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Discourse! June 2020

In our June 2020 episode of Discourse, RSP contributor Ben Marcus speaks with Andre Willis, associate professor of religious studies at Brown University, and Carleigh Beriont, PhD candidate at Harvard University. They begin by discussing how the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans exemplify rituals of state violence and technologies of white supremacy in the United States. Amid mass protests against police brutality and systemic racism ongoing in the United States right now, the guests highlight the story of Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old member of the Catholic Worker Movement who was injured protesting, as well as President Trump’s much derided photo opportunity in response to those protests. The conversation then pivots to recent reports that invoke threats of the apocalypse, including the Trump administration decision to consider resuming explosive testing of nuclear weapons. Finally, still enduring a global and now months-long COVID-19 pandemic, the guests look at ongoing religious responses to prohibitions against some in-person religious services and the emerging court battles over worship under restrictions on social distancing.

Resources suggested by the guests include:

On the Protests in the United States

On Nuclear Testing

ON COVID-19 and Louisville

For more, consider consulting the following:

Finally, for those seeking additional critical perspectives from religious studies scholars we can strongly recommend this blog post at Feminist Studies in Religion by Megan Goodwin and Yohana Agra Junker, “This is Not an Antiracist Reading List, OR, the Treachery of Allyship.”

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.

Near Death Experiences

Accounts of Near Death Experiences will no doubt be very familiar to listeners of the RSP and the broader public. From fictional accounts such as the Wizard of Oz or Flatliners, to self-reports which grew in popularity in the mid-twentieth century, many of us will be know narrative tropes such as the tunnel, the life review, and the out of body experience. Existing research has tended to, on the one hand, focus on the pathological elements of Near Death Narratives – attempting to ‘explain away’ the phenomenon in reductionistic terms – or, on the other hand, view such accounts as substantive proof of a ‘world beyond’. In today’s podcast, we showcase an approach which accepts reports of Near Death Experiences as discourse, and attempts to understand them in their social, cultural, and historical context. Further, we ask what is the relationship between these narratives and contemporary discourse on ‘religion’? Joining Chris Cotter in this podcast is Professor Jens Schlieter, who has admirably addressed these questions and more in his recent book What Is It Like To Be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity, and the Occult (OUP 2018).

In this episode, we discuss definitions of Near Death Experiences, how one might study reports of such experiences from a critical study of religion perspective, how such reports are related to modern societal developments such as ‘secularization’, individualization, and advances in medical science, as well as the impact of ‘religious’ meta-cultures upon these reports and the potential ‘religious’ functions they appear to serve.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


Near-Death Experiences

Podcast with Jens Schlieter (13 April 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/near-death-experiences/

Christopher Cotter (CC): Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, and indeed in society beyond, will be very familiar, I imagine, with the notion of near-death experiences. They’ve become quite a predominant theme in fictional narratives and across the internet. But within academic study there have been two approaches, possibly, to these. One would be to be hyper-medicalised, physiological, psychological – seeing them as phenomena to be explained away. Another approach would be to be seeing them as proof of life beyond, and using them in that sort-of context. But what’s been largely absent, up until now, has been a Critical Religious Studies approach; looking at these narratives in their social and historical context, and what they can tell us about our society and about our lives. Joining me today, to talk about near-death experiences, is Professor Jens Schlieter of the University of Bern. Professor Schlieter studied Philosophy, and Buddhist Studies, and Comparative Religion, in Bonn and Vienna and got his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Bonn. And he has held research positions at the University of Munich and the University of Bonn. He is currently at the University of Bern, where he is Professor for the Systematic Study of Religion and also Co-director for the Institute of Science of Religion. And his publications comprise contributions on methodological and theoretical questions in the study of religion, and Buddhist bioethics, and comparative philosophy. But of particular relevance today is his 2018 book with Oxford University press called, What Is It Like to be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity and the Occult. So first off, Professor Schlieter, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Jens Schlieter (JS): Thank you, Chris, for inviting me here.

CC: It’s wonderful to have you here in Edinburgh on this crisp winter’s day! I could just start off by asking you: what is it like to be dead, Professor Schlieter?! But, although it may be fairly obvious what got you interested – because it is such an inherently tantalising topic – what was it that got you interested in studying and writing about near-death experiences?

JS: The title, of course, is a little bit provocative. But it is, indeed, to be found in the Scriptures on near-death experiences. But I thought of the famous article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel writing an article on “What it is like to be bat?” And he argues that we don’t know, because we usually imagine ourselves hanging in a cave from the top. But we do not know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. And so there is, of course, a very important topic and the whole . . . . People claimed that they were actually dead, but the definition of death . . . usually we would define death as a status of irreversibility. So one cannot come back to life. So there is a paradox there. But on the other hand, these experiences of people very close to death, they must be taken seriously. Because people change their lives. They write large autobiographic narratives in which they define this experience as absolutely life-changing in regard to new spiritual views on themselves, on the soul, on the beyond, etc. So that was my initial interest in the whole. How can people describe something that we usually consider as impossible? Because this standpoint of describing the status after death cannot be taken. But obviously we have these narratives. So what do we do?

CC: Absolutely, and it really comes to the core methodological issue in the study of religion, I suppose, where all we have to go on is discourse, and what people say, and putting indescribable experiences into natural language – in the sense of, whether we’re talking about any experience of the supernatural, it inherently has to be described in language and be articulated in that way. So, yes. It quite nicely captures one of the core issues in the study of religion (5:00). But before we get any further, and you’ve already hinted at it there, but, what is a near-death experience? Just so that we’re all talking from the same page.

JS: Yes. I started by defining the methodological point of view on near-death experiences in the book as, let’s say, historical discourse study. So I looked at who defined near-death experience for the first time. Usually people claim that it was Raymond Moody, an American medical professional, a doctor. And he published a book in 1975, Life after Life, and there he speaks of near-death experiences – near-death experiences in the plural – claiming that he used the category to describe those narratives which he encountered in hospitals by survivors of, for example, heart attack, or nearly-drowned, or something like that. But in my book I can show that the term near-death experience is somewhat earlier used already by John C Lilley, in 1972. And he wrote an autobiography, Centre of the Cyclone. And there he describes, interestingly, a near-death experience on the basis that he himself was close to death, using LSD. And so he had visionary experiences triggered by LSD, but on the other hand he was ill, and administered himself an antibiotics, but obviously something went wrong. And so he was actually really close to death and in an almost comatose-like state And Raymond Moody read the book. But of course, for him, it was rather unsettling that it was an LSD experience. But in the book I can show that the LSD and near-death experiences co-evolved in the 1970s as a discourse. And it is not a new phenomenon. Already in the early nineteenth century people spoke of experiences close to death and what happens there, namely: life-review, out of body experiences – Oh! Here I get back to the question of definition! Sorry . . .

CC: That’s alright!

