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Spiritualism and Shamanism

Two firsts for the Religious Studies Project this week. Surprisingly, we’ve never talked about Shamanism, one of the watchwords of discourse on “indigenous religion” for scholars and laymen alike, insiders and outsiders. The term originates with the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade, who took it from a specific group in the Tunguskee region of Russia, and applied it universally to describe individuals who communicate with spirits for the benefit of their communities. For Eliade, Shamanism was one more example of a heirophany, an interjection of an ineffable sacred into the mundane world. Unsurprisingly, however, when such sui generis notions are disregarded, and the category examined from the data up, the category ceases to be easily defined.

In this interview, David Wilson tells us that while studying shamanism while undertaking training as a medium in the Spiritualist Church, he noticed that both seemed to exhibit similar features; an emphasis on healing, communication with the dead, as well as other “spiritual beings”, but most importantly, a pattern of training  through apprenticeship. After telling us about his own experiences of training, he outlines how this pattern of apprenticeship – an initial ‘calling’, a process of direct training from established mediums, beginning public practise and finally acceptance by the broader community. Wilson’s ‘apprenticeship’ model not only gives us a way to conceptualise shamanism without recourse to sui generis discourse, but draws interesting parallels between indigenous cultures and the somewhat hidden world of heterodox religious practices in the West, particularly in regards to the frequent presence of healthcare.

David’s book, Redefining Shamanisms, is available in all formats now. 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!

If you enjoyed this episode, the spirits tell me you may also enjoy our interview with Ann Taves on Religious Experience, our recent roundtable featuring David Wilson on Non-Ordinary Realities and our two-part collaboration with Jack Hunter on Religious Studies and the Paranormal (Part one. part two).

Studying “Non-Ordinary Realities”: A Roundtable Discussion

Bettina Schmidt and David Wilson organised a series of panels at the 2014 BASR Conference in Milton Keynes on the topic of “Studying Non-Ordinary Realities”, as part of the conference’s “Cutting Edge” sub-theme. We managed to make time to get Bettina and David, along with panel participants Fiona Bowie and RSP editor Jonathan Tuckett, to sit down to record a session with David Robertson (here, and part 2 here).

Bettina begins by outlining the aims and scope of the sessions, in which they hoped to bring together anthropologists, ethnographers and Religious Studies scholars with many different methodologies for looking at encounters with the non-ordinary. Fiona Bowie outlines her methodology for these kinds of studies, empathetic engagement, in which issues of ontological truth are set aside, but not ‘explained away’. She argues that such experiences may be at the root of “religious experience”, and are thus vital to the field. Davids Wilson and Robertson discuss whether the transformative nature of these experiences is epistemological at core. Remembering our critical approach, however, Jonathan challenges the emerging consensus that different methodologies require different epistemological postulates to be made sense of. It gets fairly heated.

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.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make, whether it is religious studies related or not. Remember, the holidays are coming…

Material Religion Roundtable

Unless you have had your head buried in the sand for the past decade or so, if you are involved in the academic study of ‘religion’ you will have come across the field of ‘Material Religion’. People have Leading international Religious Studies podcasts have focused on it. And the BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group made it the focus of their annual conference at Durham University, UK, in April of this year.

David with conference organizer Tim Hutchings enjoying a well-earned pint at the Swan and Three Cygnets

David with conference organizer Tim Hutchings enjoying a well-earned pint at the Swan and Three Cygnets

However, what exactly does Material Religion bring to Religious Studies? Is it a potentially revolutionary phenomenon, or merely a passing fad? How might one apply the theoretical perspectives and methodologies developed in this growing field to some of the defining debates of our subject area? To discuss these issues, and reflect on the conference in general, RSP hosts David Robertson and Christopher Cotter were joined by George Ioannides, Rachel Hanneman and Dr David Wilson (and some local regulars in the background) in the Swan and Three Cygnets pub in Durham, immediately after the conference finished. This week’s podcast is a recording of their discussion.

You can also download this roundtable, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Material Religion with David Morgan, Religion, Space and Locality with Kim Knott, and Religion and the Built Environment with Peter Collins.

Meet the Discussants:

CotterChristopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Rachel Hanemann is working on her PhD at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Her research examines the role of the body in processes of religious formation and as a managed site of identity at an all-girls Catholic secondary school in London. She feels that this biographical note thoroughly encapsulates her as a person. Chris forgot to ask her for a picture to use on this page. He apologises profusely and is wearing the cone of shame.

GeorgeGeorge Ioannides studied comparative religion as part of his Undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, Australia.

 

 

DavidDavid G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Publications include “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) and “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2012). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.

david wilsonDavid Gordon Wilson wears many hats. He served as a solicitor, then partner, then managing partner  in Scotland, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Egypt, before returning to university to embark on a Religious Studies degree. His PhD at the University of Edinburgh focused upon spiritualist mediumship as a contemporary form of shamanism, and his monograph has recently been published with Bloomsbury, titled Redefining Shamanisms: Spiritualist Mediums and Other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes. Wearing one of his other hats, David is a practising spiritualist medium and healer, and among his many connected roles, he is currently the President of the Scottish Association of Spiritual Healers.

