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Spatial Contestations and Conversions

Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, particularly in a European context, might be quite familiar with the sight of a former church building that has now turned derelict, or is being used for a purposes that perhaps it wasn’t intended for, or is being rejuvenated by another ‘religious’ community, another Christian community, or put to some other use. Chris is joined today by Daan Beekers to discuss spatial contestations and conversions, particularly looking at (former) church buildings in the Dutch context. We discuss some of the research projects he has been involved in, before looking at two particular case studies – the Fatih Mosque, and the Chassé Dance Studios – where Church ‘conversions’ have taken place. We discuss the various discursive entanglements surrounding these buildings, and the contested notions of heritage that come from different constituencies who are invested in their presence. Finally, we ask if there is anything necessarily ‘religious’ going on here… (Unsurprisingly, the answer is, ‘it’s complicated… but there’s nothing sui generis).

Listeners may be interested to check out Daan’s recent blog post, Converted Churches: Matters of Entanglement, Heritage and Home.

They are also encouraged to listen to our previous podcasts with Kim Knott on “Religion, Space and Locality” and Peter Collins on “Religion and the Built Environment.”

 

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


Spatial Contestations and Conversions

Podcast with Daan Beekers (10 June 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Beekers – Spatial Contestations and Conversions 1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, particularly in a European context, might be quite familiar with the sight of a former church building that has now turned derelict, or is being used for purpose that perhaps it wasn’t intended for, or is being rejuvenated by another religious community – another Christian community – and so on. That’s certainly the case here in Edinburgh, where I did my doctoral work. And I’m joined today by Daan Beekers to discuss spatial contestations and conversions, particularly looking at former or different church buildings in the Dutch context. So first-off, Daan – welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Daan Beekers (DB): Thank you. Thanks for having me.

CC: No problem, Daan. Daan is currently a post-doctoral research fellow here at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. And before coming here he was a post doc researcher at the Department of Religious Studies in Utrecht, where he was researching the abandonment and repurposing of church buildings, first with the HERA project, Iconic Religion, and then with Birgit Meyer’s research programme Religious Matters in an Entangled World. And we’ll hear about both of these, presently. His doctoral dissertation was defended in 2015 at VU Amsterdam. It involved doing a comparative ethnographic study of religious commitment among young Dutch Muslims and Christians. And he’s currently completing a book manuscript based on this work. And his publications include the volume, Straying from the Straight Path: How senses of failure invigorate lived religion, published with Berghahn. And he co-edited that with David Kloos. So, Daan, first-off, let’s, maybe . . . . Before we hear about the Dutch context in general, it might help if you could maybe situate your work, and the trajectory of it, within those two big research projects. I know I certainly know a lot about Iconic Religion, through its UK team – which involved Kim Knott who was my doctoral supervisor. Tell us a little bit about those projects.

DB: Sure, yes. So the Iconic Religion project started in 2014. And I joined that just after completing my PhD thesis – I was actually still completing it when I joined that project. And that was a project on the visible presence of religion in urban space, specifically in Amsterdam, Berlin and London. The project was a co-operation between researchers of Lancaster University, which is where Kim Knott is still based, and then Utrecht University with Birgit Meyer and Bochum University with Volkhard Krech. And so yes it really focused on how people in their everyday lives encounter religion in a very tangible, visible way. And I was coming from doing my PhD thesis on religious youth – so, young Muslims and Christians in a Dutch secular society – which, actually, very much focused on religious commitment and, in a sense, religious vitality. And I always kind-of knew that there was another side to the story of religion in the Netherlands, which is of course rapid secularisation, and the drop in numbers of Church attendance. And then I was starting to notice all these buildings in the Netherlands which are being closed down and converted for other purposes. So I kind-of got more and more interested in this other side of the story. So, what happens to Christian culture, Christian material culture, when church buildings are no longer being attended by people? And so, when I applied to this project called Iconic Religion, I argued in my research proposal, “Well, this project is on the visible presence of religion in the city, and I would actually argue that the transformation of Church buildings is actually one of the most important changes in how religion is present or absent in the city.” So that got me on to the project. And I started that in Amsterdam.

CC: And then we’ll hear now, I suppose, about the specific work that you did. But, again, we’ve hinted at it there. (5:00) But for the sake of our Listeners who may not know anything about the Dutch context, maybe just a two-minute “Religion in the Netherlands”. . ? Particularly, perhaps, Amsterdam, where . . . .

DB: Yes. So, the Netherlands has sometimes been characterised as one of the most religious nations of Europe, or one of the most Christianised nations of Europe. So religion was very important in Dutch history, and for the political emancipation of, or independence of, the Netherlands, vis-à-vis its former ruler, Spain, which was Catholic. So the Dutch, in their own perception, liberated themselves from Spain and became a Protestant nation. So Protestant identity was very important in the Netherlands for quite some time. Catholicism, and also what were seen as dissenting Protestant groups, were given very little space to observe their religion. And then, you’ve got the process of what is known in the Netherlands as pillarisation – so the coming about of different pillars. After the French revolution, when Catholics were again given the room to practise their religion and to manifest themselves in public space, you got this very strong mobilisation of religious sub-cultures, or pillars, that were really important in people’s everyday lives. They really organised much of social life in terms of schools housing, work and so on. So, in that time, religion was very important in the Netherlands. And this was actually up until, like, the 1950s. And then, as elsewhere, a rapid process of secularisation was setting in, or “un-churching”, as we say in Dutch. I think this isn’t a very common word in English. But I like the term un-churching, because it’s more specific than secularisation. There are, of course, a lot of debates about whether . . . what secularisation is, and to what extent it has taken place. So the Netherlands changed from being one of the most Christianised nations of Europe, to becoming one of the most de-Christianised ones. With, as I said, a very quick process of secularisation to the extent that, today, only about twenty-five percent of the population state that they are church members (although overall religious affiliation is higher). Only about half of them would actually attend religious spaces on a regular basis. So it has become, in that sense, a very secular country today.

CC: And am I right in saying . . . is this an Amsterdam stat or a Dutch stat, that two churches are closing per week?

DB: Yes, so this is a Dutch . . . a national . . . it’s been estimated. . . . So, hundreds of churches have closed down in the last few decades. And the state’s agency of cultural heritage estimated that the rate of church closures will continue at around two churches a week. But I’ve also been told by others, by another agency organisation in the Netherlands, that this should actually be four churches a week. It would be a more realistic estimate. So it’s really an astonishing speed by which these buildings are being closed down.

CC: Absolutely. So before we get into some of your specific case studies, I think when we first met to discuss this interview, one of the first things I wrote down is, like, “We’ll have no ‘essence’ questions” (Laughs) Which is my critical RS, wanting to emphasise that even by having this conversation we’re not saying that a building in itself is religious, or that it is sacred or holy. What we’re doing is we’re looking at the ways in which buildings are interacted with, and discursively constructed, and the way they occupy space in the heritage discourse, and the individual, and community memories, and so on. So we want to make sure that we get that in there. But it’s not inherently holy, in that sense. But then also, in one of the arguments that you sent that I read through, you spoke about the difference between “theories in heritage” and “theories of heritage”. And that might be a useful thing to mention, just before we go into the case study. (10:00)

DB: Yes these are terms, I think, coined in an article by Waterton and Watson – “Framing Theory“, I think the article is called – and so they distinguish between different kinds of theories about heritage. And one distinction that they make that I find helpful is that between theories in heritage, and theories of heritage. What you see when you look at literature on Christian material culture, a lot of that work . . . not all of it, obviously, but quite a bit of that work kind-of asks, “How can we preserve this heritage for future generations? So, “What are the best practices in preserving this?” “What threatens it?” And so on. So all these are questions which I think are very important, but they are questions that are located within the heritage discourse. So it’s already taken for granted that these are important cases of heritage. And a theory of heritage, as Waterton and Watson put it, would actually ask, “What makes these things heritage?” “Why are they defined as heritage, and by whom?” So there is the whole question of representation, and discourse, and power relations, and so on. For what purposes are they heritage-ised? A terrible word! A tongue twister. And also, what kind of new fault-lines emerge in this process? So who’s being left out? So that’s quite interesting work being done now in Christian heritage, which also talks about the way populist politicians, for example, are now very apt at mobilising Judaeo-Christian heritage in their political discourses. But, in important ways, it’s also a discursive tool to exclude Muslims and migrants, and so on. So it’s also a way of defining who’s “out”. So that would be more kind-of a theory of heritage approach.

CC: Yes. So analysing all these discourses that are invoking heritage – who’s included and excluded; why certain things are thought to be worthy of preservation . . . .And indeed, for example, in my own work in Edinburgh, yes – there’s plenty of the idea that all these churches are part of the urban heritage that should be preserved, etc. But first of all, what should they be preserved for? And we’ll get onto that in your examples. There are certain uses that are seen as more or less appropriate. But also there’s a certain image of what a church is. And here in the Southside of Edinburgh we’ve got the Salvation Army, over on St Leonards, and we’ve got the True Jesus Church, down in Gifford Park, which have both been there for decades and decades. But they don’t look like churches, in the popular imagination. So they don’t feature in anyone’s idea of something that should be preserved. Because there’s a very specific thing that looks like a church, that should be preserved.

DB: Exactly, yeah.

CC: OK. That’s contextualised it a bit here, I think. I think we’re probably going to use two examples, particularly. There’s the Fatih Mosque – and I don’t know if I’m going to pronounce it right – it’s the Chassé . . .

DB: Chassé Church, that’s it.

CC: And, possibly, starting with the Fatih Mosque: I guess, the example of the various discursive entanglements that are going on. Tell us about it, and why it’s interesting?

DB: Yes, sure. I was just thinking of the Fatih Mosque, actually, when you were making that point about church buildings being recognisable, or not, as churches. Because the Fatih Mosque is one of the biggest, larges mosques in Amsterdam, that has been around for a few decades already. It opened in 1982. But it’s located in a former Catholic church on the Rozengracht, in the centre of Amsterdam – actually very near to the Anne Frank House, which many people would know, and the Western Church.

CC: I presume I’ve seen it, actually, when I was in Amsterdam. But I didn’t notice it.

DB: Exactly! And that’s the . . . and people, actually, even don’t notice the church even though it’s quite a big, monumental church. But I think many people are very much focussed on the Western Church which is like the main Protestant church right next to the Anne Frank house. And it kind-of . . . the Rozengracht, the street, is a street that people quickly pass through. So somehow, when I talk to my friends and family in Amsterdam they often don’t even know this church (15:00). Sometimes they do. But they . . . almost none of them would know that there is a mosque in that church at the moment. And that’s, actually, also an issue that the mosque community is facing at the moment. So I’ve written an article – together with my Utrecht-based colleague Pooyan Tamimi Arab – for a special issue on iconic religion in the journal Material Religion. And there we also showed how the mosque community, especially its younger members, are struggling with this image of being a kind-of a “hidden mosque”. And it’s actually this very term, hidden mosque, that is often used by people – by visitors to the mosque, for example, and also by non-Muslim visitors who are local politicians, and so on. And that’s actually one of the points we make in that article: that it’s interesting that this term is used, the notion of a hidden house of worship. Because it’s actually a historical discursive genre in Dutch religious history, which was used in that time that I referred to earlier, when Catholics were not allowed to publicly worship. So they had to resort to clandestine churches, often in attics, and these were called hidden churches.

CC: But why is it so hidden, then? You’re right about . . . . It’s something to do with the entrance, in particular, and there’s no signage. So, you know, why is it so hidden? How does that make . . . I guess you’ve mentioned the young people sort-of constructing it in that way. How do the users of the mosque feel and how are they . . . Are they trying to combat that image now?

