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What is ‘Buddhism in the West’?

There appears to be much debate regarding what defines Buddhism in the West. Particularly, when I attend Social Science of Religion conferences, Buddhism is presented as a new or exotic social cultural influential phenomenon. I often see “Buddhism in the West” lumped in with new religious movements (NRMs) or more interestingly as sources of therapeutic influence for new styles of mental health treatment such as those seen in the field of Psychology. The compulsion to lump Buddhism with new religious movements may derive from a variety of influences. For example, the mass exodus of Tibetan Buddhists following the Chinese occupation of 1949 may give scholars the impression of newness due to the large migratory movement of Tibetans to the west. This coupled with the popularity of the Dalai Lama and religious converts such as Richard Gere give credence to Buddhism as a “Western” new religious movement (Cantwell & Kawanami, 2002). Another theory could be the fascination of Buddhism for the late 19th century Transcendentalists. The Transcendentalists saw value in Buddhist philosophy for understanding a suffering western society (McMahan, 2008). Such thinkers and their use of Buddhist philosophy could have led to more individual forms of belief such as “spirituality” and “universalism.” To be considered new, some scholars may see the past 100 years as “recent” where the turn of the century serves as a new chapter in religious pluralism in the West. Better still could be the free love movement of the 1960s or the fascination with alternative states of consciousness. Many people were seeking something beyond the old interpretations of transcendence (Kent, 2001). All of these are examples of competing paradigms in terms of juxtaposing a belief system called “Buddhism” within the geographic and cultural center of the “West”.

The boundaries of what defines the West are also circumspect. Some perceive the West to be North America while other scholars speak to first world cultures (including North America but also Western Europe, and Australia). Such boundaries of what defines the West are unclear but there is proximate agreement related to the cultural center of what we term the “West” (McMahan, 2008). Here, there is proximate agreement as a Euro-American center of learning. In other words, we are speaking of centers of academic discourse and authority known as the university system. One could argue that such exchanges are colonial in nature (indicating a British or American dominance of cultural norms and language) and yet these implicit assumptions reinforce the very system, which assert categorical authority. Further, using terms such as “the West” and its interaction with other traditions are synonymous with speaking from an in-group perspective of privilege.

Given these challenges related to defining Buddhism in the West, Dr. Cox’s approach is refreshing. Rather than attempting to describe Buddhism’s introduction into the West as a socio-historical event, he approaches the exchange of culture from the perspective of a historically reconstructed narrative through the story of Laurence Carroll, an Irish immigrant to Burma by way of the United States. Laurence Carroll led an adventurous life from an immigrant, to a homeless person in the US, to a seaman, and eventually taking vows as a Buddhist monk. Mr. Carroll’s experience resulted in his ordination by becoming Bhikkhu U Dhammaloka. Dr. Cox provides an interesting look by way of Dhammaloka’s narrative, at the layers of national, social, ethnic, and religious identity. For Cox, identities are tied together as one but also relational in terms of the concept of the “other.” Dr. Cox shows that Carroll’s transitions between geographies were continually met with adversity in terms of his identity. For example, the conflict of his Irish identity in Ireland in relation to British colonial influence, then his Irish identity in relation to blacks/African Americans in New York, and eventually his Irish identity in relation to the dominant Asian culture of Burma. His concept of self becomes even more complex when he converts to Buddhism, as he is no longer centered within his Irish or Caucasian identity. Such boundaries of self were not only confusing but also empowering as Dhammaloka could challenge others who attempted to proselytize the local populations in Burma.

According to Cox, Dhammaloka had social influence on the local population to defend Buddhism from what he may have seen as colonial missionary dominance reminiscent his own experience with the British in Ireland. Dr Cox’s podcast leaves me with additional derivative themes of interest. To speak in terms of cultural or social influence is to implicitly infer a social shift in the individual definition of self. As noted by Cox, deconversion was no small transition in self-identification. With one’s exit from their own enculturated tradition to an exotic, lesser-known faith came perceptions of racial as well as moral defection. Scholarly inquiry into Buddhism for the time was surely appropriate but only in as much as these faith traditions were contrasted with Christianity. The Dhammaloka case study serves as an excellent example of where the religious and cultural landscape is moderated within the domain of academic discourse. Only at this time were such intellectual pursuits blatantly colonial in agenda. Furthermore, such lively exchanges with missionaries highlight the overt assumptions of intellectual and cultural dominance but also the subversive influence on Buddhism to compete in a soon to be global spiritual marketplace. I would challenge Dr. Cox to think of Dhammaloka not in terms of his authenticity of being one of the earliest converts to Buddhism, but rather to see him as a mediating influence in what Buddhism would come to be for the West. Dare I say that Dhammaloka’s own cultural baggage and his Western approach to Buddhism might well have helped repackage Buddhist philosophy, making such transitions more salient.

In conclusion, I would like to challenge the overall paradigm of “Buddhism in the West.” The lack of synergy among scholarly inquiry coupled with the assumption of the specialness of Buddhism within the cultural or geographic context of the West lends further need for the application of critical theory. Such theory should be able to describe the specialness of the former and latter without relying on the old colonial tools of academia. While there is value in theories of sociology and religious studies, my concern is that such assumptions assume Buddhism is/was something different or special, dare I say sui generis (McCutcheon, 1997). The West’s fascination with the East goes well beyond a simple proselytizing motive or – it could be argued – colonial influence. Buddhism’s symbols, rituals, and practices seem mystical almost otherworldly from the flowing robes of monks, to the symbolism of the simplistic humble request of a monk with a begging bowl, to the teachings of the dasa pāramiyo or the ten perfections in defining one’s potential for Buddha nature. Yet given the plethora of possibilities in exploring the grand narrative of Western (European and American) Buddhism, such inquiries make some false assumptions about how Buddhism in the West is defined.

References

Cantwell, C. & Kawanami, H. (2002) Buddhism in Elisabeth Arweck’s New religious movements. Religions in the modern world: traditions and transformations, pp. 47-82.

Goldberg, E. (2006). Buddhism in the west In S. C. Berkwitz Berkwitz, S. C. (Ed.). Buddhism in world cultures: comparative perspectives. Abc-clio.

Kent, S. A. (2001). From slogans to mantras: Social protest and religious conversion in the late Vietnam war era. Syracuse University Press.

McCutcheon, R. T. (1997). Manufacturing religion: The discourse on sui generis religion and the politics of nostalgia. Oxford University Press.

McMahan, D. L. (2008). The making of Buddhist modernism. Oxford University Press.

D. Mitra Barua on Immigrant Buddhism in the West

D. Mitra BaruaDr. D. Mitra Barua is an instructor of Religious Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, and has a Masters in Buddhist Philosophy undertaken in Sri Lanka. His doctorate concerned several generations of Sri Lankan immigrants in Toronto, and how their Buddhist practices are affected by being transplanted to Canada.

In this in-depth interview with Chris Silver, Barua discusses the links between ethnic and religious identity, and how the relationship has changed over time. They discuss how traditional Buddhist teachings are reinterpreted in order to harmonise their Buddhism with the multicultural society in which they are embedded, although this has not been uncontroversial. Buddhism, of course, has historically been geographically and theologically diverse, and this has continued in a North American context. 

They also discuss how these affect our models of religion and culture. Are the appropriations of Buddhist traditions like meditation in therapeutic contexts to be considered ‘religious’? Dr Barua also describes some of the practical issues with carrying out fieldwork within a monastic community.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc. Remember… Christmas is on the way!

This interview marks the beginning of a short series of podcasts from the RSP on Religion, Migration and Diaspora, which began last week with Andrew Dawson discussing Sante Daime, and concludes next week with Monika Salzbrunn speaking to Hanna Lehtinen about Religion, Migration and Diaspora.

Paul Williamson on Serpent Handling

Paul Williamson

Paul Williamson

The use of serpents – more commonly known as ‘venomous snakes’ – within religious practices is by no means a new phenomenon within religious and cultural contexts. Certainly there are plenty of examples of where serpents have been power symbols both in totem and ritualistic traditions.  Moreover, many of the world’s population identify with serpent play as a potentially dangerous exercise. Within this risk potential, the serpent carries a variety of different auspicious meanings related to culture and/or the impermanence of life. The Southeast United States is no exception. The Appalachian Mountain region of the Southeast was geographically isolated in many parts from the rest of the United States until recently. This isolation coupled with the challenges of a rural socio-economic lifestyle created uncertainty within the minds of many inhabitants. Religious beliefs and practices provided meaning and certainty within an uncertain world. Serpent Handling traditions of Appalachia were no exception.

Serpent handling as a religious practice appeared within the first decade of the twentieth century. The practice emerged in east Tennessee and spread to other parts of the Southern Appalachian Mountain region of the United States. While many different groups, both Holiness and Pentecostal, enact the practice, the serpent handling groups themselves have no parent organization that binds them together. What binds the groups together is a sharing in diversity of belief with similar religious practices (Burton, 1993 pg. 20-21). Serpent handling sects are historically and philosophically linked to three forms of American Protestantism: Holiness, fundamentalism, and Pentecostalism, although typically many groups would identify their membership as Holiness (Hood, found in Brown & Mcdonald, 2000). The fundamentalists influence among serpent handlers is in their acceptance of a plain reading of the Bible when it is appropriate (Hood, Hill, & Williamson, 2005).

As handling serpents began spreading throughout the Southern Appalachians, the notoriety of serpent bite deaths increased (Hood & Williamson, 2008). Much of the public fascination with these traditions relates primarily to the dangerous practice of handling of serpents or drinking of poison as part of the religious ritual. Many outsider observers assume that serpent handling traditions are of one religion or of a single theology. Such an assumption cannot be further from the truth. Many of the churches diverge on issues of textual interpretation of the Bible and theology. Their only unifying practice is dictated within Mark 16. For those within these traditions, handling of serpents or drinking of poison is an issue of religious freedom. Most states have enacted laws outlawing the practice of serpent handling. Regardless of the legal discrimination or the physical risk to themselves, the serpent handling sects assume the risk to follow God’s commandment (Hood, 1998).

In this week’s podcast, Chris Silver and Dr Paul Williamson explore Williamson’s research, and by proxy his colleague Ralph W. Hood Jr. (see our podcast from 2 weeks ago) related to documentation of the Serpent Handling Sects of Appalachia. By some accounts these traditions are in decline due to globalization. Williamson has attempted to study these traditions qualitatively and quantitatively to better understand the profound sense of religious commitment and deeper meaning of the theology and practices of the Serpent Handling sects.

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

WP WilliamsonW. Paul Williamson is professor of psychology at Henderson State University (USA), although he has not always been in academic research. He was previously a full-time clergy in a Pentecostal denomination for 17 years, but then became more interested in religion from a psychological perspective. This led to his studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he earned a Ph.D. in experimental psychology with training in both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies. Applying these approaches to the psychology of religion, he has published work in the areas of mysticism, religious fundamentalism, Christian serpent handling, and, most recently, spiritual transformation within the context of substance abuse recovery. He has co-authored The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism (2005, Guilford Press), with Ralph W. Hood, Jr., and Peter C. Hill; and Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent Handling Tradition (2008; University of California Press), with Ralph W. Hood, Jr. He is a recipient of the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award and the Distinguished Service Award, both from the American Psychological Association, Division 36: Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

According to Williamson, “What so often is missing in research is a balanced approach in the psychological study of religious phenomena. It typically is either from the objective standpoint or from the subjective point of view. What is needed for a more complete understanding of a particular phenomenon is the blending together of both perspectives in the use of quantitative and qualitative methodologies.”