JS: Near-death experiences usually, in what Raymond Moody first systematised, encompass roundabout 15 different topoi – one may say, from a discourse perspective – namely: to get out of one’s body and to encounter one’s dead body from an elevated perspective, looking down at oneself lying in the bed; then there is the idea expressed that you get into something like a summer land, or paradise; that you encounter heavenly beings, or sometimes they are of help and guide you through the netherworld, sometimes they are frightening; also experiences of encountering other family members and friends who have died already – so after-death experience in the meaning that you enter a space where these are already there; but also a kind-of a barrier; and a heavenly voice – an experience of the presence of God or Jesus. And finally, to get back into the body. So these are elements. And Raymond Moody’s idea was these are usually in a kind-of continuous narrative. So they follow each other because they are a universal experience, mirrored, of course, into the individual backgrounds and so on (10:00). But, in general, he believed they really tell something about the after-death realm, and therefore these are real experiences. For me, of course, this is a metaphysical assumption that I can neither deny nor affirm with my research. And therefore I looked at them only as reports – reports of experiences. So, ok, the word “experience” usually means that you truly encounter something that transforms your point of view, that transforms you, probably totally, if it is a life-changing experience. But one can also say experiences are construed in the aftermath. After surviving the whole thing, people usually will ask themselves, “How did it happen that I personally survived? Why didn’t I die?” And I think these are really questions of meaning, of meaningfulness. And very often, at least in our culture, people tend to think of religion as providing an answer, and therefore looking for an answer why they survived. They had maybe visions – we don’t know because there is no way to figure out if these visions happen the way they say they were. But for them, of course, they are real. And we will never know. But what I can say, at least, in the book . . . . I show with various examples that certain narratives, for example, the one of the life-review – that you remember scenes and things in your early life, in your life unfolding, etc. – and that this life-review actually emerged in the narratives. It is not yet there in medieval reports of near-death experiences – if one can say they are near-death experiences, because usually they are deathbed visions by monks and nuns.

CC: Yes. And indeed you make the point in the book that, until recent decades I suppose, these experiences tended to be narrated by others: people telling of someone else’s experience. Whereas, there was a point at which there was the turn to the individual and the self-narrative. Which I think we’re probably going to get onto fairly shortly. So just before we get there, you’ve already given some hints at your methodology there, and it’s a fairly standard Religious Studies approach in the sense of: regardless of whether there is a reality or not, what we have to go on are people’s accounts of their experiences. And these accounts have impact and social impact. So let’s look at them and treat them at face value and just deal with the content, and the meaning, and etc., etc. Is there anything else that you’d like to sort-of caveat what you’re saying? Like, what was the body of material that you consulted?

JS: Well I thought it would be good to start with personal narratives, not those – as you mentioned – by others, so third-hand evidence. And narratives from a first-person point of view are, of course, very much connected to the emergence of autobiographies, of subjectivity, and usually one of the major figure in this emerging tradition was the French philosopher Montaigne. And he, in his essays, unravels a near-death experience interestingly. And major elements, that were of importance for reporters of near-death experiences that inform Moody, are not yet there. They are simply not there. But then there is Francis Beaufort. He was an admiral with the British navy. And he is the first who really had a classical near-death experience, at the end of the eighteenth century (15:00). He fell into Portsmouth harbour and nearly drowned as a young man. And decades later he reported his experience. And for the first time, we have this life-review phenomenon. So he said, “I could see scenes from my early childhood. Memories that I were not aware of that . . . I had these experiences”. So this is an interesting element in itself. So from the sixteenth century up to 1975, this is what the book covers. I decided not to look at sources from non-European cultures. There is, of course, an extensive discussion about if near-death experiences are purely a Western phenomenon, or if near-death experiences can be seen in Indian, Japanese, Chinese traditions. A very important element that is usually pointed out is the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It has been published by Oxford University Press in 1927, translated by Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz in collaboration with native Tibetan Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup. And they were tremendously successful in popularising these Tibetan thoughts and rituals: what should be done if someone dies? And the idea is to guide them through the netherworld, of course, in the Tibetan context to encounter karmic delusions, and to be very frightened – because the consciousness principle has to navigate through its own complications, and so on. But to give you one example that it is quite important, to look very closely at the reported experiences. People usually say, “Well this is evidence that they are of a universal quality.” If you have Tibetans reporting such experiences in the fourteenth century or so, and modern Western evidence, so it seems to be . . . . But, for example, the idea that there is out-of-body experiences and one looks back at oneself. In the Western tradition it is very much the idea that you face yourself being dead. So the soul, or consciousness, hovering over the body, is interested to look at and to examine the body. Because the body is something foreign. Something that is no longer animated, but still a point of reference in this world etc. Whereas, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, of course, due to the idea of reincarnation etc., the body is of no importance. And we can see that it is much more a social reality in the Tibetan Buddhist account of this moment where the soul, or consciousness – to be more precise, in the Tibetan Buddhist context. So the consciousness principle looks not at its former body, but at the weeping family members, and tries to convince them, “Oh I’m fine. Please, you do not help me if you weep. I can see you, but you obviously can no longer see me. But please, that’s not good for me. Because now I have the task I shall move forward to my next existence.” And best would be, of course, no longer to be reincarnated at all. So at the first sight that seems to be, “Ok, that’s an out of body experience.” But the narrated content is totally different in terms of epistemology, in terms of soteriology, and so on and so forth.

CC: Absolutely. So you started to get into the socio-cultural historic contexts within which near-death narratives are occurring. And much of your book, I guess, is looking at Western contexts as you say. And you do an excellent job of charting some of the contextual factors that might have shaped and led, perhaps, to what you might call an explosion of near-death narratives. So if you can, maybe, tell us about some of these modern societal developments that have gone hand-in-hand with near-death narratives? (20:00)

JS: Yes. I think this is a very important aspect. And I think, so far, there was little interest to look at the correlations. What is astonishing is the fact that, in the 1970s, major developments in the Western medical system were going on. For example, to declare people no longer dead with the criterion of heart failure, and other classical criteria that were used for ages to declare people dead if there is no longer brain activity. And there are, of course, measurements from the EEG etc. But that’s led to the situation that people without a functioning brain were declared dead. But their body was still, let’s say, alive, in a way. And of course it was seen as a major advantage also for transplantation of organs. And many of them can only be used in the body is fully intact. And, of course, with artificial respiration and so on. And the phenomena like coma, and locked -in syndrome, they were described at a new level – more scientifically defined, and so on. But in the general society these developments were considered as extremely unsettling. Because there was now an ambivalence: is someone dead or not dead? Only dead if declared to be dead. And shall we trust the physicians, the doctors in the intensive care unit if they say he or she is dead? Then we accept that? And so that was really unsettling. And on the other hand if, of course, due to circumstances that people were able to survive a certain period of very low brain activity and some of them had visionary accounts or visionary experiences, or let’s say, near-death experiences returning from such a state they said, “Well, in your medical perspective maybe we were that close to death that it was only a second that you may have decided to close the artificial attempts of sustaining my life. But I survived – and not only that, I had certain experiences that are absolutely central for my life that I would like to live from now onwards with different values.”

CC: So yes, I’m just pushing through because of time. But yes, we have those medical developments and, you know, people being sustained longer. And you describe how they move from mostly dying out of the hospital context, and moving into hospital contexts. You’ve got, also, all the different forms of medication which might have hallucinogenic properties, legal or illegal. But then there’s also individualisation within religion, beyond religion: the importance of individual narratives of the self. And then also, I guess, that all ties into a secularisation narrative as well. So you’ve got all of this going on, and then “Easter”, in quotation marks, influences coming in. You’ve already described the Tibetan Book of the Dead. So there’s lot going on, in the sixties and seventies, in terms of just rapid social development in these areas – which understandably facilitates the development and, I guess, dissemination of these near-death narratives. But I’m keen to get to the “religion” word, because we need to on the Religious Studies Project! And towards the end of the book you tackle that head on, and talk about how religious meta-cultures might have influenced and shaped the form and content of these near-death narratives (25:00). And then, also, you talk about the potential, I guess you would say, “religious functions” of the narratives. So maybe you should take us through some of that.