DB: Yes, so it’s quite interesting. So this has to do with the material legacy of the church building. So the very fact that there are located in a church means that they are not very recognisable as a mosque. There’s a mosque nearby that’s also in a church building that also few people would realise or recognise as such. Another important point is that it has to do with a kind-of mismatch between Muslim sacred space and the way in which this particular building was organised. So when this Muslim community constructed their mosque within this building it turned out quite quickly that the direction of prayer in Islam, the qibla, was precisely the opposite direction to the direction which the Catholics had prayed. So normally you would come into the church through the entrance and you would face the altar and pray in the direction of the altar. And in this case this was facing the west. So what the Muslim community did, or had to do, was to construct . . . to close down the entrance, basically, to construct a wall there, which would become their prayer wall, as it were, the site of the prayer niche. And they constructed a very small entrance on the side. And what was the former entrance of the church became a space for shops. So, at the moment, there’s actually a bike shop there. So, when you pass this building, the first thing you see is a bike shop. And it is quite difficult to actually realise that there is a mosque here. So what this community is doing is they’re currently in the process of building a new entrance, in order to become more visible as a Mosque. Another interesting thing in this respect, perhaps, is that also in a way it’s also a story about history repeating itself. Because on this very site, there once was – before the Catholics built their church there – there was a headquarters of an important socialist movement in the Netherlands. And so that site was first converted into a chapel by Jesuits, Catholic Jesuits. But they were facing similar problems that the Muslims are facing now. They kind-of felt, in that time – the early twentieth century – as one catholic author said, “This place remains a theatre of socialists.” We have our altar but we know this was once the stage from which the socialist leaders would give their . . . not sermons, but lectures (20:00). And their political rallies. And you know one of the only things that would mark out the place as Catholic was that they placed a big cross on the top. And similarly for the mosque now, one of the only things that marks it out as a mosque is that they placed a crescent on top of the church. So these small things that mark out the space. But it’s also a struggle, with people, that conversion is never really complete, right? So people always struggle, very often struggle, in a converted space with what I’ve elsewhere called sacred residue, or some kind of leftover of its previous use. Which might enable, might make certain things possible, but it also constrains particular usage or representations of the space.

CC: And some of that might be material presence, material evidence, in a sense, or some of it might be discursive and remembered. If I were to go in there, I may not know anything about its socialist history, but I would probably be able to detect the mosque and the Catholic church, but again that shows the importance of historical context and the lived memory of the space as well. So sticking with former Catholic churches, then, the Chassé Church gives some really good illustrations of how this notion of heritage is mobilised or contested by a variety of different constituencies. Perhaps again, you could just introduce that specific case study, but then also all the different groups who have a stake in it?

DB: Yes. Sure. OK. So this Chassé Church was also a Catholic church, from around the same time as the one I’ve just talked about. So they were both built in the 1920s. And they both, actually, had a relatively short life. So the Chassé Church closed down in 1997, because of dwindling attendance. And then it was actually desolate for many years. It was dilapidated, the building wasn’t doing very well. And there was a lot of conflict around what should happen to it – the building. And what’s very fascinating, in this case, is that when it closed down in the late 90s, both the municipality and the Catholic church – the diocese and the local parish – actually decided to demolish the building. They said “It’s going to be very difficult to re-use the space in a productive or efficient way. It also doesn’t really have any kind-of special heritage qualities. And also . . .” not unimportantly, “it will get us more money if we demolish it and sell the land.” And the Catholic church very much needed this money because they had to renovate another church in that neighbourhood that was going to be their main Catholic church, parish church. But then local residents, who were themselves not church-going, started to mobilise themselves and to very much advocate for the preservation of this church building. So you have this really interesting debate basically between the local Catholic organisation that says “We can get rid of this building. We don’t need it anymore and it’s not going to be helpful to leave it there.” And local people, who are not part of that community, who actually stand up for it to “save” – quote-unquote – that space.

CC: People who probably didn’t particularly care about it when it wasn’t being threatened. It was just a part of their familiar urban environment.

DB: Exactly, yeah.

CC: And, I guess, when this moment happened where it was potentially going to be threatened, then . . . .

DB: Yeah. That’s a very interesting point. It’s interesting to see how people suddenly become aware of these kind-of iconic sites when they’re threatened to . . . disappear, really. So in this case you see different, quite different positions. So I’m trying to make sense of this paradox, if you will, between local people who you might describe as non-religious and want to safeguard this building, and Catholics who want to demolish it. Trying to make sense of that, I’ve conducted fieldwork there and talked to many different groups involved (25:00). And what I’ve found is that people ascribe quite different values to a site like a church building. So, for many people, they would say, “OK this is more than a building.” So this is kind-of mantra that you hear very often, in these discussions. But what they mean by this mantra, “This is more than a building” is very different for different parties involved. So, for kind-of the parish leadership and the officials of the diocese, the religious leaders there, they would say, “The church is the house of God.” You know? So it is a very important religious meaning. It’s a sacred place. It’s consecrated. And sure, you know, when it’s closed down it gets deconsecrated. But in the memories of people it always remains associated with something sacred. So it’s very difficult to remove this aura of sacredness from a Catholic church. So that’s a strong . . . so they kind-of see the church as a house of God, really. And then if you talk with the local parishioners, so the members of the community, they would often share this view. They would say, “Yes. It’s an important religious space, sacred, a place of God.” But what struck me is that for them it’s also, very importantly, about community, you know. So a place of a local community coming together. A very familiar place that’s imbued with local histories, but also personal memories, and so on. So it’s a really communal place in that sense. People have all kinds of very intimate, personal memories of church buildings. And they went through very important personal life events there, baptisms, weddings and so on. And I talked to these local parishioners. It may be also good to say that the ones . . . . I mean, this is quite a long time ago. But I manged to find a few of them who were still around. And they said, “You know, at the time we were quite OK with the idea of demolishing the church because for us . . .” Like, one of them said, “When I go back to the church now, and it has been . . .”I don’t know if we mentioned this, but it has been converted to a dance studios. So it’s now a dance studio. And she said, “If I’m back there now it really feels uncanny. You know? It feels . . . it’s no longer a church. It’s no longer what it was in my memories.” And it is still connected to many of the memories, so it’s still a very important place for her, but it is no longer what it once was. So it’s kind-of a disorienting experience for her. And then you have. . . . But then the local residents who were very unhappy about the idea of demolishing the church, for them it’s very much a place of local belonging: a place that makes them feel at home in their neighbourhoods – especially after it was converted. You see that many of these local residents are very happy about the way in which the converted church building, as a dance studio, brings back life to the neighbourhood, a sense of community and belonging, and so on. So what I found very interesting here is that whereas for many parishioners the closing down of the church represents a loss of their home, for these people it actually indicates a return of a home – or something that helps them to feel at home in their neighbourhood.

CC: Exactly. I found, again, non-church attending individuals in the Southside here, talking about, for instance, the Southside Community Centre, which was the former Nicholson Street Church. And it was a carpet storage place for a while. And now it’s a community centre. So I heard time and again the idea of “I didn’t like it being a carpet showroom. Now it’s a useful place”, or someone else said, “I really like that it’s sort-of being used for what it was built for – for the community.” And again, these are people who weren’t participating in it when it was a religious place or – quote-unquote – “religious”. But now that’s being used, it’s fulfilling some sort of model of the ideal: “This is what religion, or Christianity, is meant to be.”

DB: Right. Yeah. And it’s interesting that you say that. Because it’s the very same point that the owner of the dance studios makes time and time again: that by giving it its new purpose, he’s actually bringing back the building to its original purpose, which is bringing people together (30:00). But of course it was bringing people together before God, for a very particular purpose of worship, right? You know, and that part is, in that sense, left out. Even though that guy, the owner, I should say, is quite spiritually inclined and interested in religion. But then you have – and it’s maybe an important point to make – other local residents who – and in a sense that’s like a fourth group giving a particular meaning to the building – who very much emphasise the way in which the church building is a very important part of Dutch religious history, and symbolises Dutch history. And, actually, the spokesperson of the local committee advocating the preservation of the church very often made this point. And said, you know, “If you demolish these buildings, you actually demolish your history.” And so, what I found interesting in that case is that these people actually said – the spokesperson and like-minded people – they didn’t really care that much about what happened to the building, right? They said, “As long as it’s not getting too much of a nuisance” in terms of, like, parking space problems and that debate. But they didn’t really care whether it would be repurposed for religious use, or secular use, or whatever else, as long as the building is preserved. “Because that building is important for who we are, for our identity.” So there you get more of Christianity as cultural heritage discourse, which is often kind-of propagated by people – like the ones in this case – who quite explicitly distance themselves from Christian beliefs, and doctrines, and so on. They’re often quite self-consciously secularised people who are none-the-less very passionate about the importance of Christianity as culture, or as history, as art, as identity, and so on.

CC: Yes. So there we have those four constituencies: the institutional church; the parishioners, or former parishioners; the local residents, non-participating residents; and this whole sort-of heritage, industry, story and that kind of thing. And you can see how these different discourses they could maybe even use the same language but they could be mobilised for quite different purposes – positive or negative, depending how you wanted to inflect it. We’re already pretty much out of time here, and I know that we could talk on a lot more. But we’ll certainly direct Listeners to . . . You have an excellent blog post which summarises a lot of this. And your Material Religion article. And hopefully some more will be coming out. But I just wanted to finish with a final couple of questions that we’ve been talking around this. We’ve been talking about former churches . . . and we should also say that sometimes there’ll be a church that’s then used by another Christian group. That hasn’t really come up . . . .

DB: Very often, yes.

CC: But is there anything. . . Would we find these same sort of processes happening if we were looking at buildings that weren’t churches . . . that were just sort-of other prominent local buildings? Or does that question even make any sense? Is there something to do with these being churches that has meant that they are given their sort-of iconic status? Is there anything inherently religious here? I know the answers before I get there . . . (Laughs).

DB: In part. Partly yes, partly no. So I think you see similar things happening with non-religious sites: old post offices, water towers and these kinds of sites which are often very important local landmarks, and often inspire the same kinds of local concerns about maintenance and preservation. These places belong to who we are, and to our identity as a neighbourhood. But at the same time I do think there is something . . . . It’s always kind-of a bit risky when you talk about this, because you get to this “There’s something extra to these buildings.” But in the way that people talk about it – so if you look at people’s narratives, and the ways in which they relate to these buildings – people often have this kind-of idea of sacredness associated with these church buildings (35:00). Or, as one local resident said to me in relation to the Chassé Church a few years ago . . . . The clock was restored to the tower. It had been silent for a few years. And it had been restored now. And he said to me, “Now I feel that the soul of the neighbourhood is back.” So there seems to be this sense a kind-of spiritual or religious side to these buildings that is important for the way in which people relate to them. But also, I think, especially when you look at today’s debates about heritage, this religious aspect is also really important. And this really marks these places out, or sets them apart from, for example, old post offices. The fact that such buildings really lend themselves to this kind-of idea that these sites are a part of our religious heritage, they are very important to our identity and to who we are as Dutch people, as European people, as British or Scottish people. And I think that’s an interesting shift, also, that’s happening now in our kind-of post-secular age, if you want. This move from people complaining a lot about churches, and taking a lot of distance from religion, to re-appraising religion – but in very particular ways. In ways that emphasise history, art, culture and heritage.

CC: Yes, so there’s a sort of lingering insider discourse, I suppose, of their sacrality, and the import of the buildings. But then also in these urban spaces, in Western Europe, it is going to be churches that were given prominent spaces. They were intentionally built to be eye-catching, and dominating the skyline, and the centres of communities. So is it any wonder, when we do look for sites where there are lots of discursive contestations happening . . . ? It probably is going to end up being these places, regardless of any sui generis argument about them having some inherent qualities. Historically, they’ve been prominent, due to these specificities. So what’s next? For you? You’re writing up your book?

DB: I’m actually . . . at the moment I’m very much working on my older project, in a way, which is still also my current project on comparison of Muslims and Christians in the Netherlands. I’m trying to finish my book manuscript now. I’m also working on a special issue on this topic. And I’m hoping, in the future, perhaps here in Scotland, to kind-of converge these two projects together. That’s kind-of my hope and my aspiration. So, to really connect this study of what happens to Christian material culture to questions about religious pluralism and relationships between Muslims and Christians, religious co-existence, and so on. So in a way that’s also already what I was doing in the case of the Fatih Mosque in Amsterdam. But I’m expanding a bit on that. And, yeah, to kind-of see if we could, or if I could, use questions of heritage as a lens to look into religious diversity and co-existence.

CC: Well, Daan Beekers, we look forward to the fruits of that research as it emerges. And thank you for your time.

DB: Thank you very much. Thanks so much.

 


Citation Info: Beekers, Daan and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “Spatial Contestations and Conversions”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 10 June 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 June 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/spatial-contestations-and-conversions/

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Ours Can Be To Reason Why

Lynn Davidman’s recent RSP interview illustrates why her work is important, serious, and engaging.  As I listened to the podcast, three ideas came to mind.