References:

  • Brown, Fred & Mcdonald, Jeanne (2000). The serpent handlers: three families and their faith. Blair publishing: Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
  • Burton, Thomas. (1993). Serpent handling believers. University of Tennessee Press: Knoxville, Tennessee.
  • Hood, R. W., Jr., (1998).  “When the spirit maims and kills: social psychological considerations of the history of serpent handling sects and the narrative of handlers. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 8, 71-96.
  • Hood, R. W., Jr., Hill, P.C., & Williamson, W. P. (2005). The psychology of religious fundamentalism.  New York: Guilford.
  • Hood, R. W., Jr. & Williamson, W. P. (2008).  The power and meaning of the Christian serpent- handling tradition.  Berkeley, CA:  University of California Press.

Ralph Hood on Mysticism

HoodRalph2012_10One of the primary interests of scholars and researchers from diverse academic disciplines has been in exploration of mysticism. Mysticism has been observed within a variety of traditions and philosophies from Neo-Platonism to Hinduism and Christianity. Mysticism as a field of study is pregnant with possibilities for academic inquiry, both cross-disciplinary and discipline specific. The field of psychology is one of those disciplines which have sought to explore the richness of individual claims of mystical experience. This has been done with theoretical depth and methodological sophistication and is centralized within a variety of tools of empirical inquiry.

The study of mysticism necessitates addressing issues of ontology and epistemology, relating to the methodological processes for studying direct personal experiences. Within the psychological perspective, some of these concerns are mediated through what both Porpora (2006) and Hood, Hill and Spika (2009) describe as methodological agnosticism. While Silver (2011) argues that there is no such thing as true objectivity in research, certainly academics and researchers can strive for a post-positivist paradigm of objectivity where they attempt to remove bias and subjectivity from their research or hermeneutic inquiry.

While there is plenty of hermeneutic and observational potential in the study of Mysticism, more needs to be done in exploration of the experiential and psychological correlates related to personal experiences. Dr. Ralph W. Hood Jr. has extensive experience in the field of psychology of religion and particularly in the study of mysticism and mystical experience. As an early pioneer in the renaissance of the field of psychology of religion, Hood’s work is extensive and prolific exploring a variety of research topics in the social sciences of religion. Moreover, much of his collaborative work extends beyond the field of psychology to include sociology, religious studies, medicine, and a variety of other disciplines in the social scientific study of religion. In this week’s podcast, Chris SIlver is joined by Ralph Hood to discuss in detail his work on mysticism and the benefits and disadvantages of this academic exercise.

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

HoodRalph2012_10

Ralph W. Hood Jr. is professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is a former editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and former co-editor of the Archive for the Psychology of Religion and The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.  He is a past president of division 36 (psychology of religion) of the American Psychological Association and a recipient of its William James, Mentor, and Distinguished Service awards. He has published over 200 articles in the psychology of religion and has authored, co-authored, or edited numerous book chapters and eleven books, all dealing with the psychology of religion.

References

  • Hood, R.W., P.C. Hill, and B. Spilka. (2009). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach. 4th ed. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Porpora, D. V. (2006). Methodological atheism, methodological agnosticism and religious experience. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 36, 57–75.
  • Silver, C. F. (2011). Psychology and Religion: Explorations in paradigm, theory, and method. In Weathington, B. L., Cunningham,  C. J. L., O’Leary, B. J., & Biderman, M. D. (Eds.), Applied Psychology in Everyday Life (pp. 71-107). Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Reflections on Teaching Religious Studies Online

mec2As we find new and innovative ways to teach students, we as instructors are charged (sometimes without formal or proper orientation) to adopt new methods of instruction.

Reflections on Teaching Religious Studies Online

By Christopher F. Silver, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 8 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Doe Daughtrey on Teaching Religious Studies Online (6 May 2013)

This podcast explores the nature of learning within online learning and the benefits and disadvantages of this type of curricular design. The interview was conducted with Doe N Daughtrey an instructor at Arizona State University and at Mesa Community College. While her work falls within a wide range of topics from Mormonism to new forms of spirituality, she speaks to the student and instructor experience of teaching online courses, particularly within the field of Religious Studies. Certainly the online medium in Higher Education has grown exponentially over the past 10 years.  As an instructional tool, it creates some new challenges for the instructor never before encountered within academia. An obvious example noted by Daughtrey is in relation to student interactions within discussion boards. In more traditional classrooms, students are cognizant of their behavior and their exchanges with other students. However, within the virtual world, students appear more bold and vocal in their opinions. Some students struggle not only with writing but proper projection within writing. When writing and responding to fellow students in an online forum, students may not be mindful of others perception. It is difficult for the instructor to instill in students a cultural sensitivity of others who are different from the student.  Congruently, the instructor also has to deal with the permanency of such exchanges as textual exchanges. In a traditional classroom, such exchanges, if they do occur, come and go and the instructor can immediately address and correct inappropriate behavior. Another issue addressed by Daughtrey is the issue of time as related to the course. In traditional classroom exchanges, students and the instructor are in a space together for a specific time frame (McKeachie, 1999). In the online world, the exchanges can be potentially 24 hours depending on the availability of each student and instructor. As far as inappropriate exchanges are concerned, students can have heated or controversial disagreements during times when the instructor is not online to monitor the exchange. Much can happen during that period of time with the potential to spiral into a much larger situation before the instructor is able to intervene.

In addressing such issues and concerns, Daughtrey implies that the textual space of the online course creates a communicative void typically filled with body language and voice inflection in traditional classrooms. As a potential solution to such situations, Daughtrey has used voice recordings in lieu of textual responses for her students. This at least provides the students with her voice inflection in which to infer intention from her feedback. She notes that this has been helpful in her online courses. Another solution Daughtrey proposes is for students to keep a private online journal of their thoughts. This helps keep sensitive discussions and thoughts out of the online forums insuring smoother online courses.  Finally one of the other telling themes of Daughtrey’s podcast is the limitation of online resources for Religious Studies courses. Daughtrey argues that there are many online resources which can assist in the construction of online courses, but that there is no content specific support for Religious Studies. Such support would help in the delivery of student education. She suggests that more should be done to address content and curricular issues in detail.

In reviewing this podcast, there are a couple of issues which arise. I think it is important to provide the reader with my own background here, as much of the conversation speaks to experience and not simply to instructional design and implementation. My own education has been a nexus of three fields of study: Psychology, Religious Studies, and Education. Much like Dr. Daughtrey, I have taught online courses in a variety of fields including Religious Studies online. Many of the concerns that she notes within the podcast are a common theme in teaching Religious Studies at a secular institution. Certainly when coupled with a largely conservative religious landscape among the student body, issues of ontology will certainly arise. Online learning provides a much more personal space in which to communicate opinions and ideas. In this regard, some students may assume that radical opinions and a lack of social mindfulness have no implications. For instructors such assumptions create issues. Certainly the formality and etiquette of the classroom may not translate into the online medium of instruction. I would propose an alternative method for addressing such issues. Many of the concerns related to behavior and content are related to the asynchronous method of online instruction. This method is called asynchronous because the content is unidirectional. For example discussion boards, YouTube videos, even this Podcast is an example of a unidirectional delivery of information. Its antithesis is called synchronous learning. It is a real time exchange of information. Examples of this might be a video conference on Adobe Connect, GoToMeeting, a live chat room in real time, or even a phone conversation.  I would suggest that online instruction should be a hybrid of synchronous and asynchronous delivery models for optimal learning. Certainly if a university does not have the resources for synchronous online instruction, there are some free open source alternative programs to assist an inspiring instructor.  This at least allows the interaction between student and teacher and presents information in a traditional format of instruction. Instructors can then project their personality into their instruction beyond a textual exchange. Moreover, students can interact in real time learning the social expectations of the instructor.  This is important when considering the challenges of teaching a controversial topic such as religion (Carlson and Blumenstyk, 2012).

While religion is a social norm for many in the United States and beyond, certainly social norms and classroom culture are a complex issue for many instructors. Not all students ascribe to a post-modern paradigm of different yet equal among the growing multicultural and multiethnic American and Western European populations. Some regard their coexistence with those who view religion or even race differently as a necessary evil of public education. Much of the confusion noted by Daughtrey in regards to online education is that the online world may be implicitly perceived as our private space of interaction, where the rules and values we ascribe to within daily interactions do not apply in the online discussion board. We as instructors are no longer simply Teachers or Professors but a combination of Information Technology Professionals and Cultural Advocates all wrapped into one role. While I cannot speak to the religious landscape of Arizona, I can speak to the Southeastern United States. I, too, teach in secular college and university. Much of the curricular agenda is dependent on accreditation and course objectives.  Still, instructors must create the perception of value for Religious Studies education and encourage students to learn more about the world in which they live. In my own courses, such discussions are heated simply because religion is equated with Christianity. The idea that other religions would be academically equal to Christianity can be offensive to some students. For many of my students, religion is a form of personal identity. It is who we are, not simply a belief or what we do. Many cannot compartmentalize it or objectify their belief. Therefore to have such discussions, academic or otherwise, requires a new paradigm of behavior and inquiry in religion’s examination by students. This type of student internalization of religious identity and perceived threat is not limited to the field of Religious Studies.  For example, a colleague of mine and psychologist of religion Michael Nielsen at Georgia Southern had a similar experience.  As Nielsen (2012) has noted, many students come to courses on religious topics either assuming the content will confirm their ontological position or to argue for their belief as the dominant truth. Nielsen’s perspective is but one of many examples where students do not understand the overall curricular purpose and goal of academic explorations of religion. They want to internalize it in some way.

This Podcast primarily focuses on instructional issues related to teaching Religious Studies online. These issues are certainly juxtaposed within the secular state-run institution of higher learning. It is likely that there are differences in the liberal arts and religiously affiliated styles of Higher Education. I would suggest that they likely differ in their curricular goals depending on the overall mission of the college or university. It is unclear how these differences translate in online learning and education. Certainly, it would have been interesting if Dr. Daughtrey would have addressed such differences within her podcast. Additionally, I am left with the question of curricular structure. What are some of the different ways Religious Studies are taught and the resources which may be available to a new instructor charged with online learning? It would be nice to see a conversation which goes beyond the politics of religious identity and online learning (although this is certainly an interesting topic overall).  With differences in Religious Studies educational theory, there may yet be another layer to the instructional onion we call religious education. With these criticisms in mind, this is not to say that the experiential perspective is not useful in education. In fact, this is the meat of an instructional design model. As we find new and innovative ways to teach students, we as instructors are charged (sometimes without formal or proper orientation) to adopt new methods of instruction. While one may argue that a good instructor should always be learning, there is likely a point of diminishing returns in which the instructor is expending energy in acquiring new instructional skillsets such as the various Online Learning Systems (OLS) while also tracking and evaluating student performance within their course. Professors may not have the time to devote to learning all the features of OLS and therefore the overall instructional product may suffer from skillset limitations. Additionally, institutions may be tempted to increase enrollment in online classes to save money, further diverting the instructor from exploring their research areas as well as gaining additional OLS skills. So certainly the economics of online learning play a role here too.

There is no doubt that OLS models of learning have benefits and disadvantages in academia. As a former Information Technology Professional and, typically, an early adopter of new technologies, I view online learning with circumspect. If it is to be incorporated, it should be a hybrid delivery model with classroom and online time for the students. If that is not possible, then the instructional design should include synchronous and asynchronous delivery of material. Evaluation of student performance is not simply about assignment quality and test accuracy, but it is about the real-time monitoring of learning, the observation of the student as they make their academic journey. Online learning loses the thrill of watching students achieve their “Aha” moments. There needs to be a technological solution found to incorporate the human aspects of the classroom in online learning.

