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Historical Approaches to (Losing) Religion

How can we use historical approaches in the study of religion? More specifically, can we use historical approaches to understand why people are losing it? Professor Callum Brown tells us why historical approaches have much to tell us about religious change.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Callum Brown is Professor of Religious and Cultural History at the University of Dundee. He is a social and cultural historian with special research interests in religion and secularisation in the post 1750 period – especially in the 20th and 21st centuries – mostly in Scotland and Britain, but also Canada, USA and Ireland.

He is currently involved in the project A Social and Cultural History of Modern Humanism, covering Scotland, UK, Ireland, Canada and USA and using especially oral history focusing on the social and cultural origins of individuals’ humanism, looking at issues like family background, religious experiences, and cultural alignments. He is also about to publish Religion and the Demographic Revolution: Women and Secularisation in Canada, Ireland, UK and USA since the 1960s (London, Boydell & Brewer), which looks at demographic behaviour in the North Atlantic world, and the correlations between gender change, the sexual revolution, changes in patterns of marriage and cohabitation, and changes in religious ritual (such as religious solemnisation of marriage, baptism and funeral rites), and incorporates considerable statistical research. 

You may also be interested in our recent interview with Professor Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation Thesis, and Bjoern Mastiaux’s essay on the same topic.

For an interesting response essay to this podcast, please see Tim Hutchings’ A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion. For a more ‘informal’ response, you can listen to our roundtable discussion session on the question Can We Trust the Social Sciences?.

Religion After Darwin

Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species  was published in 1859, and had an immediate and dramatic effect on religious narratives. Traditional religions were forced to adopt an evolutionary worldview, or to go on the offensive; whereas New Religious Movements like Wicca or New Age adopted an environmental concern as a central part of their belief. And possibly, for individuals and groups committed to protect, preserve or sacralise nature, environmentalism has become a kind of religion in itself.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Bron Taylor is Professor of Religion and Nature at the University of Florida. He is also a Carson Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. His central scholarly interest and personal passion is the conservation of the earth’s biological diversity and how human culture might evolve rapidly enough to arrest and reverse today’s intensifying environmental and social crises. He edits the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, as well as the two-volume Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. His latest book is Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (2009) – the first chapter can be read on his website, along with a wealth of other supplimentary material including a piece on Bron’s thoughts on the movie Avatar, as discussed in the podcast

Psychological Approaches to the Study of Religion

In practice, experimentation requires much effort, imagination, and resources. The subject of religion seems too complex and too ‘soft’ for the laboratory. It is filled with much fantasy and feelings, two topics which academic psychology finds hard to approach.

Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin, and Michael Argyle. The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience. London: Routledge, 1997, p. 47.

Psychology of religion involves the application of psychological methods and interpretive frameworks to religious institutions, as well as to individuals of all religious or noreligious persuasions. Last November, Chris had the pleasure of chatting to Professor Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi about the psychological approach, how one applies it to the study of religion, and the various challenges and advantages contained therein. This interview was recorded in the heart of New York City, and we can only hope that the ambient noise adds to the character of the interview.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi studied clinical psychology in Israel and the U.S. and is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Haifa. He has published extensively in the critical theory of academic psychology with focus on the psychopathology of religion. His books include Despair and Deliverance: Private Salvation in Contemporary Israel (1992), Psychoanalytic Studies of Religion: A Critical Assessment (1996) and The psychology of religious behaviour, belief and experience (1997) with Michael Argyle. He is also author of The Israeli Connection (Pantheon 1987), concerning the Israeli armaments industry, and Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel (Olive Branch 1993), a counter-mystification of the origins, accomplishments, contradictions, and betrayals of Zionism.

In answer to the question “what can science say about atheism?”, Professor Beit-Hallahmi published the article “Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion, and Erica Salomon’s response essay.

Fiction-Based Religions

The majority of those who identified as a Jedi on the 2001 UK census were mounting a more-or-less satirical or playful act of non-compliance; nevertheless, a certain proportion of those were telling the truth. How does a religion constructed from the fictional Star Wars universe problematise how we conceptualise other religions, and the stories they involve?  And what makes certain stories able to transcend their fictional origins and become myths?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Markus Altena Davidsen is a PhD candidate at the universities of Aarhus, Denmark and Leiden, Netherlands, and assistant lecturer in the sociology of religion in Leiden. Since 2009, he has been working on a PhD project entitled “Fiction-based Religions: The Use of Fiction in Contemporary Religious Bricolage”. In this project, Davidsen attempts to do three things. Firstly, he maps the various ways on which religious groups since the 1960s have been integrating elements from Tolkien’s literary mythology with beliefs and practices from more established religious traditions. This material is used to develop a typology of forms of religious bricolage (harmonising, domesticating, archetypal etc.) which are also at work in alternative spirituality in general. Secondly, he looks at how Tolkien religionists legitimise their religious practice (to themselves and others) given that it is based on a work of fiction. These accounts are compared with what cognitive theory has to say about narratives and plausibility construction. Thirdly, Davidsen treats how the internet has facilitated the emergence of a self-conscious spiritual Tolkien milieu. Some preliminary conclusions from the project are presented in the forthcoming article “The Spiritual Milieu Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Literary Mythology”, in Adam Possamai (ed.), Handbook of Hyper-real Religions, in the series Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion 5, Leiden & Boston: Brill, 185-204.

You can keep up with Markus’s work on Invented Religions. And you may enjoy Markus and Carole’s contributions to our edited episode on “The Future of Religious Studies“.

Doing Anthropological Fieldwork

“If we want to discover what [wo]man amounts to, we can only find it in what [wo]men are: and what [wo]men are, above all other things, is various. It is in understanding that variousness – its range, its nature, its basis, and its implications – that we shall come to construct a concept of human nature that, more than a statistical shadow, and less than a primitivists dream, has both substance and truth.” (Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973:52)

This quotation from Clifford Geertz, one of the canonical figures in anthropology, succinctly sums up what anthropology tries to do. Anthropology is essentially a comparative study of socio-cultural behaviour and attitudes, and is one of the most complex yet fundamental tools in the scholar of religions’ toolbox.

Some scholars make a career out of being an anthropologist of religion, others employ the techniques of ethnographic fieldwork in combination with other approaches and methodologies. And, of course, even those scholars who are attempting to be solely anthropologists of religion cannot divorce religion from the host of other contextual factors within which they believe they have found it. This week, David (and, briefly, Chris) are joined by Dr Bettina Schmidt of the University of Wales, Trinity St David, who gives an insightful personal account of the complex task of conducting anthropological fieldwork, with examples from a variety of contexts.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on The Insider/Outsider Problem, and/or reading Katie Aston’s response Insider and Outsider – An Anthropological Perspective. Anthropology is a complex beast, and something which can only truly be learned in the field. As our friend Damon Zacharias Lycourinos has said:

“Anthropology is the art and science of taking paradigms of ethnography from your supervisor, taking them into the field, realising that they are wrong due to their objectivity, re-shaping and introducing a new school of anthropological theory, and expecting your re-shaped paradigms to be annihilated by your future students.”

Roundtable: What is the Future of Religious Studies?

David Robertson, Chris Cotter, Ethan Quillen, Jonathan Tuckett, Kevin Whitesides & Liam Sutherland (NB: ‘we’ are not the future of Religious Studies – although some of us hope to be – that would just be silly)

After this week’s podcast, which involved eight scholars giving their views on the future of Religious Studies, there was really only one way we could create a suitably collective and varied response – six postgrads sitting around a table, accompanied by pink gin and our trusty dictaphone. Conversation ranges from the public perception of what Religious Studies does, what to do with a RS degree, to the financial practicalities of doing postgraduate research in the UK and US today. Mostly, though, it’s a collective rant about the cognitive study of religion (for a more educated discussion on cognitive approaches to the study of religion, see our interview with Armin Geertz)..

**Regular visitors please note – we have moved our weekly feature articles to Wednesdays instead of Fridays. This will continue until further notice, and is intended to promote more discussion**

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 Bettina Schmidt’s interview on Anthropological Approaches on Monday.

You can also download this roundtable, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

The bleeping noises are Chris’s camera, and the clunks are Liam’s can of Gin. We hope you enjoy it, we certainly enjoyed recording it. We’ll be recording another at the SOCREL (Sociology of Religion) Annual Conference in just a few days time (with a more diverse range of participants!). If you’d like this to become a regular feature, please let us know.

Choice quotations:

“What do you do with a Religious Studies degree? You get a Master’s. What do you do with a Religious Studies Master’s? You get a PhD? What do you do with a Religious Studies Phd? You work in Starbucks.”

“I think of Religious Studies less as a discipline and more as the name of a department.”

“relativity… is one step up from subjectivity, which is the post-modernist quagmire of death and destruction that will consume all academic fields if it’s allowed to spread too far…”

The Discussants:

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.

Ethan Quillen

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

David 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.

Liam Sutherland

Liam is a Religious Studies Postgraduate student at Edinburgh University undertaking a Masters by Research, on the relevance of E.B Tylor for the contemporary theory of religion, defining religion and modern scholars with a ‘Neo-Tylorian’ influence or affinity. He is a native of Edinburgh where he also completed his undergraduate degree  in 2009, producing a dissertation on contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality and the politics of land rights. Though he began in Politics, and took many Politics and school of Social Science courses, he quickly fell in love with Religious Studies! Liam has also written the essay An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy for the Religious Studies Project.

Jonathan Tuckett

What is Phenomenology? for the Religious Studies Project.

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.

What is the Future of Religious Studies?

This week we decided to do something a bit different. Every time David and Chris have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: “What is the Future of Religious Studies?”

