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Study of Religion in Peru

UnfCTAnTfj8yQGyHYpsbntqMPeru’s religious inheritance has been the subject of inquiry by scholars since the first decade of the twentieth century (Ortmann, 2002). In this RSP interview, we are joined by professor Dorothea Ortmann from the University of Rostock, to discuss the foundations of the study of religion in this country. She first states the major differences between the confessional studies or studies oriented to theological or pastoral matters, and the social scientific study of religious phenomena (Ortmann, 2004). She then follows the conversation by giving some background history of the most notable works from the first attempts at doing research on the sciences of religion. Particularly important are the works of Tello (1943), Larco Hoyle (1946), Valcárcel (2009), and Carrión (2005).

In what remains of the interview, professor Ortmann discusses the public benefits of studying religion. It ends with an interesting discussion about the current institutional and theoretical situations of the field in Peru, taking into account new tendencies coming from Europe and North America (Xygalatas, 2015).

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References
-Carrión, R. (2005). Culto al agua en el antiguo Perú. Lima: Instituto Nacional de Cultura.
-Ortmann, D. (2002). Ciencias de la religión en el Perú. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos.
-Ortmann, D. (2004). “Fundamentos de las Ciencias de la Religión”. In Ortmann, Dorothea (compiler). Anuario de Ciencias de La Religión: Las Religiones En El Perú de Hoy. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, pp. 13–29.
-Larco Hoyle, R. (1946). A culture sequence of the north coast of Perú. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. Accesed on: August 15, 2016.
http://www.museolarco.org/listapublicaciones/a-culture-sequence-for-the-north-coast-of-peru/
-Tello, J. (1943). “Sobre el descubrimiento de la cultura Chavín en el Perú”. Letras. Lima, No. 26, pp. 226-373.
-Valcárcel, L. (2011). Machu Picchu. Lima: Fondo de Cultura Económica
-Xygalatas, Dimitris (2015). IACSR year in review: 2015. Georgia. Accessed on: January 15 of 2016.

Healing and higher power: a response to Dr Wendy Dossett

Headlines warning of the social fallout from alcohol and drug addiction often fail to record the remarkable fact that hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have successfully “recovered” from these often devastating dependencies.  The highly lauded “12 Steps” programme, that has fronted the decades long efforts of both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, as well as similar organisations, have undoubtedly saved many lives.

At the heart of this success story is an acceptance of a spiritual “higher power” available to all, one which supersedes mere will power and puts them on the road to recovery. In her interview Dr Wendy Dossett explains that Bill Wilson and Dr Robert Smith, founders of the AA and the 12 Steps programme, were influenced by the religious practices of the Oxford Group, a conservative evangelical form of Protestantism, which looked back to the early Christian church for its inspiration. As a result the pair believed alcoholism was a “spiritual malady”.

However, Dossett agrees that this “higher power” in no way automatically means the “God of religion”.  The religious studies academic, a senior lecturer at Chester University, tells the interviewer this higher power “can be anything so long as it is not will power”. Discussing her research she explains that while some of the recovered addicts she spoke to about their experiences identified this power with God, others variously described it as the “spirit of the universe”, nature, or even ”the force” – an echo of Star Wars.  On the other hand, a number felt this power was derived from fellow addicts in their recovery group, while some associated it with their friends and one even initially identified it as the ‘unconditional love’ from her cat.

Dossett makes clear it is essential that religious studies researchers listen to, value and document the experiences of the practitioners of contemporary spiritualities.  And it is equally appropriate for them to use their subject knowledge and skills to identify the religious elements and separate them out so that they did not unduly influence the interpretation of their findings. What resulted in her work “is the actual experience of people who work these programmes”.

It is worthwhile at this stage to point out that while Dossett describes of what she has discovered, what the ‘higher power’ or ‘spirituality’ can mean to others, she offers no definition of her own. I suggest that this disinclination to define the words limits or even forecloses their meaning.  To support her view that the ‘higher power’ is not necessarily religious she referred to Robert C. Fuller’s book (Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America, OUP, 2001) which made it clear that although organisations like AA were spiritual they were not aligned to any religion or faith and had no “requirements of belief to be a member”. However does this not beg the familiar question: can we genuinely understand spirituality without relating it to religion or metaphysics?  Can we legitimately define it to be whatever anyone wants it to be at any particular time?  Is there not a danger that a concept like spirituality, when deprived of a specific definition, loses its depth and profundity?

In a direct challenge to those unprepared to countenance a metaphysical view viewpoint, the late Vaclav Havel once warned: “Man is not an omnipotent master of the universe, allowed to do with impunity whatever he thinks, or whatever suits him at the moment.”  The former Czech president and philosopher continued: “The world we live in is made of an immensely complex and mysterious tissue about which we know very little and which we must treat with utmost humility” [i]. It seems to me Havel’s reference to the “immensely complex and mysterious tissue” helps, to some extent, in explaining the concept of spirituality associated with the 12 Steps’ “higher power” and the remarkable recoveries Dossett documented in her research.  And I certainly feel the importance Havel gives to “humility” is mirrored by Dossett’s sensitive approach to her research group and the analysis of her findings.

While those that reject the concept of God can never associate the “higher power” with the divine, it is obviously still appropriate to explore if a metaphysical force might lie at the back of this power and, if so, what it might be. After all the origins of Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in the late 1930s, are undeniably Christian.

Given these Christian origins, it is relevant to look at the accounts of Jesus’ healings. Like those the programme has successfully treated, Jesus, too, spoke of a “higher power”, although he called it the “kingdom of heaven”.  Interestingly, he also said that he could do nothing on his own[ii], a remark that, in my view, alludes to a “power greater than ourselves”, a phrase 12 Steps participants have also used when explaining their recovery. The Bible clearly links Jesus’ view of the kingdom of heaven with the power he healed by.  Furthermore, later New Testament writings show others in the early Christian Church echoed Jesus’ cures.

But even Christians, particularly within the last 150 years, have often found it hard to regard Jesus’ healings as anything other than myths or natural events.  Paul Tillich recognised this neglect of the healing aspect of Jesus. He wrote that the Gospels ‘abound in stories of healing; but we are responsible, ministers, laymen, theologians, who forgot that “Saviour” means “healer”, he who makes whole and sane what is broken and insane, in body and mind’ [iii]Thus he identifies healing as an essential element of salvation.

Nevertheless, not only has the healing element of Christianity gone largely unacknowledged, it has in fact been almost subsumed by the advances of modern medicine. Be that as it may, many Christians combine their prayers with the work of doctors. In my research on Christianity and healing I am aware of several studies that identify the health benefits of a combined approach to healing such as those done by Harold G. Koenig at the Centre for Spirituality, Theology and Health, Duke University, North Carolina.

One denomination of Christianity was founded specifically on the practice of healing through reliance on the power of God alone. The French sociologist, Regis Dericquebourg, using the Weberian typification of ‘ideal types’, defines The Church of Christ, Scientist as the “first healing church”[iv].  Started by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879 – Christian Science was a precursor to the approach of the Oxford Group in that it looks to “primitive Christianity” for its inspiration and practice [v]. According to its own periodicals it claims hundreds of thousands of recoveries and cures, many accompanied by medical diagnoses.

If Jesus healed two millennia ago, if subsequent Christians have also used similar healing powers down the centuries, and, if the healings reported by Christian Scientists are genuine, it is plausible that the “higher power” of the 12 steps programme is sourced in a divine power It is beyond the scope of this commentary to explore what kind of divine power this is, but given the roots of the AA, it is likely to correspond with a Christian understanding of God. Whatever the case, the recoveries and healing experiences of those who use a ‘higher power’ are too numerous and too well documented for it not to evoke further study as to how it works and where it comes from. For all its reticence to use religious terminology and perhaps because of it, Dossett’s research indicates that the answers are going to be new and surprising.

Endnotes

[i] The New York Times, 3 June 1992

[ii] Luke 17: 21

[iii] Tillich P, The New Being, Scribner, New York, 1955, p42

[iv] Dericquebourg R, ‘Christian Science: The first healing church’ presented at The Evolutions of Christian Science in Scholarly Perspective seminar, April 23/24 2015, FVG Wilrijk-Antwerp, Belgium. Published in Acta Comparanda Subsidia ll, FVG, June 2015

[v] Church Manual, Christian Science Publishing Society, Boston, p17

Theoretical Veganism: Practicing Religious Studies without Religion

Aside from being an oxymoron, the thought of “meatless meatballs” can elicit strong reactions, whether of disgust, confusion, or hunger. Such products are capable of breeding suspicion, whether in regards to their taste, their origins, or their status as “food.” After all, what exactly is meatless meat? Although certainly contradictory in a sense, it has become code for a certain type of alternative or imitation product, which might be used for any of a number of reasons.

What does it mean for an imitation to be a “classic”?

What does it mean for an imitation to be a “classic”?

Of course, it is not just claims to being meat-free that are capable of raising suspicions. When I recently ordered a hamburger at a popular fast food chain, I found myself questioning, like many others before me, what exactly made up the “meat” I was being served. Although the contents of the patty of what I will call beef is presented as being fairly self-evident, often with labels such as “real beef,” “100% beef,” etc., there are plenty of questions worth asking about how that patty came into existence. What meat is used? What fillers are used? What were the cows being fed? What were their living conditions? Were they healthy? How was the meat handled? Whatever the answers, one thing is clear, the makeup of that burger reflects the interests of the corporation making a profit off of it. How can they save money on ingredients? How do they make the most profit? As with so many other things, it is important to know who benefits. That is perhaps why there have been so many rumors online about the supposed indiscretions of fast food corporations. Take for example the numerous articles and even an art project about McDonald’s hamburgers that show no signs of mold even years after purchase.

Although the corporations are not always guilty of the accusations made against them, the food industry nonetheless serves as a fascinating case study for understanding rhetoric and identification. What happens if we start applying this level of suspicion to the category of religion? Scholars have been doing this for years, although the results have been mixed. One such approach, deconstructing the concept of “religion,” has increasingly come into vogue in the study of religion in recent years, but the practical import of this approach is still hotly debated. After all, as the title of Kevin Schilbrack’s 2013 response to Timothy Fitzgerald asks pointedly, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion,’ Then What?” If the word is really bound up with the values of the so-called West, and especially with Protestant values, if its meaning if ambiguous, varied, and dependent upon the interests of the person using the word, how then ought the scholar to proceed? Schilbrack’s answer is “critical realism,” which seeks balance between criticality towards how terminology is used and knowledge of pre- or non-linguistic realities. On this approach, the question is whether or not a definition of religion can be made that is useful for understanding those realities.  Rather than constructing a “working definition,” others, like Daniel Dubuisson, suggest alternative language that they see as less value laden, such as “cosmographic formations.”

At this point, enter Teemu Taira’s work. In studying Karhun kansa (People of the bear), a small, officially recognized, religious group in Finland, with about thirty members, Taira takes an interesting and seemingly useful approach: he does not define religion at all, nor does he use it as a descriptive category. Instead, he is interested in studying how other people are using the word “religion,” with Karhun kansa serving as just one case study within the varied contexts in which “religion” is used discursively. There are benefits and drawbacks to being classified as a religion, as Taira points out in regards to the ability to perform marriage ceremonies and to be afforded certain legal rights and protections. On the other hand, groups might also try and skirt around those definitions when it suits their social or political interests. What do we do as scholars when people want to call themselves spiritual but not religious, claim to be philosophy rather than religion, or when Christians say they have a relationship, not a religion? We could impose terminology on these people, but does this get us closer to some sort of reality?

Perhaps it is time to stop treating the word “religion” as a tool of the scholar and to start treating it as the very object of study. On this account, theoretical veganism would be the refusal to use either religion or religion by-products, which I would suggest are the terms used by scholars that are roughly synonymous with religion but supposedly free of the same trappings, such as Dubuisson’s “cosmographic formations.”

My own research focuses on discourses surrounding “science and religion,” where I also consider the word “religion” (and the word “science” for that matter) to be the thing worth investigating rather than a way of describing my subject matter. I care not at all for how these concepts relate, because once deconstructed, it is hard to find any sort of connection left to those non-discursive realities that are of interest to the critical realists. Instead, it seems to me to be worth asking the important and seemingly oft-repeated mantra, “Who benefits?”

If we throw out every word that can be deconstructed, we may end up with scarcely any language left to use. Furthermore, as Taira notes, scholars are not disinterested observers, since analyzing discourse is itself a discursive practice, making scholars part of the world they study, so there will never be an interest-free vocabulary. Nonetheless, if a word is not useful, it may be better to relegate it to the junk heap. When presenting research at a conference a couple years ago, a senior scholar asked me about the possibilities for a viable definition of religion. In responding, I was reminded of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s apocryphal response to Napoleon when asked about the place of God in his work, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

References

Dubuisson, Daniel. 2003. The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology. Trans. William Sayers. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Schilbrack, Kevin. 2013. “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion,’ Then What? A Case for Critical Realism.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 25: 107-112.

The Deconstruction of Religion: So What?

In his interview with the RSP, Teemu Taira refers to his work as in some sense a response to Kevin Schilbrack’s 2013 paper, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion’, Then What?” However, I don’t find it speaking to the concerns of Schilbrack’s paper. This, is not to question the excellence of Taira’s work, scholarship, or methodology, all of which I am deeply impressed with. I want to make that clear at the outset; my aim or critique here is not of Taira’s own work or methods but rather a specific way of understanding and using deconstruction that has emerged in the study of religion. It is the take on the deconstructive project which is at stake.

Schilbrack contrasts the deconstruction of religion he finds in Timothy Fitzgerald, and I may note principle adherents such as Russell McCutcheon, with what he sees as his own approach. He identifies agreement on three main points which I may briefly gloss as follows:

  • What we call religion is created by human discourse and behaviour.
  • “Religion” exists only in relation to other terms, the most important of which is “secular”.
  • The separation of the religious and secular as distinct spheres is a modern phenomenon.

So far, so good. I imagine we are all agreed. This accords with Taira’s own discussion of these terms I think. Where I agree with Schilbrack, against many deconstructivists, is that we then have to continue speaking of religion because rather than being merely an empty signifier, or a phantasm, those phenomena we have called and termed religious, or as religions, have a reality in the world.

Taira argues that he is following Schilbrack by showing the “What Next.” As such, he gives his case studies of traditions which people have termed religion and showing the social, political, and power issues involved in claiming or employing the term. However, Taira is very clear that he never says what the term “religion” is. It is merely his object of study, or, rather, religion itself is not his object of study (how can it be when it has no real existence); it is other people’s use of the term that he studies and analyses. At several points in the interview, Taira is clear in stating that he makes no claim as to whether anything is or is not a religion, nor does he try and give any definition to the term. It remains for him an empty signifier which others fill.

It is on the refusal to try and define or even to engage in discourse about how the term may be used that I see the problem arising. Notably, my problem is not with deconstructionism itself, nor do I want to argue here what “properly” follows Derrida. I am critiquing a particular tradition, or employment of, deconstruction which is the fashionable modus operandi of many scholars in the study of religion. So why do I see it as a problem? I will break this down into four points, though each is related to the others.

First, as Schilbrack notes it becomes “an end in itself.” It says: “Look, this is what other people think religion is, but I know better: there is no religion. So, now I can uncover their power games.” Practiced simply as a tool, it fails to engage the social reality that actually exists.

Second, such deconstruction actually shows nothing new. Whether or not we had deconstructed religion we can see that there are social, financial, legal, etc. benefits to being a religion. We could also see that people claim the term or deny it (to others) to give advantage or prestige.

Third, often deconstructing “religion” becomes facile or sacred. Facile because it is common for deconstructivists to argue that we cannot separate religion from culture, however, “culture” itself is an equally problematic term of contemporary Western provenance.(Or else we are told “religion” can be analysed by relation to other deconstructable terms like law, politics, etc.); Sacred, because “religion” is set apart as uniquely problematic, constructed, and “false;” it can be analysed by reference to, or seen as a part of, politics, law, culture but only “religion” is such an empty signifier that it can have no analytic validity. (How would we show this?)

Fourth, even if we show that many terms such as politics, law, culture, society, are also constructed (generally in relation to each other) we still get no further if we simply say all words are empty signifiers (which in one sense, of course, they are). We stay with the first problem that it is a meaningless deconstruction. Once done we simply ask: “So what?”. I will suggest the reasons for this are twofold: firstly, theoretical and linguistic; secondly, political.

Theory: scholars who deconstruct without re-construction undertake a feeble version of deconstruction that undermines itself (often without realising it). Every word has a history and baggage that comes with it. If we play the deconstructivist game of showing that religion, culture, politics, theory, method, society, medicine, science and every term is unstable then simply we are left unable to speak. Indeed, the words which we used to destabilise others are themselves unstable. It is meaningless unless we must say how and why we will choose to use certain words, and reflexively acknowledge our place within a lineage of speaking (as noted, some scholars try and get round this by treating “religion” as its own sacred category).

Politics: many scholars of religion argue that to be part of a “critical”, or “properly scholarly”, tradition they must avoid any advocacy, simply being analysts of other people’s discourse. However, as Taira notes: “Analysing discourse is itself a discursive practice.” To claim, therefore, simply to be analysing other people’s discourse and never to define the term yourself is an impossible act. The discourse on the term creates discourse. Indeed, by refusing to say how it may be used, the scholar is being a political animal. To play on a well-known adage: “To refuse to speak is itself a political act;” “to refuse to be an advocate, is to support the status quo;” “to refuse to define, is itself a form of definition.” Schilbrack observes that saying the borders of nation states are arbitrary and imagined human constructs when people are fighting and dying over them is at best unhelpful. Pretending to be objective analysts of other people’s discourse and the borders of what is and is not religion is equally unhelpful. The modern scholar of religion risks becoming an academic laughing stock not because he uses an outdated and outmoded concept of “religion” but by refusing to admit that it really does exist as a social reality and to engage in discussion about how to use the term. It is bad deconstruction, bad scholarship, and bad politics.

References

Kevin Schilbrack, 2013, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion’, Then What?: A Case for Critical Realism”, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 25: 1, pp. 107-12.

Categorising “Religion”: From Case Studies to Methodology

The category of “religion” is often referred to as slippery or problematic. As such, scholars have sought to deconstruct the term in order to be free of its weight. But what happens after the deconstruction – where we go from there? How do we study particular cases? How are new groups officially recognised? What roles to scholars play in the application of the term to new groups? In this interview, Dr Teemu Taira discusses the role of marginal traditions in understanding the application of the term “religion” in differing context, in particular he discusses Karhun Kansa, the People of the Bear. This leads onto a methodological discussion on the use of the term and the role scholars play in this discourse.

Want to check out all of the great responses Taira’s podcast has prompted? Here’s a list: “The Deconstruction of Religion: So What?“; “Theoretical Veganism: Practicing Religious Studies without Religion“; “Whither the Study of Religion and Culture?“; “On deconstructing the deconstruction of the deconstruction of the category of religion“; “‘What happens after the deconstruction?’“; “The Blind Leading the Seeing“; “Shivers Up My Spine“; If you know of a response we may have missed, send us an email.

Religion and the Media, Studying Nonreligion in Religious Studies, and Religion in the UK 2011 Census. 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, door mats, LARPing gear, and more.


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


Categorising “Religion”: From Case Studies to Methodology

Podcast with Teemu Taira (19 September 2016).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon

Transcribed by Claire Berlinger.

