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Evangelical Yoga: Cultural Appropriation and Translation in American Religions

super-funny-pet-picture-the-yo-5926Dr. Brown began her career as a historian of evangelicalism, and soon branched out into the study of religious healing and “new religions” in the U.S. In this interview, we discuss her interest in yoga as a new American phenomenon and the way that some evangelical Christians practice it. Brown provides a historic overview of bodily–religious practices in America, starting with mesmerism, occultism, osteopathy, and chiropractic in the nineteenth century. These practices challenged the standard “heroic” model of medicine: Instead of the patient experiencing torturous medical treatments, a practitioner simply realigns the patient’s body or does a quick procedure. Such bodily practices blurred, in some cases, with Pentecostal and Holiness Christians’ use of prayer as a medical treatment. (Today, many chiropractors retain an interest in bodily energy and proper alignment, though they may not articulate this view to their patients.)

As the nineteenth century progressed, many Americans consumed translations of Hindu and Buddhist literature. Asian concepts of bodily practice and energy fields (qi, meridians, chakras) entered the lexicon of new American religions. Theosophy, in particular, borrowed from Hindu and Buddhist concepts. The introduction of Eastern metaphysics to America created a small market for the introduction of yoga. This market grew in the 20th century as Vivekananda and Yogananda brought forms of yoga (and, in Yogananda’s case, a hybrid of Hinduism & Christianity) to the U.S. Today, evangelical Christians are adopting yoga, finding parallels between chakras and the Holy Spirit, or — in an act of cultural appropriation — creating a new kind of yoga shorn of Hindu references. The American Hindu community has criticized such cultural appropriation. Some Hindus have also suggested that a Christian doing yoga poses, or asana, may slowly convert to Hinduism, making evangelical yoga a stealth victory for Vedic culture.

The interview concludes with a discussion of Dr. Brown’s field research methods, along with her and Mr. Gorman’s thoughts about secularization in America and the inadequacies of secularism as a research concept.

Editor’s Note: On 29 June 2017 we published a response to this interview, written by Philip Deslippe, which provides an important and well-argued counter-narrative to this interview. As with every podcast we publish, we encourage listeners/readers to digest the podcast in tandem with the response(s) , to explore further if interested, and to get in touch in the comments, via email, or on social media to continue the discussion. 

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, Nag Champa incense, and more.

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

Evangelical Yoga: Cultural Appropriation and Translation in American Religions

Podcast with Candy Gunther-Brown (19 June 2017).

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Gunther-Brown – Evangelical Yoga 1.1

Daniel Gorman (DG) : Dr Candy Gunther-Brown, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Candy Brown (CB): Thank you.

DG: So, I’m calling you from up-state New York – you’re in Indiana, and I’m told the weather is equally miserable in both places.

CB: That seems to be about right.

DG: OK. So, today we’re going to be talking about your research into new religious movements, particularly: how people who are not Hindu wind up practising yoga.

CB: Sure.

DG: So to begin, why don’t you tell our listeners how you got interested in new religious movements or, in this case , old religious practices being done in a new way?

CB: Sure. Well, my research trajectory really started with looking at Evangelicals in the 19th century and at print culture. And then, as I wanted to move forward in time to look at later 19th century, into the 20th century and into the 21st century, I realised that it was really a much bigger story than just what was going on in the United States with the Evangelicals. And so I needed to start looking at global moments and much more interconnection. And I also realised that a big part of the story was Pentecostal charismatic Christianity. So that took my research, then, into the directions of looking at, particularly, Pentecostal practices of prayer for healing and deliverance from evil spirits. And so I did a lot of interview work in the field, worked with various Pentecostals and asked them about their healing experiences. And so this led to me to start asking questions that were, in a sense, more of an empirical nature of what happens when people pray for healing. So then I was looking at some science and religion kinds of questions. But I also got some very interesting responses from my Pentecostal respondents. Because, when I started asking them about prayer for healing, they also started to volunteer that they loved their chiropractors.

DG: Really?

CB: And this was a somewhat surprising response to me, given what I knew about Chiropractics: that it’s roots were in mesmerism and spiritualism, and the founders and developers of the tradition saw themselves as doing something very different from Christianity. And the Christian informants that I was talking to, not only did they love their chiropractors but they also insisted that they were Christian. They didn’t bother telling me that their medical doctors were Christian, but they really wanted me to know that their chiropractors were. Again this was very interesting because if you look at survey research that’s been done on chiropractors you see that around 80% or so will say that they’re Christians, and around 80% or so share vitalistic, metaphysical beliefs, very much in line with the founders of chiropractics. So you’ve got a really interesting kind-of blending of worldviews and frameworks and interpretations of the world. And I realised that this was really just the tip of the iceberg. And so, from looking at chiropractic I began to look at other kinds of complementary and alternative medicine, including various kinds of meditation – transcendental meditation, mindfulness meditation, but also Reiki, therapeutic touch, acupuncture, homeothapy, aromatherapy – and realised that some of the most engaged practitioners were actually Evangelical Christians. And particularly the ones who were interested in charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity, who had a kind of worldview where there’s some kind of spiritual force that’s interacting with the world. So a lot of the reasoning process that these Evangelicals used was: if there’s a spirit and it’s having beneficial effects on health, then there must be a kind of an analogy between the Holy Spirit and the spiritual properties that are at work in these other practices. And thus, I landed on yoga and mindfulness practised by Evangelicals, as well as by a lot of other Americans who engage in these practices, for various reasons – related to spirituality as much as health and wellness.

DG: That’s a lot! Let me . . . . I’ll take one thread and we’ll work through this. Some listeners, especially outside the United States, may not be familiar with some of the traditions you mentioned, some of the 19th century occult things: mesmerism, and chiropractic. Could you talk a little bit more about how these alternative viewpoints to Christianity . . . where they came from?

CB: Sure. Well around the middle of the 19th century there was a lot of dissatisfaction among certain Americans who were dealing with both a medical orthodoxy and a religious orthodoxy. (5:00) And the medical orthodoxy was heroic medicine – and by today’s standard, [it was] not very effective and very aggressive. So, things like vomiting with mercury derivatives and bleeding people. And it was the patient who was the hero as they were subjected to all kinds of very strenuous treatments by doctors.

DG: Torture.

CB: Yes. I mean, for many patients that was their perspective. But then a lot of the Calvinist theologians, who were in the dominant mainstream, basically gave the advice that patients should submit to their doctors as a way of resigning to God’s will for sickness. And the reason was that spiritual sanctification required a kind of physical kind of submission and sickness. And so this dominant theology, that sanctification is produced through suffering in the body, aligned well with heroic medicine. But there was also a lot of resistance. And so this is where you start getting the emergence of nature-cure kinds of medical alternatives. But then you also start to get the development of divine healing movements where the interest is in a focus on prayer for healing. So, whether it is a nature-cure looking to water and spiritual forces and kind-of the alignment of the planets, or whether it’s a prayer to God the Father through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, there is a widespread search for something else – some alternative to the mainstream offerings.

DG: That’s very interesting because I recently read, for my graduate school lists, Catherine Albanese’s A Republic of Mind and Spirit. And she talks, in that book, about how osteopathy emerged as sort-of this quasi-religious movement: the idea that you can align the energy forces in your body by manipulating bones.

CB: Yes. And actually the founder of chiropractic, D.D. Palmer, was accused by Still, the founder of osteopathy, of basically stealing his ideas. The ideas are so close. And they both emerge out of a vitalistic metaphysical framework. And what’s interesting is that osteopathy was much more embraced by the medical mainstream. So that, today, there’s really a kind of a sense of equivalence, almost, between an osteopathic medical degree and an MD. Whereas chiropractic is still much more on the fringes, even though it’s become a lot more mainstream. And it’s not necessarily that osteopathy has actually renounced the metaphysical framework, but they’ve been a lot more intentional and effective in terms of gaining mainstream medical legitimacy.

DG: Well, that’s one thing I’ve wondered about – I mean, as just someone looking at medical treatments – you know, chiropractors don’t receive the same training in anatomy and physiology that a doctor or a modern osteopath receives. . .

CB: That’s true. And it’s not just a matter of difference in training, but it’s really a difference in philosophy. An idea that Palmer articulated . . . . So Palmer, the founder of chiropractic, basically said that all disease is a matter of a failure of alignment with innate intelligence – that’s universal intelligence, so “innate” was short for this. And so you may ask the question, what are chiropractors adjusting? And it’s actually, they’re adjusting the spine for the sake of having a free flow of innate. It’s not just a physical kind of adjustment. So that was the rationale for how chiropractic could affect all kinds of other conditions, whether it’s having earaches, or infections, or whether it’s turning a breach baby – I mean there’s all kinds of different claims that, even today, are made for chiropractic. And they stem from the idea that, really, the key to health is the innate intelligence. And so it’s that philosophy that’s really at the core, and why there’s still so much tension with modern medicine.

DG: I do want to move onto the yoga connection. But there’s one question I’ll pose to you as somebody who researches these kinds of movements: so to some, let’s say an atheist medical practitioner, what you’re describing is pseudo-science. But that doesn’t seem that way to people who practise it and believe that it helps them. How do you navigate that balance between judging and understanding?

CB: Well, I think this is where it’s important to really look at a multiplicity of perspectives and to try and explain: well, who are the developers of various practices? But not only what are the roots of these practices, what are today’s philosophies? And this is why for chiropractic, for instance, it’s important that there’s survey research that’s been done by chiropractors, that basically confirm that the beliefs that are held by many chiropractors today are actually very much in alignment with those that were articulated by the Palmers. (10:00) Now that doesn’t mean that the chiropractors always communicate that with their patients. In fact, that often is not the case. And so, one of the things that it’s important for scholars to do is to actually look at the variety of narratives that are articulated by practitioners as well as patients, depending on who their audiences are. And this is something that we’ll see with yoga, as well – that explanation of what practices do, why they’re practices, what they mean – you may not always get the same explanation if you’re looking at different audiences, and different purposes for giving that account of what the practice is.

DG: So now, this is where I think chiropractic and yoga tie together. This concept of energy in the body – well, to someone who knows anything about Hinduism, this sounds a lot like the idea of chakras and energy flows in the body. So, in the 19th century, when people like Palmer and others were starting their work, what understanding in America was there of Indian religions?

CB: Sure. Well, there was a combination of Western metaphysical traditions – something like homeothapy or aromatherapy would be rooted in that kind of tradition – and there was often quite a bit of exchange, though, with Asian religious traditions as well. So a lot of the people who were developing these Western metaphysical ideas, they actually were reading texts that they got from India and other parts of Asia. They were interacting with ideas of say Prana or qi, or chakras and meridians, as you mentioned. And so there’s often a real, kind of, exchange and consonance in these ideas. And a lot of the practitioners of chiropractic or yoga will say, yes, there’s a lot that there actually is in common between the Western and Eastern traditions.

DG: Yes. I was thinking of the Theosophist, people like Madam Blavatsky, who think you can control the spirits with your mind – and then she goes and lives in India for a decade!

CB: Well exactly! And then she actually formally converted to Buddhism, and she drew extensively on Hinduism and a variety of Western traditions and Freemasonry. So, that kind of eclectic interest in various forms of spiritually – sometimes framed as science themselves . . . . A lot of the pioneers in the kinds of movements that are popular today were very interested in exploring a variety of practices and traditions.

DG: So, as far as yoga goes, when did that begin to be introduced to the American market? I’m thinking, for instance, in the 1920s there were the immigration restrictions, so how was this material – about philosophy and exercise – how as that making the crossing to America?

CB: Sure, well even as early as the 19th century you’ve got the transcendental folks, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who are reading as many translated Hindu and Buddhist texts as they’re able to. And you got Thoreau who’s doing his best to practice yoga. So even in the 19th century you can see some of the beginnings of practices coming into America. The World Parliament of Religion, in 1893, was a really important event. Because there you’ve got Vivekananda – actually, several of those Hindu and Buddhist spokespersons – who are starting to frame practices in a language of science, to basically argue that Hinduism and Buddhism (as they’re starting to be named and understood by Westerners) are, actually, more compatible with modern science than Christianity is. And so you start to have a stream of popularisers and, even with immigration restrictions, you’ve got enough who are either coming into the United States themselves or whose books and publications are crossing over, that the influence, again, begins to be disseminated. Yogananda is another one of these hugely influential figures who sets up a base in California and continues to be popular even into the present day with his Self-Realisation Fellowship. And so now his followers are continuing to disseminate the traditions. And so there’ve been a variety of health and beauty promotions, exercise promotions, the use of television – so really an increase over the course of the 20th century, but accelerating with: the lifting of immigration restrictions in the 1960s; the interest of the Beat generation; the counter-culture. But then, even more recently in the 1990s and beyond, you start to see this increasing mainstream status – even to the point of putting yoga and mindfulness practices into public schools. And that really is just within the last couple of decades.

DG: (15:00) Well it was interesting when you mentioned Yogananda in the 1930s, because he was somebody who preached that Jesus was another incarnation of the other Hindu deities, an avatar.

CB: And that’s been a very common strategy. A very common strategy by a lot of the promoters of Yoga is to argue for consonance, for complementarity. And that’s actually been one of the things that’s been motivating for Evangelical Christians even, who feel that there’s something missing in their own tradition. And so they’re trying to fill in and supplement by borrowing from other kinds of traditions.

DG: So Evangelical Christians in the present day: how are they accessing yoga? What kinds of facilities, for instance?

CB: Well, a lot of times there’s the YMCA, there’s health clubs, sometimes more traditional yoga studios. So some Christians will find their way either into the health club version or into the studio version. But then also there’s a proliferation of explicitly Christian versions of yoga or alternatives to yoga. And so you start to get movements like: Christo-yoga, holy yoga, fully fit, Yahweh yoga, praise moves. . . . And some of them keep yoga somewhere in the title, some of them try to remove yoga from the title. And there’s a kind of Evangelical sense that religion, really, is fundamentally reducible to language. It’s about what you believe and what you say that you believe. And so if you change the language, and you say you’re no longer doing “sun salutations” – salutes to the sun – but you say you’re doing “son salutations” – s-o-n, instead of s-u-n – you’ve now repurposed the practice and dedicated it to Jesus. You’re no longer doing pranayana but you’re breathing in the Holy Spirit. So by re-labelling either individual poses or larger practices, many Evangelicals are convinced that they’ve basically emptied the contents . . . . They’ve removed the Hindu contents from the container of neutral yoga practices, and they’ve poured in Bible verses and prayers. Now with a different framework of religion where it’s about practices, not necessarily just beliefs, then that may seem a rather strange or unworkable kind of approach. So some Hindu critics of the Christianisation of yoga will basically say, the prayers are actually the bodily practices. Doing the sun salutation with your body is a form of devotion to Surya the sun god. And so there are actually some warnings by Hindu spokespersons, saying that ultimately Evangelicals are going to find their faith corrupted, by their own standards, and they’re going to be led into the true way of enlightenment. And it may not be so easy just to re-label practices and make them Evangelical.

DG: Do you think – building on this theme of Hindu response – are there Hindu groups that are offended that anyone’s just using this tradition, without any sense of where it comes from?

CB: Oh there are definitely critiques of cultural appropriation. And the Hindu American Foundation launched a Take back Yoga campaign in 2008. And some of their spokespersons have been critical of Christian appropriation. But you find this, similarly, with Buddhists who complain about appropriation of mindfulness practices and claim that they’ve been secularised or, in some cases, they claim that they’ve been Christianised. So that’s definitely a critique that’s present.

DG: Now, I’m curious in the way you go about researching these things. Do you travel to Christian yoga studios? And when you go there, what do you do? Are you a participant or are you just observing?

CB: I’ve done observing. I’ve relied a lot on just the proliferation of online sources and video presentations, and [I’ve] also been present in meditation settings. And I’ve observed – I don’t participate. I think that there are ethical issues that come into play with that, so my stance is that of an observer. I do a lot of interview work with participants and with teachers. And I also do empirical work and look at the studies that have been done. And this is an interesting aspect, is to ask, “Well, what happens when people participate in either secularised or Christianised versions of something like yoga or mindfulness meditation?” And what’s interesting is that there is sociological work that suggests that there are, actually, some profound changes in spiritual and religious experiences that result – even, sometimes, from very short term involvement. But that, basically, the longer people tend to be involved in these practices, the more likely what started off as just an exercise class has turned into a spiritual pursuit. And the content of religious practices does tend to shift towards practices that would be more aligned with, say, Hinduism than with Christianity. And this is, actually, very much parallel to the kinds of claims that are made by yoga teachers and mindfulness teachers, who are very confident that the practices themselves are transformative.(20:00) And so, here, you get both proponents of yoga and mindfulness, and some of the Christian critics, who are essentially arguing that there is something inherent about theses practices themselves that transform people, regardless of what their intentions are going into the practices. Intentions, it seems, can actually change through the experiences of practices. And that claim does, to some degree, seem to be borne out by the sociological research that’s been done.

DG: Do you see any regional differences, in the United States, about the Christian reception of yoga?

CB: Well, it seems that – predictably in some ways – the coasts have a lot more yoga and a lot more Christian yoga. And also, some of the controversies over this . . . . You see more Christian yoga on the coast, you also see just more yoga programmes. But it’s not coincidental that where the most high profile law suit over yoga in public schools took place – it was in Encinita, San Diego County, California. And it was actually right next door to Yogananda’s Self-Realisation Fellowship.

DG: That’s interesting.

CB: This is also the birthplace of Ashtanga yoga in the United States, which was brought over by Pattabhi Jois, and that was the particular form of yoga that was being practised in the public schools where there was a lawsuit. So, a place like Encinita is interesting because something like 45% of the population practices yoga, compared with – as of 2012, which was when that 45% came out – it was about 9%, nationally. Now it’s about 15%, nationally. About 40% of the population is Christian, but that compares to about 70% of the total US population that’s Christian. So you have fewer Christian and more religious diversity in a place like Ansonita. But you still have a lot of Christians who are practising – and it was a minority of those Christians who protested against yoga. The large majority seemed to actually be pretty interested in practising it themselves.

DG: We’re closing in on the end our session, but I want to try to connect this practice of yoga to some of the other things you’ve mentioned, particularly transcendental meditation. It’s billed as TM now, it’s sort-of this exercise, but there’s no real sense of where that comes from. Do you think Christians are also participating in TM movements?

CB: I think that they are in one of the main places where TM has really got in its foothold: in what’s now called “quiet-time programmes” in public schools. So transcendental meditation more comes out of Hindu meditation traditions. And this is, actually, one of the places where . . . . Really, one of the only law suits where there was a judicial decision defining religion was a case of Malnak v. Yogi, in 1979, which found that transcendental meditation was a religion. And one of the lines in the concurring opinion by Arlin Adams, he said, “Well, if a Catholic can’t practice in schools, then neither should a transcendental meditator be allowed to do so.” Even so, TM programmes and quiet-time programmes have proliferated in public schools even until the present day, alongside mindfulness programmes. So I think that, a lot of the time, Christians and others – atheists as well – really don’t know where practices are coming from, and they don’t know how connected to the originating traditions those practices remain. So it’s not just a matter of, “ a long time ago there were ancient religious roots”. But, if you look at how practices are being framed when not being marketed to the public, you actually find that there are still a lot of the same claims that this is, for instance, a “Vedic victory” when yoga gets into public schools, or this is “stealth Buddhism”, when mindfulness gets into the schools. So those are the kinds of claims that are made when talking to Hindu or Buddhist sympathiser audiences. But a lot of the people who are interested in doing practices for health or wellness, they really don’t know where these practices come from and they really haven’t thought that much about how intentions may change through their participation in these practices.

