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What is Mindfulness? A Critical Religious Studies Approach

Any casual user of social media can’t have missed the increasing number of adverts for dozens of ‘mindfulness’ apps. Perhaps you have encountered the term in the workplace or in a healthcare setting? It seems that, in the contemporary West, mindfulness is everywhere. But what is it? How popular is it? What is its connection to particular forms of Buddhism? Can it ever be considered wholly secular or is it necessarily religious? And why does this matter, and for whom? Today, Chris is joined by Ville Husgafvel of the University of Helsinki to discuss these important questions surrounding an increasingly pervasive phenomenon that has received little engagement from the critical religious studies community.

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


What is Mindfulness? A Critical Religious Studies Approach

Podcast with Ville Husgafvel (15 April 2019).

Interviewed by Chris Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Husgafvel_-_What_is_Mindfulness_1.1

Chris Cotter (CC): Anyone who spends any time on line or on social media these days, hasn’t managed to avoid adverts for different mindfulness applications and mindfulness courses that one can go on. Mindfulness seems to be a buzz-word in all manner of business and economics, but also throughout various religious groups and religion-related groups. But what on earth is mindfulness? Is it religious? Is it secular? Is it connected to Buddhism in some way? What are its Buddhist origins? Why does it matter? Someone who’s much better equipped to answer these questions than I am is Ville Husgafvel of the University of Helsinki. I hope I pronounced that approximately right. I had it a moment ago! Now, he’s a PhD student here in Study of Religions with research interests in contemporary mindfulness practices, Buddhist meditation, Buddhist modernism, and so on. And he’s also spent a year working at SOAS, University of London, working there on his dissertation topic. He’s got a number of publications in the area on Buddhism in Finland and one in Temenos the Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion, entitled “On the Buddhist Roots of Contemporary Nonreligious Mindfulness Practice: moving beyond sectarian and essentialist approaches.” And we’ll link to that on the website. And he’s also got a forthcoming manuscript on “The ‘Universal Dharma Foundation’ of Mindfulness- Based Stress Reduction“, so he clearly knows his stuff. He’s enthusiastic about his topic. So, first off, Ville – welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Ville Husgafvel (VH): Thank you very much, Chris.

CC: Thank you for joining me. So, big questions. We’ve got a lot to discuss here. But just for anyone – whether they’ve seen those adverts for mindfulness apps or whether they’ve not seen them – what, broadly, are we talking about? Just in a few sentences, what is mindfulness? Then we can dive into the analysis.

VH: Well, that is a question worth a dissertation of its own! But, in short, mindfulness cannot be grasped unless it’s tied to some specific context. Because it’s a broad abstract category. And it has its roots in the Buddhist tradition, in the really earliest layer of texts. You can discuss mindfulness as part of the noble eightfold path leading to the cessation of suffering, and right mindfulness is one part of that path. But the descriptions of mindfulness are varied. It can be discussed and defined in very specific ways as “keeping in mind”: keeping in mind the object of meditation; or in a broad way, keeping in mind certain Buddhist perspectives on things; and, more broadly, it can be just clear, lucid awareness of things – being alert. But since the Seventies – especially after the Nineties – it has become part of the medical, therapeutic or psychological vocabulary also. And here, many Buddhist connotations are left aside. And it’s more about, you would say, self-regulation of attention and with an attitude of acceptance towards the present moment experience. So if you look at psychological studies and discussions that would be the definition. But within Buddhism there are various interpretations, depending on the tradition and the viewpoints, within the massive family of traditions known as Buddhism.

CC: And I’m sure we’ll get into some of that over the next half an hour. But, this incredibly broad topic – what drew you to it? I mean, you’re doing your PhD study on it, so you must be interested. But why? How did you get to this point?

VH: Well, many strands. One is a personal interest in meditation for decades already. And the other is scholarly interest. During my BA and MA studies I was always interested in the concept of religion and the interplay between Buddhist traditions and Western culture: how the Western concept of religion, for example, changed in the encounters with Buddhist traditions – and also how Buddhism changed in the exchange with Western philosophies and natural sciences (5:00). And so the influences have gone both ways. But then again, when I was thinking about the PhD topic I wanted it to have relevance in the society we live in. So I saw that when these mindfulness-based practices, mindfulness-based programmes, which are increasingly being used in the mainstream medicine, healthcare, education, corporate worlds, I saw that there would be discussion of the links to Buddhism. And I was seeing that, especially in Finland with a strong history in evangelical Christianity, there would be some prejudice on practices based on Buddhism and Buddhist mediation. And a lot of discussion which is not necessarily based on research, but on opinions and very superficial knowledge of things. So I was wondering: maybe a scholar of religion could provide some facts for the discussion?

CC: Excellent. So there are a lot of questions that we could ask here, and we’ll probably get to some of them now. Is mindfulness secular? Is it cultural appropriation? Is it religious? Is it Buddhist? What kind of Buddhist? Which form of mindfulness are we talking about? Who is saying what? Why does it matter? So hopefully we’ll get to some of those questions. But it would be good, before we get there, if we could talk about the how questions. So you’ve been interested in this broad topic and some of these questions, but how have you gone about doing that research? I know that in your articles, certainly, you’ve been looking at a specific form of mindfulness, so you might want to tell us about the individual lineage there, and sort-of what are your sources? And things like that?

VH: Yes. Thanks. Well it’s really important, because the field of mindfulness practices is vast. It goes from traditional Buddhist practices up to some military interventions where mindfulness practices are used to train soldiers.

CC: Yes, I’ve heard that.

VH: So the question of which mindfulness you are talking about is very important, in order to say anything relevant on the topic. So I was interested in the interplay between how Buddhist practices are interpreted and decontextualized in Western therapeutic secular settings. And, in this process, one particular mindfulness-based programme, called Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, (MBSR) is a bridge builder. It’s the first mindfulness-based programme to be introduced in Western secular settings. In a hospital, Massachusetts University Hospital stress reduction clinic, was the place at the end of the Seventies. And it was based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn who developed the programme, based on his extensive practice in various Buddhist traditions and reading. But he was also a scientist and a PhD from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in molecular biology. So he was able to translate certain Buddhist perspectives and practices in a language that could be introduced in a hospital setting. And so this programme called Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction is my focus. And I’m interested from two viewpoints. One is a textual study of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work, the person who developed it: how he describes the practice, and its Buddhist roots; and what kind of Buddhist elements can be found there; and how he describes his own practice history – which traditions were relevant. But then, I’m also interested in the lived practice: how MBSR is taught in Finland. And I did ethnographic fieldwork in an MBSR teacher training course for one year, participating with them, and meeting and recording discussion with the teachers. So I want to see, also, what’s the difference between a textual representation of the practice and what is actually happening in the field? And then, during the research process, I also had a chance to do an interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn to ask some personal questions and to go beyond the stuff that’s written in the books (10:00). So it was really, really valuable. And so it gave me a lot of insight for the research.

CC: Yes. So it sounds like you’ve got a lot to go on. So let’s dive in to some of those questions the, so I’ve got one of my undergrad students, Immy, is working on a dissertation on mindfulness at the moment. And she was asking, “Can contemporary mindfulness be considered simply a form of Buddhist modernism?” She said? So, is it simply a modernised form of Buddhist practice, or what’s going on? And what would we even mean by “Buddhist” in that context? Maybe you can use that as a springboard into some of your research.

VH: Yes. Really interesting question, and it goes right into the heart of things. So if you try to do any comparison between Buddhist mindfulness and contemporary mindfulness, the first question is: which Buddhism are we talking about, in the variety of traditions approaches, interpretations? Theravāda Buddhism, Mahāyāna Buddhism, Vajrayāna, and geographical areal areas? And there’s also one very important distinction between traditionalistic interpretations of doctrine and practice and then modernistic interpretations. In short, Buddhist modernism is an interplay . . . how Buddhism starts to change. How Buddhist traditions, and particular Buddhist teachers, started to reform Buddhist teachings and practices in an interplay with Western philosophy, with colonial powers, Christian missionaries. And they somehow formed a view of Buddhism which was able to argue for being compatible with scientific rational thought. But at the same time, provide meaning that was seen as the field for religion at the time. And this discourse has continued, until our days. There’s still, often, many more positive views on Buddhism, even if religions in general are seen as somehow in a negative light. And in this rationalisation of Buddhist doctrine, many Buddhist teachings were interpreted in the light of psychology instead of cosmology or metaphysics. And so it’s definitely a strand, an ongoing process, which has both occurred in Asia and the West. And if you look at the tradition that Jon Kabat-Zinn practised in, they are very much modernised versions of Buddhism. So he practised in the Insight Meditation Society, which is a society teaching Theravāda-based vipassanā meditation, based especially on certain Burmese meditation lineages. And then also had a personal practice with a Korean Zen teacher and was influenced by many publications by many modern Buddhist teachers. So I think the Buddhism which influenced these modern mindfulness-based practices was a very modernised version of Buddhism. And within these practices, the rationalisation and the scientific evidence of efficacy just went even, like, much further. So, in a way, it’s the same process which was somehow continuing the process of Buddhist modernism. But whether it’s relevant to call them Buddhist any more is a matter of much debate. Because there is no Buddhist self-identity any more. Not only in the programmes, but in the majority of the practitioners. And no Buddhist author of these refers to (Buddhism as) a legitimation of the practices. The legitimacy is based on the scientific research, on the efficacy of certain meditation practices. So there’s no straight-forward answer.

CC: Clearly. It might be helpful just to take us through, perhaps just some of the practices and the sort of philosophies associated with mindfulness-based stress reduction. Just to give a flavour of exactly what might be involved. But also if you can maybe relate this to where those can be traced to historically, whilst you’re doing it, perhaps?

VH: Well, I’ll try to keep it short!

CC: Yes, just a couple of examples.

VH; Being very short, MBSR and most of the mindfulness-based practice programmes which are derived from MBSR are taught as eight week courses (15:00). And the main components are certain sitting meditation practices starting with awareness of your breath, awareness of body sensation, awareness of sounds and thought processes, and these kind-of open awareness practices of being alert to the present moment, experiencing all its varieties. But also, certain body scan meditations where you scan different . . . keeping the present-moment focus on different body parts and going through, systematically, all the body areas. And then certain simple yoga movements with the same kind of present-moment accepting, non-judgemental, attention. But also certain aspects or informal practices that . . . . Trying to become more aware of the automatic relations that you have in everyday life, on encountering people during your work life, in your free time and your social life. And also, paying attention to what kind of reactions are linked to agreeable situations and those which are not so agreeable. And observing the automatic responses and tendencies, and trying to become aware of those. And then, slowly, perhaps also understanding which ones are maybe useful, and pragmatic and which might be not so functional and perhaps creating unnecessary distress in various situations. So that’s the basic practice, in short. And the elements are found in many Buddhist meditative traditions. The same focus on pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensations; what kind of reactions do we have? And how our conditioned reactions maybe harmful or not harmful, and conducive to friendliness and compassion or to hatred, greed, ignorance. And these kind of perspectives are found both in Buddhist contexts and these contemporary mindfulness contexts. So there’s a lot of shared ground. And some argue that the shared ground goes only as far as these psychological processes are involved. But if you look a bit deeper into the books, into the discussions, there are also what I would call “ontological” elements, which are not necessarily in any contradiction with our so-called physical, natural scientific views. But seeing human beings as part of a larger whole, a larger social whole, a larger ecological whole and also part of a larger universe. And this kind of realisation might have a profound impact on your self-identity, and also on your ethical behaviour: understanding that my wellbeing might be very much connected to the wellbeing of my nearest and dearest but also my work communities and also the ecological side of . . . . It’s quite obvious that we like fresh air and clean water and not the other way around. So the meditation practice may, for some, have more ethical, ontological sides to it and it can be more apart of self-identity. I would use the word, “existential” practice. But for others it may be only a way to come to terms with chronic pain, or migraine, or, after knee surgery, how to deal with the constant pain. And that’s the function of meditation practice. So it’s this sort-of wide variety. And depending on the interpretation, some interpretations might come more close to Buddhist or existential or spiritual or

CC: All of these things!