The result is this highly stimulating compilation of differing perspectives and levels of optimism on what has become one of the most hotly debated topics in the academic study of religion at the start of the second decade of the twenty-first century.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

The underlying motivation behind placing this question on the agenda of the Religious Studies Project was one of finances. In the current economic climate – particularly in the UK – and with the increasing commodification of the Higher Education sector. It is no longer acceptable for academics to sit pontificating in their ivory towers, and every discipline (but particularly Religious Studies) is finding itself increasingly in the firing line in terms of funding and resources. This issue is so pressing that the British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR) and the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) – the two professional organisations that together represent the UK’s leading scholars in the study of religion – have joined forces to present a joint panel on ‘Public benefit in the study of religion’ at the BASR annual conference, September 5-7 2012 University of Winchester, UK.

However, this is not the only issue on the table. Topics range from interdisciplinarity and institutional conflict, to innovative new methodologies, directions and foci. Some of these academics have already appeared on the Religious Studies Project, others’ interviews have yet to be released, yet each has their own unique perspective to offer, and we hope that you appreciate this compilation.

Featured in this podcast (with links to their previously released interviews):

We wanted to do something special with this podcast, because it is the tenth edition of the Religious Studies Project. We hope this has been a worthwhile exercise! Later in the week, we will be releasing a ‘unique’ response to this episode, and we hope it will prove similarly worthwhile.

If you stick with us for the next ten episodes, you’ll be treated to interviews with Bettina Schmidt (University of Wales), Markus Davidsen (Aarhus University), Bejamin Beit-Hallahmi (University of Haifa), Linda Woodhead (Lancaster University), Ariela Keysar (Trinity College, Massachusetts), Bron Taylor (University of Florida) and more…

 

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment

The South Fork Dam once stood high above the city of Johnstown Pennsylvania, erected to supply water to one of the many canal systems that made up the early American interstate trade route.  Purchased by the South Fork Hunting and Fishing club in 1881, the massive body of water behind the dam, Lake Conemaugh, was made part of an exclusive mountain resort for the wealthy from nearby Pittsburgh.  Over the next eight years frequent inspections found the South Fork Dam to have many foundational flaws, as well as a number of recurring surface cracks.  With gilded aesthetics in mind these cracks were mended by rudimentary patchwork, a temporary slathering of mud and straw.  On the rainy afternoon of May 31st, 1889 the dam melted under the pressure of the swelling lake, releasing a surging wall of water onto the city below.  By the time the water receded 2,209 people had perished in one of the worst “natural” disasters in US history.

As anecdotes go, this is a pretty good one.  The impudence of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club contributed to the idea that by solving surface issues with a little patchwork the real problem at the foundation would equally be resolved.  In the field of academia we come across this sort of logic quite regularly; more so, it seems, in the category of religious studies.

Sean Bean as Odysseus in the movie ‘Troy’

It seems fair to say that ours is a rather dangerous vocation, not dangerous in the way a dam keeper’s job might be dangerous on an afternoon of heavy rain, but dangerous in that we bravely tread the waters of humanity’s inner-most sacred beliefs and practices.  This is not a gentle sea by any means.  Tempests rise up unexpectedly, detouring our crossing with tangential distractions—much like those which plagued that long adrift Greek hero, Odysseus.  Like him, we too seem impassioned to return to something genuine and practical, longing to once again stand on familiar soil; and we are ever creative in our ways of doing so.

Recently, Professor Jay Demerath took up such a challenge, which formed the basis for his interview with Chris Cotter.  Promoting the replacement of the ambiguous term “religion” with the functional term “sacred,” Demerath’s novel approach at interpreting that which stands out against the profane or secular comes with two critical issues: definition and application.

Definition

Demerath originally proposed this turn from “religion” to “sacred” in his deliberately misquoted “Varieties of Sacred Experience,” nominally linking his amended term with the foundations of religious studies in William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience.”  This calculated revision brings Demerath’s proposition into the context of debate between experience and belief as designated by the modern ambiguity of “religion” and his novelized sobriquet, “sacred.”  As he states, “religion is just one among many possible sources of the sacred,” (Demerath 2000) and that the ambiguity which anchors itself to the definition of religion can easily be weighed by defining it substantively, while interpreting its consequences, “the sacred,” functionally.  This is a methodological proposition which focuses not on the encompassing importance of “religion” but rather on what it is that individuals—or groups—take to be “sacred.”  By divesting religion and sacred between substantive and functionalist, assigning “religion” to the “category of activity” and seeing the “sacred” as a “statement of function” both terms seem to work in their application

This is further demonstrated in his polythetic method of deciphering that which individuals and social groups set apart as being “sacred.”  In the interview, when asked how sociologists navigate the ambiguity of what is sacred or not, he suggests a sort of polythetic taxonomy when it comes to deciphering what is sacred to the people under examination.  By developing a “kind of a checklist of behaviors that are associated with what might be a sacred commitment,” such as is found in certain categorical methodologies (Saler 1993, Smith 1996, Smart 1997), he believes we can properly decipher what “people do, what they don’t do, what they believe, what they don’t believe, what they observe and don’t observe.”  Furthermore, this alludes to a stipulation of terms, rather than a dependence on real definitions (Baird 1971).  Both techniques reveal a method which assists us in accessing the “priority” of the religious person’s “commitments, the commitments in their life, and the convictions in their life.” (Demerath 2012).

However, Demerath is also navigating very dangerous waters here, steering between narrow straights where on one side awaits the swirling temptress of a definition of religion, and on the other the horrifically multifaceted monster of misapplication.  For example, if removed from his sociological context, how does his term “sacred” differ from that of “religious?”  One of the advantages with stipulative definitions is that they must be anchored to a particular study, the borders of which Demerath’s proposition seems to push against.  Consider if we categorically formed a stipulative interpretation of the traditional term “religious” as pertaining to the consequences of the practitioner’s “religion,” would we not be able to equally balance out the ambiguity found in “religion?”  Would using a stipulated interpretation of “religious” as the function of a person acting under the substantive form of “religion” not be the same?  While Demerath responds to a similar question in the interview by legitimating his use of the “sacred” as something that does not need to transcend our world to some other-worldly deity, he is limiting himself to a “definition” of religion devoted to a transcendental relationship between man and deity.  This seems, again, a difference between “religion” and “religious” as equally as it pertains to the difference between “religion” and the “sacred.”  This is an issue of definition and application.  Where his turn from the sociology of religion to the sociology of the sacred succeeds and fails is within this issue.  By pushing against these borders his stipulation begins to sink into the periphery of real definition.  Fortunately he saves himself with the life-raft of an applicative example.

Application

Ethan

Ethan Quillen

The decision of United States vs. Seeger is about as close to a “definition” of religion the United States Supreme Court is legally allowed to make.  The disestablishment clause of the 1st Amendment—Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion—is a collection of ten words which make the United States exceptional to religiously established nations such as England and Scotland.  It also creates quite the conundrum when cases like these come to the Court’s attention.  The Seeger case did not occur ex nihilo, but was rather the result of the decisions in Everson vs. Board and Torcaso vs. Watkins, steps made by the court over twenty years of social and political change in a country seeking an umbrellic identity between the end of World War II and the turbulent second half of a decade that saw the assassination of John F. Kennedy at one end, and the resignation of Richard M. Nixon at the other.

This brief circumnavigation speaks directly to Demerath’s application of the term sacred.  When seen through the lens of American legal amendments, wherein the “belief in and devotion to goodness and virtue for their own sakes,” and a religious “faith in a purely ethical creed” amounts to a “a sincere and meaningful belief occupying in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by God,” what is construed as “sacred,” the “ultimate concern” may seem counter to even the most liberal applications of “religion.” (U.S. vs. Seeger)  By amending the qualifications of article 6(j) of the Universal Military Training and Service Act to accommodate Daniel Seeger’s philosophical views, the function of Tillich’s substantive definition, as accepted by the Court as a standard by which to measure the religiousness of the individual, “religious” and “sacred” become stipulative suggestions, pliable by what might justify a sacred belief.  Thus, in a nation devoted to a sense of individual sacralization, the nation of Sheilaism (Bellah et al.), Demerath’s reassignment of transcendental “religion” with “sacred” seems justified.

Conclusion

While the legitimation of his using “sacred” rather than “religion” seems justified in the above sample, it still seems a patchwork fix rather than a foundational repair.  It should be said, though, that this is not so much a critique of Demerath’s thesis, but of the idea in promoting a new term as the replacement of an old one.  Perhaps this is due to the definitive style it seems to imply at the suggestion of “sacred studies” rather than “religious studies.”  New terms are not always the best way to fix a foundational issue such as the ambiguity of “religion” in a global context.  Instead, we would benefit far greater by digging up and unpacking what we mean by terms when studying the practitioners who make them sacred in specific contexts.  The stipulation of an established, utilitarian term like “religious” to mean the actions of individuals seeking what they deem foundationally sacred relieves the pressures of ambiguity just as equally as “sacred,” especially because of its relationship and differentiation from “religion.”  Perhaps a good argument against Demerath’s contextual use of “sacred” might be a change from the “sociology of religion” to the “sociology of the religious.”

Definitions of religion seem the ever-widening Charybdis in the field of religious studies—in all its forms.  In our contemporary world we tend to find ourselves more absent-mindedly sailing toward the yawning mouth of that swirling vortex known as “a definition of religion.”  We need to be cautious with the application of new terms.  We seem too often prone to kneejerk patchwork, slathering layer upon layer of temporary fixes, either impudent in our knowledge of foundational issues, or victims of deep denial.  We long to resolve ambiguity by applying more ambiguity, when we should just dig up the foundation and rebuild.  These waters are dangerous, and without precaution we appear more and more drawn into the riptide of circular academia where, once swallowed up, we run the risk of drowning in a sea of uncertainty.