Religion and the News Panel

It goes without saying that ‘religion’ is a topic that frequently finds itself in the media spotlight. Whether we are talking about the recent Boston Marathon bombings, the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, the Arab Spring, or the recent critique of the UK government’s welfare policy levelled by four major British churches, the ways in which the media negotiates, constructs and engages with this complex category has an enormous impact upon public opinion and understanding, and is increasingly relevant to academics, religious practitioners, journalists and the wider public. It was with this in mind that the Religious Studies Project, in collaboration with the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture, presented a panel session at the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference in Durham on 10 April 2013. This panel session brought together Eileen Barker, Tim Hutchings, Christopher Landau and David Wilson, who each have a unique position on this topic by virtue of their positions working with or for the media, to discuss and reflect on a recent edited volume by Jolyon Mitchell and Owen Gower – aptly titled Religion and the News. This podcast presents the edited audio recording of this panel session, and marks a new development for the Religious Studies Project which shall hopefully be employed at future conferences.

You can also download this panel discussion, 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. As a result of this podcast, David Wilson also published a review of the book in the Journal of Religion, Media & Digital Culture.

Religion in the News is an edited volume, published in October 2012 by Ashgate, and edited by Jolyon Mitchell and Owen Gower. Jolyon Mitchell is the Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh, where he is also senior lecturer in Communications, Theology & Ethics, and convenor of the Theology & Ethics subject area. Owen Gower is a Senior Fellow at Cumberland Lodge, an educational charity specializing in cross-sector co-operation and matters affecting the development of society. The book brings together academics, practitioners, and media professionals in a collection of 19 chapters exploring everything form the news coverage of the “Occupy” protests at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, to the representation of Sikhs in the mainstream media, and from the problematic notion of journalistic neutrality, to the problematic definition of religion.

Reflective of this diverse range of perspectives in the book, we brought together four academics who each have a unique position on the contents of the book by virtue of their positions working with or for the media. Their biographies are presented below, in the order in which they speak.

David Gordon Wilson wears many hats. He served as a solicitor, then partner, then managing partner  in Scotland, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Egypt, before returning to university to embark on a Religious Studies degree. His PhD at the University of Edinburgh focused upon spiritualist mediumship as a contemporary form of shamanism, and his monograph has recently been published with Bloomsbury, titled Redefining Shamanisms: Spiritualist Mediums and Other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes. Wearing one of his other hats, David is a practising spiritualist medium and healer, and among his many connected roles, he is currently the President of the Scottish Association of Spiritual Healers.

Christopher Landau studied Theology at Cambridge University before gaining a BBC News traineeship in 2002. He spent eight years at the BBC, working as a radio reporter and television news producer, both in general news journalism and as a specialist covering religion. He was a reporter for Sunday, and then World at One and PM on Radio 4 before being appointed World Service religious affairs correspondent in 2008. In 2010 he left the BBC to begin doctoral studies at Oxford University combined with training for ordination in the Church of England. He is involved with a project to establish a Religion Media Centre, based on the model of the Science Media Centre.

Eileen Barker is Professor Emeritus of Sociology with Special Reference to the Study of Religion at the London School of Economics,University of London. Her main research interests are ‘cults’, ‘sects’ and new religious movements, and changes in the religious situation in post-communist countries. She has over 350 publications (translated into 27 different languages), which include the award-winning The Making of a Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice? and New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction. In the late 1980s, with the support of the British Government and mainstream Churches, she founded INFORM, an educational charity based at the LSE which aims to provide information about minority religions that is as accurate, objective and up-to-date as possible. She is a frequent advisor to governments, other official bodies and law-enforcement agencies throughout the world, has made numerous appearances on television and radio, and has been invited to give guest lectures in over 50 countries.

Tim Hutchings is a sociologist of religion, media and culture, and currently Research Fellow at the Open University. His research interests include digital Christianity, death and media, and the digital humanities. He received his PhD (“Creating Church Online”) from Durham University in 2010 and recently completed a 15-month fellowship at HUMlab digital humanities research laboratory, Umea University, Sweden. His current research focuses on the future of the Bible as a digital text. He is also the editor of the Journal of Religion, Media & Digital Culture.

Religious Experience

In this wide-ranging interview (our 50th!), Ann Taves and David Wilson discuss the concept of religious experience. Taves challenges traditional models of religious experience, rejecting both an essentialist approach with a sui generis category and a constructivist approach which accepts only discourses. Instead, she argues that not only can we examine unusual experiences in themselves, as they affect individual agents. From there, we can examine how these experiences become reified and institutionalised by specific traditions, as well as providing impetus for new religious movements. Taves’ work utilises historical and ethnographic methods in an attempt to establish an approach which might allow cross-cultural and diachronic analysis of unusual experiences without recourse to specific theologies.

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

Ann Taves is Professor of Religious Studies and holder of the Virgil Cordano OFM Chair in Catholic Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, a position she has held since 2005. Previously she taught at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate School. Her major publications include Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things (Princeton University Press, 2009), which received the 2010 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and Fits, Trances and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, 1999), which received the Outstanding Professional and Scholarly Book Award in Philosophy and Religion from the Association of American Publishers in 2000.

Christmas Special – Only 60 Seconds!

Welcome to the Religious Studies Project Christmas (and 1st Anniversary) Special – Only 60 Seconds!