VH: And for some it’s clearly a medical, therapeutic practice, and that’s the end of it. So I’m very cautious of giving any fixed labels on mindfulness practices. And that’s one finding and something that I want to bring to discussions always, when three’s a discussion on mindfulness practices (20:00). It’s not a unitary phenomenon. It’s not monolithic.

CC: So, just sticking with the Buddhist interpretation, or seeing as . . . . It seems to be the case that the predominant interpretation has been that it’s come directly through Theravāda Buddhism. And you would challenge that, wouldn’t you? Why is there that interpretation that it’s largely a Theravāda practice?

VH: That’s one more specific finding, and a topic I discuss in both of my articles. That there’s a dominant narrative that contemporary mindfulness practices are mainly based on Theravada Buddhist vipassanā practices and, especially in their modern form, linked to particular Burmese vipassanā traditions dating back to Ledi Sayadaw, U ba Khin , SN Goenka or the lineage of Mahāsi Sayadaw and his students. And these are the lineages were very influential for the Insight Meditation Society teachers: Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield from whom Kabat-Zinn learned meditation. But these interpretations neglected that Kabat-Zinn was also a Zen student in training for years. And was very much influenced by Mahayana Buddhist ideas. And why is this important? If we pick certain Buddhist sources, texts, modern teachers and if we compare those texts and teachings to contemporary forms of mindfulness, it’s easy to create a picture where they seem very separate – the objectives of practice and the forms of practice. And so you can easily make an argument that contemporary mindfulness is anything but Buddhist. It can be the antithesis of Buddhism, by picking up certain sources. But if you pick on other sources, the image is very different. And the practices are much more connected and continuous. And especially if you pick sources from Mahayana Zen and modernised interpretations of Zen practice, as in the Book of Shunryū Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind which Kabat-Zinn often refers to. Or the practice of Thich Nhat Hanh a famous Vietnamese peace activist, poet and mindfulness teacher. So this is quite important, which traditions actually were relevant in the formation of mindfulness, if we want to do any comparison on the continuity of ideas and practices. So this is my argument that we need to look more at the Mahayana sources.

CC: Absolutely. So just thinking – I mean I know this, maybe, isn’t exactly relevant to the research that you’ve been doing, but in many contexts there’ve been debates, they have these debates about, is this a religious practice? Is this a secular practice? And I know you would very much, as a critical scholar, want to come down on a line of: it depends who’s being asked and what’s a stake and why they want it to be what it is. But can you, maybe, tell us about some of those debates that have happened? Maybe specific instances where people have been arguing that it clearly is Buddhist, or that it clearly is just spiritual, or that it’s clearly secular, and maybe give us some examples of those public debates?

VH: Well, the basic outline. It’s a narrative that in contemporary mindfulness programmes meditation is taught independently of Buddhism or Buddhist religiosity – and what does it mean to be independent from that? That’s a question. And in many scientific studies focussing on the effects of meditation practice and mindfulness practice, it’s usually taken for granted that these are secular practices which may have Buddhist roots, (25:00) or roots in Asian Wisdom Traditions or something else, but don’t have any philosophical or ethical connections to those practices, or the beliefs of those traditions. So it’s a very instrumental, technical view of meditation. It’s about self-regulation and certain attitudes. And of course, this kind of framing opens the doors to bring meditation into the mainstream: into public healthcare, into public education, into schools, in corporate contexts where Buddhist meditation would never be appropriate. But then again, if you look at the contents and the techniques, there’s much more from Buddhist traditions than only some particular techniques. So some have argued that it’s not possible to do a clear-cut separation of taking only the meditation and leaving everything else aside. And the discussion is very much similar to the debates around yoga, and the use of yoga. And there’s been, in the US, court cases deciding whether particular yoga programme is appropriate to be used in public schools. And these similar kind of questions are raised in relation to mindfulness-based programmes. Even though so far they never went into court, yet. But there are scholars . . . usually the same scholars who argue that yoga should be seen in a religious light and that the public school is not the place for yoga programmes, usually mindfulness is seen in the same way. And it’s obvious because they share many things in common and it’s sometimes very difficult to do any clear-cut separation between meditation practice, mindfulness practice and yoga practice. But so some argue for clear religious elements which would close the door; that it’s not appropriate for public contexts. But the majority voice is that they are secular in this way that it’s appropriate to teach in public context. But many scholars recently questioned these both as very simplistic. Rather they say that these could be seen as both secular practices and hybrid practices which people can interpret within religious frames, Buddhist frames or secular frames. And it can never be determined on the level of whether a mindfulness practice is this or that. We must look into the individual mindfulness-based programmes. And even within certain mindfulness-based programmes we need to see how a certain individual frames the meditation practice. Then we can say something meaningful, whether it is Buddhist, religious, secular or what. So of course, in the general way, usually the journalist asks and people want very simple clear-cut answers, whether or not. . . . And the scholar says: “Well, if you look from this point it appears Buddhist, if you look from another point it appears secular.” And so it’s not an easy question to answer.

CC: Exactly. But it’s a fascinating sort of test case for just demonstrating all of those issues around that religious/ secular binary. And hopefully it can help undercut that binary and, you know, we won’t be saying it is that or it is that. But there are so many other practices, that maybe are more familiar in the West, that are more connected to, let’s say, Christianity, that traditional Westerners would be quite happy to say “Oh that’s nothing to do with religion.” But it’s when this strange exotic, “other” thing comes in that decoupling, or acknowledging that fluidity and it being two things at the same time, seems to become quite problematic for people.

VH: Yes. I often say that we have this conception or matrix of systems of classification. And when we encounter things that doesn’t fit then we must change the system of classification. And in the same way that Buddhist tradition, when it was first encountered in the colonial period and by the early Orientalist scholars, it changed the way religion was seen (30:00). And I think now what’s happening is that there are many other related movements and practices in this therapeutic, spiritual, self-help, self-improvement field that don’t really fit into the clear-cut classification of secular/ religious. And there’s often this . . . it’s not clear-cut whether it’s spiritual, post-secular . . . something which is very vague and very problematic also. Because it doesn’t say much about the things that we observe. And I think, as you said, mindfulness practice is a very good test ground for building hypotheses, and improving our terminology and concepts relating to this new empirical data that appears in current cultural milieux.

CC: Absolutely. So just as a final question, I mean, you’ve been telling us a lot about the research that you’ve been doing. What’s next for you? And, maybe, what are some of the future directions that you see mindfulness research in general going in? Like are there some big areas where research is needed or you’d like to see research? Or where you would like to do it?

VH: Well, I think there’s still a handful in doing the dissertation itself! So right now, in my own research I’m going deeper into the ethnographic material. So far I’ve only focused on Buddhist texts and the texts of Jon Kabat-Zinn and mindfulness manuals and source books. So now I’m focusing on my ethnographic fieldwork material and looking how MBSR and mindfulness is taught in Finland and how future MBSR teachers are instructed to become teachers: what elements are emphasised, and what elements are possibly left out? So I hope, in the future, there will be much more ethnographic focus. Because the texts can tell us only so much. And what’s happening in the field is nuanced. And I personally hope to have a possibility, after the dissertation, to work on interviewing on individual meditation practices, within both Buddhist communities and in modern contemporary mindfulness communities, and shed light on the variety of interpretation and frames in which meditation can be useful and meaningful for individuals.

CC: Fantastic. Yes it could well be that the discourses might be quite similar, yet the objects populating the discourses are the differences. We shall see. Thank you so much, Ville for joining us on the Religious Studies Project.

VH: Thank you so much, Chris. It’s been a pleasure.


Citation Info: Husgafvel, Ville and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “What is Mindfulness? A Critical Religious Studies Approach”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 15 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/what-is-mindfulness-a-critical-religious-studies-approach/

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

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Resonance of Vestigial States

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is RSP stalwart (currently our videos producer), Jonathan Tuckett.

Way back in the early days of the RSP when I did interviews and roundtables I interviewed Naomi Goldenberg on religion as vestigial states. This was also back in the early days of my PhD when I had joined Stirling University and its program of phenomenology“. (Don’t worry this isn’t about phenomenology so much as it is about me).

This was all before I started reading Alfred Schutz who turned my thesis onto an entirely new path and eventually to the heights of “proper phenomenology”. The truth is, back then – when I interviewed Naomi – I couldn’t really say that a I “got” Critical Religion. As David has already explained in his editor’s choice, Timothy Fitzgerald is perhaps the most important scholar of religion of our time for the fact that he has made us change the way we think about religion. But I was stubborn and combative, so I had to come to realise the paradigm shift of Tim’s work by a slightly circuitous route.

And ever since I have made that paradigm shift, ever since I “got” Critical Religion and pronounce myself to be a part of that group, I have returned again and again to Naomi’s work on religion as vestigial states. I’m not saying I fully agree with Naomi’s theory. But the more I develop my proper phenomenology (yes, I am going to hammer that distinction again and again – I am no less stubborn and combative these days), the more I find how similarly my own views on “religion” resonate with hers. And, with potentially fortuitous timing, Naomi will be keynote speaker at this year’s BASR conference so we may well have another interview with her in the near future.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. 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, buckets-o-soldiers, sharpies, and more.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Shifting from religions to ‘religion’

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is our co-editor-in-chief, David Robertson.

I’ve picked the interview that I wished I had done. Reading Tim Fitzgerald’s Jonathan Tuckett. This is a dense interview that rewards another listen. The use of Marxist terminology is uncommon in Religious Studies, but it’s a powerful set of tools with the potential to unsettle a lot of what is taken for granted in the field—and these two facts are not unconnected. It’s probably time we had him on again.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. 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, seedlings, dumbbells, and more.