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

mec2Christopher F. Silver is an Ed. D. Candidate in Education and Leadership at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga USA. He has a masters degree in research psychology from the UT Chattanooga and a masters degree in Religion and Culture from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Ontario Canada. He is currently conducting research on American Atheism exploring the complexities of self-identity adjectives in how atheist and agnostic participants self-describe. In addition, Mr. Silver also serves as an instructor at UT Chattanooga teaching courses in psychology and currently serves as an information technology research consultant.

Mr. Silver has collaborated in the fields of religious studies, psychology and sociology of religion. His current collaboration is as a research manager for the US team of the Bielefeld (Germany) International Study of Spirituality. His email address is Christopher-Silver@utc.edu. He is also an Assistant Editor at the Religious Studies Project, and has conducted a number of interviews, and previously written the piece A Word by Any Other Name: The Emergent Field of Non-religion and the Implications for Social Meaning for the website.

References

  • McKeachie, W. J. (1999). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Nielsen, M. (2012). Teaching Psychology of Religion at a state university. Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality Newsletter, 36(2), 2-5.
  • Carlson, S. & Blumenstyk, G. (2012). For Whom is college being reinvented? The Chronicle of Higher Education. 59(17).

Questioning the Utility of Myers-Briggs

The listener is left with a general overview of the use of the Myers Briggs as a measure of predictive and descriptive social trends among specific samples within a variety of religious groups.

Questioning the Utility of Myers-Briggs,

By Negeen Ghasedi, Henderson State University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 22 March 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Mandy Robbins on Personality Types (18 March 2013).

In her research, Mandy Robbins applies Carl Jung’s Psychological Type Theory, which was later modified as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and applies it to her research on the personality types of different religious groups. According to Robbins, examining personality type within religious groups allow researchers to better understand the interpersonal trends among different religions, denominations, and congregations.  Such research seems almost paradoxical. The difficulty with many assessments of personality is that they are designed for individual assessments not collective and social trend applications. Certainly one may question a summative exploration of personality within a congregational context. The following response explores those themes.

As a point of introduction, Robbins explains the four different pairs of personality types. Those pairs are noted as the following: introversion/extroversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, and judging/perceiving.  The first set, extroversion/introversion, determine an individual’s relationship to the outside world and whether one derives his/her energy from the outside world or from one’s own inner world, respectively. The second set, sensing/intuition, measures how an individual prefers to take in information.  Intuitive individuals are more analytical, while sensing individuals rely on a more empirical experience—the information they gain directly through their senses are more important.  The third set, thinking/feeling, concerns the process of information.  Thinking individuals rely heavily on logic and observe life from the outside; these individuals are much less affected by emotions, and they tend to make decisions based on unbiased reasoning. Feeling individuals live life based on how their decisions impact others, and they tend to base decisions on emotions and feelings.  Finally, the fourth set, judging/perceiving, determines how an individual prefers to organize his/her outside world.  Judging individuals are more organized and like closure.  Perceiving individuals are more spontaneous and seemingly disorganized because their organization techniques differ greatly from their perceiving counterparts.

The first of three pairs were created by Jung.  Basing their assessment on Jung’s Personality Type theory, Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother, Katherine Cook Briggs developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and in their test, they developed the last pair of preferences (Pittenger, 1994, p. 467).  After taking the test, each person is assigned four letters, and each letter indicates one out of each of the mentioned pairs.  Robbins notes that type is related to preference; all humans have preferences, and these preferences are natural.  If one were to constantly act in opposition to his/her preference, it would eventually prove to be exhausting. Psychological Type Theory uses preferences to determine personality types.

However, Robbins emphasizes that an individual is not restricted to specifically one duality of each pair.  The theory allows individuals to recognize their preferences; it is not used as a tool to niche individuals into a certain enumerable personality type.  Robbins discusses the tendency for individuals to develop a balance over time.  If an individual is an extravert early in his or her life, that extraverted individual can certainly become more comfortable with his or her introversion as he/she advances in age. Robbins’ view is dynamic as it insinuates a more robust use of the theory in not only a binary nominal but also an interval psychometric application.

Robbins’ research interest involves charting the personality types of different religious groups.  As such, she applies the Myers-Briggs and Personality Type Theory to evaluating the personality types of religious congregations, churches, and clergy groups.  Certainly the utility of Robbins’ work is related to social interactions among different personality types. Moreover, she explores how the different personality types communicate and interact within the particular religious congregation.  This can be helpful as awareness of personality type can assist leaders in structuring better communication strategies with their adherents. It also provides holistic information regarding the types of people who join different types of congregation. Such information can certainly benefit religious groups by customizing their educational and social programs to fit their typological assembly.

In his article, “The Utility of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator,” scholar David J. Pittenger states, “There is also a large and often conflicting body of research that examines the validity of the test. This research ranges from the conventional psychometric analysis to the less empirically oriented study and includes reviews for professional and nonprofessional users” (Pittenger, 1993, p. 467).  One could question the overall empirical agenda of studying personality type as a measure of social trend phenomenon. Certainly based on the evidence of experienced scholars such as Pittenger, the use of such a measure is questionable.  While the popularity of the Myers Briggs is not in question, the overall function as a predictive analytic is of concern here. It would be nice if Robbins would have addressed some of the controversies regarding the Myers Briggs. For example, some psychometric professionals have criticized the reliability and validity of the measure. They are concerned that more recent advanced statistical analyses have been inconclusive regarding the applicability of the Myers Briggs to definitively detect personality types. Some detractors even suggest that the Myers Briggs is not only psychometrically unusable but that the theoretical structure is also problematic as it cannot be empirically verified.

For the Myer Briggs devotees, such arguments lack the theoretical and qualitative richness of the overall agenda of Jungian Typology. Unlike theories such as the Big Five Domain which utilized a massive base of questions and a trimming of those questions via factor analysis to detect statistically related items, one could challenge the overall qualitative content of such a measure.  In other words, by starting at the questions and forming a theoretical structure around those questions seems like placing the cart before the horse. The Myers Briggs began with an auspicious and profoundly detailed explanation of human distinctiveness beyond simple empirical questions as indicators of behavior. Those theoretical thematic schemas were organized into questions and then tested over time and adjusted. The Myers Briggs provided a grand complexity of theoretical and esoteric structure for statisticians and proctors alike. Such structures cross disciplinary boundaries of fields and professions providing deeper meaning into behavior and intent of clients and research participants alike.

This podcast would have been improved if Mr. Silver or Dr. Robbins would have addressed such criticisms in detail. While there is a detailed research for and against the use of the Myers Briggs as well as plenty of comparative and descriptive studies using the Myers Briggs, the listener is left with the assumption that there is no debate on the topic. The listener is left with a general overview of the use of the Myers Briggs as a measure of predictive and descriptive social trends among specific samples within a variety of religious groups.

In conclusion, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator has a rich history as a measure. Certainly there is extensive popularity and controversy surrounding its use. Moreover, it can be effective in giving a decisive overview of a person’s personality type on a smaller scale such as profiling prospective employees (Coe, 1991, p. 37) and obtaining quick evaluations of mental health patients (Frost et. al. 2013, p. 193). When applied to Robbins’ research, the test appears useful in exploring individual leaders of a church or congregation, which can help new members of a particular church determine whether or not they should join based on the personality type of the clergyperson.  Further and more sophisticated work should be done to address the more recent controversies.

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:

Negeen Ghasedi is a graduate student at Henderson State University. She is currently working on her Masters of Liberal Arts degree with emphases in political Science and Literature. She teaches Basic English classes and also works in the HSU Writing Center. Her research interests include Romantic/Victorian literature, Persian literature, and American and Middle Eastern politics. She is also a classically trained cellist.

 

References:

  • Coe, Charles K.  “A Tool for Understanding and Improving Public Management.” State & Local Government Review.  23.1 (1991): 37-46. JSTOR. Web. 18 March 2013.
  • Frost, Peter, Sparrow, Sarah, and Barry, Jennifer. “Personality Characteristics Associated with Susceptibility to False Memories.” The American Journal of Psychology. 119.2 (2006): 193-204. JSTOR. Web. 18 March 2013.
  • Pittenger, David J.  “The Utility of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.” Review of Educational Research.  63.4 (1993): 467-488. JSTOR. Web. 18 March 2013.

 

Faith Development Theory

Within the field of psychology, extensive research has explored a variety of themes related to development theory from humanism to cognitive. Much of research focuses on graduated stages which indicate a change in complexity both in behavioral as well as cognitive growth.  Other theories of development have even focused on ethical development as related to the individual and their community. James Fowler’s Stages of Faith is an excellent example of the convergence of a variety of developmental theories and models into a single theoretical paradigm of faith. Fowler believed that individuals change and grow in their faith much like they develop in learning or behavior. He suggested six stages of development which can be applied to people. The earlier stages are related to learning and relationship with one’s inner community while the later stages speak to the issues of ethics and social awareness. Fowler’s work has been celebrated by theologians, religious educators, and professionals as a milestone in the study of faith and religion.  Fowler’s work also serves as a template upon which to structure the education of youth and the tailoring of ministry programs in the identification of their faith development.

For all accounts, many see Fowler’s work as a classic text, however, it is not without controversy.  Within some circles of psychology of religion and religious studies, Faith Development has been all but abandoned. The work utilizing Fowler’s stages appears mainly in theological empiricism or pastoral care. There are some exceptions however. Enter Heinz Streib of Bielefeld University. Over ten years ago, Streib saw applicability to Fowler’s stages, but not in their typical empirical application. Heinz realized that Fowler’s descriptions had descriptive utility in how individuals structure and formalize their belief, but he also recognized that the graduated method of “stages” was empirically and culturally problematic. Particularly, some individuals seek a defined and close knit group identity within their religious tradition and would likely not be concerned with the social justice for others of different faiths. Moreover, from a cognitive perspective, such individuals are also just as happy with simplistic forms of meaning and an authoritarian theological tradition. For Streib, these systems of meaning were not passé or scant in any way, only different. Streib proposed “styles of faith” based in Fowler, but with the fluidity for individuals or progress and digress, faith becomes a much more dynamic process. This podcast explores Dr.  Streib’s work on Faith Development, Faith Styles, and his current research in the field of Psychology of Religion.

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

Heinz Streib is Professor for Religious Education at the University of Bielefeld, Germany. There he has established the Research Center for Biographical Studies in Contemporary Religion. He received his Ph.D. from Emory University, Atlanta in 1989, with a thesis on Hermeneutics of Metaphor, Symbol and Narrative in Faith Development Theory (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1991) and in 1995 he completed his Habilitation at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universtät, Frankfurt/Main with a thesis on Entzauberung der Okkultfaszination (Kampen: Kok, 1996). He is currently Editor-in-Chief of the Archive for the Psychology of Religion/Archiv für Religionspsychologie.

Streib’s more recent books include Deconversion: Qualitative and Quantitative Results from Cross-cultural Research in Germany and the United States of America (Research in Contemporary Religion)

(Göttingen: Vandenhoeck&Ruprecht 2009) and Jugend und Religion (Weinheim: Juventa Verlag, 2011). He also has edited Religion Inside and Outside Traditional Institutions (Empirical Studies in Theology)

(Leiden: Brill, 2007) and Lived Religion. Conceptual, Empirical and Practical-Theological Approaches Leiden:Brill, 2008).

Streib’s research interests focus on biographical-reconstructive and psychometric assessment of deconversion, fundamentalism, xenophobia and the semantics of “spirituality.” His engagement in the psychology of religion includes in a revision of faith development theory in terms of religious styles and schemata, which has lead to the development of the Religious Schema Scale (The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 20(3), 151-172).