First, I was delighted to hear Davidman describe much of the literature on conversion and deconversion as Christian-centric.  While I think she could have made this point even more compellingly in the podcast, it is an important point that is rarely considered in the social scientific research on religion.  Davidman argued that the term “apostasy” doesn’t work well for Jews because their religiosity is more about practice and identity than it is about faith.  Faith and belief are central to Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, as “right views” (to steal a phrase from Buddhism) are more important than “right actions” (to steal another). Davidman argued that the inverse is true in Judaism, though beliefs do matter at some level, as she noted with Spinoza, whose heresy regarding the nature of God resulted in his excommunication from the Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam in 1656.  The language and thinking about conversion and “deconversion” prominent in most of the scientific literature does focus heavily on what people think or believe rather than what they do.  This is even observed among prominent critics of religion and leaders of New Atheism, as Richard Dawkins has admitted to celebrating Christmas and enjoying Christmas carols.  I think the more important point here, however, is that Davidman could have taken this point even further by noting that “conversion” is always toward religion, while “deconversion” or “becoming ex-” is always away from religion.  As Joseph Hammer and I pointed out in a paper we published in 2011, this use of language continues to privilege religion over nonreligion.  How is leaving religion substantively different from joining a religion?  What is different about the process?  If both require changes in beliefs, practices, social networks, and overall worldviews, why do we privilege one as “conversion” and the other as “deconversion” or “becoming an ex-“?  While perspectives about conversion are Christian-centric, the idea of conversion itself is religion-centric.

Second, Davidman’s incorporation of gender into the process of conversion is another important insight to take away from this podcast.  Converts to religion or away from it don’t just learn how to become a good member of their new group.  They learn to how to become a good male or female member of their new group.  Davidman also noted that what it typically means to be a devout member of a religious group is what is expected of men, not of women.  This is an important insight deriving from intersectionality; the experience of religious conversion (toward or away from religion) is not just a religious experience, but also a gendered experience.  Whenever someone joins a group, they learn not just the expectations for group membership, but also the expectations for the members of the group who are like them (e.g., in terms of class, gender, race, sexual identity, etc.).  I think Davidman could have extended this argument a bit further as well.  Beyond forcing those who want to be part of a religious group or organization to adopt gender roles, it is important to recognize that many religions have helped create the very idea of gender and continue to reinforce it (see Sumerau, Cragun, and Mathers forthcoming).  Davidman’s critique of the gendering of conversion processes can be extended by asking how such processes would work for transgender, agender, or genderqueer individuals.  How might a genderqueer individual (someone who rejects the gender binary and tries not to do gender or does it in a new, non-binary way) experience conversion?  What are the expected beliefs and behaviors of a genderqueer Jew or transgender Methodist?  If such expected beliefs or behaviors don’t readily come to mind, that is because binary conceptions of gender are central to most religious sacred canopies.

Third and finally, I liked how Davidman drew a distinction between Weberian and Durkheimian approaches to studying the social world.  The Durkheimian approach is to find the general in the particular, while the Weberian approach is to find the particular in the general.  Davidman, drawing on Weber and Geertz, situated her work in the local and noted that she prefers not to ask “why” people do what they do but rather “how” they do it.  How people leave Orthodox Judaism is important to understand.  But I’m also not convinced that “why” is irrelevant.  I do find compelling the growing body of research suggesting that humans create post hoc justifications for their behavior to make their behavior seem more rational rather than actually acting rationally. However, I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to discover why humans do what they do.  People’s initial responses as to why they did something may not be accurate as they, themselves, may not know why they did something.  But isn’t there something useful in knowing how people construct narratives that explain their behaviors?  Whether or not the stories people tell to explain their behavior are 100% accurate, they are the stories people tell.  Social scientists may not be able to discern “actual” motives from “believed” or “constructed” motives without the help of neuroscience or other as yet undiscovered methodologies and technologies, but we can come to understand more about how people think by asking them to construct a narrative that explains “why.”  Additionally, while there is value in understanding the particular, there is also value in understanding the general.  Asking people why they leave religions may not perfectly reflect their motivations, but it may offer some insights into how they viewed the process.  Asking why can be problematic in that, if it does reflect general processes, it could be used to try to staunch the flow of people out of religion, as seems to be the aim of a sizable percentage of prior research on people exiting religion (Cragun and Hammer 2011). But it could also be argued that the growing secular movement could use these general understandings of why people leave religion to heighten the flow of people out of religion.  Whether or not one prefers to prevent or facilitate the flow of people in or out of religion, those of us who study religion scientifically should recognize that our work can be and often is applied by those with vested interests in what we study.

References

Cragun, Ryan T., and Joseph H. Hammer. 2011. “‘One Person’s Apostate is Another Person’s Convert’: Reflections on Pro-Religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion.” Humanity & Society 35(February/May):149-175.

Sumerau, J. Edward, Ryan T. Cragun, and Lain A. B. Mathers. forthcoming. “Contemporary Religion and the Cisgendering of Reality.” Social Currents.

Conversion and Deconversion as Concepts in the Sociology of Religion

Religious conversion has traditionally been understood as the abandonment of one religious identity for another, or a switch from no religious identification to a newly religious one. Psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and others have viewed conversion as a sudden, singular event in one’s life. In the 1960s and 1970s, in the wake of new religious movements and the flowering of Asian religious traditions in the West, sociologists reformulated conversion as an active, gradual process of transformation.

Conversion, in these understandings, is not a changed subjective or ontological identity but rather a shift in one’s discursive universe, social relationships, and embodied practices, a new role learned through language, behavior, and interpersonal boundary maintenance. Similarly, deconversion and its scholarly synonyms (apostasy, alienation, disaffiliation, defection, exit, leaving) has many contexts, motivations, and processes, including loss of a specific religious experience, doubt or denial of beliefs, moral criticism, emotional suffering, and unlearning particular vocabularies and behaviors.

For this interview with Lynn Davidman, we focus on the concepts of conversion and deconversion*, illustrations of these processes in various contexts, what each term means and how each is experienced in someone’s life, the histories of these terms and their use in scholarship, and issues that arise from their conceptualization or use.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, jelly beans, the artist formally known as “Prince” memorial T-shirts, and more.

*Our interview took place during the Association for the Sociology of Religion annual meeting, held in Chicago. During our conversation, Davidman refers to comments made at an author-meets-critics panel about her new book which took place earlier that day.

*For more on conversion, see L. Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion (1993) and L. Rambo and C. Farhadian, The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion (2014), as well as D. Snow and R. Machalek, “The Sociology of Conversion” (1984).

*For more on deconversion, see H. Streib et al, Deconversion (2009) and P. Zuckerman, Faith No More (2011).

Human Consciousness & Religious Reality

It was real to me. There I was, curled into a corner, comforter wrapped around my shaking limbs and sweating torso, twisted in terror in the sinister hours of the morning. The salt of my tears were laced with the visceral reality of a specter, a monster, or some strange creature slowly scratching its course along the hallway outside my bedroom. I never saw the demon. I eventually fell asleep in exhaustion, still crimped into the corner of my room. The memory of those tormenting moments is still forbidding and physical for me, etched forever into my consciousness. Was it ontologically real? That is beyond the purview of my recollection. Was it real in my mind? Damn straight.

In a recent interview with Jeffrey J. Kripal, the RSP talked with the man who holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University about his recent works Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (Chicago, 2011) and Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2010).

In these works, Kripal shared how participation in what we call “the sacred” is a critical element that undergirds religious understanding and activity. From his perspective, human consciousness qualifies, as well as anything else, as “the sacred” itself, and must therefore be addressed and wrestled with by any self-respecting student of religion.

Particularly, Kripal argued that generally marginalized authors who have attempted to theorize the paranormal be treated as central to the religious project, even though their work deals with marvels deemed outside both mainstream scientific and/or religious parameters. These authors, Kripal contested, are “authors of the impossible,” but that does not make them charlatans or crackpots. Although Kripal does not come to conclusions about the ontological reality of these phenomena, and maintains a scholarly agnosticism, he does insist that the paranormal must be understood on its own terms (Authors of the Impossible, 158). Though these marvels may not be appreciated as “real,” they cannot be simply explained away or dismissed with snark or sarcasm either (all too often the case among “respectable scholars”).

Kripal fleshes this out in Mutants and Mystics, which acts as a case-study of sorts, applying the aforementioned theory to the symbiosis between paranormal believers and the production of superhero pop culture. As Kripal pointed out, many of the most popular science fiction and superhero creators were metaphysicists and New Age apostles. They imbued their fantasy narratives with spiritual themes that revealed that the sacred resides in each one of us and we, ourselves, are the superheroes, the true miracles of the divine world. Yes, indeed, behind the veil of science in the sci-fi genre, there is a touch of the ethereal, he asserted. This perspective lends itself to a “new anthropology” where, in the words of Kripal, “the Human [is] Two (and One),” which, “is the neuroanatomical, cognitive, and spiritual bedrock of the paranormal and its fantastic both-and, physical-mythical, masterful-mental, real-unreal expressions in popular culture.” (Mutants and Mystics, 333)

All-in-all, Kripal’s outlook stands as a corrective to purely anthropological, political, or economic analyses of religion as social construct. Counteracting strictly Durkheimian models, Kripal re-centers “the sacred” — posited as “consciousness” — as not only important to understanding religion, but as its critical point of departure. Essentially, Kripal calls out the religious studies world for not having a sufficient appreciation of the power of imagination and invites scholars and the interested public into a new comparativism that moves away from strict materialism.

As an ethnographer of religion, I appreciate this remedial position. I first encountered Kripal’s work as a journalist covering religion in Houston, the home of Rice University. This led to multiple conversations between the two of us about religion, the study thereof, and academia in general. While we come from two different perspectives and ask critically different questions as we approach the same topic, I value Kripal’s emphasis on the conscious as the seat of “the sacred.” While he readily admits that he is not concerned with the sociological questions of religion, and instead recasts some of the Otto and Eliade perspectives on “the numinous,” his viewpoint impacts me as an ethnographer.

I am often frustrated by the lack of empathy from the perspective of sociologists and ethnographers who study religion (and, for that matter, historians, political scientists, economists, and armchair scholars), but do not take the reality of religious experiences seriously. There are certainly exceptions to this rule (Daniel Levine’s Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism immediately comes to mind), but in general the great swathe of scholars dealing with religion too easily dismiss the complexity of human consciousness, the power of the psycho-social, and the reality of the sacred.

As Kripal intimated in the interview, the applications of his perspective reach beyond New Religious Movements or paranormal phenomena and include historical analyses and contemporary studies of local and global religioscapes. Immediately, I can think of ethnographers working on the use of amulets and talismans in West Africa, the role of dreams in conversion to Christianity and/or Islam, or Pentecostal healing practices in Latin America.

While these cases may be summarily theorized by many as elements of social control, political context, or economic realities there is ample need to appreciate these occurrences as they occur — as real to those experiencing them. Although researchers should not treat them as ontological fact, they can at the very least be approached as “real” in respect to the human conscious.

And yet, the problem occurs when these experiences contradict each other. Take, for example, dreams that lead to conversion (or occur during the process thereof). While not the majority, I discovered in my own research that some Latina/o Muslims convert because of mystical dream experiences. One “revert” related the content of a dream wherein, “Allah spoke to me and told me I have to change.” Another related that she “had the same dream three times” in which she was in Mecca, wearing a hijab, and felt close to her other Muslim sisters there. Soon after she converted to Islam. Interestingly enough, these experiences mirror reports of many missionaries and Christian converts in the Middle East who also claim that dreams are playing a significant role in Muslims converting to Christianity. Furthermore, there is evidence that dreams have frequently played a role in conversions throughout history, including the mass conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the 7th-century. What does the reality of these experiences mean when they seem to lead in different convictional directions?

Further, while Kripal’s points about consciousness and the sacred prove a potent corrective, they cannot stand on their own in the study of religion. Even if Kripal himself is not concerned with religion as a social construct, we cannot neglect the social realities of religion. In fact, rather than treating the human as two (and one), perhaps we should theorize the human as three (and one). First, as a “conscious subject” (which Kripal makes us critically aware of); second, as an “embodied physicality”; and third, as a “socially constructed being” shaped by their social context and a conscience collective (to invoke Durkheim).

Regardless of these critiques and ruminations on my part, Kripal’s theory deserves attention and examination on the part of religious studies scholars. There certainly is no easy answer in dealing with such complex discussions such as human consciousness and religious reality, but that is no reason why we should not pursue it from multiple perspectives and ends, which Kripal worthily invites us to do.