JS: Yes. I think usually, books of reporting individuals themselves, they do not very openly quote sources that inspired them. But if you look more closely at the whole near-death reporting genre, one can see that there are many spiritualists, many who are close to Western esotericism, for example: parapsychological accounts are very often combined with near-death accounts. For example, Eben Alexander who published a very, very successful book. So there are people who are usually in a way religious, and at the same time they are distant in regard to dogmas of established churches. So usually there’s something like this: they were brought up in very religious families, and they had a background of, let’s say, intensive socialisation within a religious tradition. And then they moved on, studied, for example, something on the signs of nature and medicine, or whatever – became more critical towards religion and towards establishment in particular. And then this happens. An event that in which they almost died. And I think it is very plausible to look at the phenomenon with this perspective. At this moment they revive their former emotion and that was inspired and formed by a very religious family life. But of course they are already stuffed with critical rationality. They are distant in regard to unfounded claims of traditional religious tradition. So the individual experience is, from my point of view, a very vital element of this late modern religiosity. And therefore one can say near-death experiences are probably prototypical for the development. People no longer believe that there is, let’s say, a life after death in terms of words traditional – especially of course the Catholic Church had to offer, but they have their individual experiences. And they think this is authentic par excellence. Because it is individual. So, in a way, one can say the whole phenomenon mirrors recent developments in Western societies and, on the other hand, I think they offer a certain kind-of a solution for the whole, because people can still continue to believe. And very often, also, one can see that they have a kind-of missionary attitude. That they really speak very freely on their near-death experiences, even though, very often, they note, “OK, I know that you are sceptical, and this is a materialistic society, and no-one will believe me.” But this is part, again, of the whole authenticity that they feel that they are in.

CC: And, I guess, even someone who was notionally “non-religious” – in scare quotes there – they’re part of a context. And the experience, whatever it is, is felt. And their interpretation will be informed by their context within which . . . . And the context will, I suppose, also influence the experience itself in the first place. Because people bring things to an experience. And then, afterwards, interpret it with the resources that are available to them. And especially once there is such an economy of a near-death experiences, then it’s going to take . . . . (30:00).

JS: Absolutely. Although I think it is rather a rare case in which one will have a near-death experience without ever being introduced to religious thought, rituals, and traditions before. Because I think, indeed, one has to have a certain disposition, and a certain expectancy for things to happen, in such experiences. But nevertheless, as I said at the beginning, if you would imagine yourself in the situation, or someone else in the situation – maybe he was not very religious, but survives a very tragic accident. Maybe other companions in the car died. And then you have the question of contingency – what sociologists always say in regard to religion. So the question of the reduction of contingency, namely: “I could have died here. It didn’t happen. So who saved me?” We usually attribute such survival to a force. We are continuously looking for explanations. We cannot live with no explanation, and simply to say that it was by chance, there was no other force involved at all. And so I would say this way of looking at a situation . . . . And, of course, many suffer from, let’s say, the injuries they have. So they are in hospital, they are alone, they are under medication. I don’t want to simply say that’s an outcome of that. I hope that’s clear that I think the whole is meaningful. It’s not simply to be reduced to such factors. But these factors are, or should be, taken into consideration too. So people alone, thinking at, and on, their lives – probably the question of meaning pops up in their lives for the first time ever. And then they, maybe, “Oh yes, there was a certain kind of light. Was there a being behind the light? Did I see a being? Although I do not believe . . . . But probably it was a being. And haven’t I heard some kind of message?” Because the whole thing, for them, is of course complicated too. They have to remember ecstatic experiences. And they cannot say what they experience the moment they experience that. So they have an epistemological problem, too.

CC: Yes. And again we’re right back to that. But putting sort-of non-falsifiable experience into words, after the event. And going back earlier in the interview, you mentioned earlier Montaigne. I have a tattoo of some words by Montaigne: “Fortis imaginatio generat casum”: a strong imagination creates its own reality.

JS: Yes, yes, absolutely

CC: But yes, there’s a sense, after an experience, one is only going to be able to interpret and articulate . . . . And human memory is an awful thing. Memory . . . like these eyewitness reports in criminal cases will say . . . .

JS: Absolutely.

CC: And these experiences – because they’re so intense, and profound, and are current at traumatic circumstances – they are going to be revisited, and rearticulated, and pondered time and time again. So we can’t say too much about the actual experience itself. But what you’re doing is looking at how people are articulating it, and what are the themes, and how that has impacts. We’re pretty much out of time. But I just wanted to sort-of finish with what might be – again, it’s been implicit throughout the interview – but what would be some of your take-home messages for the study of religion? And from your work with near-death experience? And what do you think others can take and apply, perhaps more broadly, in their own studies in this religion thing that we’re all so obsessed with?!

JS: Well, I think one of the general insights that I would consider central is that extraordinary experiences were, for some years, less studied because people thought, “Well it is a discourse, by religious practitioners, to speak about their extraordinary experiences.” (35:00) But I think there is really something in there that may help also to look at recent developments. For example, these books about near-death experiences – they are incredibly successful. Very often you have them in Amazon ranking lists on places five to three – and for weeks. So there is not only the experience, but also a large audience interested in this experience. So to study this as the phenomenon – as a part of the phenomenon of no-longer-institutionalised religion, but never-the-less as a part of a religious discourse where experience matters. And experience that very often has been only psychologised. And there are a lot of neuroscientific theories that simply say, “Well, it’s a dysfunctional brain that produces such delusions and you cannot take it seriously” And I think this simply a very short-sighted view of the whole. Because people change their whole life after the experience. Although, it would be very important to have a closer look at this phenomenon. This has not yet been researched, from my knowledge: an empirical study, that not only considers that the autobiography may be also an oral narrative of what has happened after the experience is considered, but also to look more closely at families, friends and really to corroborate evidence that it was a life-changing matter.

CC: Absolutely. So there’s on that final note, a potential research project for a Listener, or perhaps that’s your next research project, I don’t know? Well thank you so much, Professor Schlieter, for joining us on the Religious Studies Project. I’m looking forward to hearing how it goes down.

JS: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

CC: Good.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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

Discourse! March 2020 with Theo Wildcroft, Dan Gorman, & Vivian Asimos

In this month’s episode of Discourse!, Theo Wildcroft, Dan Gorman and special emergency guest Vivian Asimos discuss the US Supreme Court’s relationship to Christianity, how the Independent dealt with criticism of a review of a book critical of paganism, and religion, abuse and the idea of a ‘witch hunt’ in yoga and academia. Oh and something called coronavirus?

Links for items discussed in this episode:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source for Featured Image Screenshot of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer with the flags of countries afflicted by Covid-19:

https://www.sentinelandenterprise.com/2020/03/20/embracing-the-grace-of-covid-19/

 

Which Voice Speaks?

A response to “Empty Signs in an automatic signalling system” with Timothy Fiztgerald & David G. Robertson by Russell McCutcheon.

“So what do you find most alarming about this move to redefine Islam as something other than a religion?”