Transcript available at: Taira – Categorising Religion 1.2

Breann Fallon (BF): The category of religion is often referred to as slippery or problematic. As such, scholars have sought to deconstruct the term in order to be free of its weight. But what happens after the deconstruction – where do we go from there? How do we study particular cases? How are new groups officially recognized? What roles do scholars play in the application of the term to new groups? To discuss his work on Karhun Kansa, the People of the Bear, the category of religion, and deconstruction methodologies, I have with me a long-time friend of the Religion Studies Project, Dr. Teemu Taira. Taira is a senior lecturer at the Department of the Study of Religions at the University of Helsinki, and Docent at the Department of Comparative Religion at the University of Turku. His recent publications include “Discourse on ‘Religion’ in Organizing Social Practices” in Making Religion and “Doing things with ‘Religion’: A Discursive Approach in Rethinking the World Religions Paradigm” in After World Religions. Thank you very much for joining us today.

Teemu Taira (TT): Thank you for inviting me.

BF: So, what we’re going to talk about today is part of a conference presentation that you presented at EASR 2016. If you just wanted to run through the idea of deconstructing the term “religion”it has a long history at the Religious Studies Project, it’s something we’ve talked about a lotbut the introduction you gave at the presentation was very useful, I think.

TT: I’ve been a big fan of scholars who have written critically about the category of “religion,” the fact that its history, its origins and emergents, and many of these scholars, such as Talal Asad, Daniel Dubuisson, Tim Fitzgerald, Russell McCutcheon, Brent Nongbri, J. Z. Smith , and many others have argued that religion is unhelpful and thoroughly problematic as a category. These scholars prefer in their understanding whether religion should be used at all in our analysis. Some say that it can be used for heuristic purposes in particular research, and some say that it’s better not to use it at all because the problems related to the category surpass the benefits of using it. This kind of work is largely understood to be deconstructive in a sense that these scholars have detected the history of the emergence of the modern category of religion and problematized its usefulness. And then, some scholars, actually quite many scholars, ask questions like, “Where do we go from here?” One particular example of this is an article by Kevin Schilbrack entitled “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion’: Then What?” that was published in 2013 in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion. My approach is in a way my answer to that question. (5:00)

BF: So, your answer to the questionwe might work through the case study of the People of the Bear. Would you like to tell us a little bit about the People of the Bear?

TT: Yeah. The People of the Bear, Karhun Kansa. We’re actually talking about a very small Finnish group. They have approximately 30 members, so it’s very small. It’s currently a registered religious community in Finland. They see themselves as part of Suomenusko, Finnish faith. There are other groups who see themselves as part of that same faith or religion, however they want to call it, but the People of the Bear is the only one that is registered as a religious community, and is the only one that has attempted to register as a religious community in Finland. The name “People of the Bear” comes from the idea that the bear is understood the mythical ancestor of mankind. This is actually quite an old idea that comes from Finnish pre-Christian mythology. In addition, they consider nature and its parts, places, certain stones, sacred. But they don’t define themselves as a pagan group, they never use the term in their application, but that’s how people often classify them. It has some affinities with other groups which as self-identifying as pagans. One thing that is quite important for the People of the Bear is that they consider Karhujuhla, a Finnish national epic, as inspiration for them, as well as all the things we know about Finnish pre-Christian worldviews and mythologies. That’s basically what Karhun Kansa is about.

BF: Why did they want to be recognized and how did that process go for them in becoming a “religion,” to use the term?

TT: Karhun Kansa applied for the status of religious community in 2012, and the case is very interesting because they first got their expert report from the committee, and that was negative. But in Finland, it is possible to revise the application, and then you have to adjust yourself to the demands of the committee. There are some formal requirements, but also some technical issues. You have to use certain terms and phrase your ideas in a certain way for you to be considered seriously to be registered as a religious community. Obviously, the revised application was much better than the first one, but what I think is very interesting in this particular case is that they also received a lot of media coverage after the first negative report. For me, personally, this is an interesting case because I was involved in that media debate. First, through my blog post, and then it was taken in by the mainstream media, and, in the end, I ended up having a media discussion with the Ministry of the Interior in Finland, who is responsible for naming the expert committee. We can’t really talk through the case today, about all the details regarding the media coverage and the nuances of the application, but, in any case, in December 2013, a new positive expert report was released, and soon after that the People of the Bear were registered as a religious community in Finland. One thing that is very interesting in the whole case is to ask why they wanted to become registered as a religious community. There are a couple of benefits you get if you are registered. You may get a license to conduct valid ceremonies like marriages, funerals, name-giving ceremonies, and so on, and you may become part of religious education in schools. (10:00) You are eligible to apply for financial support from the Ministry of Education. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s some. You get legal protection under the law concerning freedom of religion, and in general, you get recognition from the society and people in the same field as well. People usually then consider that you are not just a cult or devious group when you have something on paper, when you are a registered religious community. In the case of Karhun Kansa, a very interesting thing was the fact that they consider certain stones sacred. There was this case in 2010 already, in the city of Hämeenlinna, where the biggest cup stone from the Iron Age was removed in 2010 away from the expansion of a car sales company. In Finland there is this Antiquities Act that protects the stones, but it allows removal as long as the stones remain unbroken. In their application, the People of the Bear stated that they honor particular sacred places and bring gifts to them, and they used cup stones as an example. They emphasized that they consider cup stones as sacred in their original location because they are taught to be ancient sacrificial sites. In Finland, all registered religious communities are able to appeal to the law concerning the sanctity of religion under the law and religious freedom, and this was explicitly pronounced by the chairperson of the People of the Bear, Oskari Ratinen, that a successful registration process may help them to make a case that the locations of cup stones are sacred to them. Thus, their removal would count as a case against the sanctity of religion. You can see that there were obvious benefits to becoming a registered religious community for the People of the Bear.

BF: They definitely seem to be having much more of a voice when they’re registered, as opposed to an unregistered community, which wouldn’t have that weight behind the removal of the stones, so there’s definitely a big benefit there. Are there any other case studies that you think are relevant before we move on to the methodology side of the interview?

TT: There are plenty of case studies that are useful to compare with this case and others, and I’ll just mention some of the case studies that I’ve done, myself. I’ve studied Wiccans in Finland and their registration process. They failed in that, but that’s a very interesting case anyways, because in that process the expert committee was really trying to make up their mind whether Wiccans can be regarded as religious. I’ve also studied Jedis in Britain; I’ve done one case study concerning that. I’ve studied the Druid Network in Britain jointly with Suzanne Owen. We co-authored a chapter on the case where the Druid Network received charity-level status under the “religion” banner in England and Wales. Even though laws are different in different countries—and it doesn’t have to be about law, it can be about other institutions for example—many cases have clear connections, even when the law and the context is different.

BF: These case studieswhat do they teach us about methodology and using the term “religion?” Should we be outlining it in our articles? You know, “For the purpose of this work religion is going to be ‘this.'” Do you think that’s un-useful? Should we be using a term like “faith” or “tradition?” Where do we go from here with these case studies?

TT: I think overall these case studies show how people make use of the category of “religion,” (15:00) how they promote their own interests, but if we look from the other direction, they also show how we are governed by the category of “religion.” In studying these cases, I am highlighting quite strongly that I don’t define “religion” in these particular cases. I study those cases where other people negotiate what counts as religion, and why something counts as religion, and the consequences of those processes. It is quite clear that many people find it very tempting to ask, in these so-called “boundary cases,” whether in my definition this is really a religion, or if a group is really not a religion, and I try to emphasize that I’m not doing that at all. Even when I was a part of this media debate concerning the People of the Bear, I never suggested that the People of the Bear were a religion, or were not, and I never suggested that the group should be granted the status of a religious community. I was simply trying to highlight how a society operates by using that category. Still, it is quite common that people still ask you the question, “How do you define ‘religion’ then?” Then I have to say that within this setting I’m not. I’m not arguing that religion cannot be used or defined nominally for particular purposes, but I’m insisting that these cases, if they are studied without defining “religion,” are much more interesting, and I think the results are more interesting—at least, that’s my opinion. Of course, we can debate endlessly what counts as interesting and relevant, but that’s my approach, and I try to demonstrate by doing these case studies that other people can see if they find the analysis interesting.

BF: I think sometimes we get so hung up on, “is it a religion, is it not” that we miss what else the case can offer. I think in these examples, for example the People of the Bear, the idea that their sacred stones were being moved and that idea of legitimacy is, in my opinion, more interestingas you say, we could debate thatthan whether they were a religion or not. There’s so much more to these case studies than just yes or no, this sort of black-and-white thinking; I don’t know what you think about that. So, how do you think power plays into this whole matter of the term “religion” and naming different boundary groups?

TT: I tend to ask quite simple questions in these case studies, such as, “Who benefits off of being a religion?” or “Who benefits off of denying the religiosity of a group or a practice?” I can also ask, “How are we governed?” if I’m trying to look at the level of state or society more broadly, not just a particular group. I think it is quite clear that people achieve something by being a religion, but that happens within the governing structures of society, so by being a religion you gain some, but at the same time, you lose some. When you get some concrete benefits you are usually moulded in such a way that you have to adjust yourself to the criteria that is used in an institution, in law, or wherever. That is typically so that you have to represent your group as somehow reminiscent of Protestant Christianity. At the same time you are marginalized or domesticated in a way, some people say you are ‘depoliticized’ in a way. (20:00) The idea goes that being a religion definitely guarantees some privileges to selected groups, but at the same time it distances them from the so-called “secular centre” of society, that of political, so-called “secular” power. That’s one of the main—and very simple—example of how analysis of power is part of these cases.

BF: Are there any examples you can think of where a group really didn’t want to apply to be officially labelled a “religion” in legal terms?

TT: There are actually many cases, even in the cases I’ve analysed, for example, Wiccans in Finland and the Druid Network in England and Wales. There are definitely plenty of self-identifying Druids in Britain who didn’t want to be part of that Druid Network. They considered it something that domesticates Druidry, and that they lose some of the experience of the nature of Druidry, and maybe lose something about their radical nature or their self-image as being radical people or a radical group. In Finland, Wiccans were quite strongly divided. Some wanted to put in the application and become registered as a religious community, and some said that they weren’t a religious group at all, and that those who were applying were just a bunch of weirdos—that they weren’t proper Wiccans at all. Then there are examples like groups in Finland who don’t want to be classified as a religion because, even though they may qualify as a religion according to many—even most—scholarly definitions of religion. Some groups just don’t want to do it because that’s how they are able to attract people to their events—maybe not members, but people for events, because in Finland many people are officially members of the Lutheran Church. You get the question of exclusion, whether you accept that there are two religions or religious identities and things like that. Some groups consider it better not to go down that route or do that debate at all. People reflect and negotiate what is most useful for them.

BF: This discourse seems to be working on many levels. There’s an element of power, there’s an element of benefit, but also those who are kind of railing against that. I know in your presentation you had six big points to summarize the discourse. I don’t know if you just wanted to run through that to wrap up the interview?

TT: Yeah. We’ve been talking already about the two methodological points that I wanted to make first, that we don’t have to define religion in these cases, and second was highlighting that power ***. The third point is that I argue that discourse operates on many levels, it’s not simply by looking at the origin of the modern discourse on religion or the modern category of religion. There are many useful studies focusing on that, and they are very good, but they are mostly focusing on the 18th and 19th centuries. I think they don’t talk enough about the many functions of the category of religion. I think it’s a more situational and contextual issue, and that is why we need empirical case studies, and my small contribution has been to that scholarship. My fourth point was that I’m very interested in these boundary cases. That is how discourses operate: by exclusion, by negotiating in boundaries. I think it’s very interesting to study when we use Foucauldian terms, when simple utterances become seriously taken statements. When statements are taken seriously they become more effective, usually they need some institutional support, whether that’s in school, in law, in parliament, or somewhere else. (25:00) The point I want to highlight is that—because some people say, “Is it useful to study these small groups, these marginal groups?”—I’m not really studying these marginal groups. They are cases about how discourse on religion works and changes. In my presentation I even suggested that it seems to me that there is something like what I call a “reflexive moment” going on in the category* of religion. People have become more aware of the work that the category of religion can do. That is how all those debates are so topical at the moment. Religion becomes more discussed, contested, challenged, and so on. We can negotiate whether that is really going on, has it always been the case, and what is really the historical change in that, but I’m just putting it on the table so that people can develop or criticize. My sixth point was a self-reflective point about scholars who also produce discourse on religion. Scholars are not, and they cannot be, total outsiders in these debates. Sometimes scholars are directly involved by giving expert statements or commenting in the media, but even in cases where scholars are not directly involved, they are sometimes referred to. In that sense, you cannot be an outsider, and this is something that should be reflected on in the analysis. Analysing discourse is itself a discursive practice; although it’s a different kind of discursive practice, nonetheless, it’s part of the field. Especially this case about the People of the Bear is interesting for me personally because I was so strongly involved in the public debate. This is sort of my answer to Kevin Schilbrack’s question, “After we deconstruct religion, then what?” We can analyse these cases.

BF: Yeah. They’re definitely very useful, and, as you say, they give us so much to think about, not just in terms of, “Are they religion or are they not?” but the benefits and the power and everything that’s playing into it. Any concluding points to leave us with?

TT: I think there are methodological tools to be developed in studying these cases. I don’t think that we really need a step-by-step method on how to do these case studies. What we need is to test and develop a theoretical vocabulary, what kind of terms we use and how we think about what kind of data is appropriate for these kinds of case studies. I’m doing it myself and I hope that some others are inspired to do that too.

BF: Great. I think that this has definitely given us a lot to think about, particularly in not just looking at the big cases, the Scientology cases and things like that. These sort of, as you say, boundary cases are so important in our discussion and in learning where we stand as scholars. So, thank you very much for joining us, and we look forward to interviewing you next time.

TT: Thank you.


Citation Info: Taira, Teemu 2016. “Categorising ‘Religion’: From Case Studies to Methodology”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 September 2016. Transcribed by Claire Berlinger. Version 1.1, 9 October 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/categorising-religion-from-case-studies-to-methodology/

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

RSP subscribers get a 30% discount on “Implicit Religion”!

Now published in collaboration with the Religious Studies Project, Implicit Religion was founded by Edward Bailey† in 1998 and formerly the Journal of the Centre for the Study of Implicit Religion and Contemporary Spirituality.

Subscribers to the RSP receive a 30% discount on subscriptions. Click here to access the journal’s subscription page and enter the code: DISCOUNT30

Exciting new directions for Implicit Religion:

This international journal offers a platform for scholarship that challenges the traditional boundary between religion and non-religion and the tacit assumptions underlying this distinction. It invites contributions from a critical perspective on various cultural formations that are usually excluded from religion by the gatekeeping practices of the general public, practitioners, the law, and even some scholars of religion. Taking a broad scope, Implicit Religion showcases analyses of material from the mundane to the extraordinary, but always with critical questions in mind such as: why is this data boundary-challenging? what do such marginal cases tell us about boundary management and category formation with respect to religion? and what interests are being served through acts of inclusion and exclusion?

New Religious Movements and Contemporary Discourses About Religion

As I listened to Susan Palmer’s RSP interview and read about her new co-authored book (with Stuart A. Wright) Storming Zion: Government Raids on Religious Communities (2015), I was reminded why NRMs make such useful case studies in the religious studies classroom. From a pedagogical perspective, the study of NRMs offers a valuable resource for creative teaching and theorizing about religion. In my introductory classes, for example, I use Scientology to illustrate how NRMs have negotiated with the state in their quest for legitimacy. There is plenty of great scholarship to assign, and students are often surprised to learn how seemingly unrelated government agencies–the Food and Drug Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation–helped legitimate Scientology’s “religion” status.

One of the most useful parts of Palmer’s interview, then, is her insistence on paying attention to the words people use to describe NRMs. Winnifred Sullivan, in her recent book, argues that the US government (and the US Supreme Court in particular) increasingly understands “religion” as “being neither particularly threatening nor particularly in need of protection” (17). The trend, as Sullivan and others have noted, is increasingly to see people as religious by default, even (and perhaps especially) those people who do not see themselves as religious. What, then, are we to make of religious groups whose relationship with the state do not fit this mold? How do we explain relationships so contentious that they result in raids and gun battles? At first glance, the events chronicled in Palmer’s Storming Zion seem to be outliers. Yet Palmer and Wright suggest elsewhere that these kinds of raids are more common than one might suspect. Why?

One possible answer is that increased attention to religion by international governments and NGOs has not necessarily resulted in less problematic models of religion being used by these governments and groups. As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has pointed out in her recent book, what scholars understand as “religion” often makes for unwieldy government use. Hurd demonstrates how government classifications of religion are by necessity rigid and slow to respond to change, leading governments to understand and engage religion in a clumsy–and in Palmer’s studies, dangerous–fashion.

Of course, most of the large-scale government efforts directed at cultivating appropriate forms of religion aren’t directed at the kinds of groups Palmer studies. It boils down to size, as Palmer and Robertson both note: smaller groups can be more easily dismissed or ignored by those in power. This is another example of the way in which governments separate religious groups into what might be called “serious” and “unserious” camps, an approach sometimes replicated by the scholars who study them. Both Palmer and Davidson call for more work to be done to change this status quo. They would like to see groups with little political or social capital treated similarly to “big name” religions–the groups that get chapters devoted to them in World Religions textbooks. They would like to see, to paraphrase JZ Smith, how the “exotic” NRMs are just another example of “what we see in Europe everyday.” Smith notes the difference by explaining it as a tension “between religion imagined as an exotic category of human experience and expression, and religion imagined as an ordinary category of human expression and activity.”[1] (1). Thus, as Palmer points out, even the seemingly “exotic” components of NRMs–things like brainwashing and deprogramming–should be both historicized and theorized.[2]

These considerations are timely ones. Though the interview focuses on what religion scholars might expect to hear on work related to NRMs–Raelians, Scientologists, millennial movements of various stripes–I was struck by how much of what was discussed would apply to Islam. Robertson and Palmer note how the media and popular culture tend to portray NRMs in particularly dismissive or fear-inducing ways. As events of recent weeks have again reminded us, what do we make of the fact that Islam is often discussed using similar language? The same kinds of militarized policing tactics directed at NRMs have, in recent weeks, been endorsed by a number of candidates for U.S. president as a means to control Muslims in the United States and around the world.

There’s a relevant history to this “NRM-ization” of Islam, particularly in the United States. Those interested in Palmer’s work, and in her work on government raids on NRMs, should also make time for Sylvester Johnson’s African-American Religions, 1500-2000, specifically his study of the history of the US government’s surveillance of and violence towards African-American Muslims. Johnson’s work highlights many of the tensions Palmer identifies: how classificatory criticism (“authentic” religion versus “cults”) bolstered state action against the political claims of new and emerging religious groups (in this specific case, the Nation of Islam). As a result, Johnson argues, “US officials increasingly resorted to the specific grammar of terrorism to represent political Islam.”[3] While scholars do not usually place global Islam within the category of new religious movements, Johnson shows how this early racialization of Islam within the United States shapes how global Islam is treated by the US government today.

For someone like myself, interested in questions of law and religion, the tension between emerging religious groups and state authorities is one of particular importance. Susan Palmer’s interview is a great example of why new religious movements make such good tools with which scholars can think about the study of religion.

[1] Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University Of Chicago Press, 1982), xii.

[2] For one excellent and recent example, see Matthew Dunne, A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

[3] Sylvester Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 382.