(Buddhist) Mission to Burma: Dhammaloka, Lokanatha, and Early Western Converts to Buddhism

I first met Laurence Cox and the figure of Dhammaloka in 2012 at a conference at University College Cork in Ireland titled “Pioneer European Buddhists and Asian Buddhist Networks.” I was there to present a paper on Salvatore Cioffi (1897-1963), an Italian immigrant to Brooklyn who earned a degree in chemistry at Cooper Union in 1922 and converted to Buddhism a few years later after a chance encounter with The Dhammapada at the New York Public Library. Cioffi left his family and sailed to Burma to be ordained a monk. He took to Buddhism with a convert’s zeal, and, renamed as Lokanatha, he spent the rest of his days as a preacher, author, and organizer throughout Asia and across the globe. His decades-long efforts trying to convert the Indian political activist Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar to Buddhism had astonishing consequences. In 1956, Ambedkar formally converted to Buddhism and half a million of the Dalits he advocated for followed suit in the largest mass religious conversion in history.

As we shared stories about Dhammaloka and Lokanatha, it started to become clear to me, Cox, and other conference-goers that the individuals we thought were singular rather overlapped with and complimented one another. Both came from Catholic countries, converted to Buddhism, and with Burma as a base, preached the Dharma throughout Asia while using their position as celebrity Western outsiders to strengthen their support of Buddhism and respective attacks on Christian missionaries and contemporary civilization. Separated by several decades, they also seemed to mark complementarily the periods that Laurence Cox mentions in his interview of the late-nineteenth century, politically and nationalistically-minded Buddhist revivals, and later pan-Asian movements that tried to assert Buddhism on a modern, global stage.

Perhaps the true shock of recognition came when two newspaper images, thirty-seven years apart, were brought together. One depicted Dhammaloka in 1911 clad as a Tibetan lama walking on the hair of devout Burmese Buddhist women in a ritual for such a “field of merit” as the converted Irish hobo. The other was a photograph taken of Lokanatha on the streets of Hollywood, a publicity stunt egged on by his host Gypsy Buys, after hearing about it from the Italian Catholic scientist turned venerable monk. Mark Twain once said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” and these two images made Dhammaloka and Lokanatha seem like adjacent lines of a single poem.

Dhammaloka 30 July 1911- Atlanta Constitution

Dhammaloka-30-July-1911

Lokanatha-1948-04-28

Lokanatha-28-April-1948

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It would be misleading to think of the figures of Dhammaloka and Lokanatha in isolation. Behind them, there are intriguing echoes of other early— yet not nearly as well-documented— Western converts to Buddhism at the turn of the century. Cox makes mention of some of these in his excellent 2011 work Buddhism in Ireland: Sir Thomas Lipton (of tea fame) encountering an Irish Buddhist monk in central China, a medical doctor aboard a ship to Bombay catching a blue eye among a silent order of bhikkus, and the scattered mentions and rumors of other Occidental-born sons of the Buddha, at times numerous enough to be referenced offhandedly as a type.

It may only be a matter of time before many of these figures are brought out of shadows and profiled with just as much detail. As Cox alludes to in his interview and points out extensively in his book, it took recently-created digital archives and an international scholarly village of funding and collaboration (including researchers from Ireland, England, Canada, the United States, Japan, and Thailand) to excavate the history of Dhammaloka and others. This framework and the efforts of its participants are continually turning up new findings. Less than a year ago, Cox along with Professors Brian Bocking (of University College Cork, Ireland) and Shin’ichi Yoshinaga (of Maizuru National College of Technology, Japan) were able to push back the date of the first Buddhist mission to the West by a full decade to 1889 with the Irishman Charles Pfoundes representing the Japanese Buddhist Propagation Society in London.

What influence might the work of Cox and his colleagues in the Dhammaloka Project and beyond have on the wider study of encounters between Buddhism and the West? In his interview, Cox mentions a previous “textual and elite focus” within the study of Western Buddhists, and the attention placed on reformers and publishers such as Henry Steel Olcott and Paul Carus would seem to reflect the attention given to what Stephen Prothero has called “Protestant Buddhism.”[1]The emphasis on monasticism and orthopraxy displayed by Dhammaloka, Lokanatha, and others like them, combined with their often enthusiastic willingness to engage with ritual and local religious cultures, suggests that there might be a stream of “Catholic Buddhism” just as deserving of attention.

These early encounters between Buddhism and the West play havoc with many of the dominant models used to understand Buddhism in the West over the last several decades— models that by halves, thirds, or quarters have tried to separate “ethnic” Buddhism out from what converted Westerners recognize and practice as the Dharma. Joseph Cheah brought these problematic taxonomies to the forefront and noted the contemporary gulf between Burmese Buddhists and convert Buddhists in his 2011 Race and Religion in American Buddhism. Figures such as Dhammaloka and Lokanatha, who saw themselves and their Buddhism tied to the Burmese people and culture that hosted them, sharply clash with these categorical divisions. They are perhaps a historical path by which scholars might (re)introduce matters of race, colonialism, and power to be brought fully into the center of studies of Buddhism and the West.

Finally, Buddhism (and Asian religious traditions in general) is often described in its encounters with the West in impossibly discrete terms with tidy metaphors, unidirectional movement, and well-worn events— be they Buddhist swans coming to the lake, Hindu seeds being planted in Western soil, or the endless rehashing of the 1893 World Parliament of Religions as a point of emplotment. If we look long enough at figures like the Irish hobo who antagonized Christian missionaries as a Buddhist monk throughout Asia, the Italian-born, American-raised, Burmese-ordained monk who inspired the conversion of millions of Dalits in India, or whoever else is waiting to emerge from the archive, these conventions begin to seem absurd.

To repurpose Laurence Cox’s own description of early Irish Buddhists, the extraordinary lives of figures like Dhammaloka leave scholars with extraordinary choices to make and opportunities to seize.

[1] Stephen Prothero, “Henry Steel Olcott and ‘Protestant Buddhism’,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion (Vol. 63, No. 2, Summer 1995), p 281-302.

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.

The Faith of the Killable: A Faith for Empowerment?

As one listens to Dr. Johnson describe the high homicide rates of Río de Janeiro, the gap in between the haves and the have nots, as well as the appalling conditions he witnessed –through use of an admirable methodology– in this city’s prison system, something that stands out clearly is how all these elements are strongly concatenated as pieces of the same dehumanizing setting. It’s not a coincidence that, in several countries within Latin America, scandalous levels of inequality coexist with elevated delinquency rates. Francois Bourguignon (1999) stated that, in developing countries, crime and violence are likely to be a socially costly by-product of, among other factors, uneven or irregular economic development processes, and affirmed that economic theory shows how property crime and, in general, all the violence associated with illegal activity may in part be the consequence of extreme inequality and poverty. This framework of socioeconomic disparity and violence is key to understand how entire population sectors in Río become and remain killable people, and to assess the serious restraints that inmates who proceed from these sectors will face again, once their time in prison is finished. Dr. Johnson refers to Pentecostalism as the faith of the killable and suggests that one of the reasons why Pentecostalism succeeds among those who come from impoverished areas –which is the case of many inmates in Río’s prison system– is that “it can empower people who are, otherwise, thrown into the edges”. In this response, I would like to argue that, in order to appreciate to what extent Pentecostalism could be considered empowering, it’s pertinent to take a look at its impacts (or absence of impacts) in the social context of those who convert to this faith.

Ignacio Martín-Baró (1998) stated that religious conversion has important social implications –even if each person experiences it as an individual process– and that, although conversion brings the knowledge of a new meaning that can make individual life more rewarding, this new meaning can either separate people from their social reality and history, or it can make people become more aware of that reality and turn them into subjects of their own history. Martín-Baró also proposed that the individual motivations for religious conversion acquire a wider historical meaning when they are situated in the net of social forces that affect a person, which can be humanizing or dehumanizing. Taking this into account, if we seek to estimate the empowerment potential of the conversion and affiliation to Pentecostal churches among the inmates of Rio’s prison system, it would be valuable to situate these events in a social background and to inquire: are these conversions able to generate only individual changes in the inmates, or do they also confer on them any resources to bring a positive contribution in the dynamics of their marginalized communities?

Recent research conducted in Central America has attempted to answer a similar question, and has explored the impact of Pentecostal and Charismatic movements on communitarian organization and civic participation. In the case of a traditional Pentecostal church, studied in El Salvador, the research results showed that this faith community conferred high importance upon evangelization and to the individual changes derived from religious conversion, as ways of making a contribution to society; an individualistic view was also present in the way this church interpreted the causes of social problems and in the type of solutions that they considered effective to confront them. In addition, they proved to give utmost importance to the involvement of their members in activities that belonged mostly to the private sphere, without encouraging their interest in the public sphere. Regarding the communitarian participation and political attitudes of the members of this church, it was interesting to find that, from the four faith communities that were studied and compared in El Salvador, the traditional Pentecostals reported the least favorable attitude to political participation in general, the lowest willingness to join political parties or to take over public positions, the strongest reluctance to take part in demonstrations, and a scarce participation in initiatives of their neighborhoods and municipalities. These results, of course, show only coexistence between some religiosity traits and political attitudes –not a cause-effect relation between them– but they suggest that the emphasis this Pentecostal church placed on individual change and on the private space participation didn’t offer favorable conditions for its members to recognize the importance of being active in communitarian organizations and articulating efforts with other citizens to pursue collective goals.

It can be useful to take into account these findings as we go back to considering the social impacts that would be reasonable to expect from the conversion of the inmates in Río´s prison system and from their affiliation to Pentecostal churches. In this sense, it would be interesting to analyze if what Dr. Johnson could observe in the prison churches provided reasons to anticipate that the inmates will, in the future, promote changes beyond their individual behavior and beyond the private space in which religious practice often takes place. For example, Dr. Johnson mentioned that personal testimony and tangible changes in personal behavior were a priority for those who had converted, especially in the case of those who had retired from gangs. When these inmates return to their neighborhoods, will this emphasis on the individual transformation be helpful or not for them to become aware of the structural causes of the deplorable conditions experienced in their communities, and the importance of collective solutions for development? Also, Dr. Johnson explains that Pentecostalism offers a platform for a strong identity and even the opportunity to assume leadership in the autonomous churches that exist inside prisons. Therefore, could the inmates’ experience as leaders in the private space increase their willingness to subsequently become active in community organizations?

The answers to these questions are also essential in regard to after-imprisonment reinsertion and relapse prevention because, if the context to which the inmates return is not improved in any way, it will continue exposing them to social exclusion, translated, among other elements, in deficient education opportunities and difficulties incorporating into labor life, two of the structural causes of the criminality epidemic in Latin America (Kliksberg 2008). In the particular case of inmates who previously belonged to gangs, this complex scenario demands that reinsertion initiatives –including those promoted by religious entities– have a holistic approach that transcends the pursuit of individual change; such initiatives have to be articulated, and coordinated with different resources and efforts, in order to impact the individuals, their families and closest relationships, but also the public spaces, the access to employment, the neighborhoods and communities, and the cultural, social and economic factors that contribute to violence (Aguilar and Miranda 2006).

In sum, affiliation with Pentecostal churches in Río de Janeiro’s prison system can certainly offer important benefits to the inmates in the hostile and dangerous situation that their imprisonment represents. Nonetheless, the transformation promoted by these churches could be very limited if it remains circumscribed to the individuals and those who are closer to them, without helping the inmates to understand and modify the social dynamics that keep them marginalized. This kind of empowerment is only relative if it gives people means to recover a sense of dignity in their lives but not necessarily to stop being killable.

References

Aguilar, J., & Miranda, L. (2006). Entre la articulación y la competencia: las respuestas de la sociedad civil organizada a las pandillas en El Salvador. In Cruz, J.M. (ed.) Maras y Pandillas en Centroamérica, Vol. 4. San Salvador: UCA Editores.

Bourguignon, F. (1999). Crime as a Social Cost of Poverty and Inequality: A Review Focusing on Developing Countries. Desarrollo y Sociedad, 44, 61-99.

Kliksberg, B. (2008). ¿Cómo enfrentar la inseguridad en América Latina?. Nueva Sociedad, 215, 4-16.

Martín-Baró, I. (1998). Religión y guerra psicológica. In Blanco, A. (ed.) Psicología de la Liberación. Madrid: Trotta.