Email: Heinz.Streib@uni-bielefeld.de

A Word by Any Other Name: The Emergent Field of Non-religion and the Implications for Social Meaning

A Word by Any Other Name: The Emergent Field of Non-religion and the Implications for Social Meaning

By Christopher F. Silver, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Lois Lee on Non-religion (8 October 2012).

With the advent of cultural and religious pluralism within western society, the theme of secularity and non-belief has gained momentum within academic discussion. Non-belief is a growing trend in Western Europe and North America. While countries such as the United States claim to be religious the percentage of non-affiliated individuals is increasing. Roozen (1980) discovered that 46% of American’s were relatively uninvolved in religious services for 2 years or more. In ISSP 2008 survey data, 2.8% agree with the statement “I don’t believe in God”, while 5% agreed with “I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe that there is a way to find out,”, and 10.3% agreed with “I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a Higher Power of some kind,” appearing to confirm an agnostic viewpoint on the existence of God.  Similar trends in data were observed in the American Religious Identification Survey results. 2.3% of survey respondents agreed with the statement that “there is no such thing (as God)” while 4.3% agreed that “there is no way to know”. 12.1% agreed with the statement “there is a higher power but no personal God” (Kosmin & Keysar, 2009). Such data seems to support Steve Bruce’s (2011) secularization paradigm or at least a shift away from organized religious association even within the “religious” United States. Obviously with a social shift away from institutionalized belief and individual faith would certainly assume social structures and institutions would shift to nonreligious culturally relative inclusive structures of meaning.  In other words people would begin to seek to find alternatives in social rituals, symbols, and contexts. An alternative perspective to consider is that of non-religion or those social systems and contexts which share similarity to religious systems but unto themselves are their own distinct non-religious phenomena.

Non-religion and Cross-Disciplinary Research

Dr. Lee’s perspective is an excellent view of how new fields emerge within human studies in academia. A couple of important themes emerge within this Podcast.  The first is related to the reference point of what is non-religion. Such conversations of delineation are challenging as they are juxtaposed within the much larger epistemological framework of an established field.  They begin within the definitional boundary not only of what non-religion is but also what it is not. For example, Dr. Lee notes within the podcast: that non-religion is the “Practice or perspective that differs from religion, something that is defined by how it differs from religion. So it is religious like (in) some way we consider (it) meaningful but beyond that, we need to know more.”  Dr. Lee goes on to say non-religion is a “Space or object where non-religion takes religion as its primary reference point.” Such a conversation has a variety of perspectives as well as establishing an implicit sequitur in meaning.  For Lee the definitional boundaries are necessary if this new field is to have utility. Non-religion appears to be set within the social structural meaning. Its distinction is embedded in the social system and symbols which give the society meaning. In other words, non-religion is related to the social frame of human experience where systems which were originally rooted within the religious order have replaced, adapted, or yielded to more secular frames of reference. It appears that some social systems such as humanism, ecology, environmental awareness, and others may have religious like values or beliefs but lack the religious connections or reference points which would define other social systems. Therefore such social systems fit the nonreligious classifications. These examples – which are socially engaged advocacy groups – fit Hood, Hill & Spilka’s (2009) definitional term of “horizontal transcendence” which assumes that there are movements which give non-religious affiliated individuals a deeper meaning in life but do not require a “vertical transcendence” or religious cosmology in which to find meaning. As Hood and colleagues demonstrate, other social systems provide greater meaning in the lives of people who may not be religious affiliated. This viewpoint is further reinforced with the work of Kohls and Walach (2006) whose work has shown that experiences can be “exceptional” without the interpretative medium of religion to provide transcendental reference point.  While exceptional experience can include newly emergent phenomena such as spirituality, they also include other experiences which may or may not be socially defined. Certainly within the field of Psychology, there has been an effort to capitalize on such experience – exceptional and non-religious meaning – in providing tools for increasing psychological health and well-being (Pargament, 1997). While much of Pargament’s work deals in the realm of Psychology of Religion and coping there are also other experiences observed by Pargament which provide mediums for treatment as well. Such possibilities should be explored further to determine to what extent non-religious experience can provide meaning during traumatic times in people’s lives. Understandably there are wide theoretical and cross-disciplinary possibilities within the study of non-religion which should be collaboratively explored further.  Dr. Lee’s attempt at broadening meaningful human experience certainly has broader implications. The definitional boundary of the field leads to the next point which is the politics of the academic domain in which the non-belief theory operates.

The Politics of Academia

Dr. Lee spends much of the Podcast discussing the scholarly boundaries with other social science and humanities fields such as sociology/secularism and theology/theism. For example, theist academic departments concern themselves with theoretical definitions in which to identify their study. Social science departments may seek operational definitions in which to pose their methodological inquiry. Thus theoretical definitions provide the philosophical paradigm which shapes inquiry. Obviously one’s academic training certainly may determine how non-religion is explored. In the field of psychology for example, non-religious institutions could be studied through the organization of atheists and agnostics. It could be that in the case of socially engaged secular groups, one’s personal ontology juxtaposes their social interests with others of similar view. Religious Studies may approach the perspective very differently by examining the nature of non-religion versus religion looking for ontological patterns of similarity or difference between them. Such considerations of academic consent remind me of Russell McCutcheon’s (1997) work on Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia. In this work McCutcheon discusses the sui generis aspects of religious studies or, more simply put, the study of religion simply for its own purposes. McCutcheon believes that religion is not unique from any other academic enterprise but rather should be critiqued and analyzed by a similar measure of other academic disciplines.  While McCutcheon’s work discusses a variety of issues providing evidence of a scholarly impasse for the legitimacy of traditional modes religious studies education, one theme relates to Dr. Lee’s perspective here. That perspective is the legitimacy of inquiry as posed within budgetary constraints and departmental politics. As these new fields – such as non-religion – form, certainly academic inquiry should not be limited to a particular academic field. As McCutcheon suggests, the study of social systems such as religion in his example or non-religion in Dr. Lee’s example should be an interdisciplinary exercise. While this response has focused primarily on the study of non-religion in post-secondary education such as colleges and universities, certainly there is a larger implication as well. In countries where secondary education includes religious education, there is the potential for non-religious education. In considering the politics of this new field, scholars and educators may benefit from discussing these non-religious systems as modes of exceptional experience as noted by much of the work of Kohls and Walach. This could provide additional legitimacy for the field to address the dreaded issues of departmental politics and funding, but also as sub-segment of the much larger focus on religion and spirituality.

Terminology of a New Theory

One could argue that the primary reference point for a new theoretical term should incorporate similar language used by its parentally proceeding terminology. In this case, it appears the field of non-religion is an evolving social system, changing, adapting, and incorporating new meaning and ideas. While the social and ritual systems have similarity, it is unclear if the connection to old religious systems are a result of needing structure or if simply they serve as theoretical cynosure. In other words researchers are concerned with making the ontological and epistemological leap beyond the parental social systems which govern human behavior and structure symbolic meaning. If the new social phenomenon is to exist and, by relation, be studied on its own terms, one possible theme to consider would be to shift the term away from using religion as its terminology primary reference point.

While the space and ritual may seem similar to that of religion, as non-religion begins to form its own social structure it will become more alien to the religious meanings – explicitly or implicitly. While it will always have a historical connection to religion, the social appraisal of the system will be gained through its continued use ergo it gains value of its own as it gains complexity and is routinized in tradition. Following McCutcheon’s perspective, it will create a space where the value of non-religious discourse is on its own terms as the function and structure of a human social system. Scholars should study non-religion for the utility it brings in better understanding the human condition not because it is attached to religiosity in some way.

Certainly new research and scholarly enterprises have been spawned from other older research discourse. Why should non-religion be any different?  Rather than calling these systems non-religious as Lee suggests, consider a phrase such as the Latin ritus insula – insular, or insulate – where the definition reflects the individuality of people and value as well as the social system in which they participate. So instead of speaking of non-religious rituals we would call them ritus insula rituals, endowing the term with an alternative meaning. As the term is adopted and accepted, it begins to epitomize its own meaning in defining these social systems which are shifting away from religious meaning and connection. Dr. Lee and her colleagues should consider the theoretical and research methodological possibilities inherent in shifting the term away from religion.

A Moment of Reflexivity

As I write this response, I find myself in an inner struggle as a Social Scientist. In one sense Dr Lee’s podcast and my subsequent response beg a question of causation. For me the question has its origins in the psychological. Does atheism and/or agnosticism lead to secularization and by proxy non-religious systems of meaning? Or as a social movements continue to gain adherents, do we see a diffusion of new ideas. As is noted by scholars of innovation such as Everett Rogers (2003) there are early adopters who embrace new ideas early while there are others who are slowly drawn to the idea as popularity increases. According to Rogers – and Interestingly – a small segment of the population who are the first to adopt a new idea are called the innovators. This group typically makes up 2.5% of the population. This could map on to the ISSP data and the American Religious Identification Survey as noted earlier where there are now individuals who simply do not believe in God. This would also lead to the conclusion that European samples are much more along the Rogers continuum of diffusion. Rogers argues that as an idea is disseminated and saturated, it becomes a part of the overall culture. It can be part of cultural identity of a group. While Roger’s work was likely more concerned with products and services, such data coupled with Rogers theory would indicate that secularization is inevitable. As human society changes and more people identify with non-belief and Lee’s concept of non-religion, religious systems and beliefs as they are practiced today will cease to be. Therefore it can be assumed that such products of non-belief such as the social systems of non-religion will gain additional opportunities for observation and study. Therefore the difficultly in identifying populations and samples of non-religion may lessen over time.

This response has attempted to show the vast possibilities in collaboration, academic adaptation, and locution of non-religion as an academic study. Through the advent of globalization and with more complex social theories, new human systems of meaning are emerging within academic literature. The challenge that scholars such as Dr. Lee have is interpreting these elaborate and intricate social systems and their implications for humanity. Non-religion makes an excellent area of focus, as it appears to be an emerging phenomenon along with other research areas of atheism, secularization, and spirituality.

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:

Christopher F. Silver is an Ed. D. Candidate in Education and Leadership at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga USA. He has a masters degree in research psychology from the UT Chattanooga and a masters degree in Religion and Culture from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Ontario Canada. He is currently conducting research on American Atheism exploring the complexities of self-identity adjectives in how atheist and agnostic participants self-describe. In addition, Mr. Silver also serves as an instructor at UT Chattanooga teaching courses in psychology and currently serves as an information technology research consultant.

Mr. Silver has collaborated in the fields of religious studies, psychology and sociology of religion. His current collaboration is as a research manager for the US team of the Bielefeld (Germany) International Study of Spirituality. His email address is Christopher-Silver@utc.edu.

References:

  • Bruce, S. (2011). Secularization: In Defense of an Unfashionable Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hood, R. W., Hill, P. C. & Spilka, B. (2009). The psychology of religion: an empirical approach. (4th ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Kohls, N. & Walach H. (2006). Exceptional experiences and spiritual practice: a new measurement approach. Spirituality and Heath International.  7. 125–150.
  • Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.
  • Kosmin, B. A., & Keysar, A. (Eds.) (2007). Secularism and secularity: Contemporary international perspectives. Hartford, CT: Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture.
  • Roozen, D. A. (1980). Church dropouts: changing patterns of disengagement and re-entry. Review of Religious Research, 21(4), 427-450.

Podcasts

What is ‘Buddhism in the West’?