There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Cat: Comments on Kocku von Stuckrad’s Discursive Approach

There is more than one discursive approach in religious studies. In his interview with the RSP, professor Kocku von Stuckrad outlines some of the key issues that are relevant for constructing a discourse theoretical framework for religious studies. As I have tried to contribute to a similar framework in some of my publications, it comes as no surprise that my overall approach to von Stuckrad’s interview is highly appreciative. Therefore, I shall simply add some nuances to the interview by demonstrating how von Stuckrad’s approach could be located within the field of discursive approaches as being only one, though very relevant, version.

Von Stuckrad begins to delineate his approach by distinguishing it from more linguistic discursive approaches, including so-called critical discourse analysis (CDA) (represented by Norman Fairclough and Ruth Wodak, for instance), and talks about a ‘sociology of knowledge’ approach. The distinction itself is pedagogically useful, although we are not really talking about two different approaches, but rather a variety of approaches in a continuum – some are more linguistically oriented, designed for detailed analysis of texts, whereas others are oriented more historically, designed for thinking about large-scale historical organization of a plurality of knowledge through discourses (represented by Michel Foucault, among others).

I would even suggest that despite the obvious and deep theoretical differences and disagreements between Fairclough and Foucault (see Taira 2016a; 2016b), the choice between them – if they are taken to represent two common options – often depends on the research design. In my experience, it is often the case that students prefer linguistically oriented versions simply because they find it easier to apply to the analysis of texts. Indeed, in this context it would be better to refer to Fairclough’s model as ‘textually oriented discourse analysis’ (TODA), as this properly highlights the difference with a Foucauldian approach. To simply talk about ‘critical discourse analysis’ does not convey the difference, because ‘critical’ could be applied to both Fairclough and Foucault (despite the fact that Fairclough’s understanding of what counts as ‘critical’ is not the same as Foucault’s).

Von Stuckrad correctly emphasizes that discursive research is not simply a study of a particular word or text, but a study of practices and institutions. As I see it, this applies – or at least should apply – not only to the ‘sociology of knowledge’ approach von Stuckrad prefers, but also to critical discourse analysis.

Research Perspective, Method, or Both?

The interview does not say much about how to use discursive methods. Indeed, von Stuckrad highlights the historical narratives in how discourse on religion operates and prefers to write about a ‘discursive research perspective’ (von Stuckrad 2014: 15) rather than discourse analysis as a method. It is telling that in The Scientification of Religion (2014, 18) he lists eight methods appropriate for (his version of) discursive study, but he does not mention discourse analysis. I agree with him that, as a theoretical framework, a discursive approach can utilize many methods, depending on the research design, but discourse analysis is certainly one of them.

There are other examples within the discursive study of religion in which the methodological dimension of discourse analysis is addressed in a ‘how to do’ manner. One is mine (Taira 2013a) and the other – with a slightly different emphasis – is written by Titus Hjelm (2011). This is also a good opportunity to advertise a forthcoming volume edited by Frans Wijsen and Kocku von Stuckrad (Wijsen and von Stuckrad 2016). Its contributions, including original chapters by von Stuckrad, Hjelm and myself, among others, deal with many of the details von Stuckrad mentions in the interview, but they also help us to situate von Stuckrad’s approach as only one useful opportunity among a diversity of options with different nuances.

One of the interesting aspects in the interview is that, given that the method part is neglected, von Stuckrad talks about epistemology. As is often the case, the discussion uses – perhaps in order to bring in the listeners – the traditional terms and distinctions, such as realism versus relativism (often realism versus anti-realism). Von Stuckrad even says, approvingly, that American philosopher Richard Rorty provides a very intelligent form of relativism.

The problem is that practically no one self-identifies as relativist; it is a label addressed by opponents. This is also the case within discursive approaches: some versions cling to a realist standpoint and criticize others as relativists. This applies to Fairclough’s criticism of Foucault and I guess some might say the same thing about von Stuckrad. My question is, then, should those whose versions are accused of being relativist stop talking about realism and relativism and invent new ways to talk if the standard terms do not do justice to their position? It is true that Rorty wrote about himself as a ‘so-called relativist’, but he never seriously defined himself as such, simply because the term is embedded in a discourse that he wishes to discard. As Rorty (1999, xviii) stated: ‘We must repudiate the vocabulary our opponents use, and not let them impose it upon us.’

Are analytical definitions of religion necessary?

In the interview, von Stuckrad talks about three scholarly debates relevant for discursive research: crisis of representation, situated observer, and essentialism. These complex and significant issues have been addressed carefully in many disciplines in recent decades. However, it seems to me to be perfectly possible for someone to agree on the problem of representation, highlight the importance of reflecting on the situatedness of observer, challenge essentialism and still show no particular interest in problematizing analytical definitions of religion. Therefore, I wish to highlight the distinction between studying ‘religious discourse’ and discourses on ‘religion.’ (Taira 2016a, 2016b.)

The first approach defines what counts as religion and examines its constituent parts, its key distinctions, and its functions in society at large. An example of this kind of discursive approach is the work of Bruce Lincoln. Religion, according to him, is ‘discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal’ (Lincoln 2012, 1). Lincoln starts the analysis of ‘religious discourse’ with a definition of religion. It allows him to write about the relation between religion and culture and use concepts such as ‘religious conflict,’ ‘religions of resistance,’ ‘religions of revolution’ and count how many ‘religious words and phrases’ there are in bin Laden’s and Bush’s speeches (Lincoln 2003).

Many people find Lincoln’s research so useful that standard definitions are worth pursuing, and I have no problem with that. However, in order to understand the variety of discursive approaches, I find it relevant to emphasize the difference between discursive approaches that use analytical definitions and discursive approaches that study how the category of ‘religion’ is used, defined, and negotiated in organizing social practices. The starting point of the second type of discursive approach is to avoid analytical definitions of ‘religion’. Rather, the focus is on studying how something comes to be classified as and called ‘religion’ and how it is connected to social practices and power relations. For an example of how the analysis is different in the context of ’deliberately invented religions’ depending on whether an analytical definition of religion is used, see Taira 2013b.

To be fair to von Stuckrad, he talks a little bit about the distinction in the interview and provides examples of how some strands become part of discourse on religion. However, I find the distinction worth underlining when navigating between different versions of discursive approaches. It may not be the most important distinction for someone who is interested in applying discursive approaches in the humanities and social sciences in general, but it connects such approaches to core debates concerning the study of religion by asking, what are the analytical terms we use and which terms need to be defined?

References

Fairclough, Norman 1992. Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge: Polity.

Foucault, Michel 2002. The Archaeology of Knowledge. London: Routledge.

Hjelm, Titus 2011. Discourse analysis. Michael Stausberg and Steven Engler (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion. London: Routledge, 134–150.

Lincoln, Bruce 2003. Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lincoln, Bruce 2012. Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars. Critical Explorations in the History of Religions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Rorty, Richard 1999. Philosophy and Social Hope. London: Penguin.

Taira, Teemu 2013a. Making Space for Discursive Study in Religious Studies. Religion 43(1): 26–45.

Taira, Teemu 2013b. The Category of ‘Invented Religion’: A New Opportunity for Studying Discourses on ‘Religion’. Culture and Religion 14(4) 477–493.

Taira, Teemu 2016a. Doing Things with “Religion”: Discursive Approach in Rethinking the World Religions Paradigm. Christopher R. Cotter and David G. Robertson (eds), After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies. London: Routledge.

Taira, Teemu 2016b. Discourse on ‘Religion’ in Organizing Social Practices: Theoretical and Practical Considerations. Frans Wijsen & Kocku von Stuckrad (eds), Making Religion: Theory and Practice in the Discursive Study of Religion. Leiden: Brill.

Von Stuckrad, Kocku 2014. The Scientification of Religion: An Historical Study of Discursive Change, 1800–2000. Boston/Berlin: De Gruyter.

Wijsen, Frans and Von Stuckrad, Kocku (eds) 2016. Making Religion: Theory and Practice in the Discursive Study of Religion. Leiden: Brill

 

The Expanding Thought Trench: Ivy League Authority in South Korea

I spent two years as an English teacher in South Korea. I went because they wanted native speakers in their classrooms and promotional photos, particularly young American females, which made the salary tempting due to capitalistic law. Almost everyone I met there was desperate to learn from me, and I taught just about every demographic imaginable. I crawled on the floor with drooling toddlers, sipped Starbucks coffee with black-tie businessmen, gossiped with housewives over kimchi and tea, and kept awake teenagers cramming for exams until nearly midnight on Friday.

For the most part, overlooking several significant outliers, my students’ goals for learning the language was not communication. The goal was advancement within an extremely competitive system. English was the language of authority. It was generally accepted that English-speaking universities were somehow better than their Korean counterparts to the extent that a degree from a brand-name university was claimed to guarantee career success.

As a scholar trained in this university system, I feel the urge now to offer peer-reviewed evidence in support of my claims. The works I have read suggest a link between the demand for English and a mix of economic colonialism and Confucian values.[1] In my experience, this feels true, but these historical forces are expressed in a nuanced way that I have yet to find clearly or comprehensively expressed in literature. But the phenomenon is certainly there, and for my purpose here, its existence is enough.

What is relevant and clear from my experience in relation to the Masuzawa interview, though, is that British and American universities possess significant authority in Korean culture over the accepted way knowledge should be acquired, classified, and acknowledged.

What Masuzawa’s research shows is something both Koreans and Americans often forget: that the university, even the idea of the university as an institution, has a history, and their structures and traditions are less often the products of pure reason and rather products of specific historical circumstances. They are like the humans who made them, creatures of evolution.

More specifically, as Masuzawa chronicles for us, the current knowledge categories of the university were never inevitable nor even are they permanent as they stand. The interview shows us specifically how our current of understanding of religion is particular to our current point in history.

As a student of religious studies raised in the American intellectual tradition, this history, once pointed out, is obvious. Moreover, it is embedded within my language. In English, I can easily think of religion as an abstract concept, and call to mind specific behaviours that I think of as religious. Yet as the history of scholarship on religion shows, defining religion itself is a slippery task and has mostly abandoned.

The ability to be within an institution of knowledge and to still be critical of its foundations and categories is important. We can become aware of the logical fallacies and dialectical reactions within our institutions and work to correct them.

My point, however, is that the history of the university is not well known and perhaps is even willfully ignored in places where a degree from elite universities make significant practical differences. This is not limited to Korea, for these institutions are given similar authority by groups everywhere, even by those who are disenfranchised by that very elitism.[2]

Does it matter that many individuals aspiring so hard to attend these schools do not possess a critical understanding of the unsteady ground upon which disciplines draw their lines? In some senses, perhaps not. In time, and once inside the institutions, these individuals may come to understand their history just as I have.

It’s more likely, though, that in the short term, the authority of the universities will stand in the minds of those sending their children to Ivy Prep Academy.[3] That authority can be good when it sets in place standards and practices which leads to clear thinking. However, it also limits categories of thought by predetermining them.

New ideas begin with critical thinking, which is enhanced by diversity.[4] In Korea, for example, I questioned unfamiliar things, and sometimes the subsequent dialogue hatched new thoughts in myself and my students. The reverse process should occur when Korean students attend elite universities. Unfamiliar with the European cultural traditions and their associated thought trenches, they should question the standards and categories of knowledge. It is likely, though, that because of the status they give to elite universities, such questioning rarely happens. As a result, it is likely that they too will adopt the language of European universalism.

While I respect Masuwaza’s work on many levels, I mostly like it because she reminds me, again and again, to look at my tools of inquiry and see how my tools have shaped what I have found.

[1] A couple of the better titles I have found are the following: 1. Tsui, A. and Tollefson, J. (2007) Language Policy, Culture, and Identity in Asian Contexts. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 2. Sorensen, C. (1994) Success and Education in South Korea. Comparative Education Review. 38(1): 10-35. 3. Lee, S. and Brinton, M. (1996) Elite Education and Social Capital: The Case of South Korea. Sociology of Education. 69(3): 177-192. 4. Seth, M. (2002) Education Fever: Society, Politics, and the Pursuit of Schooling in South Korea. University of Hawaii Press.

[2] Mullen, for example, describes how some high-achieving but less-wealthy students avoid elite schools precisely because of they are elite. Mullen, A. (2009) Elite Destinations: Pathways to Attending an Ivy League University. British Journal of Sociology of Education. 30(1): 15-27.

[3] http://ivyprepacademy.net/pages/team/

[4] The relationship between critical thinking and diversity has often been studied. For example, see Laird, T. (2005). College Students’ Experiences with Diversity and Their Effects on Academic Self-Confidence, Social Agency, and Disposition toward Critical Thinking. Research in Higher Education. 46(4): 365-387.

21st Century Irish Paganism

World Religions Paradigm, and if you’re lucky you might just come across a passing reference to ‘Paganism’ buried amongst extensive references to ‘Christianity’, ‘Islam’. ‘Buddhism’ and other ‘World Religions.’ This absence contrasts markedly with the fascination many students show towards ‘Paganism’, and with the prevalence of motifs which might be labelled ‘Pagan’ in (Western) popular culture. Arguably, both the seeming academic disregard and popular fascination with this topic are indicative of a superficial understanding of the broad range of phenomena to which the designation ‘Pagan’ can refer. In this podcast, Chris speaks to Jenny Butler – a scholar whose work has made a significant contribution to fleshing out the category.

in this interview, we discuss Jenny’s work on Paganism in Ireland, the impact of that particular context upon the Paganism/s she has researched – particularly in terms of language, mythology, and the natural landscape – and also some of the issues associated with the academic study of Paganism in general.

links in Jenny’s bio and also our previous interviews with Ronald Hutton, Suzanne Owen, Graham Harvey and Wouter Hanegraaf. 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.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, moisturiser, fruit bowls, and more!

 

Hyphenating Identities

In yet another excellent Religious Studies Project interview, we hear from University of California Santa Barbara Associate Professor Rudy Busto talking about race and religion in the United States. The objectives of this conversation focus predominantly upon topics like race and religion in America, the conflation of race as ethnicity and vice versa, and the use of race as an identity marker within the study of religion.

Throughout this delightful and meandering dialogue the listener is invited, indeed encouraged, to consider the systemic and institutionalized location of race alongside religion in the contemporary, modern socio-cultural milieu and scholastic Academy. With a particularly American slant (which is to say, a reliance on double-barrelled ethno-religious identifiers like Asian-American, or Japanese-American Buddhist), much of the discussion in this interview centers around the now almost implicitly assumed observation that the ways in which humans create and express their identities is a socially constructed phenomenon, one that lacks ontological existence and agency, and how race can be a prominent component of this construction. By further deconstructing and problematizing the use of constructed, blanketing concepts like race or culture, Busto shows how delicate the process of understanding the formation of an individual’s subjective understanding of themselves and the group to which they identify actually can be.

What is regrettably missing from this conversation is a deeper discussion that might provide us with an understanding of how, precisely, the constructed-ness of human identities as a theoretical model advances the field of RS. Building upon the excellent foundation laid by Busto in this interview, I would submit two pieces of scholarship as supplements, each delving into how the contemporary scholar of religion might deploy this constructed-ness of identity.

Skipping over the obvious progenitors of the ‘constructed human groups’ discussion (Hobsbawm, Ranger, Anderson, etc.), I often heavily rely upon two middle to late 20th century academics to focus the lens of constructed identity. The first is Steven Vertovec and his use of what he calls ‘vis-à-vis dynamics’ (2000:106). In this particular instance Vertovec is observing Hindus in ‘diasporic’ situations within the UK. That is to say, he records observations of individuals who identify as belonging to the group calling itself ‘Hindu’, though they are citizens of the United Kingdom. Regardless of whether the individual is a first, second, or third generation immigrant, Vertovec observes that their self-identity requires what RS scholars might call an ‘Other’. That is, an individual, object, or even an ethno-religious collective, such as Hindus and non-Hindus, in relation to which one forms at least one layer of their self-identity.

Therefore, a researcher might record a conversation with someone who, for example, identifies as Hindu because they perform arati on Sundays instead of attending synagogue or, of course, doing nothing at all. Conversely, perhaps a younger, third-generation student might identify as Scottish or English rather than Indian like their first-generation grandparents. These markers or borders that define to which group one belongs, Vertovec might argue, cannot be created in a vacuum and necessarily require a concept RS scholars call an Other. In our work then, we can subsequently examine questions such as how generational differences manifest in various groups, what impact public education has on how immigrants choose to identify, or indeed how we can more clearly define the very concept of ‘religion’ through an examination of the subjective identification of the individual to a particular religious tradition within a particular context.

The second scholar who I would submit as a supplement to this identity question is Clifford Geertz. Geertz was a specialist in Mediterranean groups and specifically, for the present case, of Muslim Moroccans. Geertz’s suggested deployment of what he thinks of as ‘mosaic identities’ illustrates a similar me/you dynamic as does Vertovec, yet in a slightly more colourful way. Geertz provides a handful of specific stories during which he observes that the individual has multiple, ‘nested’ identities that are centered on one’s location in social-political/religious spacetime (1974:26-45). He provides the narration of a particular male informant, whose identity as belonging to a particular group, ranging from his specific tribe, village, region, etc. are deployed in relation to the dominant group with whom he comes into contact. This is done within what I like to think of as a Russian-doll, or concentric field of layered concepts of belonging and identity. So, what we find in Geertz is that rather than a linear and subject-centric illustration of identity formation, he sees what might be a more fluid, group-oriented process of formation and understanding of self-identity.

Many of these same formations and scenarios can be noticed when one looks upon other constructed forms of human collective (and individual) identity, like race or ethnicity. We can use ideas like those of Busto, Vertovec, and Geertz–among myriad others of course–to consider questions about how we as scholars of religion might better define and deploy concepts such as race and religion. Indeed, as touched upon in this interview, we find ourselves in a time when countries like the UK and the US are, even now, officially providing their citizens the option of identifying via the use of hyphenated ethnicities.

So, in the interest of brevity, I would be quick to again praise any discussion that aims to shed further light on the process by which humans form and manifest their identity as an individual in isolation, as well as when done as a member of a group, as such discussions can only aid in progressing the field of Religious Studies.

References

Geertz, Clifford. 1974. “From the Native’s Point of View”. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 28.1: 26-45.

Nye, Malory. 1995. A Place for Our Gods: The Construction of an Edinburgh Hindu Temple Community. Surrey: Curzon Press

Vertovec, Steven. 2000. The Hindu Diaspora. London and New York: Routledge.

Learning to Unlearn “Religion”: Jason Ānanda Josephson on the Invention of Religion in Japan

One of the first Religious Studies courses in which I enrolled was titled “Japanese Religion.” There were several themes running through the course, but the one that stuck with me as the most important was something the professor asked during the first meeting of the class:

The course is called “Japanese Religion”; over the semester, think about that phrase – would it be better to say “Japanese Religions”? How about “religions of Japan”? Or, is “religion” the best word to use to describe the Japanese traditions we’re studying?1

The implications of the latter question are considered by Jason Ānanda Josephson, scholar of East Asian religions and religious studies theory, in this informative interview with the Religious Studies Project. Josephson and interviewer Brad Stoddard explore how the concept of “religion” was translated, discussed, and applied in 19th Century Japan.

Josephson’s book, The Invention of Religion in Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2012), forms the backbone of the conversation. Josephson explains that he has always had an interest in East Asian religion, as well as the theory of religion and religious studies, and in his doctoral research he put those pieces together. The result is a book that critiques the category of religion using the Japanese situation as a case study. Josephson relates how, in post-1853 Japan, there was a significant discussion taking place among the Japanese elite about what the European idea of “religion” meant, how it fit (or didn’t) with existing traditions in Japan, and also, how the concept of the “secular” applied to Japanese society at the time. Josephson’s primary case study involves Shinto, rather than Buddhism, although Josephson hopes to explore Buddhist traditions in Japan in a future work.