No, Secularism is not a World Religion

No, secularism is not a world religion. That is my response to the question posed to Donovan Schaefer concerning the relationship between secularism and religion. In this podcast, Schaefer suggested that incorporating secularism as an “object of study” within the world religion paradigm could be a useful pedagogical tool to challenge it from within, but I think this is the wrong approach. The reason for my rejection of  Schaefer’s solution is not because I think incorporating secularism in the world religion paradigm would muddy the sanctity of the category, nor because Schaefer’s proposal fails some more critical definition of religion, but simply because it would only end up reifying religion even more. In my view, incorporating secularism in the world religions paradigm doesn’t challenge this paradigm from within, as Schaefer suggests, but merely gives it more life by expanding its scope and reach. Committing this error would be the same as trying to fix the eurocentrism implicit in the world religion paradigm by expanding the various cultures and histories that fall under its domain, which is exactly the same error that thinkers made in the middle of the twentieth century. In contrast to Schaefer, I would suggest that the way to challenge the world religions paradigm is not by incorporating more diverse―and possibly anti-religious―phenomenon into its structure, but by simply historicizing the category and showing how it operates at an ideological level.

To begin, let me assert that I recognize and respect the general scholarly position from which Schaefer  is coming. At the beginning of the podcast he notes that a lot of recent scholarship has challenged the idea that secularism stands in contrast to religion, and on this point he is certainly correct. In the past century, prominent theorist like Karl Löwith, Hans Blumenberg, Charles Taylor, and Marcel Gauchet have all challenged the traditional narrative that pits modernity against religion and frames Western history as an increasing process of secularization that is liberated from religion. For instance, Blumenberg tries to expose the unique legitimacy of the modern age that recognizes but does not reduce it to its Christian legacy, and Taylor takes the extreme position of suggesting that the modern secular age was brought about by developments latent in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Indeed, for Taylor, the generative seeds of modernity don’t begin with modern developments in science and philosophy but with various Judeo-Christian influences that we can trace back to the wider Mediterranean civilization from which they emerged. This implies that secularism is not some anti-religious movement in the West but is deeply intertwined with the rise and fall of the civilization that once called itself “Christendom.”

Indeed, as both Schaefer and Cotter acknowledge during the course of the pod cast, both “religion” and the “secular” are categories that emerge out of a certain “Christian”―or more broadly stated, “Western”―provenance. In regard to religion, thinkers such as Talal Asad, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Tomoko Masuzawa have all noted that it was only after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century that the word “religion” began to take on the connotation of personal belief in a subjective sense, and to denote a universal human sense or capacity for religion. In Roman and early Christian Latin literature the nouns religio, religiones, the adjective religiosus, and the adverb religios were mainly used to describe the performance of ritual obligations. This early use has more in common with the Latin Pietas than with our modern notion of the word “religion,” which has acquired the sense of inner belief or faith. The invention of religion in this modern sense took place because various thinkers―from Jean Bodin to G. W. F. Hegel―argued that true religion is a matter of proper belief, not just cultic participation. Moreover, it occurred when this idea was carried around the world by the forces of colonization and globalization, which eventually led to the normative divisions of the subject that make up world religion textbooks (i.e. the division between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.)

Similarly, the secular was also invented in the context of Christians―or Christian critics―struggling to make sense of the post-reformation world. In fact, the first modern use of the word “secular” can be traced to the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which brought an end to the wars of religion. The treaty uses the term “secularity” to describe “the conversion of an ecclesiastical or religious institution or its property to sovereigns, princes or lay people.” In this manner, the secular emerged as a space of worldly authority that was distinct from, yet deeply interconnected with, Western religious institutions. From this perspective, as Schaefer notes, secularism can be viewed as “an offshoot of Christianity… as something that Christianity does.” When we view the history of the West from a broad lens it is possible to see the great schisms between the various Christian orthodoxies and the “secular” forms of thought that took inspiration from them as “part of the story of Christianity.”

Where I disagree with Schaefer is in his attempt to see these intertwined genealogies through the cross-hairs of the world religion paradigm. Once we acknowledge that the invention of religion as a universal category and its subsequent critique by the forces of secularism took place under a certain Western provenance, why would we continue expanding the scope and reach of the world religion paradigm? I agree with Schaefer that this paradigm is not “evil,” as he puts it, but it is incorrect; it does not adequately describe the phenomena, so why would we continue to expand its application? From my perspective, to do what Schaefer is suggesting would be tantamount to the same error made by Ernst Troeltsch or Ninian Smart in the twentieth century, as it would try to correct the study of religion by expanding its scope. Smart, for instance, always tried to instruct students in a “broad religious outlook” by showing how religion is constituted by cultural difference,  and I think what Schaefer has suggested would end up being very similar. Recall that Smart’s classification of world religions included not just Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, but various indigenous traditions and even Maoist communism. In this light, incorporating secularism within the world religion paradigm is no different than attempting to challenge the paradigm by incorporating non-traditional or atheist forms of religion within the classroom.

For instance, Schaefer cites the work of Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, and suggests that one way to critically challenge religion from within is by showing how there is not just one type of secularism, but multiple secularisms. Like Talal Asad and Charles Taylor, he suggests that there are different formations of the secular that emerge out of different cultures and contexts, and that they expose the diversity at the heart of our models of religious classification. In this light, Christian, Islamic, and Hindu cultures (etc.) give rise to different types of secularism, and there is even a difference between Hindu forms of secularism in India and Hindu forms of secularism in America. Now, to be fair, I do think this is a good way to understand different cultural forms in light of globalization, but why try to incorporate these secularisms within the world religion paradigm? In contrast to Schaefer, I am worried that including non-religious or atheist forms of culture within the paradigm doesn’t challenge it from within, but merely revitalizes it by incorporating more data within its fold.

To put the matter plainly, I think we need to push the genealogy and historical situatedness of religion and secularism further than Schaefer proposes. Schaefer suggests that he wants to deconstruct the world religion paradigm by destabilizing it from within, yet I don’t think he goes far enough in this regard. He is right that deconstruction always takes place within the very thing under analysis, but this doesn’t mean that we should proceed by expanding the same old reified categories at a wider level. I follow Jacques Derrida in thinking that we need to question both our students and ourselves (as scholars) whether religion and secularism exist at all outside of their Western contexts, and thereby attempt to limit their further application. In Above All No Journalists! Derrida states this bluntly when he asks what a non-Christian is doing when they say “Islam, or Judaism, or Buddhism is my religion.” Is there even a word for “religion” in Arabic, he questions? Certainly not an adequate translation of the Latin. Moreover, what really characterizes Judaism as a religion, or Buddhism? What we know for certain, Derrida suggests, is that the history of the concept religion is wrapped up with a “political and ideological space dominated by Christianity,” and that “to engage in the obscure and equivocal strug­gle in which the putatively “universal” value of the concept of religion, even of religious tolerance,” is to engage in a semantic space appropriated by Christianity.  According to this approach, deconstruction occurs by exposing the limits of traditional modes of classification and retreating from their normative application, not applying these norms to even more phenomena.

For these reasons, I would suggest that the best way to challenge the world religions paradigm is simply by historicizing the category and showing how it functions at an ideological level. I am all in favor of deconstructing something from within “in order to destabilize it,” as Schaefer suggests, but we can do this without expanding the scope of the same old categories along the way. Hence, rather than merely incorporating more diverse―and possibly anti-religious―phenomenon into the world religions paradigm, I think we need to expose the ideological forces at play and thereby challenge their application on a global scale. Schaefer is correct that there is “only so much we can do to destabilize the way that students think,” but if that is the case then let’s expose the limits of the normative forces at play by properly situating them within their ideological contexts.

 

 

 

 

How to solve a problem like World Religions? An interdisciplinary approach.

The deluge of responses to Teemu Taira’s recent RSP podcast show that “What is religion?” (and so implicitly, “What is secular?”)  remains the subject of ongoing debate that is unlikely to be resolved soon. As Donovan Schaefer explains in his interview with Christopher Cotter, however, there are considerable problems with the idea that secularism is either the opposite of religion or its absence. The subtraction story of secularism, the idea that you can simply remove ‘religion’ and be left with something neutral, is simply not true (Taylor, 2007). Secularism is itself an ideology that presents both a characterisation of how the world is and how it should be. Schaefer suggests that the conceptualisation of religion as something concrete that can be removed to leave an objective, rational base is a consequence of the World Religions paradigm and its roots in 19th Century scientific rationalism. Challenging this simplistic conception of religion and its consequences lies at the core of the Critical Religion movement. Schaefer’s interview is an invitation to explore how we can do that most effectively. How do we translate critical insights that have significant real world implications into ideas that can easily be transmitted to students and the wider public?

To answer that, we must consider why we teach about religion(s) at all.  As teachers, it is important that we both impart knowledge about our subject areas but also that we should challenge and expand the worldviews of our students to help them develop as individuals. To do that successfully we need to find a starting point that is sufficiently familiar and accessible to our students, so that they can engage in constructive dialogue. As Schaefer notes, despite its flaws the World Religions paradigm was an improvement on previous colonialist approaches and it remains a useful pedagogical tool. If people already think in terms of an implicit World Religions paradigm, then it provides a sensible starting point for teaching.

According to the latest British Social attitudes report 64% of British 18-24 year olds do not belong to a religious tradition and so ignoring secularism in the study of religion and beliefs is an untenable approach. The vocal claims of so-called New Atheists, about non-religion and ‘rationality’ should be critically examined, just as the claims of religious and other social groups should be scrutinised when they have public implications. Challenging the assumptions of these students and encouraging them to examine their own intellectual heritage is also an important step towards teaching them to understand the beliefs of those from other cultural traditions. Schaefer is correct that encouraging critical thought about secularism and religion should be seen as complimentary exercises. Exploring these topics can stimulate both academic and personal development.

Schaefer lays out two possibilities for mixing Secularism Studies and World Religions. The first option is to focus on the form of secularism that is most familiar to our students, that of the contemporary West, and to locate this secularism as part of the Christian tradition in which it has its historical roots. This view positions the Enlightenment as a consequence of the Reformation and views the split between those who accept the (more or less) literal truths of Christian tradition and those who reject them as part of a long line of doctrinal schisms. Positioning a secularism such as New Atheism in this way highlights its historically contingent nature and can lead to fruitful discussions and debates in a teaching environment. However, such an approach can be criticised for neglecting secularisms that have or could arise in other contexts. Schaefer’s second option is a better, albeit more time consuming, approach that examines secularist trends within each of the World Religions and stresses how they are all historically contingent. The choice between these two options will probably be made pragmatically, depending on both the teacher’s expertise and the time that they can devote to secularism within a broader course.

There is, perhaps, a third and more radical way that still retains the broad strokes of the World Religions paradigm but which critiques it more directly and opens up the issues and core themes for discussion during future weeks. At the risk of sounding partial, perhaps the solution is a greater integration of psychology and the social sciences into the conceptualisation and teaching of religion. By starting with the questions of why people believe what they believe, and what distinguishes religious beliefs from other beliefs, the problems of both the World Religions paradigm and Secularism Studies are placed into a wider context. Questions like how we construct worldviews and conceptions of ourselves are fundamental to understanding lived and implicit religion and other existential cultures (Lee, 2015). “What do you believe?” and “Why do you believe it?” are, perhaps, the most important questions that religious studies should be challenging non-academics to ask themselves. Answering these questions sets the stage for subsequent discussions about the differences between various existential cultures, for the diversity of religious traditions, and for an appreciation of the complex and often contradictory beliefs and behaviours of individuals (Chaves, 2010). Is it practical to introduce such an approach into a single World Religions course? Like Schaefer, I am unsure – it is something I would like to have the opportunity to try but can only theorise about currently. It should, however, certainly be possible within the broader context of a Religious Studies degree.