Can Steve Sutcliffe talk about “habitus” for a full 60 seconds without deviation, hesitation or repetition? How much does David Wilson know about “Postmodernism”? Mr David Robertson is your host (ably assisted by the lovely Samantha Mr Chris Cotter) for this special festive episode of the Religious Studies Pro Recorded live in Edinburgh on December 20th, 2012. Be forewarned of some bad language. All resemblance to BBC panel games, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Non-denominational seasonal greetings to all our listeners, and best wishes for 2013. This has been an incredible first year for the RSP, and Chris, Louise and I extend sincere thanks to everyone who has contributed in any capacity. We have big plans for year 2, and if you have any ideas, we want to hear them! We’ll be back on January 21st, bigger and better than ever. Thanks for listening.

(Thanks to Andrea Quillen for taking photos, and to David Jack for audio assistance.)

Jonathan Tuckett  is currently a PhD student at the University of Stirling. He has an MA in Philosophy and Religious Studies and an MSc in Religious Studies from the University of Edinburgh. His research is on the phenomenological method in the study of religion. Areas of interest include the phenomenology of religion, theory and method in the study of religion, and philosophy of religion. Jonathan is also an Assistant Editor for the Religious Studies Project.

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Steven Sutcliffe is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh where he teaches and researches in the areas of ‘new age religion’ and ‘holistic spirituality’, in the effects of the discourse and practice of ‘religion’ in contemporary culture and society, and on theory and method in the study of religion, including the history of its modern academic study. He is the author of Children of the New Age, editor of Religion: Empirical Studies, and co-editor (with Marion Bowman) of Beyond the New Age.

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.

David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Recent publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2013). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.

David Wilson is a former partner in a City of London law firm, which involved spending ten years living and working in the Middle East. Getting bored with that, David returned to the University of Edinburgh to embark upon a PhD in religious studies, entitled ‘Spiritualist Mediums and other Traditional Shamans: towards an apprenticeship model of shamanic practice’. He is the author of ‘Waking the Entranced: Reassessing Spiritualist Mediumship Through a Comparison of Spiritualist and Shamanic Spirit Possession Practices’ in Schmidt, B. A. and Huskinson, L. (eds.) (2010), and ‘Spirit Possession and Trance: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives’ (2010). His first book, ‘Redefining Shamanism: Spiritualist Mediums and other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes’, will be published in January 2013.

Book Reviews

When we were contacted earlier this year by a couple of publishers asking if we’d be interested in reviewing books, we immediately thought “Yes – but how?” We’re not a journal, and didn’t want to do the traditional journal review, but we do love books, and especially talking about them. So when Chris suggested we could combine several reviews into a roundtable format, we thought we had to give it a try.

For this first try at a new format, we thought it best to invite a few trusty friends. After many attempts, we finally managed to get David Wilson to a recording. He reviewed Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief, edited by Marion Bowman and Ülo Valk (2012: Equinox). He calls it “a valuable contribution to the task of increasing scholarly awareness of the need to attend to the variety of local practices that are accepted as ‘religious’ but which have tended to be overlooked when investigating religion in terms of ‘world’ religions“. It doesn’t offer easy answers, however, and “like many of the dialogues it explores, this collection is courteously, but deliberately, disruptive“. Read his full review here.

Chris reviewed Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present, edited by David Goodhew. The book purports to ‘provide a forceful critique of the notion of secularization’ “by focusing upon the attendance and membership of Christian churches – the very thing which formed the empirical basis of the secularization thesis“. While he has issues with the volume’s theological imperative and uncritical acceptance of the secularisation thesis, Chris pointed out that it demonstrates “the potential for scholarly theories to, in some cases,  become self-fulfilling prophesies when released into the real world“. You can read his full review here.

Jonathan – philosophical as always – asked to review  Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality: Testing Religious Truth-claims by R. Scott Smith (Ashgate 2012). He was less than impressed. As an introduction to naturalism, the philosophical position that there are no non-empirical entities, it is unsatisfactory, because it is “a thinly veiled Christian apologetic dressed in a philosophical discussion about naturalism”. His full review can be read here.

Finally, I reviewed Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox, 2012). It is essentially an introduction to critical theory (a “socio-functional” approach which seeks to expose the assumptions which a given group takes for granted) as applied to the study of religion, and aimed at an undergraduate level. “Religion” is a powerful tool in the naturalisation of socio-epistemological norms, of course, but the book is most interesting pedagogically, in offering “a potential alternative Introduction to Religious Studies course than the “here are the world religions” approach that concerns many of us”You can read my review here.

This has been enjoyable, but a lot of work. Please let us know if you found it useful and/or entertaining. We’re open to hearing about other books you’d like us to review, or if you’d like to take part in a future recording (for example, at the next BASR conference…). And we are enormously grateful to Ashgate and Equinox for providing us with books to review.

Marx, Spiritualism and Power

By David G. M. Wilson, Edinburgh.

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 20 June 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Titus Hjelm on “Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion” (18 June 2012).

Titus Hjelm and Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion

I begin this response to Titus Hjelm’s discussion of the continuing relevance of Marxist approaches to the study of religion by noting his assertion that Marx is underemployed as a source of ideas, partly because he has generally been regarded as critical of religion. A number of additional reasons are also relevant. One difficulty for Marxist scholars has been the extent to which the predictive power of Marxist models was brought into question as the twentieth century unfolded. Yet many of Marx’s particular criticisms are not only relevant to western society of his day but continue to be relevant because of their ability to highlight the extent to which particular classes (or constituencies) are still able to maintain powerful social positions. The problems and characteristics of western society that were highlighted by Marxist approaches are still with us; if the predictive power of Marxist approaches has seemed problematic, this may simply be an indication that our understanding of the mechanisms involved has been partial.