There appears to be much debate regarding what defines Buddhism in the West. Particularly, when I attend Social Science of Religion conferences, Buddhism is presented as a new or exotic social cultural influential phenomenon. I often see “Buddhism in the West” lumped in with new religious movements (NRMs) or more interestingly as sources of therapeutic influence for new styles of mental health treatment such as those seen in the field of Psychology. The compulsion to lump Buddhism with new religious movements may derive from a variety of influences. For example, the mass exodus of Tibetan Buddhists following the Chinese occupation of 1949 may give scholars the impression of newness due to the large migratory movement of Tibetans to the west. This coupled with the popularity of the Dalai Lama and religious converts such as Richard Gere give credence to Buddhism as a “Western” new religious movement (Cantwell & Kawanami, 2002). Another theory could be the fascination of Buddhism for the late 19th century Transcendentalists. The Transcendentalists saw value in Buddhist philosophy for understanding a suffering western society (McMahan, 2008). Such thinkers and their use of Buddhist philosophy could have led to more individual forms of belief such as “spirituality” and “universalism.” To be considered new, some scholars may see the past 100 years as “recent” where the turn of the century serves as a new chapter in religious pluralism in the West. Better still could be the free love movement of the 1960s or the fascination with alternative states of consciousness. Many people were seeking something beyond the old interpretations of transcendence (Kent, 2001). All of these are examples of competing paradigms in terms of juxtaposing a belief system called “Buddhism” within the geographic and cultural center of the “West”.

The boundaries of what defines the West are also circumspect. Some perceive the West to be North America while other scholars speak to first world cultures (including North America but also Western Europe, and Australia). Such boundaries of what defines the West are unclear but there is proximate agreement related to the cultural center of what we term the “West” (McMahan, 2008). Here, there is proximate agreement as a Euro-American center of learning. In other words, we are speaking of centers of academic discourse and authority known as the university system. One could argue that such exchanges are colonial in nature (indicating a British or American dominance of cultural norms and language) and yet these implicit assumptions reinforce the very system, which assert categorical authority. Further, using terms such as “the West” and its interaction with other traditions are synonymous with speaking from an in-group perspective of privilege.

Given these challenges related to defining Buddhism in the West, Dr. Cox’s approach is refreshing. Rather than attempting to describe Buddhism’s introduction into the West as a socio-historical event, he approaches the exchange of culture from the perspective of a historically reconstructed narrative through the story of Laurence Carroll, an Irish immigrant to Burma by way of the United States. Laurence Carroll led an adventurous life from an immigrant, to a homeless person in the US, to a seaman, and eventually taking vows as a Buddhist monk. Mr. Carroll’s experience resulted in his ordination by becoming Bhikkhu U Dhammaloka. Dr. Cox provides an interesting look by way of Dhammaloka’s narrative, at the layers of national, social, ethnic, and religious identity. For Cox, identities are tied together as one but also relational in terms of the concept of the “other.” Dr. Cox shows that Carroll’s transitions between geographies were continually met with adversity in terms of his identity. For example, the conflict of his Irish identity in Ireland in relation to British colonial influence, then his Irish identity in relation to blacks/African Americans in New York, and eventually his Irish identity in relation to the dominant Asian culture of Burma. His concept of self becomes even more complex when he converts to Buddhism, as he is no longer centered within his Irish or Caucasian identity. Such boundaries of self were not only confusing but also empowering as Dhammaloka could challenge others who attempted to proselytize the local populations in Burma.

According to Cox, Dhammaloka had social influence on the local population to defend Buddhism from what he may have seen as colonial missionary dominance reminiscent his own experience with the British in Ireland. Dr Cox’s podcast leaves me with additional derivative themes of interest. To speak in terms of cultural or social influence is to implicitly infer a social shift in the individual definition of self. As noted by Cox, deconversion was no small transition in self-identification. With one’s exit from their own enculturated tradition to an exotic, lesser-known faith came perceptions of racial as well as moral defection. Scholarly inquiry into Buddhism for the time was surely appropriate but only in as much as these faith traditions were contrasted with Christianity. The Dhammaloka case study serves as an excellent example of where the religious and cultural landscape is moderated within the domain of academic discourse. Only at this time were such intellectual pursuits blatantly colonial in agenda. Furthermore, such lively exchanges with missionaries highlight the overt assumptions of intellectual and cultural dominance but also the subversive influence on Buddhism to compete in a soon to be global spiritual marketplace. I would challenge Dr. Cox to think of Dhammaloka not in terms of his authenticity of being one of the earliest converts to Buddhism, but rather to see him as a mediating influence in what Buddhism would come to be for the West. Dare I say that Dhammaloka’s own cultural baggage and his Western approach to Buddhism might well have helped repackage Buddhist philosophy, making such transitions more salient.

In conclusion, I would like to challenge the overall paradigm of “Buddhism in the West.” The lack of synergy among scholarly inquiry coupled with the assumption of the specialness of Buddhism within the cultural or geographic context of the West lends further need for the application of critical theory. Such theory should be able to describe the specialness of the former and latter without relying on the old colonial tools of academia. While there is value in theories of sociology and religious studies, my concern is that such assumptions assume Buddhism is/was something different or special, dare I say sui generis (McCutcheon, 1997). The West’s fascination with the East goes well beyond a simple proselytizing motive or – it could be argued – colonial influence. Buddhism’s symbols, rituals, and practices seem mystical almost otherworldly from the flowing robes of monks, to the symbolism of the simplistic humble request of a monk with a begging bowl, to the teachings of the dasa pāramiyo or the ten perfections in defining one’s potential for Buddha nature. Yet given the plethora of possibilities in exploring the grand narrative of Western (European and American) Buddhism, such inquiries make some false assumptions about how Buddhism in the West is defined.

References

Cantwell, C. & Kawanami, H. (2002) Buddhism in Elisabeth Arweck’s New religious movements. Religions in the modern world: traditions and transformations, pp. 47-82.

Goldberg, E. (2006). Buddhism in the west In S. C. Berkwitz Berkwitz, S. C. (Ed.). Buddhism in world cultures: comparative perspectives. Abc-clio.

Kent, S. A. (2001). From slogans to mantras: Social protest and religious conversion in the late Vietnam war era. Syracuse University Press.

McCutcheon, R. T. (1997). Manufacturing religion: The discourse on sui generis religion and the politics of nostalgia. Oxford University Press.

McMahan, D. L. (2008). The making of Buddhist modernism. Oxford University Press.

D. Mitra Barua on Immigrant Buddhism in the West

D. Mitra BaruaDr. D. Mitra Barua is an instructor of Religious Studies at the University of Saskatchewan, and has a Masters in Buddhist Philosophy undertaken in Sri Lanka. His doctorate concerned several generations of Sri Lankan immigrants in Toronto, and how their Buddhist practices are affected by being transplanted to Canada.

In this in-depth interview with Chris Silver, Barua discusses the links between ethnic and religious identity, and how the relationship has changed over time. They discuss how traditional Buddhist teachings are reinterpreted in order to harmonise their Buddhism with the multicultural society in which they are embedded, although this has not been uncontroversial. Buddhism, of course, has historically been geographically and theologically diverse, and this has continued in a North American context. 

They also discuss how these affect our models of religion and culture. Are the appropriations of Buddhist traditions like meditation in therapeutic contexts to be considered ‘religious’? Dr Barua also describes some of the practical issues with carrying out fieldwork within a monastic community.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc. Remember… Christmas is on the way!

This interview marks the beginning of a short series of podcasts from the RSP on Religion, Migration and Diaspora, which began last week with Andrew Dawson discussing Sante Daime, and concludes next week with Monika Salzbrunn speaking to Hanna Lehtinen about Religion, Migration and Diaspora.

Paul Williamson on Serpent Handling

Paul Williamson

Paul Williamson

The use of serpents – more commonly known as ‘venomous snakes’ – within religious practices is by no means a new phenomenon within religious and cultural contexts. Certainly there are plenty of examples of where serpents have been power symbols both in totem and ritualistic traditions.  Moreover, many of the world’s population identify with serpent play as a potentially dangerous exercise. Within this risk potential, the serpent carries a variety of different auspicious meanings related to culture and/or the impermanence of life. The Southeast United States is no exception. The Appalachian Mountain region of the Southeast was geographically isolated in many parts from the rest of the United States until recently. This isolation coupled with the challenges of a rural socio-economic lifestyle created uncertainty within the minds of many inhabitants. Religious beliefs and practices provided meaning and certainty within an uncertain world. Serpent Handling traditions of Appalachia were no exception.

Serpent handling as a religious practice appeared within the first decade of the twentieth century. The practice emerged in east Tennessee and spread to other parts of the Southern Appalachian Mountain region of the United States. While many different groups, both Holiness and Pentecostal, enact the practice, the serpent handling groups themselves have no parent organization that binds them together. What binds the groups together is a sharing in diversity of belief with similar religious practices (Burton, 1993 pg. 20-21). Serpent handling sects are historically and philosophically linked to three forms of American Protestantism: Holiness, fundamentalism, and Pentecostalism, although typically many groups would identify their membership as Holiness (Hood, found in Brown & Mcdonald, 2000). The fundamentalists influence among serpent handlers is in their acceptance of a plain reading of the Bible when it is appropriate (Hood, Hill, & Williamson, 2005).

As handling serpents began spreading throughout the Southern Appalachians, the notoriety of serpent bite deaths increased (Hood & Williamson, 2008). Much of the public fascination with these traditions relates primarily to the dangerous practice of handling of serpents or drinking of poison as part of the religious ritual. Many outsider observers assume that serpent handling traditions are of one religion or of a single theology. Such an assumption cannot be further from the truth. Many of the churches diverge on issues of textual interpretation of the Bible and theology. Their only unifying practice is dictated within Mark 16. For those within these traditions, handling of serpents or drinking of poison is an issue of religious freedom. Most states have enacted laws outlawing the practice of serpent handling. Regardless of the legal discrimination or the physical risk to themselves, the serpent handling sects assume the risk to follow God’s commandment (Hood, 1998).

In this week’s podcast, Chris Silver and Dr Paul Williamson explore Williamson’s research, and by proxy his colleague Ralph W. Hood Jr. (see our podcast from 2 weeks ago) related to documentation of the Serpent Handling Sects of Appalachia. By some accounts these traditions are in decline due to globalization. Williamson has attempted to study these traditions qualitatively and quantitatively to better understand the profound sense of religious commitment and deeper meaning of the theology and practices of the Serpent Handling sects.

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

WP WilliamsonW. Paul Williamson is professor of psychology at Henderson State University (USA), although he has not always been in academic research. He was previously a full-time clergy in a Pentecostal denomination for 17 years, but then became more interested in religion from a psychological perspective. This led to his studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he earned a Ph.D. in experimental psychology with training in both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies. Applying these approaches to the psychology of religion, he has published work in the areas of mysticism, religious fundamentalism, Christian serpent handling, and, most recently, spiritual transformation within the context of substance abuse recovery. He has co-authored The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism (2005, Guilford Press), with Ralph W. Hood, Jr., and Peter C. Hill; and Them That Believe: The Power and Meaning of the Christian Serpent Handling Tradition (2008; University of California Press), with Ralph W. Hood, Jr. He is a recipient of the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award and the Distinguished Service Award, both from the American Psychological Association, Division 36: Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

According to Williamson, “What so often is missing in research is a balanced approach in the psychological study of religious phenomena. It typically is either from the objective standpoint or from the subjective point of view. What is needed for a more complete understanding of a particular phenomenon is the blending together of both perspectives in the use of quantitative and qualitative methodologies.”