The danger raised at the end of the interview by David Robertson about potentially reinforcing unhelpful models of religion is real. Is the main reason that people think in terms of the World Religions paradigm because that is how they are taught religion in schools and because that is how religion is generally conceptualised in the public sphere? As Fitzgerald (2000) noted, that paradigm is beneficial to many and it is now heavily entrenched. Perhaps a more radical approach, based as much in the social sciences as the humanities, can fix that – but until then Schaefer’s suggestion to inhabit the paradigm and critique it from within is a sound option for teaching religion in higher education. It is certainly better than ignoring secularism entirely and, within a British context at least, the introduction of humanism or secularism in religious studies classrooms and lecture halls as a method of critiquing the world religions and introducing wider conceptual problems should be encouraged.

References

Chaves, M. (2010). Rain Dances in the Dry Season: Overcoming the Religious Congruence Fallacy. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49(1), 1–14. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2009.01489.x

Fitzgerald, T. (2000). The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Lee, L. (2015). Recognizing the non-religious: Reimagining the secular. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, C. (2007). A secular age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Outside the Panels: Comics and Context

rcrumb

At several points during his most recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, A. David Lewis alludes to the prominence of religious themes and images in comic books. In fact, if anything, Lewis downplays just how obvious the connection is. There are at least three intersections. Firstly, and explored at length in this interview, are the implicit and frequent utilisation of religious and mythical stories – particularly concerning death and rebirth – recast with superheroes rather than deities, and often reframed in scientific (or “scientistic”) language. Second, explicit religious narratives are frequently found in comics – consider Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, Craig Thompson’s Habibi, Robert Crumb’s literal presentation of Genesis or more prosaically, Marvel’s Thor. Not forgetting the ubiquitous Christian fundamentalist comics, or Chick Tracts after their primary producer Jack Chick, which due to their massive print runs are often considered to be the world’s most-read comics. Finally, comic books frequently include alternative or heterodox religious ideas, something underscored by the fact that two of the most acclaimed writers working today (Alan Moore and Grant Morrison) are practising magicians, and their work frequently contains references to their practises.

For some reason, then, there is something about comics that makes them particularly suited to discussing such ideas. Here, I will suggest some structural reasons why this might be the case. But I will also present a more sociological possibility, that comics and a heterodox approach to religious ideas go hand in hand, because both are typical features of the cultic milieu (Campbell 1972). As such, the analysis of religious themes in comic books needs to go beyond merely structural analyses.

Structural connections

gmorrison

from Grant Morrison’s ‘The Invisibles’

Darby Orcutt’s chapter, “Comics & Religion: Theoretical Connections” (in the Lewis-edited Graven Images), suggests two reasons why the comics medium is particularly suited to narratives concerning religion. Firstly, drawing from McCloud’s seminal Understanding Comics (1993), he argues that comics allow a greater degree of identification than would be possible with a movie or a novel because of their ability to be deliberately vague about certain aspects.

McCloud notes that the iconic, simplified faces of the protagonists typical of the Japanese Manga comics style makes the protagonist more easily relatable, and this might suggest one reason for the many comics with simplistic protagonists in more realistically drawn worlds (Cerebus the Aardvark, Concrete, Bone, etc).

A second factor outlined by Orcutt is the manipulation of the readers’ perception of time and space. In comics, time can be slowed down and sped up, and future and past can be shown side-by-side. Moreover, by utilising the gutter – the space between the panels – it becomes very easy for the mythical world to be shown, literally outside of the bounded time of the panels, but interacting with the present. Douglas Rushkoff’s Testament makes great use of this technique, as does Alan Moore’s Promethea, from which the following page is drawn.

AMooreOne particularly striking and effective version of this – which also includes Lewis’ comment that comics seem unusually aware of the limitations of the genre – is to have enlightenment illustrated by having the characters fall out of the 2D, panel-bound pages, and see them from the three-dimensional point of view of the reader. This happens in Moore’s Promethea and Morrison’s The Invisibles, but there are many other examples. A striking variant found in recent works by both, Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier and Morrison’s Superman Beyond, have used 3-D colouring techniques to indicate when a character has stepped from the ‘flat’ world of the comics page and out into a world with (literally) more depth. While there are many literary examples of such metatextuality – notable examples being the characters meeting their author in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, although acknowledgement that the text was in fact a text dates back to Don Quixote, at least – the characters do not step off the page in quite the same way. Perhaps this is because comics combine both text and images, so one can be played off another. Interestingly, both Moore and Morrison take this further than mere analogy, and argue that when viewed from a higher level, we the readers are literally works of fiction ourselves… But that is a post for another day.

comics

Cultic milieu

As noted above, however, comics concern themselves disproportionately with heterodox and alternative religious ideas – lots of ‘funny ideas’ in these ‘funny books’. Comics are as much a part of the cultic milieu as alternative religions (see Kripal’s recent Mutants and Mystics) – what better place for ‘not real religion’ than in ‘not real literature’? As indicated by the frequency of the descriptor “alternative”, the cultic milieu exists not as a free-floating pool of religious ideas, but to a considerable degree as that which is self-consciously alternative to the social norm.

From this point of view, it is not so surprising that comics would be so prominent. Comics and cartoons (their non-sequential variant, although this is not always so clearly delineated) have a long history of operating as social critique, a tradition that goes back to Hogarth in the mid 18th century, and most recently played out in the Charlie Hebdo affair. I therefore ask, if the religious narratives concerned here operate in some way as a critique of more traditional religious narratives and institutions, does this therefore indicate that this critique is a particular concern among the demographic who read comics? Indeed, comics traditionally have a strong anti-clerical bias (Wilson 2010), suggesting an active attempt to reclaim these symbols of transcendence from elitist discourses. So long as we focus only on structural or narrative similarities, we may be missing the most interesting points.

Like religion(s), comics do not exist as sui generis artefacts, separate from their cultural context. We cannot treat them as naive material artefacts, nine-panel hierophanies which “manifest” or “embody” some eternal religious essence, but as a part of a much larger discourse on “religion” (term, not thing) – which goes on both in elite, official cultural products and unofficial, alternative ones, like comics. Therefore it is vitally important for a non-essentialist and non-elitist study of religion that we consider comics in their cultural and historical context. Without that, structural analyses may be merely repeating hegemonic categories and structures of power. As scholars we need to fall off the page, and see the panels which form the boundaries of our thought.

References

Campbell, C. (1972) “The Cult, the Cultic Milieu, and Secularization.” in A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain 5. (London: SCM Press), 119-136.

McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding comics: [the invisible art]. (New York: HarperPerennial).

Orcutt, D. (2010) “Comics and Religion: Theoretical Connections.” In Lewis, A. D., & Kraemer, C. H., Graven images: Religion in comic books and graphic novels (New York: Continuum), 93-106.

Wilson, G. W. (2010) “Machina ex Deus: Perennialism in Comics.” In Lewis, A. D., & Kraemer, C. H., Graven images: Religion in comic books and graphic novels (New York: Continuum), 249-257.

 

‘Religion’ as ‘sui generis’

Is ‘religion’ sui generis? In other words, do scholars of religion study something that forms a unique and special domain of things in the world unlike any other? Wittgenstein thought religion constituted a distinct “form of life”. Eliade spoke of the ‘Sacred’ as existing in a separate reality above the mundaneness of the everyday (i.e. the profane).  Historically and in more modern times, other scholars have held similar views that paint the category of religion as naming a specific and stable set of things in the world set apart from all other. However, it is a view that has fallen out of favour as noted by Dr. Russell McCutcheon.

In this interview with Thomas Coleman, McCutcheon discusses what he terms as the “socio-political strategy” behind the label of “sui generis” as it is applied to religion. The interview begins by exploring some of the terms used to support sui generis claims to religion (e.g. un-mediated, irreducible etc.) followed by a brief overview on the rise of religious studies departments mid-20th century using such claims to obtain funding and autonomy from other disciplines. In closing, Dr. McCutcheon explains one example of how the ideological foundations of belief are ontology centered, examines how the term religion is “traded” and departs leaving us to consider the role of social agreement in defining what religion is or is not.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment torate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Dr. Russell McCutcheon is a full professor of religion and the department chair for the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His main interests lie in the academic study of ‘the academic study of religion’, focusing on how the category and term ‘religion’ has been employed throughout time. He has published several books such as Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia and more recently The Sacred Is the Profane: The Political Nature of “Religion”  (co-authored with William Arnal). Dr. McCutcheon is a member of Culture on the Edge, an international scholarly collaborative looking at how “identities are produced, managed, and continually reproduced” in society and in academia. Be sure to check out his latest book titled Entanglements: Marking Place in the Field of Religion coming out this March!

Religion as Vestigial States

We’ve been talking about Religion for some time now but perhaps the one question we haven’t begun to get to grips with is, what is religion? Recently we interviewed Tim Fitzgerald who already set us on the road to deconstructing the term religion. This week we speak to another member of the Critical Religions group, Naomi Goldenberg, who presents the first of our theories on what religion is. In this interview Professor Goldenberg takes us through the idea that religions might be vestigial states. She argues that religions are formed in distinction to governmental ‘States’ and represent the last vestiges of the previous order. At the same time this is a maneuver on the part of those States to delineate spheres of power. A vestigial state is both a once and future state, that which has gone and that which hopes to be. The idea of vestigial states throws into question our normal understanding of the term religion and Professor Goldenberg draws on such notable examples as the Islamic State, the Dalai Lama, Jewish history and even present day Wicca to illustrate the point. If you would like to know more about religions as vestigial states, Professor Goldenberg has also written on the topic on the Critical Religions website.

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

Naomi Goldenberg is professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her specialisms include Psychoanalysis, Women and Religion, and Cultural Studies. Her publications include Resurrecting the Body (Crossroad Publishing, 1993), The End of God (University of Ottawa Press, 1981), and Changing the Gods (Beacon Press, 1979).

 

‘Religion’ and Mystification

‘Religion’ has proved a problematic category, difficult to define and difficult to translate into non-European languages. In this interview, Timothy Fitzgerald presents his critical deconstruction of religion as a powerful discourse and its parasitic relation to ‘secular’ categories such as politics and economics. Religion is not a stand-alone category, he argues; ‘religions’ are modern inventions which are made to appear ubiquitous and, by being removed to a marginal, privatised domain, serve to mystify the supposed natural rationality of the secular state and capital. Feminist deconstruction of gender categories shows how power constructions which serve male interests come to appear as natural and inevitable, a powerful analogy to the mystification of power relations by the modern invention of religious and secular domains.

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

Timothy Fitzgerald is Reader in Religion at the University of Stirling, and organiser of the Critical Religion Category Network (CRCN). His 2000 book, The Ideology of Religious Studies (Oxford University Press) was the topic of a one day symposium organized by the Department of Religious Studies, University of Manchester. More recently, he published Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: a critical history of religion and related categories (Oxford University Press, 2007), and the edited volume Religion and the Secular: historical and colonial formations (Equinox, 2007).