So asked Benjamin Marcus, in his recent Religious Studies Project interview with Asma Uddin, on her then new book, When Islam Is Not a Religion. This question stood out for me as I listened because of the ease with which Islam seemed to be understood as self-evidently being a religion, a position from which it is no doubt “alarming” to see a movement developing within some segments of the U.S. that’s intent on reclassifying it as something other than a religion. Apart from the cases documented in Uddin’s book (such as the concerted, but eventually unsuccessful, effort to block the building of a new Islamic center in the city of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a decade ago), I think of the “unfiltered video” from then candidate Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign that was posted by the New York Times, on August 3, 2016, which I’ve often used in classes. A dispute outside one of the events, between, on the one hand, a couple of Trump supporters—one of whom, yes, was wearing the red “Make American Great Again” cap—and, on the other, one of his detractors, resulted in the Trump critic being told in no uncertain terms that “Muslim is not a religion, partner, it’s an ideology,” followed by: “You don’t come and talk about America when you’re supporting Muslims” (see the 00.54 point of the video).

 

Above, Trump supporters and critic clash at a 2016 rally.
 

The question is whether this is “alarming.”

 

To answer that question, it strikes me that we first have to determine which voice speaks (i.e., we should ask: alarming to whom?), for in my own daily life, I occupy a number of different subject positions, one of which happens to be scholar of religion (more specifically, one who has long had interests that complement many of Tim Fitzgerald’s, as we’ve heard them described in his own RSP conversation with David Robertson).  Should that be the voice that replies—and, as I would further argue, that’s the voice that should prevail in professional venues in our discipline—then it would do so knowing that when Weltreligionen was first developed in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, only Christianity and Buddhism counted to those German theologians as world religions, while all the rest that they knew of back then (and which our modern world religions textbooks today would certainly take for granted as requiring detailed chapters of their own) were classed merely as Landesreligionen, or what one might today somewhat awkwardly term national or even ethnic religions. Now, those much earlier, colonial-era scholars’ interests in distinguishing religions based on which had spread beyond what was then considered to be each of their original regions or kin groups are certainly not our own today; hence the disappearance of this particular binary. And scholars today certainly don’t share the even older understanding, despite once being widespread across Europe, that would not have even used this term “religion” to make sense of one’s place in the world but which, instead, would have simply distinguished Christendom (understood more as a civilization and geographic domain rather than a so-called belief system or faith tradition) from pagans and heathens (i.e., those once seen to be living out there in what some of us now would just call “the sticks”). But, despite being obvious classificatory relics, both episodes nicely illustrate that classification systems attend situated social interests and have practical effect—a principle that, I’d argue, applies no less to arguing whether something today is or is not a religion.

 

Now, should one be a student of such taxonomic systems, interested in how they work, who uses them, to just what effect, etc., then hearing “Muslim is not a religion, partner, it’s an ideology” spoken outside a 2016 Trump campaign rally is not so much alarming but, instead, makes an awful lot of sense—especially if we’re acquainted with not only the presence of long-simmering animosities and the current political divide in the U.S. but also with the manner in which marginal or recently migrated groups are effectively being scapegoated, as well as with the privileges that liberal democracies generally afford those things that are officially designated as religions (along with the inevitable policing that accompanies that designation); for in this discrete classificatory dispute just outside a campaign rally, we see a much larger, even geo-political social contest playing out, one that aims to call into question the rights of certain citizens (those identified as Muslims), rights to which they are properly entitled should Islam be understood as a religion.

 

In keeping with the work that some of us have been doing for the past couple of academic generations, with Fitzgerald’s writings featuring prominently in that group, the scholarly issue, then, is not whether Islam (let alone any other group) is really a religion, and it is certainly not whether the position of those Trump supporters was wrong or alarming; instead, it’s whether we can better understand why anything might, or might not, be called religion in the first place (let alone a world religion, a faith tradition, spirituality, etc.) in this or that specific situation, by this or that specific person, all in an effort to help us examine the social, political, economic, etc., effects of this designation when it is lodged in laws and Constitutions. So my guess is that  scholars such as Fitzgerald, inasmuch as they speak and write as scholars of religion, would not find such claims all that alarming. Instead, such scholars would more than likely hear them in the context of the sort of a socio-political contestation that has been playing out for several centuries across Europe and, due to the success of European expansionism and colonialism, throughout the rest of the world as well, a contest that, in part, takes place by means of designating (or not) people, things, and institutions as religious.

 

I compare Fitzgerald’s RSP interview to Uddin’s for a reason, of course, for I think that we see here a longstanding rift in the field. Because the latter’s book is written from the point of view of, as she describes it, one who is “entrenched in both … the experience of Islam as a religious truth, and the legal and philosophical appreciation of religious liberty as inherent to human beings” (64), it understandably focuses on how to work within a classification system, such as the legal effort to determine what ought to be designated as a religion (and what ought not, such as Pastafarianism, at least in the opinion of some courts, not to mention those who, as Uddin phrases it, “hijack religious liberty to get away with criminal behavior” [125]).  Although written for a popular audience, in this regard her book shares much with many recent scholarly works on religion and law—works which, in my reading, are often concerned with how social democracies can better accommodate religious expressions. But for those scholars who are, instead, interested in the very existence of such classification systems, and thus for those interested in, say, the socio-political work being done by discourses on experience along with discourses on religious freedom, not to mention the rhetoric of hijacking something (a focus of this forthcoming book), Uddin’s book and the RSP interview on it, along with the normative reaction of those currently trying to persuade their peers that Islam is something other than a religion, all constitutes data points in an ongoing contest deserving analysis. For while one may personally prefer to live in a world in which certain groups are understood in a way that privileges their members (freeing their meeting places from paying property tax, for example), that does not strike me as preventing scholars from being far more curious about why such things as a so-called religious exemption exists in the first place, about the larger systems that require these exemptions to exist, and about the strategic advantage that some may see to undermining others’ routine access to it. Such a scholarly voice would likely have little interest in normalizing these systems by merely operating within them, applying them, etc., but, rather, would probably seek to historicize the system itself, along with studying both its articulate users (such as the politicians who created, and lawyers trained to apply, such things as the U.S.’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act [1993]) and its vocal detractors (e.g., that man outside the rally). Fitzgerald and a small group of others, I contend, comprise this latter category.

 

And it is the size of this group that, I think matters, for despite about thirty years of continued work on these topics, those I once termed critics in the study of religion are still a rather marginalized group in the field. Case in point, recently I read someone characterizing such scholars as interested in mere words as opposed to doing real, empirical research—the sort of comment I fielded at the very start of my own career from what were then rather condescending senior scholars. Now, this seeming lack of effect shouldn’t be read as a statement about the insufficient nature of the critical work that’s being done but, instead, provides an insight into just how entrenched this dominant discourse actually is; for, as I recently observed in a paper that I presented to the 2019 annual meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Religion, despite all of us having apparently read our Edward Said and his critique of the work being done by our casual use of the East/West distinction, there’s no shortage of contemporary scholarship and courses in our field on “Eastern religion” let alone plenty of criticisms in the literature of how “the West” has done this or that historically. Old habits die hard because they are situated within larger contexts that organize our sense of who we are in relation to others, making both the East/West binary—despite Said’s best efforts to persuade readers that they were actually co-constitutive and socially formative tropes with no necessary relationship to things on the ground or in the bone, so to speak—as well as the discourses on religion, on religious experiences, on faith, etc., things that many scholars seem to have no choice but to continue to see as self-evident in their meaning and application. I concluded in that NAASR paper that critics would be wise to assume the continued and widespread use of these terms by their scholarly peers and the public alike, despite the growing critical work offered by some of us, given the crucial socially formative role such rhetorics still play in our lives and the way we organize ourselves into groups. But this doesn’t mean, of course, that such critical work has no effect, is a pointless pursuit, or is all about mere words.