Any plea for the continuing relevance of Marx is also a plea for the continuing importance of the sociological study of religion, of attending to the many aspects of the relationships that human beings maintain with each other. In the past, this stance has often relied upon insights derived from the core Marxist idea of class struggle, which has generally led scholars to focus upon collective behaviour. As Hjelm indicates, one possible response is to pay closer attention to the socially constructed ways in which human beings individually behave, and he mentions Peter Berger as a scholar using the Marxist concept of alienation to explore through critical discourse analysis the ways in which ideologies (including the teachings of particular religious traditions) maintain themselves (Norman Fairclough). The argument, essentially, is that there is progress to be made in understanding the mechanisms involved by examining particular examples.

This is an approach that may also offer insights relevant to the cognitive study of religion; for example, it may be possible to draw upon the work of scholars such as Barbara Rogoff, who explores human cognition as a socially constructed learning outcome. I am often heard making the argument that adherence to religious (and other) traditions can usefully be comprehended as an apprenticeship outcome, but in order to understand fully what I mean by this, it is important to attend not only to the linguistic dialogues people maintain with each other but also to their other behavioural dialogues. Rogoff’s emphasis upon human cognition as the outcome of an apprenticeship based upon guided participation is extremely valuable here. The human ability to think, to problem-solve, is acquired from those who have power over us during the years when we begin to come to consciousness. Hjelm is wise, therefore, to ask why social class (or other social constituency) tends not to be explored in religion, given that it has long been recognized that class and power are closely-connected.

This nexus of issues is particularly relevant to my own scholarly interests, which focus upon western mediumship as my particular specialism within spirit communication traditions, particularly shamanism. Spiritualism is often described as a ‘working-class religion’, based upon scholarly characterization of those who generally attend demonstrations of mediumship. It tends also to be described as ‘marginal’, even though scholars such as Martin Stringer suggest that resort to mediums and psychics is a widespread form of engagement with the ‘non-empirical’ in contemporary western society, something he regards as central to what religion is ‘about’. The marginality of Spiritualism lies not in a lack of those practising and/or interested but in its marginalization by more dominant discourses. It is not only more powerful religious discourses that are guilty here: the number of western scholars willing to conduct research in this field is small, a situation that is both the product of past marginalization and an effective way of ensuring continuing marginalization.

There is obvious scope for exploring the exclusion of Spiritualism as a class issue, but there is also scope for exploring the relationships within the Spiritualist movement in terms of the different constituencies, as I call them, that subsist within it. My own forthcoming book undertakes a certain amount of work here, exploring the institution of mediumship and how that craft is learned as being central to the maintenance of the Spiritualist movement. I also draw attention to Robin Wooffitt’s work ‘The Language of Mediums and Psychics’ as a valuable example of critical dialogue analysis, exploring the maintenance of mediumistic authority vis-à-vis clients, reminding us that ‘class’ distinctions are maintained within (as well as among) religious traditions, precisely because this is key to the maintenance of authority. Comprehending the internal exercise of power (between different classes or categories of practitioner or adherent) can be crucial in understanding the persistence of particular religious traditions, and may therefore be an important component in understanding the persistence of religion generally in a supposedly secularized western society.

Hjelm notes as classically Marxist the suggestion that more welfare (in the sense of material wellbeing) should lead to less religion, based upon the perception that if peoples’ material needs are met in this world, they become less interested in the next. A difficulty for traditional Marxist approaches is that, although western society has prospered, it has become clear that both religion and class have persisted. In this, Marx may have missed the transformative role religion can play in people’s lives (often only when relieved from pressing material need), because his concern was to highlight the extent to which religion as a coping mechanism can derive from the use of religion as a controlling mechanism.* Yet although Marxist approaches may not have offered an adequate explanation, many of the issues Marx was concerned with remain, challenging us to explore.

Marx’s concept of alienation was closely allied to his perception of capitalist systems of production (like their feudal predecessors) as decreasing the available social space for individual self-expression, a point made by Terry Eagleton. Unlike some Marxists, Marx was not a scholar who comprehended society in terms of monolithic, opposed classes but was, instead, a writer, an artist, who appreciated social variety as crucial to individual flowering and who opposed social forces that might hinder it, including (if not especially) the deliberate exercise of power so as to require conformity. Hjelm’s plea for a focus upon the individual and the induction of general rules from the careful, patient study of what people actually say and do is, I suggest, more truly Marxist than many previous (supposedly Marxist) approaches; at the very least, it implies a measure of respect.

  • The distinction between coping and transformative religion is taken from Stringer.

Bibliography

Eagleton, T.: 2011. Why Marx was Right, Yale University Press.

Fairclough, N.: 2010. Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language, Longman, (2nd edn).

Luckmann, T. and Berger, P. L.: 1991. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Penguin.

Rogoff, B.: 1990. Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context, Oxford University Press.

Stringer, M: 2008. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion, Continuum.

Wilson, D. G. M.: forthcoming December 2012. Redefining Shamanism: Spiritualist Mediums and other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes, Continuum/Bloomsbury Academic.

Wooffitt, R.: 2006. The Language of Mediums and Psychics: The Social Organization of Everyday Miracles, Ashgate.

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.