Podcasts

Spatial Contestations and Conversions

Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, particularly in a European context, might be quite familiar with the sight of a former church building that has now turned derelict, or is being used for a purposes that perhaps it wasn’t intended for, or is being rejuvenated by another ‘religious’ community, another Christian community, or put to some other use. Chris is joined today by Daan Beekers to discuss spatial contestations and conversions, particularly looking at (former) church buildings in the Dutch context. We discuss some of the research projects he has been involved in, before looking at two particular case studies – the Fatih Mosque, and the Chassé Dance Studios – where Church ‘conversions’ have taken place. We discuss the various discursive entanglements surrounding these buildings, and the contested notions of heritage that come from different constituencies who are invested in their presence. Finally, we ask if there is anything necessarily ‘religious’ going on here… (Unsurprisingly, the answer is, ‘it’s complicated… but there’s nothing sui generis).

Listeners may be interested to check out Daan’s recent blog post, Converted Churches: Matters of Entanglement, Heritage and Home.

They are also encouraged to listen to our previous podcasts with Kim Knott on “Religion, Space and Locality” and Peter Collins on “Religion and the Built Environment.”

 

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


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


Spatial Contestations and Conversions

Podcast with Daan Beekers (10 June 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Beekers – Spatial Contestations and Conversions 1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, particularly in a European context, might be quite familiar with the sight of a former church building that has now turned derelict, or is being used for purpose that perhaps it wasn’t intended for, or is being rejuvenated by another religious community – another Christian community – and so on. That’s certainly the case here in Edinburgh, where I did my doctoral work. And I’m joined today by Daan Beekers to discuss spatial contestations and conversions, particularly looking at former or different church buildings in the Dutch context. So first-off, Daan – welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Daan Beekers (DB): Thank you. Thanks for having me.

CC: No problem, Daan. Daan is currently a post-doctoral research fellow here at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. And before coming here he was a post doc researcher at the Department of Religious Studies in Utrecht, where he was researching the abandonment and repurposing of church buildings, first with the HERA project, Iconic Religion, and then with Birgit Meyer’s research programme Religious Matters in an Entangled World. And we’ll hear about both of these, presently. His doctoral dissertation was defended in 2015 at VU Amsterdam. It involved doing a comparative ethnographic study of religious commitment among young Dutch Muslims and Christians. And he’s currently completing a book manuscript based on this work. And his publications include the volume, Straying from the Straight Path: How senses of failure invigorate lived religion, published with Berghahn. And he co-edited that with David Kloos. So, Daan, first-off, let’s, maybe . . . . Before we hear about the Dutch context in general, it might help if you could maybe situate your work, and the trajectory of it, within those two big research projects. I know I certainly know a lot about Iconic Religion, through its UK team – which involved Kim Knott who was my doctoral supervisor. Tell us a little bit about those projects.

DB: Sure, yes. So the Iconic Religion project started in 2014. And I joined that just after completing my PhD thesis – I was actually still completing it when I joined that project. And that was a project on the visible presence of religion in urban space, specifically in Amsterdam, Berlin and London. The project was a co-operation between researchers of Lancaster University, which is where Kim Knott is still based, and then Utrecht University with Birgit Meyer and Bochum University with Volkhard Krech. And so yes it really focused on how people in their everyday lives encounter religion in a very tangible, visible way. And I was coming from doing my PhD thesis on religious youth – so, young Muslims and Christians in a Dutch secular society – which, actually, very much focused on religious commitment and, in a sense, religious vitality. And I always kind-of knew that there was another side to the story of religion in the Netherlands, which is of course rapid secularisation, and the drop in numbers of Church attendance. And then I was starting to notice all these buildings in the Netherlands which are being closed down and converted for other purposes. So I kind-of got more and more interested in this other side of the story. So, what happens to Christian culture, Christian material culture, when church buildings are no longer being attended by people? And so, when I applied to this project called Iconic Religion, I argued in my research proposal, “Well, this project is on the visible presence of religion in the city, and I would actually argue that the transformation of Church buildings is actually one of the most important changes in how religion is present or absent in the city.” So that got me on to the project. And I started that in Amsterdam.

CC: And then we’ll hear now, I suppose, about the specific work that you did. But, again, we’ve hinted at it there. (5:00) But for the sake of our Listeners who may not know anything about the Dutch context, maybe just a two-minute “Religion in the Netherlands”. . ? Particularly, perhaps, Amsterdam, where . . . .

DB: Yes. So, the Netherlands has sometimes been characterised as one of the most religious nations of Europe, or one of the most Christianised nations of Europe. So religion was very important in Dutch history, and for the political emancipation of, or independence of, the Netherlands, vis-à-vis its former ruler, Spain, which was Catholic. So the Dutch, in their own perception, liberated themselves from Spain and became a Protestant nation. So Protestant identity was very important in the Netherlands for quite some time. Catholicism, and also what were seen as dissenting Protestant groups, were given very little space to observe their religion. And then, you’ve got the process of what is known in the Netherlands as pillarisation – so the coming about of different pillars. After the French revolution, when Catholics were again given the room to practise their religion and to manifest themselves in public space, you got this very strong mobilisation of religious sub-cultures, or pillars, that were really important in people’s everyday lives. They really organised much of social life in terms of schools housing, work and so on. So, in that time, religion was very important in the Netherlands. And this was actually up until, like, the 1950s. And then, as elsewhere, a rapid process of secularisation was setting in, or “un-churching”, as we say in Dutch. I think this isn’t a very common word in English. But I like the term un-churching, because it’s more specific than secularisation. There are, of course, a lot of debates about whether . . . what secularisation is, and to what extent it has taken place. So the Netherlands changed from being one of the most Christianised nations of Europe, to becoming one of the most de-Christianised ones. With, as I said, a very quick process of secularisation to the extent that, today, only about twenty-five percent of the population state that they are church members (although overall religious affiliation is higher). Only about half of them would actually attend religious spaces on a regular basis. So it has become, in that sense, a very secular country today.

CC: And am I right in saying . . . is this an Amsterdam stat or a Dutch stat, that two churches are closing per week?

DB: Yes, so this is a Dutch . . . a national . . . it’s been estimated. . . . So, hundreds of churches have closed down in the last few decades. And the state’s agency of cultural heritage estimated that the rate of church closures will continue at around two churches a week. But I’ve also been told by others, by another agency organisation in the Netherlands, that this should actually be four churches a week. It would be a more realistic estimate. So it’s really an astonishing speed by which these buildings are being closed down.

CC: Absolutely. So before we get into some of your specific case studies, I think when we first met to discuss this interview, one of the first things I wrote down is, like, “We’ll have no ‘essence’ questions” (Laughs) Which is my critical RS, wanting to emphasise that even by having this conversation we’re not saying that a building in itself is religious, or that it is sacred or holy. What we’re doing is we’re looking at the ways in which buildings are interacted with, and discursively constructed, and the way they occupy space in the heritage discourse, and the individual, and community memories, and so on. So we want to make sure that we get that in there. But it’s not inherently holy, in that sense. But then also, in one of the arguments that you sent that I read through, you spoke about the difference between “theories in heritage” and “theories of heritage”. And that might be a useful thing to mention, just before we go into the case study. (10:00)

DB: Yes these are terms, I think, coined in an article by Waterton and Watson – “Framing Theory“, I think the article is called – and so they distinguish between different kinds of theories about heritage. And one distinction that they make that I find helpful is that between theories in heritage, and theories of heritage. What you see when you look at literature on Christian material culture, a lot of that work . . . not all of it, obviously, but quite a bit of that work kind-of asks, “How can we preserve this heritage for future generations? So, “What are the best practices in preserving this?” “What threatens it?” And so on. So all these are questions which I think are very important, but they are questions that are located within the heritage discourse. So it’s already taken for granted that these are important cases of heritage. And a theory of heritage, as Waterton and Watson put it, would actually ask, “What makes these things heritage?” “Why are they defined as heritage, and by whom?” So there is the whole question of representation, and discourse, and power relations, and so on. For what purposes are they heritage-ised? A terrible word! A tongue twister. And also, what kind of new fault-lines emerge in this process? So who’s being left out? So that’s quite interesting work being done now in Christian heritage, which also talks about the way populist politicians, for example, are now very apt at mobilising Judaeo-Christian heritage in their political discourses. But, in important ways, it’s also a discursive tool to exclude Muslims and migrants, and so on. So it’s also a way of defining who’s “out”. So that would be more kind-of a theory of heritage approach.

CC: Yes. So analysing all these discourses that are invoking heritage – who’s included and excluded; why certain things are thought to be worthy of preservation . . . .And indeed, for example, in my own work in Edinburgh, yes – there’s plenty of the idea that all these churches are part of the urban heritage that should be preserved, etc. But first of all, what should they be preserved for? And we’ll get onto that in your examples. There are certain uses that are seen as more or less appropriate. But also there’s a certain image of what a church is. And here in the Southside of Edinburgh we’ve got the Salvation Army, over on St Leonards, and we’ve got the True Jesus Church, down in Gifford Park, which have both been there for decades and decades. But they don’t look like churches, in the popular imagination. So they don’t feature in anyone’s idea of something that should be preserved. Because there’s a very specific thing that looks like a church, that should be preserved.

DB: Exactly, yeah.

CC: OK. That’s contextualised it a bit here, I think. I think we’re probably going to use two examples, particularly. There’s the Fatih Mosque – and I don’t know if I’m going to pronounce it right – it’s the Chassé . . .

DB: Chassé Church, that’s it.

CC: And, possibly, starting with the Fatih Mosque: I guess, the example of the various discursive entanglements that are going on. Tell us about it, and why it’s interesting?

DB: Yes, sure. I was just thinking of the Fatih Mosque, actually, when you were making that point about church buildings being recognisable, or not, as churches. Because the Fatih Mosque is one of the biggest, larges mosques in Amsterdam, that has been around for a few decades already. It opened in 1982. But it’s located in a former Catholic church on the Rozengracht, in the centre of Amsterdam – actually very near to the Anne Frank House, which many people would know, and the Western Church.

CC: I presume I’ve seen it, actually, when I was in Amsterdam. But I didn’t notice it.

DB: Exactly! And that’s the . . . and people, actually, even don’t notice the church even though it’s quite a big, monumental church. But I think many people are very much focussed on the Western Church which is like the main Protestant church right next to the Anne Frank house. And it kind-of . . . the Rozengracht, the street, is a street that people quickly pass through. So somehow, when I talk to my friends and family in Amsterdam they often don’t even know this church (15:00). Sometimes they do. But they . . . almost none of them would know that there is a mosque in that church at the moment. And that’s, actually, also an issue that the mosque community is facing at the moment. So I’ve written an article – together with my Utrecht-based colleague Pooyan Tamimi Arab – for a special issue on iconic religion in the journal Material Religion. And there we also showed how the mosque community, especially its younger members, are struggling with this image of being a kind-of a “hidden mosque”. And it’s actually this very term, hidden mosque, that is often used by people – by visitors to the mosque, for example, and also by non-Muslim visitors who are local politicians, and so on. And that’s actually one of the points we make in that article: that it’s interesting that this term is used, the notion of a hidden house of worship. Because it’s actually a historical discursive genre in Dutch religious history, which was used in that time that I referred to earlier, when Catholics were not allowed to publicly worship. So they had to resort to clandestine churches, often in attics, and these were called hidden churches.

CC: But why is it so hidden, then? You’re right about . . . . It’s something to do with the entrance, in particular, and there’s no signage. So, you know, why is it so hidden? How does that make . . . I guess you’ve mentioned the young people sort-of constructing it in that way. How do the users of the mosque feel and how are they . . . Are they trying to combat that image now?