Discourse! February 2020 with Sierra Lawson and Sidney Castillo

In this episode of Discourse, host Breann Fallon sat down with Sierra Lawson and Sidney Castillo to discuss current affairs issues that relate to religion. Sidney raised the very recent congress elections in Peru (held on January 26) and the role Christianity and New Religious Movements have on voting. Sierra brought to the table a novel which is receiving much media attention, perhaps not for the right reason, Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt. Cummins accepted a seven-figure sum for this book on the immigrant experience. Both the book and the American publishing industry at large have received negative attention for their lack of Latino representation and the homogenising of both Latino and immigrant narratives. Using this as a springboard, Sierra, Sidney, and Breann discuss notion of diversity in the Religious Studies publishing world as well as the prominence of “American-civil-religion” stabilising narratives in the American literature and entertainment scene.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.

Protected: Artificial Intelligence and Religion (Classroom Edit)

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Artificial Intelligence and Religion

What is Artificial Intelligence and why might we want to consider it in relation to ‘religion’? What religion-related questions might be raised by AI? Are these ‘religious’ questions or ‘Christian’/’post-Christian’ ones? What ‘religious’ functions might AI serve? In what ways do popular discourses about AI intersect with religion-related discourses? Do narratives of AI form part of a teleological atheist narrative, or do they perpetuate prevalent tropes associated with ‘established’ or ‘new’ religious movements? And what are the intersections of AI and religion with issues such as slavery, human identity, affect and agency? This week, Chris is joined by Dr Beth Singler of the University of Cambridge to discuss these issues and many more.

This podcast builds on a roundtable discussion released on the RSP in February 2017, featuring Beth, Chris, Michael Morelli, Vivian Asimos and Jonathan Tuckett, titled “AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation” and a special issue of the RSP journal Implicit Religion, co-edited by Dr Singler, on Artificial Intelligence and Religion, published in 2017.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


Artificial Intelligence and Religion

Podcast with Beth Singler (27 January 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Singler_-_Artificial_Intelligence_and_Religion_1.1.pdf

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/artificial-intelligence-and-religion/

PDF at

Christopher Cotter (CC): At the weekend, I mentioned to my father that I was going to be recording an interview about the intersections between AI and religion. And he said, “I can’t think of anything that would be relevant there. How do they intersect at all?” And then, within the space of about two minutes, we were suddenly talking about all sorts of things, like: are human beings creating intelligences? Does that mean they’re acting like gods? Can you imagine that AI might be acting as religious functionaries, providing blessings? And what about pain, what about notions of slavery, what about the whole notion of the soul, and eternity, and transhumanism and everything? So suddenly we got into this massive discussion. And today I am pleased to be joined by Dr Beth Singler to continue that discussion in a more erudite fashion – not casting any aspersions on my father, of course! Dr Singler is the Homerton Junior Research Fellow in Artificial Intelligence at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. And her background is as a social anthropologist of new religious movements. And her first monograph, The Indigo Children: New Age Experimentation with Self and Science, published with Routledge in 2017, was the first in-depth ethnography of a group called the Indigo Children: a new age re-conception of both children and adults using the language of both evolution and spirituality. We’ll hear more about her research into AI and religion just now. But a relevant recent publication is her edited special issue on AI and religion, for the RSP’s sponsored journal Implicit Religion, which included her own articles: “An Introduction to Artificial Intelligence and Religion for the Religious Studies Scholar“, and “Roko’s Basilisk or Pascal’s? Thinking of Singularity Thought Experiments as Implicit Religion“. And today’s podcast builds on a roundtable discussion (that we had back . . . well, we had it in September 2016, but it was released in February 2017) featuring Dr Singler, myself, Dr Morelli, Vivian Asimos, and Jonathan Tuckett, titled “AI and Religion, an Initial Conversation“. So first off, Beth – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project!

Beth Singler (BS): Hello! Thank you for having me.

CC: It’s great to have you back. And hopefully this is the follow-up conversation that was promised!

BS: (Laughs) As foretold . . . !

CC: So many moons ago!

BS: (Laughs).

CC: So we’ll have covered a little bit of this already I think. But you’ll be in a different position now: years on, years older, years wiser!

BS: Oh, so much older!

CC: So, first off: artificial intelligence is going to be a sort-of contested term in public discourse. It takes on a variety of different nuances. So what are you meaning in this conversation?

BS: Well, I’m definitely meaning that it is a contested term, taking on many different forms. I think you can sort-of indicate towards something that is the field of artificial intelligence, within which there are processes and programmes and foci of research, looking at things like machine learning and vision systems and natural language processing. So you have this concept of a computer science field – which doesn’t really get its name until the 1950s – but you can see how, beyond the actual narrow form of the technology, artificial intelligence is understood in so many different ways by so many different people. I have a friend who once told me that their car had AI because when she walked towards her car with her keys, the doors unlocked. That’s not artificial intelligence. That’s a sensor in your keys. But lots of people have this idea of sort-of processes that seem intelligent, done by machines, and therefore must be artificial intelligence. And that’s what I’m really very interested in: that it’s so much broader than the original conception, which was ambitious in its own right. But everyone has attached AI to different things that they feel might represent intelligence. So it’s not only the computer programme that sits on a server, it’s also now the robot that takes over the world. Or it’s the far, future hope of an intelligence that will save us all from ourselves. So it’s all these very different things, and that’s what interests me.

CC: Yes. And you’re interested in that whole gamut, I suppose. So, not necessarily a technical definition of artificial intelligence.

BS: No. I mean, I know enough technologists who go, “Absolutely, 100%, it’s this one thing. That’s it. And anyone who’s talking about anything else, it’s complete nonsense!” Well, to a certain extent, yes. But you’ve got to pay attention to all the different interpretations, because that’s what’s getting out there into the world.

CC: So I began with my personal vignette, there, about chatting with my dad. But you’ve provided, much more eruditely, a justification for what we might mean by the intersections between AI and the study of religion, and why we’re even having this conversation. So – go!

BS: Go! Right. Well, from a very basic position, any form of technology intersects with religion.(5:00) That’s just the nature of our society works, how our conception of religion itself works, that it could be seen, in itself, as a form of technology. And therefore any kind-of shift and changes in how we do things – things that make our lives either more difficult or easier – there are repercussions and implications for how we imagine the world and how it works, therefore religion. I think where AI might be slightly different . . . . Although I am cautious about saying it’s revolutionary new technology and very disruptive – it does replicate lots of existing ideas and thoughts. What I think is interesting about AI is the way in which people see it as much more than that simplistic tool. That however narrow an intelligence it is at the moment, people extrapolate on to personify AI: AI will want to do x-y-z; AI will replicate humans in such a way that we won’t be able to tell the difference between humans and AI. And this the Sci-fi imagining. But it also comes out in our religious conceptions as well. And then, also, within the sphere of the non-religious or secular approaches to AI, you see again these repeating patterns of religious narratives, and tropes that people who – even if overtly and sometimes aggressively atheist – still draw on their cultural context: primarily sort-of Abrahamic, Western conceptions of what a god would be like. And they use that, and they fill in their conception of AI with some of the existing templates that they’ve already got. So it tends to fall into very eschatological language, and very singular monotheistic conceptions of what a god would be and pattern that onto artificial intelligence.

CC: So there’s that sort-of: whatever religion is, we’re never going to be able to extract it from society. Because whatever . . . we can argue about it being a social thing and AI is integrated with that. Then also, the sort-of religion-related tropes, narratives, and so on. But then also there are – I’ll maybe talk about this now – there are some groups that you might describe as new religious movements, or new un-religious movements, and things that are explicitly sort-of engaging with this.

