terms in religious studies, in their popular usage, “cult” tends to refer to a New Religious Movement [NRM] or other group whose beliefs or practices are considered reprehensible. Since such pejorative attitudes are generally considered inappropriate for the academic study of religion, scholars have tended to adopt the nomenclature of NRMs to refer to “a wide range of groups and movements of alternative spirituality, the emergence of which is generally associated with the aftermath of the 1960s counter-culture” (Arweck 2002:269). In this interview with Chris, Emeritus Professor Eileen Barker (LSE) takes us through the academic study of NRMs from the 1960s onwards, engaging with the particular challenges and successes which have been encountered by academics in the field, and reflecting on some of the more colourful aspects of this area of research.

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.

Eileen Barker OBE, FBA, is Emeritus Professor of Sociology with special reference to the study of Religion at the London School of Economics. She has been researching minority religions and the responses to which they give rise since the early 1970s. Her study of conversion to the Unification Church for her PhD, led to an interest in a wide variety of movements, and she has personally studied, to greater or lesser degree, over 150 different groups. She has over 300 publications, translated into 27 languages. She travels extensively for research purposes, particularly in North America, Europe and Japan, and, since collapse of the Berlin Wall, in Eastern Europe and, more recently, China. She was the first non-American to be elected President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

She is also the founder of INFORM (Information Network, Focus on Religious Movements), an independent charity that was founded in 1988 with the support of the British Home Office and the mainstream Churches. It is based at the London School of Economics. According to Inform’s website, “the primary aim of Inform is to help people by providing them with information that is as accurate, balanced, and up-to-date as possible about alternative religious, spiritual and esoteric movements.”

Among Professor Barker’s publications, the following may be of interest (those which are open-access are indicated with an asterisk):

Reference:
Arweck, Elizabeth 2002. “New Religious Movements” in Religions in the Modern World, edited by Linda Woodhead, Paul Fletcher, Hiroko Kawanami and David Smith. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 264-288.

Roundtable: Can We Trust the Social Sciences?

We have another ‘treat’ for you this week – we’ll let you decide whether that was an accurate description or not – in the form of another roundtable discussion, with a slightly different group of people. This was recorded late on the 28th of March at the University of Chester during the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL for short)’s conference (although, of course, this is an ‘unofficial’ discussion).

Ethan: “We ask a question on a survey, we get an answer… and then we have to fill in the space…”

The topic of discussion grew out of a presentation delivered by Callum Brown at the University of Edinburgh (at the same time as we recorded our podcast with him) on the topic of “People of no religion: The demographics of secularisation in the English speaking world since 1900”, which presented, amongst other things, some conclusions from large-scale demographic surveys of religious identification. Ethan Quillen disagreed forcefully that conclusions drawn from questionnaires and censuses can be used to draw large-scale conclusions, and tabled the motion, “Can We Trust the Social Sciences?”

If you are new to the podcast – this is not what we usually do. If you are a regular listener – you might enjoy this, or you might not; either way, we are back to normal with Jolyon Mitchell’s interview on Religion, Media and Violence on Monday. For an interesting and more rigorous response essay to this podcast, please see Tim Hutchings’ A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion.

David and Ethan

David and Ethan

Conversation ranges from the strengths and weaknesses of such data, whether there is more to the social sciences than quantitative methods, and the place of the social sciences within a multi-disciplinary Religious Studies field. Can we trust social sciences when we study religion? Is a social scientific approach the future of religious studies? What is an alternative to a social scientific approach?  These questions and more form the basis for what we intend to act as a bridge between our previous roundtable (“What is the Future of Religious Studies?”) and our forthcoming roundtable (“Should scholars of religion be critics or caretakers?”), timetabled for release on 6 June 2012.

Discussion largely focussed upon Quantitative Methods… something which future podcasts with Ariela Keysar and David Voas shall be focusing on more explicitly:

Do social scientists depend upon assumptive reasoning when it comes to filling in the blanks in their data? Does a decline in church attendance mean a decline in conviction, or simply a decline in one’s attendance at church? By providing boxes do we force people into boxes? What does one individual tell us about a category? What is it specifically about religion that makes this such an issue? How do we trust people to answer in a certain way?

Kevin: “Aren’t you better hypothesising by going out and asking people questions than by sitting around and hypothesising?”

Reference is made to the panel session on Religious Conspiracies at which David, Kevin and Ethan had presented earlier in the day. We also refer to Tom Rees’ excellent Epiphenom blog. Ethan plays Devil’s advocate, whilst Chris throws himself on the pyre and asks Ethan what he thought was wrong with his approach in his MSc Thesis.

Mat: “It’s not perfect, and I would love to go out and buy a tailored pair of trousers but… I’m not gonna get it. So I’ll go out and buy a pair that are closest to my size, and that’s the most economic way…”

It was late… two thirds of the panel had been up since 7 am travelling down from Edinburgh.

The conclusion? Should there be a balance between quantitative and qualitative approaches? Well… yes. But individual scholars may have to side with one or the other. We need a holistic approach, and this isn’t generally something one scholar can accomplish by themselves…

Sponsored by Pepsi Max, and pink gin.

Katie clearly found Ethan “hilarious”

The Discussants:

Katie Aston

Having completed a BA (hons) in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 2006, Katie went on to complete her Masters in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths University, with a dissertation investigating gender performance within contemporary Stand Up comedy in London. Building on a pilot study of the Atheist Bus Campaign,  she is currently undertaking an ethnographic study of non-religious value construction and material cultures. She is looking specifically at rationalism and the role Christian heritage within non-religious individuals and organisation, taking a historical perspective from the freethought archives of Bishopsgate Institute. Katie is an Assistant Editor at NSRN Online, the web presence of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network.

Christopher R. Cotter

Chris recently completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. He is currently taking a year out from study to pursue PhD applications, present at conferences, and work on projects such as this. His future research will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Deputy Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Matthew Francis

Matthew graduated from Leeds with a joint-honours degree in Philosophy and Theology and Religious Studies. He subsequently undertook a Masters by Research, where he examined the ideas of Georges Bataille in relation to the problem of meaning in death in contemporary society. Matthew is the Postgraduate Officer for the Sociology of Religion study group (SocRel) of the British Sociological Association (BSA). He has taught on undergraduate and postgraduate modules on subjects including the Sociology of Religion and Religion in Modern Britain.

Matthew recently completed an AHRC-funded PhD at Leeds, which investigated the move to violence in the beliefs of groups. He is the editor for RadicalisationResearch.org, an AHRC/ESRC funded website which provides a resource for policy-makers and the media on radicalisation and extremism, and works at Goldsmiths University managing the Religious Literacy Leadership Project.

Ethan Quillen

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.

David G. Robertson

David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Forthcoming publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2012). For a full CV and his MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see his Academia page or personal blog.

Kevin Whitesides

Kevin Whitesides completed his B.A. in Religious Studies at Humboldt State University. He is currently developing an MSc dissertation at the University of Edinburgh on ’2012′ millennialism as part of a broader emphasis on countercultural transmission. Kevin has contributed articles to ‘Archaeoastronomy’ and ‘Zeitschrift fur Anomalistik’, has contributed chapters for two anthologies on apocalypse and prophecy, and has presented widely on the ’2012′ milieu at academic conferences and universities.