DB: Yes, so it’s quite interesting. So this has to do with the material legacy of the church building. So the very fact that there are located in a church means that they are not very recognisable as a mosque. There’s a mosque nearby that’s also in a church building that also few people would realise or recognise as such. Another important point is that it has to do with a kind-of mismatch between Muslim sacred space and the way in which this particular building was organised. So when this Muslim community constructed their mosque within this building it turned out quite quickly that the direction of prayer in Islam, the qibla, was precisely the opposite direction to the direction which the Catholics had prayed. So normally you would come into the church through the entrance and you would face the altar and pray in the direction of the altar. And in this case this was facing the west. So what the Muslim community did, or had to do, was to construct . . . to close down the entrance, basically, to construct a wall there, which would become their prayer wall, as it were, the site of the prayer niche. And they constructed a very small entrance on the side. And what was the former entrance of the church became a space for shops. So, at the moment, there’s actually a bike shop there. So, when you pass this building, the first thing you see is a bike shop. And it is quite difficult to actually realise that there is a mosque here. So what this community is doing is they’re currently in the process of building a new entrance, in order to become more visible as a Mosque. Another interesting thing in this respect, perhaps, is that also in a way it’s also a story about history repeating itself. Because on this very site, there once was – before the Catholics built their church there – there was a headquarters of an important socialist movement in the Netherlands. And so that site was first converted into a chapel by Jesuits, Catholic Jesuits. But they were facing similar problems that the Muslims are facing now. They kind-of felt, in that time – the early twentieth century – as one catholic author said, “This place remains a theatre of socialists.” We have our altar but we know this was once the stage from which the socialist leaders would give their . . . not sermons, but lectures (20:00). And their political rallies. And you know one of the only things that would mark out the place as Catholic was that they placed a big cross on the top. And similarly for the mosque now, one of the only things that marks it out as a mosque is that they placed a crescent on top of the church. So these small things that mark out the space. But it’s also a struggle, with people, that conversion is never really complete, right? So people always struggle, very often struggle, in a converted space with what I’ve elsewhere called sacred residue, or some kind of leftover of its previous use. Which might enable, might make certain things possible, but it also constrains particular usage or representations of the space.

CC: And some of that might be material presence, material evidence, in a sense, or some of it might be discursive and remembered. If I were to go in there, I may not know anything about its socialist history, but I would probably be able to detect the mosque and the Catholic church, but again that shows the importance of historical context and the lived memory of the space as well. So sticking with former Catholic churches, then, the Chassé Church gives some really good illustrations of how this notion of heritage is mobilised or contested by a variety of different constituencies. Perhaps again, you could just introduce that specific case study, but then also all the different groups who have a stake in it?

DB: Yes. Sure. OK. So this Chassé Church was also a Catholic church, from around the same time as the one I’ve just talked about. So they were both built in the 1920s. And they both, actually, had a relatively short life. So the Chassé Church closed down in 1997, because of dwindling attendance. And then it was actually desolate for many years. It was dilapidated, the building wasn’t doing very well. And there was a lot of conflict around what should happen to it – the building. And what’s very fascinating, in this case, is that when it closed down in the late 90s, both the municipality and the Catholic church – the diocese and the local parish – actually decided to demolish the building. They said “It’s going to be very difficult to re-use the space in a productive or efficient way. It also doesn’t really have any kind-of special heritage qualities. And also . . .” not unimportantly, “it will get us more money if we demolish it and sell the land.” And the Catholic church very much needed this money because they had to renovate another church in that neighbourhood that was going to be their main Catholic church, parish church. But then local residents, who were themselves not church-going, started to mobilise themselves and to very much advocate for the preservation of this church building. So you have this really interesting debate basically between the local Catholic organisation that says “We can get rid of this building. We don’t need it anymore and it’s not going to be helpful to leave it there.” And local people, who are not part of that community, who actually stand up for it to “save” – quote-unquote – that space.

CC: People who probably didn’t particularly care about it when it wasn’t being threatened. It was just a part of their familiar urban environment.

DB: Exactly, yeah.

CC: And, I guess, when this moment happened where it was potentially going to be threatened, then . . . .

DB: Yeah. That’s a very interesting point. It’s interesting to see how people suddenly become aware of these kind-of iconic sites when they’re threatened to . . . disappear, really. So in this case you see different, quite different positions. So I’m trying to make sense of this paradox, if you will, between local people who you might describe as non-religious and want to safeguard this building, and Catholics who want to demolish it. Trying to make sense of that, I’ve conducted fieldwork there and talked to many different groups involved (25:00). And what I’ve found is that people ascribe quite different values to a site like a church building. So, for many people, they would say, “OK this is more than a building.” So this is kind-of mantra that you hear very often, in these discussions. But what they mean by this mantra, “This is more than a building” is very different for different parties involved. So, for kind-of the parish leadership and the officials of the diocese, the religious leaders there, they would say, “The church is the house of God.” You know? So it is a very important religious meaning. It’s a sacred place. It’s consecrated. And sure, you know, when it’s closed down it gets deconsecrated. But in the memories of people it always remains associated with something sacred. So it’s very difficult to remove this aura of sacredness from a Catholic church. So that’s a strong . . . so they kind-of see the church as a house of God, really. And then if you talk with the local parishioners, so the members of the community, they would often share this view. They would say, “Yes. It’s an important religious space, sacred, a place of God.” But what struck me is that for them it’s also, very importantly, about community, you know. So a place of a local community coming together. A very familiar place that’s imbued with local histories, but also personal memories, and so on. So it’s a really communal place in that sense. People have all kinds of very intimate, personal memories of church buildings. And they went through very important personal life events there, baptisms, weddings and so on. And I talked to these local parishioners. It may be also good to say that the ones . . . . I mean, this is quite a long time ago. But I manged to find a few of them who were still around. And they said, “You know, at the time we were quite OK with the idea of demolishing the church because for us . . .” Like, one of them said, “When I go back to the church now, and it has been . . .”I don’t know if we mentioned this, but it has been converted to a dance studios. So it’s now a dance studio. And she said, “If I’m back there now it really feels uncanny. You know? It feels . . . it’s no longer a church. It’s no longer what it was in my memories.” And it is still connected to many of the memories, so it’s still a very important place for her, but it is no longer what it once was. So it’s kind-of a disorienting experience for her. And then you have. . . . But then the local residents who were very unhappy about the idea of demolishing the church, for them it’s very much a place of local belonging: a place that makes them feel at home in their neighbourhoods – especially after it was converted. You see that many of these local residents are very happy about the way in which the converted church building, as a dance studio, brings back life to the neighbourhood, a sense of community and belonging, and so on. So what I found very interesting here is that whereas for many parishioners the closing down of the church represents a loss of their home, for these people it actually indicates a return of a home – or something that helps them to feel at home in their neighbourhood.

CC: Exactly. I found, again, non-church attending individuals in the Southside here, talking about, for instance, the Southside Community Centre, which was the former Nicholson Street Church. And it was a carpet storage place for a while. And now it’s a community centre. So I heard time and again the idea of “I didn’t like it being a carpet showroom. Now it’s a useful place”, or someone else said, “I really like that it’s sort-of being used for what it was built for – for the community.” And again, these are people who weren’t participating in it when it was a religious place or – quote-unquote – “religious”. But now that’s being used, it’s fulfilling some sort of model of the ideal: “This is what religion, or Christianity, is meant to be.”

DB: Right. Yeah. And it’s interesting that you say that. Because it’s the very same point that the owner of the dance studios makes time and time again: that by giving it its new purpose, he’s actually bringing back the building to its original purpose, which is bringing people together (30:00). But of course it was bringing people together before God, for a very particular purpose of worship, right? You know, and that part is, in that sense, left out. Even though that guy, the owner, I should say, is quite spiritually inclined and interested in religion. But then you have – and it’s maybe an important point to make – other local residents who – and in a sense that’s like a fourth group giving a particular meaning to the building – who very much emphasise the way in which the church building is a very important part of Dutch religious history, and symbolises Dutch history. And, actually, the spokesperson of the local committee advocating the preservation of the church very often made this point. And said, you know, “If you demolish these buildings, you actually demolish your history.” And so, what I found interesting in that case is that these people actually said – the spokesperson and like-minded people – they didn’t really care that much about what happened to the building, right? They said, “As long as it’s not getting too much of a nuisance” in terms of, like, parking space problems and that debate. But they didn’t really care whether it would be repurposed for religious use, or secular use, or whatever else, as long as the building is preserved. “Because that building is important for who we are, for our identity.” So there you get more of Christianity as cultural heritage discourse, which is often kind-of propagated by people – like the ones in this case – who quite explicitly distance themselves from Christian beliefs, and doctrines, and so on. They’re often quite self-consciously secularised people who are none-the-less very passionate about the importance of Christianity as culture, or as history, as art, as identity, and so on.

CC: Yes. So there we have those four constituencies: the institutional church; the parishioners, or former parishioners; the local residents, non-participating residents; and this whole sort-of heritage, industry, story and that kind of thing. And you can see how these different discourses they could maybe even use the same language but they could be mobilised for quite different purposes – positive or negative, depending how you wanted to inflect it. We’re already pretty much out of time here, and I know that we could talk on a lot more. But we’ll certainly direct Listeners to . . . You have an excellent blog post which summarises a lot of this. And your Material Religion article. And hopefully some more will be coming out. But I just wanted to finish with a final couple of questions that we’ve been talking around this. We’ve been talking about former churches . . . and we should also say that sometimes there’ll be a church that’s then used by another Christian group. That hasn’t really come up . . . .

DB: Very often, yes.

CC: But is there anything. . . Would we find these same sort of processes happening if we were looking at buildings that weren’t churches . . . that were just sort-of other prominent local buildings? Or does that question even make any sense? Is there something to do with these being churches that has meant that they are given their sort-of iconic status? Is there anything inherently religious here? I know the answers before I get there . . . (Laughs).

DB: In part. Partly yes, partly no. So I think you see similar things happening with non-religious sites: old post offices, water towers and these kinds of sites which are often very important local landmarks, and often inspire the same kinds of local concerns about maintenance and preservation. These places belong to who we are, and to our identity as a neighbourhood. But at the same time I do think there is something . . . . It’s always kind-of a bit risky when you talk about this, because you get to this “There’s something extra to these buildings.” But in the way that people talk about it – so if you look at people’s narratives, and the ways in which they relate to these buildings – people often have this kind-of idea of sacredness associated with these church buildings (35:00). Or, as one local resident said to me in relation to the Chassé Church a few years ago . . . . The clock was restored to the tower. It had been silent for a few years. And it had been restored now. And he said to me, “Now I feel that the soul of the neighbourhood is back.” So there seems to be this sense a kind-of spiritual or religious side to these buildings that is important for the way in which people relate to them. But also, I think, especially when you look at today’s debates about heritage, this religious aspect is also really important. And this really marks these places out, or sets them apart from, for example, old post offices. The fact that such buildings really lend themselves to this kind-of idea that these sites are a part of our religious heritage, they are very important to our identity and to who we are as Dutch people, as European people, as British or Scottish people. And I think that’s an interesting shift, also, that’s happening now in our kind-of post-secular age, if you want. This move from people complaining a lot about churches, and taking a lot of distance from religion, to re-appraising religion – but in very particular ways. In ways that emphasise history, art, culture and heritage.

CC: Yes, so there’s a sort of lingering insider discourse, I suppose, of their sacrality, and the import of the buildings. But then also in these urban spaces, in Western Europe, it is going to be churches that were given prominent spaces. They were intentionally built to be eye-catching, and dominating the skyline, and the centres of communities. So is it any wonder, when we do look for sites where there are lots of discursive contestations happening . . . ? It probably is going to end up being these places, regardless of any sui generis argument about them having some inherent qualities. Historically, they’ve been prominent, due to these specificities. So what’s next? For you? You’re writing up your book?

DB: I’m actually . . . at the moment I’m very much working on my older project, in a way, which is still also my current project on comparison of Muslims and Christians in the Netherlands. I’m trying to finish my book manuscript now. I’m also working on a special issue on this topic. And I’m hoping, in the future, perhaps here in Scotland, to kind-of converge these two projects together. That’s kind-of my hope and my aspiration. So, to really connect this study of what happens to Christian material culture to questions about religious pluralism and relationships between Muslims and Christians, religious co-existence, and so on. So in a way that’s also already what I was doing in the case of the Fatih Mosque in Amsterdam. But I’m expanding a bit on that. And, yeah, to kind-of see if we could, or if I could, use questions of heritage as a lens to look into religious diversity and co-existence.

CC: Well, Daan Beekers, we look forward to the fruits of that research as it emerges. And thank you for your time.

DB: Thank you very much. Thanks so much.

 


Citation Info: Beekers, Daan and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “Spatial Contestations and Conversions”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 10 June 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 June 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/spatial-contestations-and-conversions/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Ours Can Be To Reason Why

Lynn Davidman’s recent RSP interview illustrates why her work is important, serious, and engaging.  As I listened to the podcast, three ideas came to mind.