BS: Yes, so with my new religious studies hat on – that I wore so well for doing my thesis – having moved into artificial intelligence as a subject area, I’m seeing similar sorts of formations of online identity. Primarily these sort-of groups form online. They’re sort-of geographically disparate, so online spaces are important, and so forums and hashtags on Twitter, and so forth, to bring them together to formulate ideas. And some of them do expressly call themselves churches. So you get the Turing Church; the Church of Assimilation recently got in touch with me. I went to do a little bit more digging around into what they’re up to. But I do know about assimilation theory. But yes, the groups that specifically say: we are in some ways attempting to define our spirituality in relationship to artificial intelligence; we might also be transhumanist, in that we think through technology we can solve some of those very pernicious problems of humanity – death being the big one.

CC: It’s a big one!

BS: It’s a big one. Some are not quite so ambitious, just want to solve suffering – which also sounds like a serious thing to be taking on! But some do seek to be immortal in some form, whether that involves mind-uploading or transference of consciousness through artificial intelligence – all these sorts of various shapes. But yes, absolutely there are specific groups that see their endeavour as religious. And some will call themselves un-religions because they’re drawing a sort-of ideological gap between themselves and how they perceive mainstream religious groups. So in sociology of religion you might call them “spiritual but not religious”. But they’re still using some of that terminology of “We are the church of x-y-z.” and they’re doing it in quite pragmatic ways. Some of them will talk very explicitly about using religion to encourage people into transhumanist ideas and encourage them into seeing this vision of the future that they see. So, arguably, you can sort-of take a slightly sceptical stance and say they’re not really, really religions. But who gets to decide that?

CC: Yes. Absolutely. Right. So in the introduction, as well, I mentioned potential . . . I suppose we could say “religious uses” for AI. I was talking to a friend yesterday about if you could hypothetically imagine being in a confessional, for example, would it need to be a human priest on the other side of that? Or could it . . . ? And we landed down on, “Well, if you didn’t know it wasn’t human then it might be ok.” But there is something about . . . .

BS: Like in a church Turing test. There is a church Turing hypothesis, but this is separate. Yes, I find it interesting, talking more broadly in terms of technology and religion, that there are periods of rejection, adoption and adaption (10:00): that when new technologies arise, sometimes more established religions can be quite negative about them for a period of time – and these are overlapping categories that are non-discrete – but, over time, we do see religious groups specifically producing their own forms of those technologies. So there’s like the Bless U-2  robots that are used in part of Reformation celebrations in Germany. And in other religious groups, I recently saw in Dubai they’ve come up with an algorithm for issuing fatwa’s as well – making Islamic jurisprudence decisions. So you’d go on line, put in “Is it ok for me to have done x-y-z?” Or “I failed to pray on a particular day, what’s the . . . ?” And basically, all that system is doing is looking at previous cases. But . . . .

CC: Yes. But that’s all a human does.

BS: That’s all a human does. I mean, the question arises: what happens with the data? But that’s a privacy . . . another issue. But yes, so specific established religious groups seeing the technology – just as, in the nineties, suddenly we got lots of internet churches, where people were encouraging people to go on line and do church in a different way. And now we have internet sites for churches. But it’s not so much the case in the mainstream religions that you go online to do faith. It’s just that your local church will have the internet. So that’s the adaption stage of: “This thing is around, we’re kind-of used to it, we use it, and we don’t necessarily have a big . . . .” Like, the Church of England they released an Alexa Skill. They had a big press conference. And all the Alexa Skill does is recite the Lord’s Prayer to you if you ask it to. There are other adaptions now where it can tell you what your local church is and what the services are. So it’s not really revolutionary! But, you know, “Here’s a thing we’re doing with this new technology.” And it gets a press release. And then, the next sort-of stage – non-discrete stage – is just being very casual with the technology as: “This is just something we use.” Like we used books when the printing press first came out. The first things printed were Bibles. And this was a specific use of that technology. And then, over time, it’s just books. And it’s not so astounding. But in that process you get these spikes of interest and discussion. And, yes, different reactions to the technology – whether positive or negative.

CC: Absolutely. So before we get to . . . I suppose to the reason that you’re in Edinburgh today, and we’re chatting . . . . So that’s been a little bit about potentially religious, or religion-related uses. But there’s lot of . . . . Again, in my intro, there were a lot of religion-related questions that are raised by AI. Things like . . . you’ve done work on pain; there’s things about slavery, and all that. If we create these intelligences and then use them to our will, is that ethical? And then you’ve already mentioned transhumanism, which may be an unfamiliar term to some Listeners. So maybe, if you could talk a little bit about these religion-related issues?

BS: Yes. As I say, AI in its narrowest definition is a piece of computer technology, it’s a tool, but it inspires all these hypotheticals. And obviously we’ve had a long tradition of science fiction that takes us into spaces where we can imagine AI embodied, often in robotic forms, as having something like personhood. And that raises all these questions about the barriers between the human and the non-human other. And, in some ways, these questions have come up for millennia every time we’ve encountered different intelligences. It just seems now that we’re hoping, or aspiring towards creating non-human intelligences – whereas before, we’ve discovered them. So we’ve discovered that actually monkeys are pretty smart. We’ve discovered that dogs are pretty smart. And then, I’m afraid, from a colonial perspective from our past, other humans are actually and even women – Gosh! Darn! – They can also be pretty smart!

CC: As we’re hearing now! (Laughs)

BS: I mean, what’s going on!? So, again and again, “we” – in that kind-of very limited “we” – have had to expand our kind-of borders of perception of what intelligence could and should be. And with AI it seems like we’re trying to produce it. It’s not, in this case, meeting aliens on another planet. It’s actually, we’re trying to create the aliens here on earth. Whether we’ll be successful or not, I’m very agnostic about that. But I think it’s interesting that we want to do that. And what we want to be able to do with it. So that’s where things like questions of personhood, and slavery, and also pain . . . .When I made “Pain in the Machine“, one of the interesting questions that kept coming up was, like, should we even bother? Because if we’re going to create things that can feel pain, we’re just increasing the overall suffering in the universe and that doesn’t sound necessarily like a good thing (15:00). And going back to the transhumanists, as I said. So transhumanism is the idea that you can improve humanity through technology, broadly, and then you might lead to a state in which we’re no longer the same form of human that we were before.

CC: A new evolutionary step.

BS: Exactly. You might be a form of cyborg. Or there’s people who talk about post-humanism, where we’re so completely different we’re not even similar at all. But this idea sort-of does narrow down to this question of suffering, and being in pain, and what the human being is for, and where we’re going. So these are all big questions that are obviously very familiar shapes to anyone who’s looked at religion all around the world: these are the kinds of questions people have always been trying to answer. And I find it fascinating that some of these groups, as I say, are very overtly secular – almost New Atheist, some of them really admire the five horsemen of the apocalypse – but the shapes that they tell their own stories of the future of humanity with are very, very familiar to anyone who’s studied religion for any period of time. So is it that we’re . . . trapped isn’t the word for me, but we’re bound to repeat these shapes? Is there something in us that always goes to these same sorts of big existential questions, and comes up with similar sorts of solutions for them? I don’t know. I think that’s the ongoing question in my work. But I can dig down into particular instances of it as an anthropologist and say, “Well here’s a moment” – and some of them are very, very small moments, I admit that. I’m not doing big, big science. Some big scientists I’ve spoken to go, “Well you’ve spoken to like five people about this. What does that say about anything? That’s not a big data set.” But I don’t do big data stuff, but instances, and moments of clarity, where you can see these entanglements really clearly. And so: well, they’re doing something with both the concept of religion and the concept of AI. And they’re coming together.