Josephson’s critique of the category “religion” as it relates to Japan is part of an on-going discussion among scholars as to the accuracy, relevance, and necessity of that concept. (Scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald, Russell T. McCutcheon, Talal Asad, and Tomoku Masuzawa are mentioned in the interview as key figures participating in this critique.) While I would not describe myself as a theorist primarily, or consider my main interest to be theories of religion, I have come to realize that questions about the nature of “religion,” what scholars mean when they write about “religion,” and the categorization of “religious” traditions cannot be overlooked and must be grappled with prior to studying a “religious” tradition.

When I was a student in the Japanese Religion course, I had not yet been introduced in a meaningful way to the critiques of the concept of “religion.” What seemed problematic to my novice eyes was the disjunction between the different implications of the phrases “religion in Japan,” “Japanese religion,” and/or “Japanese religions.” By the end of the course, I decided that the least problematic way to think about the topic was as “religions in Japan.” This didn’t tackle the truly important piece – namely, the category of “religion” – but it did seem to be more neutral and inclusive than any of the other phrases. In my graduate work, these questions of naming and labeling recurred – my interests centered around one of the Buddhisms in Japan, not the monolithic idea of “Japanese Buddhism.” The latter implies that there is one Buddhism that can be described as Japanese. I can think of (at least) two traditions of Buddhism that flourished and took on a “Japanese” approach over time, as well as several of the New/Emergent Religious Movements which originated in Japan and claim a Buddhist lineage. Ultimately, the use of terms like “Buddhism” and “religion” in the singular seem to be neither specific nor descriptive enough to capture the richness and diversity of the actual world. Josephson’s perspective adds that necessary final dimension to anyone studying “religion” in Japan: since it is both an imported and manufactured category, can it be used reliably by scholars to discuss Japanese traditions?

In the interview, Josephson mentions in passing that the title of his work (The Invention of Religion in Japan) could have just as easily been either The Invention of Superstition in Japan or The Invention of Secularism in Japan. I find this a particularly fascinating comment, as those three words – religion, superstition, secularism – each have a distinct implication. However, as Josephson demonstrates throughout the interview, Japanese society had to come to terms with those three ideas as a package. Was Shinto a religion or superstition? What about Buddhism? Is Japan a secular nation? Is Japan a modern nation? Since one could not be both “modern” and “superstitious,” that meant that Shinto could not be a superstition if Japan wished to take its “place” among the nations of the modern world. However, Josephson also points out that while colonialism often imposed categories upon a colonized people, that was not entirely the case in Japan. Japanese scholars involved in the (literal and cultural) translation of the concepts of religion, superstition, and secularism investigated what these terms meant to Europeans and then negotiated the idea within Japanese society, demonstrating a degree of agency not often seen during interactions between Western and Asian societies in the 19th century.

Not only am I eager to read The Invention of Religion in Japan, but I am also looking forward to Josephson’s next project, discussed at the end of the interview. The project is currently titled “Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences”; Josephson describes this as a project to analyze European society, specifically those parts of Europe that did not match up to the claims of modernity made by European scholars. Josephson’s novel approach analyzes these claims of modernity – and the disjunction between scholarly claims and reality – through the lens of postcolonial theory, using the world outside of Europe to analyze Europe.

 

1 Or at least, that’s my recollection of the instructor’s remarks! I am paraphrasing, not quoting directly.

 

References

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Ellwood, Robert S. Introducing Japanese Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Masuzawa, Tomoku. The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism was

Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

McCutcheon, Russell T. [See Dr. McCutcheon’s website for a list of his work]

Tanabe, George J. (ed). Religions Of Japan in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Psychology of Religion at Its Best…and Less Best

There were a number of excellent talks at the (deep breath) American Psychological Association Division 36 Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 2015 Mid-Year Conference hosted by Brigham Young University (BYU) at the Marriott Conference Center in Provo, Utah, United States on March 20th and 21st (exhale). In particular, the second keynote address by Dr. Frank Fincham, Director of the Florida State University Family Institute was an excellent model of how research in the psychology of religion and spirituality can have practical use in designing psychological interventions in addition to the acquisition of knowledge. His and his collaborators’ work involved the psychological impacts of partner-directed prayer on the romantic relationships of religious believers, specifically how prayer can bolster relationship quality by increasing the forgiveness ability of the praying partner. Over a series of carefully framed studies he described the process they used to look at the broad effects of partner directed prayer on relationships. After narrowing their focus, they found that increased cooperative behavior was the primary mediator of the effect of prayer on forgiveness. They used these findings to construct and validate a prayer-focused marriage therapy intervention within an African-American, religious population. Throughout his talk, he was careful to make it clear that these studies were done with, and only apply to, religious believers and that the possibility of comparable mechanisms for nonbeliever couples still need to be researched.

Dr. Julie Exline’s Laboratory at Case Western Reserve University: Alex Uzdavines, Julie Exline, Valencia Harriott, Steffany Homolka, Nick Stauner, and Josh Wilt.

At least for my part, this was greatly appreciated. As someone who studies religious nonbelievers (not to mention being one), it can chafe reading or watching a presentation on research which has broadly sweeping conclusions about the benefits of religious belief which go far beyond what the data allow. Often this research implicitly (sometimes explicitly) assumes that the audience is religious themselves and that the research can be generalized to nonbelievers by just flipping the direction of the results. It was refreshing to have religious-oriented research presented in a manner that both framed the results within the context of the beliefs of the people who participated in the research and explicitly acknowledged that the conclusions drawn could not be applied to nonbelievers without further study.

Dr. Fincham’s focus on measurable psychological mechanisms contrasted sharply with the major themes from symposium presented by a number of scholars from BYU the previous day. The presenters answered the title of the symposium, chaired by Shannon Starks, “Does Psychology’s Naturalism Hamper Understanding of Religious Phenomena?” with a resounding “Yes!” Ms. Starks spoke first and her presentation outlined how widely used introductory psychology texts take a strictly naturalistic stance and often reject supernatural hypotheses for psychological phenomena just as resoundingly. Dr. Jeffery S. Reber presented the second talk and gave a number of examples of psychological theories that grew out of the work of famous theologians. However, when the writers most responsible for bringing these theories into psychology (sometimes the theologian themself!) translated them, all references to a god/gods, the divine, or the supernatural were removed.

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman, APA Div. 36 President Dr. Kevin Ladd, and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr. Melanie Nyhof

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman with Dr. Kevin Ladd and Dr. Melanie Nyhof enjoying the post conference Sundance tour.

The third talk, presented by Dr. Edwinn E. Gantt, built upon the first two presentations but shifted focus examining how psychological research often misses the supernatural reality of an individual’s lived experience, while the majority of researchers hunt for naturalistic mechanisms. He argued that since people qualitatively experience the supernatural as real, psychology is doing a disservice to human experience by saying that the supernatural is just a figment of explainable mechanisms. Finally, Dr. Brent D. Slife discussed a story from his clinical internship where he specifically focused on naturalistic therapeutic approaches at the behest of his supervisor. Over time he began to feel ashamed of how this cognitive-behavioral approach shifted his clients’ focus away from her spirituality and to thoughts and behaviors that seemed to reduce her suffering. In fact, Dr. Slife argued that by focusing on the reduction of suffering, psychologists are doing a disservice to religious clients because God might intend for them to suffer and reducing this risks moving their client away from God’s wishes. This is understandable only as long as a therapist discusses their naturalistic orientation with their client and the client still chooses to continue therapy. Conversely, a religious therapist should discuss their beliefs and intent to bring these beliefs into therapy ahead of time so that if the client does not wish to participate in religious therapy they can find a new therapist.

There were two major themes gleaned from this symposium. The first was one of “religious deletion” which seemed to operate similarly within the psychological community to how “bisexual deletion” works in both gay and straight communities. Aspects of identity, thought, or experience which don’t fit within the dominant culture of the community are either ignored or dismissed as not real, as religious/supernatural ideas and experience are dismissed within the psychological community – according to the speakers (and many other psychologists of religion I have spoken with). Requiring that psychological theories (or psychologists themselves) be stripped of their religious background in order to be taken seriously within the field does a disservice to everyone involved. While the current extent of the anti-religious nature of psychology is open to study, it does seem to be present and working towards a more theologically inclusive field might be a benefit to those who study the psychology of religion and spirituality, regardless of whether or not they are religious themselves.

The second major theme was more questionable, however. The idea that consideration of the supernatural is off-limits to psychological study pervaded all the presentations, with the exception of Dr. Reber’s. Well, off-limits to “naturalistic psychology,” anyways. Ms. Starks even went so far as criticizing studies that looked at Extra Sensory Perception and dreams that could predict future events. Rather than raising any methodological critiques, she simply implied that because the researchers operated within a naturalistic framework the studies were a priori invalid. Despite saying that the supernatural exists and that it impacts the natural world of which psychological processes are a part, the speakers refused to actually discuss any methodology that could be used to study either the supernatural itself or how it impacts naturalistic psychology, even after being directly asked to go into this by a few audience questions. In doing so, the impression I was left with was that it wasn’t psychology’s job to try and peek behind the “wizard’s curtain” of religious experience and if naturalistic scientists can’t prove the non-existence of the supernatural, they should simply acknowledge that it is real since many people experience it as real. The fact that some of us actively experience the supernatural to be imaginary and very much not-real can be safely ignored in the interest of privileging religious experience.

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

The implication that Christianity was the religious experience that should be privileged above all others within the field was made painfully clear during the dinner hosted by BYU. In three events (a Christian prayer; a campus ministry capella group which hoped to convert non-Christian division members; and the final dinner talk in which the speaker railed against non-Christian psychologists throughout the twentieth century, non-Christian moral principles in general, and drug use in Europe, which is a clear, unambiguous indicator of a lack of religious belief in a region) there was a very clear message that non-Christians were not welcome. This was actually news to me, as I have been involved with Division 36 since 2012 and this was the third divisional mid-year conference I’d spoken at. Unfortunately, it was the first time I’d felt deeply unwelcome as an Atheist member of the division. Despite the committee organizing the conference making it clear to BYU that this was not a religious conference, the organizers at BYU ignored this and appeared to go out of their way to make the events they did have control over as hostile to non-Christians as possible, while still maintaining a facade of inclusivity.

Overall, this conference highlighted both the good and bad aspects of our sub-field. The keynote from Dr. Fincham and the symposium lead by Ms. Starks displayed the strides being made towards the rigorous study of the impacts religious and spiritual practices may have on psychological functioning and the arguments we need to have within the field to define the border areas of the natural and supernatural for the purpose of further study. Unfortunately, the sectarian aspects of BYU’s dinner events aimed exclusively towards the Christian attendees showed that we still have a long path ahead. For my part, I’m going to continue going to these mid-year conferences and advocating that those of us who study the psychology of (and/or are) religious/spiritual nonbelievers or non-Christians attend as well.

Pilgrimage as Tension

That we now understand that people undertake pilgrimages for more than pious reasons has been one of the most significant advances in ‘pilgrimage studies’ to date. In Paulina Kolata’s interview with Prof. Ian Reader this is illustrated with a number of examples, though it is important to note that Reader shies away from a definition. For those who insist on the definition of terms this is a problem, of course, but I suspect the omission was deliberate. Among the reasons for this that are discussed is the notion that any term developed in one cultural-linguistic group will immediately face translation problems when being applied to another. Nonetheless, there is a tacit definition in use for the purposes of the interview which appears to be ‘travel connected to institutional religion’. The exception to this is ‘secular pilgrimage’ which Reader attaches to themes of popular culture, informal religious iconography and meanings, and, less obviously, questions of personal and collective meaning, all of which take place outside the jurisdiction of an institutional religious group. Questions of definition aside, there is an important theme Reader returns to a number of times throughout the interview; that pilgrims do a lot of stuff that is not ‘religious’ that scholars in religious studies have thus largely ignored.

In lieu of definitions, Reader asks questions about popularity and attraction, and, when prompted by Kolata, about meaning. By these routes a general picture of pilgrimage emerges. There are, Reader argues, certain conditions that must be met for a pilgrimage site to become successful and popular. Amongst these, infrastructure and marketing are important. Entertainment, Reader argues, has always been a part of religion and always a part of pilgrimage. In Western scholarship, however, there has been some kind of Protestant-informed unease with enjoyment when it comes to religiosity. This has given rise to a certain idea of pilgrims as serious travellers – a notion of pious, mobile flagellation in search of absolution – which contrasts with a domain of tourism in which entertainment is dominant and thus is frivolous and demanding of a scholarly shun (Digance 2006). But this dichotomy, Reader notes, is not present in many other traditions around the world. Furthermore, regardless of scholarly dismissal, pilgrimage sites are often places of entertainment – food, performances, conviviality, sex – regardless of culture or dominant religious group, and this is an important part of what attracts people. The reasons people might go on what they call ‘a pilgrimage’ are complex. Amusement may be as important as communion, escape from everyday life as important as prayer. But, and this is an important point that does not come up in the interview, they may not be the reasons a person may give when asked by fieldworking scholars. This is where a question asked by Kolata about the meaning of pilgrimage practices brings Reader to the heart of the interview’s thesis. Common themes in pilgrimage traditions, Reader infers, are metaphors of the journey of life, and, simultaneously, an escape from the realities of that life.

Reader’s argument is compelling and raises some important and intriguing questions. In my own work on spiritual tourism (Norman 2011) the themes he highlights were no less common,[1] and I too emphasise the importance of looking at the whole picture of a travel site or tradition in order to triangulate data and draw reliable conclusions. The working model Reader suggests is one that understands pilgrimages as travel to religious sites in which the motivations of travellers are a mixture of piety, curiosity, escape, boredom, transformation, and any number of other ‘non-religious’ and ‘religious’ reasons. The point, as noted in the interview, is that traditions of travel, apart from anything else, have probably always been, in part, about getting away from home and seeing something new, satisfying some human urge for mobility, to explore, to see new things, and to learn. In addition, popularity is also a factor as people desire to go where others also go. This is complicated by Reader’s assertion that piety is not a prerequisite for pilgrimage, though this, of course, depends on who one asks. Even a cursory examination of the historical record of pilgrimage traditions in Europe illustrates that pilgrims have always been suspicious of the peregrinatory status of other pilgrims. The overall point, however, is that from the outside, pilgrimage traditions are those traditions of travel in which meaning and/or transformation are portrayed as important, but that in practice hang in tension with other equally important, though less acknowledged motivations and desires.

For my current work, this notion has some important implications. At present I am working on the qualitative analysis of interview material gathered as part of the Shamatha Project, examining the effects of an intensive three-month shamatha meditation training retreat. If people have gone on pilgrimage to sites they consider special (as Taves 2012, would put it), but, as Reader contends, also in order to escape the everyday, to seek entertainment, and to ‘go to popular sites’, then in the phenomenon of people in Western societies going on Buddhist meditation retreats, we ought to be able to find evidence of those other ‘non-religious’ factors. At least somewhere and somehow. This, of course, assumes we are willing to consider ‘retreat tourism’ or ‘contemplative tourism’, as I’m going to neologise it here, in the same light as the range of vastly different traditions of travel that we are otherwise happy to lump under the ‘pilgrimage’ label. And I am, as are others (Eddy 2012), because if we look at some of the sociological studies of retreats and their touristic dimensions we can find some evidence of just such complex approaches (e.g. Voigt et al. 2010). An important implication is that, far from being simply about a journey towards truth, or of transformation or progression towards enlightenment or mindfulness, retreat practices in the West will also be about escape from the everyday, about seeing somewhere new, learning, and, overall, about being something different from normal for the retreatant/traveller/pilgrim.

Of course, the first step in testing the model Reader puts forward (albeit somewhat tacitly) is rigorous, qualitative research that investigates the interplay of expressed motivations, outcomes, and actual practices. I am confident enough in Reader’s model, especially in the light of my own research on spiritual tourism and on World Youth Day (2011), to predict that a complex mix of contesting interests held in tension is what will be found, at least in Western meditation retreat contexts. Certainly if we look at some examples of successful and popular retreats, like Spirit Rock Meditation Centre in California, we find the signs Reader predicts: good infrastructure, coordinated marketing, catering for many tastes and approaches, escape from the everyday, social gatherings apart from the practice, and so on. As opposed to undermining the special status of retreat practices, research showing such observations would, in fact, emphasise the sociological importance of retreat experiences for retreatants. Retreat visits/pilgrimages often are, by design, by intent, and in practice, journeys of significance for a range of personal and social reasons. But we cannot turn our eyes from the supposedly non-sacred, hedonistic, entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, or to put it simply, the enjoyable dimensions of retreats. For many who enter a retreat, just as for those who go on other pilgrimages, the journey is a special tradition of travel, a journey redolent with meaning, precisely because it occurs in response to complex personal and social motivations that are held in tension.

References

Digance, Justine. “Religious and Secular Pilgrimage: Journeys Redolent with Meaning.” In Tourism, Religion and Spiritual Journeys, edited by Dallen J. Timothy and Daniel H. Olsen, 36–48. London: Routledge, 2006.

Eddy, Glenys. “The Vipassana Retreat Experience: A Consideration of the Meditation Retreat as a Religious Paradigm of Travel.” Literature & Aesthetics 22, no. 1 (2012). http://ojs-prod.library.usyd.edu.au/index.php/LA/article/view/7574.

Norman, Alex. Spiritual Tourism: Travel and Religious Practice in Western Society. London: Continuum, 2011.

Norman, Alex, and Mark Johnson. “World Youth Day: The Creation of a Modern Pilgrimage Event for Evangelical Intent.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 26, no. 3 (2011): 371–85.

Taves, Ann. “Special Things as Building Blocks of Religions.” In The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, edited by Robert A. Orsi, 58–83. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Voigt, Cornelia, Gary Howat, and Graham Brown. “Hedonic and Eudaimonic Experiences among Wellness Tourists: An Exploratory Enquiry.” Annals of Leisure Research 13, no. 3 (January 1, 2010): 541–62. doi:10.1080/11745398.2010.9686862.

[1] I’ll put aside my wish to respond to Reader’s dismissal of ‘spirituality’ apart from noting the ironic similarity it bears to the dismissal of dimensions of pilgrimage he had just been discussing.

Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond: Part 2

In October, RSP interviewer Paulina Kolata was able to sit down with Professor Ian Reader to discuss his publication ‘Pilgrimage in the Marketplace’ (October 2013), which explores the very ‘worldly’ conditions of development, popularisation, and ultimately, survival of pilgrimage centres in connection to the dynamics of the marketplace through which the ‘sacred’ as a category can be sustained. In this interview, Ian offers an insight into the meaning of pilgrimage, particularly in the Japanese context, and discusses the competitiveness of the pilgrimage market, the practice’s connection to tourism, playfulness of religion, and the survival of pilgrimage practice. After a fascinating conversation and a couple of cups of coffee later, we hope that listeners will enjoy this podcast as much as Paula and Ian enjoyed recording it, and we look forward to your discussions.

For ease of listening, we decided to split this week’s interview into two parts. For full podcast notes, and the first part, please click here. Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Eoin O’Mahony on “Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland“, and Alex Norman on “Spiritual Tourism“.

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.com or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.