First, I was delighted to hear Davidman describe much of the literature on conversion and deconversion as Christian-centric.  While I think she could have made this point even more compellingly in the podcast, it is an important point that is rarely considered in the social scientific research on religion.  Davidman argued that the term “apostasy” doesn’t work well for Jews because their religiosity is more about practice and identity than it is about faith.  Faith and belief are central to Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, as “right views” (to steal a phrase from Buddhism) are more important than “right actions” (to steal another). Davidman argued that the inverse is true in Judaism, though beliefs do matter at some level, as she noted with Spinoza, whose heresy regarding the nature of God resulted in his excommunication from the Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam in 1656.  The language and thinking about conversion and “deconversion” prominent in most of the scientific literature does focus heavily on what people think or believe rather than what they do.  This is even observed among prominent critics of religion and leaders of New Atheism, as Richard Dawkins has admitted to celebrating Christmas and enjoying Christmas carols.  I think the more important point here, however, is that Davidman could have taken this point even further by noting that “conversion” is always toward religion, while “deconversion” or “becoming ex-” is always away from religion.  As Joseph Hammer and I pointed out in a paper we published in 2011, this use of language continues to privilege religion over nonreligion.  How is leaving religion substantively different from joining a religion?  What is different about the process?  If both require changes in beliefs, practices, social networks, and overall worldviews, why do we privilege one as “conversion” and the other as “deconversion” or “becoming an ex-“?  While perspectives about conversion are Christian-centric, the idea of conversion itself is religion-centric.

Second, Davidman’s incorporation of gender into the process of conversion is another important insight to take away from this podcast.  Converts to religion or away from it don’t just learn how to become a good member of their new group.  They learn to how to become a good male or female member of their new group.  Davidman also noted that what it typically means to be a devout member of a religious group is what is expected of men, not of women.  This is an important insight deriving from intersectionality; the experience of religious conversion (toward or away from religion) is not just a religious experience, but also a gendered experience.  Whenever someone joins a group, they learn not just the expectations for group membership, but also the expectations for the members of the group who are like them (e.g., in terms of class, gender, race, sexual identity, etc.).  I think Davidman could have extended this argument a bit further as well.  Beyond forcing those who want to be part of a religious group or organization to adopt gender roles, it is important to recognize that many religions have helped create the very idea of gender and continue to reinforce it (see Sumerau, Cragun, and Mathers forthcoming).  Davidman’s critique of the gendering of conversion processes can be extended by asking how such processes would work for transgender, agender, or genderqueer individuals.  How might a genderqueer individual (someone who rejects the gender binary and tries not to do gender or does it in a new, non-binary way) experience conversion?  What are the expected beliefs and behaviors of a genderqueer Jew or transgender Methodist?  If such expected beliefs or behaviors don’t readily come to mind, that is because binary conceptions of gender are central to most religious sacred canopies.

Third and finally, I liked how Davidman drew a distinction between Weberian and Durkheimian approaches to studying the social world.  The Durkheimian approach is to find the general in the particular, while the Weberian approach is to find the particular in the general.  Davidman, drawing on Weber and Geertz, situated her work in the local and noted that she prefers not to ask “why” people do what they do but rather “how” they do it.  How people leave Orthodox Judaism is important to understand.  But I’m also not convinced that “why” is irrelevant.  I do find compelling the growing body of research suggesting that humans create post hoc justifications for their behavior to make their behavior seem more rational rather than actually acting rationally. However, I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to discover why humans do what they do.  People’s initial responses as to why they did something may not be accurate as they, themselves, may not know why they did something.  But isn’t there something useful in knowing how people construct narratives that explain their behaviors?  Whether or not the stories people tell to explain their behavior are 100% accurate, they are the stories people tell.  Social scientists may not be able to discern “actual” motives from “believed” or “constructed” motives without the help of neuroscience or other as yet undiscovered methodologies and technologies, but we can come to understand more about how people think by asking them to construct a narrative that explains “why.”  Additionally, while there is value in understanding the particular, there is also value in understanding the general.  Asking people why they leave religions may not perfectly reflect their motivations, but it may offer some insights into how they viewed the process.  Asking why can be problematic in that, if it does reflect general processes, it could be used to try to staunch the flow of people out of religion, as seems to be the aim of a sizable percentage of prior research on people exiting religion (Cragun and Hammer 2011). But it could also be argued that the growing secular movement could use these general understandings of why people leave religion to heighten the flow of people out of religion.  Whether or not one prefers to prevent or facilitate the flow of people in or out of religion, those of us who study religion scientifically should recognize that our work can be and often is applied by those with vested interests in what we study.

References

Cragun, Ryan T., and Joseph H. Hammer. 2011. “‘One Person’s Apostate is Another Person’s Convert’: Reflections on Pro-Religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion.” Humanity & Society 35(February/May):149-175.

Sumerau, J. Edward, Ryan T. Cragun, and Lain A. B. Mathers. forthcoming. “Contemporary Religion and the Cisgendering of Reality.” Social Currents.

Conversion and Deconversion as Concepts in the Sociology of Religion

Religious conversion has traditionally been understood as the abandonment of one religious identity for another, or a switch from no religious identification to a newly religious one. Psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and others have viewed conversion as a sudden, singular event in one’s life. In the 1960s and 1970s, in the wake of new religious movements and the flowering of Asian religious traditions in the West, sociologists reformulated conversion as an active, gradual process of transformation.

Conversion, in these understandings, is not a changed subjective or ontological identity but rather a shift in one’s discursive universe, social relationships, and embodied practices, a new role learned through language, behavior, and interpersonal boundary maintenance. Similarly, deconversion and its scholarly synonyms (apostasy, alienation, disaffiliation, defection, exit, leaving) has many contexts, motivations, and processes, including loss of a specific religious experience, doubt or denial of beliefs, moral criticism, emotional suffering, and unlearning particular vocabularies and behaviors.

For this interview with Lynn Davidman, we focus on the concepts of conversion and deconversion*, illustrations of these processes in various contexts, what each term means and how each is experienced in someone’s life, the histories of these terms and their use in scholarship, and issues that arise from their conceptualization or use.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, jelly beans, the artist formally known as “Prince” memorial T-shirts, and more.

*Our interview took place during the Association for the Sociology of Religion annual meeting, held in Chicago. During our conversation, Davidman refers to comments made at an author-meets-critics panel about her new book which took place earlier that day.

*For more on conversion, see L. Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion (1993) and L. Rambo and C. Farhadian, The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion (2014), as well as D. Snow and R. Machalek, “The Sociology of Conversion” (1984).

*For more on deconversion, see H. Streib et al, Deconversion (2009) and P. Zuckerman, Faith No More (2011).

Human Consciousness & Religious Reality

It was real to me. There I was, curled into a corner, comforter wrapped around my shaking limbs and sweating torso, twisted in terror in the sinister hours of the morning. The salt of my tears were laced with the visceral reality of a specter, a monster, or some strange creature slowly scratching its course along the hallway outside my bedroom. I never saw the demon. I eventually fell asleep in exhaustion, still crimped into the corner of my room. The memory of those tormenting moments is still forbidding and physical for me, etched forever into my consciousness. Was it ontologically real? That is beyond the purview of my recollection. Was it real in my mind? Damn straight.

In a recent interview with Jeffrey J. Kripal, the RSP talked with the man who holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University about his recent works Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (Chicago, 2011) and Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2010).

In these works, Kripal shared how participation in what we call “the sacred” is a critical element that undergirds religious understanding and activity. From his perspective, human consciousness qualifies, as well as anything else, as “the sacred” itself, and must therefore be addressed and wrestled with by any self-respecting student of religion.

Particularly, Kripal argued that generally marginalized authors who have attempted to theorize the paranormal be treated as central to the religious project, even though their work deals with marvels deemed outside both mainstream scientific and/or religious parameters. These authors, Kripal contested, are “authors of the impossible,” but that does not make them charlatans or crackpots. Although Kripal does not come to conclusions about the ontological reality of these phenomena, and maintains a scholarly agnosticism, he does insist that the paranormal must be understood on its own terms (Authors of the Impossible, 158). Though these marvels may not be appreciated as “real,” they cannot be simply explained away or dismissed with snark or sarcasm either (all too often the case among “respectable scholars”).

Kripal fleshes this out in Mutants and Mystics, which acts as a case-study of sorts, applying the aforementioned theory to the symbiosis between paranormal believers and the production of superhero pop culture. As Kripal pointed out, many of the most popular science fiction and superhero creators were metaphysicists and New Age apostles. They imbued their fantasy narratives with spiritual themes that revealed that the sacred resides in each one of us and we, ourselves, are the superheroes, the true miracles of the divine world. Yes, indeed, behind the veil of science in the sci-fi genre, there is a touch of the ethereal, he asserted. This perspective lends itself to a “new anthropology” where, in the words of Kripal, “the Human [is] Two (and One),” which, “is the neuroanatomical, cognitive, and spiritual bedrock of the paranormal and its fantastic both-and, physical-mythical, masterful-mental, real-unreal expressions in popular culture.” (Mutants and Mystics, 333)

All-in-all, Kripal’s outlook stands as a corrective to purely anthropological, political, or economic analyses of religion as social construct. Counteracting strictly Durkheimian models, Kripal re-centers “the sacred” — posited as “consciousness” — as not only important to understanding religion, but as its critical point of departure. Essentially, Kripal calls out the religious studies world for not having a sufficient appreciation of the power of imagination and invites scholars and the interested public into a new comparativism that moves away from strict materialism.

As an ethnographer of religion, I appreciate this remedial position. I first encountered Kripal’s work as a journalist covering religion in Houston, the home of Rice University. This led to multiple conversations between the two of us about religion, the study thereof, and academia in general. While we come from two different perspectives and ask critically different questions as we approach the same topic, I value Kripal’s emphasis on the conscious as the seat of “the sacred.” While he readily admits that he is not concerned with the sociological questions of religion, and instead recasts some of the Otto and Eliade perspectives on “the numinous,” his viewpoint impacts me as an ethnographer.

I am often frustrated by the lack of empathy from the perspective of sociologists and ethnographers who study religion (and, for that matter, historians, political scientists, economists, and armchair scholars), but do not take the reality of religious experiences seriously. There are certainly exceptions to this rule (Daniel Levine’s Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism immediately comes to mind), but in general the great swathe of scholars dealing with religion too easily dismiss the complexity of human consciousness, the power of the psycho-social, and the reality of the sacred.

As Kripal intimated in the interview, the applications of his perspective reach beyond New Religious Movements or paranormal phenomena and include historical analyses and contemporary studies of local and global religioscapes. Immediately, I can think of ethnographers working on the use of amulets and talismans in West Africa, the role of dreams in conversion to Christianity and/or Islam, or Pentecostal healing practices in Latin America.

While these cases may be summarily theorized by many as elements of social control, political context, or economic realities there is ample need to appreciate these occurrences as they occur — as real to those experiencing them. Although researchers should not treat them as ontological fact, they can at the very least be approached as “real” in respect to the human conscious.

And yet, the problem occurs when these experiences contradict each other. Take, for example, dreams that lead to conversion (or occur during the process thereof). While not the majority, I discovered in my own research that some Latina/o Muslims convert because of mystical dream experiences. One “revert” related the content of a dream wherein, “Allah spoke to me and told me I have to change.” Another related that she “had the same dream three times” in which she was in Mecca, wearing a hijab, and felt close to her other Muslim sisters there. Soon after she converted to Islam. Interestingly enough, these experiences mirror reports of many missionaries and Christian converts in the Middle East who also claim that dreams are playing a significant role in Muslims converting to Christianity. Furthermore, there is evidence that dreams have frequently played a role in conversions throughout history, including the mass conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the 7th-century. What does the reality of these experiences mean when they seem to lead in different convictional directions?

Further, while Kripal’s points about consciousness and the sacred prove a potent corrective, they cannot stand on their own in the study of religion. Even if Kripal himself is not concerned with religion as a social construct, we cannot neglect the social realities of religion. In fact, rather than treating the human as two (and one), perhaps we should theorize the human as three (and one). First, as a “conscious subject” (which Kripal makes us critically aware of); second, as an “embodied physicality”; and third, as a “socially constructed being” shaped by their social context and a conscience collective (to invoke Durkheim).

Regardless of these critiques and ruminations on my part, Kripal’s theory deserves attention and examination on the part of religious studies scholars. There certainly is no easy answer in dealing with such complex discussions such as human consciousness and religious reality, but that is no reason why we should not pursue it from multiple perspectives and ends, which Kripal worthily invites us to do.