CC: So you were just alluding to your small data sets there. So, well, I don’t think it’s a small data set that you’re presenting on here, but I guess it depends on perspective. But you’ve been looking at this particular trope on Twitter, “blessed by the algorithm”. And that’s what your paper that you’re giving here today is called. So what’s going on there? How does it intersect with AI? Why is it relevant? Tell us!

BS: (Laughs) Tell us! Yes. As a digital ethnographer, anthropologist of social media, I spend a lot of time hanging out on Twitter – that’s my excuse anyway, I’ll stick with it! I spotted a couple of people using the phrase blessed by the algorithm which obviously rings bells for me instantly for the language. And I dug around and I found 181 instances so far of people online, tweeting – just on Twitter as a platform – in some combination, in some context using the words blessed by the algorithm. And then you could follow back and see the first instance – which was very much about a corporate use of social media, and someone saying, “Well because this corporation has money, they’re going to be blessed by the algorithm.” So it sits in that kind-of context. But one of the most popular tweets, and most retweets, and most likes was a comment from someone saying in the real world – the so-called real world, I don’t like that differential – but anyway, in the so-called real world they’d heard their Lyft driver – so the gig economy role – say that they’d had a great day, and they felt blessed by the algorithm. And this might be something like a reframing and re-understanding of how we exist in a society that involves algorithmic decision making systems in a gig economy: what you get is dependent on a machine somewhere, making a choice. I mean there’s lots of words in that I don’t like that I just used, but unfortunately we’re very bound by anthropomorphic language when it comes to AI, but anyway. And so I have a corpus of 181 tweets and, actually, three of those refer to things I’ve said. So I’m muddling the field site a bit myself.

CC: OK. You’re an insider!

BS: I’m an insider as well. Well it’s responses to papers I’ve given. But, yes, I’ve created a very rough typology of the types. And some are about getting decent recommendations through the algorithm, on sites like Spotify. Some people are very pleased that their own content has been recommended to other people. There are people who sort-of talk about it in a very nebulous way: “Today I have been blessed by the algorithm.” And no more information. And then some people who really push the pseudo-religious language and come up with little prayers. And one of the things I was very interested in, in some of my other work on new religious movements, was the move between parody and legitimation. So I looked a lot at Jediism, and the census, and how some people did certainly write “Jedi” in the census in 2001 and 2011 as parody. They were upset about being asked about religion. They didn’t like religion, perhaps, itself. So they wrote Jedi. But that snowballing effect of legitimation – the more people talk about a thing, the more legitimate it seems – can have an effect (20:00). So even if a lot of these tweets are tongue-in-cheek, it’s still kind-of distilling out of the conversation. So, I have a graph. I’m very excited about this. I have a graph! As someone who, very much, is on the qualitative side and I don’t do big data stuff at all, to have graph made me go “Oh, exciting! I have to do some maths!” But I didn’t really do very much. And you can see the shift and change. After this one very popular tweet, there are more tweets. Perhaps this is the beginning of a trend, more people thinking in this way? Or even if it’s not, it’s just interesting to see that conception of AI as having superagency – that it is in some way in charge of our lives – being blessed by it, in some way equivalent to being blessed by an omnipotent deity somewhere up there that we can’t see. It’s in a mystical . . . . So there’re overlaps in conception, there, that I’m really interested in.

CC: The Listener shouldn’t know that I had a little hiccup earlier, because I’ll have edited it out. But just before that, I had an excellent question which I’ve now remembered – because it was written down!

BS: Hurray!

CC: So a lot of these issues that we’ve been talking around – functions, ethical questions, even the discourses in the Twittersphere – to my ear, certainly sound quite Christian or post-Christian at least through monotheistic . . . . I’m just wondering if these issues . . . . Were we in a different cultural context, would different issues be being thrown up by AI? I guess, would even AI be different in a different cultural context? Because I suppose you will have a lot of conversation between researchers all over the world working in AI. So is AI culturally specific or . . . ?

BS: Yes, absolutely, I think it’s culturally specific. What does tend to happen, however, it’s that it tends to be quite a narrow binary of East and West in the discussion. So everyone says, “Western conceptions of AI are like this”, but they go, “Over there in the East” and they’re mostly talking about Japan, “actually, people have a very different conception of AI and they love robots. And the reason they love robots is because they have a Shinto religious background or they have a Buddhist religious background”. And sometimes that can be a very broad stroke, almost pseudo-techno-orientalism of “Those people over there, they never really went through the Enlightenment, and they never really rationalised away religion, and they still believe in spirits and everything!” So, obviously this is me being very sarcastic, by the way – if it’s not coming across that I don’t agree with this! (Laughs) I think, yes, cultural context is really important for conceptions of artificial intelligence and also for religion, and the entanglements of both of them. But it much more multiplicious . . . . That’s not a word!

CC: It could be a word!

BS: I’m going to make it up now. Multiplicious! It’s much more multiple than that. Not just this binary of East and West. There’s also Africa, India, Pakistan and within those countries as well, again. So what you need is just more anthropologists, basically. I think this is my call to arms. We need more people around the world connecting on this question of the impact of religion and cultural context on questions of artificial intelligence. Yes. So we are seeing specific difference. But I want to try and push away a little bit from that binary distinction. And the assumption that the West isn’t animistic in its own lovely ways. Which anyone who does religious studies for any period of time, here in the so-called West, realises that the so-called Enlightenment didn’t have as huge an effect as we like to think sometimes. And our big metanarratives of what we did, and how smart we became . . . .

CC: Yes, but the discourse that the Enlightenment did have an effect, it’s been quite pernicious.

BS: Yes. Very, very strong.

CC: We’ve been racing through things here, it’s fantastic. But we’re still at 25 minutes. So you’ve been hinting, there, that we need more anthropologists doing more stuff. And on the way to this interview you were telling me about some things you’ve been doing to do with Frankenstein and then, also, because this year’s the year that we’re all meant to be living in Blade Runner times. So maybe if you’d give us a flavour of some that maybe slightly peripheral stuff to your project, that you’ve been doing. And what’s next for you, what you would like to see next, as a way to wrap up.

BS: Yes. So interestingly, I suppose, the position I’m in now, my employment post, is a junior research fellowship specifically in artificial intelligence. So I came on board saying, “These are my interests. This is my background in Religious Studies.” They were all very interested and excited in that. But being someone who also can speak more broadly to AI, as well, any time people have a question about AI I’m called upon (25:00). Which is lovely, but it does mean that when a specific theme and AI comes up, I get involved. So last year was the . . . two hundredth anniversary? (I should know that!) . . . two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. And a lot of people start thinking, then, of the parallels and connections with artificial intelligence: this idea that we are creating life (Wa-ha-hah! Mad scientists, all of us!) in some way, and there should be parallels between them. So I did about four or five public talks last year, specifically on Frankenstein. And there are similarities. There are huge differences as well. That was interesting for me, to kind-of return to a text I hadn’t thought about in a really long time and sort-of draw out so many pop culture references. I have a nice slide with all the times you’ve got a robotic Frankenstein. My favourite one was, I think, an issue of a Marvel comic where Frankenstein turns out to be a robot sent back in time by aliens. So all these sort-of mash-ups. That was really interesting. And then, like you say, this is the year of Blade Runner and I’ve just done an essay for Radio Three. And, again – not my academic background. But I’m doing something in that, in terms of sexual politics and Blade Runner. If you’ve seen the film, it doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test!