References and Suggested Reading

  • Robert D. Baird.  Category Formations and the History of Religions.  Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1991.
  • Robert N. Bellah.  Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditionalist World.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  • Robert N. Bellah, et al.  Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  • James L. Cox.  “Afterword: Separating Religion from the ‘Sacred:’ Methodological Agnosticism and the Future of Religious Studies” in Steven J. Sutcliffe.  Religion: Empirical Studies.  Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
  • Jay Demerath.  “The Varieties of Sacred Experience: Finding the Sacred in a Secular Grove” in the Journal for theScientific Study of Religion, Vol. 39, No. 1, 2000.
  • ———.   “Defining Religion and Modifying Religious “Bodies:” Secularizing the Sacred and Sacralizing the Secular” in Phil Zuckerman, ed.  Atheism and Secularity: Volume 1: Issues, Concepts, and Definitions. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010.
  • ———. Religious Studies Project Interview with Jay Demerath on Substantive Religion and the Functionalist Sacred (12 March 2012).
  • David McCullough. The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating “Natural” Disasters America has Ever Known. NewYork: Touchstone, 1987.
  • Ethan Gjerset Quillen, 2011. Rejecting the Definitive: A Contextual Examination of Three Historical Stages of Atheism and the Legality of an American Freedom from Religion.  MA Thesis, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
  • Bensor Saler.  Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbounded Categories.  New York: E.J. Brill, 1993.
  • Ninian Smart.  Dimensions of the Sacred: Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs.  New York: Fontana Press, 1997.
  • Jonathan Z. Smith  “A Matter of Class: Taxonomies of Religion” in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 89, No. 4, 1996.
  • Terence Thomas.  “‘The Sacred’ as a Viable Concept in the Contemporary Study of Religions” in Steven J. Sutcliffe.  Religion: Empirical Studies.  Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
  • Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947)
  • Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961)
  • United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965)
  • Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333 (1970)

Substantive Religion and the Functionalist Sacred

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.

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.

The Changing Nature of Religion

In her keynote address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Milwaukee last October, Grace Davie eruditely portrayed the changing perceptions of ‘religion’ over the last fifty years. In the 1960s, most sociologists consciously or unconsciously bought into idea of the ‘death of god’ – religion became effectively invisible to academia. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, a number of events – most notably the ‘Satanic Verses’ controversy – dramatically increased the ‘visibility’ of religion: it became a political problem. Now, in the 21st century, religion is increasingly being construed by politicians, educators, the media etc, as a useful resource to be exploited. These public perceptions are but one facet of the way in which ‘religion’ can be understood as ‘changing’.

In this interview with Chris, Professor Davie discusses the place of religion in modern Europe, paying particular attention to the place of the United Kingdom within the European context. In an effort to combat the caricatures that typify media accounts of religion in the contemporary world, Davie discusses the changing nature of religion, in academia and in the public square, and considers the impact of the arrival of new cultures into Europe, whilst reflecting on secular reactions to these.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. Three freely accessible articles by Prof. Davie which should be of interest to our listeners are “Thinking Sociologically about Religion: A Step Change in the Debate?“, published by The ARDA in 2011,  “Is Europe an Exceptional Case?” from The Hedgehog Review (2006), and “Working Comparatively” from the University of Kent’s Research Methods for the Study of Religion website.

This interview was recorded in October 2011 in Milwaukee, WI at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Meeting at the crossroads of public and private: sexuality and religion

Meeting at the crossroads of public and private: sexuality and religion

By Jillian Scott.

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 24 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Sarah Jane-Page on Youth, Sexuality and Religion (27 February 2012).

In a recent podcast on Youth, Sexuality and Religion, Dr Sarah-Jane Page discusses  research that she conducted along with several colleagues, that concerned young people, sexuality and religion. This is an immediately controversial subject and one that generates many questions. As this research focused on “lived religion”, that is how people experience religion in their everyday lives, the intertwining of these two topics is very interesting. She refers to the two as “uncomfortable bedfellows” within the daily experience of many religious young people. As a result, the study focuses on how young people  consolidate daily the vying values and morals presented to them through society, media and their faith. Although her presentation of the research is incredibly complex and thorough, I believe that there are some questions that she leaves unanswered in this interview.

Trying to get at the heart of how these people, aged 18 to 25, lived their faith and sexuality the questionnaires sought answers concerning idealistic aspects of the two subjects. These included gender roles, views about homosexuality, abortion, et cetera. The lived experiences of the participants became apparent through the use of video blogs because these turned into a diary for most of them. Here they detailed what books they were reading, the films they saw and so on. I cannot find fault in any of these research methods. However, Page’s presentation of her research questions and what she ultimately wants to discover about the relationship between sexuality and religion are left a little vague throughout the course of the interview.

In my personal studies concerning violence and religion, I have found that the contention between the public and private sectors of life create a tumultuous force behind many of the choices made by religious people. William Cavanaugh demonstrates that such competition jeopardizes the pure nature of the secular state and that nothing can be free of religion as it manifests within the public realm (2005). On a smaller level, personal religion crosses the dichotomy between public and private within the actions that people do or don’t do, such as not drinking or dancing in the moonlight. These are manifestations of religion within the public realm that also generate implications in the perception of others about their faith. Personal sexuality also suffers this same burden. Ann Pellegrini discusses the reality that when you talk about what you did on the weekend you are giving people a sense of your own sexuality (2004). Both of these elements of the human experience pivot on the fact that both religiosity and sexuality should be very private matters. Yet, they tend to be expressed within the public realm.

Therefore, I believe that the “uncomfortable bedfellows” nature of sexuality and religion comes from their frequent meeting at the intersection of public and private realms. Page understands that young people often face challenges to their values and ideas about what is private and public; particularly with sexuality and religion. She believes that the scholarly divide of private and public needs to be unpacked and reexamined. Yet this contention does not appear to be the motivation behind her research. Especially since she is working with young people I would have appreciated her mentioning what they felt about public and private particularly in the age of Facebook, Twitter and text messages. How do they express their faith and sexuality there? What platforms are private and which are public? This is an area that I think is vital to this study that has been omitted within her responses to Christopher Cotter’s questions.

Quite interestingly, this research does break some of the stereotypes about young people and religious faith and sex. Page and her colleagues found that many of the participants did not object to the controlling aspects of faith concerning sex. Many of them thought that they serve as an “anchor or security point”. However, others did voice their struggle in their attempt to match their religious ideals to their day to day life. Page takes pains to point out that those who are rule bound only represent a few. Others are still teasing out their faith in order to create their own trajectory. Those who are struggling represent a huge battle between sexuality and religion that Page does not address in the podcast.  Does this occur because of the public versus private conflict? Are these people making their own rules because of the religious dimension? Or the sexual? Does it happen because they do not have a strong role model within the church? Or does it occur because of the age group of the participants and how in flux their lives already are as 18 to 25 year-olds?

The age group of the people involved make this study all the more interesting because it makes it more complex. At this stage in their lives, it may not be possible for them be truly conscious of their negotiation of their faith and sexuality. Many are shifting in times and spaces that challenge what was the established norm. In their attempts to deal with this they must negotiate their own values and come to terms with their own identity. Perhaps Page does not address this because the young people could not point out the reasoning themselves. I agree with Page that the next phase of the study would be to ask the same questions of people aged 30 to 50. However, Page misses another crucial dimension of the study and further studies by completely eliminating the non-religious aspect. Particularly within the UK, many young people do not self-identify as religious. It would increase the complexity of the research and it would allow us to see what values young people have regardless of faith. It would also be valuable to learn if the views of the religious people clashed with their non-religious friends.

Ultimately, Page’s research is very interesting and pertinent to the field of religious studies. As this field continues to grow, my questions will be answered and new topics of debate will arise. At this time I would like to commend Page and her colleagues for striding out into the unknown and setting some foundations for the study of sexuality and religion.

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

About the Author

Jillian Scott recently finished her Master’s degree in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her dissertation was entitled “Ritualized Terrorism: Symbolic Religious Violence and the Secular State in a Globalized World”. Originally from San Francisco, California, Jillian lives in Edinburgh and continues to study the relationships between religion, violence and international relations.

 

 

 

References

Cavanaugh, W.T., 2005. The Liturgies of Church and State. Liturgy, 20(1), pp.25–30.

Jakobsen, J.R. & Pellegrini, A., 2004. Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance, Beacon Press.

Youth, Sexuality and Religion

The Religion, Youth and Sexuality: A Multi-faith Exploration project, based at the University of Nottingham, looked at 18 to 25 year-olds from a variety of faith backgrounds in order to understand attitudes and practices around sexuality and how this was negotiated in relation to religious traditions. Dr Sarah-Jane Page, one of the research fellows, talks to Chris about the project’s findings, which were sometimes surprising. Religion is found to be a significant influence, but one influence among a number of others. 

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Dr Page completed her doctorate in 2009, in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham, investigating motherhood and priesthood as well as the non-ordained spouses of women priests in the Church of England. More recently, she was Research Consultant for the European Commission funded project, Citizens in Diversity: A Four-nation Study of Homophobia and Human Rights (www.citidive.eu). The British case study, with which she was involved, focused on ascertaining types of homonegativity encountered in the UK context, in order to understand the complexities and nuances relating to contemporary attitudes to homosexuality. She is now based at Aston University.

A .pdf of the full findings of the Religion Youth and Sexuality project can be downloaded here, and a podcast about the research is also available. Dr Page has also co-authored a book (with A. K. T. Yip) based on the research which will be published by Ashgate during 2012, entitled Religious and Sexual Journeys: A Multi-faith Exploration of Young Believers.

Insider and Outsider: An Anthropological Perspective

 

If an anthropologist holds the same religious beliefs as ‘the natives’ – or even, some might say, any at all – the implicit concern of the discipline is that he or she might be surrendering too much anthropological authority. But as Ewing argues, belief remains an ’embarrassing possibility’ that stems from ‘a refusal to acknowledge that the subjects of one’s research might actually know something about the human condition that is personally valid for the anthropologist’ (1994:571; see also Harding 1987). The problem of belief, then, is the problem of remaining at the proper remove from ‘natives’ inner lives’ (Geertz 1976:236). (Engelke, 2002: 3)

 

Map of Relations between Fields of Knowledge, Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p. 931

At the heart of ethnographers’ method of participant observation, is the paradox of being at once participant and observer; attempting to be both objective and subjective. I want in this short report to flag up some issues of interest and some texts from anthropology which speak both to the insider/outsider problem and to the broader methodological issue in anthropology of subjective and objective data collection. My response to this interview is informed by my own fieldwork with a non-religious organised group and the epistemological issues raised in the process.