References:

  • Brown, Fred & Mcdonald, Jeanne (2000). The serpent handlers: three families and their faith. Blair publishing: Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
  • Burton, Thomas. (1993). Serpent handling believers. University of Tennessee Press: Knoxville, Tennessee.
  • Hood, R. W., Jr., (1998).  “When the spirit maims and kills: social psychological considerations of the history of serpent handling sects and the narrative of handlers. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 8, 71-96.
  • Hood, R. W., Jr., Hill, P.C., & Williamson, W. P. (2005). The psychology of religious fundamentalism.  New York: Guilford.
  • Hood, R. W., Jr. & Williamson, W. P. (2008).  The power and meaning of the Christian serpent- handling tradition.  Berkeley, CA:  University of California Press.

Ralph Hood on Mysticism

HoodRalph2012_10One of the primary interests of scholars and researchers from diverse academic disciplines has been in exploration of mysticism. Mysticism has been observed within a variety of traditions and philosophies from Neo-Platonism to Hinduism and Christianity. Mysticism as a field of study is pregnant with possibilities for academic inquiry, both cross-disciplinary and discipline specific. The field of psychology is one of those disciplines which have sought to explore the richness of individual claims of mystical experience. This has been done with theoretical depth and methodological sophistication and is centralized within a variety of tools of empirical inquiry.

The study of mysticism necessitates addressing issues of ontology and epistemology, relating to the methodological processes for studying direct personal experiences. Within the psychological perspective, some of these concerns are mediated through what both Porpora (2006) and Hood, Hill and Spika (2009) describe as methodological agnosticism. While Silver (2011) argues that there is no such thing as true objectivity in research, certainly academics and researchers can strive for a post-positivist paradigm of objectivity where they attempt to remove bias and subjectivity from their research or hermeneutic inquiry.

While there is plenty of hermeneutic and observational potential in the study of Mysticism, more needs to be done in exploration of the experiential and psychological correlates related to personal experiences. Dr. Ralph W. Hood Jr. has extensive experience in the field of psychology of religion and particularly in the study of mysticism and mystical experience. As an early pioneer in the renaissance of the field of psychology of religion, Hood’s work is extensive and prolific exploring a variety of research topics in the social sciences of religion. Moreover, much of his collaborative work extends beyond the field of psychology to include sociology, religious studies, medicine, and a variety of other disciplines in the social scientific study of religion. In this week’s podcast, Chris SIlver is joined by Ralph Hood to discuss in detail his work on mysticism and the benefits and disadvantages of this academic exercise.

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

HoodRalph2012_10

Ralph W. Hood Jr. is professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is a former editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and former co-editor of the Archive for the Psychology of Religion and The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.  He is a past president of division 36 (psychology of religion) of the American Psychological Association and a recipient of its William James, Mentor, and Distinguished Service awards. He has published over 200 articles in the psychology of religion and has authored, co-authored, or edited numerous book chapters and eleven books, all dealing with the psychology of religion.

References

  • Hood, R.W., P.C. Hill, and B. Spilka. (2009). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach. 4th ed. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Porpora, D. V. (2006). Methodological atheism, methodological agnosticism and religious experience. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 36, 57–75.
  • Silver, C. F. (2011). Psychology and Religion: Explorations in paradigm, theory, and method. In Weathington, B. L., Cunningham,  C. J. L., O’Leary, B. J., & Biderman, M. D. (Eds.), Applied Psychology in Everyday Life (pp. 71-107). Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Reflections on Teaching Religious Studies Online

mec2As we find new and innovative ways to teach students, we as instructors are charged (sometimes without formal or proper orientation) to adopt new methods of instruction.

Reflections on Teaching Religious Studies Online

By Christopher F. Silver, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 8 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Doe Daughtrey on Teaching Religious Studies Online (6 May 2013)

This podcast explores the nature of learning within online learning and the benefits and disadvantages of this type of curricular design. The interview was conducted with Doe N Daughtrey an instructor at Arizona State University and at Mesa Community College. While her work falls within a wide range of topics from Mormonism to new forms of spirituality, she speaks to the student and instructor experience of teaching online courses, particularly within the field of Religious Studies. Certainly the online medium in Higher Education has grown exponentially over the past 10 years.  As an instructional tool, it creates some new challenges for the instructor never before encountered within academia. An obvious example noted by Daughtrey is in relation to student interactions within discussion boards. In more traditional classrooms, students are cognizant of their behavior and their exchanges with other students. However, within the virtual world, students appear more bold and vocal in their opinions. Some students struggle not only with writing but proper projection within writing. When writing and responding to fellow students in an online forum, students may not be mindful of others perception. It is difficult for the instructor to instill in students a cultural sensitivity of others who are different from the student.  Congruently, the instructor also has to deal with the permanency of such exchanges as textual exchanges. In a traditional classroom, such exchanges, if they do occur, come and go and the instructor can immediately address and correct inappropriate behavior. Another issue addressed by Daughtrey is the issue of time as related to the course. In traditional classroom exchanges, students and the instructor are in a space together for a specific time frame (McKeachie, 1999). In the online world, the exchanges can be potentially 24 hours depending on the availability of each student and instructor. As far as inappropriate exchanges are concerned, students can have heated or controversial disagreements during times when the instructor is not online to monitor the exchange. Much can happen during that period of time with the potential to spiral into a much larger situation before the instructor is able to intervene.

In addressing such issues and concerns, Daughtrey implies that the textual space of the online course creates a communicative void typically filled with body language and voice inflection in traditional classrooms. As a potential solution to such situations, Daughtrey has used voice recordings in lieu of textual responses for her students. This at least provides the students with her voice inflection in which to infer intention from her feedback. She notes that this has been helpful in her online courses. Another solution Daughtrey proposes is for students to keep a private online journal of their thoughts. This helps keep sensitive discussions and thoughts out of the online forums insuring smoother online courses.  Finally one of the other telling themes of Daughtrey’s podcast is the limitation of online resources for Religious Studies courses. Daughtrey argues that there are many online resources which can assist in the construction of online courses, but that there is no content specific support for Religious Studies. Such support would help in the delivery of student education. She suggests that more should be done to address content and curricular issues in detail.

In reviewing this podcast, there are a couple of issues which arise. I think it is important to provide the reader with my own background here, as much of the conversation speaks to experience and not simply to instructional design and implementation. My own education has been a nexus of three fields of study: Psychology, Religious Studies, and Education. Much like Dr. Daughtrey, I have taught online courses in a variety of fields including Religious Studies online. Many of the concerns that she notes within the podcast are a common theme in teaching Religious Studies at a secular institution. Certainly when coupled with a largely conservative religious landscape among the student body, issues of ontology will certainly arise. Online learning provides a much more personal space in which to communicate opinions and ideas. In this regard, some students may assume that radical opinions and a lack of social mindfulness have no implications. For instructors such assumptions create issues. Certainly the formality and etiquette of the classroom may not translate into the online medium of instruction. I would propose an alternative method for addressing such issues. Many of the concerns related to behavior and content are related to the asynchronous method of online instruction. This method is called asynchronous because the content is unidirectional. For example discussion boards, YouTube videos, even this Podcast is an example of a unidirectional delivery of information. Its antithesis is called synchronous learning. It is a real time exchange of information. Examples of this might be a video conference on Adobe Connect, GoToMeeting, a live chat room in real time, or even a phone conversation.  I would suggest that online instruction should be a hybrid of synchronous and asynchronous delivery models for optimal learning. Certainly if a university does not have the resources for synchronous online instruction, there are some free open source alternative programs to assist an inspiring instructor.  This at least allows the interaction between student and teacher and presents information in a traditional format of instruction. Instructors can then project their personality into their instruction beyond a textual exchange. Moreover, students can interact in real time learning the social expectations of the instructor.  This is important when considering the challenges of teaching a controversial topic such as religion (Carlson and Blumenstyk, 2012).

While religion is a social norm for many in the United States and beyond, certainly social norms and classroom culture are a complex issue for many instructors. Not all students ascribe to a post-modern paradigm of different yet equal among the growing multicultural and multiethnic American and Western European populations. Some regard their coexistence with those who view religion or even race differently as a necessary evil of public education. Much of the confusion noted by Daughtrey in regards to online education is that the online world may be implicitly perceived as our private space of interaction, where the rules and values we ascribe to within daily interactions do not apply in the online discussion board. We as instructors are no longer simply Teachers or Professors but a combination of Information Technology Professionals and Cultural Advocates all wrapped into one role. While I cannot speak to the religious landscape of Arizona, I can speak to the Southeastern United States. I, too, teach in secular college and university. Much of the curricular agenda is dependent on accreditation and course objectives.  Still, instructors must create the perception of value for Religious Studies education and encourage students to learn more about the world in which they live. In my own courses, such discussions are heated simply because religion is equated with Christianity. The idea that other religions would be academically equal to Christianity can be offensive to some students. For many of my students, religion is a form of personal identity. It is who we are, not simply a belief or what we do. Many cannot compartmentalize it or objectify their belief. Therefore to have such discussions, academic or otherwise, requires a new paradigm of behavior and inquiry in religion’s examination by students. This type of student internalization of religious identity and perceived threat is not limited to the field of Religious Studies.  For example, a colleague of mine and psychologist of religion Michael Nielsen at Georgia Southern had a similar experience.  As Nielsen (2012) has noted, many students come to courses on religious topics either assuming the content will confirm their ontological position or to argue for their belief as the dominant truth. Nielsen’s perspective is but one of many examples where students do not understand the overall curricular purpose and goal of academic explorations of religion. They want to internalize it in some way.

This Podcast primarily focuses on instructional issues related to teaching Religious Studies online. These issues are certainly juxtaposed within the secular state-run institution of higher learning. It is likely that there are differences in the liberal arts and religiously affiliated styles of Higher Education. I would suggest that they likely differ in their curricular goals depending on the overall mission of the college or university. It is unclear how these differences translate in online learning and education. Certainly, it would have been interesting if Dr. Daughtrey would have addressed such differences within her podcast. Additionally, I am left with the question of curricular structure. What are some of the different ways Religious Studies are taught and the resources which may be available to a new instructor charged with online learning? It would be nice to see a conversation which goes beyond the politics of religious identity and online learning (although this is certainly an interesting topic overall).  With differences in Religious Studies educational theory, there may yet be another layer to the instructional onion we call religious education. With these criticisms in mind, this is not to say that the experiential perspective is not useful in education. In fact, this is the meat of an instructional design model. As we find new and innovative ways to teach students, we as instructors are charged (sometimes without formal or proper orientation) to adopt new methods of instruction. While one may argue that a good instructor should always be learning, there is likely a point of diminishing returns in which the instructor is expending energy in acquiring new instructional skillsets such as the various Online Learning Systems (OLS) while also tracking and evaluating student performance within their course. Professors may not have the time to devote to learning all the features of OLS and therefore the overall instructional product may suffer from skillset limitations. Additionally, institutions may be tempted to increase enrollment in online classes to save money, further diverting the instructor from exploring their research areas as well as gaining additional OLS skills. So certainly the economics of online learning play a role here too.

There is no doubt that OLS models of learning have benefits and disadvantages in academia. As a former Information Technology Professional and, typically, an early adopter of new technologies, I view online learning with circumspect. If it is to be incorporated, it should be a hybrid delivery model with classroom and online time for the students. If that is not possible, then the instructional design should include synchronous and asynchronous delivery of material. Evaluation of student performance is not simply about assignment quality and test accuracy, but it is about the real-time monitoring of learning, the observation of the student as they make their academic journey. Online learning loses the thrill of watching students achieve their “Aha” moments. There needs to be a technological solution found to incorporate the human aspects of the classroom in online learning.