DG: If anything, the future of religion in this country is going to be very interesting, because we’re going to see . . . .

CB: (Laughs) I think so too!

DG: Well I’m thinking, if the country is growing more secular, the question is: if these practices endure, then do we need to rethink the idea of secularisation?

CB: Well, I think we absolutely do. And this is where my working title for the book I’m working on now, on yoga and mindfulness in public schools, is “Secular and Religious”. And I think that practices actually can be both at the same time. (25:00) And that by presenting practices as secular that this can actually be a more effective way of advancing new forms of religion and spirituality.

DG: Thank you for your time, Dr Gunther-Brown.

CB: Thank you very much.

Citation Info: Gunther-Brown, Candy 2017. “Evangelical Yoga: Cultural Appropriation and Translation in American Religions”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/evangelical-yoga-cultural-appropriation-and-translation-in-american-religions/

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DEATH, Religion, and Terror Management Theory

DeathfullOne year before his own death in 1790, Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to the French scientist Jean-Baptiste, codified a witty remark into popular history about two things anyone living can always count on: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” You might be able to dodge the taxman, but not death—we are all going to die. Roughly 100,000 years prior to Franklin’s quote the first evidence of intentional human burial appears in the archaeological record (Mithen, 2009). Humans have been thinking about death for a very long time and the threat of nonexistence can be a terrifying reality to face. According to terror management theory (TMT), cultural worldviews, which can manifest religious, political, or a bricolage of other meanings, serve to assuage this fear of our ever impending demise (Jong & Halberstadt, forthcoming). Interestingly, this TMT triage care for the existential self occurs outside of conscious awareness. However, in this podcast interview with Thomas Coleman for the Religious Studies Project, death researcher and psychologist Dr. Jonathan Jong, draws on experimental research as he teases the fear of death and the religious worldviews that may help confront this fear, into your conscious awareness.

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, dihydrogen monoxide, plastic Tyrannosaurus rex replicas, and more.

References

Jong, J., & Halberstadt, J. (forthcoming). Death, anxiety, and religious belief. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic.

Mithen, S. (2009). Peopling the World. In B. Cunliffe, C. Gosden & R. Joyce, The Oxford Handbook of Archaeology (pp. 281-304). New York: Oxford University Press.

Rethinking the Cognitive Science of Religion in Light of Explanatory Pluralism

In his recent RSP interview, Dr. Robert McCauley provides a brilliant overview of some of the founding philosophical principles that have been a foundation for the study of religion. Dr. McCauley has been known as one of the key founders of the “Cognitive Science of Religion” (CSR) since he co-authored the book “Rethinking Religion” (Lawson & McCauley, 1990); ever since then he has guided the field with a keen understanding of the empirical, philosophical, and socio-cultural literature from which CSR draws.

In the interview, he touches on an aspect of the scientific study of religion that I would like to highlight: explanatory pluralism. I want to use this opportunity to offer a critical review of CSR in light of explanatory pluralism. It is my belief that the failure of CSR to adequately address its inherently interdisciplinary nature has been a detriment to the field and that by addressing these issues it will help the field to grow as well as to help non-CSR specialists understand more of the subtlety of this scientific approach to our subject. I, by no means, think I can settle the issues in the space here, but I would like to use Dr. McCauley’s interview as a springboard from which a discussion can be launched.

Explanatory pluralism

The primary aspect of the interview that I’d like to address is McCauley’s concept of “explanatory pluralism,” which holds that a phenomenon can be explained at different levels of inquiry. The explanatory pluralist maintains that there is no such thing as a final, full, or complete explanation and that each analytical level in science has tools and insights that can be brought to bear on any phenomenon of interest, including religion.

He notes that there are “families” of sciences, and these should probably not be taken as strong demarcations between fields. He also notes that this presumes a hierarchy whereby all events at one level are events of the level beneath it. For example, all events that are chemical events are physical events, but not all physical events are chemical events. McCauley did not explicitly state the “chemical sciences” as a family, but I have added it here since it is hard to imagine a biological event that isn’t chemical but we can imagine chemical events that aren’t biological (e.g. fire or Diet Coke and Mentos).

Figure 1 Pyramid of Science

Figure 1 Pyramid of Science

Critique

Here, my critique is that this sort of explanatory pluralism is really only useful as a framework for constructing an interdisciplinary research project, aimed at understanding some phenomenon like religion, if there is theoretical continuity between the sciences being employed to explain a phenomenon.

Skipping levels in reductive sciences

First, it is hard to imagine a scenario where one should “skip” a level of his pyramid. Explaining socio-cultural phenomena exclusively at the level of biology misses the fact that any biological effects on culture or religion would be mediated by psychology. The endless debate of Nature vs. Nurture settled that one cannot reduce religion to our genes alone. However, our psychological capacities seem to have evolved, and these capacities do give rise to religion. So it is not to say that biology isn’t important (to the contrary); it is just that solely-biological explanations of religion are hollow when neglecting how it is that socio-cultural phenomena (like religion) are affected by psychology.

Theoretical continuity

Second, the theories being employed must have compatible axiomatic assumptions. If assumptions of one theory, which is used to explain some target phenomenon, violate the assumptions of another theory used to explain the same phenomenon at a different level there is an incongruity.

Think of it this way, if we are adding two numbers, X and Y, to get Z as an answer and there are equal assumptions about X and Y then the answers are clear; example: 6 + 6 = 12. However, if the theory from which we assess X and Y is not equal to the theory from which we assess z (i.e. the theory has asymmetrical assumptions), then the equation is not so simple and it is possible that 6 + 6 ≠ 12. To use a mathematical example, 6 plus 6 equals 12 (6 + 6 = 12) in our number system, which is based on the assumption of having a base of 10. However, in a senary number theory (base-6), the answer to our equation is 20 in base-10.[1] Without going deeper into number theory, suffice to say that this equation is not valid as we are adding variables from one theory in search of an answer in another theory. This creates an issue when we see a target phenomenon “Z” and hope to explain it in terms of lower level properties, when our theories don’t align.

Complexity and reductionism in religion: Down the rabbit hole

This complication is spelled out quite clearly in mathematics, but may be more complex when looking at socio-cognitive systems like religious systems (or political systems, or economic systems). One of the reasons that this is complex is because the interactions at one level may not be directly reducible to the parts that it is built upon at a lower level; colloquially, it is greater than the sum of its parts.

Here I would like to address a crucial issue in the study of religion, that of emergence. If something is “emergent” it is said to be greater than the sum of its parts. Emergence comes in two forms, strong and weak. Strong emergence is the stance that a phenomenon—observed at one level—cannot be reduced, even in principle, to the laws specified at a lower level. Weak emergence is the stance that a phenomenon is the result of interactions at a lower level, but the target phenomenon is not expected given the interactions at this lower level.

Many people hold that religion is an emergent phenomenon that cannot be reduced. These discussions are complex and a review of this literature is far beyond the scope of this response. However, let us just imagine how an interdisciplinary approach to religion, as an emergent phenomenon, could arise from lower level properties. Now, this assumes that religion is weakly emergent. First, because strong emergence is incompatible with scientific reductionism and is better fit for interpretive paradigms that seek to explain the social at the level of the social (ala Durkheim); I’ll address the idea that religion may be a causal force in just a moment. However, if we move beyond that—even if only for the sake of argument—religion must arise from some lower level properties.

So, to exemplify this, I’m going to use a very elementary analogy. Let’s return back to the “Pyramid of Science” above. If something at the cultural level is emergent in the strong sense, it means that there is no connection to the laws at the lower (i.e. psychological level). It is an unconnected cloud floating above the minds of people.

Figure 2 Cultural Cloud as Strongly Emergent

Figure 2 Cultural Cloud as Strongly Emergent

This approach is in many ways black and white. Culture is not directly connected to the rules that are followed by its constituent parts. Most individuals in the scientific study of religion (SSR) reject this claim because if one imagines a world without people we simply would not have culture. Therefore, there is posited to be some connection between “Culture” and the minds of individuals that hold, sustain, and generate that culture. This position is more in line with the weak emergent perspective. This holds that culture is not directly reducible to the lower-level laws of human psychology, but there is some connection. The current scientific explanation for culture and religion is that it is “generated” by the collective minds of all the individuals in a group. This allows for culture to have the shades of grey that result from all the colorful cognitive machinery with which humans are endowed.

Figure 3 Culture Cloud as Weakly Emergent

Figure 3 Culture Cloud as Weakly Emergent

Now, one might ask: “Wait, this is too simple, why is it that different cultural groups behave differently?” Within complexity theory, emergent phenomenon can exert causal forces. Some even believe that no higher-level entity can change without exerting some force on its lower level parts (for a deeper discussion on emergentism see Kim, 1999); that is to say, within a complex systems perspective, culture can shape people, and people generate religion and culture.

What this has to do with religion: Taking the red pill[2]

Now, at this point in the rabbit hole, you may be wondering if I’ve gone off the rails. Well, yes, but only to exemplify an important point concerning how modern cognitive science has surpassed CSR and what religious studies could serve to learn from it.

Above, I outline a constant, complex, feedback systejimim whereby culture emerges from the complex interactions between humans’ mental facilities, and in turn, creates an environment within which these individuals live. This environmental input, indifferentiable from the plants, animals, and water, is an important aspect of the environment and therefore can appear to cause individuals to do things just as the presence of a snake would cause a person to jump. This feedback system is—in principle—not unlike the physical systems that cause guitars to screech when too close to an amp. One (culture) arises from the minds of interacting people, which are, in turn, affected by that culture. Furthermore, we can visualize them with our “culture cloud” like so:

Figure 4 Cultural "Causation" as an emergent feedback loop

Figure 4 Cultural “Causation” as an emergent feedback loop

Now, in order to understand this complex system, we have to hold the way in which we measure everything steady between the psychological level and the socio-cultural level. We wouldn’t want to use the metric system for one thing and the imperial system for another. Although it may seem like things are stable at first glance, such incongruity will not result in a viable approach to theory building. Furthermore, we need to change the way we approach measuring religion. Saying something is complex is no longer a viable excuse to say we cannot study it empirically. Complex statistics from recursion analysis (Lang, Krátký, Shaver, Jerotijević, & Xygalatas, 2015) to network analysis (Lane, 2015) allow us to discern non-linear patterns in the study of religion. Also, computer models are allowing us to study these relationships as well (see Bainbridge, 2006; Braxton, 2008; McCorkle & Lane, 2012; Shults et al., Submitted; Upal, 2005; Whitehouse, Kahn, Hochberg, & Bryson, 2012; Wildman & Sosis, 2011).

Conclusion

Many of those in the scientific study of religion argue that “culture” or “religion” is a causal force. This has led some in the scientific study of religion to ignore the great scholarship of religious scholars who acknowledge that religion is an academic abstraction invented by western intellectuals (Smith, 2004)—at times even leading those scientists of religion to implicitly treat religion as a sui generis phenomenon. However, by abandoning our linear thinking (and statistics!) we could start to investigate religion as emergent and not simply the additive “sum” of the constituent minds of people. Rather, we can look at it for what it is, the result of iterations of interactions among individuals in complex socio-biological environments (i.e. contexts) that is instantiated in an ever-recursive system between the cognitive and socio-cultural levels of analysis. As I hope it is plain to see, I wholly support Dr. McCauley’s commitment to explanatory pluralism. I only argue that we be more mindful of the theoretical continuity which is necessary to produce valid models[3] of religion.

References

Bainbridge, W. S. (2006). God from the Machine: Artificial Intelligence Models of religious Cognition. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Braxton, D. M. (2008). Modeling the McCauley-Lawson Theory of Ritual Forms. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University.

Kim, J. (1999). Making Sense of Emergence. Philosophical Studies, 95(1-2), 3–36. Retrieved from http://www.zeww.uni-hannover.de/Kim_Making Sense Emergence.1999.pdf

Lane, J. E. (2015). Semantic Network Mapping of Religious Material. Journal for Cognitive Processing. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10339-015-0649-1

Lang, M., Krátký, J., Shaver, J. H., Jerotijević, D., & Xygalatas, D. (2015). Effects of Anxiety on Spontaneous Ritualized Behavior. Current Biology, 1–6. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.05.049

Lawson, E. T., & McCauley, R. N. (1990). Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press.

McCorkle, W. W., & Lane, J. E. (2012). Ancestors in the simulation machine: measuring the transmission and oscillation of religiosity in computer modeling. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 2(3), 215–218. http://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2012.703454

Shults, F. L., Lane, J. E., Lynch, C., Padilla, J., Mancha, R., Diallo, S., & Wildman, W. J. (n.d.). Modeling Terror Management Theory: A computer simulation of hte impact of mortality salience on religiosity. Religion, Brain & Behavior.

Smith, J. Z. (2004). Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Upal, M. A. (2005). Simulating the Emergence of New Religious Movements. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 8(1). Retrieved from http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/8/1/6.html

Whitehouse, H., Kahn, K., Hochberg, M. E., & Bryson, J. J. (2012). The role for simulations in theory construction for the social sciences: case studies concerning Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 2(3), 182–201. http://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2012.691033

Wildman, W. J., & Sosis, R. (2011). Stability of Groups with Costly Beliefs and Practices. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 14(3).

 

[1] Interested readers can go check out online conversion tools that will convert numbers with different bases, such as that found here: http://www.unitconversion.org/unit_converter/numbers.html

[2] For those unfamiliar with the movie “The Matrix”, this is explained here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_pill_and_blue_pill

[3] I mean this in the conceptual and computational sense, including scholars of religion engaged in philosophical, historical, and empirical endeavors.

Method and Theory in the Cognitive Sciences of Religion

podcast with the Religious Studies Project in 2014, Dr. Robert McCauley gave an overview of some of these processes cognitive scientists appeal to in accounting for religion (e.g., agent detection, theory of mind), as well as a 2015 North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) conference (and thanks to their support), McCauley discusses methodological and theoretical issues within CSR. He begins by tackling the topic of “naturalism” vs. “supernaturalism” in explaining religion, moving on to how these explanations function at different levels of analysis and integration. In closing, McCauley discusses the relationship between the humanities and the sciences, some successful and not so successful CSR theories, and the interplay between explanations emphasizing cognition and culture.

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, video games, indulgences, and more.

2015 Conference on Religion and American Culture Report

The Biennial “Conference on Religion and American Culture” was held June 4 to June 7, 2015 in Indianapolis. The conference is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture and Religion & American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Jeffrey Wheatley, a PhD student at Northwestern University.

This was my second visit to RAAC, which follows the fishbowl format (one whose physical layout is similar to a UFC cage match, but the audience gets to participate). The format makes RAAC a great venue for assessing current and future trends in the study of religion and the United States. Unfortunately, I cannot relate all of the great perspectives, questions, and arguments in a single blog post. Instead I will focus on two topics that prompted some (not all!) of the liveliest discussion. Interested to know more? Feel free to examine the conference program. I recommend combing through the conversation that took place on Twitter by searching #RAAC2015. You also can look forward to reading the proceedings, which will eventually be published.

We Need Some Space

Two panels focused on how we spatially frame the study of Religion and American Culture: “American Religion and Global Flows” and “’Religion in the Americas’ as an Organizational Paradigm.” Both on some level critiqued the dominance of national boundaries in delineating what we study and how we study it. Scholars, especially those interested in power, have much to gain by looking at transnational networks.

A full room during the panel that included Sylvester Johnson, Thomas Tweed, and Kristy Nabhan-Warren. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

A full room during the panel that included Sylvester Johnson, Thomas Tweed, and Kristy Nabhan-Warren. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

Zareena Grewal discussed her research on Muslim communities in the United States and suggested that we need not lose sight of the importance of ideas in a transnational focus. For example: race, she argued, is intricately connected to theological conversations. For Muslims in the United States, religion and race are negotiated through transnational networks whose main nodes are elsewhere, primarily in the Middle East. Kristy Nabhan-Warren, in a paper that would continue to be referenced throughout the conference, emphasized the importance of story-telling and the need for scholars to listen, both to our subjects of study and our students. Over-reliance on paradigms, she cautioned, can hinder our capacity to let subjects speak. Sylvester Johnson argued we need to highlight the framework of the “Americas” in graduate programs. Such training is useful not for going beyond the nation-state, he suggested, but to understand the importance of settler colonialism in the formation of many nation-states, including the United States. The Americas framework is also conducive for incorporating perspectives beyond (yet not to the exclusion of) the Anglo-American Protestantism that dominates the study of American religions.

Commenting, Stephen Prothero raised an important question: are we arguing that global flows in particular demand more scholarship? Or are we suggesting that the global is one geographical frame out of many (e.g., a single church, a neighborhood, a city or local region, a state, a nation, etc . . .)? And how might we relate these various scales in reference to one another? The question of scale seems to me to be not just about where and who we study, but about what we study and how we study it.

Beginning and Ending with Religion and “Religion”

RAAC began with Robert Orsi commenting on what the study of religion means when religion has become “religion.” The final panel, although technically entitled “Liberalism vs. Pluralism” and inspired by Kathryn Lofton’s comment at RAAC 2013 about the defeat of pluralism, ultimately returned to this question. As Ariel Schwartz noted, the room quickly went beyond what was stated in the printed program. The last panel quickly became a sweeping debate over Foucauldian genealogy, studies of secularism, and the question of what constitutes the proper objects/subjects of the study of religion. (Perhaps we can revisit liberalism and pluralism in 2017?)

Stephen Prothero jump-started the conversation by pointing to John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America as an example of a rupture in the study of religion away from lived religion, bodies, and historical story-telling towards an emphasis on the construction of categories, especially our own as scholars of religion. The hard-earned fruits of the former, he suggested, might be obscured by the latter. Referencing Sydney Ahlstrom’s classic work, Prothero asked, can we study the religious history of the American people, or must we study the “religious” “history” of the “American” “people”? Prothero asked the audience to picture two doors. The first is genealogical. The second, which he chooses, is the historical ethnographic. Pamela Klassen defended genealogy, pointing to important work that excavates the norms of liberal Protestantism embedded in discourses of pluralism. During the comments, Leigh Schmidt wondered if we can find a middle ground between stories about people in the sense Prothero intended and the importance of categories.

The final panel. From left to right: Stephen Prothero, Leigh Schmidt, and Pamela Klassen. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

The final panel. From left to right: Stephen Prothero, Leigh Schmidt, and Pamela Klassen. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

The conversation brought up a number of questions. Is the door metaphor providing us with a false dichotomy? Is the construction of categories necessarily separate from the intimate lives of real people? Why is Modern’s book the main example of the genealogical method? Is genealogy only about scholarly categories? How might the practices of story-telling, emphasized throughout the weekend, relate to the genealogical method? Is “jargon” a crucial part of our scholarly community or a hindrance to the publicity and relevance of our writing? Cara Burnidge, playing with Prothero’s metaphor, asked the room to consider the following: what framework allows for these two doors? That is: this conversation is not only about our field in the abstract. The conversation is about the field’s institutional future, its relationship with other disciplines, and the job prospects of younger scholars.