This paper is intended to be broad-based; to be read beside, not against the interview. I want to think about the methodological issues which it brought to mind and suggest that – at least within anthropology – being either or both insider and outsider is an inevitable part of the fieldwork setup. The methodological issues raised relate to the balance of access to tacit knowledge vs. the ability to remain objective in the ultimate analysis which seems to present in the insider/outsider problem. It is possible to suggest that while gaining greater access as an insider you forfeit your ability for objective empirical observance.

Acceptance and Accessibility

Two issues which particularly emerge from Chryssides’ interview are those of acceptance and accessibility – and the ability to understand the subject which derives from this. Access, for example, may come more freely if you are not “other” or if you even hold a religious faith yourself, but this is more complicated. To talk only of religion as an isolated phenomena that we can be inside and outside of suggests that we are all doing (or in the case of the atheist ‘not doing’) religion all the time and may even fail to recognise the multiple identities we hold.  Gender or class, for example, may intersect or even interfere with other aspects of insider/outsider status. Being the correct gender may play a more important role in access than religious persuasion in the case of research within a gender segregated religious institution. In attending to the issue of the outsider and insider in the more broadly ethnographic sense, we may gain a reflexive position, attending to our whole positionality, not only that of our religious (or non-religious) position to another.

The problem can also be addressed in terms of a broader epistemological question of how we can know and, especially, how we can attend to the knowledge of another. I would suggest that looking at this broader set of questions may go some way to addressing the issue of the insider and outsider. Chryssides indeed does discuss this in an early and interesting point relating to truth claims: that the key question is not whether people have access to, and practice the truth, but to demonstrate what people understand to be true and how this manifests. .

There are a number of important anthropological works on the possibilities of knowledge and the limits of accessing tacit knowledge; a favourite of mine is Maurice Bloch’s How We Think They Think. There are a significant number of studies of religions, religion-like and supernatural phenomena (notably almost all from the “outsider” perspective). Yet, a survey essay by Dr Matthew Engelke on the problem of belief in anthropological fieldwork, suggests that prominent anthropologists Victor Turner and Edward Evans-Pritchard ultimately argued that they were not total outsiders, but maintained the ability to access participants due to their own Catholic beliefs. In this work, Engelke addresses Evans-Pritchard’s work with the Azande, in which Evans-Pritchard treats beliefs analytically as social facts: ‘beliefs are for [the social anthropologist] sociological facts, not theological facts, and his sole concern is with their relation to each other and to other social facts. His problems are scientific, not metaphysical or ontological’ (Evans-Pritchard 1965:1). So we return to Chryssides’ point above, regarding the nature of the “truth” you seek to find. Evans-Pritchard also speaks to assumptions regarding the internal or external nature of religious phenomena.

Both Engelke and Evans-Pritchard argue that fieldwork is essential. The method allows for access to practice and “this is how anthropologists can best understand religion as a social fact”. But what is also demonstrated by Engelke, is Evans-Pritchard’s belief that it is better to have some form of religion or religious “inner life” in order to access or understand the inner lives of “others” regardless of the context of that religious “inner life”, than to be an atheist. The argument is that the scientific study is the relation of religious practice to the social world and these are better understood if the relations are shared (even partially) between participants. Engelke then turns to the work of Victor Turner, whose view is perhaps more fatalistic: the study of religion is doomed to fail since ‘religion is not determined by anything other than itself’ (Turner in Engleke, 2002: 8). Regardless of the position of the researcher, is it simply the case that religion cannot be researched at all? In summary of this work, Engelke draws on an important critique that can be drawn more broadly across the insider/outsider issue – that of ‘belief.’ If inner life and insider status is framed in the context of ‘belief’ as the contention around which the possibility of access presides, then we run the risk of always encountering religions from a Christian/Euro-centric perspective.

Is it better to be religious or have no religion at all – the case of non-religion

At the end of this interview, Christopher Cotter asks: instead of considering which religion makes you an insider and outsider (as implied throughout the interview, in which Chryssides frequently refers to his Christian background), what of those researchers who have no religion at all? Chryssides does not seem to follow the logic within this question and in many ways this may be an answer in itself: it perhaps demonstrates an assumption that having a religion would be a necessity. But what of the atheist researcher, in the religious or the non-religious setting?

I would suggest that people wanting to learn more about the position of the non-believer in the religious setting (in this case Pentecostal) look to the work of Ruy Llera Blanes.  In a short discussion of his method, entitled “The Atheist Anthropologist”, Blanes explores his reticence to hide his atheism and the rhetorical shifting which evolved between himself and participants in order to find mutual respect and fend off questions of the possibility of his own conversion. When speaking to one participant outside a church, all seems to go well until the question of his own faith, or lack thereof, arises: he is literally shunned by the participant who turns his back. Following this, Blanes approaches the leader of the church who is more able to accept the outsider to the church. We have here two members of a church, with different statuses and perhaps levels of interest in this research, which is another important point to consider and indeed one made by Chryssides. But Blane’s work also speaks to the multiple intersections discussed above, regarding the general issue of being insider and outsider in the research setting. He is aware of the position of his participants as part of the Gypsy community and the different levels of access and sensitivity that this brings with it, demonstrating that a range of considerations may influence the involvement of a researcher.

My own experience in the field – inside an organisation which describes itself as non-religious – provides different, sometimes contradictory answers to this question. I am myself non-religious, but with a religious family, my Father being a Vicar. This is common knowledge among my research participants, and people’s attitudes towards this fact have ranged from active interest to indifference and even to expressions of pity and mock sympathy. The point here is that the division of insider/outsider is often not particularly clear cut and is certainly not fixed amongst individuals within one group or setting. People in the given group may share, for the convenience of research sampling, one aspect of interest to that researcher, but their biographical and temperamental differences make acceptance a complex issue. In my own research setting, I represent the piggy in the middle, bridging the religious and nonreligious worlds, as I have intimately experienced both in my own life. I have been asked by my own research participants, with genuine interest and sometimes bafflement, about the role of the vicar and how it must be to be part of a religious family, especially when I don’t believe, the usual question being “how do your parents feel about you doing this research?”.

What my own position may speak to is the categorisation of “religion”; when talked of in isolation, “religion” remains something fixed and visible. But in fact it intersects heavily across cultural domains, and having been in this ‘piggy in the middle’ situation, it is interesting to note the Christian heritage which is shared both by my family, myself and my non-religious participants: we are all insiders to a point.   So when we discuss this issue, I would think it important to address what we feel inside or outside of; is this cultural or religious division? Or is it one relating to our world view, morals and values?

By way of a summary, or to tack on some further thoughts for consideration – I should stress on the part of the insider/outsider issue in the anthropological project – the final transformation of data. As discussed by Blanes, ambiguities arise over the insider and the outsider, over the faith or world view of the researcher and the researched within the project. But whatever steps are taken to breach the knowledge gap, Blanes also makes the point that it often remerges in the secular project of analysis and critique. We need then to then assess a third and final role, as the outsider, the anthropology academic, who has almost always written in the secular, empirical tradition.  We also need to pay further attention to the strong critiques of the religious and non-religious categories (McCutcheon, 1997; Fitzgerald, 2000; Masuzawa, 2005), on the basis of their historical construction.  At present I am working within a climate-change in anthropology, which is attempting to critique and address its own historical relationship to the secularisation thesis put forward by the ‘founding fathers’ of the social sciences: Weber, Marx and Durkheim. I am excited and interested to see what unfolds and where this reflexivity takes us in regard to the consideration of religions and the general issue of access to ‘inner life’. As we consider the possibilities offered by these works and their continued critique, will it be possible to draw such a simple line implied by the notion of insider and outsider?

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

References

Blanes, Ruy Llera (2006), “The Atheist Anthropologist. Believers and Non-Believers in Anthropological Fieldwork”, Social Anthropology 14 (2), pp. 223-234.

Bloch, Maurice (1998) How We Think They Think: Anthropological Approaches to Cognition, Memory, and Literacy Westview Press

Engelke, Matthew (2002) “The problem of belief: Evans-Pritchard and Victor Turner on “the inner life.”. Anthropology today, 18 (6). pp. 3-8. I

Geertz, Clifford (1976). ‘From  the Native’s Point of View’: On the Nature of Anthropological  Understanding.  In K.H.  Basso & H.A. Selby (eds)  Meaning  in anthropology,  pp.231-237. Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico  Press

Masazawa, Tomoko (2005) The Invention of World Religions, or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism University of Chicago Press

McCutcheon , Russell T. (1997) Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia, Oxford University Press

Video: The Religious Studies Project – What We’re All About…

Today marks a special occasion in the life of The Religious Studies Project – we’re giving our first ‘talk’. As part of Innovative Learning Week at the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, we’re presenting a session where students and staff can come and learn a bit more about the project and how it was put together, and offer some feedback on what they would like to see in the future.

Unfortunately, Chris will be arriving in London as the event itself starts, so we thought that a video posted on the website would be a way for him to participate from afar. The video is posted below, and isn’t focused specifically towards this one event, but provides a platform for David and Chris to discuss why they set up The Religious Studies Project, what they aim to do, what they DON’T aim to do, and how you can help out.

Let us know what you think…

The Insider/Outsider Problem

 

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

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

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


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


The Insider/Outsider Problem

Podcast with George Chryssides (20th February 2012)

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Catrin Sawford

Audio and transcript available at: Chryssides Insider_Outsider Problem

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

George Chryssides (GC): Thanks, hi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(CC): Yes

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

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

(GC): Okay.

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

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

(CC): Mmm.

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

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

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

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

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

(CC): Mmm.

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

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

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

(CC): And thanks for talking to us!