Podcasts

What is Mindfulness? A Critical Religious Studies Approach

Any casual user of social media can’t have missed the increasing number of adverts for dozens of ‘mindfulness’ apps. Perhaps you have encountered the term in the workplace or in a healthcare setting? It seems that, in the contemporary West, mindfulness is everywhere. But what is it? How popular is it? What is its connection to particular forms of Buddhism? Can it ever be considered wholly secular or is it necessarily religious? And why does this matter, and for whom? Today, Chris is joined by Ville Husgafvel of the University of Helsinki to discuss these important questions surrounding an increasingly pervasive phenomenon that has received little engagement from the critical religious studies community.

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, self-help books, magnetic bracelets, and more.


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


What is Mindfulness? A Critical Religious Studies Approach

Podcast with Ville Husgafvel (15 April 2019).

Interviewed by Chris Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Husgafvel_-_What_is_Mindfulness_1.1

Chris Cotter (CC): Anyone who spends any time on line or on social media these days, hasn’t managed to avoid adverts for different mindfulness applications and mindfulness courses that one can go on. Mindfulness seems to be a buzz-word in all manner of business and economics, but also throughout various religious groups and religion-related groups. But what on earth is mindfulness? Is it religious? Is it secular? Is it connected to Buddhism in some way? What are its Buddhist origins? Why does it matter? Someone who’s much better equipped to answer these questions than I am is Ville Husgafvel of the University of Helsinki. I hope I pronounced that approximately right. I had it a moment ago! Now, he’s a PhD student here in Study of Religions with research interests in contemporary mindfulness practices, Buddhist meditation, Buddhist modernism, and so on. And he’s also spent a year working at SOAS, University of London, working there on his dissertation topic. He’s got a number of publications in the area on Buddhism in Finland and one in Temenos the Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion, entitled “On the Buddhist Roots of Contemporary Nonreligious Mindfulness Practice: moving beyond sectarian and essentialist approaches.” And we’ll link to that on the website. And he’s also got a forthcoming manuscript on “The ‘Universal Dharma Foundation’ of Mindfulness- Based Stress Reduction“, so he clearly knows his stuff. He’s enthusiastic about his topic. So, first off, Ville – welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Ville Husgafvel (VH): Thank you very much, Chris.

CC: Thank you for joining me. So, big questions. We’ve got a lot to discuss here. But just for anyone – whether they’ve seen those adverts for mindfulness apps or whether they’ve not seen them – what, broadly, are we talking about? Just in a few sentences, what is mindfulness? Then we can dive into the analysis.

VH: Well, that is a question worth a dissertation of its own! But, in short, mindfulness cannot be grasped unless it’s tied to some specific context. Because it’s a broad abstract category. And it has its roots in the Buddhist tradition, in the really earliest layer of texts. You can discuss mindfulness as part of the noble eightfold path leading to the cessation of suffering, and right mindfulness is one part of that path. But the descriptions of mindfulness are varied. It can be discussed and defined in very specific ways as “keeping in mind”: keeping in mind the object of meditation; or in a broad way, keeping in mind certain Buddhist perspectives on things; and, more broadly, it can be just clear, lucid awareness of things – being alert. But since the Seventies – especially after the Nineties – it has become part of the medical, therapeutic or psychological vocabulary also. And here, many Buddhist connotations are left aside. And it’s more about, you would say, self-regulation of attention and with an attitude of acceptance towards the present moment experience. So if you look at psychological studies and discussions that would be the definition. But within Buddhism there are various interpretations, depending on the tradition and the viewpoints, within the massive family of traditions known as Buddhism.

CC: And I’m sure we’ll get into some of that over the next half an hour. But, this incredibly broad topic – what drew you to it? I mean, you’re doing your PhD study on it, so you must be interested. But why? How did you get to this point?

VH: Well, many strands. One is a personal interest in meditation for decades already. And the other is scholarly interest. During my BA and MA studies I was always interested in the concept of religion and the interplay between Buddhist traditions and Western culture: how the Western concept of religion, for example, changed in the encounters with Buddhist traditions – and also how Buddhism changed in the exchange with Western philosophies and natural sciences (5:00). And so the influences have gone both ways. But then again, when I was thinking about the PhD topic I wanted it to have relevance in the society we live in. So I saw that when these mindfulness-based practices, mindfulness-based programmes, which are increasingly being used in the mainstream medicine, healthcare, education, corporate worlds, I saw that there would be discussion of the links to Buddhism. And I was seeing that, especially in Finland with a strong history in evangelical Christianity, there would be some prejudice on practices based on Buddhism and Buddhist mediation. And a lot of discussion which is not necessarily based on research, but on opinions and very superficial knowledge of things. So I was wondering: maybe a scholar of religion could provide some facts for the discussion?

CC: Excellent. So there are a lot of questions that we could ask here, and we’ll probably get to some of them now. Is mindfulness secular? Is it cultural appropriation? Is it religious? Is it Buddhist? What kind of Buddhist? Which form of mindfulness are we talking about? Who is saying what? Why does it matter? So hopefully we’ll get to some of those questions. But it would be good, before we get there, if we could talk about the how questions. So you’ve been interested in this broad topic and some of these questions, but how have you gone about doing that research? I know that in your articles, certainly, you’ve been looking at a specific form of mindfulness, so you might want to tell us about the individual lineage there, and sort-of what are your sources? And things like that?

VH: Yes. Thanks. Well it’s really important, because the field of mindfulness practices is vast. It goes from traditional Buddhist practices up to some military interventions where mindfulness practices are used to train soldiers.

CC: Yes, I’ve heard that.

VH: So the question of which mindfulness you are talking about is very important, in order to say anything relevant on the topic. So I was interested in the interplay between how Buddhist practices are interpreted and decontextualized in Western therapeutic secular settings. And, in this process, one particular mindfulness-based programme, called Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, (MBSR) is a bridge builder. It’s the first mindfulness-based programme to be introduced in Western secular settings. In a hospital, Massachusetts University Hospital stress reduction clinic, was the place at the end of the Seventies. And it was based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn who developed the programme, based on his extensive practice in various Buddhist traditions and reading. But he was also a scientist and a PhD from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in molecular biology. So he was able to translate certain Buddhist perspectives and practices in a language that could be introduced in a hospital setting. And so this programme called Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction is my focus. And I’m interested from two viewpoints. One is a textual study of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work, the person who developed it: how he describes the practice, and its Buddhist roots; and what kind of Buddhist elements can be found there; and how he describes his own practice history – which traditions were relevant. But then, I’m also interested in the lived practice: how MBSR is taught in Finland. And I did ethnographic fieldwork in an MBSR teacher training course for one year, participating with them, and meeting and recording discussion with the teachers. So I want to see, also, what’s the difference between a textual representation of the practice and what is actually happening in the field? And then, during the research process, I also had a chance to do an interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn to ask some personal questions and to go beyond the stuff that’s written in the books (10:00). So it was really, really valuable. And so it gave me a lot of insight for the research.

CC: Yes. So it sounds like you’ve got a lot to go on. So let’s dive in to some of those questions the, so I’ve got one of my undergrad students, Immy, is working on a dissertation on mindfulness at the moment. And she was asking, “Can contemporary mindfulness be considered simply a form of Buddhist modernism?” She said? So, is it simply a modernised form of Buddhist practice, or what’s going on? And what would we even mean by “Buddhist” in that context? Maybe you can use that as a springboard into some of your research.

VH: Yes. Really interesting question, and it goes right into the heart of things. So if you try to do any comparison between Buddhist mindfulness and contemporary mindfulness, the first question is: which Buddhism are we talking about, in the variety of traditions approaches, interpretations? Theravāda Buddhism, Mahāyāna Buddhism, Vajrayāna, and geographical areal areas? And there’s also one very important distinction between traditionalistic interpretations of doctrine and practice and then modernistic interpretations. In short, Buddhist modernism is an interplay . . . how Buddhism starts to change. How Buddhist traditions, and particular Buddhist teachers, started to reform Buddhist teachings and practices in an interplay with Western philosophy, with colonial powers, Christian missionaries. And they somehow formed a view of Buddhism which was able to argue for being compatible with scientific rational thought. But at the same time, provide meaning that was seen as the field for religion at the time. And this discourse has continued, until our days. There’s still, often, many more positive views on Buddhism, even if religions in general are seen as somehow in a negative light. And in this rationalisation of Buddhist doctrine, many Buddhist teachings were interpreted in the light of psychology instead of cosmology or metaphysics. And so it’s definitely a strand, an ongoing process, which has both occurred in Asia and the West. And if you look at the tradition that Jon Kabat-Zinn practised in, they are very much modernised versions of Buddhism. So he practised in the Insight Meditation Society, which is a society teaching Theravāda-based vipassanā meditation, based especially on certain Burmese meditation lineages. And then also had a personal practice with a Korean Zen teacher and was influenced by many publications by many modern Buddhist teachers. So I think the Buddhism which influenced these modern mindfulness-based practices was a very modernised version of Buddhism. And within these practices, the rationalisation and the scientific evidence of efficacy just went even, like, much further. So, in a way, it’s the same process which was somehow continuing the process of Buddhist modernism. But whether it’s relevant to call them Buddhist any more is a matter of much debate. Because there is no Buddhist self-identity any more. Not only in the programmes, but in the majority of the practitioners. And no Buddhist author of these refers to (Buddhism as) a legitimation of the practices. The legitimacy is based on the scientific research, on the efficacy of certain meditation practices. So there’s no straight-forward answer.

CC: Clearly. It might be helpful just to take us through, perhaps just some of the practices and the sort of philosophies associated with mindfulness-based stress reduction. Just to give a flavour of exactly what might be involved. But also if you can maybe relate this to where those can be traced to historically, whilst you’re doing it, perhaps?

VH: Well, I’ll try to keep it short!

CC: Yes, just a couple of examples.

VH; Being very short, MBSR and most of the mindfulness-based practice programmes which are derived from MBSR are taught as eight week courses (15:00). And the main components are certain sitting meditation practices starting with awareness of your breath, awareness of body sensation, awareness of sounds and thought processes, and these kind-of open awareness practices of being alert to the present moment, experiencing all its varieties. But also, certain body scan meditations where you scan different . . . keeping the present-moment focus on different body parts and going through, systematically, all the body areas. And then certain simple yoga movements with the same kind of present-moment accepting, non-judgemental, attention. But also certain aspects or informal practices that . . . . Trying to become more aware of the automatic relations that you have in everyday life, on encountering people during your work life, in your free time and your social life. And also, paying attention to what kind of reactions are linked to agreeable situations and those which are not so agreeable. And observing the automatic responses and tendencies, and trying to become aware of those. And then, slowly, perhaps also understanding which ones are maybe useful, and pragmatic and which might be not so functional and perhaps creating unnecessary distress in various situations. So that’s the basic practice, in short. And the elements are found in many Buddhist meditative traditions. The same focus on pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral sensations; what kind of reactions do we have? And how our conditioned reactions maybe harmful or not harmful, and conducive to friendliness and compassion or to hatred, greed, ignorance. And these kind of perspectives are found both in Buddhist contexts and these contemporary mindfulness contexts. So there’s a lot of shared ground. And some argue that the shared ground goes only as far as these psychological processes are involved. But if you look a bit deeper into the books, into the discussions, there are also what I would call “ontological” elements, which are not necessarily in any contradiction with our so-called physical, natural scientific views. But seeing human beings as part of a larger whole, a larger social whole, a larger ecological whole and also part of a larger universe. And this kind of realisation might have a profound impact on your self-identity, and also on your ethical behaviour: understanding that my wellbeing might be very much connected to the wellbeing of my nearest and dearest but also my work communities and also the ecological side of . . . . It’s quite obvious that we like fresh air and clean water and not the other way around. So the meditation practice may, for some, have more ethical, ontological sides to it and it can be more apart of self-identity. I would use the word, “existential” practice. But for others it may be only a way to come to terms with chronic pain, or migraine, or, after knee surgery, how to deal with the constant pain. And that’s the function of meditation practice. So it’s this sort-of wide variety. And depending on the interpretation, some interpretations might come more close to Buddhist or existential or spiritual or

CC: All of these things!