Podcasts

Spiritualism and Shamanism

Two firsts for the Religious Studies Project this week. Surprisingly, we’ve never talked about Shamanism, one of the watchwords of discourse on “indigenous religion” for scholars and laymen alike, insiders and outsiders. The term originates with the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade, who took it from a specific group in the Tunguskee region of Russia, and applied it universally to describe individuals who communicate with spirits for the benefit of their communities. For Eliade, Shamanism was one more example of a heirophany, an interjection of an ineffable sacred into the mundane world. Unsurprisingly, however, when such sui generis notions are disregarded, and the category examined from the data up, the category ceases to be easily defined.

In this interview, David Wilson tells us that while studying shamanism while undertaking training as a medium in the Spiritualist Church, he noticed that both seemed to exhibit similar features; an emphasis on healing, communication with the dead, as well as other “spiritual beings”, but most importantly, a pattern of training  through apprenticeship. After telling us about his own experiences of training, he outlines how this pattern of apprenticeship – an initial ‘calling’, a process of direct training from established mediums, beginning public practise and finally acceptance by the broader community. Wilson’s ‘apprenticeship’ model not only gives us a way to conceptualise shamanism without recourse to sui generis discourse, but draws interesting parallels between indigenous cultures and the somewhat hidden world of heterodox religious practices in the West, particularly in regards to the frequent presence of healthcare.

David’s book, Redefining Shamanisms, is available in all formats now. 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!

If you enjoyed this episode, the spirits tell me you may also enjoy our interview with Ann Taves on Religious Experience, our recent roundtable featuring David Wilson on Non-Ordinary Realities and our two-part collaboration with Jack Hunter on Religious Studies and the Paranormal (Part one. part two).

Studying “Non-Ordinary Realities”: A Roundtable Discussion

Bettina Schmidt and David Wilson organised a series of panels at the 2014 BASR Conference in Milton Keynes on the topic of “Studying Non-Ordinary Realities”, as part of the conference’s “Cutting Edge” sub-theme. We managed to make time to get Bettina and David, along with panel participants Fiona Bowie and RSP editor Jonathan Tuckett, to sit down to record a session with David Robertson (here, and part 2 here).

Bettina begins by outlining the aims and scope of the sessions, in which they hoped to bring together anthropologists, ethnographers and Religious Studies scholars with many different methodologies for looking at encounters with the non-ordinary. Fiona Bowie outlines her methodology for these kinds of studies, empathetic engagement, in which issues of ontological truth are set aside, but not ‘explained away’. She argues that such experiences may be at the root of “religious experience”, and are thus vital to the field. Davids Wilson and Robertson discuss whether the transformative nature of these experiences is epistemological at core. Remembering our critical approach, however, Jonathan challenges the emerging consensus that different methodologies require different epistemological postulates to be made sense of. It gets fairly heated.

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.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make, whether it is religious studies related or not. Remember, the holidays are coming…

Material Religion Roundtable

Unless you have had your head buried in the sand for the past decade or so, if you are involved in the academic study of ‘religion’ you will have come across the field of ‘Material Religion’. People have Leading international Religious Studies podcasts have focused on it. And the BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group made it the focus of their annual conference at Durham University, UK, in April of this year.

David with conference organizer Tim Hutchings enjoying a well-earned pint at the Swan and Three Cygnets

David with conference organizer Tim Hutchings enjoying a well-earned pint at the Swan and Three Cygnets

However, what exactly does Material Religion bring to Religious Studies? Is it a potentially revolutionary phenomenon, or merely a passing fad? How might one apply the theoretical perspectives and methodologies developed in this growing field to some of the defining debates of our subject area? To discuss these issues, and reflect on the conference in general, RSP hosts David Robertson and Christopher Cotter were joined by George Ioannides, Rachel Hanneman and Dr David Wilson (and some local regulars in the background) in the Swan and Three Cygnets pub in Durham, immediately after the conference finished. This week’s podcast is a recording of their discussion.

You can also download this roundtable, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Material Religion with David Morgan, Religion, Space and Locality with Kim Knott, and Religion and the Built Environment with Peter Collins.

Meet the Discussants:

CotterChristopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Rachel Hanemann is working on her PhD at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Her research examines the role of the body in processes of religious formation and as a managed site of identity at an all-girls Catholic secondary school in London. She feels that this biographical note thoroughly encapsulates her as a person. Chris forgot to ask her for a picture to use on this page. He apologises profusely and is wearing the cone of shame.

GeorgeGeorge Ioannides studied comparative religion as part of his Undergraduate degree at the University of Sydney, Australia.

 

 

DavidDavid G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Publications include “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) and “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2012). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.

david wilsonDavid Gordon Wilson wears many hats. He served as a solicitor, then partner, then managing partner  in Scotland, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Egypt, before returning to university to embark on a Religious Studies degree. His PhD at the University of Edinburgh focused upon spiritualist mediumship as a contemporary form of shamanism, and his monograph has recently been published with Bloomsbury, titled Redefining Shamanisms: Spiritualist Mediums and Other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes. Wearing one of his other hats, David is a practising spiritualist medium and healer, and among his many connected roles, he is currently the President of the Scottish Association of Spiritual Healers.