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

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Podcasts

Historical Approaches to (Losing) Religion

How can we use historical approaches in the study of religion? More specifically, can we use historical approaches to understand why people are losing it? Professor Callum Brown tells us why historical approaches have much to tell us about religious change.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Callum Brown is Professor of Religious and Cultural History at the University of Dundee. He is a social and cultural historian with special research interests in religion and secularisation in the post 1750 period – especially in the 20th and 21st centuries – mostly in Scotland and Britain, but also Canada, USA and Ireland.

He is currently involved in the project A Social and Cultural History of Modern Humanism, covering Scotland, UK, Ireland, Canada and USA and using especially oral history focusing on the social and cultural origins of individuals’ humanism, looking at issues like family background, religious experiences, and cultural alignments. He is also about to publish Religion and the Demographic Revolution: Women and Secularisation in Canada, Ireland, UK and USA since the 1960s (London, Boydell & Brewer), which looks at demographic behaviour in the North Atlantic world, and the correlations between gender change, the sexual revolution, changes in patterns of marriage and cohabitation, and changes in religious ritual (such as religious solemnisation of marriage, baptism and funeral rites), and incorporates considerable statistical research. 

You may also be interested in our recent interview with Professor Linda Woodhead on the Secularisation Thesis, and Bjoern Mastiaux’s essay on the same topic.

For an interesting response essay to this podcast, please see Tim Hutchings’ A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion. For a more ‘informal’ response, you can listen to our roundtable discussion session on the question Can We Trust the Social Sciences?.

Religion After Darwin

Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species  was published in 1859, and had an immediate and dramatic effect on religious narratives. Traditional religions were forced to adopt an evolutionary worldview, or to go on the offensive; whereas New Religious Movements like Wicca or New Age adopted an environmental concern as a central part of their belief. And possibly, for individuals and groups committed to protect, preserve or sacralise nature, environmentalism has become a kind of religion in itself.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Bron Taylor is Professor of Religion and Nature at the University of Florida. He is also a Carson Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. His central scholarly interest and personal passion is the conservation of the earth’s biological diversity and how human culture might evolve rapidly enough to arrest and reverse today’s intensifying environmental and social crises. He edits the Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, as well as the two-volume Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. His latest book is Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (2009) – the first chapter can be read on his website, along with a wealth of other supplimentary material including a piece on Bron’s thoughts on the movie Avatar, as discussed in the podcast

Psychological Approaches to the Study of Religion

In practice, experimentation requires much effort, imagination, and resources. The subject of religion seems too complex and too ‘soft’ for the laboratory. It is filled with much fantasy and feelings, two topics which academic psychology finds hard to approach.

Beit-Hallahmi, Benjamin, and Michael Argyle. The Psychology of Religious Behaviour, Belief and Experience. London: Routledge, 1997, p. 47.

Psychology of religion involves the application of psychological methods and interpretive frameworks to religious institutions, as well as to individuals of all religious or noreligious persuasions. Last November, Chris had the pleasure of chatting to Professor Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi about the psychological approach, how one applies it to the study of religion, and the various challenges and advantages contained therein. This interview was recorded in the heart of New York City, and we can only hope that the ambient noise adds to the character of the interview.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi studied clinical psychology in Israel and the U.S. and is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Haifa. He has published extensively in the critical theory of academic psychology with focus on the psychopathology of religion. His books include Despair and Deliverance: Private Salvation in Contemporary Israel (1992), Psychoanalytic Studies of Religion: A Critical Assessment (1996) and The psychology of religious behaviour, belief and experience (1997) with Michael Argyle. He is also author of The Israeli Connection (Pantheon 1987), concerning the Israeli armaments industry, and Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel (Olive Branch 1993), a counter-mystification of the origins, accomplishments, contradictions, and betrayals of Zionism.

In answer to the question “what can science say about atheism?”, Professor Beit-Hallahmi published the article “Cognitive Approaches to the Study of Religion, and Erica Salomon’s response essay.

Fiction-Based Religions

The majority of those who identified as a Jedi on the 2001 UK census were mounting a more-or-less satirical or playful act of non-compliance; nevertheless, a certain proportion of those were telling the truth. How does a religion constructed from the fictional Star Wars universe problematise how we conceptualise other religions, and the stories they involve?  And what makes certain stories able to transcend their fictional origins and become myths?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Markus Altena Davidsen is a PhD candidate at the universities of Aarhus, Denmark and Leiden, Netherlands, and assistant lecturer in the sociology of religion in Leiden. Since 2009, he has been working on a PhD project entitled “Fiction-based Religions: The Use of Fiction in Contemporary Religious Bricolage”. In this project, Davidsen attempts to do three things. Firstly, he maps the various ways on which religious groups since the 1960s have been integrating elements from Tolkien’s literary mythology with beliefs and practices from more established religious traditions. This material is used to develop a typology of forms of religious bricolage (harmonising, domesticating, archetypal etc.) which are also at work in alternative spirituality in general. Secondly, he looks at how Tolkien religionists legitimise their religious practice (to themselves and others) given that it is based on a work of fiction. These accounts are compared with what cognitive theory has to say about narratives and plausibility construction. Thirdly, Davidsen treats how the internet has facilitated the emergence of a self-conscious spiritual Tolkien milieu. Some preliminary conclusions from the project are presented in the forthcoming article “The Spiritual Milieu Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Literary Mythology”, in Adam Possamai (ed.), Handbook of Hyper-real Religions, in the series Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion 5, Leiden & Boston: Brill, 185-204.

You can keep up with Markus’s work on Invented Religions. And you may enjoy Markus and Carole’s contributions to our edited episode on “The Future of Religious Studies“.

Doing Anthropological Fieldwork

“If we want to discover what [wo]man amounts to, we can only find it in what [wo]men are: and what [wo]men are, above all other things, is various. It is in understanding that variousness – its range, its nature, its basis, and its implications – that we shall come to construct a concept of human nature that, more than a statistical shadow, and less than a primitivists dream, has both substance and truth.” (Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, 1973:52)

This quotation from Clifford Geertz, one of the canonical figures in anthropology, succinctly sums up what anthropology tries to do. Anthropology is essentially a comparative study of socio-cultural behaviour and attitudes, and is one of the most complex yet fundamental tools in the scholar of religions’ toolbox.

Some scholars make a career out of being an anthropologist of religion, others employ the techniques of ethnographic fieldwork in combination with other approaches and methodologies. And, of course, even those scholars who are attempting to be solely anthropologists of religion cannot divorce religion from the host of other contextual factors within which they believe they have found it. This week, David (and, briefly, Chris) are joined by Dr Bettina Schmidt of the University of Wales, Trinity St David, who gives an insightful personal account of the complex task of conducting anthropological fieldwork, with examples from a variety of contexts.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on The Insider/Outsider Problem, and/or reading Katie Aston’s response Insider and Outsider – An Anthropological Perspective. Anthropology is a complex beast, and something which can only truly be learned in the field. As our friend Damon Zacharias Lycourinos has said:

“Anthropology is the art and science of taking paradigms of ethnography from your supervisor, taking them into the field, realising that they are wrong due to their objectivity, re-shaping and introducing a new school of anthropological theory, and expecting your re-shaped paradigms to be annihilated by your future students.”

Roundtable: What is the Future of Religious Studies?

David Robertson, Chris Cotter, Ethan Quillen, Jonathan Tuckett, Kevin Whitesides & Liam Sutherland (NB: ‘we’ are not the future of Religious Studies – although some of us hope to be – that would just be silly)

After this week’s podcast, which involved eight scholars giving their views on the future of Religious Studies, there was really only one way we could create a suitably collective and varied response – six postgrads sitting around a table, accompanied by pink gin and our trusty dictaphone. Conversation ranges from the public perception of what Religious Studies does, what to do with a RS degree, to the financial practicalities of doing postgraduate research in the UK and US today. Mostly, though, it’s a collective rant about the cognitive study of religion (for a more educated discussion on cognitive approaches to the study of religion, see our interview with Armin Geertz)..

**Regular visitors please note – we have moved our weekly feature articles to Wednesdays instead of Fridays. This will continue until further notice, and is intended to promote more discussion**

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 Bettina Schmidt’s interview on Anthropological Approaches on Monday.

You can also download this roundtable, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

The bleeping noises are Chris’s camera, and the clunks are Liam’s can of Gin. We hope you enjoy it, we certainly enjoyed recording it. We’ll be recording another at the SOCREL (Sociology of Religion) Annual Conference in just a few days time (with a more diverse range of participants!). If you’d like this to become a regular feature, please let us know.

Choice quotations:

“What do you do with a Religious Studies degree? You get a Master’s. What do you do with a Religious Studies Master’s? You get a PhD? What do you do with a Religious Studies Phd? You work in Starbucks.”

“I think of Religious Studies less as a discipline and more as the name of a department.”

“relativity… is one step up from subjectivity, which is the post-modernist quagmire of death and destruction that will consume all academic fields if it’s allowed to spread too far…”

The Discussants:

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.

Ethan Quillen

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

David 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.

Liam Sutherland

Liam is a Religious Studies Postgraduate student at Edinburgh University undertaking a Masters by Research, on the relevance of E.B Tylor for the contemporary theory of religion, defining religion and modern scholars with a ‘Neo-Tylorian’ influence or affinity. He is a native of Edinburgh where he also completed his undergraduate degree  in 2009, producing a dissertation on contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality and the politics of land rights. Though he began in Politics, and took many Politics and school of Social Science courses, he quickly fell in love with Religious Studies! Liam has also written the essay An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy for the Religious Studies Project.

Jonathan Tuckett

What is Phenomenology? for the Religious Studies Project.

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.

What is the Future of Religious Studies?

This week we decided to do something a bit different. Every time David and Chris have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: “What is the Future of Religious Studies?”

The result is this highly stimulating compilation of differing perspectives and levels of optimism on what has become one of the most hotly debated topics in the academic study of religion at the start of the second decade of the twenty-first century.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

The underlying motivation behind placing this question on the agenda of the Religious Studies Project was one of finances. In the current economic climate – particularly in the UK – and with the increasing commodification of the Higher Education sector. It is no longer acceptable for academics to sit pontificating in their ivory towers, and every discipline (but particularly Religious Studies) is finding itself increasingly in the firing line in terms of funding and resources. This issue is so pressing that the British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR) and the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) – the two professional organisations that together represent the UK’s leading scholars in the study of religion – have joined forces to present a joint panel on ‘Public benefit in the study of religion’ at the BASR annual conference, September 5-7 2012 University of Winchester, UK.