Podcasts

Study of Religion in Peru

UnfCTAnTfj8yQGyHYpsbntqMPeru’s religious inheritance has been the subject of inquiry by scholars since the first decade of the twentieth century (Ortmann, 2002). In this RSP interview, we are joined by professor Dorothea Ortmann from the University of Rostock, to discuss the foundations of the study of religion in this country. She first states the major differences between the confessional studies or studies oriented to theological or pastoral matters, and the social scientific study of religious phenomena (Ortmann, 2004). She then follows the conversation by giving some background history of the most notable works from the first attempts at doing research on the sciences of religion. Particularly important are the works of Tello (1943), Larco Hoyle (1946), Valcárcel (2009), and Carrión (2005).

In what remains of the interview, professor Ortmann discusses the public benefits of studying religion. It ends with an interesting discussion about the current institutional and theoretical situations of the field in Peru, taking into account new tendencies coming from Europe and North America (Xygalatas, 2015).

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, drink coasters, T.V. Dinners, and more.

References
-Carrión, R. (2005). Culto al agua en el antiguo Perú. Lima: Instituto Nacional de Cultura.
-Ortmann, D. (2002). Ciencias de la religión en el Perú. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos.
-Ortmann, D. (2004). “Fundamentos de las Ciencias de la Religión”. In Ortmann, Dorothea (compiler). Anuario de Ciencias de La Religión: Las Religiones En El Perú de Hoy. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, pp. 13–29.
-Larco Hoyle, R. (1946). A culture sequence of the north coast of Perú. Washington: Smithsonian Institution. Accesed on: August 15, 2016.
http://www.museolarco.org/listapublicaciones/a-culture-sequence-for-the-north-coast-of-peru/
-Tello, J. (1943). “Sobre el descubrimiento de la cultura Chavín en el Perú”. Letras. Lima, No. 26, pp. 226-373.
-Valcárcel, L. (2011). Machu Picchu. Lima: Fondo de Cultura Económica
-Xygalatas, Dimitris (2015). IACSR year in review: 2015. Georgia. Accessed on: January 15 of 2016.

Healing and higher power: a response to Dr Wendy Dossett

Headlines warning of the social fallout from alcohol and drug addiction often fail to record the remarkable fact that hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have successfully “recovered” from these often devastating dependencies.  The highly lauded “12 Steps” programme, that has fronted the decades long efforts of both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, as well as similar organisations, have undoubtedly saved many lives.

At the heart of this success story is an acceptance of a spiritual “higher power” available to all, one which supersedes mere will power and puts them on the road to recovery. In her interview Dr Wendy Dossett explains that Bill Wilson and Dr Robert Smith, founders of the AA and the 12 Steps programme, were influenced by the religious practices of the Oxford Group, a conservative evangelical form of Protestantism, which looked back to the early Christian church for its inspiration. As a result the pair believed alcoholism was a “spiritual malady”.

However, Dossett agrees that this “higher power” in no way automatically means the “God of religion”.  The religious studies academic, a senior lecturer at Chester University, tells the interviewer this higher power “can be anything so long as it is not will power”. Discussing her research she explains that while some of the recovered addicts she spoke to about their experiences identified this power with God, others variously described it as the “spirit of the universe”, nature, or even ”the force” – an echo of Star Wars.  On the other hand, a number felt this power was derived from fellow addicts in their recovery group, while some associated it with their friends and one even initially identified it as the ‘unconditional love’ from her cat.

Dossett makes clear it is essential that religious studies researchers listen to, value and document the experiences of the practitioners of contemporary spiritualities.  And it is equally appropriate for them to use their subject knowledge and skills to identify the religious elements and separate them out so that they did not unduly influence the interpretation of their findings. What resulted in her work “is the actual experience of people who work these programmes”.

It is worthwhile at this stage to point out that while Dossett describes of what she has discovered, what the ‘higher power’ or ‘spirituality’ can mean to others, she offers no definition of her own. I suggest that this disinclination to define the words limits or even forecloses their meaning.  To support her view that the ‘higher power’ is not necessarily religious she referred to Robert C. Fuller’s book (Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America, OUP, 2001) which made it clear that although organisations like AA were spiritual they were not aligned to any religion or faith and had no “requirements of belief to be a member”. However does this not beg the familiar question: can we genuinely understand spirituality without relating it to religion or metaphysics?  Can we legitimately define it to be whatever anyone wants it to be at any particular time?  Is there not a danger that a concept like spirituality, when deprived of a specific definition, loses its depth and profundity?

In a direct challenge to those unprepared to countenance a metaphysical view viewpoint, the late Vaclav Havel once warned: “Man is not an omnipotent master of the universe, allowed to do with impunity whatever he thinks, or whatever suits him at the moment.”  The former Czech president and philosopher continued: “The world we live in is made of an immensely complex and mysterious tissue about which we know very little and which we must treat with utmost humility” [i]. It seems to me Havel’s reference to the “immensely complex and mysterious tissue” helps, to some extent, in explaining the concept of spirituality associated with the 12 Steps’ “higher power” and the remarkable recoveries Dossett documented in her research.  And I certainly feel the importance Havel gives to “humility” is mirrored by Dossett’s sensitive approach to her research group and the analysis of her findings.

While those that reject the concept of God can never associate the “higher power” with the divine, it is obviously still appropriate to explore if a metaphysical force might lie at the back of this power and, if so, what it might be. After all the origins of Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in the late 1930s, are undeniably Christian.

Given these Christian origins, it is relevant to look at the accounts of Jesus’ healings. Like those the programme has successfully treated, Jesus, too, spoke of a “higher power”, although he called it the “kingdom of heaven”.  Interestingly, he also said that he could do nothing on his own[ii], a remark that, in my view, alludes to a “power greater than ourselves”, a phrase 12 Steps participants have also used when explaining their recovery. The Bible clearly links Jesus’ view of the kingdom of heaven with the power he healed by.  Furthermore, later New Testament writings show others in the early Christian Church echoed Jesus’ cures.

But even Christians, particularly within the last 150 years, have often found it hard to regard Jesus’ healings as anything other than myths or natural events.  Paul Tillich recognised this neglect of the healing aspect of Jesus. He wrote that the Gospels ‘abound in stories of healing; but we are responsible, ministers, laymen, theologians, who forgot that “Saviour” means “healer”, he who makes whole and sane what is broken and insane, in body and mind’ [iii]Thus he identifies healing as an essential element of salvation.

Nevertheless, not only has the healing element of Christianity gone largely unacknowledged, it has in fact been almost subsumed by the advances of modern medicine. Be that as it may, many Christians combine their prayers with the work of doctors. In my research on Christianity and healing I am aware of several studies that identify the health benefits of a combined approach to healing such as those done by Harold G. Koenig at the Centre for Spirituality, Theology and Health, Duke University, North Carolina.

One denomination of Christianity was founded specifically on the practice of healing through reliance on the power of God alone. The French sociologist, Regis Dericquebourg, using the Weberian typification of ‘ideal types’, defines The Church of Christ, Scientist as the “first healing church”[iv].  Started by Mary Baker Eddy in 1879 – Christian Science was a precursor to the approach of the Oxford Group in that it looks to “primitive Christianity” for its inspiration and practice [v]. According to its own periodicals it claims hundreds of thousands of recoveries and cures, many accompanied by medical diagnoses.

If Jesus healed two millennia ago, if subsequent Christians have also used similar healing powers down the centuries, and, if the healings reported by Christian Scientists are genuine, it is plausible that the “higher power” of the 12 steps programme is sourced in a divine power It is beyond the scope of this commentary to explore what kind of divine power this is, but given the roots of the AA, it is likely to correspond with a Christian understanding of God. Whatever the case, the recoveries and healing experiences of those who use a ‘higher power’ are too numerous and too well documented for it not to evoke further study as to how it works and where it comes from. For all its reticence to use religious terminology and perhaps because of it, Dossett’s research indicates that the answers are going to be new and surprising.

Endnotes

[i] The New York Times, 3 June 1992

[ii] Luke 17: 21

[iii] Tillich P, The New Being, Scribner, New York, 1955, p42

[iv] Dericquebourg R, ‘Christian Science: The first healing church’ presented at The Evolutions of Christian Science in Scholarly Perspective seminar, April 23/24 2015, FVG Wilrijk-Antwerp, Belgium. Published in Acta Comparanda Subsidia ll, FVG, June 2015

[v] Church Manual, Christian Science Publishing Society, Boston, p17

Theoretical Veganism: Practicing Religious Studies without Religion

Aside from being an oxymoron, the thought of “meatless meatballs” can elicit strong reactions, whether of disgust, confusion, or hunger. Such products are capable of breeding suspicion, whether in regards to their taste, their origins, or their status as “food.” After all, what exactly is meatless meat? Although certainly contradictory in a sense, it has become code for a certain type of alternative or imitation product, which might be used for any of a number of reasons.

What does it mean for an imitation to be a “classic”?

What does it mean for an imitation to be a “classic”?

Of course, it is not just claims to being meat-free that are capable of raising suspicions. When I recently ordered a hamburger at a popular fast food chain, I found myself questioning, like many others before me, what exactly made up the “meat” I was being served. Although the contents of the patty of what I will call beef is presented as being fairly self-evident, often with labels such as “real beef,” “100% beef,” etc., there are plenty of questions worth asking about how that patty came into existence. What meat is used? What fillers are used? What were the cows being fed? What were their living conditions? Were they healthy? How was the meat handled? Whatever the answers, one thing is clear, the makeup of that burger reflects the interests of the corporation making a profit off of it. How can they save money on ingredients? How do they make the most profit? As with so many other things, it is important to know who benefits. That is perhaps why there have been so many rumors online about the supposed indiscretions of fast food corporations. Take for example the numerous articles and even an art project about McDonald’s hamburgers that show no signs of mold even years after purchase.

Although the corporations are not always guilty of the accusations made against them, the food industry nonetheless serves as a fascinating case study for understanding rhetoric and identification. What happens if we start applying this level of suspicion to the category of religion? Scholars have been doing this for years, although the results have been mixed. One such approach, deconstructing the concept of “religion,” has increasingly come into vogue in the study of religion in recent years, but the practical import of this approach is still hotly debated. After all, as the title of Kevin Schilbrack’s 2013 response to Timothy Fitzgerald asks pointedly, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion,’ Then What?” If the word is really bound up with the values of the so-called West, and especially with Protestant values, if its meaning if ambiguous, varied, and dependent upon the interests of the person using the word, how then ought the scholar to proceed? Schilbrack’s answer is “critical realism,” which seeks balance between criticality towards how terminology is used and knowledge of pre- or non-linguistic realities. On this approach, the question is whether or not a definition of religion can be made that is useful for understanding those realities.  Rather than constructing a “working definition,” others, like Daniel Dubuisson, suggest alternative language that they see as less value laden, such as “cosmographic formations.”

At this point, enter Teemu Taira’s work. In studying Karhun kansa (People of the bear), a small, officially recognized, religious group in Finland, with about thirty members, Taira takes an interesting and seemingly useful approach: he does not define religion at all, nor does he use it as a descriptive category. Instead, he is interested in studying how other people are using the word “religion,” with Karhun kansa serving as just one case study within the varied contexts in which “religion” is used discursively. There are benefits and drawbacks to being classified as a religion, as Taira points out in regards to the ability to perform marriage ceremonies and to be afforded certain legal rights and protections. On the other hand, groups might also try and skirt around those definitions when it suits their social or political interests. What do we do as scholars when people want to call themselves spiritual but not religious, claim to be philosophy rather than religion, or when Christians say they have a relationship, not a religion? We could impose terminology on these people, but does this get us closer to some sort of reality?

Perhaps it is time to stop treating the word “religion” as a tool of the scholar and to start treating it as the very object of study. On this account, theoretical veganism would be the refusal to use either religion or religion by-products, which I would suggest are the terms used by scholars that are roughly synonymous with religion but supposedly free of the same trappings, such as Dubuisson’s “cosmographic formations.”

My own research focuses on discourses surrounding “science and religion,” where I also consider the word “religion” (and the word “science” for that matter) to be the thing worth investigating rather than a way of describing my subject matter. I care not at all for how these concepts relate, because once deconstructed, it is hard to find any sort of connection left to those non-discursive realities that are of interest to the critical realists. Instead, it seems to me to be worth asking the important and seemingly oft-repeated mantra, “Who benefits?”

If we throw out every word that can be deconstructed, we may end up with scarcely any language left to use. Furthermore, as Taira notes, scholars are not disinterested observers, since analyzing discourse is itself a discursive practice, making scholars part of the world they study, so there will never be an interest-free vocabulary. Nonetheless, if a word is not useful, it may be better to relegate it to the junk heap. When presenting research at a conference a couple years ago, a senior scholar asked me about the possibilities for a viable definition of religion. In responding, I was reminded of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s apocryphal response to Napoleon when asked about the place of God in his work, “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

References

Dubuisson, Daniel. 2003. The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge, and Ideology. Trans. William Sayers. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Schilbrack, Kevin. 2013. “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion,’ Then What? A Case for Critical Realism.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 25: 107-112.

The Deconstruction of Religion: So What?

In his interview with the RSP, Teemu Taira refers to his work as in some sense a response to Kevin Schilbrack’s 2013 paper, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion’, Then What?” However, I don’t find it speaking to the concerns of Schilbrack’s paper. This, is not to question the excellence of Taira’s work, scholarship, or methodology, all of which I am deeply impressed with. I want to make that clear at the outset; my aim or critique here is not of Taira’s own work or methods but rather a specific way of understanding and using deconstruction that has emerged in the study of religion. It is the take on the deconstructive project which is at stake.

Schilbrack contrasts the deconstruction of religion he finds in Timothy Fitzgerald, and I may note principle adherents such as Russell McCutcheon, with what he sees as his own approach. He identifies agreement on three main points which I may briefly gloss as follows:

  • What we call religion is created by human discourse and behaviour.
  • “Religion” exists only in relation to other terms, the most important of which is “secular”.
  • The separation of the religious and secular as distinct spheres is a modern phenomenon.

So far, so good. I imagine we are all agreed. This accords with Taira’s own discussion of these terms I think. Where I agree with Schilbrack, against many deconstructivists, is that we then have to continue speaking of religion because rather than being merely an empty signifier, or a phantasm, those phenomena we have called and termed religious, or as religions, have a reality in the world.

Taira argues that he is following Schilbrack by showing the “What Next.” As such, he gives his case studies of traditions which people have termed religion and showing the social, political, and power issues involved in claiming or employing the term. However, Taira is very clear that he never says what the term “religion” is. It is merely his object of study, or, rather, religion itself is not his object of study (how can it be when it has no real existence); it is other people’s use of the term that he studies and analyses. At several points in the interview, Taira is clear in stating that he makes no claim as to whether anything is or is not a religion, nor does he try and give any definition to the term. It remains for him an empty signifier which others fill.

It is on the refusal to try and define or even to engage in discourse about how the term may be used that I see the problem arising. Notably, my problem is not with deconstructionism itself, nor do I want to argue here what “properly” follows Derrida. I am critiquing a particular tradition, or employment of, deconstruction which is the fashionable modus operandi of many scholars in the study of religion. So why do I see it as a problem? I will break this down into four points, though each is related to the others.

First, as Schilbrack notes it becomes “an end in itself.” It says: “Look, this is what other people think religion is, but I know better: there is no religion. So, now I can uncover their power games.” Practiced simply as a tool, it fails to engage the social reality that actually exists.

Second, such deconstruction actually shows nothing new. Whether or not we had deconstructed religion we can see that there are social, financial, legal, etc. benefits to being a religion. We could also see that people claim the term or deny it (to others) to give advantage or prestige.

Third, often deconstructing “religion” becomes facile or sacred. Facile because it is common for deconstructivists to argue that we cannot separate religion from culture, however, “culture” itself is an equally problematic term of contemporary Western provenance.(Or else we are told “religion” can be analysed by relation to other deconstructable terms like law, politics, etc.); Sacred, because “religion” is set apart as uniquely problematic, constructed, and “false;” it can be analysed by reference to, or seen as a part of, politics, law, culture but only “religion” is such an empty signifier that it can have no analytic validity. (How would we show this?)

Fourth, even if we show that many terms such as politics, law, culture, society, are also constructed (generally in relation to each other) we still get no further if we simply say all words are empty signifiers (which in one sense, of course, they are). We stay with the first problem that it is a meaningless deconstruction. Once done we simply ask: “So what?”. I will suggest the reasons for this are twofold: firstly, theoretical and linguistic; secondly, political.

Theory: scholars who deconstruct without re-construction undertake a feeble version of deconstruction that undermines itself (often without realising it). Every word has a history and baggage that comes with it. If we play the deconstructivist game of showing that religion, culture, politics, theory, method, society, medicine, science and every term is unstable then simply we are left unable to speak. Indeed, the words which we used to destabilise others are themselves unstable. It is meaningless unless we must say how and why we will choose to use certain words, and reflexively acknowledge our place within a lineage of speaking (as noted, some scholars try and get round this by treating “religion” as its own sacred category).

Politics: many scholars of religion argue that to be part of a “critical”, or “properly scholarly”, tradition they must avoid any advocacy, simply being analysts of other people’s discourse. However, as Taira notes: “Analysing discourse is itself a discursive practice.” To claim, therefore, simply to be analysing other people’s discourse and never to define the term yourself is an impossible act. The discourse on the term creates discourse. Indeed, by refusing to say how it may be used, the scholar is being a political animal. To play on a well-known adage: “To refuse to speak is itself a political act;” “to refuse to be an advocate, is to support the status quo;” “to refuse to define, is itself a form of definition.” Schilbrack observes that saying the borders of nation states are arbitrary and imagined human constructs when people are fighting and dying over them is at best unhelpful. Pretending to be objective analysts of other people’s discourse and the borders of what is and is not religion is equally unhelpful. The modern scholar of religion risks becoming an academic laughing stock not because he uses an outdated and outmoded concept of “religion” but by refusing to admit that it really does exist as a social reality and to engage in discussion about how to use the term. It is bad deconstruction, bad scholarship, and bad politics.

References

Kevin Schilbrack, 2013, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion’, Then What?: A Case for Critical Realism”, Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 25: 1, pp. 107-12.

Categorising “Religion”: From Case Studies to Methodology

The category of “religion” is often referred to as slippery or problematic. As such, scholars have sought to deconstruct the term in order to be free of its weight. But what happens after the deconstruction – where we go from there? How do we study particular cases? How are new groups officially recognised? What roles to scholars play in the application of the term to new groups? In this interview, Dr Teemu Taira discusses the role of marginal traditions in understanding the application of the term “religion” in differing context, in particular he discusses Karhun Kansa, the People of the Bear. This leads onto a methodological discussion on the use of the term and the role scholars play in this discourse.

Want to check out all of the great responses Taira’s podcast has prompted? Here’s a list: “The Deconstruction of Religion: So What?“; “Theoretical Veganism: Practicing Religious Studies without Religion“; “Whither the Study of Religion and Culture?“; “On deconstructing the deconstruction of the deconstruction of the category of religion“; “‘What happens after the deconstruction?’“; “The Blind Leading the Seeing“; “Shivers Up My Spine“; If you know of a response we may have missed, send us an email.

Religion and the Media, Studying Nonreligion in Religious Studies, and Religion in the UK 2011 Census. 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, door mats, LARPing gear, and more.


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


Categorising “Religion”: From Case Studies to Methodology

Podcast with Teemu Taira (19 September 2016).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon

Transcribed by Claire Berlinger.