Religion and the News Panel

It goes without saying that ‘religion’ is a topic that frequently finds itself in the media spotlight. Whether we are talking about the recent Boston Marathon bombings, the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, the Arab Spring, or the recent critique of the UK government’s welfare policy levelled by four major British churches, the ways in which the media negotiates, constructs and engages with this complex category has an enormous impact upon public opinion and understanding, and is increasingly relevant to academics, religious practitioners, journalists and the wider public. It was with this in mind that the Religious Studies Project, in collaboration with the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture, presented a panel session at the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference in Durham on 10 April 2013. This panel session brought together Eileen Barker, Tim Hutchings, Christopher Landau and David Wilson, who each have a unique position on this topic by virtue of their positions working with or for the media, to discuss and reflect on a recent edited volume by Jolyon Mitchell and Owen Gower – aptly titled Religion and the News. This podcast presents the edited audio recording of this panel session, and marks a new development for the Religious Studies Project which shall hopefully be employed at future conferences.

You can also download this panel discussion, 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. As a result of this podcast, David Wilson also published a review of the book in the Journal of Religion, Media & Digital Culture.

Religion in the News is an edited volume, published in October 2012 by Ashgate, and edited by Jolyon Mitchell and Owen Gower. Jolyon Mitchell is the Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh, where he is also senior lecturer in Communications, Theology & Ethics, and convenor of the Theology & Ethics subject area. Owen Gower is a Senior Fellow at Cumberland Lodge, an educational charity specializing in cross-sector co-operation and matters affecting the development of society. The book brings together academics, practitioners, and media professionals in a collection of 19 chapters exploring everything form the news coverage of the “Occupy” protests at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, to the representation of Sikhs in the mainstream media, and from the problematic notion of journalistic neutrality, to the problematic definition of religion.

Reflective of this diverse range of perspectives in the book, we brought together four academics who each have a unique position on the contents of the book by virtue of their positions working with or for the media. Their biographies are presented below, in the order in which they speak.

David Gordon Wilson wears many hats. He served as a solicitor, then partner, then managing partner  in Scotland, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Egypt, before returning to university to embark on a Religious Studies degree. His PhD at the University of Edinburgh focused upon spiritualist mediumship as a contemporary form of shamanism, and his monograph has recently been published with Bloomsbury, titled Redefining Shamanisms: Spiritualist Mediums and Other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes. Wearing one of his other hats, David is a practising spiritualist medium and healer, and among his many connected roles, he is currently the President of the Scottish Association of Spiritual Healers.

Christopher Landau studied Theology at Cambridge University before gaining a BBC News traineeship in 2002. He spent eight years at the BBC, working as a radio reporter and television news producer, both in general news journalism and as a specialist covering religion. He was a reporter for Sunday, and then World at One and PM on Radio 4 before being appointed World Service religious affairs correspondent in 2008. In 2010 he left the BBC to begin doctoral studies at Oxford University combined with training for ordination in the Church of England. He is involved with a project to establish a Religion Media Centre, based on the model of the Science Media Centre.

Eileen Barker is Professor Emeritus of Sociology with Special Reference to the Study of Religion at the London School of Economics,University of London. Her main research interests are ‘cults’, ‘sects’ and new religious movements, and changes in the religious situation in post-communist countries. She has over 350 publications (translated into 27 different languages), which include the award-winning The Making of a Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice? and New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction. In the late 1980s, with the support of the British Government and mainstream Churches, she founded INFORM, an educational charity based at the LSE which aims to provide information about minority religions that is as accurate, objective and up-to-date as possible. She is a frequent advisor to governments, other official bodies and law-enforcement agencies throughout the world, has made numerous appearances on television and radio, and has been invited to give guest lectures in over 50 countries.

Tim Hutchings is a sociologist of religion, media and culture, and currently Research Fellow at the Open University. His research interests include digital Christianity, death and media, and the digital humanities. He received his PhD (“Creating Church Online”) from Durham University in 2010 and recently completed a 15-month fellowship at HUMlab digital humanities research laboratory, Umea University, Sweden. His current research focuses on the future of the Bible as a digital text. He is also the editor of the Journal of Religion, Media & Digital Culture.

Religious Experience

In this wide-ranging interview (our 50th!), Ann Taves and David Wilson discuss the concept of religious experience. Taves challenges traditional models of religious experience, rejecting both an essentialist approach with a sui generis category and a constructivist approach which accepts only discourses. Instead, she argues that not only can we examine unusual experiences in themselves, as they affect individual agents. From there, we can examine how these experiences become reified and institutionalised by specific traditions, as well as providing impetus for new religious movements. Taves’ work utilises historical and ethnographic methods in an attempt to establish an approach which might allow cross-cultural and diachronic analysis of unusual experiences without recourse to specific theologies.

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

Ann Taves is Professor of Religious Studies and holder of the Virgil Cordano OFM Chair in Catholic Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, a position she has held since 2005. Previously she taught at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate School. Her major publications include Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things (Princeton University Press, 2009), which received the 2010 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and Fits, Trances and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, 1999), which received the Outstanding Professional and Scholarly Book Award in Philosophy and Religion from the Association of American Publishers in 2000.

Christmas Special – Only 60 Seconds!

Welcome to the Religious Studies Project Christmas (and 1st Anniversary) Special – Only 60 Seconds!