VH: And for some it’s clearly a medical, therapeutic practice, and that’s the end of it. So I’m very cautious of giving any fixed labels on mindfulness practices. And that’s one finding and something that I want to bring to discussions always, when three’s a discussion on mindfulness practices (20:00). It’s not a unitary phenomenon. It’s not monolithic.

CC: So, just sticking with the Buddhist interpretation, or seeing as . . . . It seems to be the case that the predominant interpretation has been that it’s come directly through Theravāda Buddhism. And you would challenge that, wouldn’t you? Why is there that interpretation that it’s largely a Theravāda practice?

VH: That’s one more specific finding, and a topic I discuss in both of my articles. That there’s a dominant narrative that contemporary mindfulness practices are mainly based on Theravada Buddhist vipassanā practices and, especially in their modern form, linked to particular Burmese vipassanā traditions dating back to Ledi Sayadaw, U ba Khin , SN Goenka or the lineage of Mahāsi Sayadaw and his students. And these are the lineages were very influential for the Insight Meditation Society teachers: Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield from whom Kabat-Zinn learned meditation. But these interpretations neglected that Kabat-Zinn was also a Zen student in training for years. And was very much influenced by Mahayana Buddhist ideas. And why is this important? If we pick certain Buddhist sources, texts, modern teachers and if we compare those texts and teachings to contemporary forms of mindfulness, it’s easy to create a picture where they seem very separate – the objectives of practice and the forms of practice. And so you can easily make an argument that contemporary mindfulness is anything but Buddhist. It can be the antithesis of Buddhism, by picking up certain sources. But if you pick on other sources, the image is very different. And the practices are much more connected and continuous. And especially if you pick sources from Mahayana Zen and modernised interpretations of Zen practice, as in the Book of Shunryū Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind which Kabat-Zinn often refers to. Or the practice of Thich Nhat Hanh a famous Vietnamese peace activist, poet and mindfulness teacher. So this is quite important, which traditions actually were relevant in the formation of mindfulness, if we want to do any comparison on the continuity of ideas and practices. So this is my argument that we need to look more at the Mahayana sources.

CC: Absolutely. So just thinking – I mean I know this, maybe, isn’t exactly relevant to the research that you’ve been doing, but in many contexts there’ve been debates, they have these debates about, is this a religious practice? Is this a secular practice? And I know you would very much, as a critical scholar, want to come down on a line of: it depends who’s being asked and what’s a stake and why they want it to be what it is. But can you, maybe, tell us about some of those debates that have happened? Maybe specific instances where people have been arguing that it clearly is Buddhist, or that it clearly is just spiritual, or that it’s clearly secular, and maybe give us some examples of those public debates?

VH: Well, the basic outline. It’s a narrative that in contemporary mindfulness programmes meditation is taught independently of Buddhism or Buddhist religiosity – and what does it mean to be independent from that? That’s a question. And in many scientific studies focussing on the effects of meditation practice and mindfulness practice, it’s usually taken for granted that these are secular practices which may have Buddhist roots, (25:00) or roots in Asian Wisdom Traditions or something else, but don’t have any philosophical or ethical connections to those practices, or the beliefs of those traditions. So it’s a very instrumental, technical view of meditation. It’s about self-regulation and certain attitudes. And of course, this kind of framing opens the doors to bring meditation into the mainstream: into public healthcare, into public education, into schools, in corporate contexts where Buddhist meditation would never be appropriate. But then again, if you look at the contents and the techniques, there’s much more from Buddhist traditions than only some particular techniques. So some have argued that it’s not possible to do a clear-cut separation of taking only the meditation and leaving everything else aside. And the discussion is very much similar to the debates around yoga, and the use of yoga. And there’s been, in the US, court cases deciding whether particular yoga programme is appropriate to be used in public schools. And these similar kind of questions are raised in relation to mindfulness-based programmes. Even though so far they never went into court, yet. But there are scholars . . . usually the same scholars who argue that yoga should be seen in a religious light and that the public school is not the place for yoga programmes, usually mindfulness is seen in the same way. And it’s obvious because they share many things in common and it’s sometimes very difficult to do any clear-cut separation between meditation practice, mindfulness practice and yoga practice. But so some argue for clear religious elements which would close the door; that it’s not appropriate for public contexts. But the majority voice is that they are secular in this way that it’s appropriate to teach in public context. But many scholars recently questioned these both as very simplistic. Rather they say that these could be seen as both secular practices and hybrid practices which people can interpret within religious frames, Buddhist frames or secular frames. And it can never be determined on the level of whether a mindfulness practice is this or that. We must look into the individual mindfulness-based programmes. And even within certain mindfulness-based programmes we need to see how a certain individual frames the meditation practice. Then we can say something meaningful, whether it is Buddhist, religious, secular or what. So of course, in the general way, usually the journalist asks and people want very simple clear-cut answers, whether or not. . . . And the scholar says: “Well, if you look from this point it appears Buddhist, if you look from another point it appears secular.” And so it’s not an easy question to answer.

CC: Exactly. But it’s a fascinating sort of test case for just demonstrating all of those issues around that religious/ secular binary. And hopefully it can help undercut that binary and, you know, we won’t be saying it is that or it is that. But there are so many other practices, that maybe are more familiar in the West, that are more connected to, let’s say, Christianity, that traditional Westerners would be quite happy to say “Oh that’s nothing to do with religion.” But it’s when this strange exotic, “other” thing comes in that decoupling, or acknowledging that fluidity and it being two things at the same time, seems to become quite problematic for people.

VH: Yes. I often say that we have this conception or matrix of systems of classification. And when we encounter things that doesn’t fit then we must change the system of classification. And in the same way that Buddhist tradition, when it was first encountered in the colonial period and by the early Orientalist scholars, it changed the way religion was seen (30:00). And I think now what’s happening is that there are many other related movements and practices in this therapeutic, spiritual, self-help, self-improvement field that don’t really fit into the clear-cut classification of secular/ religious. And there’s often this . . . it’s not clear-cut whether it’s spiritual, post-secular . . . something which is very vague and very problematic also. Because it doesn’t say much about the things that we observe. And I think, as you said, mindfulness practice is a very good test ground for building hypotheses, and improving our terminology and concepts relating to this new empirical data that appears in current cultural milieux.

CC: Absolutely. So just as a final question, I mean, you’ve been telling us a lot about the research that you’ve been doing. What’s next for you? And, maybe, what are some of the future directions that you see mindfulness research in general going in? Like are there some big areas where research is needed or you’d like to see research? Or where you would like to do it?

VH: Well, I think there’s still a handful in doing the dissertation itself! So right now, in my own research I’m going deeper into the ethnographic material. So far I’ve only focused on Buddhist texts and the texts of Jon Kabat-Zinn and mindfulness manuals and source books. So now I’m focusing on my ethnographic fieldwork material and looking how MBSR and mindfulness is taught in Finland and how future MBSR teachers are instructed to become teachers: what elements are emphasised, and what elements are possibly left out? So I hope, in the future, there will be much more ethnographic focus. Because the texts can tell us only so much. And what’s happening in the field is nuanced. And I personally hope to have a possibility, after the dissertation, to work on interviewing on individual meditation practices, within both Buddhist communities and in modern contemporary mindfulness communities, and shed light on the variety of interpretation and frames in which meditation can be useful and meaningful for individuals.

CC: Fantastic. Yes it could well be that the discourses might be quite similar, yet the objects populating the discourses are the differences. We shall see. Thank you so much, Ville for joining us on the Religious Studies Project.

VH: Thank you so much, Chris. It’s been a pleasure.


Citation Info: Husgafvel, Ville and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “What is Mindfulness? A Critical Religious Studies Approach”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 15 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/what-is-mindfulness-a-critical-religious-studies-approach/

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.

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

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Resonance of Vestigial States

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is RSP stalwart (currently our videos producer), Jonathan Tuckett.

Way back in the early days of the RSP when I did interviews and roundtables I interviewed Naomi Goldenberg on religion as vestigial states. This was also back in the early days of my PhD when I had joined Stirling University and its program of phenomenology“. (Don’t worry this isn’t about phenomenology so much as it is about me).

This was all before I started reading Alfred Schutz who turned my thesis onto an entirely new path and eventually to the heights of “proper phenomenology”. The truth is, back then – when I interviewed Naomi – I couldn’t really say that a I “got” Critical Religion. As David has already explained in his editor’s choice, Timothy Fitzgerald is perhaps the most important scholar of religion of our time for the fact that he has made us change the way we think about religion. But I was stubborn and combative, so I had to come to realise the paradigm shift of Tim’s work by a slightly circuitous route.

And ever since I have made that paradigm shift, ever since I “got” Critical Religion and pronounce myself to be a part of that group, I have returned again and again to Naomi’s work on religion as vestigial states. I’m not saying I fully agree with Naomi’s theory. But the more I develop my proper phenomenology (yes, I am going to hammer that distinction again and again – I am no less stubborn and combative these days), the more I find how similarly my own views on “religion” resonate with hers. And, with potentially fortuitous timing, Naomi will be keynote speaker at this year’s BASR conference so we may well have another interview with her in the near future.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. 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, buckets-o-soldiers, sharpies, and more.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Shifting from religions to ‘religion’

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is our co-editor-in-chief, David Robertson.

I’ve picked the interview that I wished I had done. Reading Tim Fitzgerald’s Jonathan Tuckett. This is a dense interview that rewards another listen. The use of Marxist terminology is uncommon in Religious Studies, but it’s a powerful set of tools with the potential to unsettle a lot of what is taken for granted in the field—and these two facts are not unconnected. It’s probably time we had him on again.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. 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, seedlings, dumbbells, and more.

No, Secularism is not a World Religion

No, secularism is not a world religion. That is my response to the question posed to Donovan Schaefer concerning the relationship between secularism and religion. In this podcast, Schaefer suggested that incorporating secularism as an “object of study” within the world religion paradigm could be a useful pedagogical tool to challenge it from within, but I think this is the wrong approach. The reason for my rejection of  Schaefer’s solution is not because I think incorporating secularism in the world religion paradigm would muddy the sanctity of the category, nor because Schaefer’s proposal fails some more critical definition of religion, but simply because it would only end up reifying religion even more. In my view, incorporating secularism in the world religions paradigm doesn’t challenge this paradigm from within, as Schaefer suggests, but merely gives it more life by expanding its scope and reach. Committing this error would be the same as trying to fix the eurocentrism implicit in the world religion paradigm by expanding the various cultures and histories that fall under its domain, which is exactly the same error that thinkers made in the middle of the twentieth century. In contrast to Schaefer, I would suggest that the way to challenge the world religions paradigm is not by incorporating more diverse―and possibly anti-religious―phenomenon into its structure, but by simply historicizing the category and showing how it operates at an ideological level.