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

mec2Christopher F. Silver is an Ed. D. Candidate in Education and Leadership at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga USA. He has a masters degree in research psychology from the UT Chattanooga and a masters degree in Religion and Culture from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Ontario Canada. He is currently conducting research on American Atheism exploring the complexities of self-identity adjectives in how atheist and agnostic participants self-describe. In addition, Mr. Silver also serves as an instructor at UT Chattanooga teaching courses in psychology and currently serves as an information technology research consultant.

Mr. Silver has collaborated in the fields of religious studies, psychology and sociology of religion. His current collaboration is as a research manager for the US team of the Bielefeld (Germany) International Study of Spirituality. His email address is Christopher-Silver@utc.edu. He is also an Assistant Editor at the Religious Studies Project, and has conducted a number of interviews, and previously written the piece A Word by Any Other Name: The Emergent Field of Non-religion and the Implications for Social Meaning for the website.

References

  • McKeachie, W. J. (1999). Teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers. (10th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Nielsen, M. (2012). Teaching Psychology of Religion at a state university. Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality Newsletter, 36(2), 2-5.
  • Carlson, S. & Blumenstyk, G. (2012). For Whom is college being reinvented? The Chronicle of Higher Education. 59(17).

Questioning the Utility of Myers-Briggs

The listener is left with a general overview of the use of the Myers Briggs as a measure of predictive and descriptive social trends among specific samples within a variety of religious groups.

Questioning the Utility of Myers-Briggs,

By Negeen Ghasedi, Henderson State University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 22 March 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Mandy Robbins on Personality Types (18 March 2013).

In her research, Mandy Robbins applies Carl Jung’s Psychological Type Theory, which was later modified as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and applies it to her research on the personality types of different religious groups. According to Robbins, examining personality type within religious groups allow researchers to better understand the interpersonal trends among different religions, denominations, and congregations.  Such research seems almost paradoxical. The difficulty with many assessments of personality is that they are designed for individual assessments not collective and social trend applications. Certainly one may question a summative exploration of personality within a congregational context. The following response explores those themes.

As a point of introduction, Robbins explains the four different pairs of personality types. Those pairs are noted as the following: introversion/extroversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, and judging/perceiving.  The first set, extroversion/introversion, determine an individual’s relationship to the outside world and whether one derives his/her energy from the outside world or from one’s own inner world, respectively. The second set, sensing/intuition, measures how an individual prefers to take in information.  Intuitive individuals are more analytical, while sensing individuals rely on a more empirical experience—the information they gain directly through their senses are more important.  The third set, thinking/feeling, concerns the process of information.  Thinking individuals rely heavily on logic and observe life from the outside; these individuals are much less affected by emotions, and they tend to make decisions based on unbiased reasoning. Feeling individuals live life based on how their decisions impact others, and they tend to base decisions on emotions and feelings.  Finally, the fourth set, judging/perceiving, determines how an individual prefers to organize his/her outside world.  Judging individuals are more organized and like closure.  Perceiving individuals are more spontaneous and seemingly disorganized because their organization techniques differ greatly from their perceiving counterparts.

The first of three pairs were created by Jung.  Basing their assessment on Jung’s Personality Type theory, Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother, Katherine Cook Briggs developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and in their test, they developed the last pair of preferences (Pittenger, 1994, p. 467).  After taking the test, each person is assigned four letters, and each letter indicates one out of each of the mentioned pairs.  Robbins notes that type is related to preference; all humans have preferences, and these preferences are natural.  If one were to constantly act in opposition to his/her preference, it would eventually prove to be exhausting. Psychological Type Theory uses preferences to determine personality types.

However, Robbins emphasizes that an individual is not restricted to specifically one duality of each pair.  The theory allows individuals to recognize their preferences; it is not used as a tool to niche individuals into a certain enumerable personality type.  Robbins discusses the tendency for individuals to develop a balance over time.  If an individual is an extravert early in his or her life, that extraverted individual can certainly become more comfortable with his or her introversion as he/she advances in age. Robbins’ view is dynamic as it insinuates a more robust use of the theory in not only a binary nominal but also an interval psychometric application.

Robbins’ research interest involves charting the personality types of different religious groups.  As such, she applies the Myers-Briggs and Personality Type Theory to evaluating the personality types of religious congregations, churches, and clergy groups.  Certainly the utility of Robbins’ work is related to social interactions among different personality types. Moreover, she explores how the different personality types communicate and interact within the particular religious congregation.  This can be helpful as awareness of personality type can assist leaders in structuring better communication strategies with their adherents. It also provides holistic information regarding the types of people who join different types of congregation. Such information can certainly benefit religious groups by customizing their educational and social programs to fit their typological assembly.

In his article, “The Utility of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator,” scholar David J. Pittenger states, “There is also a large and often conflicting body of research that examines the validity of the test. This research ranges from the conventional psychometric analysis to the less empirically oriented study and includes reviews for professional and nonprofessional users” (Pittenger, 1993, p. 467).  One could question the overall empirical agenda of studying personality type as a measure of social trend phenomenon. Certainly based on the evidence of experienced scholars such as Pittenger, the use of such a measure is questionable.  While the popularity of the Myers Briggs is not in question, the overall function as a predictive analytic is of concern here. It would be nice if Robbins would have addressed some of the controversies regarding the Myers Briggs. For example, some psychometric professionals have criticized the reliability and validity of the measure. They are concerned that more recent advanced statistical analyses have been inconclusive regarding the applicability of the Myers Briggs to definitively detect personality types. Some detractors even suggest that the Myers Briggs is not only psychometrically unusable but that the theoretical structure is also problematic as it cannot be empirically verified.

For the Myer Briggs devotees, such arguments lack the theoretical and qualitative richness of the overall agenda of Jungian Typology. Unlike theories such as the Big Five Domain which utilized a massive base of questions and a trimming of those questions via factor analysis to detect statistically related items, one could challenge the overall qualitative content of such a measure.  In other words, by starting at the questions and forming a theoretical structure around those questions seems like placing the cart before the horse. The Myers Briggs began with an auspicious and profoundly detailed explanation of human distinctiveness beyond simple empirical questions as indicators of behavior. Those theoretical thematic schemas were organized into questions and then tested over time and adjusted. The Myers Briggs provided a grand complexity of theoretical and esoteric structure for statisticians and proctors alike. Such structures cross disciplinary boundaries of fields and professions providing deeper meaning into behavior and intent of clients and research participants alike.

This podcast would have been improved if Mr. Silver or Dr. Robbins would have addressed such criticisms in detail. While there is a detailed research for and against the use of the Myers Briggs as well as plenty of comparative and descriptive studies using the Myers Briggs, the listener is left with the assumption that there is no debate on the topic. The listener is left with a general overview of the use of the Myers Briggs as a measure of predictive and descriptive social trends among specific samples within a variety of religious groups.

In conclusion, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator has a rich history as a measure. Certainly there is extensive popularity and controversy surrounding its use. Moreover, it can be effective in giving a decisive overview of a person’s personality type on a smaller scale such as profiling prospective employees (Coe, 1991, p. 37) and obtaining quick evaluations of mental health patients (Frost et. al. 2013, p. 193). When applied to Robbins’ research, the test appears useful in exploring individual leaders of a church or congregation, which can help new members of a particular church determine whether or not they should join based on the personality type of the clergyperson.  Further and more sophisticated work should be done to address the more recent controversies.

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:

Negeen Ghasedi is a graduate student at Henderson State University. She is currently working on her Masters of Liberal Arts degree with emphases in political Science and Literature. She teaches Basic English classes and also works in the HSU Writing Center. Her research interests include Romantic/Victorian literature, Persian literature, and American and Middle Eastern politics. She is also a classically trained cellist.

 

References:

  • Coe, Charles K.  “A Tool for Understanding and Improving Public Management.” State & Local Government Review.  23.1 (1991): 37-46. JSTOR. Web. 18 March 2013.
  • Frost, Peter, Sparrow, Sarah, and Barry, Jennifer. “Personality Characteristics Associated with Susceptibility to False Memories.” The American Journal of Psychology. 119.2 (2006): 193-204. JSTOR. Web. 18 March 2013.
  • Pittenger, David J.  “The Utility of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.” Review of Educational Research.  63.4 (1993): 467-488. JSTOR. Web. 18 March 2013.

 

Faith Development Theory

Within the field of psychology, extensive research has explored a variety of themes related to development theory from humanism to cognitive. Much of research focuses on graduated stages which indicate a change in complexity both in behavioral as well as cognitive growth.  Other theories of development have even focused on ethical development as related to the individual and their community. James Fowler’s Stages of Faith is an excellent example of the convergence of a variety of developmental theories and models into a single theoretical paradigm of faith. Fowler believed that individuals change and grow in their faith much like they develop in learning or behavior. He suggested six stages of development which can be applied to people. The earlier stages are related to learning and relationship with one’s inner community while the later stages speak to the issues of ethics and social awareness. Fowler’s work has been celebrated by theologians, religious educators, and professionals as a milestone in the study of faith and religion.  Fowler’s work also serves as a template upon which to structure the education of youth and the tailoring of ministry programs in the identification of their faith development.

For all accounts, many see Fowler’s work as a classic text, however, it is not without controversy.  Within some circles of psychology of religion and religious studies, Faith Development has been all but abandoned. The work utilizing Fowler’s stages appears mainly in theological empiricism or pastoral care. There are some exceptions however. Enter Heinz Streib of Bielefeld University. Over ten years ago, Streib saw applicability to Fowler’s stages, but not in their typical empirical application. Heinz realized that Fowler’s descriptions had descriptive utility in how individuals structure and formalize their belief, but he also recognized that the graduated method of “stages” was empirically and culturally problematic. Particularly, some individuals seek a defined and close knit group identity within their religious tradition and would likely not be concerned with the social justice for others of different faiths. Moreover, from a cognitive perspective, such individuals are also just as happy with simplistic forms of meaning and an authoritarian theological tradition. For Streib, these systems of meaning were not passé or scant in any way, only different. Streib proposed “styles of faith” based in Fowler, but with the fluidity for individuals or progress and digress, faith becomes a much more dynamic process. This podcast explores Dr.  Streib’s work on Faith Development, Faith Styles, and his current research in the field of Psychology of Religion.

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

Heinz Streib is Professor for Religious Education at the University of Bielefeld, Germany. There he has established the Research Center for Biographical Studies in Contemporary Religion. He received his Ph.D. from Emory University, Atlanta in 1989, with a thesis on Hermeneutics of Metaphor, Symbol and Narrative in Faith Development Theory (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1991) and in 1995 he completed his Habilitation at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universtät, Frankfurt/Main with a thesis on Entzauberung der Okkultfaszination (Kampen: Kok, 1996). He is currently Editor-in-Chief of the Archive for the Psychology of Religion/Archiv für Religionspsychologie.

Streib’s more recent books include Deconversion: Qualitative and Quantitative Results from Cross-cultural Research in Germany and the United States of America (Research in Contemporary Religion)

(Göttingen: Vandenhoeck&Ruprecht 2009) and Jugend und Religion (Weinheim: Juventa Verlag, 2011). He also has edited Religion Inside and Outside Traditional Institutions (Empirical Studies in Theology)

(Leiden: Brill, 2007) and Lived Religion. Conceptual, Empirical and Practical-Theological Approaches Leiden:Brill, 2008).