However, this is not the only issue on the table. Topics range from interdisciplinarity and institutional conflict, to innovative new methodologies, directions and foci. Some of these academics have already appeared on the Religious Studies Project, others’ interviews have yet to be released, yet each has their own unique perspective to offer, and we hope that you appreciate this compilation.

Featured in this podcast (with links to their previously released interviews):

We wanted to do something special with this podcast, because it is the tenth edition of the Religious Studies Project. We hope this has been a worthwhile exercise! Later in the week, we will be releasing a ‘unique’ response to this episode, and we hope it will prove similarly worthwhile.

If you stick with us for the next ten episodes, you’ll be treated to interviews with Bettina Schmidt (University of Wales), Markus Davidsen (Aarhus University), Bejamin Beit-Hallahmi (University of Haifa), Linda Woodhead (Lancaster University), Ariela Keysar (Trinity College, Massachusetts), Bron Taylor (University of Florida) and more…

 

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment

The South Fork Dam once stood high above the city of Johnstown Pennsylvania, erected to supply water to one of the many canal systems that made up the early American interstate trade route.  Purchased by the South Fork Hunting and Fishing club in 1881, the massive body of water behind the dam, Lake Conemaugh, was made part of an exclusive mountain resort for the wealthy from nearby Pittsburgh.  Over the next eight years frequent inspections found the South Fork Dam to have many foundational flaws, as well as a number of recurring surface cracks.  With gilded aesthetics in mind these cracks were mended by rudimentary patchwork, a temporary slathering of mud and straw.  On the rainy afternoon of May 31st, 1889 the dam melted under the pressure of the swelling lake, releasing a surging wall of water onto the city below.  By the time the water receded 2,209 people had perished in one of the worst “natural” disasters in US history.

As anecdotes go, this is a pretty good one.  The impudence of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club contributed to the idea that by solving surface issues with a little patchwork the real problem at the foundation would equally be resolved.  In the field of academia we come across this sort of logic quite regularly; more so, it seems, in the category of religious studies.

Sean Bean as Odysseus in the movie ‘Troy’

It seems fair to say that ours is a rather dangerous vocation, not dangerous in the way a dam keeper’s job might be dangerous on an afternoon of heavy rain, but dangerous in that we bravely tread the waters of humanity’s inner-most sacred beliefs and practices.  This is not a gentle sea by any means.  Tempests rise up unexpectedly, detouring our crossing with tangential distractions—much like those which plagued that long adrift Greek hero, Odysseus.  Like him, we too seem impassioned to return to something genuine and practical, longing to once again stand on familiar soil; and we are ever creative in our ways of doing so.

Recently, Professor Jay Demerath took up such a challenge, which formed the basis for his interview with Chris Cotter.  Promoting the replacement of the ambiguous term “religion” with the functional term “sacred,” Demerath’s novel approach at interpreting that which stands out against the profane or secular comes with two critical issues: definition and application.

Definition

Demerath originally proposed this turn from “religion” to “sacred” in his deliberately misquoted “Varieties of Sacred Experience,” nominally linking his amended term with the foundations of religious studies in William James’ “Varieties of Religious Experience.”  This calculated revision brings Demerath’s proposition into the context of debate between experience and belief as designated by the modern ambiguity of “religion” and his novelized sobriquet, “sacred.”  As he states, “religion is just one among many possible sources of the sacred,” (Demerath 2000) and that the ambiguity which anchors itself to the definition of religion can easily be weighed by defining it substantively, while interpreting its consequences, “the sacred,” functionally.  This is a methodological proposition which focuses not on the encompassing importance of “religion” but rather on what it is that individuals—or groups—take to be “sacred.”  By divesting religion and sacred between substantive and functionalist, assigning “religion” to the “category of activity” and seeing the “sacred” as a “statement of function” both terms seem to work in their application

This is further demonstrated in his polythetic method of deciphering that which individuals and social groups set apart as being “sacred.”  In the interview, when asked how sociologists navigate the ambiguity of what is sacred or not, he suggests a sort of polythetic taxonomy when it comes to deciphering what is sacred to the people under examination.  By developing a “kind of a checklist of behaviors that are associated with what might be a sacred commitment,” such as is found in certain categorical methodologies (Saler 1993, Smith 1996, Smart 1997), he believes we can properly decipher what “people do, what they don’t do, what they believe, what they don’t believe, what they observe and don’t observe.”  Furthermore, this alludes to a stipulation of terms, rather than a dependence on real definitions (Baird 1971).  Both techniques reveal a method which assists us in accessing the “priority” of the religious person’s “commitments, the commitments in their life, and the convictions in their life.” (Demerath 2012).

However, Demerath is also navigating very dangerous waters here, steering between narrow straights where on one side awaits the swirling temptress of a definition of religion, and on the other the horrifically multifaceted monster of misapplication.  For example, if removed from his sociological context, how does his term “sacred” differ from that of “religious?”  One of the advantages with stipulative definitions is that they must be anchored to a particular study, the borders of which Demerath’s proposition seems to push against.  Consider if we categorically formed a stipulative interpretation of the traditional term “religious” as pertaining to the consequences of the practitioner’s “religion,” would we not be able to equally balance out the ambiguity found in “religion?”  Would using a stipulated interpretation of “religious” as the function of a person acting under the substantive form of “religion” not be the same?  While Demerath responds to a similar question in the interview by legitimating his use of the “sacred” as something that does not need to transcend our world to some other-worldly deity, he is limiting himself to a “definition” of religion devoted to a transcendental relationship between man and deity.  This seems, again, a difference between “religion” and “religious” as equally as it pertains to the difference between “religion” and the “sacred.”  This is an issue of definition and application.  Where his turn from the sociology of religion to the sociology of the sacred succeeds and fails is within this issue.  By pushing against these borders his stipulation begins to sink into the periphery of real definition.  Fortunately he saves himself with the life-raft of an applicative example.

Application

Ethan

Ethan Quillen

The decision of United States vs. Seeger is about as close to a “definition” of religion the United States Supreme Court is legally allowed to make.  The disestablishment clause of the 1st Amendment—Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion—is a collection of ten words which make the United States exceptional to religiously established nations such as England and Scotland.  It also creates quite the conundrum when cases like these come to the Court’s attention.  The Seeger case did not occur ex nihilo, but was rather the result of the decisions in Everson vs. Board and Torcaso vs. Watkins, steps made by the court over twenty years of social and political change in a country seeking an umbrellic identity between the end of World War II and the turbulent second half of a decade that saw the assassination of John F. Kennedy at one end, and the resignation of Richard M. Nixon at the other.

This brief circumnavigation speaks directly to Demerath’s application of the term sacred.  When seen through the lens of American legal amendments, wherein the “belief in and devotion to goodness and virtue for their own sakes,” and a religious “faith in a purely ethical creed” amounts to a “a sincere and meaningful belief occupying in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by God,” what is construed as “sacred,” the “ultimate concern” may seem counter to even the most liberal applications of “religion.” (U.S. vs. Seeger)  By amending the qualifications of article 6(j) of the Universal Military Training and Service Act to accommodate Daniel Seeger’s philosophical views, the function of Tillich’s substantive definition, as accepted by the Court as a standard by which to measure the religiousness of the individual, “religious” and “sacred” become stipulative suggestions, pliable by what might justify a sacred belief.  Thus, in a nation devoted to a sense of individual sacralization, the nation of Sheilaism (Bellah et al.), Demerath’s reassignment of transcendental “religion” with “sacred” seems justified.

Conclusion

While the legitimation of his using “sacred” rather than “religion” seems justified in the above sample, it still seems a patchwork fix rather than a foundational repair.  It should be said, though, that this is not so much a critique of Demerath’s thesis, but of the idea in promoting a new term as the replacement of an old one.  Perhaps this is due to the definitive style it seems to imply at the suggestion of “sacred studies” rather than “religious studies.”  New terms are not always the best way to fix a foundational issue such as the ambiguity of “religion” in a global context.  Instead, we would benefit far greater by digging up and unpacking what we mean by terms when studying the practitioners who make them sacred in specific contexts.  The stipulation of an established, utilitarian term like “religious” to mean the actions of individuals seeking what they deem foundationally sacred relieves the pressures of ambiguity just as equally as “sacred,” especially because of its relationship and differentiation from “religion.”  Perhaps a good argument against Demerath’s contextual use of “sacred” might be a change from the “sociology of religion” to the “sociology of the religious.”

Definitions of religion seem the ever-widening Charybdis in the field of religious studies—in all its forms.  In our contemporary world we tend to find ourselves more absent-mindedly sailing toward the yawning mouth of that swirling vortex known as “a definition of religion.”  We need to be cautious with the application of new terms.  We seem too often prone to kneejerk patchwork, slathering layer upon layer of temporary fixes, either impudent in our knowledge of foundational issues, or victims of deep denial.  We long to resolve ambiguity by applying more ambiguity, when we should just dig up the foundation and rebuild.  These waters are dangerous, and without precaution we appear more and more drawn into the riptide of circular academia where, once swallowed up, we run the risk of drowning in a sea of uncertainty.