Overall, this panel was the closest we got to a UFC match. A number of passionate comments from the panelists and the audience signaled the high stakes of the questions posed. It was an all-around provocative conversation.

Final Thoughts

In my effort to provide a thick account of the conference by focusing on two topics, I am leaving out a number of great panels, papers, and comments that deserve attention. These include but are not limited to: Judith Weisenfeld’s use of the language “religio-racial” and her question of who gets included in the category of “new religious movements”; a lively conversation on the descriptive and prescriptive uses of “civil religion”; and two panels on capitalism that touched on the dominance of neoliberalism, religion’s role in organized labor, and, as Chip Callahan pushed for, a call to attend to how particular practices of work shape and are shaped by particular worldviews. To be honest, most scholars working on religion and the United States (and/or the Americas!) would benefit from reading the proceedings.

Speaking as a graduate student, I want to conclude by noting how RAAC, and similarly organized small-scale conferences that focus on the direction of a particular field, are incredibly useful. Especially for younger scholars, these are energizing conferences that allow you to better contextualize your work in ongoing discussions. We are accustomed to thinking of methodological, theoretical, and historiographical “turns” within a progressive linear timeline. RAAC collapses these turns into a single dynamic space, with contributors of each turn participating. Such a discussion revealed how the pasts and futures of the field are, in fact, very much present and intimate. I look forward to meeting new scholars, visiting and revisiting high-stakes debates, and seeing familiar faces in 2017.

Comics and the Superhero Afterlife

Comic books are reliable. Every month readers can expect another installment of their favorite comic on the shelves. Characters facing insurmountable odds will find a way to victory. Nemeses will be defeated. And should a hero die, they are likely to be re-born. In some sense, to be a hero is to be immortal. Even extraordinary humans such as Bruce Wayne (Batman), find their identities preserved for all time by turning the secret hero’s mask into a mantle to be bequeathed on worthy successors. One widespread trope has been much ignored by comic fans and scholars–the journey to the afterlife. Like the katabasis or descent into the Underworld of Orpheus, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, Theseus, and dozens of other mythical figures, modern comic book superheroes routinely journey to heaven, hell, and other landscapes of the afterlife.

A. David Lewis, comic books are presented as an irreplaceable cultural medium for engaging with issues of mortality, identity, subjectivity, and cosmology. In the pages of comic books, Lewis explains, the popular elements of the journey to the afterlife become surfaces upon which can be written a kind of “special reality” whose artificiality makes it possible for readers (and writers) to have discussions about serious issues but never fully commit to the vision of the comic books. For Lewis, that so many different versions of this journey exist but have yet to be readily acknowledged speaks to the major tensions in western culture. One central concern, he maintains, is the unspoken effort to preserve models of self that are unified. “We don’t want see our selves as multiples,” says Lewis. We want to be unified, “whole individuals.” And yet recent work on healthy multiplicity by Helene T. Russell and J. Hills Miller suggests that by accepting “people [as] constructed by many selves” we can further the work of religious pluralism and enhance inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue.

comicFor those who may still see comic books as unworthy material for serious scholarship, A. David Lewis’ recent work (2014’s American Comics, Literary Theory and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife or his 2010 co-edited collection Graven Images) should be a warning to re-think your position. With an overwhelming slate of comic book driven television series (Walking Dead, Gotham, Flash, Green Arrow) and a rising tide of superhero films and franchises (X-Men, Fantastic Four, and the Avengers), there has never been a more essential time to recognize the cultural merits of comic books and seek out their academic rewards.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with A. David Lewis on “Religion and Comic Books“, and also recent interviews with Carole Cusack on “Religion and Cultural Production” and Alana Vincent on “Religion and Literature“. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, orAmazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying comic books, pizza cutters, incense sticks and other cultural products.

Conference Report: International Society for Media, Religion and Culture Conference, 2014

Report by Venetia Robertson, University of Sydney

For four days at the beginning of August, I attended the International Society for Media, Religion and Culture (ISMRC) conference within the beautiful grounds of Canterbury Cathedral in England. Hosted by Professor Gordon Lynch of the University of Kent, this conference brought together scholars of media, religion, and culture (sometimes even all three) to analyse these intersections in daily life, in spiritual practice, and throughout history. In concert with the Centre for Media, Religion and Culture (CMRC), run out of the University of Colorado, Boulder, this conference has been held biennially since the mid-1990s, and many of the foundational members continue to attend the event, as well as remaining central contributors to the scholarship of this field.

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This year’s conference saw a handing over of the presidential reigns from Professor Stewart M. Hoover of Colorado to his once-student and now Associate Professor at the University of Denver, Lynn Schofield Clark, with whom he has co-authored numerous articles and chapters and co-edited volumes such as Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media: Explorations in Media, Religion and Culture (2002). With a board of directors that includes Professor Mia Lövheim (Uppsala University), Dr Ann Hardy (University of Waikato), and Associate Professor Heidi Campbell (Texas A&M University), to name a few, the ISMRC intentionally incorporates the voices of diverse areas of study (sociology/history/study of religion, theology, journalism, media and communications, new media, digital cultures etc.), from different parts of the globe, and, importantly for this reporter, from female academics, into a broader discussion of the ever-developing relationship between media, religion and culture. At Canterbury, the discussion that was had demonstrated the vastness and richness of such an interdisciplinary venture and yet also the reason why such a conversation must happen.

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I heard the following questions more times during the week than the ubiquitous ‘I don’t really have a question… more of a statement’ that haunts every audience response segment: ‘What is religion?’, ‘What is media/mediatisation/mediation?’, and ‘Have you met the other Australian yet?’. In answer to the third question – I did, I believe, meet all the Australian delegates by the end, and there were quite a number I’m proud to say! Down under, represent.

The initial questions about the perplexing categories of religion and media, however, did really seem to need perpetual asking. In a panel on the first day, papers by Ann Hardy on ‘conspirituality’ – the merging of conspiracy theories with New Age beliefs – and by Sofija Drecon, of the University of Arts, Belgrade, on web-based religions like the Church of Google, offered overviews of two exciting studies of religiosity and the Internet, but only had time to prod at the most basic of questions – what does the online conspiracy culture tell us about the internet, and what do online new religious movements tell us about religion? These two papers, I believe, speak to each other in ways that are subtle but have significant broader implications – the internet does foster decidedly ‘alternative’ ways of thinking, from the alt. streams of usenet to some of the darker recesses of reddit or 4chan. The rise of web 2.0 is not solely responsible for communal bonding over fringe responses to epistemological or theological positions; obviously these have been around for as long as we have, mediated or no, but the opportunities for proselystisation and development have hugely increased. This includes not only ‘upgrades’, for example, instead of photocopying 100 fliers advertising conversion to your parody religion or your reptilian conspiracy workshop you can now send 100,000 emails, but also by adapting to those modes of communication, authority, and identity that the internet specialises in and encourages, you are speaking the mother-tongue of the digital natives. In Carole Cusack’s Invented Religions (2010: 132-5) for example, it is noted that movements like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are so supremely suited to cyberspace because they embody those qualities, listed by Knobel and Lankshear (2006: 209) as humour or irony, intertextuality, and anomalous juxtaposition (like God and Pasta), that appeal to the wired generation and participates in their ‘new literacy’. Our cultural context – techno-saturated, postmodern, secular(ish) – needs flagging, obvious as it may seem, in order for these minor case studies to demonstrate their relevance to the discussion at hand. The audible groan from a colleague when the outdated ‘religion online/online religion’ schema was mentioned (‘that is sooo 2000’), that Christopher Helland himself has openly moved on from, is another reminder that we also need to keep abreast of how these trends are being treated, an updated, in the scholarship.

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Photo by Adam Shreve, with permission.

It’s probably obvious at this point that my main interest in this joint area is in digital religion. I particularly enjoyed those papers that were framed around the significant gender, race, and political issues that shape the world we live in, and charted how these identities and identifiers translated into the virtual reality of networked religion. Dr Chris Helland (Dalhousie University) gave an insightful paper on the use of the internet and digital technology by Tibetan Buddhists and how this allows the maintenance of community for a diasporic people. China’s suppression of the Tibetan people extends, unsurprisingly, to technology, recognised as a major tool in effecting a resistance. It is thus a potentially dangerous activity for those living in Tibet to use information technology at all. Nonetheless, while the event of the late Pope Benedict joining Twitter was a source of comedy for many, the Dalai Lama and ex-pat followers have always made an effort to be as connected as possible, and while the internet does provide some spiritual impediment (‘they are worried that the monks are getting too distracted’, Helland comments), it has been deftly incorporated into ritual making, theological learning, and religious identity for Tibetan Buddhists. From Dr Paul Emerson Teusner’s (RMIT) work on audience engagement and pastoral blogs in the Emerging Church, to Associate Professor Alex Boutros’ (Laurier University) study of blogging black identity and religiosity in the Afrosphere, to ritualising postfeminism on Pinterest, as described by Samira Rajabi, there was plenty to keep my mind buzzing! As Stewart Hoover and Nabil Echchaibi, directors of the CMRC and authors of the influential paper ‘The “Third Spaces” of Digital Religion’, were both major contributors to the conference (though Dr Echcaibi was unable to attend), there was a lot of discussion of cyberspace as third space, and as someone who finds this reading of Homi Bhabha’s methodology fruitful for my own studies, I found this to be immensely helpful.

However, so wrapped up am I in my own thesis work that what I failed to anticipate is that ‘media’ is so much more than just new media, and new media is so much more than just the internet. This conference offered the fully gamut of media studies – radio, television, news reports, cinema, magazines, video and computer games, advertising, as well as my favourites: websites, blogs, forums, and memes. As media types diversify it becomes harder to say why we both speaking of them as a whole at all – what does the latest iPrayer app have in common with a ‘healing’ radio broadcast from the 1950s? I have an inkling that there’s something important to be said here about the alleged ‘magic’ of technology and its ongoing role as, quite literally, a mediating force in religious practice. Looking into the eyes of televangelist Pat Robertson as he yells his blessings at you through the screen, one can’t help but wonder how technical he understands this process to be – do prayers travel through the cathode ray tubes of your 1980s set and into your living room? Did their transmission gain clarity and precision with the enhanced qualities of a plasma screen? When Anderson Blanton gave his paper on the wireless preaching of Oral Roberts he emphasised Robert’s wish for listeners to ‘put your hand upon the radio cabinet as a point of contact’, which then dovetailed beautifully with the preceding talk by Larissa Carneiro’s (North Carolina State University) on L. Ron Hubbard’s e-meter, the confluence of haptics, belief, and authenticity was strikingly evident (Blanton is the curator for The Materiality of Prayer Collection, and follows this line of enquiry at Reverberations). Unfortunately, Joonseong Lee’s (California State University) closing presentation for this session on ‘digirituality’, which aimed to elucidate how technology offers a salvific path to the sacred and allows one to deflect the enslaving efforts of commercialism, did not deliver. Maybe, it was the Deleuzian frame of reference that pushed this talk into incomprehensible territory (from the abstract: ‘The term “digirit” is a combination of the words “digital” and “spirit” and is conceptualized from the Deleuzian perspective of Tao. Anus breathing exercise is reinterpreted as a method of practice-oriented spirituality to be digiritual’), or perhaps it was because this paper was written for, though not presented at, a different digital humanities conference in Switzerland (again, evidenced by the unedited pitch in the abstract), either way, I failed to take anything away from this section but those who are curious can follow the hyperlink.

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I too found during my own presentation that the level of audience comprehension was less than I had anticipated. At a basic estimation, more than 50% of the papers at this conference dealt only with Islam or Christianity. This in itself is not problematic, there is much to say about these two major faith groups and their interactions with media, nonetheless religion as found within paganism, the occult, the New Age, implicit circumstances, etc. was very rarely discussed. Though I know my subject area is fairly obscure, it seemed that many of my respondents struggled to parse even the spiritual milieu within which my studies are located. Partially this is because many attendees were, as noted, communications experts, not scholars of religion, but additionally the alternative sphere of spirituality, it seems, is still given only marginal attention by the academy. However, with one minute of question time to be shared between four panellists, there was sadly very little opportunity to gauge audience response or elaborate on my topic further. I greatly enjoy question time and found it so frequently at this conference to be an opportunity for vigorous and inspiring discussion and debate – but with only 10 minutes scheduled per session for this, and rarely were more than 5 minutes really allotted, this was always a rushed effort. With widely varied levels of media and religious literacy present, more dedication to theming panels and audience and presenter interaction would likely ensure more optimal engagement with the material. It certainly couldn’t be said, however, that this was not a well organised conference. The staff of the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge were dutiful and polite, and the conference admin team were exceptionally hard-working, helpful, and facilitated fun opportunities for socialising (pub drinks). The picturesque surrounds of the stunning Cathedral itself, so steeped in history, and yet with effective and comfortable conference facilities (wifi was pretty good), made the event extra enjoyable.

Photo by Adam Shreve, with permission.

Photo by Adam Shreve, with permission.

Plenaries came in the shape keynotes and roundtable discussions, all of which were lively and focused. On the first day Jonathan L. Walton provided an effective wake up call to all of us in the audience who were resting, on our laurels and, y’know, from jetlag. In his address ‘Pentecostal and Prosperous: Empowering (and Editing) Marginalized Protestant Bodies’, Walton took us, in what I imagine is his trademark lecturing and preaching style (being Professor of Religion and Society and the Pusey Minister at Harvard University) on a journey – we giggled at his witty analysis of the kitschy tactics and aesthetics of African-American prosperity preachers like Pastor Carlton Pearson, his brash 90s outfits and manufactured spontaneity, and then teared up as Walton passionately retold the little-known 1921 race riot of Tulsa, Oklahoma during which the prosperous district of Greenwood known as ‘Black Wall Street’ became a site of mass destruction, with disgruntled white folk turning black families and business owners onto the streets, attacking, looting, shooting, even firebombing them from aeroplanes, within 16 hours razing the town to the ground. So under-reported and poorly regulated was the aftermath that we still don’t know if the numbers of dead African-Americans were closer to 30 or 300. Tulsa would go on to be a centre for black Pentecostalism, and importantly so, jettisoning the black church into the profitable market of televangelism of which Pastor Pearson’s once-booming Higher Dimension Family Church and annual televised Azusa conferences, both in Tulsa, are perfect examples. While it’s easy to roll your eyes at the razzle dazzle of mega-church theatrics, Walton’s sobering reminder of the history of the racial politics of wealth and worth in America shed invaluable light on this ongoing tension and its effects for media and religion.

There was some criticism that this conference, particularly in its choice of keynote speakers, was a tad Americo-centric. Professor Kathryn Lofton’s thoroughly entertaining and energetic lecture on the cult of Oprah, for example, apparently went over the heads of those international audience members not as saturated in the celebrity culture of the USA as are, say, we Australians. Perhaps guilty of subconsciously indulging the implicit notion that America = the universal example, my favourite panel was delivered entirely by Americans, three students and a professor from Northwestern University, on explicitly American topics. Myev Rees’ analysis of ‘mommy martyrdom’ in the life and times of mega-mater Michelle Duggar and characters like Bella Swan of Twilight, Stephanie Brehm’s intriguing look at the religiosity of Stephen Colbert on and off camera, Hannah Scheidt’s comparative study of theistic and atheistic billboards and advertising campaigns in the US, and Professor Sarah Macfarland Taylor’s paper on ‘Green hip hop’ and the politics of urban environmentalism, were extremely well put-together, informative, and important offerings, relished by their listeners.

Feedback on the overall experience of the conference and specific areas that needed attention was welcomed by the ISMRC organisers, and on the fourth day a workshop was held in order to gauge participants’ responses. Though I think some of the younger and less experienced delegates would have liked this segment to have included some ‘workshopping’ of methods, techniques, and debates relevant to the practical aspect of being a media and religion scholar, e. g. how to make this avenue enticing to departments and universities, how to appeal to sources of funding for new centres or research projects, how to undertake fieldwork efficiently and effectively, how to extend the relevance of our work beyond the paywall, the institution, the elitism of the academy and bring it to ‘the people’, the media, the government and so forth. Instead the focus was more on how to improve the conference itself, still a noble gesture, and garnered the comments and suggestions one can usually expect – more diversity while at the same time respecting a variety of levels of comprehension, more voices from non-white countries and contexts, more examples from outside the mainstream etc. The next meeting of the ISMRC, to be held in Seoul, will surely provide some redress. While I’ve complained that question time was often too short, moments like this were important reminders that conversation is central and valued for the progression of our work as a body of scholars. Conferences may offer many opportunities, but more than anything it is the fostering of an interdisciplinary, international dialogue that keeps us coming back. I had several people come up to me and say ‘I really enjoyed your questions today’, and maybe I wish they’d said ‘your riveting and original research, may I offer you a job/scholarship/standing ovation’, nonetheless, feeling a part of the conversation is a wonderful reward in itself. Thanks to the ISMRC for having me, and I look forward to doing this again in Korea in 2016!

Bricolage

BRICOLAGE: construction (as of a sculpture or a structure of ideas) achieved by using whatever comes to hand; also : something constructed in this way

“Bricolage.” Merriam-Webster.com.

Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1960s and has undergone a complex genealogy of modifications within the sociologies of culture and religion. As Véronique Altglas writes in a forthcoming article, ‘originally a metaphor, “bricolage'” became an anthropological concept to understand cultural and religious creativity, with an emphasis on what organizes it, despite its contingent nature. Transposed in the study of contemporary European societies, bricolage became about what individuals do in relation to cultural practices and lifestyles’ (Altglas Forthcoming).

In this interview with Chris, Altglas – the author of the recent OUP monograph From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage – discusses this complex genealogy, tracing a movement from forms of cultural warfare to ‘playful, postmodern bricoleurs’ – what many might be tempted to dub ‘pick and mix spirituality’. However, as Altglas goes on to demonstrate, with a particular empirical focus upon Hindu-based Yoga centres and the Kabbalah centre, far from a carefree process of shopping at the ‘spiritual supermarket’, ‘the original meanings and otherness of elements used in this religious bricolage matter, and in fact limits, the popularization of “exotic” religions’ (Forthcoming).

IMG_20141112_114757This broad-ranging interview provides a fascinating overview of an important concept that is not only relevant for the study of contemporary ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’, but also speaks to cultural appropriation and construction in general, utilizing a number of stimulating contextual examples along the way. Chris enjoyed the interview so much, he immediately went out and bout Véronique’s book… and he suggests you do too!

This interview was recorded at the European Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference in Belfast in September 2014. You can also download this podcast, 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.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly in the run up to Christmas!

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Thanks to Culture on the Edge for posting this passage. http://edge.ua.edu/monica-miller/the-myth-of-origins/

References

  • Forthcoming 2015. ‘Bricolage’: Reclaiming a Conceptual Tool. Culture & Religion. 2015. 4.

Concepts and Symbols, What Does It All Mean? Examining Immigrant Buddhists in Toronto

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 13 November 2013, in response to D. Mitra Barua’s interview on Immigrant Buddhism in the West  (11 November 2013).