To begin, let me assert that I recognize and respect the general scholarly position from which Schaefer  is coming. At the beginning of the podcast he notes that a lot of recent scholarship has challenged the idea that secularism stands in contrast to religion, and on this point he is certainly correct. In the past century, prominent theorist like Karl Löwith, Hans Blumenberg, Charles Taylor, and Marcel Gauchet have all challenged the traditional narrative that pits modernity against religion and frames Western history as an increasing process of secularization that is liberated from religion. For instance, Blumenberg tries to expose the unique legitimacy of the modern age that recognizes but does not reduce it to its Christian legacy, and Taylor takes the extreme position of suggesting that the modern secular age was brought about by developments latent in the Jewish and Christian traditions. Indeed, for Taylor, the generative seeds of modernity don’t begin with modern developments in science and philosophy but with various Judeo-Christian influences that we can trace back to the wider Mediterranean civilization from which they emerged. This implies that secularism is not some anti-religious movement in the West but is deeply intertwined with the rise and fall of the civilization that once called itself “Christendom.”

Indeed, as both Schaefer and Cotter acknowledge during the course of the pod cast, both “religion” and the “secular” are categories that emerge out of a certain “Christian”―or more broadly stated, “Western”―provenance. In regard to religion, thinkers such as Talal Asad, Timothy Fitzgerald, and Tomoko Masuzawa have all noted that it was only after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century that the word “religion” began to take on the connotation of personal belief in a subjective sense, and to denote a universal human sense or capacity for religion. In Roman and early Christian Latin literature the nouns religio, religiones, the adjective religiosus, and the adverb religios were mainly used to describe the performance of ritual obligations. This early use has more in common with the Latin Pietas than with our modern notion of the word “religion,” which has acquired the sense of inner belief or faith. The invention of religion in this modern sense took place because various thinkers―from Jean Bodin to G. W. F. Hegel―argued that true religion is a matter of proper belief, not just cultic participation. Moreover, it occurred when this idea was carried around the world by the forces of colonization and globalization, which eventually led to the normative divisions of the subject that make up world religion textbooks (i.e. the division between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.)

Similarly, the secular was also invented in the context of Christians―or Christian critics―struggling to make sense of the post-reformation world. In fact, the first modern use of the word “secular” can be traced to the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which brought an end to the wars of religion. The treaty uses the term “secularity” to describe “the conversion of an ecclesiastical or religious institution or its property to sovereigns, princes or lay people.” In this manner, the secular emerged as a space of worldly authority that was distinct from, yet deeply interconnected with, Western religious institutions. From this perspective, as Schaefer notes, secularism can be viewed as “an offshoot of Christianity… as something that Christianity does.” When we view the history of the West from a broad lens it is possible to see the great schisms between the various Christian orthodoxies and the “secular” forms of thought that took inspiration from them as “part of the story of Christianity.”

Where I disagree with Schaefer is in his attempt to see these intertwined genealogies through the cross-hairs of the world religion paradigm. Once we acknowledge that the invention of religion as a universal category and its subsequent critique by the forces of secularism took place under a certain Western provenance, why would we continue expanding the scope and reach of the world religion paradigm? I agree with Schaefer that this paradigm is not “evil,” as he puts it, but it is incorrect; it does not adequately describe the phenomena, so why would we continue to expand its application? From my perspective, to do what Schaefer is suggesting would be tantamount to the same error made by Ernst Troeltsch or Ninian Smart in the twentieth century, as it would try to correct the study of religion by expanding its scope. Smart, for instance, always tried to instruct students in a “broad religious outlook” by showing how religion is constituted by cultural difference,  and I think what Schaefer has suggested would end up being very similar. Recall that Smart’s classification of world religions included not just Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, but various indigenous traditions and even Maoist communism. In this light, incorporating secularism within the world religion paradigm is no different than attempting to challenge the paradigm by incorporating non-traditional or atheist forms of religion within the classroom.

For instance, Schaefer cites the work of Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, and suggests that one way to critically challenge religion from within is by showing how there is not just one type of secularism, but multiple secularisms. Like Talal Asad and Charles Taylor, he suggests that there are different formations of the secular that emerge out of different cultures and contexts, and that they expose the diversity at the heart of our models of religious classification. In this light, Christian, Islamic, and Hindu cultures (etc.) give rise to different types of secularism, and there is even a difference between Hindu forms of secularism in India and Hindu forms of secularism in America. Now, to be fair, I do think this is a good way to understand different cultural forms in light of globalization, but why try to incorporate these secularisms within the world religion paradigm? In contrast to Schaefer, I am worried that including non-religious or atheist forms of culture within the paradigm doesn’t challenge it from within, but merely revitalizes it by incorporating more data within its fold.

To put the matter plainly, I think we need to push the genealogy and historical situatedness of religion and secularism further than Schaefer proposes. Schaefer suggests that he wants to deconstruct the world religion paradigm by destabilizing it from within, yet I don’t think he goes far enough in this regard. He is right that deconstruction always takes place within the very thing under analysis, but this doesn’t mean that we should proceed by expanding the same old reified categories at a wider level. I follow Jacques Derrida in thinking that we need to question both our students and ourselves (as scholars) whether religion and secularism exist at all outside of their Western contexts, and thereby attempt to limit their further application. In Above All No Journalists! Derrida states this bluntly when he asks what a non-Christian is doing when they say “Islam, or Judaism, or Buddhism is my religion.” Is there even a word for “religion” in Arabic, he questions? Certainly not an adequate translation of the Latin. Moreover, what really characterizes Judaism as a religion, or Buddhism? What we know for certain, Derrida suggests, is that the history of the concept religion is wrapped up with a “political and ideological space dominated by Christianity,” and that “to engage in the obscure and equivocal strug­gle in which the putatively “universal” value of the concept of religion, even of religious tolerance,” is to engage in a semantic space appropriated by Christianity.  According to this approach, deconstruction occurs by exposing the limits of traditional modes of classification and retreating from their normative application, not applying these norms to even more phenomena.

For these reasons, I would suggest that the best way to challenge the world religions paradigm is simply by historicizing the category and showing how it functions at an ideological level. I am all in favor of deconstructing something from within “in order to destabilize it,” as Schaefer suggests, but we can do this without expanding the scope of the same old categories along the way. Hence, rather than merely incorporating more diverse―and possibly anti-religious―phenomenon into the world religions paradigm, I think we need to expose the ideological forces at play and thereby challenge their application on a global scale. Schaefer is correct that there is “only so much we can do to destabilize the way that students think,” but if that is the case then let’s expose the limits of the normative forces at play by properly situating them within their ideological contexts.

 

 

 

 

How to solve a problem like World Religions? An interdisciplinary approach.

The deluge of responses to Teemu Taira’s recent RSP podcast show that “What is religion?” (and so implicitly, “What is secular?”)  remains the subject of ongoing debate that is unlikely to be resolved soon. As Donovan Schaefer explains in his interview with Christopher Cotter, however, there are considerable problems with the idea that secularism is either the opposite of religion or its absence. The subtraction story of secularism, the idea that you can simply remove ‘religion’ and be left with something neutral, is simply not true (Taylor, 2007). Secularism is itself an ideology that presents both a characterisation of how the world is and how it should be. Schaefer suggests that the conceptualisation of religion as something concrete that can be removed to leave an objective, rational base is a consequence of the World Religions paradigm and its roots in 19th Century scientific rationalism. Challenging this simplistic conception of religion and its consequences lies at the core of the Critical Religion movement. Schaefer’s interview is an invitation to explore how we can do that most effectively. How do we translate critical insights that have significant real world implications into ideas that can easily be transmitted to students and the wider public?

To answer that, we must consider why we teach about religion(s) at all.  As teachers, it is important that we both impart knowledge about our subject areas but also that we should challenge and expand the worldviews of our students to help them develop as individuals. To do that successfully we need to find a starting point that is sufficiently familiar and accessible to our students, so that they can engage in constructive dialogue. As Schaefer notes, despite its flaws the World Religions paradigm was an improvement on previous colonialist approaches and it remains a useful pedagogical tool. If people already think in terms of an implicit World Religions paradigm, then it provides a sensible starting point for teaching.

According to the latest British Social attitudes report 64% of British 18-24 year olds do not belong to a religious tradition and so ignoring secularism in the study of religion and beliefs is an untenable approach. The vocal claims of so-called New Atheists, about non-religion and ‘rationality’ should be critically examined, just as the claims of religious and other social groups should be scrutinised when they have public implications. Challenging the assumptions of these students and encouraging them to examine their own intellectual heritage is also an important step towards teaching them to understand the beliefs of those from other cultural traditions. Schaefer is correct that encouraging critical thought about secularism and religion should be seen as complimentary exercises. Exploring these topics can stimulate both academic and personal development.

Schaefer lays out two possibilities for mixing Secularism Studies and World Religions. The first option is to focus on the form of secularism that is most familiar to our students, that of the contemporary West, and to locate this secularism as part of the Christian tradition in which it has its historical roots. This view positions the Enlightenment as a consequence of the Reformation and views the split between those who accept the (more or less) literal truths of Christian tradition and those who reject them as part of a long line of doctrinal schisms. Positioning a secularism such as New Atheism in this way highlights its historically contingent nature and can lead to fruitful discussions and debates in a teaching environment. However, such an approach can be criticised for neglecting secularisms that have or could arise in other contexts. Schaefer’s second option is a better, albeit more time consuming, approach that examines secularist trends within each of the World Religions and stresses how they are all historically contingent. The choice between these two options will probably be made pragmatically, depending on both the teacher’s expertise and the time that they can devote to secularism within a broader course.

There is, perhaps, a third and more radical way that still retains the broad strokes of the World Religions paradigm but which critiques it more directly and opens up the issues and core themes for discussion during future weeks. At the risk of sounding partial, perhaps the solution is a greater integration of psychology and the social sciences into the conceptualisation and teaching of religion. By starting with the questions of why people believe what they believe, and what distinguishes religious beliefs from other beliefs, the problems of both the World Religions paradigm and Secularism Studies are placed into a wider context. Questions like how we construct worldviews and conceptions of ourselves are fundamental to understanding lived and implicit religion and other existential cultures (Lee, 2015). “What do you believe?” and “Why do you believe it?” are, perhaps, the most important questions that religious studies should be challenging non-academics to ask themselves. Answering these questions sets the stage for subsequent discussions about the differences between various existential cultures, for the diversity of religious traditions, and for an appreciation of the complex and often contradictory beliefs and behaviours of individuals (Chaves, 2010). Is it practical to introduce such an approach into a single World Religions course? Like Schaefer, I am unsure – it is something I would like to have the opportunity to try but can only theorise about currently. It should, however, certainly be possible within the broader context of a Religious Studies degree.