References and Suggested Reading

  • Robert D. Baird.  Category Formations and the History of Religions.  Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1991.
  • Robert N. Bellah.  Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditionalist World.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
  • Robert N. Bellah, et al.  Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
  • James L. Cox.  “Afterword: Separating Religion from the ‘Sacred:’ Methodological Agnosticism and the Future of Religious Studies” in Steven J. Sutcliffe.  Religion: Empirical Studies.  Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
  • Jay Demerath.  “The Varieties of Sacred Experience: Finding the Sacred in a Secular Grove” in the Journal for theScientific Study of Religion, Vol. 39, No. 1, 2000.
  • ———.   “Defining Religion and Modifying Religious “Bodies:” Secularizing the Sacred and Sacralizing the Secular” in Phil Zuckerman, ed.  Atheism and Secularity: Volume 1: Issues, Concepts, and Definitions. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2010.
  • ———. Religious Studies Project Interview with Jay Demerath on Substantive Religion and the Functionalist Sacred (12 March 2012).
  • David McCullough. The Johnstown Flood: The Incredible Story Behind One of the Most Devastating “Natural” Disasters America has Ever Known. NewYork: Touchstone, 1987.
  • Ethan Gjerset Quillen, 2011. Rejecting the Definitive: A Contextual Examination of Three Historical Stages of Atheism and the Legality of an American Freedom from Religion.  MA Thesis, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
  • Bensor Saler.  Conceptualizing Religion: Immanent Anthropologists, Transcendent Natives, and Unbounded Categories.  New York: E.J. Brill, 1993.
  • Ninian Smart.  Dimensions of the Sacred: Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs.  New York: Fontana Press, 1997.
  • Jonathan Z. Smith  “A Matter of Class: Taxonomies of Religion” in The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 89, No. 4, 1996.
  • Terence Thomas.  “‘The Sacred’ as a Viable Concept in the Contemporary Study of Religions” in Steven J. Sutcliffe.  Religion: Empirical Studies.  Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.
  • Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947)
  • Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488 (1961)
  • United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163 (1965)
  • Welsh v. United States, 398 U.S. 333 (1970)

Substantive Religion and the Functionalist Sacred

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.

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.

The Changing Nature of Religion

In her keynote address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Milwaukee last October, Grace Davie eruditely portrayed the changing perceptions of ‘religion’ over the last fifty years. In the 1960s, most sociologists consciously or unconsciously bought into idea of the ‘death of god’ – religion became effectively invisible to academia. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, a number of events – most notably the ‘Satanic Verses’ controversy – dramatically increased the ‘visibility’ of religion: it became a political problem. Now, in the 21st century, religion is increasingly being construed by politicians, educators, the media etc, as a useful resource to be exploited. These public perceptions are but one facet of the way in which ‘religion’ can be understood as ‘changing’.

In this interview with Chris, Professor Davie discusses the place of religion in modern Europe, paying particular attention to the place of the United Kingdom within the European context. In an effort to combat the caricatures that typify media accounts of religion in the contemporary world, Davie discusses the changing nature of religion, in academia and in the public square, and considers the impact of the arrival of new cultures into Europe, whilst reflecting on secular reactions to these.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. Three freely accessible articles by Prof. Davie which should be of interest to our listeners are “Thinking Sociologically about Religion: A Step Change in the Debate?“, published by The ARDA in 2011,  “Is Europe an Exceptional Case?” from The Hedgehog Review (2006), and “Working Comparatively” from the University of Kent’s Research Methods for the Study of Religion website.

This interview was recorded in October 2011 in Milwaukee, WI at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Meeting at the crossroads of public and private: sexuality and religion

Meeting at the crossroads of public and private: sexuality and religion

By Jillian Scott.

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 24 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Sarah Jane-Page on Youth, Sexuality and Religion (27 February 2012).

In a recent podcast on Youth, Sexuality and Religion, Dr Sarah-Jane Page discusses  research that she conducted along with several colleagues, that concerned young people, sexuality and religion. This is an immediately controversial subject and one that generates many questions. As this research focused on “lived religion”, that is how people experience religion in their everyday lives, the intertwining of these two topics is very interesting. She refers to the two as “uncomfortable bedfellows” within the daily experience of many religious young people. As a result, the study focuses on how young people  consolidate daily the vying values and morals presented to them through society, media and their faith. Although her presentation of the research is incredibly complex and thorough, I believe that there are some questions that she leaves unanswered in this interview.

Trying to get at the heart of how these people, aged 18 to 25, lived their faith and sexuality the questionnaires sought answers concerning idealistic aspects of the two subjects. These included gender roles, views about homosexuality, abortion, et cetera. The lived experiences of the participants became apparent through the use of video blogs because these turned into a diary for most of them. Here they detailed what books they were reading, the films they saw and so on. I cannot find fault in any of these research methods. However, Page’s presentation of her research questions and what she ultimately wants to discover about the relationship between sexuality and religion are left a little vague throughout the course of the interview.

In my personal studies concerning violence and religion, I have found that the contention between the public and private sectors of life create a tumultuous force behind many of the choices made by religious people. William Cavanaugh demonstrates that such competition jeopardizes the pure nature of the secular state and that nothing can be free of religion as it manifests within the public realm (2005). On a smaller level, personal religion crosses the dichotomy between public and private within the actions that people do or don’t do, such as not drinking or dancing in the moonlight. These are manifestations of religion within the public realm that also generate implications in the perception of others about their faith. Personal sexuality also suffers this same burden. Ann Pellegrini discusses the reality that when you talk about what you did on the weekend you are giving people a sense of your own sexuality (2004). Both of these elements of the human experience pivot on the fact that both religiosity and sexuality should be very private matters. Yet, they tend to be expressed within the public realm.

Therefore, I believe that the “uncomfortable bedfellows” nature of sexuality and religion comes from their frequent meeting at the intersection of public and private realms. Page understands that young people often face challenges to their values and ideas about what is private and public; particularly with sexuality and religion. She believes that the scholarly divide of private and public needs to be unpacked and reexamined. Yet this contention does not appear to be the motivation behind her research. Especially since she is working with young people I would have appreciated her mentioning what they felt about public and private particularly in the age of Facebook, Twitter and text messages. How do they express their faith and sexuality there? What platforms are private and which are public? This is an area that I think is vital to this study that has been omitted within her responses to Christopher Cotter’s questions.

Quite interestingly, this research does break some of the stereotypes about young people and religious faith and sex. Page and her colleagues found that many of the participants did not object to the controlling aspects of faith concerning sex. Many of them thought that they serve as an “anchor or security point”. However, others did voice their struggle in their attempt to match their religious ideals to their day to day life. Page takes pains to point out that those who are rule bound only represent a few. Others are still teasing out their faith in order to create their own trajectory. Those who are struggling represent a huge battle between sexuality and religion that Page does not address in the podcast.  Does this occur because of the public versus private conflict? Are these people making their own rules because of the religious dimension? Or the sexual? Does it happen because they do not have a strong role model within the church? Or does it occur because of the age group of the participants and how in flux their lives already are as 18 to 25 year-olds?

The age group of the people involved make this study all the more interesting because it makes it more complex. At this stage in their lives, it may not be possible for them be truly conscious of their negotiation of their faith and sexuality. Many are shifting in times and spaces that challenge what was the established norm. In their attempts to deal with this they must negotiate their own values and come to terms with their own identity. Perhaps Page does not address this because the young people could not point out the reasoning themselves. I agree with Page that the next phase of the study would be to ask the same questions of people aged 30 to 50. However, Page misses another crucial dimension of the study and further studies by completely eliminating the non-religious aspect. Particularly within the UK, many young people do not self-identify as religious. It would increase the complexity of the research and it would allow us to see what values young people have regardless of faith. It would also be valuable to learn if the views of the religious people clashed with their non-religious friends.

Ultimately, Page’s research is very interesting and pertinent to the field of religious studies. As this field continues to grow, my questions will be answered and new topics of debate will arise. At this time I would like to commend Page and her colleagues for striding out into the unknown and setting some foundations for the study of sexuality and religion.

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

About the Author

Jillian Scott recently finished her Master’s degree in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her dissertation was entitled “Ritualized Terrorism: Symbolic Religious Violence and the Secular State in a Globalized World”. Originally from San Francisco, California, Jillian lives in Edinburgh and continues to study the relationships between religion, violence and international relations.

 

 

 

References

Cavanaugh, W.T., 2005. The Liturgies of Church and State. Liturgy, 20(1), pp.25–30.

Jakobsen, J.R. & Pellegrini, A., 2004. Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance, Beacon Press.

Youth, Sexuality and Religion

The Religion, Youth and Sexuality: A Multi-faith Exploration project, based at the University of Nottingham, looked at 18 to 25 year-olds from a variety of faith backgrounds in order to understand attitudes and practices around sexuality and how this was negotiated in relation to religious traditions. Dr Sarah-Jane Page, one of the research fellows, talks to Chris about the project’s findings, which were sometimes surprising. Religion is found to be a significant influence, but one influence among a number of others. 

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Dr Page completed her doctorate in 2009, in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham, investigating motherhood and priesthood as well as the non-ordained spouses of women priests in the Church of England. More recently, she was Research Consultant for the European Commission funded project, Citizens in Diversity: A Four-nation Study of Homophobia and Human Rights (www.citidive.eu). The British case study, with which she was involved, focused on ascertaining types of homonegativity encountered in the UK context, in order to understand the complexities and nuances relating to contemporary attitudes to homosexuality. She is now based at Aston University.

A .pdf of the full findings of the Religion Youth and Sexuality project can be downloaded here, and a podcast about the research is also available. Dr Page has also co-authored a book (with A. K. T. Yip) based on the research which will be published by Ashgate during 2012, entitled Religious and Sexual Journeys: A Multi-faith Exploration of Young Believers.

Insider and Outsider: An Anthropological Perspective

 

If an anthropologist holds the same religious beliefs as ‘the natives’ – or even, some might say, any at all – the implicit concern of the discipline is that he or she might be surrendering too much anthropological authority. But as Ewing argues, belief remains an ’embarrassing possibility’ that stems from ‘a refusal to acknowledge that the subjects of one’s research might actually know something about the human condition that is personally valid for the anthropologist’ (1994:571; see also Harding 1987). The problem of belief, then, is the problem of remaining at the proper remove from ‘natives’ inner lives’ (Geertz 1976:236). (Engelke, 2002: 3)

 

Map of Relations between Fields of Knowledge, Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p. 931

At the heart of ethnographers’ method of participant observation, is the paradox of being at once participant and observer; attempting to be both objective and subjective. I want in this short report to flag up some issues of interest and some texts from anthropology which speak both to the insider/outsider problem and to the broader methodological issue in anthropology of subjective and objective data collection. My response to this interview is informed by my own fieldwork with a non-religious organised group and the epistemological issues raised in the process.