(Buddhist) Mission to Burma: Dhammaloka, Lokanatha, and Early Western Converts to Buddhism

I first met Laurence Cox and the figure of Dhammaloka in 2012 at a conference at University College Cork in Ireland titled “Pioneer European Buddhists and Asian Buddhist Networks.” I was there to present a paper on Salvatore Cioffi (1897-1963), an Italian immigrant to Brooklyn who earned a degree in chemistry at Cooper Union in 1922 and converted to Buddhism a few years later after a chance encounter with The Dhammapada at the New York Public Library. Cioffi left his family and sailed to Burma to be ordained a monk. He took to Buddhism with a convert’s zeal, and, renamed as Lokanatha, he spent the rest of his days as a preacher, author, and organizer throughout Asia and across the globe. His decades-long efforts trying to convert the Indian political activist Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar to Buddhism had astonishing consequences. In 1956, Ambedkar formally converted to Buddhism and half a million of the Dalits he advocated for followed suit in the largest mass religious conversion in history.

As we shared stories about Dhammaloka and Lokanatha, it started to become clear to me, Cox, and other conference-goers that the individuals we thought were singular rather overlapped with and complimented one another. Both came from Catholic countries, converted to Buddhism, and with Burma as a base, preached the Dharma throughout Asia while using their position as celebrity Western outsiders to strengthen their support of Buddhism and respective attacks on Christian missionaries and contemporary civilization. Separated by several decades, they also seemed to mark complementarily the periods that Laurence Cox mentions in his interview of the late-nineteenth century, politically and nationalistically-minded Buddhist revivals, and later pan-Asian movements that tried to assert Buddhism on a modern, global stage.

Perhaps the true shock of recognition came when two newspaper images, thirty-seven years apart, were brought together. One depicted Dhammaloka in 1911 clad as a Tibetan lama walking on the hair of devout Burmese Buddhist women in a ritual for such a “field of merit” as the converted Irish hobo. The other was a photograph taken of Lokanatha on the streets of Hollywood, a publicity stunt egged on by his host Gypsy Buys, after hearing about it from the Italian Catholic scientist turned venerable monk. Mark Twain once said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” and these two images made Dhammaloka and Lokanatha seem like adjacent lines of a single poem.

Dhammaloka 30 July 1911- Atlanta Constitution

Dhammaloka-30-July-1911

Lokanatha-1948-04-28

Lokanatha-28-April-1948

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It would be misleading to think of the figures of Dhammaloka and Lokanatha in isolation. Behind them, there are intriguing echoes of other early— yet not nearly as well-documented— Western converts to Buddhism at the turn of the century. Cox makes mention of some of these in his excellent 2011 work Buddhism in Ireland: Sir Thomas Lipton (of tea fame) encountering an Irish Buddhist monk in central China, a medical doctor aboard a ship to Bombay catching a blue eye among a silent order of bhikkus, and the scattered mentions and rumors of other Occidental-born sons of the Buddha, at times numerous enough to be referenced offhandedly as a type.

It may only be a matter of time before many of these figures are brought out of shadows and profiled with just as much detail. As Cox alludes to in his interview and points out extensively in his book, it took recently-created digital archives and an international scholarly village of funding and collaboration (including researchers from Ireland, England, Canada, the United States, Japan, and Thailand) to excavate the history of Dhammaloka and others. This framework and the efforts of its participants are continually turning up new findings. Less than a year ago, Cox along with Professors Brian Bocking (of University College Cork, Ireland) and Shin’ichi Yoshinaga (of Maizuru National College of Technology, Japan) were able to push back the date of the first Buddhist mission to the West by a full decade to 1889 with the Irishman Charles Pfoundes representing the Japanese Buddhist Propagation Society in London.

What influence might the work of Cox and his colleagues in the Dhammaloka Project and beyond have on the wider study of encounters between Buddhism and the West? In his interview, Cox mentions a previous “textual and elite focus” within the study of Western Buddhists, and the attention placed on reformers and publishers such as Henry Steel Olcott and Paul Carus would seem to reflect the attention given to what Stephen Prothero has called “Protestant Buddhism.”[1]The emphasis on monasticism and orthopraxy displayed by Dhammaloka, Lokanatha, and others like them, combined with their often enthusiastic willingness to engage with ritual and local religious cultures, suggests that there might be a stream of “Catholic Buddhism” just as deserving of attention.

These early encounters between Buddhism and the West play havoc with many of the dominant models used to understand Buddhism in the West over the last several decades— models that by halves, thirds, or quarters have tried to separate “ethnic” Buddhism out from what converted Westerners recognize and practice as the Dharma. Joseph Cheah brought these problematic taxonomies to the forefront and noted the contemporary gulf between Burmese Buddhists and convert Buddhists in his 2011 Race and Religion in American Buddhism. Figures such as Dhammaloka and Lokanatha, who saw themselves and their Buddhism tied to the Burmese people and culture that hosted them, sharply clash with these categorical divisions. They are perhaps a historical path by which scholars might (re)introduce matters of race, colonialism, and power to be brought fully into the center of studies of Buddhism and the West.

Finally, Buddhism (and Asian religious traditions in general) is often described in its encounters with the West in impossibly discrete terms with tidy metaphors, unidirectional movement, and well-worn events— be they Buddhist swans coming to the lake, Hindu seeds being planted in Western soil, or the endless rehashing of the 1893 World Parliament of Religions as a point of emplotment. If we look long enough at figures like the Irish hobo who antagonized Christian missionaries as a Buddhist monk throughout Asia, the Italian-born, American-raised, Burmese-ordained monk who inspired the conversion of millions of Dalits in India, or whoever else is waiting to emerge from the archive, these conventions begin to seem absurd.

To repurpose Laurence Cox’s own description of early Irish Buddhists, the extraordinary lives of figures like Dhammaloka leave scholars with extraordinary choices to make and opportunities to seize.

[1] Stephen Prothero, “Henry Steel Olcott and ‘Protestant Buddhism’,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion (Vol. 63, No. 2, Summer 1995), p 281-302.

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.

The Faith of the Killable: A Faith for Empowerment?

As one listens to Dr. Johnson describe the high homicide rates of Río de Janeiro, the gap in between the haves and the have nots, as well as the appalling conditions he witnessed –through use of an admirable methodology– in this city’s prison system, something that stands out clearly is how all these elements are strongly concatenated as pieces of the same dehumanizing setting. It’s not a coincidence that, in several countries within Latin America, scandalous levels of inequality coexist with elevated delinquency rates. Francois Bourguignon (1999) stated that, in developing countries, crime and violence are likely to be a socially costly by-product of, among other factors, uneven or irregular economic development processes, and affirmed that economic theory shows how property crime and, in general, all the violence associated with illegal activity may in part be the consequence of extreme inequality and poverty. This framework of socioeconomic disparity and violence is key to understand how entire population sectors in Río become and remain killable people, and to assess the serious restraints that inmates who proceed from these sectors will face again, once their time in prison is finished. Dr. Johnson refers to Pentecostalism as the faith of the killable and suggests that one of the reasons why Pentecostalism succeeds among those who come from impoverished areas –which is the case of many inmates in Río’s prison system– is that “it can empower people who are, otherwise, thrown into the edges”. In this response, I would like to argue that, in order to appreciate to what extent Pentecostalism could be considered empowering, it’s pertinent to take a look at its impacts (or absence of impacts) in the social context of those who convert to this faith.

Ignacio Martín-Baró (1998) stated that religious conversion has important social implications –even if each person experiences it as an individual process– and that, although conversion brings the knowledge of a new meaning that can make individual life more rewarding, this new meaning can either separate people from their social reality and history, or it can make people become more aware of that reality and turn them into subjects of their own history. Martín-Baró also proposed that the individual motivations for religious conversion acquire a wider historical meaning when they are situated in the net of social forces that affect a person, which can be humanizing or dehumanizing. Taking this into account, if we seek to estimate the empowerment potential of the conversion and affiliation to Pentecostal churches among the inmates of Rio’s prison system, it would be valuable to situate these events in a social background and to inquire: are these conversions able to generate only individual changes in the inmates, or do they also confer on them any resources to bring a positive contribution in the dynamics of their marginalized communities?

Recent research conducted in Central America has attempted to answer a similar question, and has explored the impact of Pentecostal and Charismatic movements on communitarian organization and civic participation. In the case of a traditional Pentecostal church, studied in El Salvador, the research results showed that this faith community conferred high importance upon evangelization and to the individual changes derived from religious conversion, as ways of making a contribution to society; an individualistic view was also present in the way this church interpreted the causes of social problems and in the type of solutions that they considered effective to confront them. In addition, they proved to give utmost importance to the involvement of their members in activities that belonged mostly to the private sphere, without encouraging their interest in the public sphere. Regarding the communitarian participation and political attitudes of the members of this church, it was interesting to find that, from the four faith communities that were studied and compared in El Salvador, the traditional Pentecostals reported the least favorable attitude to political participation in general, the lowest willingness to join political parties or to take over public positions, the strongest reluctance to take part in demonstrations, and a scarce participation in initiatives of their neighborhoods and municipalities. These results, of course, show only coexistence between some religiosity traits and political attitudes –not a cause-effect relation between them– but they suggest that the emphasis this Pentecostal church placed on individual change and on the private space participation didn’t offer favorable conditions for its members to recognize the importance of being active in communitarian organizations and articulating efforts with other citizens to pursue collective goals.

It can be useful to take into account these findings as we go back to considering the social impacts that would be reasonable to expect from the conversion of the inmates in Río´s prison system and from their affiliation to Pentecostal churches. In this sense, it would be interesting to analyze if what Dr. Johnson could observe in the prison churches provided reasons to anticipate that the inmates will, in the future, promote changes beyond their individual behavior and beyond the private space in which religious practice often takes place. For example, Dr. Johnson mentioned that personal testimony and tangible changes in personal behavior were a priority for those who had converted, especially in the case of those who had retired from gangs. When these inmates return to their neighborhoods, will this emphasis on the individual transformation be helpful or not for them to become aware of the structural causes of the deplorable conditions experienced in their communities, and the importance of collective solutions for development? Also, Dr. Johnson explains that Pentecostalism offers a platform for a strong identity and even the opportunity to assume leadership in the autonomous churches that exist inside prisons. Therefore, could the inmates’ experience as leaders in the private space increase their willingness to subsequently become active in community organizations?

The answers to these questions are also essential in regard to after-imprisonment reinsertion and relapse prevention because, if the context to which the inmates return is not improved in any way, it will continue exposing them to social exclusion, translated, among other elements, in deficient education opportunities and difficulties incorporating into labor life, two of the structural causes of the criminality epidemic in Latin America (Kliksberg 2008). In the particular case of inmates who previously belonged to gangs, this complex scenario demands that reinsertion initiatives –including those promoted by religious entities– have a holistic approach that transcends the pursuit of individual change; such initiatives have to be articulated, and coordinated with different resources and efforts, in order to impact the individuals, their families and closest relationships, but also the public spaces, the access to employment, the neighborhoods and communities, and the cultural, social and economic factors that contribute to violence (Aguilar and Miranda 2006).

In sum, affiliation with Pentecostal churches in Río de Janeiro’s prison system can certainly offer important benefits to the inmates in the hostile and dangerous situation that their imprisonment represents. Nonetheless, the transformation promoted by these churches could be very limited if it remains circumscribed to the individuals and those who are closer to them, without helping the inmates to understand and modify the social dynamics that keep them marginalized. This kind of empowerment is only relative if it gives people means to recover a sense of dignity in their lives but not necessarily to stop being killable.

References

Aguilar, J., & Miranda, L. (2006). Entre la articulación y la competencia: las respuestas de la sociedad civil organizada a las pandillas en El Salvador. In Cruz, J.M. (ed.) Maras y Pandillas en Centroamérica, Vol. 4. San Salvador: UCA Editores.

Bourguignon, F. (1999). Crime as a Social Cost of Poverty and Inequality: A Review Focusing on Developing Countries. Desarrollo y Sociedad, 44, 61-99.

Kliksberg, B. (2008). ¿Cómo enfrentar la inseguridad en América Latina?. Nueva Sociedad, 215, 4-16.

Martín-Baró, I. (1998). Religión y guerra psicológica. In Blanco, A. (ed.) Psicología de la Liberación. Madrid: Trotta.