Can Steve Sutcliffe talk about “habitus” for a full 60 seconds without deviation, hesitation or repetition? How much does David Wilson know about “Postmodernism”? Mr David Robertson is your host (ably assisted by the lovely Samantha Mr Chris Cotter) for this special festive episode of the Religious Studies Pro Recorded live in Edinburgh on December 20th, 2012. Be forewarned of some bad language. All resemblance to BBC panel games, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Non-denominational seasonal greetings to all our listeners, and best wishes for 2013. This has been an incredible first year for the RSP, and Chris, Louise and I extend sincere thanks to everyone who has contributed in any capacity. We have big plans for year 2, and if you have any ideas, we want to hear them! We’ll be back on January 21st, bigger and better than ever. Thanks for listening.

(Thanks to Andrea Quillen for taking photos, and to David Jack for audio assistance.)

Jonathan Tuckett  is currently a PhD student at the University of Stirling. He has an MA in Philosophy and Religious Studies and an MSc in Religious Studies from the University of Edinburgh. His research is on the phenomenological method in the study of religion. Areas of interest include the phenomenology of religion, theory and method in the study of religion, and philosophy of religion. Jonathan is also an Assistant Editor for the Religious Studies Project.

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Steven Sutcliffe is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh where he teaches and researches in the areas of ‘new age religion’ and ‘holistic spirituality’, in the effects of the discourse and practice of ‘religion’ in contemporary culture and society, and on theory and method in the study of religion, including the history of its modern academic study. He is the author of Children of the New Age, editor of Religion: Empirical Studies, and co-editor (with Marion Bowman) of Beyond the New Age.

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.

David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Recent publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2013). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.

David Wilson is a former partner in a City of London law firm, which involved spending ten years living and working in the Middle East. Getting bored with that, David returned to the University of Edinburgh to embark upon a PhD in religious studies, entitled ‘Spiritualist Mediums and other Traditional Shamans: towards an apprenticeship model of shamanic practice’. He is the author of ‘Waking the Entranced: Reassessing Spiritualist Mediumship Through a Comparison of Spiritualist and Shamanic Spirit Possession Practices’ in Schmidt, B. A. and Huskinson, L. (eds.) (2010), and ‘Spirit Possession and Trance: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives’ (2010). His first book, ‘Redefining Shamanism: Spiritualist Mediums and other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes’, will be published in January 2013.

Book Reviews

When we were contacted earlier this year by a couple of publishers asking if we’d be interested in reviewing books, we immediately thought “Yes – but how?” We’re not a journal, and didn’t want to do the traditional journal review, but we do love books, and especially talking about them. So when Chris suggested we could combine several reviews into a roundtable format, we thought we had to give it a try.

For this first try at a new format, we thought it best to invite a few trusty friends. After many attempts, we finally managed to get David Wilson to a recording. He reviewed Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief, edited by Marion Bowman and Ülo Valk (2012: Equinox). He calls it “a valuable contribution to the task of increasing scholarly awareness of the need to attend to the variety of local practices that are accepted as ‘religious’ but which have tended to be overlooked when investigating religion in terms of ‘world’ religions“. It doesn’t offer easy answers, however, and “like many of the dialogues it explores, this collection is courteously, but deliberately, disruptive“. Read his full review here.

Chris reviewed Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present, edited by David Goodhew. The book purports to ‘provide a forceful critique of the notion of secularization’ “by focusing upon the attendance and membership of Christian churches – the very thing which formed the empirical basis of the secularization thesis“. While he has issues with the volume’s theological imperative and uncritical acceptance of the secularisation thesis, Chris pointed out that it demonstrates “the potential for scholarly theories to, in some cases,  become self-fulfilling prophesies when released into the real world“. You can read his full review here.

Jonathan – philosophical as always – asked to review  Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality: Testing Religious Truth-claims by R. Scott Smith (Ashgate 2012). He was less than impressed. As an introduction to naturalism, the philosophical position that there are no non-empirical entities, it is unsatisfactory, because it is “a thinly veiled Christian apologetic dressed in a philosophical discussion about naturalism”. His full review can be read here.

Finally, I reviewed Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox, 2012). It is essentially an introduction to critical theory (a “socio-functional” approach which seeks to expose the assumptions which a given group takes for granted) as applied to the study of religion, and aimed at an undergraduate level. “Religion” is a powerful tool in the naturalisation of socio-epistemological norms, of course, but the book is most interesting pedagogically, in offering “a potential alternative Introduction to Religious Studies course than the “here are the world religions” approach that concerns many of us”You can read my review here.

This has been enjoyable, but a lot of work. Please let us know if you found it useful and/or entertaining. We’re open to hearing about other books you’d like us to review, or if you’d like to take part in a future recording (for example, at the next BASR conference…). And we are enormously grateful to Ashgate and Equinox for providing us with books to review.

Marx, Spiritualism and Power

By David G. M. Wilson, Edinburgh.

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 20 June 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Titus Hjelm on “Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion” (18 June 2012).

Titus Hjelm and Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religion

I begin this response to Titus Hjelm’s discussion of the continuing relevance of Marxist approaches to the study of religion by noting his assertion that Marx is underemployed as a source of ideas, partly because he has generally been regarded as critical of religion. A number of additional reasons are also relevant. One difficulty for Marxist scholars has been the extent to which the predictive power of Marxist models was brought into question as the twentieth century unfolded. Yet many of Marx’s particular criticisms are not only relevant to western society of his day but continue to be relevant because of their ability to highlight the extent to which particular classes (or constituencies) are still able to maintain powerful social positions. The problems and characteristics of western society that were highlighted by Marxist approaches are still with us; if the predictive power of Marxist approaches has seemed problematic, this may simply be an indication that our understanding of the mechanisms involved has been partial.