Talal Asad, in Genealogies of Religion, sets out an argument by which he hopes to improve upon Clifford Geertz’s anthropological method of examining a culture’s symbols in an effort to analyze the meanings that these symbols hold “of” and “for” a culture’s religious character. He points out that although “[r]eligious symbols… cannot be understood independently of their historical relations with nonreligious symbols…” (53) “It does not follow that the meanings of religious practices and utterances are to be sought in social phenomena, but only that their possibility and their authoritative status are to be explained as products of historically distinctive disciplines and forces. (54) In short, any culture cannot be said to be a fixed point to be dissected as such, but rather, a stream or flow of histories whose “power” and influence received from prior discourse must be taken into account as a process of cultural, and therefore religious, creation.

Webb Keane takes Asad’s emphasis upon socio-historical discourse being a process through which meanings can be analysed and provides a term for this concept that he feels is better able to be wielded by the ethnographer, namely, the utilisation of “semiotic forms”. Semiotic forms, Keane argues, are “social categories” which are “recognizable as something knowable”. He continues, “they must, that is, have some material manifestation that makes them available to, interpretable by, and, in most cases, replicable by other people: bodily actions, speech, the treatment of objects, and so forth.” (114) Seeing as how, for Keane, “[s]emiotic forms are public entities…” they are “objects for the senses…” and “as such, they have distinctive temporal dimensions…” however, “[b]ecause they are repeatable, they have the potential to persist over time and across social contexts.” (114-115). In this specific context, Keane only examines one example of a semiotic form for the sake of illustration- speech; however, Mitra Barua hits upon this exact idea in his conversation with Chris Silver. We start to get an idea of Barua’s work when he tells us of his interest in how Buddhism has been transmitted into new locations (inter-cultural dimensions of Buddhist transmission) and between first- and second-generation immigrants living in diaspora (inter-generational dimensions).

Working with Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhists (presumably Sinhalese) who form a disaporic group in Toronto, Canada, Barua is able to link his work with that of Asad and Keane by adding to his two dimensions of Buddhist transmissions an overall sense of time, or discourse. He identifies three primary historical periods of migration within which he frames his work; namely, the Colonial, Post-Colonial and Diaspora periods. None of these have any ontological purchase independently; rather, only as a spectrum, each blending into the next (ignoring firm historical dates one must assume and only focusing on the state of transmission of teachings which does not generally change, or stop-start, with any firm temporal grounding). His interest lies in how Buddhism has been and continues to be transmitted from older, first-generation migrants who came from Ceylon to Canada, to their children who were raised in Canadian culture; or, inter-cultural and inter-generational dimensions of transmission and the problems that arise therefrom.

What he finds is perhaps a bit unsurprising; the younger generation who have grown up in a “secular”, Western culture have different views and emphases regarding how to balance their secular and their religious livesthan their parents. Additionally, Barua finds that there is a serious concern within the older members of the community regarding the “religiosity” of Buddhism being not only separated out, but also lost in favour of a more secular, functional usage of concepts like samatha/vipassana or group temple worship.

Concerning this worry surrounding the “dilution” of Buddhism that Barua identifies amongst the Buddhist immigrants in Toronto, some important questions arise for scholars of religion as a whole. Throughout the interview terms like “religion”, “faith”, “theology” are thrown about, ironically often in close proximity to discussions on how Buddhism is tied into not just the immigrants religious lives but also and perhaps most importantly their culture. During the first third of the interview, Dr. Barua even explains how these immigrants have changed the adjectives of the Buddhist Eight-fold Path, from “right” speech, thought, action, etc. to “harmonious”. Why does this bi-polarity seem to weigh so heavily on this group of immigrants, on the one hand being self-conscious enough to feel it necessary to change the language of one of their most fundamental principles, while at the same time wanting to save the “religiosity” of Buddhism from complete secularisation? Further, do Christo-centric terms like faith and theology even work within a Buddhist setting, and if not, why does this community feel it useful or indeed necessary to use them? Does the very act of using foreign, Christian terms contribute to the undermining of the very sense of importance and individuality that the Buddhist elders are trying to stave off; and most intriguingly, if religion (in this case Buddhism) is indeed not sui generis but rather, linked wholly with a society’s culture; are these immigrants not so much concerned with the loss of their religion, but instead and more disconcerting, with a loss of their culture and self-identity? In a response to a similar question from Chris Silver, Dr. Barua does give us a related answer when he affirms, that he found these Buddhists to self-identify as indeed in some ways more religious in Canada than they were in Sri Lanka.

By way of conclusion with the understanding that cultural (and therefore religious) symbols and concepts are intrinsically intertwined within the socio-temporal spectrum of a group of people, as scholars of religion some pressing questions now pop up for further inspection, perhaps most importantly are some that are self-reflexive: are we truly Post-Orientalist/Colonialist? Do we, living in primarily First and Second World countries, take for granted our contemporary cultural hegemony? What can we learn about immigrant groups who find their most effective recourse to be utilising OUR terminology to describe THEIR culture? Perhaps the era of colonisation is not quite over.

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

References

  • Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York. Basic Books
  • Keane, Webb. 2008. ‘The evidence of the senses and the materiality of religion’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Volume 14: 110-127.

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World

through examining [religions’] cultural DSC_0039_2products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World: Intention and Reception of Anthroposophical and Gurdjieffian Art Forms

By Dr Johanna Petsche, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 25 September 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Carole Cusack on Religion and Cultural Production (23 September 2013)

The Religious Studies Project’s interview with Professor Carole M. Cusack of the University of Sydney covers an ambitious range of issues by tackling some huge open-ended questions: How does one define a cultural product of a religion? Must it be material? What makes a product religious or sacred? What about products that are secular, but traceable to a new religion? Does the culture of celebrity fit into this? Cusack’s rigorous unpacking of these topics, and the tangential issues explored along the way, make for scintillating listening. The interview loosely centres on the recently published Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (2012), which was edited by Cusack and Alex Norman. This comprehensive compendium examines the impact of new religions upon cultural production through a set of case studies exploring realms of music, architecture, food, art, books, film, video games, and more.

New religions have been increasingly emerging in the West and other regions since the beginning of the nineteenth century. They are, however, often ignored or devalued due to the common suspicion that they are not ‘real religions’ and cannot be equated with traditional, historical religions (Cusack and Norman 2012, 1). This human tendency to disregard new religions and new spiritualities is reflected in the way that the cultural products of different religions are perceived. Taking works of music as examples, it is clear that where J. S. Bach’s (1686-1750) ‘St Matthew Passion’, Handel’s (1685-1759) ‘Messiah’ (both overtly Christian works), and the Sufi devotional qawwali music of Pakistan are easily acknowledged as masterworks of religious music, the same dignity is not accorded to the reggae music of the Rastafarians or the piano music of G. I. Gurdjieff and his pupil Thomas de Hartmann (Cusack and Norman 2012, 2; Murrell and Snider 2012, 495-518; Petsche 2012, 271-295). Where the former have come to be celebrated as exemplary, timeless artistic achievements representative of reputable religions, the art associated with new religions is often considered trivial and unimportant, like new religions themselves. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the art of new religions has not yet ‘stood the test of time’, and also that it arose in the materialistic, largely secular world. In this way it seems less meaningful or ‘authentic’ than the art of past epochs, which we commonly admire with a sense of awe and nostalgia.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnaaXk9OxA0]

The cultural products of new religions are often produced by insiders for insiders, but many have attained a level of broader cultural acceptance through various means (see also Cusack and Norman 2012, 2). Take for example Anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner’s (1861-1925) Goetheanum II in Dornach, Switzerland, which was completed in 1928. His Goetheanum I was built in 1913 but it was destroyed by fire in 1922, and then rebuilt as Goetheanum II. This is a building – known as “the Building” by Anthroposophists – set up deliberately as a spiritual centre embodying Anthroposophical ideals, with its symbolic, differently coloured windows representing Steiner’s colour theory, and special outside garden and water features designed to create specific effects on viewers. Goetheanum II seems to have been intentionally conceived by Steiner as a sacred site. Interestingly though, at the same time it has become a tourist attraction, with people being drawn to it purely for its aesthetic qualities. It is, after all, a beautiful example of Expressionist architecture (Cusack 2012, 175). Goetheanum II is actually a unique selling point for the village. In this way, the structure is simultaneously a desirable piece of architecture that tourists wish to visit and also, for Anthroposophists who must have much more nuanced, insider interpretations of it, a building imbued with spiritual meaning.

The Goetheanum

The Goetheanum

A number of modern architects, such as Swiss architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (better known as Le Corbusier), drew their influence from Steiner’s designs, without specifically calling upon Anthroposophical ideals. Other famous structures, such as the ING Bank headquarters in Amsterdam, built by Albert and van Huuts, have been erected to reflect Steiner principles (Cusack 2012, 188). One might also consider in this context the system of agriculture, known today as Biodynamic Agriculture or Biodynamics, which is discussed in Alex Norman’s chapter in the Handbook. Biodynamics has its starting point in Anthroposophical ideas (Steiner gave a series of eight lectures on the topic in 1924) but is now more concerned with the expression of terroir rather than spiritual development (Norman 2012, 213-234). G. I. Gurdjieff’s nine-pointed enneagram symbol is another example. The enneagram has, in recent years, been appropriated as a model for nine personality types, a model that has been widely promoted in business management and spiritual contexts, straying far from Gurdjieff’s use and teaching of the symbol. While cultural products might be inscribed with the intentions of their creators, it is social actors who make sense of the world and its cultural products (Cusack and Norman 2012, 4).

Another cultural product of a new religion is renowned theatre and film director Peter Brook’s 1979 film Meetings with Remarkable Men. The film is a cinematic adaptation of Armenian-Greek spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff’s (c.1866-1949) semi-autobiographical text of the same name. Brook’s film could be classed as a ‘Gurdjieffian film’ and a religious cultural product as it was created by a Gurdjieffian (Brook now heads the Gurdjieff Paris group), is based on one of Gurdjieff’s own books, and pays tribute to Gurdjieff. Unlike Steiner’s Goetheanum I and II, which were not really intended to cater for outsiders, Brook’s film about Gurdjieff was deliberately made for non-Gurdjieffian, as well as Gurdjieffian, audiences. It is interesting that spiritual meaning must be deeply embedded in the film, while Brook also intended it to fulfil the role of portraying the story of Gurdjieff’s life to ‘outsiders’, in an effective and entertaining way.

The study of new religions, a burgeoning area within the greater field of Religious Studies, gives a unique perspective on different facets of religion. Not only can we observe, through such a study, how religions begin, change, develop, and in some cases expire, but through examining their cultural products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

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

 

Bibliography

  • Cusack, Carole and Alex Norman (eds). “Introduction,” Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Cusack, Carole. “‘And the Building Becomes Man’: Meaning and Aesthetics in Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Murrell, Nathaniel and Justin Snider. “Identity, Subversion, and Reconstruction ‘Riddims’: Reggae as Cultural Expressions of Rastafarian Theology” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Norman, Alex. “Cosmic Flavour, Spiritual Nutrition?: The Biodynamic Agricultural Method and the Legacy of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy in Viticulture” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Petsche, Johanna. “G. I. Gurdjieff’s Piano Music and its Application in and Outside the ‘Work’” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.

Identity or Identification?

Identity or Identification? In this second podcast for Identities? Week, the Culture on the Edge group address the issue of religious identity.

groupedge

“There is no such thing as identity, only operational acts of identification.” – Jean-Francois Bayart

Is our identity – cultural, religious or other – something which causes us to act, or something which we choose to mobilise in certain circumstances? And what part do scholars have in reifying these discourses? Why are certain groups “militant” and not others? And what does this have to do with Hinduism? (Don’t ask me, though – I’m a straight white British male and therefore have no cultural identity…)

The group’s blog can be read here – although we’ll also be featuring their posts on the RSP facebook page. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Culture on the Edge is an international scholarly working group, centered at the University of Alabama and begun in the Spring of 2012, whose aim is to use social theory to offer more nuanced understandings of how those things that we commonly call identities are produced, managed, and continually reproduced. Culture on the Edge therefore tackles, at a variety of social sites, the contradiction between, on the one hand, the historicity of identity (which is now generally seen by scholars to be always fluid over place and time), and, on the other, the nagging presumption of a static and ahistorical origin against which cultural change is thought to be measured.

mccutcheonedge

Russell McCutcheon has a dog named Izzy.

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K. Merinda Simmons is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at The University of Alabama. Her manuscript, Mary Prince and Her Sisters: Gender, Race, Migration, and the Problem of Authenticity, has recently been contracted by Ohio State University Press and her other books include Studying Religion: A Reader (Acumen, forthcoming) and the co-edited Race and Displacement (The University of Alabama Press, 2013). She is also the co-editor (along with Houston Baker) for the newly contracted collection, The Trouble with Post-Blackness(Columbia University Press), examining the assumptions that make possible the ideal of “post-blackness” that many media moguls, politicians, and public intellectuals have now adopted.

miller3

Monica R. Miller is Assistant Professor of Religion and Africana Studies at Lehigh University and among other publications, author of Religion and Hip Hop (Routledge, 2012). Miller is Principal Investigator of a large scale survey project entitled “Remaking Religion” which examines changing patterns of religion and irreligion in youth culture in Portland, Oregon. Monica also is editing Claiming Identity in the Study of Religion, the first book in the Culture on the Edge book series. Follow Monica on Twitter.

craigedge

A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox, 2012), and Religious Experience: A Reader, co-edited with Russell T. McCutcheon (Equinox, 2012).

rameyedgeSteven Ramey is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Director of Asian Studies at the University of Alabama. His book Hindu Sufi or Sikh (Palgrave, 2008) focuses on communities who identify as Sindhi Hindus and the ways they contest dominant understandings of identities, both in India and beyond. His newest project addresses the assumptions in the language of religious labels and the ways those assumptions determine research and valorize particular constructions of religions. He is Series Editor of Culture on the Edge: Studies in Identity Formation, a book series with Equinox Publishers.

smithedgeLeslie Dorrough Smith is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Avila University (Kansas City, MO). She has just finished a book manuscript, contracted by Oxford University Press, that explores the uses for rhetorics of chaos within such groups as Concerned Women for America, one of the nation’s most powerful and vocal conservative Christian groups. Among her articles are: “Divine Order, Divine Myth: Uncovering the Mythical Construction of Gender Ideals in Protestant Fundamentalist Circles” (ARCThe Journal of the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, 2002) and “What’s in a Name?: Scholarship and the Pathology of Conservative Protestantism” (Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 2008), and a chapter in After the Passion is Gone: American Religious Consequences (AltaMira Press, 2004) entitled “Living In the World, But Not of the World: Understanding Evangelical Support for ‘The Passion of the Christ’.”

vaia2Vaia Touna earned her BA and MA at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, in the study of Hellenistic religions, and ancient Greek literature, and is currently writing her doctoral dissertation at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Her research focuses on the sociology of identity formation with examples drawn from ancient, to modern Greece. Vaia is the Editorial Assistant for the journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion (published by Brill of the Netherlands). Among her publications are: “The Manageable Self in the Early Hellenistic Era” published in The Bulletin for the Study of Religion (2010) and “Redescribing Iconoclasm: Holey Frescoes and Identity Formation,” a chapter in Failure and Nerve in the Academic Study of Religion (Acumen, 2012). Vaia is also the editor for The Problem of Nostalgia in the Study of Identification in the Culture on the Edge Book Series.

Cross-Cultural Identities Roundtable

It’s Identities? Week here at the Religious Studies Project, with not one but two specially-recorded roundtable discussions about how identity is negotiated (if indeed it is) through our religious, ethnic, sexual and socio-cultural identities.

interview - photoThis first podcast, recorded at the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective conference in Milton Keynes in May, organised with Paul-Francois Tremlett (convenor of the OU’s Cross-Cultural Identities research theme) focuses on identity and dislocation, either through diaspora or through rapid social change. Jasjit Singh’s research focuses on how young British Sikh’s negotiate their religious identity; Isabel Cabana Rojas discusses the emigration of Peruvian Catholics to Japan in the 19th century and the subsequent return of some of them to Peru; Marta Turkot discusses the rapidly changing religious situation in Poland today, one of the bastions of Catholicism in Europe. The discussion takes these as a starting-points, however, to address broader issues of identity formation.

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

You can read Paul-Francois Tremlett’s report of the two Cross-Cultural Identities panels at the conference here.

Paul Tremlett photoPaul-François Tremlett is Lecturer in Religious Studies at the Open University. His PhD research focused on local religion and national identity in the Philippines at  the extinct volcano Mount Banahaw. His present research is more theoretically oriented, including spatialities and geographies and place-making practices; modernity(ies) and secularism(s); Marxism and classical and contemporary social theory.

Jasjit Singh -photoDr Jasjit Singh has recently completed a PhD which examined the religious lives of 18-30 year old British Sikhs focusing on the different ways in which young Sikhs now learn about Sikhism. He has spoken about his research on BBC Radio 4 and has published a number of academic articles and book chapters. He is currently employed as a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Leeds and is looking to examine the role of devotional music in identity formation and religious transmission. Further details about his work can be found at: www.leeds.ac.uk/sikhs

Material Religion

The study of religion and materiality is an important and fast-growing sub-discipline in the contemporary Religious Studies scene. According to the editors of the premier journal in this area, the aptly named ‘Material Religion‘, scholars in this area

explore how religion happens in material culture – images, devotional and liturgical objects, architecture and sacred space, works of arts and mass-produced artifacts. No less important than these material forms are the many different practices that put them to work. Ritual, communication, ceremony, instruction, meditation, propaganda, pilgrimage, display, magic, liturgy and interpretation constitute many of the practices whereby religious material culture constructs the worlds of belief.

In this interview with Chris, Professor David Morgan takes the listener on an exciting tour of what this field has to offer, providing his own definition of material religion, and discussing empirical case studies and theoretical insights relating to religion in popular consumer culture, the sacred gaze, space and place, the internet, and more.

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

David Morgan is Professor of Religion with a secondary appointment in the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1990. He has published several books and dozens of essays on the history of religious visual culture, on art history and critical theory, and on religion and media. His most recent book is The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (California, 2012). Recent works include: The Lure of Images: A History of Religion and Visual Media in America (Routledge, 2007) and two volumes that Morgan edited and contributed to: Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief (Routledge, 2010) and Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture (Routledge, 2008). Earlier works include Visual Piety (University of California Press, 1998), Protestants and Pictures (Oxford, 1999), and The Sacred Gaze (California, 2005). Morgan is co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion, and co-editor of a book series at Routledge entitled “Religion, Media, and Culture.”

This interview was recorded at the Religion and Society Programme‘s ‘Sacred Practices of Everyday Life’ Conference in Edinburgh in May 2012, and we are very grateful to all involved for facilitating this discussion. It also forms part of a short series of podcasts on Material/Embodied religion, continuing next week with Marta Tzrebiatowska on “Why are Women more Religious than Men?”.

