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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

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.