Streib’s research interests focus on biographical-reconstructive and psychometric assessment of deconversion, fundamentalism, xenophobia and the semantics of “spirituality.” His engagement in the psychology of religion includes in a revision of faith development theory in terms of religious styles and schemata, which has lead to the development of the Religious Schema Scale (The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 20(3), 151-172).

Email: Heinz.Streib@uni-bielefeld.de

A Word by Any Other Name: The Emergent Field of Non-religion and the Implications for Social Meaning

A Word by Any Other Name: The Emergent Field of Non-religion and the Implications for Social Meaning

By Christopher F. Silver, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Lois Lee on Non-religion (8 October 2012).

With the advent of cultural and religious pluralism within western society, the theme of secularity and non-belief has gained momentum within academic discussion. Non-belief is a growing trend in Western Europe and North America. While countries such as the United States claim to be religious the percentage of non-affiliated individuals is increasing. Roozen (1980) discovered that 46% of American’s were relatively uninvolved in religious services for 2 years or more. In ISSP 2008 survey data, 2.8% agree with the statement “I don’t believe in God”, while 5% agreed with “I don’t know whether there is a God and I don’t believe that there is a way to find out,”, and 10.3% agreed with “I don’t believe in a personal God, but I do believe in a Higher Power of some kind,” appearing to confirm an agnostic viewpoint on the existence of God.  Similar trends in data were observed in the American Religious Identification Survey results. 2.3% of survey respondents agreed with the statement that “there is no such thing (as God)” while 4.3% agreed that “there is no way to know”. 12.1% agreed with the statement “there is a higher power but no personal God” (Kosmin & Keysar, 2009). Such data seems to support Steve Bruce’s (2011) secularization paradigm or at least a shift away from organized religious association even within the “religious” United States. Obviously with a social shift away from institutionalized belief and individual faith would certainly assume social structures and institutions would shift to nonreligious culturally relative inclusive structures of meaning.  In other words people would begin to seek to find alternatives in social rituals, symbols, and contexts. An alternative perspective to consider is that of non-religion or those social systems and contexts which share similarity to religious systems but unto themselves are their own distinct non-religious phenomena.

Non-religion and Cross-Disciplinary Research

Dr. Lee’s perspective is an excellent view of how new fields emerge within human studies in academia. A couple of important themes emerge within this Podcast.  The first is related to the reference point of what is non-religion. Such conversations of delineation are challenging as they are juxtaposed within the much larger epistemological framework of an established field.  They begin within the definitional boundary not only of what non-religion is but also what it is not. For example, Dr. Lee notes within the podcast: that non-religion is the “Practice or perspective that differs from religion, something that is defined by how it differs from religion. So it is religious like (in) some way we consider (it) meaningful but beyond that, we need to know more.”  Dr. Lee goes on to say non-religion is a “Space or object where non-religion takes religion as its primary reference point.” Such a conversation has a variety of perspectives as well as establishing an implicit sequitur in meaning.  For Lee the definitional boundaries are necessary if this new field is to have utility. Non-religion appears to be set within the social structural meaning. Its distinction is embedded in the social system and symbols which give the society meaning. In other words, non-religion is related to the social frame of human experience where systems which were originally rooted within the religious order have replaced, adapted, or yielded to more secular frames of reference. It appears that some social systems such as humanism, ecology, environmental awareness, and others may have religious like values or beliefs but lack the religious connections or reference points which would define other social systems. Therefore such social systems fit the nonreligious classifications. These examples – which are socially engaged advocacy groups – fit Hood, Hill & Spilka’s (2009) definitional term of “horizontal transcendence” which assumes that there are movements which give non-religious affiliated individuals a deeper meaning in life but do not require a “vertical transcendence” or religious cosmology in which to find meaning. As Hood and colleagues demonstrate, other social systems provide greater meaning in the lives of people who may not be religious affiliated. This viewpoint is further reinforced with the work of Kohls and Walach (2006) whose work has shown that experiences can be “exceptional” without the interpretative medium of religion to provide transcendental reference point.  While exceptional experience can include newly emergent phenomena such as spirituality, they also include other experiences which may or may not be socially defined. Certainly within the field of Psychology, there has been an effort to capitalize on such experience – exceptional and non-religious meaning – in providing tools for increasing psychological health and well-being (Pargament, 1997). While much of Pargament’s work deals in the realm of Psychology of Religion and coping there are also other experiences observed by Pargament which provide mediums for treatment as well. Such possibilities should be explored further to determine to what extent non-religious experience can provide meaning during traumatic times in people’s lives. Understandably there are wide theoretical and cross-disciplinary possibilities within the study of non-religion which should be collaboratively explored further.  Dr. Lee’s attempt at broadening meaningful human experience certainly has broader implications. The definitional boundary of the field leads to the next point which is the politics of the academic domain in which the non-belief theory operates.

The Politics of Academia

Dr. Lee spends much of the Podcast discussing the scholarly boundaries with other social science and humanities fields such as sociology/secularism and theology/theism. For example, theist academic departments concern themselves with theoretical definitions in which to identify their study. Social science departments may seek operational definitions in which to pose their methodological inquiry. Thus theoretical definitions provide the philosophical paradigm which shapes inquiry. Obviously one’s academic training certainly may determine how non-religion is explored. In the field of psychology for example, non-religious institutions could be studied through the organization of atheists and agnostics. It could be that in the case of socially engaged secular groups, one’s personal ontology juxtaposes their social interests with others of similar view. Religious Studies may approach the perspective very differently by examining the nature of non-religion versus religion looking for ontological patterns of similarity or difference between them. Such considerations of academic consent remind me of Russell McCutcheon’s (1997) work on Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia. In this work McCutcheon discusses the sui generis aspects of religious studies or, more simply put, the study of religion simply for its own purposes. McCutcheon believes that religion is not unique from any other academic enterprise but rather should be critiqued and analyzed by a similar measure of other academic disciplines.  While McCutcheon’s work discusses a variety of issues providing evidence of a scholarly impasse for the legitimacy of traditional modes religious studies education, one theme relates to Dr. Lee’s perspective here. That perspective is the legitimacy of inquiry as posed within budgetary constraints and departmental politics. As these new fields – such as non-religion – form, certainly academic inquiry should not be limited to a particular academic field. As McCutcheon suggests, the study of social systems such as religion in his example or non-religion in Dr. Lee’s example should be an interdisciplinary exercise. While this response has focused primarily on the study of non-religion in post-secondary education such as colleges and universities, certainly there is a larger implication as well. In countries where secondary education includes religious education, there is the potential for non-religious education. In considering the politics of this new field, scholars and educators may benefit from discussing these non-religious systems as modes of exceptional experience as noted by much of the work of Kohls and Walach. This could provide additional legitimacy for the field to address the dreaded issues of departmental politics and funding, but also as sub-segment of the much larger focus on religion and spirituality.

Terminology of a New Theory

One could argue that the primary reference point for a new theoretical term should incorporate similar language used by its parentally proceeding terminology. In this case, it appears the field of non-religion is an evolving social system, changing, adapting, and incorporating new meaning and ideas. While the social and ritual systems have similarity, it is unclear if the connection to old religious systems are a result of needing structure or if simply they serve as theoretical cynosure. In other words researchers are concerned with making the ontological and epistemological leap beyond the parental social systems which govern human behavior and structure symbolic meaning. If the new social phenomenon is to exist and, by relation, be studied on its own terms, one possible theme to consider would be to shift the term away from using religion as its terminology primary reference point.

While the space and ritual may seem similar to that of religion, as non-religion begins to form its own social structure it will become more alien to the religious meanings – explicitly or implicitly. While it will always have a historical connection to religion, the social appraisal of the system will be gained through its continued use ergo it gains value of its own as it gains complexity and is routinized in tradition. Following McCutcheon’s perspective, it will create a space where the value of non-religious discourse is on its own terms as the function and structure of a human social system. Scholars should study non-religion for the utility it brings in better understanding the human condition not because it is attached to religiosity in some way.

Certainly new research and scholarly enterprises have been spawned from other older research discourse. Why should non-religion be any different?  Rather than calling these systems non-religious as Lee suggests, consider a phrase such as the Latin ritus insula – insular, or insulate – where the definition reflects the individuality of people and value as well as the social system in which they participate. So instead of speaking of non-religious rituals we would call them ritus insula rituals, endowing the term with an alternative meaning. As the term is adopted and accepted, it begins to epitomize its own meaning in defining these social systems which are shifting away from religious meaning and connection. Dr. Lee and her colleagues should consider the theoretical and research methodological possibilities inherent in shifting the term away from religion.

A Moment of Reflexivity

As I write this response, I find myself in an inner struggle as a Social Scientist. In one sense Dr Lee’s podcast and my subsequent response beg a question of causation. For me the question has its origins in the psychological. Does atheism and/or agnosticism lead to secularization and by proxy non-religious systems of meaning? Or as a social movements continue to gain adherents, do we see a diffusion of new ideas. As is noted by scholars of innovation such as Everett Rogers (2003) there are early adopters who embrace new ideas early while there are others who are slowly drawn to the idea as popularity increases. According to Rogers – and Interestingly – a small segment of the population who are the first to adopt a new idea are called the innovators. This group typically makes up 2.5% of the population. This could map on to the ISSP data and the American Religious Identification Survey as noted earlier where there are now individuals who simply do not believe in God. This would also lead to the conclusion that European samples are much more along the Rogers continuum of diffusion. Rogers argues that as an idea is disseminated and saturated, it becomes a part of the overall culture. It can be part of cultural identity of a group. While Roger’s work was likely more concerned with products and services, such data coupled with Rogers theory would indicate that secularization is inevitable. As human society changes and more people identify with non-belief and Lee’s concept of non-religion, religious systems and beliefs as they are practiced today will cease to be. Therefore it can be assumed that such products of non-belief such as the social systems of non-religion will gain additional opportunities for observation and study. Therefore the difficultly in identifying populations and samples of non-religion may lessen over time.

This response has attempted to show the vast possibilities in collaboration, academic adaptation, and locution of non-religion as an academic study. Through the advent of globalization and with more complex social theories, new human systems of meaning are emerging within academic literature. The challenge that scholars such as Dr. Lee have is interpreting these elaborate and intricate social systems and their implications for humanity. Non-religion makes an excellent area of focus, as it appears to be an emerging phenomenon along with other research areas of atheism, secularization, and spirituality.

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About the Author:

Christopher F. Silver is an Ed. D. Candidate in Education and Leadership at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga USA. He has a masters degree in research psychology from the UT Chattanooga and a masters degree in Religion and Culture from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo Ontario Canada. He is currently conducting research on American Atheism exploring the complexities of self-identity adjectives in how atheist and agnostic participants self-describe. In addition, Mr. Silver also serves as an instructor at UT Chattanooga teaching courses in psychology and currently serves as an information technology research consultant.

Mr. Silver has collaborated in the fields of religious studies, psychology and sociology of religion. His current collaboration is as a research manager for the US team of the Bielefeld (Germany) International Study of Spirituality. His email address is Christopher-Silver@utc.edu.

References:

  • Bruce, S. (2011). Secularization: In Defense of an Unfashionable Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Hood, R. W., Hill, P. C. & Spilka, B. (2009). The psychology of religion: an empirical approach. (4th ed.). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Kohls, N. & Walach H. (2006). Exceptional experiences and spiritual practice: a new measurement approach. Spirituality and Heath International.  7. 125–150.
  • Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.
  • Kosmin, B. A., & Keysar, A. (Eds.) (2007). Secularism and secularity: Contemporary international perspectives. Hartford, CT: Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture.
  • Roozen, D. A. (1980). Church dropouts: changing patterns of disengagement and re-entry. Review of Religious Research, 21(4), 427-450.