Podcasts

Evangelical Yoga: Cultural Appropriation and Translation in American Religions

super-funny-pet-picture-the-yo-5926Dr. Brown began her career as a historian of evangelicalism, and soon branched out into the study of religious healing and “new religions” in the U.S. In this interview, we discuss her interest in yoga as a new American phenomenon and the way that some evangelical Christians practice it. Brown provides a historic overview of bodily–religious practices in America, starting with mesmerism, occultism, osteopathy, and chiropractic in the nineteenth century. These practices challenged the standard “heroic” model of medicine: Instead of the patient experiencing torturous medical treatments, a practitioner simply realigns the patient’s body or does a quick procedure. Such bodily practices blurred, in some cases, with Pentecostal and Holiness Christians’ use of prayer as a medical treatment. (Today, many chiropractors retain an interest in bodily energy and proper alignment, though they may not articulate this view to their patients.)

As the nineteenth century progressed, many Americans consumed translations of Hindu and Buddhist literature. Asian concepts of bodily practice and energy fields (qi, meridians, chakras) entered the lexicon of new American religions. Theosophy, in particular, borrowed from Hindu and Buddhist concepts. The introduction of Eastern metaphysics to America created a small market for the introduction of yoga. This market grew in the 20th century as Vivekananda and Yogananda brought forms of yoga (and, in Yogananda’s case, a hybrid of Hinduism & Christianity) to the U.S. Today, evangelical Christians are adopting yoga, finding parallels between chakras and the Holy Spirit, or — in an act of cultural appropriation — creating a new kind of yoga shorn of Hindu references. The American Hindu community has criticized such cultural appropriation. Some Hindus have also suggested that a Christian doing yoga poses, or asana, may slowly convert to Hinduism, making evangelical yoga a stealth victory for Vedic culture.

The interview concludes with a discussion of Dr. Brown’s field research methods, along with her and Mr. Gorman’s thoughts about secularization in America and the inadequacies of secularism as a research concept.

Editor’s Note: On 29 June 2017 we published a response to this interview, written by Philip Deslippe, which provides an important and well-argued counter-narrative to this interview. As with every podcast we publish, we encourage listeners/readers to digest the podcast in tandem with the response(s) , to explore further if interested, and to get in touch in the comments, via email, or on social media to continue the discussion. 

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, Nag Champa incense, and more.

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

Evangelical Yoga: Cultural Appropriation and Translation in American Religions

Podcast with Candy Gunther-Brown (19 June 2017).

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Gunther-Brown – Evangelical Yoga 1.1

Daniel Gorman (DG) : Dr Candy Gunther-Brown, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Candy Brown (CB): Thank you.

DG: So, I’m calling you from up-state New York – you’re in Indiana, and I’m told the weather is equally miserable in both places.

CB: That seems to be about right.

DG: OK. So, today we’re going to be talking about your research into new religious movements, particularly: how people who are not Hindu wind up practising yoga.

CB: Sure.

DG: So to begin, why don’t you tell our listeners how you got interested in new religious movements or, in this case , old religious practices being done in a new way?

CB: Sure. Well, my research trajectory really started with looking at Evangelicals in the 19th century and at print culture. And then, as I wanted to move forward in time to look at later 19th century, into the 20th century and into the 21st century, I realised that it was really a much bigger story than just what was going on in the United States with the Evangelicals. And so I needed to start looking at global moments and much more interconnection. And I also realised that a big part of the story was Pentecostal charismatic Christianity. So that took my research, then, into the directions of looking at, particularly, Pentecostal practices of prayer for healing and deliverance from evil spirits. And so I did a lot of interview work in the field, worked with various Pentecostals and asked them about their healing experiences. And so this led to me to start asking questions that were, in a sense, more of an empirical nature of what happens when people pray for healing. So then I was looking at some science and religion kinds of questions. But I also got some very interesting responses from my Pentecostal respondents. Because, when I started asking them about prayer for healing, they also started to volunteer that they loved their chiropractors.

DG: Really?

CB: And this was a somewhat surprising response to me, given what I knew about Chiropractics: that it’s roots were in mesmerism and spiritualism, and the founders and developers of the tradition saw themselves as doing something very different from Christianity. And the Christian informants that I was talking to, not only did they love their chiropractors but they also insisted that they were Christian. They didn’t bother telling me that their medical doctors were Christian, but they really wanted me to know that their chiropractors were. Again this was very interesting because if you look at survey research that’s been done on chiropractors you see that around 80% or so will say that they’re Christians, and around 80% or so share vitalistic, metaphysical beliefs, very much in line with the founders of chiropractics. So you’ve got a really interesting kind-of blending of worldviews and frameworks and interpretations of the world. And I realised that this was really just the tip of the iceberg. And so, from looking at chiropractic I began to look at other kinds of complementary and alternative medicine, including various kinds of meditation – transcendental meditation, mindfulness meditation, but also Reiki, therapeutic touch, acupuncture, homeothapy, aromatherapy – and realised that some of the most engaged practitioners were actually Evangelical Christians. And particularly the ones who were interested in charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity, who had a kind of worldview where there’s some kind of spiritual force that’s interacting with the world. So a lot of the reasoning process that these Evangelicals used was: if there’s a spirit and it’s having beneficial effects on health, then there must be a kind of an analogy between the Holy Spirit and the spiritual properties that are at work in these other practices. And thus, I landed on yoga and mindfulness practised by Evangelicals, as well as by a lot of other Americans who engage in these practices, for various reasons – related to spirituality as much as health and wellness.

DG: That’s a lot! Let me . . . . I’ll take one thread and we’ll work through this. Some listeners, especially outside the United States, may not be familiar with some of the traditions you mentioned, some of the 19th century occult things: mesmerism, and chiropractic. Could you talk a little bit more about how these alternative viewpoints to Christianity . . . where they came from?

CB: Sure. Well around the middle of the 19th century there was a lot of dissatisfaction among certain Americans who were dealing with both a medical orthodoxy and a religious orthodoxy. (5:00) And the medical orthodoxy was heroic medicine – and by today’s standard, [it was] not very effective and very aggressive. So, things like vomiting with mercury derivatives and bleeding people. And it was the patient who was the hero as they were subjected to all kinds of very strenuous treatments by doctors.

DG: Torture.

CB: Yes. I mean, for many patients that was their perspective. But then a lot of the Calvinist theologians, who were in the dominant mainstream, basically gave the advice that patients should submit to their doctors as a way of resigning to God’s will for sickness. And the reason was that spiritual sanctification required a kind of physical kind of submission and sickness. And so this dominant theology, that sanctification is produced through suffering in the body, aligned well with heroic medicine. But there was also a lot of resistance. And so this is where you start getting the emergence of nature-cure kinds of medical alternatives. But then you also start to get the development of divine healing movements where the interest is in a focus on prayer for healing. So, whether it is a nature-cure looking to water and spiritual forces and kind-of the alignment of the planets, or whether it’s a prayer to God the Father through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, there is a widespread search for something else – some alternative to the mainstream offerings.

DG: That’s very interesting because I recently read, for my graduate school lists, Catherine Albanese’s A Republic of Mind and Spirit. And she talks, in that book, about how osteopathy emerged as sort-of this quasi-religious movement: the idea that you can align the energy forces in your body by manipulating bones.

CB: Yes. And actually the founder of chiropractic, D.D. Palmer, was accused by Still, the founder of osteopathy, of basically stealing his ideas. The ideas are so close. And they both emerge out of a vitalistic metaphysical framework. And what’s interesting is that osteopathy was much more embraced by the medical mainstream. So that, today, there’s really a kind of a sense of equivalence, almost, between an osteopathic medical degree and an MD. Whereas chiropractic is still much more on the fringes, even though it’s become a lot more mainstream. And it’s not necessarily that osteopathy has actually renounced the metaphysical framework, but they’ve been a lot more intentional and effective in terms of gaining mainstream medical legitimacy.

DG: Well, that’s one thing I’ve wondered about – I mean, as just someone looking at medical treatments – you know, chiropractors don’t receive the same training in anatomy and physiology that a doctor or a modern osteopath receives. . .

CB: That’s true. And it’s not just a matter of difference in training, but it’s really a difference in philosophy. An idea that Palmer articulated . . . . So Palmer, the founder of chiropractic, basically said that all disease is a matter of a failure of alignment with innate intelligence – that’s universal intelligence, so “innate” was short for this. And so you may ask the question, what are chiropractors adjusting? And it’s actually, they’re adjusting the spine for the sake of having a free flow of innate. It’s not just a physical kind of adjustment. So that was the rationale for how chiropractic could affect all kinds of other conditions, whether it’s having earaches, or infections, or whether it’s turning a breach baby – I mean there’s all kinds of different claims that, even today, are made for chiropractic. And they stem from the idea that, really, the key to health is the innate intelligence. And so it’s that philosophy that’s really at the core, and why there’s still so much tension with modern medicine.

DG: I do want to move onto the yoga connection. But there’s one question I’ll pose to you as somebody who researches these kinds of movements: so to some, let’s say an atheist medical practitioner, what you’re describing is pseudo-science. But that doesn’t seem that way to people who practise it and believe that it helps them. How do you navigate that balance between judging and understanding?

CB: Well, I think this is where it’s important to really look at a multiplicity of perspectives and to try and explain: well, who are the developers of various practices? But not only what are the roots of these practices, what are today’s philosophies? And this is why for chiropractic, for instance, it’s important that there’s survey research that’s been done by chiropractors, that basically confirm that the beliefs that are held by many chiropractors today are actually very much in alignment with those that were articulated by the Palmers. (10:00) Now that doesn’t mean that the chiropractors always communicate that with their patients. In fact, that often is not the case. And so, one of the things that it’s important for scholars to do is to actually look at the variety of narratives that are articulated by practitioners as well as patients, depending on who their audiences are. And this is something that we’ll see with yoga, as well – that explanation of what practices do, why they’re practices, what they mean – you may not always get the same explanation if you’re looking at different audiences, and different purposes for giving that account of what the practice is.

DG: So now, this is where I think chiropractic and yoga tie together. This concept of energy in the body – well, to someone who knows anything about Hinduism, this sounds a lot like the idea of chakras and energy flows in the body. So, in the 19th century, when people like Palmer and others were starting their work, what understanding in America was there of Indian religions?

CB: Sure. Well, there was a combination of Western metaphysical traditions – something like homeothapy or aromatherapy would be rooted in that kind of tradition – and there was often quite a bit of exchange, though, with Asian religious traditions as well. So a lot of the people who were developing these Western metaphysical ideas, they actually were reading texts that they got from India and other parts of Asia. They were interacting with ideas of say Prana or qi, or chakras and meridians, as you mentioned. And so there’s often a real, kind of, exchange and consonance in these ideas. And a lot of the practitioners of chiropractic or yoga will say, yes, there’s a lot that there actually is in common between the Western and Eastern traditions.

DG: Yes. I was thinking of the Theosophist, people like Madam Blavatsky, who think you can control the spirits with your mind – and then she goes and lives in India for a decade!

CB: Well exactly! And then she actually formally converted to Buddhism, and she drew extensively on Hinduism and a variety of Western traditions and Freemasonry. So, that kind of eclectic interest in various forms of spiritually – sometimes framed as science themselves . . . . A lot of the pioneers in the kinds of movements that are popular today were very interested in exploring a variety of practices and traditions.

DG: So, as far as yoga goes, when did that begin to be introduced to the American market? I’m thinking, for instance, in the 1920s there were the immigration restrictions, so how was this material – about philosophy and exercise – how as that making the crossing to America?

CB: Sure, well even as early as the 19th century you’ve got the transcendental folks, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who are reading as many translated Hindu and Buddhist texts as they’re able to. And you got Thoreau who’s doing his best to practice yoga. So even in the 19th century you can see some of the beginnings of practices coming into America. The World Parliament of Religion, in 1893, was a really important event. Because there you’ve got Vivekananda – actually, several of those Hindu and Buddhist spokespersons – who are starting to frame practices in a language of science, to basically argue that Hinduism and Buddhism (as they’re starting to be named and understood by Westerners) are, actually, more compatible with modern science than Christianity is. And so you start to have a stream of popularisers and, even with immigration restrictions, you’ve got enough who are either coming into the United States themselves or whose books and publications are crossing over, that the influence, again, begins to be disseminated. Yogananda is another one of these hugely influential figures who sets up a base in California and continues to be popular even into the present day with his Self-Realisation Fellowship. And so now his followers are continuing to disseminate the traditions. And so there’ve been a variety of health and beauty promotions, exercise promotions, the use of television – so really an increase over the course of the 20th century, but accelerating with: the lifting of immigration restrictions in the 1960s; the interest of the Beat generation; the counter-culture. But then, even more recently in the 1990s and beyond, you start to see this increasing mainstream status – even to the point of putting yoga and mindfulness practices into public schools. And that really is just within the last couple of decades.

DG: (15:00) Well it was interesting when you mentioned Yogananda in the 1930s, because he was somebody who preached that Jesus was another incarnation of the other Hindu deities, an avatar.

CB: And that’s been a very common strategy. A very common strategy by a lot of the promoters of Yoga is to argue for consonance, for complementarity. And that’s actually been one of the things that’s been motivating for Evangelical Christians even, who feel that there’s something missing in their own tradition. And so they’re trying to fill in and supplement by borrowing from other kinds of traditions.

DG: So Evangelical Christians in the present day: how are they accessing yoga? What kinds of facilities, for instance?

CB: Well, a lot of times there’s the YMCA, there’s health clubs, sometimes more traditional yoga studios. So some Christians will find their way either into the health club version or into the studio version. But then also there’s a proliferation of explicitly Christian versions of yoga or alternatives to yoga. And so you start to get movements like: Christo-yoga, holy yoga, fully fit, Yahweh yoga, praise moves. . . . And some of them keep yoga somewhere in the title, some of them try to remove yoga from the title. And there’s a kind of Evangelical sense that religion, really, is fundamentally reducible to language. It’s about what you believe and what you say that you believe. And so if you change the language, and you say you’re no longer doing “sun salutations” – salutes to the sun – but you say you’re doing “son salutations” – s-o-n, instead of s-u-n – you’ve now repurposed the practice and dedicated it to Jesus. You’re no longer doing pranayana but you’re breathing in the Holy Spirit. So by re-labelling either individual poses or larger practices, many Evangelicals are convinced that they’ve basically emptied the contents . . . . They’ve removed the Hindu contents from the container of neutral yoga practices, and they’ve poured in Bible verses and prayers. Now with a different framework of religion where it’s about practices, not necessarily just beliefs, then that may seem a rather strange or unworkable kind of approach. So some Hindu critics of the Christianisation of yoga will basically say, the prayers are actually the bodily practices. Doing the sun salutation with your body is a form of devotion to Surya the sun god. And so there are actually some warnings by Hindu spokespersons, saying that ultimately Evangelicals are going to find their faith corrupted, by their own standards, and they’re going to be led into the true way of enlightenment. And it may not be so easy just to re-label practices and make them Evangelical.

DG: Do you think – building on this theme of Hindu response – are there Hindu groups that are offended that anyone’s just using this tradition, without any sense of where it comes from?

CB: Oh there are definitely critiques of cultural appropriation. And the Hindu American Foundation launched a Take back Yoga campaign in 2008. And some of their spokespersons have been critical of Christian appropriation. But you find this, similarly, with Buddhists who complain about appropriation of mindfulness practices and claim that they’ve been secularised or, in some cases, they claim that they’ve been Christianised. So that’s definitely a critique that’s present.

DG: Now, I’m curious in the way you go about researching these things. Do you travel to Christian yoga studios? And when you go there, what do you do? Are you a participant or are you just observing?

CB: I’ve done observing. I’ve relied a lot on just the proliferation of online sources and video presentations, and [I’ve] also been present in meditation settings. And I’ve observed – I don’t participate. I think that there are ethical issues that come into play with that, so my stance is that of an observer. I do a lot of interview work with participants and with teachers. And I also do empirical work and look at the studies that have been done. And this is an interesting aspect, is to ask, “Well, what happens when people participate in either secularised or Christianised versions of something like yoga or mindfulness meditation?” And what’s interesting is that there is sociological work that suggests that there are, actually, some profound changes in spiritual and religious experiences that result – even, sometimes, from very short term involvement. But that, basically, the longer people tend to be involved in these practices, the more likely what started off as just an exercise class has turned into a spiritual pursuit. And the content of religious practices does tend to shift towards practices that would be more aligned with, say, Hinduism than with Christianity. And this is, actually, very much parallel to the kinds of claims that are made by yoga teachers and mindfulness teachers, who are very confident that the practices themselves are transformative.(20:00) And so, here, you get both proponents of yoga and mindfulness, and some of the Christian critics, who are essentially arguing that there is something inherent about theses practices themselves that transform people, regardless of what their intentions are going into the practices. Intentions, it seems, can actually change through the experiences of practices. And that claim does, to some degree, seem to be borne out by the sociological research that’s been done.

DG: Do you see any regional differences, in the United States, about the Christian reception of yoga?

CB: Well, it seems that – predictably in some ways – the coasts have a lot more yoga and a lot more Christian yoga. And also, some of the controversies over this . . . . You see more Christian yoga on the coast, you also see just more yoga programmes. But it’s not coincidental that where the most high profile law suit over yoga in public schools took place – it was in Encinita, San Diego County, California. And it was actually right next door to Yogananda’s Self-Realisation Fellowship.

DG: That’s interesting.

CB: This is also the birthplace of Ashtanga yoga in the United States, which was brought over by Pattabhi Jois, and that was the particular form of yoga that was being practised in the public schools where there was a lawsuit. So, a place like Encinita is interesting because something like 45% of the population practices yoga, compared with – as of 2012, which was when that 45% came out – it was about 9%, nationally. Now it’s about 15%, nationally. About 40% of the population is Christian, but that compares to about 70% of the total US population that’s Christian. So you have fewer Christian and more religious diversity in a place like Ansonita. But you still have a lot of Christians who are practising – and it was a minority of those Christians who protested against yoga. The large majority seemed to actually be pretty interested in practising it themselves.

DG: We’re closing in on the end our session, but I want to try to connect this practice of yoga to some of the other things you’ve mentioned, particularly transcendental meditation. It’s billed as TM now, it’s sort-of this exercise, but there’s no real sense of where that comes from. Do you think Christians are also participating in TM movements?

CB: I think that they are in one of the main places where TM has really got in its foothold: in what’s now called “quiet-time programmes” in public schools. So transcendental meditation more comes out of Hindu meditation traditions. And this is, actually, one of the places where . . . . Really, one of the only law suits where there was a judicial decision defining religion was a case of Malnak v. Yogi, in 1979, which found that transcendental meditation was a religion. And one of the lines in the concurring opinion by Arlin Adams, he said, “Well, if a Catholic can’t practice in schools, then neither should a transcendental meditator be allowed to do so.” Even so, TM programmes and quiet-time programmes have proliferated in public schools even until the present day, alongside mindfulness programmes. So I think that, a lot of the time, Christians and others – atheists as well – really don’t know where practices are coming from, and they don’t know how connected to the originating traditions those practices remain. So it’s not just a matter of, “ a long time ago there were ancient religious roots”. But, if you look at how practices are being framed when not being marketed to the public, you actually find that there are still a lot of the same claims that this is, for instance, a “Vedic victory” when yoga gets into public schools, or this is “stealth Buddhism”, when mindfulness gets into the schools. So those are the kinds of claims that are made when talking to Hindu or Buddhist sympathiser audiences. But a lot of the people who are interested in doing practices for health or wellness, they really don’t know where these practices come from and they really haven’t thought that much about how intentions may change through their participation in these practices.