Transcript available at: Taira – Categorising Religion 1.2

Breann Fallon (BF): The category of religion is often referred to as slippery or problematic. As such, scholars have sought to deconstruct the term in order to be free of its weight. But what happens after the deconstruction – where do we go from there? How do we study particular cases? How are new groups officially recognized? What roles do scholars play in the application of the term to new groups? To discuss his work on Karhun Kansa, the People of the Bear, the category of religion, and deconstruction methodologies, I have with me a long-time friend of the Religion Studies Project, Dr. Teemu Taira. Taira is a senior lecturer at the Department of the Study of Religions at the University of Helsinki, and Docent at the Department of Comparative Religion at the University of Turku. His recent publications include “Discourse on ‘Religion’ in Organizing Social Practices” in Making Religion and “Doing things with ‘Religion’: A Discursive Approach in Rethinking the World Religions Paradigm” in After World Religions. Thank you very much for joining us today.

Teemu Taira (TT): Thank you for inviting me.

BF: So, what we’re going to talk about today is part of a conference presentation that you presented at EASR 2016. If you just wanted to run through the idea of deconstructing the term “religion”it has a long history at the Religious Studies Project, it’s something we’ve talked about a lotbut the introduction you gave at the presentation was very useful, I think.

TT: I’ve been a big fan of scholars who have written critically about the category of “religion,” the fact that its history, its origins and emergents, and many of these scholars, such as Talal Asad, Daniel Dubuisson, Tim Fitzgerald, Russell McCutcheon, Brent Nongbri, J. Z. Smith , and many others have argued that religion is unhelpful and thoroughly problematic as a category. These scholars prefer in their understanding whether religion should be used at all in our analysis. Some say that it can be used for heuristic purposes in particular research, and some say that it’s better not to use it at all because the problems related to the category surpass the benefits of using it. This kind of work is largely understood to be deconstructive in a sense that these scholars have detected the history of the emergence of the modern category of religion and problematized its usefulness. And then, some scholars, actually quite many scholars, ask questions like, “Where do we go from here?” One particular example of this is an article by Kevin Schilbrack entitled “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion’: Then What?” that was published in 2013 in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion. My approach is in a way my answer to that question. (5:00)

BF: So, your answer to the questionwe might work through the case study of the People of the Bear. Would you like to tell us a little bit about the People of the Bear?

TT: Yeah. The People of the Bear, Karhun Kansa. We’re actually talking about a very small Finnish group. They have approximately 30 members, so it’s very small. It’s currently a registered religious community in Finland. They see themselves as part of Suomenusko, Finnish faith. There are other groups who see themselves as part of that same faith or religion, however they want to call it, but the People of the Bear is the only one that is registered as a religious community, and is the only one that has attempted to register as a religious community in Finland. The name “People of the Bear” comes from the idea that the bear is understood the mythical ancestor of mankind. This is actually quite an old idea that comes from Finnish pre-Christian mythology. In addition, they consider nature and its parts, places, certain stones, sacred. But they don’t define themselves as a pagan group, they never use the term in their application, but that’s how people often classify them. It has some affinities with other groups which as self-identifying as pagans. One thing that is quite important for the People of the Bear is that they consider Karhujuhla, a Finnish national epic, as inspiration for them, as well as all the things we know about Finnish pre-Christian worldviews and mythologies. That’s basically what Karhun Kansa is about.

BF: Why did they want to be recognized and how did that process go for them in becoming a “religion,” to use the term?

TT: Karhun Kansa applied for the status of religious community in 2012, and the case is very interesting because they first got their expert report from the committee, and that was negative. But in Finland, it is possible to revise the application, and then you have to adjust yourself to the demands of the committee. There are some formal requirements, but also some technical issues. You have to use certain terms and phrase your ideas in a certain way for you to be considered seriously to be registered as a religious community. Obviously, the revised application was much better than the first one, but what I think is very interesting in this particular case is that they also received a lot of media coverage after the first negative report. For me, personally, this is an interesting case because I was involved in that media debate. First, through my blog post, and then it was taken in by the mainstream media, and, in the end, I ended up having a media discussion with the Ministry of the Interior in Finland, who is responsible for naming the expert committee. We can’t really talk through the case today, about all the details regarding the media coverage and the nuances of the application, but, in any case, in December 2013, a new positive expert report was released, and soon after that the People of the Bear were registered as a religious community in Finland. One thing that is very interesting in the whole case is to ask why they wanted to become registered as a religious community. There are a couple of benefits you get if you are registered. You may get a license to conduct valid ceremonies like marriages, funerals, name-giving ceremonies, and so on, and you may become part of religious education in schools. (10:00) You are eligible to apply for financial support from the Ministry of Education. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s some. You get legal protection under the law concerning freedom of religion, and in general, you get recognition from the society and people in the same field as well. People usually then consider that you are not just a cult or devious group when you have something on paper, when you are a registered religious community. In the case of Karhun Kansa, a very interesting thing was the fact that they consider certain stones sacred. There was this case in 2010 already, in the city of Hämeenlinna, where the biggest cup stone from the Iron Age was removed in 2010 away from the expansion of a car sales company. In Finland there is this Antiquities Act that protects the stones, but it allows removal as long as the stones remain unbroken. In their application, the People of the Bear stated that they honor particular sacred places and bring gifts to them, and they used cup stones as an example. They emphasized that they consider cup stones as sacred in their original location because they are taught to be ancient sacrificial sites. In Finland, all registered religious communities are able to appeal to the law concerning the sanctity of religion under the law and religious freedom, and this was explicitly pronounced by the chairperson of the People of the Bear, Oskari Ratinen, that a successful registration process may help them to make a case that the locations of cup stones are sacred to them. Thus, their removal would count as a case against the sanctity of religion. You can see that there were obvious benefits to becoming a registered religious community for the People of the Bear.

BF: They definitely seem to be having much more of a voice when they’re registered, as opposed to an unregistered community, which wouldn’t have that weight behind the removal of the stones, so there’s definitely a big benefit there. Are there any other case studies that you think are relevant before we move on to the methodology side of the interview?

TT: There are plenty of case studies that are useful to compare with this case and others, and I’ll just mention some of the case studies that I’ve done, myself. I’ve studied Wiccans in Finland and their registration process. They failed in that, but that’s a very interesting case anyways, because in that process the expert committee was really trying to make up their mind whether Wiccans can be regarded as religious. I’ve also studied Jedis in Britain; I’ve done one case study concerning that. I’ve studied the Druid Network in Britain jointly with Suzanne Owen. We co-authored a chapter on the case where the Druid Network received charity-level status under the “religion” banner in England and Wales. Even though laws are different in different countries—and it doesn’t have to be about law, it can be about other institutions for example—many cases have clear connections, even when the law and the context is different.

BF: These case studieswhat do they teach us about methodology and using the term “religion?” Should we be outlining it in our articles? You know, “For the purpose of this work religion is going to be ‘this.'” Do you think that’s un-useful? Should we be using a term like “faith” or “tradition?” Where do we go from here with these case studies?

TT: I think overall these case studies show how people make use of the category of “religion,” (15:00) how they promote their own interests, but if we look from the other direction, they also show how we are governed by the category of “religion.” In studying these cases, I am highlighting quite strongly that I don’t define “religion” in these particular cases. I study those cases where other people negotiate what counts as religion, and why something counts as religion, and the consequences of those processes. It is quite clear that many people find it very tempting to ask, in these so-called “boundary cases,” whether in my definition this is really a religion, or if a group is really not a religion, and I try to emphasize that I’m not doing that at all. Even when I was a part of this media debate concerning the People of the Bear, I never suggested that the People of the Bear were a religion, or were not, and I never suggested that the group should be granted the status of a religious community. I was simply trying to highlight how a society operates by using that category. Still, it is quite common that people still ask you the question, “How do you define ‘religion’ then?” Then I have to say that within this setting I’m not. I’m not arguing that religion cannot be used or defined nominally for particular purposes, but I’m insisting that these cases, if they are studied without defining “religion,” are much more interesting, and I think the results are more interesting—at least, that’s my opinion. Of course, we can debate endlessly what counts as interesting and relevant, but that’s my approach, and I try to demonstrate by doing these case studies that other people can see if they find the analysis interesting.

BF: I think sometimes we get so hung up on, “is it a religion, is it not” that we miss what else the case can offer. I think in these examples, for example the People of the Bear, the idea that their sacred stones were being moved and that idea of legitimacy is, in my opinion, more interestingas you say, we could debate thatthan whether they were a religion or not. There’s so much more to these case studies than just yes or no, this sort of black-and-white thinking; I don’t know what you think about that. So, how do you think power plays into this whole matter of the term “religion” and naming different boundary groups?

TT: I tend to ask quite simple questions in these case studies, such as, “Who benefits off of being a religion?” or “Who benefits off of denying the religiosity of a group or a practice?” I can also ask, “How are we governed?” if I’m trying to look at the level of state or society more broadly, not just a particular group. I think it is quite clear that people achieve something by being a religion, but that happens within the governing structures of society, so by being a religion you gain some, but at the same time, you lose some. When you get some concrete benefits you are usually moulded in such a way that you have to adjust yourself to the criteria that is used in an institution, in law, or wherever. That is typically so that you have to represent your group as somehow reminiscent of Protestant Christianity. At the same time you are marginalized or domesticated in a way, some people say you are ‘depoliticized’ in a way. (20:00) The idea goes that being a religion definitely guarantees some privileges to selected groups, but at the same time it distances them from the so-called “secular centre” of society, that of political, so-called “secular” power. That’s one of the main—and very simple—example of how analysis of power is part of these cases.

BF: Are there any examples you can think of where a group really didn’t want to apply to be officially labelled a “religion” in legal terms?

TT: There are actually many cases, even in the cases I’ve analysed, for example, Wiccans in Finland and the Druid Network in England and Wales. There are definitely plenty of self-identifying Druids in Britain who didn’t want to be part of that Druid Network. They considered it something that domesticates Druidry, and that they lose some of the experience of the nature of Druidry, and maybe lose something about their radical nature or their self-image as being radical people or a radical group. In Finland, Wiccans were quite strongly divided. Some wanted to put in the application and become registered as a religious community, and some said that they weren’t a religious group at all, and that those who were applying were just a bunch of weirdos—that they weren’t proper Wiccans at all. Then there are examples like groups in Finland who don’t want to be classified as a religion because, even though they may qualify as a religion according to many—even most—scholarly definitions of religion. Some groups just don’t want to do it because that’s how they are able to attract people to their events—maybe not members, but people for events, because in Finland many people are officially members of the Lutheran Church. You get the question of exclusion, whether you accept that there are two religions or religious identities and things like that. Some groups consider it better not to go down that route or do that debate at all. People reflect and negotiate what is most useful for them.

BF: This discourse seems to be working on many levels. There’s an element of power, there’s an element of benefit, but also those who are kind of railing against that. I know in your presentation you had six big points to summarize the discourse. I don’t know if you just wanted to run through that to wrap up the interview?

TT: Yeah. We’ve been talking already about the two methodological points that I wanted to make first, that we don’t have to define religion in these cases, and second was highlighting that power ***. The third point is that I argue that discourse operates on many levels, it’s not simply by looking at the origin of the modern discourse on religion or the modern category of religion. There are many useful studies focusing on that, and they are very good, but they are mostly focusing on the 18th and 19th centuries. I think they don’t talk enough about the many functions of the category of religion. I think it’s a more situational and contextual issue, and that is why we need empirical case studies, and my small contribution has been to that scholarship. My fourth point was that I’m very interested in these boundary cases. That is how discourses operate: by exclusion, by negotiating in boundaries. I think it’s very interesting to study when we use Foucauldian terms, when simple utterances become seriously taken statements. When statements are taken seriously they become more effective, usually they need some institutional support, whether that’s in school, in law, in parliament, or somewhere else. (25:00) The point I want to highlight is that—because some people say, “Is it useful to study these small groups, these marginal groups?”—I’m not really studying these marginal groups. They are cases about how discourse on religion works and changes. In my presentation I even suggested that it seems to me that there is something like what I call a “reflexive moment” going on in the category* of religion. People have become more aware of the work that the category of religion can do. That is how all those debates are so topical at the moment. Religion becomes more discussed, contested, challenged, and so on. We can negotiate whether that is really going on, has it always been the case, and what is really the historical change in that, but I’m just putting it on the table so that people can develop or criticize. My sixth point was a self-reflective point about scholars who also produce discourse on religion. Scholars are not, and they cannot be, total outsiders in these debates. Sometimes scholars are directly involved by giving expert statements or commenting in the media, but even in cases where scholars are not directly involved, they are sometimes referred to. In that sense, you cannot be an outsider, and this is something that should be reflected on in the analysis. Analysing discourse is itself a discursive practice; although it’s a different kind of discursive practice, nonetheless, it’s part of the field. Especially this case about the People of the Bear is interesting for me personally because I was so strongly involved in the public debate. This is sort of my answer to Kevin Schilbrack’s question, “After we deconstruct religion, then what?” We can analyse these cases.

BF: Yeah. They’re definitely very useful, and, as you say, they give us so much to think about, not just in terms of, “Are they religion or are they not?” but the benefits and the power and everything that’s playing into it. Any concluding points to leave us with?

TT: I think there are methodological tools to be developed in studying these cases. I don’t think that we really need a step-by-step method on how to do these case studies. What we need is to test and develop a theoretical vocabulary, what kind of terms we use and how we think about what kind of data is appropriate for these kinds of case studies. I’m doing it myself and I hope that some others are inspired to do that too.

BF: Great. I think that this has definitely given us a lot to think about, particularly in not just looking at the big cases, the Scientology cases and things like that. These sort of, as you say, boundary cases are so important in our discussion and in learning where we stand as scholars. So, thank you very much for joining us, and we look forward to interviewing you next time.

TT: Thank you.


Citation Info: Taira, Teemu 2016. “Categorising ‘Religion’: From Case Studies to Methodology”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 September 2016. Transcribed by Claire Berlinger. Version 1.1, 9 October 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/categorising-religion-from-case-studies-to-methodology/

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

RSP subscribers get a 30% discount on “Implicit Religion”!

Now published in collaboration with the Religious Studies Project, Implicit Religion was founded by Edward Bailey† in 1998 and formerly the Journal of the Centre for the Study of Implicit Religion and Contemporary Spirituality.

Subscribers to the RSP receive a 30% discount on subscriptions. Click here to access the journal’s subscription page and enter the code: DISCOUNT30

Exciting new directions for Implicit Religion:

This international journal offers a platform for scholarship that challenges the traditional boundary between religion and non-religion and the tacit assumptions underlying this distinction. It invites contributions from a critical perspective on various cultural formations that are usually excluded from religion by the gatekeeping practices of the general public, practitioners, the law, and even some scholars of religion. Taking a broad scope, Implicit Religion showcases analyses of material from the mundane to the extraordinary, but always with critical questions in mind such as: why is this data boundary-challenging? what do such marginal cases tell us about boundary management and category formation with respect to religion? and what interests are being served through acts of inclusion and exclusion?

New Religious Movements and Contemporary Discourses About Religion

As I listened to Susan Palmer’s RSP interview and read about her new co-authored book (with Stuart A. Wright) Storming Zion: Government Raids on Religious Communities (2015), I was reminded why NRMs make such useful case studies in the religious studies classroom. From a pedagogical perspective, the study of NRMs offers a valuable resource for creative teaching and theorizing about religion. In my introductory classes, for example, I use Scientology to illustrate how NRMs have negotiated with the state in their quest for legitimacy. There is plenty of great scholarship to assign, and students are often surprised to learn how seemingly unrelated government agencies–the Food and Drug Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation–helped legitimate Scientology’s “religion” status.

One of the most useful parts of Palmer’s interview, then, is her insistence on paying attention to the words people use to describe NRMs. Winnifred Sullivan, in her recent book, argues that the US government (and the US Supreme Court in particular) increasingly understands “religion” as “being neither particularly threatening nor particularly in need of protection” (17). The trend, as Sullivan and others have noted, is increasingly to see people as religious by default, even (and perhaps especially) those people who do not see themselves as religious. What, then, are we to make of religious groups whose relationship with the state do not fit this mold? How do we explain relationships so contentious that they result in raids and gun battles? At first glance, the events chronicled in Palmer’s Storming Zion seem to be outliers. Yet Palmer and Wright suggest elsewhere that these kinds of raids are more common than one might suspect. Why?

One possible answer is that increased attention to religion by international governments and NGOs has not necessarily resulted in less problematic models of religion being used by these governments and groups. As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has pointed out in her recent book, what scholars understand as “religion” often makes for unwieldy government use. Hurd demonstrates how government classifications of religion are by necessity rigid and slow to respond to change, leading governments to understand and engage religion in a clumsy–and in Palmer’s studies, dangerous–fashion.

Of course, most of the large-scale government efforts directed at cultivating appropriate forms of religion aren’t directed at the kinds of groups Palmer studies. It boils down to size, as Palmer and Robertson both note: smaller groups can be more easily dismissed or ignored by those in power. This is another example of the way in which governments separate religious groups into what might be called “serious” and “unserious” camps, an approach sometimes replicated by the scholars who study them. Both Palmer and Davidson call for more work to be done to change this status quo. They would like to see groups with little political or social capital treated similarly to “big name” religions–the groups that get chapters devoted to them in World Religions textbooks. They would like to see, to paraphrase JZ Smith, how the “exotic” NRMs are just another example of “what we see in Europe everyday.” Smith notes the difference by explaining it as a tension “between religion imagined as an exotic category of human experience and expression, and religion imagined as an ordinary category of human expression and activity.”[1] (1). Thus, as Palmer points out, even the seemingly “exotic” components of NRMs–things like brainwashing and deprogramming–should be both historicized and theorized.[2]

These considerations are timely ones. Though the interview focuses on what religion scholars might expect to hear on work related to NRMs–Raelians, Scientologists, millennial movements of various stripes–I was struck by how much of what was discussed would apply to Islam. Robertson and Palmer note how the media and popular culture tend to portray NRMs in particularly dismissive or fear-inducing ways. As events of recent weeks have again reminded us, what do we make of the fact that Islam is often discussed using similar language? The same kinds of militarized policing tactics directed at NRMs have, in recent weeks, been endorsed by a number of candidates for U.S. president as a means to control Muslims in the United States and around the world.

There’s a relevant history to this “NRM-ization” of Islam, particularly in the United States. Those interested in Palmer’s work, and in her work on government raids on NRMs, should also make time for Sylvester Johnson’s African-American Religions, 1500-2000, specifically his study of the history of the US government’s surveillance of and violence towards African-American Muslims. Johnson’s work highlights many of the tensions Palmer identifies: how classificatory criticism (“authentic” religion versus “cults”) bolstered state action against the political claims of new and emerging religious groups (in this specific case, the Nation of Islam). As a result, Johnson argues, “US officials increasingly resorted to the specific grammar of terrorism to represent political Islam.”[3] While scholars do not usually place global Islam within the category of new religious movements, Johnson shows how this early racialization of Islam within the United States shapes how global Islam is treated by the US government today.

For someone like myself, interested in questions of law and religion, the tension between emerging religious groups and state authorities is one of particular importance. Susan Palmer’s interview is a great example of why new religious movements make such good tools with which scholars can think about the study of religion.

[1] Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University Of Chicago Press, 1982), xii.

[2] For one excellent and recent example, see Matthew Dunne, A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

[3] Sylvester Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 382.