This paper is intended to be broad-based; to be read beside, not against the interview. I want to think about the methodological issues which it brought to mind and suggest that – at least within anthropology – being either or both insider and outsider is an inevitable part of the fieldwork setup. The methodological issues raised relate to the balance of access to tacit knowledge vs. the ability to remain objective in the ultimate analysis which seems to present in the insider/outsider problem. It is possible to suggest that while gaining greater access as an insider you forfeit your ability for objective empirical observance.

Acceptance and Accessibility

Two issues which particularly emerge from Chryssides’ interview are those of acceptance and accessibility – and the ability to understand the subject which derives from this. Access, for example, may come more freely if you are not “other” or if you even hold a religious faith yourself, but this is more complicated. To talk only of religion as an isolated phenomena that we can be inside and outside of suggests that we are all doing (or in the case of the atheist ‘not doing’) religion all the time and may even fail to recognise the multiple identities we hold.  Gender or class, for example, may intersect or even interfere with other aspects of insider/outsider status. Being the correct gender may play a more important role in access than religious persuasion in the case of research within a gender segregated religious institution. In attending to the issue of the outsider and insider in the more broadly ethnographic sense, we may gain a reflexive position, attending to our whole positionality, not only that of our religious (or non-religious) position to another.

The problem can also be addressed in terms of a broader epistemological question of how we can know and, especially, how we can attend to the knowledge of another. I would suggest that looking at this broader set of questions may go some way to addressing the issue of the insider and outsider. Chryssides indeed does discuss this in an early and interesting point relating to truth claims: that the key question is not whether people have access to, and practice the truth, but to demonstrate what people understand to be true and how this manifests. .

There are a number of important anthropological works on the possibilities of knowledge and the limits of accessing tacit knowledge; a favourite of mine is Maurice Bloch’s How We Think They Think. There are a significant number of studies of religions, religion-like and supernatural phenomena (notably almost all from the “outsider” perspective). Yet, a survey essay by Dr Matthew Engelke on the problem of belief in anthropological fieldwork, suggests that prominent anthropologists Victor Turner and Edward Evans-Pritchard ultimately argued that they were not total outsiders, but maintained the ability to access participants due to their own Catholic beliefs. In this work, Engelke addresses Evans-Pritchard’s work with the Azande, in which Evans-Pritchard treats beliefs analytically as social facts: ‘beliefs are for [the social anthropologist] sociological facts, not theological facts, and his sole concern is with their relation to each other and to other social facts. His problems are scientific, not metaphysical or ontological’ (Evans-Pritchard 1965:1). So we return to Chryssides’ point above, regarding the nature of the “truth” you seek to find. Evans-Pritchard also speaks to assumptions regarding the internal or external nature of religious phenomena.

Both Engelke and Evans-Pritchard argue that fieldwork is essential. The method allows for access to practice and “this is how anthropologists can best understand religion as a social fact”. But what is also demonstrated by Engelke, is Evans-Pritchard’s belief that it is better to have some form of religion or religious “inner life” in order to access or understand the inner lives of “others” regardless of the context of that religious “inner life”, than to be an atheist. The argument is that the scientific study is the relation of religious practice to the social world and these are better understood if the relations are shared (even partially) between participants. Engelke then turns to the work of Victor Turner, whose view is perhaps more fatalistic: the study of religion is doomed to fail since ‘religion is not determined by anything other than itself’ (Turner in Engleke, 2002: 8). Regardless of the position of the researcher, is it simply the case that religion cannot be researched at all? In summary of this work, Engelke draws on an important critique that can be drawn more broadly across the insider/outsider issue – that of ‘belief.’ If inner life and insider status is framed in the context of ‘belief’ as the contention around which the possibility of access presides, then we run the risk of always encountering religions from a Christian/Euro-centric perspective.

Is it better to be religious or have no religion at all – the case of non-religion

At the end of this interview, Christopher Cotter asks: instead of considering which religion makes you an insider and outsider (as implied throughout the interview, in which Chryssides frequently refers to his Christian background), what of those researchers who have no religion at all? Chryssides does not seem to follow the logic within this question and in many ways this may be an answer in itself: it perhaps demonstrates an assumption that having a religion would be a necessity. But what of the atheist researcher, in the religious or the non-religious setting?

I would suggest that people wanting to learn more about the position of the non-believer in the religious setting (in this case Pentecostal) look to the work of Ruy Llera Blanes.  In a short discussion of his method, entitled “The Atheist Anthropologist”, Blanes explores his reticence to hide his atheism and the rhetorical shifting which evolved between himself and participants in order to find mutual respect and fend off questions of the possibility of his own conversion. When speaking to one participant outside a church, all seems to go well until the question of his own faith, or lack thereof, arises: he is literally shunned by the participant who turns his back. Following this, Blanes approaches the leader of the church who is more able to accept the outsider to the church. We have here two members of a church, with different statuses and perhaps levels of interest in this research, which is another important point to consider and indeed one made by Chryssides. But Blane’s work also speaks to the multiple intersections discussed above, regarding the general issue of being insider and outsider in the research setting. He is aware of the position of his participants as part of the Gypsy community and the different levels of access and sensitivity that this brings with it, demonstrating that a range of considerations may influence the involvement of a researcher.

My own experience in the field – inside an organisation which describes itself as non-religious – provides different, sometimes contradictory answers to this question. I am myself non-religious, but with a religious family, my Father being a Vicar. This is common knowledge among my research participants, and people’s attitudes towards this fact have ranged from active interest to indifference and even to expressions of pity and mock sympathy. The point here is that the division of insider/outsider is often not particularly clear cut and is certainly not fixed amongst individuals within one group or setting. People in the given group may share, for the convenience of research sampling, one aspect of interest to that researcher, but their biographical and temperamental differences make acceptance a complex issue. In my own research setting, I represent the piggy in the middle, bridging the religious and nonreligious worlds, as I have intimately experienced both in my own life. I have been asked by my own research participants, with genuine interest and sometimes bafflement, about the role of the vicar and how it must be to be part of a religious family, especially when I don’t believe, the usual question being “how do your parents feel about you doing this research?”.

What my own position may speak to is the categorisation of “religion”; when talked of in isolation, “religion” remains something fixed and visible. But in fact it intersects heavily across cultural domains, and having been in this ‘piggy in the middle’ situation, it is interesting to note the Christian heritage which is shared both by my family, myself and my non-religious participants: we are all insiders to a point.   So when we discuss this issue, I would think it important to address what we feel inside or outside of; is this cultural or religious division? Or is it one relating to our world view, morals and values?

By way of a summary, or to tack on some further thoughts for consideration – I should stress on the part of the insider/outsider issue in the anthropological project – the final transformation of data. As discussed by Blanes, ambiguities arise over the insider and the outsider, over the faith or world view of the researcher and the researched within the project. But whatever steps are taken to breach the knowledge gap, Blanes also makes the point that it often remerges in the secular project of analysis and critique. We need then to then assess a third and final role, as the outsider, the anthropology academic, who has almost always written in the secular, empirical tradition.  We also need to pay further attention to the strong critiques of the religious and non-religious categories (McCutcheon, 1997; Fitzgerald, 2000; Masuzawa, 2005), on the basis of their historical construction.  At present I am working within a climate-change in anthropology, which is attempting to critique and address its own historical relationship to the secularisation thesis put forward by the ‘founding fathers’ of the social sciences: Weber, Marx and Durkheim. I am excited and interested to see what unfolds and where this reflexivity takes us in regard to the consideration of religions and the general issue of access to ‘inner life’. As we consider the possibilities offered by these works and their continued critique, will it be possible to draw such a simple line implied by the notion of insider and outsider?

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

References

Blanes, Ruy Llera (2006), “The Atheist Anthropologist. Believers and Non-Believers in Anthropological Fieldwork”, Social Anthropology 14 (2), pp. 223-234.

Bloch, Maurice (1998) How We Think They Think: Anthropological Approaches to Cognition, Memory, and Literacy Westview Press

Engelke, Matthew (2002) “The problem of belief: Evans-Pritchard and Victor Turner on “the inner life.”. Anthropology today, 18 (6). pp. 3-8. I

Geertz, Clifford (1976). ‘From  the Native’s Point of View’: On the Nature of Anthropological  Understanding.  In K.H.  Basso & H.A. Selby (eds)  Meaning  in anthropology,  pp.231-237. Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico  Press

Masazawa, Tomoko (2005) The Invention of World Religions, or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism University of Chicago Press

McCutcheon , Russell T. (1997) Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia, Oxford University Press

Video: The Religious Studies Project – What We’re All About…

Today marks a special occasion in the life of The Religious Studies Project – we’re giving our first ‘talk’. As part of Innovative Learning Week at the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, we’re presenting a session where students and staff can come and learn a bit more about the project and how it was put together, and offer some feedback on what they would like to see in the future.

Unfortunately, Chris will be arriving in London as the event itself starts, so we thought that a video posted on the website would be a way for him to participate from afar. The video is posted below, and isn’t focused specifically towards this one event, but provides a platform for David and Chris to discuss why they set up The Religious Studies Project, what they aim to do, what they DON’T aim to do, and how you can help out.

Let us know what you think…

The Insider/Outsider Problem

 

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

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

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


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


The Insider/Outsider Problem

Podcast with George Chryssides (20th February 2012)

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Catrin Sawford

Audio and transcript available at: Chryssides Insider_Outsider Problem

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

George Chryssides (GC): Thanks, hi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(CC): Yes

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

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

(GC): Okay.

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

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

(CC): Mmm.

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

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

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

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

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

(CC): Mmm.

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

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

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

(CC): And thanks for talking to us!


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

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