DG: If anything, the future of religion in this country is going to be very interesting, because we’re going to see . . . .

CB: (Laughs) I think so too!

DG: Well I’m thinking, if the country is growing more secular, the question is: if these practices endure, then do we need to rethink the idea of secularisation?

CB: Well, I think we absolutely do. And this is where my working title for the book I’m working on now, on yoga and mindfulness in public schools, is “Secular and Religious”. And I think that practices actually can be both at the same time. (25:00) And that by presenting practices as secular that this can actually be a more effective way of advancing new forms of religion and spirituality.

DG: Thank you for your time, Dr Gunther-Brown.

CB: Thank you very much.

Citation Info: Gunther-Brown, Candy 2017. “Evangelical Yoga: Cultural Appropriation and Translation in American Religions”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/evangelical-yoga-cultural-appropriation-and-translation-in-american-religions/

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DEATH, Religion, and Terror Management Theory

DeathfullOne year before his own death in 1790, Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to the French scientist Jean-Baptiste, codified a witty remark into popular history about two things anyone living can always count on: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” You might be able to dodge the taxman, but not death—we are all going to die. Roughly 100,000 years prior to Franklin’s quote the first evidence of intentional human burial appears in the archaeological record (Mithen, 2009). Humans have been thinking about death for a very long time and the threat of nonexistence can be a terrifying reality to face. According to terror management theory (TMT), cultural worldviews, which can manifest religious, political, or a bricolage of other meanings, serve to assuage this fear of our ever impending demise (Jong & Halberstadt, forthcoming). Interestingly, this TMT triage care for the existential self occurs outside of conscious awareness. However, in this podcast interview with Thomas Coleman for the Religious Studies Project, death researcher and psychologist Dr. Jonathan Jong, draws on experimental research as he teases the fear of death and the religious worldviews that may help confront this fear, into your conscious awareness.

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, dihydrogen monoxide, plastic Tyrannosaurus rex replicas, and more.

References

Jong, J., & Halberstadt, J. (forthcoming). Death, anxiety, and religious belief. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic.

Mithen, S. (2009). Peopling the World. In B. Cunliffe, C. Gosden & R. Joyce, The Oxford Handbook of Archaeology (pp. 281-304). New York: Oxford University Press.

Rethinking the Cognitive Science of Religion in Light of Explanatory Pluralism

In his recent RSP interview, Dr. Robert McCauley provides a brilliant overview of some of the founding philosophical principles that have been a foundation for the study of religion. Dr. McCauley has been known as one of the key founders of the “Cognitive Science of Religion” (CSR) since he co-authored the book “Rethinking Religion” (Lawson & McCauley, 1990); ever since then he has guided the field with a keen understanding of the empirical, philosophical, and socio-cultural literature from which CSR draws.

In the interview, he touches on an aspect of the scientific study of religion that I would like to highlight: explanatory pluralism. I want to use this opportunity to offer a critical review of CSR in light of explanatory pluralism. It is my belief that the failure of CSR to adequately address its inherently interdisciplinary nature has been a detriment to the field and that by addressing these issues it will help the field to grow as well as to help non-CSR specialists understand more of the subtlety of this scientific approach to our subject. I, by no means, think I can settle the issues in the space here, but I would like to use Dr. McCauley’s interview as a springboard from which a discussion can be launched.

Explanatory pluralism

The primary aspect of the interview that I’d like to address is McCauley’s concept of “explanatory pluralism,” which holds that a phenomenon can be explained at different levels of inquiry. The explanatory pluralist maintains that there is no such thing as a final, full, or complete explanation and that each analytical level in science has tools and insights that can be brought to bear on any phenomenon of interest, including religion.

He notes that there are “families” of sciences, and these should probably not be taken as strong demarcations between fields. He also notes that this presumes a hierarchy whereby all events at one level are events of the level beneath it. For example, all events that are chemical events are physical events, but not all physical events are chemical events. McCauley did not explicitly state the “chemical sciences” as a family, but I have added it here since it is hard to imagine a biological event that isn’t chemical but we can imagine chemical events that aren’t biological (e.g. fire or Diet Coke and Mentos).

Figure 1 Pyramid of Science

Figure 1 Pyramid of Science

Critique

Here, my critique is that this sort of explanatory pluralism is really only useful as a framework for constructing an interdisciplinary research project, aimed at understanding some phenomenon like religion, if there is theoretical continuity between the sciences being employed to explain a phenomenon.

Skipping levels in reductive sciences

First, it is hard to imagine a scenario where one should “skip” a level of his pyramid. Explaining socio-cultural phenomena exclusively at the level of biology misses the fact that any biological effects on culture or religion would be mediated by psychology. The endless debate of Nature vs. Nurture settled that one cannot reduce religion to our genes alone. However, our psychological capacities seem to have evolved, and these capacities do give rise to religion. So it is not to say that biology isn’t important (to the contrary); it is just that solely-biological explanations of religion are hollow when neglecting how it is that socio-cultural phenomena (like religion) are affected by psychology.

Theoretical continuity

Second, the theories being employed must have compatible axiomatic assumptions. If assumptions of one theory, which is used to explain some target phenomenon, violate the assumptions of another theory used to explain the same phenomenon at a different level there is an incongruity.

Think of it this way, if we are adding two numbers, X and Y, to get Z as an answer and there are equal assumptions about X and Y then the answers are clear; example: 6 + 6 = 12. However, if the theory from which we assess X and Y is not equal to the theory from which we assess z (i.e. the theory has asymmetrical assumptions), then the equation is not so simple and it is possible that 6 + 6 ≠ 12. To use a mathematical example, 6 plus 6 equals 12 (6 + 6 = 12) in our number system, which is based on the assumption of having a base of 10. However, in a senary number theory (base-6), the answer to our equation is 20 in base-10.[1] Without going deeper into number theory, suffice to say that this equation is not valid as we are adding variables from one theory in search of an answer in another theory. This creates an issue when we see a target phenomenon “Z” and hope to explain it in terms of lower level properties, when our theories don’t align.

Complexity and reductionism in religion: Down the rabbit hole

This complication is spelled out quite clearly in mathematics, but may be more complex when looking at socio-cognitive systems like religious systems (or political systems, or economic systems). One of the reasons that this is complex is because the interactions at one level may not be directly reducible to the parts that it is built upon at a lower level; colloquially, it is greater than the sum of its parts.

Here I would like to address a crucial issue in the study of religion, that of emergence. If something is “emergent” it is said to be greater than the sum of its parts. Emergence comes in two forms, strong and weak. Strong emergence is the stance that a phenomenon—observed at one level—cannot be reduced, even in principle, to the laws specified at a lower level. Weak emergence is the stance that a phenomenon is the result of interactions at a lower level, but the target phenomenon is not expected given the interactions at this lower level.

Many people hold that religion is an emergent phenomenon that cannot be reduced. These discussions are complex and a review of this literature is far beyond the scope of this response. However, let us just imagine how an interdisciplinary approach to religion, as an emergent phenomenon, could arise from lower level properties. Now, this assumes that religion is weakly emergent. First, because strong emergence is incompatible with scientific reductionism and is better fit for interpretive paradigms that seek to explain the social at the level of the social (ala Durkheim); I’ll address the idea that religion may be a causal force in just a moment. However, if we move beyond that—even if only for the sake of argument—religion must arise from some lower level properties.

So, to exemplify this, I’m going to use a very elementary analogy. Let’s return back to the “Pyramid of Science” above. If something at the cultural level is emergent in the strong sense, it means that there is no connection to the laws at the lower (i.e. psychological level). It is an unconnected cloud floating above the minds of people.

Figure 2 Cultural Cloud as Strongly Emergent

Figure 2 Cultural Cloud as Strongly Emergent

This approach is in many ways black and white. Culture is not directly connected to the rules that are followed by its constituent parts. Most individuals in the scientific study of religion (SSR) reject this claim because if one imagines a world without people we simply would not have culture. Therefore, there is posited to be some connection between “Culture” and the minds of individuals that hold, sustain, and generate that culture. This position is more in line with the weak emergent perspective. This holds that culture is not directly reducible to the lower-level laws of human psychology, but there is some connection. The current scientific explanation for culture and religion is that it is “generated” by the collective minds of all the individuals in a group. This allows for culture to have the shades of grey that result from all the colorful cognitive machinery with which humans are endowed.

Figure 3 Culture Cloud as Weakly Emergent

Figure 3 Culture Cloud as Weakly Emergent

Now, one might ask: “Wait, this is too simple, why is it that different cultural groups behave differently?” Within complexity theory, emergent phenomenon can exert causal forces. Some even believe that no higher-level entity can change without exerting some force on its lower level parts (for a deeper discussion on emergentism see Kim, 1999); that is to say, within a complex systems perspective, culture can shape people, and people generate religion and culture.

What this has to do with religion: Taking the red pill[2]

Now, at this point in the rabbit hole, you may be wondering if I’ve gone off the rails. Well, yes, but only to exemplify an important point concerning how modern cognitive science has surpassed CSR and what religious studies could serve to learn from it.

Above, I outline a constant, complex, feedback systejimim whereby culture emerges from the complex interactions between humans’ mental facilities, and in turn, creates an environment within which these individuals live. This environmental input, indifferentiable from the plants, animals, and water, is an important aspect of the environment and therefore can appear to cause individuals to do things just as the presence of a snake would cause a person to jump. This feedback system is—in principle—not unlike the physical systems that cause guitars to screech when too close to an amp. One (culture) arises from the minds of interacting people, which are, in turn, affected by that culture. Furthermore, we can visualize them with our “culture cloud” like so:

Figure 4 Cultural "Causation" as an emergent feedback loop

Figure 4 Cultural “Causation” as an emergent feedback loop

Now, in order to understand this complex system, we have to hold the way in which we measure everything steady between the psychological level and the socio-cultural level. We wouldn’t want to use the metric system for one thing and the imperial system for another. Although it may seem like things are stable at first glance, such incongruity will not result in a viable approach to theory building. Furthermore, we need to change the way we approach measuring religion. Saying something is complex is no longer a viable excuse to say we cannot study it empirically. Complex statistics from recursion analysis (Lang, Krátký, Shaver, Jerotijević, & Xygalatas, 2015) to network analysis (Lane, 2015) allow us to discern non-linear patterns in the study of religion. Also, computer models are allowing us to study these relationships as well (see Bainbridge, 2006; Braxton, 2008; McCorkle & Lane, 2012; Shults et al., Submitted; Upal, 2005; Whitehouse, Kahn, Hochberg, & Bryson, 2012; Wildman & Sosis, 2011).

Conclusion

Many of those in the scientific study of religion argue that “culture” or “religion” is a causal force. This has led some in the scientific study of religion to ignore the great scholarship of religious scholars who acknowledge that religion is an academic abstraction invented by western intellectuals (Smith, 2004)—at times even leading those scientists of religion to implicitly treat religion as a sui generis phenomenon. However, by abandoning our linear thinking (and statistics!) we could start to investigate religion as emergent and not simply the additive “sum” of the constituent minds of people. Rather, we can look at it for what it is, the result of iterations of interactions among individuals in complex socio-biological environments (i.e. contexts) that is instantiated in an ever-recursive system between the cognitive and socio-cultural levels of analysis. As I hope it is plain to see, I wholly support Dr. McCauley’s commitment to explanatory pluralism. I only argue that we be more mindful of the theoretical continuity which is necessary to produce valid models[3] of religion.

References

Bainbridge, W. S. (2006). God from the Machine: Artificial Intelligence Models of religious Cognition. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Braxton, D. M. (2008). Modeling the McCauley-Lawson Theory of Ritual Forms. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University.

Kim, J. (1999). Making Sense of Emergence. Philosophical Studies, 95(1-2), 3–36. Retrieved from http://www.zeww.uni-hannover.de/Kim_Making Sense Emergence.1999.pdf

Lane, J. E. (2015). Semantic Network Mapping of Religious Material. Journal for Cognitive Processing. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10339-015-0649-1

Lang, M., Krátký, J., Shaver, J. H., Jerotijević, D., & Xygalatas, D. (2015). Effects of Anxiety on Spontaneous Ritualized Behavior. Current Biology, 1–6. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.05.049

Lawson, E. T., & McCauley, R. N. (1990). Rethinking Religion: Connecting Cognition and Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press.

McCorkle, W. W., & Lane, J. E. (2012). Ancestors in the simulation machine: measuring the transmission and oscillation of religiosity in computer modeling. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 2(3), 215–218. http://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2012.703454

Shults, F. L., Lane, J. E., Lynch, C., Padilla, J., Mancha, R., Diallo, S., & Wildman, W. J. (n.d.). Modeling Terror Management Theory: A computer simulation of hte impact of mortality salience on religiosity. Religion, Brain & Behavior.

Smith, J. Z. (2004). Relating Religion: Essays in the Study of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Upal, M. A. (2005). Simulating the Emergence of New Religious Movements. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 8(1). Retrieved from http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/8/1/6.html

Whitehouse, H., Kahn, K., Hochberg, M. E., & Bryson, J. J. (2012). The role for simulations in theory construction for the social sciences: case studies concerning Divergent Modes of Religiosity. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 2(3), 182–201. http://doi.org/10.1080/2153599X.2012.691033

Wildman, W. J., & Sosis, R. (2011). Stability of Groups with Costly Beliefs and Practices. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 14(3).

 

[1] Interested readers can go check out online conversion tools that will convert numbers with different bases, such as that found here: http://www.unitconversion.org/unit_converter/numbers.html

[2] For those unfamiliar with the movie “The Matrix”, this is explained here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_pill_and_blue_pill

[3] I mean this in the conceptual and computational sense, including scholars of religion engaged in philosophical, historical, and empirical endeavors.

Method and Theory in the Cognitive Sciences of Religion

podcast with the Religious Studies Project in 2014, Dr. Robert McCauley gave an overview of some of these processes cognitive scientists appeal to in accounting for religion (e.g., agent detection, theory of mind), as well as a 2015 North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) conference (and thanks to their support), McCauley discusses methodological and theoretical issues within CSR. He begins by tackling the topic of “naturalism” vs. “supernaturalism” in explaining religion, moving on to how these explanations function at different levels of analysis and integration. In closing, McCauley discusses the relationship between the humanities and the sciences, some successful and not so successful CSR theories, and the interplay between explanations emphasizing cognition and culture.

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, video games, indulgences, and more.

2015 Conference on Religion and American Culture Report

The Biennial “Conference on Religion and American Culture” was held June 4 to June 7, 2015 in Indianapolis. The conference is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture and Religion & American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Jeffrey Wheatley, a PhD student at Northwestern University.

This was my second visit to RAAC, which follows the fishbowl format (one whose physical layout is similar to a UFC cage match, but the audience gets to participate). The format makes RAAC a great venue for assessing current and future trends in the study of religion and the United States. Unfortunately, I cannot relate all of the great perspectives, questions, and arguments in a single blog post. Instead I will focus on two topics that prompted some (not all!) of the liveliest discussion. Interested to know more? Feel free to examine the conference program. I recommend combing through the conversation that took place on Twitter by searching #RAAC2015. You also can look forward to reading the proceedings, which will eventually be published.

We Need Some Space

Two panels focused on how we spatially frame the study of Religion and American Culture: “American Religion and Global Flows” and “’Religion in the Americas’ as an Organizational Paradigm.” Both on some level critiqued the dominance of national boundaries in delineating what we study and how we study it. Scholars, especially those interested in power, have much to gain by looking at transnational networks.

A full room during the panel that included Sylvester Johnson, Thomas Tweed, and Kristy Nabhan-Warren. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

A full room during the panel that included Sylvester Johnson, Thomas Tweed, and Kristy Nabhan-Warren. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

Zareena Grewal discussed her research on Muslim communities in the United States and suggested that we need not lose sight of the importance of ideas in a transnational focus. For example: race, she argued, is intricately connected to theological conversations. For Muslims in the United States, religion and race are negotiated through transnational networks whose main nodes are elsewhere, primarily in the Middle East. Kristy Nabhan-Warren, in a paper that would continue to be referenced throughout the conference, emphasized the importance of story-telling and the need for scholars to listen, both to our subjects of study and our students. Over-reliance on paradigms, she cautioned, can hinder our capacity to let subjects speak. Sylvester Johnson argued we need to highlight the framework of the “Americas” in graduate programs. Such training is useful not for going beyond the nation-state, he suggested, but to understand the importance of settler colonialism in the formation of many nation-states, including the United States. The Americas framework is also conducive for incorporating perspectives beyond (yet not to the exclusion of) the Anglo-American Protestantism that dominates the study of American religions.

Commenting, Stephen Prothero raised an important question: are we arguing that global flows in particular demand more scholarship? Or are we suggesting that the global is one geographical frame out of many (e.g., a single church, a neighborhood, a city or local region, a state, a nation, etc . . .)? And how might we relate these various scales in reference to one another? The question of scale seems to me to be not just about where and who we study, but about what we study and how we study it.

Beginning and Ending with Religion and “Religion”

RAAC began with Robert Orsi commenting on what the study of religion means when religion has become “religion.” The final panel, although technically entitled “Liberalism vs. Pluralism” and inspired by Kathryn Lofton’s comment at RAAC 2013 about the defeat of pluralism, ultimately returned to this question. As Ariel Schwartz noted, the room quickly went beyond what was stated in the printed program. The last panel quickly became a sweeping debate over Foucauldian genealogy, studies of secularism, and the question of what constitutes the proper objects/subjects of the study of religion. (Perhaps we can revisit liberalism and pluralism in 2017?)

Stephen Prothero jump-started the conversation by pointing to John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America as an example of a rupture in the study of religion away from lived religion, bodies, and historical story-telling towards an emphasis on the construction of categories, especially our own as scholars of religion. The hard-earned fruits of the former, he suggested, might be obscured by the latter. Referencing Sydney Ahlstrom’s classic work, Prothero asked, can we study the religious history of the American people, or must we study the “religious” “history” of the “American” “people”? Prothero asked the audience to picture two doors. The first is genealogical. The second, which he chooses, is the historical ethnographic. Pamela Klassen defended genealogy, pointing to important work that excavates the norms of liberal Protestantism embedded in discourses of pluralism. During the comments, Leigh Schmidt wondered if we can find a middle ground between stories about people in the sense Prothero intended and the importance of categories.

The final panel. From left to right: Stephen Prothero, Leigh Schmidt, and Pamela Klassen. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

The final panel. From left to right: Stephen Prothero, Leigh Schmidt, and Pamela Klassen. Photo courtesy of Eric Hamilton.

The conversation brought up a number of questions. Is the door metaphor providing us with a false dichotomy? Is the construction of categories necessarily separate from the intimate lives of real people? Why is Modern’s book the main example of the genealogical method? Is genealogy only about scholarly categories? How might the practices of story-telling, emphasized throughout the weekend, relate to the genealogical method? Is “jargon” a crucial part of our scholarly community or a hindrance to the publicity and relevance of our writing? Cara Burnidge, playing with Prothero’s metaphor, asked the room to consider the following: what framework allows for these two doors? That is: this conversation is not only about our field in the abstract. The conversation is about the field’s institutional future, its relationship with other disciplines, and the job prospects of younger scholars.