There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Cat: Comments on Kocku von Stuckrad’s Discursive Approach

There is more than one discursive approach in religious studies. In his interview with the RSP, professor Kocku von Stuckrad outlines some of the key issues that are relevant for constructing a discourse theoretical framework for religious studies. As I have tried to contribute to a similar framework in some of my publications, it comes as no surprise that my overall approach to von Stuckrad’s interview is highly appreciative. Therefore, I shall simply add some nuances to the interview by demonstrating how von Stuckrad’s approach could be located within the field of discursive approaches as being only one, though very relevant, version.

Von Stuckrad begins to delineate his approach by distinguishing it from more linguistic discursive approaches, including so-called critical discourse analysis (CDA) (represented by Norman Fairclough and Ruth Wodak, for instance), and talks about a ‘sociology of knowledge’ approach. The distinction itself is pedagogically useful, although we are not really talking about two different approaches, but rather a variety of approaches in a continuum – some are more linguistically oriented, designed for detailed analysis of texts, whereas others are oriented more historically, designed for thinking about large-scale historical organization of a plurality of knowledge through discourses (represented by Michel Foucault, among others).

I would even suggest that despite the obvious and deep theoretical differences and disagreements between Fairclough and Foucault (see Taira 2016a; 2016b), the choice between them – if they are taken to represent two common options – often depends on the research design. In my experience, it is often the case that students prefer linguistically oriented versions simply because they find it easier to apply to the analysis of texts. Indeed, in this context it would be better to refer to Fairclough’s model as ‘textually oriented discourse analysis’ (TODA), as this properly highlights the difference with a Foucauldian approach. To simply talk about ‘critical discourse analysis’ does not convey the difference, because ‘critical’ could be applied to both Fairclough and Foucault (despite the fact that Fairclough’s understanding of what counts as ‘critical’ is not the same as Foucault’s).

Von Stuckrad correctly emphasizes that discursive research is not simply a study of a particular word or text, but a study of practices and institutions. As I see it, this applies – or at least should apply – not only to the ‘sociology of knowledge’ approach von Stuckrad prefers, but also to critical discourse analysis.

Research Perspective, Method, or Both?

The interview does not say much about how to use discursive methods. Indeed, von Stuckrad highlights the historical narratives in how discourse on religion operates and prefers to write about a ‘discursive research perspective’ (von Stuckrad 2014: 15) rather than discourse analysis as a method. It is telling that in The Scientification of Religion (2014, 18) he lists eight methods appropriate for (his version of) discursive study, but he does not mention discourse analysis. I agree with him that, as a theoretical framework, a discursive approach can utilize many methods, depending on the research design, but discourse analysis is certainly one of them.

There are other examples within the discursive study of religion in which the methodological dimension of discourse analysis is addressed in a ‘how to do’ manner. One is mine (Taira 2013a) and the other – with a slightly different emphasis – is written by Titus Hjelm (2011). This is also a good opportunity to advertise a forthcoming volume edited by Frans Wijsen and Kocku von Stuckrad (Wijsen and von Stuckrad 2016). Its contributions, including original chapters by von Stuckrad, Hjelm and myself, among others, deal with many of the details von Stuckrad mentions in the interview, but they also help us to situate von Stuckrad’s approach as only one useful opportunity among a diversity of options with different nuances.

One of the interesting aspects in the interview is that, given that the method part is neglected, von Stuckrad talks about epistemology. As is often the case, the discussion uses – perhaps in order to bring in the listeners – the traditional terms and distinctions, such as realism versus relativism (often realism versus anti-realism). Von Stuckrad even says, approvingly, that American philosopher Richard Rorty provides a very intelligent form of relativism.

The problem is that practically no one self-identifies as relativist; it is a label addressed by opponents. This is also the case within discursive approaches: some versions cling to a realist standpoint and criticize others as relativists. This applies to Fairclough’s criticism of Foucault and I guess some might say the same thing about von Stuckrad. My question is, then, should those whose versions are accused of being relativist stop talking about realism and relativism and invent new ways to talk if the standard terms do not do justice to their position? It is true that Rorty wrote about himself as a ‘so-called relativist’, but he never seriously defined himself as such, simply because the term is embedded in a discourse that he wishes to discard. As Rorty (1999, xviii) stated: ‘We must repudiate the vocabulary our opponents use, and not let them impose it upon us.’

Are analytical definitions of religion necessary?

In the interview, von Stuckrad talks about three scholarly debates relevant for discursive research: crisis of representation, situated observer, and essentialism. These complex and significant issues have been addressed carefully in many disciplines in recent decades. However, it seems to me to be perfectly possible for someone to agree on the problem of representation, highlight the importance of reflecting on the situatedness of observer, challenge essentialism and still show no particular interest in problematizing analytical definitions of religion. Therefore, I wish to highlight the distinction between studying ‘religious discourse’ and discourses on ‘religion.’ (Taira 2016a, 2016b.)

The first approach defines what counts as religion and examines its constituent parts, its key distinctions, and its functions in society at large. An example of this kind of discursive approach is the work of Bruce Lincoln. Religion, according to him, is ‘discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal’ (Lincoln 2012, 1). Lincoln starts the analysis of ‘religious discourse’ with a definition of religion. It allows him to write about the relation between religion and culture and use concepts such as ‘religious conflict,’ ‘religions of resistance,’ ‘religions of revolution’ and count how many ‘religious words and phrases’ there are in bin Laden’s and Bush’s speeches (Lincoln 2003).

Many people find Lincoln’s research so useful that standard definitions are worth pursuing, and I have no problem with that. However, in order to understand the variety of discursive approaches, I find it relevant to emphasize the difference between discursive approaches that use analytical definitions and discursive approaches that study how the category of ‘religion’ is used, defined, and negotiated in organizing social practices. The starting point of the second type of discursive approach is to avoid analytical definitions of ‘religion’. Rather, the focus is on studying how something comes to be classified as and called ‘religion’ and how it is connected to social practices and power relations. For an example of how the analysis is different in the context of ’deliberately invented religions’ depending on whether an analytical definition of religion is used, see Taira 2013b.

To be fair to von Stuckrad, he talks a little bit about the distinction in the interview and provides examples of how some strands become part of discourse on religion. However, I find the distinction worth underlining when navigating between different versions of discursive approaches. It may not be the most important distinction for someone who is interested in applying discursive approaches in the humanities and social sciences in general, but it connects such approaches to core debates concerning the study of religion by asking, what are the analytical terms we use and which terms need to be defined?

References

Fairclough, Norman 1992. Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge: Polity.

Foucault, Michel 2002. The Archaeology of Knowledge. London: Routledge.

Hjelm, Titus 2011. Discourse analysis. Michael Stausberg and Steven Engler (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods in the Study of Religion. London: Routledge, 134–150.

Lincoln, Bruce 2003. Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Lincoln, Bruce 2012. Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars. Critical Explorations in the History of Religions. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Rorty, Richard 1999. Philosophy and Social Hope. London: Penguin.

Taira, Teemu 2013a. Making Space for Discursive Study in Religious Studies. Religion 43(1): 26–45.

Taira, Teemu 2013b. The Category of ‘Invented Religion’: A New Opportunity for Studying Discourses on ‘Religion’. Culture and Religion 14(4) 477–493.

Taira, Teemu 2016a. Doing Things with “Religion”: Discursive Approach in Rethinking the World Religions Paradigm. Christopher R. Cotter and David G. Robertson (eds), After World Religions: Reconstructing Religious Studies. London: Routledge.

Taira, Teemu 2016b. Discourse on ‘Religion’ in Organizing Social Practices: Theoretical and Practical Considerations. Frans Wijsen & Kocku von Stuckrad (eds), Making Religion: Theory and Practice in the Discursive Study of Religion. Leiden: Brill.

Von Stuckrad, Kocku 2014. The Scientification of Religion: An Historical Study of Discursive Change, 1800–2000. Boston/Berlin: De Gruyter.

Wijsen, Frans and Von Stuckrad, Kocku (eds) 2016. Making Religion: Theory and Practice in the Discursive Study of Religion. Leiden: Brill

 

The Expanding Thought Trench: Ivy League Authority in South Korea

I spent two years as an English teacher in South Korea. I went because they wanted native speakers in their classrooms and promotional photos, particularly young American females, which made the salary tempting due to capitalistic law. Almost everyone I met there was desperate to learn from me, and I taught just about every demographic imaginable. I crawled on the floor with drooling toddlers, sipped Starbucks coffee with black-tie businessmen, gossiped with housewives over kimchi and tea, and kept awake teenagers cramming for exams until nearly midnight on Friday.

For the most part, overlooking several significant outliers, my students’ goals for learning the language was not communication. The goal was advancement within an extremely competitive system. English was the language of authority. It was generally accepted that English-speaking universities were somehow better than their Korean counterparts to the extent that a degree from a brand-name university was claimed to guarantee career success.

As a scholar trained in this university system, I feel the urge now to offer peer-reviewed evidence in support of my claims. The works I have read suggest a link between the demand for English and a mix of economic colonialism and Confucian values.[1] In my experience, this feels true, but these historical forces are expressed in a nuanced way that I have yet to find clearly or comprehensively expressed in literature. But the phenomenon is certainly there, and for my purpose here, its existence is enough.

What is relevant and clear from my experience in relation to the Masuzawa interview, though, is that British and American universities possess significant authority in Korean culture over the accepted way knowledge should be acquired, classified, and acknowledged.

What Masuzawa’s research shows is something both Koreans and Americans often forget: that the university, even the idea of the university as an institution, has a history, and their structures and traditions are less often the products of pure reason and rather products of specific historical circumstances. They are like the humans who made them, creatures of evolution.

More specifically, as Masuzawa chronicles for us, the current knowledge categories of the university were never inevitable nor even are they permanent as they stand. The interview shows us specifically how our current of understanding of religion is particular to our current point in history.

As a student of religious studies raised in the American intellectual tradition, this history, once pointed out, is obvious. Moreover, it is embedded within my language. In English, I can easily think of religion as an abstract concept, and call to mind specific behaviours that I think of as religious. Yet as the history of scholarship on religion shows, defining religion itself is a slippery task and has mostly abandoned.

The ability to be within an institution of knowledge and to still be critical of its foundations and categories is important. We can become aware of the logical fallacies and dialectical reactions within our institutions and work to correct them.

My point, however, is that the history of the university is not well known and perhaps is even willfully ignored in places where a degree from elite universities make significant practical differences. This is not limited to Korea, for these institutions are given similar authority by groups everywhere, even by those who are disenfranchised by that very elitism.[2]

Does it matter that many individuals aspiring so hard to attend these schools do not possess a critical understanding of the unsteady ground upon which disciplines draw their lines? In some senses, perhaps not. In time, and once inside the institutions, these individuals may come to understand their history just as I have.

It’s more likely, though, that in the short term, the authority of the universities will stand in the minds of those sending their children to Ivy Prep Academy.[3] That authority can be good when it sets in place standards and practices which leads to clear thinking. However, it also limits categories of thought by predetermining them.

New ideas begin with critical thinking, which is enhanced by diversity.[4] In Korea, for example, I questioned unfamiliar things, and sometimes the subsequent dialogue hatched new thoughts in myself and my students. The reverse process should occur when Korean students attend elite universities. Unfamiliar with the European cultural traditions and their associated thought trenches, they should question the standards and categories of knowledge. It is likely, though, that because of the status they give to elite universities, such questioning rarely happens. As a result, it is likely that they too will adopt the language of European universalism.

While I respect Masuwaza’s work on many levels, I mostly like it because she reminds me, again and again, to look at my tools of inquiry and see how my tools have shaped what I have found.

[1] A couple of the better titles I have found are the following: 1. Tsui, A. and Tollefson, J. (2007) Language Policy, Culture, and Identity in Asian Contexts. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 2. Sorensen, C. (1994) Success and Education in South Korea. Comparative Education Review. 38(1): 10-35. 3. Lee, S. and Brinton, M. (1996) Elite Education and Social Capital: The Case of South Korea. Sociology of Education. 69(3): 177-192. 4. Seth, M. (2002) Education Fever: Society, Politics, and the Pursuit of Schooling in South Korea. University of Hawaii Press.

[2] Mullen, for example, describes how some high-achieving but less-wealthy students avoid elite schools precisely because of they are elite. Mullen, A. (2009) Elite Destinations: Pathways to Attending an Ivy League University. British Journal of Sociology of Education. 30(1): 15-27.

[3] http://ivyprepacademy.net/pages/team/

[4] The relationship between critical thinking and diversity has often been studied. For example, see Laird, T. (2005). College Students’ Experiences with Diversity and Their Effects on Academic Self-Confidence, Social Agency, and Disposition toward Critical Thinking. Research in Higher Education. 46(4): 365-387.

21st Century Irish Paganism

World Religions Paradigm, and if you’re lucky you might just come across a passing reference to ‘Paganism’ buried amongst extensive references to ‘Christianity’, ‘Islam’. ‘Buddhism’ and other ‘World Religions.’ This absence contrasts markedly with the fascination many students show towards ‘Paganism’, and with the prevalence of motifs which might be labelled ‘Pagan’ in (Western) popular culture. Arguably, both the seeming academic disregard and popular fascination with this topic are indicative of a superficial understanding of the broad range of phenomena to which the designation ‘Pagan’ can refer. In this podcast, Chris speaks to Jenny Butler – a scholar whose work has made a significant contribution to fleshing out the category.

in this interview, we discuss Jenny’s work on Paganism in Ireland, the impact of that particular context upon the Paganism/s she has researched – particularly in terms of language, mythology, and the natural landscape – and also some of the issues associated with the academic study of Paganism in general.

links in Jenny’s bio and also our previous interviews with Ronald Hutton, Suzanne Owen, Graham Harvey and Wouter Hanegraaf. 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.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, moisturiser, fruit bowls, and more!

 

Hyphenating Identities

In yet another excellent Religious Studies Project interview, we hear from University of California Santa Barbara Associate Professor Rudy Busto talking about race and religion in the United States. The objectives of this conversation focus predominantly upon topics like race and religion in America, the conflation of race as ethnicity and vice versa, and the use of race as an identity marker within the study of religion.

Throughout this delightful and meandering dialogue the listener is invited, indeed encouraged, to consider the systemic and institutionalized location of race alongside religion in the contemporary, modern socio-cultural milieu and scholastic Academy. With a particularly American slant (which is to say, a reliance on double-barrelled ethno-religious identifiers like Asian-American, or Japanese-American Buddhist), much of the discussion in this interview centers around the now almost implicitly assumed observation that the ways in which humans create and express their identities is a socially constructed phenomenon, one that lacks ontological existence and agency, and how race can be a prominent component of this construction. By further deconstructing and problematizing the use of constructed, blanketing concepts like race or culture, Busto shows how delicate the process of understanding the formation of an individual’s subjective understanding of themselves and the group to which they identify actually can be.

What is regrettably missing from this conversation is a deeper discussion that might provide us with an understanding of how, precisely, the constructed-ness of human identities as a theoretical model advances the field of RS. Building upon the excellent foundation laid by Busto in this interview, I would submit two pieces of scholarship as supplements, each delving into how the contemporary scholar of religion might deploy this constructed-ness of identity.

Skipping over the obvious progenitors of the ‘constructed human groups’ discussion (Hobsbawm, Ranger, Anderson, etc.), I often heavily rely upon two middle to late 20th century academics to focus the lens of constructed identity. The first is Steven Vertovec and his use of what he calls ‘vis-à-vis dynamics’ (2000:106). In this particular instance Vertovec is observing Hindus in ‘diasporic’ situations within the UK. That is to say, he records observations of individuals who identify as belonging to the group calling itself ‘Hindu’, though they are citizens of the United Kingdom. Regardless of whether the individual is a first, second, or third generation immigrant, Vertovec observes that their self-identity requires what RS scholars might call an ‘Other’. That is, an individual, object, or even an ethno-religious collective, such as Hindus and non-Hindus, in relation to which one forms at least one layer of their self-identity.

Therefore, a researcher might record a conversation with someone who, for example, identifies as Hindu because they perform arati on Sundays instead of attending synagogue or, of course, doing nothing at all. Conversely, perhaps a younger, third-generation student might identify as Scottish or English rather than Indian like their first-generation grandparents. These markers or borders that define to which group one belongs, Vertovec might argue, cannot be created in a vacuum and necessarily require a concept RS scholars call an Other. In our work then, we can subsequently examine questions such as how generational differences manifest in various groups, what impact public education has on how immigrants choose to identify, or indeed how we can more clearly define the very concept of ‘religion’ through an examination of the subjective identification of the individual to a particular religious tradition within a particular context.

The second scholar who I would submit as a supplement to this identity question is Clifford Geertz. Geertz was a specialist in Mediterranean groups and specifically, for the present case, of Muslim Moroccans. Geertz’s suggested deployment of what he thinks of as ‘mosaic identities’ illustrates a similar me/you dynamic as does Vertovec, yet in a slightly more colourful way. Geertz provides a handful of specific stories during which he observes that the individual has multiple, ‘nested’ identities that are centered on one’s location in social-political/religious spacetime (1974:26-45). He provides the narration of a particular male informant, whose identity as belonging to a particular group, ranging from his specific tribe, village, region, etc. are deployed in relation to the dominant group with whom he comes into contact. This is done within what I like to think of as a Russian-doll, or concentric field of layered concepts of belonging and identity. So, what we find in Geertz is that rather than a linear and subject-centric illustration of identity formation, he sees what might be a more fluid, group-oriented process of formation and understanding of self-identity.

Many of these same formations and scenarios can be noticed when one looks upon other constructed forms of human collective (and individual) identity, like race or ethnicity. We can use ideas like those of Busto, Vertovec, and Geertz–among myriad others of course–to consider questions about how we as scholars of religion might better define and deploy concepts such as race and religion. Indeed, as touched upon in this interview, we find ourselves in a time when countries like the UK and the US are, even now, officially providing their citizens the option of identifying via the use of hyphenated ethnicities.

So, in the interest of brevity, I would be quick to again praise any discussion that aims to shed further light on the process by which humans form and manifest their identity as an individual in isolation, as well as when done as a member of a group, as such discussions can only aid in progressing the field of Religious Studies.

References

Geertz, Clifford. 1974. “From the Native’s Point of View”. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 28.1: 26-45.

Nye, Malory. 1995. A Place for Our Gods: The Construction of an Edinburgh Hindu Temple Community. Surrey: Curzon Press

Vertovec, Steven. 2000. The Hindu Diaspora. London and New York: Routledge.

Learning to Unlearn “Religion”: Jason Ānanda Josephson on the Invention of Religion in Japan

One of the first Religious Studies courses in which I enrolled was titled “Japanese Religion.” There were several themes running through the course, but the one that stuck with me as the most important was something the professor asked during the first meeting of the class:

The course is called “Japanese Religion”; over the semester, think about that phrase – would it be better to say “Japanese Religions”? How about “religions of Japan”? Or, is “religion” the best word to use to describe the Japanese traditions we’re studying?1

The implications of the latter question are considered by Jason Ānanda Josephson, scholar of East Asian religions and religious studies theory, in this informative interview with the Religious Studies Project. Josephson and interviewer Brad Stoddard explore how the concept of “religion” was translated, discussed, and applied in 19th Century Japan.

Josephson’s book, The Invention of Religion in Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2012), forms the backbone of the conversation. Josephson explains that he has always had an interest in East Asian religion, as well as the theory of religion and religious studies, and in his doctoral research he put those pieces together. The result is a book that critiques the category of religion using the Japanese situation as a case study. Josephson relates how, in post-1853 Japan, there was a significant discussion taking place among the Japanese elite about what the European idea of “religion” meant, how it fit (or didn’t) with existing traditions in Japan, and also, how the concept of the “secular” applied to Japanese society at the time. Josephson’s primary case study involves Shinto, rather than Buddhism, although Josephson hopes to explore Buddhist traditions in Japan in a future work.