Any plea for the continuing relevance of Marx is also a plea for the continuing importance of the sociological study of religion, of attending to the many aspects of the relationships that human beings maintain with each other. In the past, this stance has often relied upon insights derived from the core Marxist idea of class struggle, which has generally led scholars to focus upon collective behaviour. As Hjelm indicates, one possible response is to pay closer attention to the socially constructed ways in which human beings individually behave, and he mentions Peter Berger as a scholar using the Marxist concept of alienation to explore through critical discourse analysis the ways in which ideologies (including the teachings of particular religious traditions) maintain themselves (Norman Fairclough). The argument, essentially, is that there is progress to be made in understanding the mechanisms involved by examining particular examples.

This is an approach that may also offer insights relevant to the cognitive study of religion; for example, it may be possible to draw upon the work of scholars such as Barbara Rogoff, who explores human cognition as a socially constructed learning outcome. I am often heard making the argument that adherence to religious (and other) traditions can usefully be comprehended as an apprenticeship outcome, but in order to understand fully what I mean by this, it is important to attend not only to the linguistic dialogues people maintain with each other but also to their other behavioural dialogues. Rogoff’s emphasis upon human cognition as the outcome of an apprenticeship based upon guided participation is extremely valuable here. The human ability to think, to problem-solve, is acquired from those who have power over us during the years when we begin to come to consciousness. Hjelm is wise, therefore, to ask why social class (or other social constituency) tends not to be explored in religion, given that it has long been recognized that class and power are closely-connected.

This nexus of issues is particularly relevant to my own scholarly interests, which focus upon western mediumship as my particular specialism within spirit communication traditions, particularly shamanism. Spiritualism is often described as a ‘working-class religion’, based upon scholarly characterization of those who generally attend demonstrations of mediumship. It tends also to be described as ‘marginal’, even though scholars such as Martin Stringer suggest that resort to mediums and psychics is a widespread form of engagement with the ‘non-empirical’ in contemporary western society, something he regards as central to what religion is ‘about’. The marginality of Spiritualism lies not in a lack of those practising and/or interested but in its marginalization by more dominant discourses. It is not only more powerful religious discourses that are guilty here: the number of western scholars willing to conduct research in this field is small, a situation that is both the product of past marginalization and an effective way of ensuring continuing marginalization.

There is obvious scope for exploring the exclusion of Spiritualism as a class issue, but there is also scope for exploring the relationships within the Spiritualist movement in terms of the different constituencies, as I call them, that subsist within it. My own forthcoming book undertakes a certain amount of work here, exploring the institution of mediumship and how that craft is learned as being central to the maintenance of the Spiritualist movement. I also draw attention to Robin Wooffitt’s work ‘The Language of Mediums and Psychics’ as a valuable example of critical dialogue analysis, exploring the maintenance of mediumistic authority vis-à-vis clients, reminding us that ‘class’ distinctions are maintained within (as well as among) religious traditions, precisely because this is key to the maintenance of authority. Comprehending the internal exercise of power (between different classes or categories of practitioner or adherent) can be crucial in understanding the persistence of particular religious traditions, and may therefore be an important component in understanding the persistence of religion generally in a supposedly secularized western society.

Hjelm notes as classically Marxist the suggestion that more welfare (in the sense of material wellbeing) should lead to less religion, based upon the perception that if peoples’ material needs are met in this world, they become less interested in the next. A difficulty for traditional Marxist approaches is that, although western society has prospered, it has become clear that both religion and class have persisted. In this, Marx may have missed the transformative role religion can play in people’s lives (often only when relieved from pressing material need), because his concern was to highlight the extent to which religion as a coping mechanism can derive from the use of religion as a controlling mechanism.* Yet although Marxist approaches may not have offered an adequate explanation, many of the issues Marx was concerned with remain, challenging us to explore.

Marx’s concept of alienation was closely allied to his perception of capitalist systems of production (like their feudal predecessors) as decreasing the available social space for individual self-expression, a point made by Terry Eagleton. Unlike some Marxists, Marx was not a scholar who comprehended society in terms of monolithic, opposed classes but was, instead, a writer, an artist, who appreciated social variety as crucial to individual flowering and who opposed social forces that might hinder it, including (if not especially) the deliberate exercise of power so as to require conformity. Hjelm’s plea for a focus upon the individual and the induction of general rules from the careful, patient study of what people actually say and do is, I suggest, more truly Marxist than many previous (supposedly Marxist) approaches; at the very least, it implies a measure of respect.

  • The distinction between coping and transformative religion is taken from Stringer.

Bibliography

Eagleton, T.: 2011. Why Marx was Right, Yale University Press.

Fairclough, N.: 2010. Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language, Longman, (2nd edn).

Luckmann, T. and Berger, P. L.: 1991. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, Penguin.

Rogoff, B.: 1990. Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context, Oxford University Press.

Stringer, M: 2008. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion, Continuum.

Wilson, D. G. M.: forthcoming December 2012. Redefining Shamanism: Spiritualist Mediums and other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes, Continuum/Bloomsbury Academic.

Wooffitt, R.: 2006. The Language of Mediums and Psychics: The Social Organization of Everyday Miracles, Ashgate.

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