Overall, this panel was the closest we got to a UFC match. A number of passionate comments from the panelists and the audience signaled the high stakes of the questions posed. It was an all-around provocative conversation.

Final Thoughts

In my effort to provide a thick account of the conference by focusing on two topics, I am leaving out a number of great panels, papers, and comments that deserve attention. These include but are not limited to: Judith Weisenfeld’s use of the language “religio-racial” and her question of who gets included in the category of “new religious movements”; a lively conversation on the descriptive and prescriptive uses of “civil religion”; and two panels on capitalism that touched on the dominance of neoliberalism, religion’s role in organized labor, and, as Chip Callahan pushed for, a call to attend to how particular practices of work shape and are shaped by particular worldviews. To be honest, most scholars working on religion and the United States (and/or the Americas!) would benefit from reading the proceedings.

Speaking as a graduate student, I want to conclude by noting how RAAC, and similarly organized small-scale conferences that focus on the direction of a particular field, are incredibly useful. Especially for younger scholars, these are energizing conferences that allow you to better contextualize your work in ongoing discussions. We are accustomed to thinking of methodological, theoretical, and historiographical “turns” within a progressive linear timeline. RAAC collapses these turns into a single dynamic space, with contributors of each turn participating. Such a discussion revealed how the pasts and futures of the field are, in fact, very much present and intimate. I look forward to meeting new scholars, visiting and revisiting high-stakes debates, and seeing familiar faces in 2017.

Comics and the Superhero Afterlife

Comic books are reliable. Every month readers can expect another installment of their favorite comic on the shelves. Characters facing insurmountable odds will find a way to victory. Nemeses will be defeated. And should a hero die, they are likely to be re-born. In some sense, to be a hero is to be immortal. Even extraordinary humans such as Bruce Wayne (Batman), find their identities preserved for all time by turning the secret hero’s mask into a mantle to be bequeathed on worthy successors. One widespread trope has been much ignored by comic fans and scholars–the journey to the afterlife. Like the katabasis or descent into the Underworld of Orpheus, Odysseus, Gilgamesh, Theseus, and dozens of other mythical figures, modern comic book superheroes routinely journey to heaven, hell, and other landscapes of the afterlife.

A. David Lewis, comic books are presented as an irreplaceable cultural medium for engaging with issues of mortality, identity, subjectivity, and cosmology. In the pages of comic books, Lewis explains, the popular elements of the journey to the afterlife become surfaces upon which can be written a kind of “special reality” whose artificiality makes it possible for readers (and writers) to have discussions about serious issues but never fully commit to the vision of the comic books. For Lewis, that so many different versions of this journey exist but have yet to be readily acknowledged speaks to the major tensions in western culture. One central concern, he maintains, is the unspoken effort to preserve models of self that are unified. “We don’t want see our selves as multiples,” says Lewis. We want to be unified, “whole individuals.” And yet recent work on healthy multiplicity by Helene T. Russell and J. Hills Miller suggests that by accepting “people [as] constructed by many selves” we can further the work of religious pluralism and enhance inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue.

comicFor those who may still see comic books as unworthy material for serious scholarship, A. David Lewis’ recent work (2014’s American Comics, Literary Theory and Religion: The Superhero Afterlife or his 2010 co-edited collection Graven Images) should be a warning to re-think your position. With an overwhelming slate of comic book driven television series (Walking Dead, Gotham, Flash, Green Arrow) and a rising tide of superhero films and franchises (X-Men, Fantastic Four, and the Avengers), there has never been a more essential time to recognize the cultural merits of comic books and seek out their academic rewards.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with A. David Lewis on “Religion and Comic Books“, and also recent interviews with Carole Cusack on “Religion and Cultural Production” and Alana Vincent on “Religion and Literature“. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, orAmazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying comic books, pizza cutters, incense sticks and other cultural products.

Conference Report: International Society for Media, Religion and Culture Conference, 2014

Report by Venetia Robertson, University of Sydney

For four days at the beginning of August, I attended the International Society for Media, Religion and Culture (ISMRC) conference within the beautiful grounds of Canterbury Cathedral in England. Hosted by Professor Gordon Lynch of the University of Kent, this conference brought together scholars of media, religion, and culture (sometimes even all three) to analyse these intersections in daily life, in spiritual practice, and throughout history. In concert with the Centre for Media, Religion and Culture (CMRC), run out of the University of Colorado, Boulder, this conference has been held biennially since the mid-1990s, and many of the foundational members continue to attend the event, as well as remaining central contributors to the scholarship of this field.

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This year’s conference saw a handing over of the presidential reigns from Professor Stewart M. Hoover of Colorado to his once-student and now Associate Professor at the University of Denver, Lynn Schofield Clark, with whom he has co-authored numerous articles and chapters and co-edited volumes such as Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media: Explorations in Media, Religion and Culture (2002). With a board of directors that includes Professor Mia Lövheim (Uppsala University), Dr Ann Hardy (University of Waikato), and Associate Professor Heidi Campbell (Texas A&M University), to name a few, the ISMRC intentionally incorporates the voices of diverse areas of study (sociology/history/study of religion, theology, journalism, media and communications, new media, digital cultures etc.), from different parts of the globe, and, importantly for this reporter, from female academics, into a broader discussion of the ever-developing relationship between media, religion and culture. At Canterbury, the discussion that was had demonstrated the vastness and richness of such an interdisciplinary venture and yet also the reason why such a conversation must happen.

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I heard the following questions more times during the week than the ubiquitous ‘I don’t really have a question… more of a statement’ that haunts every audience response segment: ‘What is religion?’, ‘What is media/mediatisation/mediation?’, and ‘Have you met the other Australian yet?’. In answer to the third question – I did, I believe, meet all the Australian delegates by the end, and there were quite a number I’m proud to say! Down under, represent.

The initial questions about the perplexing categories of religion and media, however, did really seem to need perpetual asking. In a panel on the first day, papers by Ann Hardy on ‘conspirituality’ – the merging of conspiracy theories with New Age beliefs – and by Sofija Drecon, of the University of Arts, Belgrade, on web-based religions like the Church of Google, offered overviews of two exciting studies of religiosity and the Internet, but only had time to prod at the most basic of questions – what does the online conspiracy culture tell us about the internet, and what do online new religious movements tell us about religion? These two papers, I believe, speak to each other in ways that are subtle but have significant broader implications – the internet does foster decidedly ‘alternative’ ways of thinking, from the alt. streams of usenet to some of the darker recesses of reddit or 4chan. The rise of web 2.0 is not solely responsible for communal bonding over fringe responses to epistemological or theological positions; obviously these have been around for as long as we have, mediated or no, but the opportunities for proselystisation and development have hugely increased. This includes not only ‘upgrades’, for example, instead of photocopying 100 fliers advertising conversion to your parody religion or your reptilian conspiracy workshop you can now send 100,000 emails, but also by adapting to those modes of communication, authority, and identity that the internet specialises in and encourages, you are speaking the mother-tongue of the digital natives. In Carole Cusack’s Invented Religions (2010: 132-5) for example, it is noted that movements like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are so supremely suited to cyberspace because they embody those qualities, listed by Knobel and Lankshear (2006: 209) as humour or irony, intertextuality, and anomalous juxtaposition (like God and Pasta), that appeal to the wired generation and participates in their ‘new literacy’. Our cultural context – techno-saturated, postmodern, secular(ish) – needs flagging, obvious as it may seem, in order for these minor case studies to demonstrate their relevance to the discussion at hand. The audible groan from a colleague when the outdated ‘religion online/online religion’ schema was mentioned (‘that is sooo 2000’), that Christopher Helland himself has openly moved on from, is another reminder that we also need to keep abreast of how these trends are being treated, an updated, in the scholarship.

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Photo by Adam Shreve, with permission.

It’s probably obvious at this point that my main interest in this joint area is in digital religion. I particularly enjoyed those papers that were framed around the significant gender, race, and political issues that shape the world we live in, and charted how these identities and identifiers translated into the virtual reality of networked religion. Dr Chris Helland (Dalhousie University) gave an insightful paper on the use of the internet and digital technology by Tibetan Buddhists and how this allows the maintenance of community for a diasporic people. China’s suppression of the Tibetan people extends, unsurprisingly, to technology, recognised as a major tool in effecting a resistance. It is thus a potentially dangerous activity for those living in Tibet to use information technology at all. Nonetheless, while the event of the late Pope Benedict joining Twitter was a source of comedy for many, the Dalai Lama and ex-pat followers have always made an effort to be as connected as possible, and while the internet does provide some spiritual impediment (‘they are worried that the monks are getting too distracted’, Helland comments), it has been deftly incorporated into ritual making, theological learning, and religious identity for Tibetan Buddhists. From Dr Paul Emerson Teusner’s (RMIT) work on audience engagement and pastoral blogs in the Emerging Church, to Associate Professor Alex Boutros’ (Laurier University) study of blogging black identity and religiosity in the Afrosphere, to ritualising postfeminism on Pinterest, as described by Samira Rajabi, there was plenty to keep my mind buzzing! As Stewart Hoover and Nabil Echchaibi, directors of the CMRC and authors of the influential paper ‘The “Third Spaces” of Digital Religion’, were both major contributors to the conference (though Dr Echcaibi was unable to attend), there was a lot of discussion of cyberspace as third space, and as someone who finds this reading of Homi Bhabha’s methodology fruitful for my own studies, I found this to be immensely helpful.

However, so wrapped up am I in my own thesis work that what I failed to anticipate is that ‘media’ is so much more than just new media, and new media is so much more than just the internet. This conference offered the fully gamut of media studies – radio, television, news reports, cinema, magazines, video and computer games, advertising, as well as my favourites: websites, blogs, forums, and memes. As media types diversify it becomes harder to say why we both speaking of them as a whole at all – what does the latest iPrayer app have in common with a ‘healing’ radio broadcast from the 1950s? I have an inkling that there’s something important to be said here about the alleged ‘magic’ of technology and its ongoing role as, quite literally, a mediating force in religious practice. Looking into the eyes of televangelist Pat Robertson as he yells his blessings at you through the screen, one can’t help but wonder how technical he understands this process to be – do prayers travel through the cathode ray tubes of your 1980s set and into your living room? Did their transmission gain clarity and precision with the enhanced qualities of a plasma screen? When Anderson Blanton gave his paper on the wireless preaching of Oral Roberts he emphasised Robert’s wish for listeners to ‘put your hand upon the radio cabinet as a point of contact’, which then dovetailed beautifully with the preceding talk by Larissa Carneiro’s (North Carolina State University) on L. Ron Hubbard’s e-meter, the confluence of haptics, belief, and authenticity was strikingly evident (Blanton is the curator for The Materiality of Prayer Collection, and follows this line of enquiry at Reverberations). Unfortunately, Joonseong Lee’s (California State University) closing presentation for this session on ‘digirituality’, which aimed to elucidate how technology offers a salvific path to the sacred and allows one to deflect the enslaving efforts of commercialism, did not deliver. Maybe, it was the Deleuzian frame of reference that pushed this talk into incomprehensible territory (from the abstract: ‘The term “digirit” is a combination of the words “digital” and “spirit” and is conceptualized from the Deleuzian perspective of Tao. Anus breathing exercise is reinterpreted as a method of practice-oriented spirituality to be digiritual’), or perhaps it was because this paper was written for, though not presented at, a different digital humanities conference in Switzerland (again, evidenced by the unedited pitch in the abstract), either way, I failed to take anything away from this section but those who are curious can follow the hyperlink.

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I too found during my own presentation that the level of audience comprehension was less than I had anticipated. At a basic estimation, more than 50% of the papers at this conference dealt only with Islam or Christianity. This in itself is not problematic, there is much to say about these two major faith groups and their interactions with media, nonetheless religion as found within paganism, the occult, the New Age, implicit circumstances, etc. was very rarely discussed. Though I know my subject area is fairly obscure, it seemed that many of my respondents struggled to parse even the spiritual milieu within which my studies are located. Partially this is because many attendees were, as noted, communications experts, not scholars of religion, but additionally the alternative sphere of spirituality, it seems, is still given only marginal attention by the academy. However, with one minute of question time to be shared between four panellists, there was sadly very little opportunity to gauge audience response or elaborate on my topic further. I greatly enjoy question time and found it so frequently at this conference to be an opportunity for vigorous and inspiring discussion and debate – but with only 10 minutes scheduled per session for this, and rarely were more than 5 minutes really allotted, this was always a rushed effort. With widely varied levels of media and religious literacy present, more dedication to theming panels and audience and presenter interaction would likely ensure more optimal engagement with the material. It certainly couldn’t be said, however, that this was not a well organised conference. The staff of the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge were dutiful and polite, and the conference admin team were exceptionally hard-working, helpful, and facilitated fun opportunities for socialising (pub drinks). The picturesque surrounds of the stunning Cathedral itself, so steeped in history, and yet with effective and comfortable conference facilities (wifi was pretty good), made the event extra enjoyable.

Photo by Adam Shreve, with permission.

Photo by Adam Shreve, with permission.

Plenaries came in the shape keynotes and roundtable discussions, all of which were lively and focused. On the first day Jonathan L. Walton provided an effective wake up call to all of us in the audience who were resting, on our laurels and, y’know, from jetlag. In his address ‘Pentecostal and Prosperous: Empowering (and Editing) Marginalized Protestant Bodies’, Walton took us, in what I imagine is his trademark lecturing and preaching style (being Professor of Religion and Society and the Pusey Minister at Harvard University) on a journey – we giggled at his witty analysis of the kitschy tactics and aesthetics of African-American prosperity preachers like Pastor Carlton Pearson, his brash 90s outfits and manufactured spontaneity, and then teared up as Walton passionately retold the little-known 1921 race riot of Tulsa, Oklahoma during which the prosperous district of Greenwood known as ‘Black Wall Street’ became a site of mass destruction, with disgruntled white folk turning black families and business owners onto the streets, attacking, looting, shooting, even firebombing them from aeroplanes, within 16 hours razing the town to the ground. So under-reported and poorly regulated was the aftermath that we still don’t know if the numbers of dead African-Americans were closer to 30 or 300. Tulsa would go on to be a centre for black Pentecostalism, and importantly so, jettisoning the black church into the profitable market of televangelism of which Pastor Pearson’s once-booming Higher Dimension Family Church and annual televised Azusa conferences, both in Tulsa, are perfect examples. While it’s easy to roll your eyes at the razzle dazzle of mega-church theatrics, Walton’s sobering reminder of the history of the racial politics of wealth and worth in America shed invaluable light on this ongoing tension and its effects for media and religion.

There was some criticism that this conference, particularly in its choice of keynote speakers, was a tad Americo-centric. Professor Kathryn Lofton’s thoroughly entertaining and energetic lecture on the cult of Oprah, for example, apparently went over the heads of those international audience members not as saturated in the celebrity culture of the USA as are, say, we Australians. Perhaps guilty of subconsciously indulging the implicit notion that America = the universal example, my favourite panel was delivered entirely by Americans, three students and a professor from Northwestern University, on explicitly American topics. Myev Rees’ analysis of ‘mommy martyrdom’ in the life and times of mega-mater Michelle Duggar and characters like Bella Swan of Twilight, Stephanie Brehm’s intriguing look at the religiosity of Stephen Colbert on and off camera, Hannah Scheidt’s comparative study of theistic and atheistic billboards and advertising campaigns in the US, and Professor Sarah Macfarland Taylor’s paper on ‘Green hip hop’ and the politics of urban environmentalism, were extremely well put-together, informative, and important offerings, relished by their listeners.

Feedback on the overall experience of the conference and specific areas that needed attention was welcomed by the ISMRC organisers, and on the fourth day a workshop was held in order to gauge participants’ responses. Though I think some of the younger and less experienced delegates would have liked this segment to have included some ‘workshopping’ of methods, techniques, and debates relevant to the practical aspect of being a media and religion scholar, e. g. how to make this avenue enticing to departments and universities, how to appeal to sources of funding for new centres or research projects, how to undertake fieldwork efficiently and effectively, how to extend the relevance of our work beyond the paywall, the institution, the elitism of the academy and bring it to ‘the people’, the media, the government and so forth. Instead the focus was more on how to improve the conference itself, still a noble gesture, and garnered the comments and suggestions one can usually expect – more diversity while at the same time respecting a variety of levels of comprehension, more voices from non-white countries and contexts, more examples from outside the mainstream etc. The next meeting of the ISMRC, to be held in Seoul, will surely provide some redress. While I’ve complained that question time was often too short, moments like this were important reminders that conversation is central and valued for the progression of our work as a body of scholars. Conferences may offer many opportunities, but more than anything it is the fostering of an interdisciplinary, international dialogue that keeps us coming back. I had several people come up to me and say ‘I really enjoyed your questions today’, and maybe I wish they’d said ‘your riveting and original research, may I offer you a job/scholarship/standing ovation’, nonetheless, feeling a part of the conversation is a wonderful reward in itself. Thanks to the ISMRC for having me, and I look forward to doing this again in Korea in 2016!

Bricolage

BRICOLAGE: construction (as of a sculpture or a structure of ideas) achieved by using whatever comes to hand; also : something constructed in this way

“Bricolage.” Merriam-Webster.com.

Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1960s and has undergone a complex genealogy of modifications within the sociologies of culture and religion. As Véronique Altglas writes in a forthcoming article, ‘originally a metaphor, “bricolage'” became an anthropological concept to understand cultural and religious creativity, with an emphasis on what organizes it, despite its contingent nature. Transposed in the study of contemporary European societies, bricolage became about what individuals do in relation to cultural practices and lifestyles’ (Altglas Forthcoming).

In this interview with Chris, Altglas – the author of the recent OUP monograph From Yoga to Kabbalah: Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage – discusses this complex genealogy, tracing a movement from forms of cultural warfare to ‘playful, postmodern bricoleurs’ – what many might be tempted to dub ‘pick and mix spirituality’. However, as Altglas goes on to demonstrate, with a particular empirical focus upon Hindu-based Yoga centres and the Kabbalah centre, far from a carefree process of shopping at the ‘spiritual supermarket’, ‘the original meanings and otherness of elements used in this religious bricolage matter, and in fact limits, the popularization of “exotic” religions’ (Forthcoming).

IMG_20141112_114757This broad-ranging interview provides a fascinating overview of an important concept that is not only relevant for the study of contemporary ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’, but also speaks to cultural appropriation and construction in general, utilizing a number of stimulating contextual examples along the way. Chris enjoyed the interview so much, he immediately went out and bout Véronique’s book… and he suggests you do too!

This interview was recorded at the European Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference in Belfast in September 2014. You can also download this podcast, 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.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly in the run up to Christmas!

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Thanks to Culture on the Edge for posting this passage. http://edge.ua.edu/monica-miller/the-myth-of-origins/

References

  • Forthcoming 2015. ‘Bricolage’: Reclaiming a Conceptual Tool. Culture & Religion. 2015. 4.