Josephson’s critique of the category “religion” as it relates to Japan is part of an on-going discussion among scholars as to the accuracy, relevance, and necessity of that concept. (Scholars such as Timothy Fitzgerald, Russell T. McCutcheon, Talal Asad, and Tomoku Masuzawa are mentioned in the interview as key figures participating in this critique.) While I would not describe myself as a theorist primarily, or consider my main interest to be theories of religion, I have come to realize that questions about the nature of “religion,” what scholars mean when they write about “religion,” and the categorization of “religious” traditions cannot be overlooked and must be grappled with prior to studying a “religious” tradition.

When I was a student in the Japanese Religion course, I had not yet been introduced in a meaningful way to the critiques of the concept of “religion.” What seemed problematic to my novice eyes was the disjunction between the different implications of the phrases “religion in Japan,” “Japanese religion,” and/or “Japanese religions.” By the end of the course, I decided that the least problematic way to think about the topic was as “religions in Japan.” This didn’t tackle the truly important piece – namely, the category of “religion” – but it did seem to be more neutral and inclusive than any of the other phrases. In my graduate work, these questions of naming and labeling recurred – my interests centered around one of the Buddhisms in Japan, not the monolithic idea of “Japanese Buddhism.” The latter implies that there is one Buddhism that can be described as Japanese. I can think of (at least) two traditions of Buddhism that flourished and took on a “Japanese” approach over time, as well as several of the New/Emergent Religious Movements which originated in Japan and claim a Buddhist lineage. Ultimately, the use of terms like “Buddhism” and “religion” in the singular seem to be neither specific nor descriptive enough to capture the richness and diversity of the actual world. Josephson’s perspective adds that necessary final dimension to anyone studying “religion” in Japan: since it is both an imported and manufactured category, can it be used reliably by scholars to discuss Japanese traditions?

In the interview, Josephson mentions in passing that the title of his work (The Invention of Religion in Japan) could have just as easily been either The Invention of Superstition in Japan or The Invention of Secularism in Japan. I find this a particularly fascinating comment, as those three words – religion, superstition, secularism – each have a distinct implication. However, as Josephson demonstrates throughout the interview, Japanese society had to come to terms with those three ideas as a package. Was Shinto a religion or superstition? What about Buddhism? Is Japan a secular nation? Is Japan a modern nation? Since one could not be both “modern” and “superstitious,” that meant that Shinto could not be a superstition if Japan wished to take its “place” among the nations of the modern world. However, Josephson also points out that while colonialism often imposed categories upon a colonized people, that was not entirely the case in Japan. Japanese scholars involved in the (literal and cultural) translation of the concepts of religion, superstition, and secularism investigated what these terms meant to Europeans and then negotiated the idea within Japanese society, demonstrating a degree of agency not often seen during interactions between Western and Asian societies in the 19th century.

Not only am I eager to read The Invention of Religion in Japan, but I am also looking forward to Josephson’s next project, discussed at the end of the interview. The project is currently titled “Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences”; Josephson describes this as a project to analyze European society, specifically those parts of Europe that did not match up to the claims of modernity made by European scholars. Josephson’s novel approach analyzes these claims of modernity – and the disjunction between scholarly claims and reality – through the lens of postcolonial theory, using the world outside of Europe to analyze Europe.

 

1 Or at least, that’s my recollection of the instructor’s remarks! I am paraphrasing, not quoting directly.

 

References

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Ellwood, Robert S. Introducing Japanese Religion. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. The Ideology of Religious Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Josephson, Jason Ānanda. The Invention of Religion in Japan. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Masuzawa, Tomoku. The Invention of World Religions: or, How European Universalism was

Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

McCutcheon, Russell T. [See Dr. McCutcheon’s website for a list of his work]

Tanabe, George J. (ed). Religions Of Japan in Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Psychology of Religion at Its Best…and Less Best

There were a number of excellent talks at the (deep breath) American Psychological Association Division 36 Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 2015 Mid-Year Conference hosted by Brigham Young University (BYU) at the Marriott Conference Center in Provo, Utah, United States on March 20th and 21st (exhale). In particular, the second keynote address by Dr. Frank Fincham, Director of the Florida State University Family Institute was an excellent model of how research in the psychology of religion and spirituality can have practical use in designing psychological interventions in addition to the acquisition of knowledge. His and his collaborators’ work involved the psychological impacts of partner-directed prayer on the romantic relationships of religious believers, specifically how prayer can bolster relationship quality by increasing the forgiveness ability of the praying partner. Over a series of carefully framed studies he described the process they used to look at the broad effects of partner directed prayer on relationships. After narrowing their focus, they found that increased cooperative behavior was the primary mediator of the effect of prayer on forgiveness. They used these findings to construct and validate a prayer-focused marriage therapy intervention within an African-American, religious population. Throughout his talk, he was careful to make it clear that these studies were done with, and only apply to, religious believers and that the possibility of comparable mechanisms for nonbeliever couples still need to be researched.

Dr. Julie Exline’s Laboratory at Case Western Reserve University: Alex Uzdavines, Julie Exline, Valencia Harriott, Steffany Homolka, Nick Stauner, and Josh Wilt.

At least for my part, this was greatly appreciated. As someone who studies religious nonbelievers (not to mention being one), it can chafe reading or watching a presentation on research which has broadly sweeping conclusions about the benefits of religious belief which go far beyond what the data allow. Often this research implicitly (sometimes explicitly) assumes that the audience is religious themselves and that the research can be generalized to nonbelievers by just flipping the direction of the results. It was refreshing to have religious-oriented research presented in a manner that both framed the results within the context of the beliefs of the people who participated in the research and explicitly acknowledged that the conclusions drawn could not be applied to nonbelievers without further study.

Dr. Fincham’s focus on measurable psychological mechanisms contrasted sharply with the major themes from symposium presented by a number of scholars from BYU the previous day. The presenters answered the title of the symposium, chaired by Shannon Starks, “Does Psychology’s Naturalism Hamper Understanding of Religious Phenomena?” with a resounding “Yes!” Ms. Starks spoke first and her presentation outlined how widely used introductory psychology texts take a strictly naturalistic stance and often reject supernatural hypotheses for psychological phenomena just as resoundingly. Dr. Jeffery S. Reber presented the second talk and gave a number of examples of psychological theories that grew out of the work of famous theologians. However, when the writers most responsible for bringing these theories into psychology (sometimes the theologian themself!) translated them, all references to a god/gods, the divine, or the supernatural were removed.

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman, APA Div. 36 President Dr. Kevin Ladd, and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr. Melanie Nyhof

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman with Dr. Kevin Ladd and Dr. Melanie Nyhof enjoying the post conference Sundance tour.

The third talk, presented by Dr. Edwinn E. Gantt, built upon the first two presentations but shifted focus examining how psychological research often misses the supernatural reality of an individual’s lived experience, while the majority of researchers hunt for naturalistic mechanisms. He argued that since people qualitatively experience the supernatural as real, psychology is doing a disservice to human experience by saying that the supernatural is just a figment of explainable mechanisms. Finally, Dr. Brent D. Slife discussed a story from his clinical internship where he specifically focused on naturalistic therapeutic approaches at the behest of his supervisor. Over time he began to feel ashamed of how this cognitive-behavioral approach shifted his clients’ focus away from her spirituality and to thoughts and behaviors that seemed to reduce her suffering. In fact, Dr. Slife argued that by focusing on the reduction of suffering, psychologists are doing a disservice to religious clients because God might intend for them to suffer and reducing this risks moving their client away from God’s wishes. This is understandable only as long as a therapist discusses their naturalistic orientation with their client and the client still chooses to continue therapy. Conversely, a religious therapist should discuss their beliefs and intent to bring these beliefs into therapy ahead of time so that if the client does not wish to participate in religious therapy they can find a new therapist.

There were two major themes gleaned from this symposium. The first was one of “religious deletion” which seemed to operate similarly within the psychological community to how “bisexual deletion” works in both gay and straight communities. Aspects of identity, thought, or experience which don’t fit within the dominant culture of the community are either ignored or dismissed as not real, as religious/supernatural ideas and experience are dismissed within the psychological community – according to the speakers (and many other psychologists of religion I have spoken with). Requiring that psychological theories (or psychologists themselves) be stripped of their religious background in order to be taken seriously within the field does a disservice to everyone involved. While the current extent of the anti-religious nature of psychology is open to study, it does seem to be present and working towards a more theologically inclusive field might be a benefit to those who study the psychology of religion and spirituality, regardless of whether or not they are religious themselves.

The second major theme was more questionable, however. The idea that consideration of the supernatural is off-limits to psychological study pervaded all the presentations, with the exception of Dr. Reber’s. Well, off-limits to “naturalistic psychology,” anyways. Ms. Starks even went so far as criticizing studies that looked at Extra Sensory Perception and dreams that could predict future events. Rather than raising any methodological critiques, she simply implied that because the researchers operated within a naturalistic framework the studies were a priori invalid. Despite saying that the supernatural exists and that it impacts the natural world of which psychological processes are a part, the speakers refused to actually discuss any methodology that could be used to study either the supernatural itself or how it impacts naturalistic psychology, even after being directly asked to go into this by a few audience questions. In doing so, the impression I was left with was that it wasn’t psychology’s job to try and peek behind the “wizard’s curtain” of religious experience and if naturalistic scientists can’t prove the non-existence of the supernatural, they should simply acknowledge that it is real since many people experience it as real. The fact that some of us actively experience the supernatural to be imaginary and very much not-real can be safely ignored in the interest of privileging religious experience.

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

The implication that Christianity was the religious experience that should be privileged above all others within the field was made painfully clear during the dinner hosted by BYU. In three events (a Christian prayer; a campus ministry capella group which hoped to convert non-Christian division members; and the final dinner talk in which the speaker railed against non-Christian psychologists throughout the twentieth century, non-Christian moral principles in general, and drug use in Europe, which is a clear, unambiguous indicator of a lack of religious belief in a region) there was a very clear message that non-Christians were not welcome. This was actually news to me, as I have been involved with Division 36 since 2012 and this was the third divisional mid-year conference I’d spoken at. Unfortunately, it was the first time I’d felt deeply unwelcome as an Atheist member of the division. Despite the committee organizing the conference making it clear to BYU that this was not a religious conference, the organizers at BYU ignored this and appeared to go out of their way to make the events they did have control over as hostile to non-Christians as possible, while still maintaining a facade of inclusivity.

Overall, this conference highlighted both the good and bad aspects of our sub-field. The keynote from Dr. Fincham and the symposium lead by Ms. Starks displayed the strides being made towards the rigorous study of the impacts religious and spiritual practices may have on psychological functioning and the arguments we need to have within the field to define the border areas of the natural and supernatural for the purpose of further study. Unfortunately, the sectarian aspects of BYU’s dinner events aimed exclusively towards the Christian attendees showed that we still have a long path ahead. For my part, I’m going to continue going to these mid-year conferences and advocating that those of us who study the psychology of (and/or are) religious/spiritual nonbelievers or non-Christians attend as well.

Pilgrimage as Tension

That we now understand that people undertake pilgrimages for more than pious reasons has been one of the most significant advances in ‘pilgrimage studies’ to date. In Paulina Kolata’s interview with Prof. Ian Reader this is illustrated with a number of examples, though it is important to note that Reader shies away from a definition. For those who insist on the definition of terms this is a problem, of course, but I suspect the omission was deliberate. Among the reasons for this that are discussed is the notion that any term developed in one cultural-linguistic group will immediately face translation problems when being applied to another. Nonetheless, there is a tacit definition in use for the purposes of the interview which appears to be ‘travel connected to institutional religion’. The exception to this is ‘secular pilgrimage’ which Reader attaches to themes of popular culture, informal religious iconography and meanings, and, less obviously, questions of personal and collective meaning, all of which take place outside the jurisdiction of an institutional religious group. Questions of definition aside, there is an important theme Reader returns to a number of times throughout the interview; that pilgrims do a lot of stuff that is not ‘religious’ that scholars in religious studies have thus largely ignored.

In lieu of definitions, Reader asks questions about popularity and attraction, and, when prompted by Kolata, about meaning. By these routes a general picture of pilgrimage emerges. There are, Reader argues, certain conditions that must be met for a pilgrimage site to become successful and popular. Amongst these, infrastructure and marketing are important. Entertainment, Reader argues, has always been a part of religion and always a part of pilgrimage. In Western scholarship, however, there has been some kind of Protestant-informed unease with enjoyment when it comes to religiosity. This has given rise to a certain idea of pilgrims as serious travellers – a notion of pious, mobile flagellation in search of absolution – which contrasts with a domain of tourism in which entertainment is dominant and thus is frivolous and demanding of a scholarly shun (Digance 2006). But this dichotomy, Reader notes, is not present in many other traditions around the world. Furthermore, regardless of scholarly dismissal, pilgrimage sites are often places of entertainment – food, performances, conviviality, sex – regardless of culture or dominant religious group, and this is an important part of what attracts people. The reasons people might go on what they call ‘a pilgrimage’ are complex. Amusement may be as important as communion, escape from everyday life as important as prayer. But, and this is an important point that does not come up in the interview, they may not be the reasons a person may give when asked by fieldworking scholars. This is where a question asked by Kolata about the meaning of pilgrimage practices brings Reader to the heart of the interview’s thesis. Common themes in pilgrimage traditions, Reader infers, are metaphors of the journey of life, and, simultaneously, an escape from the realities of that life.

Reader’s argument is compelling and raises some important and intriguing questions. In my own work on spiritual tourism (Norman 2011) the themes he highlights were no less common,[1] and I too emphasise the importance of looking at the whole picture of a travel site or tradition in order to triangulate data and draw reliable conclusions. The working model Reader suggests is one that understands pilgrimages as travel to religious sites in which the motivations of travellers are a mixture of piety, curiosity, escape, boredom, transformation, and any number of other ‘non-religious’ and ‘religious’ reasons. The point, as noted in the interview, is that traditions of travel, apart from anything else, have probably always been, in part, about getting away from home and seeing something new, satisfying some human urge for mobility, to explore, to see new things, and to learn. In addition, popularity is also a factor as people desire to go where others also go. This is complicated by Reader’s assertion that piety is not a prerequisite for pilgrimage, though this, of course, depends on who one asks. Even a cursory examination of the historical record of pilgrimage traditions in Europe illustrates that pilgrims have always been suspicious of the peregrinatory status of other pilgrims. The overall point, however, is that from the outside, pilgrimage traditions are those traditions of travel in which meaning and/or transformation are portrayed as important, but that in practice hang in tension with other equally important, though less acknowledged motivations and desires.

For my current work, this notion has some important implications. At present I am working on the qualitative analysis of interview material gathered as part of the Shamatha Project, examining the effects of an intensive three-month shamatha meditation training retreat. If people have gone on pilgrimage to sites they consider special (as Taves 2012, would put it), but, as Reader contends, also in order to escape the everyday, to seek entertainment, and to ‘go to popular sites’, then in the phenomenon of people in Western societies going on Buddhist meditation retreats, we ought to be able to find evidence of those other ‘non-religious’ factors. At least somewhere and somehow. This, of course, assumes we are willing to consider ‘retreat tourism’ or ‘contemplative tourism’, as I’m going to neologise it here, in the same light as the range of vastly different traditions of travel that we are otherwise happy to lump under the ‘pilgrimage’ label. And I am, as are others (Eddy 2012), because if we look at some of the sociological studies of retreats and their touristic dimensions we can find some evidence of just such complex approaches (e.g. Voigt et al. 2010). An important implication is that, far from being simply about a journey towards truth, or of transformation or progression towards enlightenment or mindfulness, retreat practices in the West will also be about escape from the everyday, about seeing somewhere new, learning, and, overall, about being something different from normal for the retreatant/traveller/pilgrim.

Of course, the first step in testing the model Reader puts forward (albeit somewhat tacitly) is rigorous, qualitative research that investigates the interplay of expressed motivations, outcomes, and actual practices. I am confident enough in Reader’s model, especially in the light of my own research on spiritual tourism and on World Youth Day (2011), to predict that a complex mix of contesting interests held in tension is what will be found, at least in Western meditation retreat contexts. Certainly if we look at some examples of successful and popular retreats, like Spirit Rock Meditation Centre in California, we find the signs Reader predicts: good infrastructure, coordinated marketing, catering for many tastes and approaches, escape from the everyday, social gatherings apart from the practice, and so on. As opposed to undermining the special status of retreat practices, research showing such observations would, in fact, emphasise the sociological importance of retreat experiences for retreatants. Retreat visits/pilgrimages often are, by design, by intent, and in practice, journeys of significance for a range of personal and social reasons. But we cannot turn our eyes from the supposedly non-sacred, hedonistic, entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, or to put it simply, the enjoyable dimensions of retreats. For many who enter a retreat, just as for those who go on other pilgrimages, the journey is a special tradition of travel, a journey redolent with meaning, precisely because it occurs in response to complex personal and social motivations that are held in tension.

References

Digance, Justine. “Religious and Secular Pilgrimage: Journeys Redolent with Meaning.” In Tourism, Religion and Spiritual Journeys, edited by Dallen J. Timothy and Daniel H. Olsen, 36–48. London: Routledge, 2006.

Eddy, Glenys. “The Vipassana Retreat Experience: A Consideration of the Meditation Retreat as a Religious Paradigm of Travel.” Literature & Aesthetics 22, no. 1 (2012). http://ojs-prod.library.usyd.edu.au/index.php/LA/article/view/7574.

Norman, Alex. Spiritual Tourism: Travel and Religious Practice in Western Society. London: Continuum, 2011.

Norman, Alex, and Mark Johnson. “World Youth Day: The Creation of a Modern Pilgrimage Event for Evangelical Intent.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 26, no. 3 (2011): 371–85.

Taves, Ann. “Special Things as Building Blocks of Religions.” In The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, edited by Robert A. Orsi, 58–83. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Voigt, Cornelia, Gary Howat, and Graham Brown. “Hedonic and Eudaimonic Experiences among Wellness Tourists: An Exploratory Enquiry.” Annals of Leisure Research 13, no. 3 (January 1, 2010): 541–62. doi:10.1080/11745398.2010.9686862.

[1] I’ll put aside my wish to respond to Reader’s dismissal of ‘spirituality’ apart from noting the ironic similarity it bears to the dismissal of dimensions of pilgrimage he had just been discussing.

Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond: Part 2

In October, RSP interviewer Paulina Kolata was able to sit down with Professor Ian Reader to discuss his publication ‘Pilgrimage in the Marketplace’ (October 2013), which explores the very ‘worldly’ conditions of development, popularisation, and ultimately, survival of pilgrimage centres in connection to the dynamics of the marketplace through which the ‘sacred’ as a category can be sustained. In this interview, Ian offers an insight into the meaning of pilgrimage, particularly in the Japanese context, and discusses the competitiveness of the pilgrimage market, the practice’s connection to tourism, playfulness of religion, and the survival of pilgrimage practice. After a fascinating conversation and a couple of cups of coffee later, we hope that listeners will enjoy this podcast as much as Paula and Ian enjoyed recording it, and we look forward to your discussions.

For ease of listening, we decided to split this week’s interview into two parts. For full podcast notes, and the first part, please click here. Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Eoin O’Mahony on “Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland“, and Alex Norman on “Spiritual Tourism“.

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