The danger raised at the end of the interview by David Robertson about potentially reinforcing unhelpful models of religion is real. Is the main reason that people think in terms of the World Religions paradigm because that is how they are taught religion in schools and because that is how religion is generally conceptualised in the public sphere? As Fitzgerald (2000) noted, that paradigm is beneficial to many and it is now heavily entrenched. Perhaps a more radical approach, based as much in the social sciences as the humanities, can fix that – but until then Schaefer’s suggestion to inhabit the paradigm and critique it from within is a sound option for teaching religion in higher education. It is certainly better than ignoring secularism entirely and, within a British context at least, the introduction of humanism or secularism in religious studies classrooms and lecture halls as a method of critiquing the world religions and introducing wider conceptual problems should be encouraged.

References

Chaves, M. (2010). Rain Dances in the Dry Season: Overcoming the Religious Congruence Fallacy. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 49(1), 1–14. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2009.01489.x

Fitzgerald, T. (2000). The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Lee, L. (2015). Recognizing the non-religious: Reimagining the secular. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, C. (2007). A secular age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Outside the Panels: Comics and Context

rcrumb

At several points during his most recent interview with the Religious Studies Project, A. David Lewis alludes to the prominence of religious themes and images in comic books. In fact, if anything, Lewis downplays just how obvious the connection is. There are at least three intersections. Firstly, and explored at length in this interview, are the implicit and frequent utilisation of religious and mythical stories – particularly concerning death and rebirth – recast with superheroes rather than deities, and often reframed in scientific (or “scientistic”) language. Second, explicit religious narratives are frequently found in comics – consider Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, Craig Thompson’s Habibi, Robert Crumb’s literal presentation of Genesis or more prosaically, Marvel’s Thor. Not forgetting the ubiquitous Christian fundamentalist comics, or Chick Tracts after their primary producer Jack Chick, which due to their massive print runs are often considered to be the world’s most-read comics. Finally, comic books frequently include alternative or heterodox religious ideas, something underscored by the fact that two of the most acclaimed writers working today (Alan Moore and Grant Morrison) are practising magicians, and their work frequently contains references to their practises.

For some reason, then, there is something about comics that makes them particularly suited to discussing such ideas. Here, I will suggest some structural reasons why this might be the case. But I will also present a more sociological possibility, that comics and a heterodox approach to religious ideas go hand in hand, because both are typical features of the cultic milieu (Campbell 1972). As such, the analysis of religious themes in comic books needs to go beyond merely structural analyses.

Structural connections

gmorrison

from Grant Morrison’s ‘The Invisibles’

Darby Orcutt’s chapter, “Comics & Religion: Theoretical Connections” (in the Lewis-edited Graven Images), suggests two reasons why the comics medium is particularly suited to narratives concerning religion. Firstly, drawing from McCloud’s seminal Understanding Comics (1993), he argues that comics allow a greater degree of identification than would be possible with a movie or a novel because of their ability to be deliberately vague about certain aspects.

McCloud notes that the iconic, simplified faces of the protagonists typical of the Japanese Manga comics style makes the protagonist more easily relatable, and this might suggest one reason for the many comics with simplistic protagonists in more realistically drawn worlds (Cerebus the Aardvark, Concrete, Bone, etc).

A second factor outlined by Orcutt is the manipulation of the readers’ perception of time and space. In comics, time can be slowed down and sped up, and future and past can be shown side-by-side. Moreover, by utilising the gutter – the space between the panels – it becomes very easy for the mythical world to be shown, literally outside of the bounded time of the panels, but interacting with the present. Douglas Rushkoff’s Testament makes great use of this technique, as does Alan Moore’s Promethea, from which the following page is drawn.

AMooreOne particularly striking and effective version of this – which also includes Lewis’ comment that comics seem unusually aware of the limitations of the genre – is to have enlightenment illustrated by having the characters fall out of the 2D, panel-bound pages, and see them from the three-dimensional point of view of the reader. This happens in Moore’s Promethea and Morrison’s The Invisibles, but there are many other examples. A striking variant found in recent works by both, Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier and Morrison’s Superman Beyond, have used 3-D colouring techniques to indicate when a character has stepped from the ‘flat’ world of the comics page and out into a world with (literally) more depth. While there are many literary examples of such metatextuality – notable examples being the characters meeting their author in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, although acknowledgement that the text was in fact a text dates back to Don Quixote, at least – the characters do not step off the page in quite the same way. Perhaps this is because comics combine both text and images, so one can be played off another. Interestingly, both Moore and Morrison take this further than mere analogy, and argue that when viewed from a higher level, we the readers are literally works of fiction ourselves… But that is a post for another day.

comics

Cultic milieu

As noted above, however, comics concern themselves disproportionately with heterodox and alternative religious ideas – lots of ‘funny ideas’ in these ‘funny books’. Comics are as much a part of the cultic milieu as alternative religions (see Kripal’s recent Mutants and Mystics) – what better place for ‘not real religion’ than in ‘not real literature’? As indicated by the frequency of the descriptor “alternative”, the cultic milieu exists not as a free-floating pool of religious ideas, but to a considerable degree as that which is self-consciously alternative to the social norm.

From this point of view, it is not so surprising that comics would be so prominent. Comics and cartoons (their non-sequential variant, although this is not always so clearly delineated) have a long history of operating as social critique, a tradition that goes back to Hogarth in the mid 18th century, and most recently played out in the Charlie Hebdo affair. I therefore ask, if the religious narratives concerned here operate in some way as a critique of more traditional religious narratives and institutions, does this therefore indicate that this critique is a particular concern among the demographic who read comics? Indeed, comics traditionally have a strong anti-clerical bias (Wilson 2010), suggesting an active attempt to reclaim these symbols of transcendence from elitist discourses. So long as we focus only on structural or narrative similarities, we may be missing the most interesting points.

Like religion(s), comics do not exist as sui generis artefacts, separate from their cultural context. We cannot treat them as naive material artefacts, nine-panel hierophanies which “manifest” or “embody” some eternal religious essence, but as a part of a much larger discourse on “religion” (term, not thing) – which goes on both in elite, official cultural products and unofficial, alternative ones, like comics. Therefore it is vitally important for a non-essentialist and non-elitist study of religion that we consider comics in their cultural and historical context. Without that, structural analyses may be merely repeating hegemonic categories and structures of power. As scholars we need to fall off the page, and see the panels which form the boundaries of our thought.

References

Campbell, C. (1972) “The Cult, the Cultic Milieu, and Secularization.” in A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain 5. (London: SCM Press), 119-136.

McCloud, S. (1994). Understanding comics: [the invisible art]. (New York: HarperPerennial).

Orcutt, D. (2010) “Comics and Religion: Theoretical Connections.” In Lewis, A. D., & Kraemer, C. H., Graven images: Religion in comic books and graphic novels (New York: Continuum), 93-106.

Wilson, G. W. (2010) “Machina ex Deus: Perennialism in Comics.” In Lewis, A. D., & Kraemer, C. H., Graven images: Religion in comic books and graphic novels (New York: Continuum), 249-257.

 

‘Religion’ as ‘sui generis’

Is ‘religion’ sui generis? In other words, do scholars of religion study something that forms a unique and special domain of things in the world unlike any other? Wittgenstein thought religion constituted a distinct “form of life”. Eliade spoke of the ‘Sacred’ as existing in a separate reality above the mundaneness of the everyday (i.e. the profane).  Historically and in more modern times, other scholars have held similar views that paint the category of religion as naming a specific and stable set of things in the world set apart from all other. However, it is a view that has fallen out of favour as noted by Dr. Russell McCutcheon.

In this interview with Thomas Coleman, McCutcheon discusses what he terms as the “socio-political strategy” behind the label of “sui generis” as it is applied to religion. The interview begins by exploring some of the terms used to support sui generis claims to religion (e.g. un-mediated, irreducible etc.) followed by a brief overview on the rise of religious studies departments mid-20th century using such claims to obtain funding and autonomy from other disciplines. In closing, Dr. McCutcheon explains one example of how the ideological foundations of belief are ontology centered, examines how the term religion is “traded” and departs leaving us to consider the role of social agreement in defining what religion is or is not.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment torate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Dr. Russell McCutcheon is a full professor of religion and the department chair for the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. His main interests lie in the academic study of ‘the academic study of religion’, focusing on how the category and term ‘religion’ has been employed throughout time. He has published several books such as Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia and more recently The Sacred Is the Profane: The Political Nature of “Religion”  (co-authored with William Arnal). Dr. McCutcheon is a member of Culture on the Edge, an international scholarly collaborative looking at how “identities are produced, managed, and continually reproduced” in society and in academia. Be sure to check out his latest book titled Entanglements: Marking Place in the Field of Religion coming out this March!

Religion as Vestigial States

We’ve been talking about Religion for some time now but perhaps the one question we haven’t begun to get to grips with is, what is religion? Recently we interviewed Tim Fitzgerald who already set us on the road to deconstructing the term religion. This week we speak to another member of the Critical Religions group, Naomi Goldenberg, who presents the first of our theories on what religion is. In this interview Professor Goldenberg takes us through the idea that religions might be vestigial states. She argues that religions are formed in distinction to governmental ‘States’ and represent the last vestiges of the previous order. At the same time this is a maneuver on the part of those States to delineate spheres of power. A vestigial state is both a once and future state, that which has gone and that which hopes to be. The idea of vestigial states throws into question our normal understanding of the term religion and Professor Goldenberg draws on such notable examples as the Islamic State, the Dalai Lama, Jewish history and even present day Wicca to illustrate the point. If you would like to know more about religions as vestigial states, Professor Goldenberg has also written on the topic on the Critical Religions website.

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

Naomi Goldenberg is professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her specialisms include Psychoanalysis, Women and Religion, and Cultural Studies. Her publications include Resurrecting the Body (Crossroad Publishing, 1993), The End of God (University of Ottawa Press, 1981), and Changing the Gods (Beacon Press, 1979).

 

‘Religion’ and Mystification

‘Religion’ has proved a problematic category, difficult to define and difficult to translate into non-European languages. In this interview, Timothy Fitzgerald presents his critical deconstruction of religion as a powerful discourse and its parasitic relation to ‘secular’ categories such as politics and economics. Religion is not a stand-alone category, he argues; ‘religions’ are modern inventions which are made to appear ubiquitous and, by being removed to a marginal, privatised domain, serve to mystify the supposed natural rationality of the secular state and capital. Feminist deconstruction of gender categories shows how power constructions which serve male interests come to appear as natural and inevitable, a powerful analogy to the mystification of power relations by the modern invention of religious and secular domains.

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

Timothy Fitzgerald is Reader in Religion at the University of Stirling, and organiser of the Critical Religion Category Network (CRCN). His 2000 book, The Ideology of Religious Studies (Oxford University Press) was the topic of a one day symposium organized by the Department of Religious Studies, University of Manchester. More recently, he published Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: a critical history of religion and related categories (Oxford University Press, 2007), and the edited volume Religion and the Secular: historical and colonial formations (Equinox, 2007).