Concepts and Symbols, What Does It All Mean? Examining Immigrant Buddhists in Toronto

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 13 November 2013, in response to D. Mitra Barua’s interview on Immigrant Buddhism in the West  (11 November 2013).

Talal Asad, in Genealogies of Religion, sets out an argument by which he hopes to improve upon Clifford Geertz’s anthropological method of examining a culture’s symbols in an effort to analyze the meanings that these symbols hold “of” and “for” a culture’s religious character. He points out that although “[r]eligious symbols… cannot be understood independently of their historical relations with nonreligious symbols…” (53) “It does not follow that the meanings of religious practices and utterances are to be sought in social phenomena, but only that their possibility and their authoritative status are to be explained as products of historically distinctive disciplines and forces. (54) In short, any culture cannot be said to be a fixed point to be dissected as such, but rather, a stream or flow of histories whose “power” and influence received from prior discourse must be taken into account as a process of cultural, and therefore religious, creation.

Webb Keane takes Asad’s emphasis upon socio-historical discourse being a process through which meanings can be analysed and provides a term for this concept that he feels is better able to be wielded by the ethnographer, namely, the utilisation of “semiotic forms”. Semiotic forms, Keane argues, are “social categories” which are “recognizable as something knowable”. He continues, “they must, that is, have some material manifestation that makes them available to, interpretable by, and, in most cases, replicable by other people: bodily actions, speech, the treatment of objects, and so forth.” (114) Seeing as how, for Keane, “[s]emiotic forms are public entities…” they are “objects for the senses…” and “as such, they have distinctive temporal dimensions…” however, “[b]ecause they are repeatable, they have the potential to persist over time and across social contexts.” (114-115). In this specific context, Keane only examines one example of a semiotic form for the sake of illustration- speech; however, Mitra Barua hits upon this exact idea in his conversation with Chris Silver. We start to get an idea of Barua’s work when he tells us of his interest in how Buddhism has been transmitted into new locations (inter-cultural dimensions of Buddhist transmission) and between first- and second-generation immigrants living in diaspora (inter-generational dimensions).

Working with Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhists (presumably Sinhalese) who form a disaporic group in Toronto, Canada, Barua is able to link his work with that of Asad and Keane by adding to his two dimensions of Buddhist transmissions an overall sense of time, or discourse. He identifies three primary historical periods of migration within which he frames his work; namely, the Colonial, Post-Colonial and Diaspora periods. None of these have any ontological purchase independently; rather, only as a spectrum, each blending into the next (ignoring firm historical dates one must assume and only focusing on the state of transmission of teachings which does not generally change, or stop-start, with any firm temporal grounding). His interest lies in how Buddhism has been and continues to be transmitted from older, first-generation migrants who came from Ceylon to Canada, to their children who were raised in Canadian culture; or, inter-cultural and inter-generational dimensions of transmission and the problems that arise therefrom.

What he finds is perhaps a bit unsurprising; the younger generation who have grown up in a “secular”, Western culture have different views and emphases regarding how to balance their secular and their religious livesthan their parents. Additionally, Barua finds that there is a serious concern within the older members of the community regarding the “religiosity” of Buddhism being not only separated out, but also lost in favour of a more secular, functional usage of concepts like samatha/vipassana or group temple worship.

Concerning this worry surrounding the “dilution” of Buddhism that Barua identifies amongst the Buddhist immigrants in Toronto, some important questions arise for scholars of religion as a whole. Throughout the interview terms like “religion”, “faith”, “theology” are thrown about, ironically often in close proximity to discussions on how Buddhism is tied into not just the immigrants religious lives but also and perhaps most importantly their culture. During the first third of the interview, Dr. Barua even explains how these immigrants have changed the adjectives of the Buddhist Eight-fold Path, from “right” speech, thought, action, etc. to “harmonious”. Why does this bi-polarity seem to weigh so heavily on this group of immigrants, on the one hand being self-conscious enough to feel it necessary to change the language of one of their most fundamental principles, while at the same time wanting to save the “religiosity” of Buddhism from complete secularisation? Further, do Christo-centric terms like faith and theology even work within a Buddhist setting, and if not, why does this community feel it useful or indeed necessary to use them? Does the very act of using foreign, Christian terms contribute to the undermining of the very sense of importance and individuality that the Buddhist elders are trying to stave off; and most intriguingly, if religion (in this case Buddhism) is indeed not sui generis but rather, linked wholly with a society’s culture; are these immigrants not so much concerned with the loss of their religion, but instead and more disconcerting, with a loss of their culture and self-identity? In a response to a similar question from Chris Silver, Dr. Barua does give us a related answer when he affirms, that he found these Buddhists to self-identify as indeed in some ways more religious in Canada than they were in Sri Lanka.

By way of conclusion with the understanding that cultural (and therefore religious) symbols and concepts are intrinsically intertwined within the socio-temporal spectrum of a group of people, as scholars of religion some pressing questions now pop up for further inspection, perhaps most importantly are some that are self-reflexive: are we truly Post-Orientalist/Colonialist? Do we, living in primarily First and Second World countries, take for granted our contemporary cultural hegemony? What can we learn about immigrant groups who find their most effective recourse to be utilising OUR terminology to describe THEIR culture? Perhaps the era of colonisation is not quite over.

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

References

  • Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York. Basic Books
  • Keane, Webb. 2008. ‘The evidence of the senses and the materiality of religion’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Volume 14: 110-127.

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World

through examining [religions’] cultural DSC_0039_2products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World: Intention and Reception of Anthroposophical and Gurdjieffian Art Forms

By Dr Johanna Petsche, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 25 September 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Carole Cusack on Religion and Cultural Production (23 September 2013)

The Religious Studies Project’s interview with Professor Carole M. Cusack of the University of Sydney covers an ambitious range of issues by tackling some huge open-ended questions: How does one define a cultural product of a religion? Must it be material? What makes a product religious or sacred? What about products that are secular, but traceable to a new religion? Does the culture of celebrity fit into this? Cusack’s rigorous unpacking of these topics, and the tangential issues explored along the way, make for scintillating listening. The interview loosely centres on the recently published Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (2012), which was edited by Cusack and Alex Norman. This comprehensive compendium examines the impact of new religions upon cultural production through a set of case studies exploring realms of music, architecture, food, art, books, film, video games, and more.

New religions have been increasingly emerging in the West and other regions since the beginning of the nineteenth century. They are, however, often ignored or devalued due to the common suspicion that they are not ‘real religions’ and cannot be equated with traditional, historical religions (Cusack and Norman 2012, 1). This human tendency to disregard new religions and new spiritualities is reflected in the way that the cultural products of different religions are perceived. Taking works of music as examples, it is clear that where J. S. Bach’s (1686-1750) ‘St Matthew Passion’, Handel’s (1685-1759) ‘Messiah’ (both overtly Christian works), and the Sufi devotional qawwali music of Pakistan are easily acknowledged as masterworks of religious music, the same dignity is not accorded to the reggae music of the Rastafarians or the piano music of G. I. Gurdjieff and his pupil Thomas de Hartmann (Cusack and Norman 2012, 2; Murrell and Snider 2012, 495-518; Petsche 2012, 271-295). Where the former have come to be celebrated as exemplary, timeless artistic achievements representative of reputable religions, the art associated with new religions is often considered trivial and unimportant, like new religions themselves. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the art of new religions has not yet ‘stood the test of time’, and also that it arose in the materialistic, largely secular world. In this way it seems less meaningful or ‘authentic’ than the art of past epochs, which we commonly admire with a sense of awe and nostalgia.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnaaXk9OxA0]

The cultural products of new religions are often produced by insiders for insiders, but many have attained a level of broader cultural acceptance through various means (see also Cusack and Norman 2012, 2). Take for example Anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner’s (1861-1925) Goetheanum II in Dornach, Switzerland, which was completed in 1928. His Goetheanum I was built in 1913 but it was destroyed by fire in 1922, and then rebuilt as Goetheanum II. This is a building – known as “the Building” by Anthroposophists – set up deliberately as a spiritual centre embodying Anthroposophical ideals, with its symbolic, differently coloured windows representing Steiner’s colour theory, and special outside garden and water features designed to create specific effects on viewers. Goetheanum II seems to have been intentionally conceived by Steiner as a sacred site. Interestingly though, at the same time it has become a tourist attraction, with people being drawn to it purely for its aesthetic qualities. It is, after all, a beautiful example of Expressionist architecture (Cusack 2012, 175). Goetheanum II is actually a unique selling point for the village. In this way, the structure is simultaneously a desirable piece of architecture that tourists wish to visit and also, for Anthroposophists who must have much more nuanced, insider interpretations of it, a building imbued with spiritual meaning.

The Goetheanum

The Goetheanum

A number of modern architects, such as Swiss architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (better known as Le Corbusier), drew their influence from Steiner’s designs, without specifically calling upon Anthroposophical ideals. Other famous structures, such as the ING Bank headquarters in Amsterdam, built by Albert and van Huuts, have been erected to reflect Steiner principles (Cusack 2012, 188). One might also consider in this context the system of agriculture, known today as Biodynamic Agriculture or Biodynamics, which is discussed in Alex Norman’s chapter in the Handbook. Biodynamics has its starting point in Anthroposophical ideas (Steiner gave a series of eight lectures on the topic in 1924) but is now more concerned with the expression of terroir rather than spiritual development (Norman 2012, 213-234). G. I. Gurdjieff’s nine-pointed enneagram symbol is another example. The enneagram has, in recent years, been appropriated as a model for nine personality types, a model that has been widely promoted in business management and spiritual contexts, straying far from Gurdjieff’s use and teaching of the symbol. While cultural products might be inscribed with the intentions of their creators, it is social actors who make sense of the world and its cultural products (Cusack and Norman 2012, 4).

Another cultural product of a new religion is renowned theatre and film director Peter Brook’s 1979 film Meetings with Remarkable Men. The film is a cinematic adaptation of Armenian-Greek spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff’s (c.1866-1949) semi-autobiographical text of the same name. Brook’s film could be classed as a ‘Gurdjieffian film’ and a religious cultural product as it was created by a Gurdjieffian (Brook now heads the Gurdjieff Paris group), is based on one of Gurdjieff’s own books, and pays tribute to Gurdjieff. Unlike Steiner’s Goetheanum I and II, which were not really intended to cater for outsiders, Brook’s film about Gurdjieff was deliberately made for non-Gurdjieffian, as well as Gurdjieffian, audiences. It is interesting that spiritual meaning must be deeply embedded in the film, while Brook also intended it to fulfil the role of portraying the story of Gurdjieff’s life to ‘outsiders’, in an effective and entertaining way.

The study of new religions, a burgeoning area within the greater field of Religious Studies, gives a unique perspective on different facets of religion. Not only can we observe, through such a study, how religions begin, change, develop, and in some cases expire, but through examining their cultural products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

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

 

Bibliography

  • Cusack, Carole and Alex Norman (eds). “Introduction,” Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Cusack, Carole. “‘And the Building Becomes Man’: Meaning and Aesthetics in Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Murrell, Nathaniel and Justin Snider. “Identity, Subversion, and Reconstruction ‘Riddims’: Reggae as Cultural Expressions of Rastafarian Theology” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Norman, Alex. “Cosmic Flavour, Spiritual Nutrition?: The Biodynamic Agricultural Method and the Legacy of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy in Viticulture” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Petsche, Johanna. “G. I. Gurdjieff’s Piano Music and its Application in and Outside the ‘Work’” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.

Identity or Identification?

Identity or Identification? In this second podcast for Identities? Week, the Culture on the Edge group address the issue of religious identity.

groupedge

“There is no such thing as identity, only operational acts of identification.” – Jean-Francois Bayart

Is our identity – cultural, religious or other – something which causes us to act, or something which we choose to mobilise in certain circumstances? And what part do scholars have in reifying these discourses? Why are certain groups “militant” and not others? And what does this have to do with Hinduism? (Don’t ask me, though – I’m a straight white British male and therefore have no cultural identity…)

The group’s blog can be read here – although we’ll also be featuring their posts on the RSP facebook page. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Culture on the Edge is an international scholarly working group, centered at the University of Alabama and begun in the Spring of 2012, whose aim is to use social theory to offer more nuanced understandings of how those things that we commonly call identities are produced, managed, and continually reproduced. Culture on the Edge therefore tackles, at a variety of social sites, the contradiction between, on the one hand, the historicity of identity (which is now generally seen by scholars to be always fluid over place and time), and, on the other, the nagging presumption of a static and ahistorical origin against which cultural change is thought to be measured.

mccutcheonedge

Russell McCutcheon has a dog named Izzy.

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K. Merinda Simmons is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at The University of Alabama. Her manuscript, Mary Prince and Her Sisters: Gender, Race, Migration, and the Problem of Authenticity, has recently been contracted by Ohio State University Press and her other books include Studying Religion: A Reader (Acumen, forthcoming) and the co-edited Race and Displacement (The University of Alabama Press, 2013). She is also the co-editor (along with Houston Baker) for the newly contracted collection, The Trouble with Post-Blackness(Columbia University Press), examining the assumptions that make possible the ideal of “post-blackness” that many media moguls, politicians, and public intellectuals have now adopted.

miller3

Monica R. Miller is Assistant Professor of Religion and Africana Studies at Lehigh University and among other publications, author of Religion and Hip Hop (Routledge, 2012). Miller is Principal Investigator of a large scale survey project entitled “Remaking Religion” which examines changing patterns of religion and irreligion in youth culture in Portland, Oregon. Monica also is editing Claiming Identity in the Study of Religion, the first book in the Culture on the Edge book series. Follow Monica on Twitter.

craigedge

A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox, 2012), and Religious Experience: A Reader, co-edited with Russell T. McCutcheon (Equinox, 2012).

rameyedgeSteven Ramey is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Director of Asian Studies at the University of Alabama. His book Hindu Sufi or Sikh (Palgrave, 2008) focuses on communities who identify as Sindhi Hindus and the ways they contest dominant understandings of identities, both in India and beyond. His newest project addresses the assumptions in the language of religious labels and the ways those assumptions determine research and valorize particular constructions of religions. He is Series Editor of Culture on the Edge: Studies in Identity Formation, a book series with Equinox Publishers.

smithedgeLeslie Dorrough Smith is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Department at Avila University (Kansas City, MO). She has just finished a book manuscript, contracted by Oxford University Press, that explores the uses for rhetorics of chaos within such groups as Concerned Women for America, one of the nation’s most powerful and vocal conservative Christian groups. Among her articles are: “Divine Order, Divine Myth: Uncovering the Mythical Construction of Gender Ideals in Protestant Fundamentalist Circles” (ARCThe Journal of the Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, 2002) and “What’s in a Name?: Scholarship and the Pathology of Conservative Protestantism” (Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 2008), and a chapter in After the Passion is Gone: American Religious Consequences (AltaMira Press, 2004) entitled “Living In the World, But Not of the World: Understanding Evangelical Support for ‘The Passion of the Christ’.”

vaia2Vaia Touna earned her BA and MA at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, in the study of Hellenistic religions, and ancient Greek literature, and is currently writing her doctoral dissertation at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Her research focuses on the sociology of identity formation with examples drawn from ancient, to modern Greece. Vaia is the Editorial Assistant for the journal Method & Theory in the Study of Religion (published by Brill of the Netherlands). Among her publications are: “The Manageable Self in the Early Hellenistic Era” published in The Bulletin for the Study of Religion (2010) and “Redescribing Iconoclasm: Holey Frescoes and Identity Formation,” a chapter in Failure and Nerve in the Academic Study of Religion (Acumen, 2012). Vaia is also the editor for The Problem of Nostalgia in the Study of Identification in the Culture on the Edge Book Series.

Cross-Cultural Identities Roundtable

It’s Identities? Week here at the Religious Studies Project, with not one but two specially-recorded roundtable discussions about how identity is negotiated (if indeed it is) through our religious, ethnic, sexual and socio-cultural identities.

interview - photoThis first podcast, recorded at the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective conference in Milton Keynes in May, organised with Paul-Francois Tremlett (convenor of the OU’s Cross-Cultural Identities research theme) focuses on identity and dislocation, either through diaspora or through rapid social change. Jasjit Singh’s research focuses on how young British Sikh’s negotiate their religious identity; Isabel Cabana Rojas discusses the emigration of Peruvian Catholics to Japan in the 19th century and the subsequent return of some of them to Peru; Marta Turkot discusses the rapidly changing religious situation in Poland today, one of the bastions of Catholicism in Europe. The discussion takes these as a starting-points, however, to address broader issues of identity formation.

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

You can read Paul-Francois Tremlett’s report of the two Cross-Cultural Identities panels at the conference here.

Paul Tremlett photoPaul-François Tremlett is Lecturer in Religious Studies at the Open University. His PhD research focused on local religion and national identity in the Philippines at  the extinct volcano Mount Banahaw. His present research is more theoretically oriented, including spatialities and geographies and place-making practices; modernity(ies) and secularism(s); Marxism and classical and contemporary social theory.

Jasjit Singh -photoDr Jasjit Singh has recently completed a PhD which examined the religious lives of 18-30 year old British Sikhs focusing on the different ways in which young Sikhs now learn about Sikhism. He has spoken about his research on BBC Radio 4 and has published a number of academic articles and book chapters. He is currently employed as a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Leeds and is looking to examine the role of devotional music in identity formation and religious transmission. Further details about his work can be found at: www.leeds.ac.uk/sikhs

Material Religion

The study of religion and materiality is an important and fast-growing sub-discipline in the contemporary Religious Studies scene. According to the editors of the premier journal in this area, the aptly named ‘Material Religion‘, scholars in this area

explore how religion happens in material culture – images, devotional and liturgical objects, architecture and sacred space, works of arts and mass-produced artifacts. No less important than these material forms are the many different practices that put them to work. Ritual, communication, ceremony, instruction, meditation, propaganda, pilgrimage, display, magic, liturgy and interpretation constitute many of the practices whereby religious material culture constructs the worlds of belief.

In this interview with Chris, Professor David Morgan takes the listener on an exciting tour of what this field has to offer, providing his own definition of material religion, and discussing empirical case studies and theoretical insights relating to religion in popular consumer culture, the sacred gaze, space and place, the internet, and more.

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

David Morgan is Professor of Religion with a secondary appointment in the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies at Duke. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in 1990. He has published several books and dozens of essays on the history of religious visual culture, on art history and critical theory, and on religion and media. His most recent book is The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling (California, 2012). Recent works include: The Lure of Images: A History of Religion and Visual Media in America (Routledge, 2007) and two volumes that Morgan edited and contributed to: Religion and Material Culture: The Matter of Belief (Routledge, 2010) and Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture (Routledge, 2008). Earlier works include Visual Piety (University of California Press, 1998), Protestants and Pictures (Oxford, 1999), and The Sacred Gaze (California, 2005). Morgan is co-founder and co-editor of the international scholarly journal, Material Religion, and co-editor of a book series at Routledge entitled “Religion, Media, and Culture.”

This interview was recorded at the Religion and Society Programme‘s ‘Sacred Practices of Everyday Life’ Conference in Edinburgh in May 2012, and we are very grateful to all involved for facilitating this discussion. It also forms part of a short series of podcasts on Material/Embodied religion, continuing next week with Marta Tzrebiatowska on “Why are Women more Religious than Men?”.