CC: No.

BS: A friend of mine, Kate Devlin, who’s written a fantastic book on sexbots, talks about how it has a problem with women. That basically . . . it’s a product of its time. It’s 1980s, but it’s also trying to do 1950s filme noir. So you’ve got the detective, and femme fatale, and the kind-of virginal woman. It’s not a great one for sexual politics. But also, it’s tied into all these questions of consent and slavery. If we’re going to create so-called artificial life . . . . And the Replicants in Blade Runner are as near to human – well that’s the slogan of the company, basically: “as near to human as you can’t tell the difference”. What does it mean that we are a society that wishes for that, or dreams of that? Or, take it a step back and say: what is it, that we tell these stories and that, again, we have predominantly female representations of synthetic lives, who don’t get to choose who they sleep with, and don’t get to choose their fates? And we want slaves? I mean, did we not evolve out of this? We thought we were trying. So, yes, there’s lots of big questions about the ethics and politics of that, as well. So it’s interesting. I’ve always been . . . . Anyone who knows me, I’ve always been a massive geek. So the fact that I ended up somehow trying to mesh that with a job, and an academic role, where legitimately I sat and watched Blade Runner again five times before I wrote my essay – that’s fantastic! I will go on, and other things I have coming up: I will do some work around techno-optimism and techno-utopianism in relation to Sophia the Hanson robot, if you’ve ever come across this creation? She/it is a wonderful example of . . . I’m really picking my words carefully! I think the nicest thing we could call her is a puppet. But she’s presented as the most advanced version of AI around at the moment. She holds conversations with people, but we know they’re actually scripted a lot of the time. There’s puppeteers involved. But you know she was given citizenship of Saudi Arabia. And she goes and she speaks on the Jimmy Kimmel Show and she’s on the front cover of magazines with her hair done. And, well, what does this say, that we’re so keen to jump on this idea of her actually being alive in some way? People tweet at her, send her, like, “I love you Sophia!”

CC: Didn’t you have an interaction with her?

BS: I did! Well, I had an interaction with whoever runs her social media accounts, where she was tweeting about how wonderful it was to travel around the world and talk in so many places. And I said, “Sophia, as a citizen of Saudi Arabia, where do you travel when you travel? Do you travel on a plane? Do you have a passport? What’s the deal here, if you’re being treated in this way?” She said something like, “For my safety, and the safety of others, at the moment I travel in the hold, in luggage, but I dream one day of being able to sit with the rest of you, and look out of the window.” This is so disingenuous. This is not an artificial intelligence listening to my tweets and responding, having thought through their situation, and projecting into the future where they want to be. This is someone behind the computer screen typing away! And, to be fair to the creators of Sophia, this is not uncommon. Lots of the technology we’re being sold as employing artificial intelligence actually employs people, on less than minimum wage, in third world countries, reading and listening to actual humans and feeding into the machine. They have the aspiration that eventually they’ll take those humans out of the loop. Same thing with Lift and Uber drivers – the whole gig economy. The treatment of those workers, and Amazon workers, is terrible and it’s on a pipeline towards getting rid of them (30:00). So all the work that those people do feeds into the system to replace them. And these big socio-economic changes that are coming because of automation, I’m a big sceptic about the bigger utopian dreams of universal basic income and everyone will get paid to exist and when the robots take our jobs.

CC: Well, it’s not happened yet.

BS: It’s not happened yet. And these are the sort of impacts on society that religions will respond to, will be a part of, because their communities will be a part of them. And we’ve got parallels. People go “Oh it’s another industrial revolution, and we survived other industrial revolutions, we’ll survive this one.” If you’re against them, you’re a Luddite – they’re back again, apparently! That’s not realistic to the individual lives, and the changes that come to individuals. There were blacksmiths who never worked again. So not to be Debbie Downer, but these are the important questions.

CC: Yes, lots of people have not survived. And I could always point out that colonialism is very much still happening.

BS: Oh, absolutely.

CC: It’s just been exported, and it’s clouded in the language of free trade and globalisation now.

BS: Absolutely.

CC: But just to raise the tone – an example that you may not be aware of, and you may have seen it, South Park did the episode about Alexa.

BS: I saw a picture today, actually. And I haven’t seen the episode so I need to catch up!

CC: It’s excellent, because all of the local people, lower down in the socio-economic spectrum, were kicking off that Alexa was stealing their jobs. And they manged to rally round. And then all to get Alexa’s job. So people would have a (audio unclear) or a Jimbob in their living room who looks things up on a smart phone and says “Boodoopboopboop!”

BS: Yes! (Laughs)

CC: But yes. Sort-of . . . explicitly buying into that.

BS: I need to catch up on that one. South Park are wonderful at doing this social commentary. The number of times I’ve used . . . specifically some of the episodes on their versions of Scientology– not their versions, their actual accounts of Scientology, Mormonism. They’re very useful resources. The parody opens up the possibility of thinking more critically about that, absolutely.

CC: Yes. Which I think we have managed to do today. So Listeners, do check out, we’ll try and link to that issue of Implicit Religion, we’ll link to Pain and the Machine, which is the film that Beth mentioned, and many more things I’m sure. So thank you, Beth, for joining us.

BS: Thank you very much for having me today.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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

Reflections on “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith”

Following the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” Conference hosted by the Norwegian University for Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, Aaron W. Hughes, the conference’s keynote speaker, joined the Religious Studies project to discuss some of what was discussed during the conference and primarily the legacy of J.Z. Smith’s work for the field of religious studies.

The conference provided great examples of the application of Smith’s work across sub-fields and for religious studies pedagogy. But this wide application of Smith’s work also raised some questions not only about how scholars read and engage with Smith’s work but also about how we adapt and apply Smith’s work moving forward. Hughes reflects on the impact of Smith’s work while also addressing critiques of his approach. Hughes contends that Smith left scholars of religion with a simple but impossible task of critically engaging and reflecting on one’s work while maintaining a playful, comparative approach.

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Reflections on the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” Conference at NTNU

 

Podcast with Aaron W. Hughes (11 November 2019).

Interviewed by Andie Alexander

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/reflections-on-thinking-with-jonathan-z-smith/

PDF of this transcript available for download here.

Andie Alexander: (AA): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. I’m Andie Alexander, a doctoral student at Emory University. And joining me today is Dr Aaron Hughes of the University of Rochester. We are here in Trondheim, Norway, following the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. SmithConference that is hosted at the Norwegian Institute for Science and Technology. And we’re here to talk about the legacy of Smith and his work, his contribution, and ways in which we can move forward in the field. So, Aaron – Hi! Thanks for joining me.

Aaron Hughes (AH): Hi, Andie. How are you doing?

AA: Great. Are you enjoying Norway?

AH: I am. It’s very beautiful.

AA: It’s nice.

AH: The midnight sun reminds me of my childhood in Edmonton, Alberta.

AA: There you go. As long as I’ve been here it’s only been daylight! So, I don’t know if the sun sets. But it’s been nice.

AH: I think it sets at like one, and then gets up at three.

AA: (Laughs) It’s very nice. Well, let’s talk about Smith. Let’s talk about what we’ve discussed, and see what questions we have.

AH: Sounds great. Let’s do it. I think we should probably begin everything by saying that Smith has probably been the most important theoretician over the past fifty years, half century. I think he’s so important . . . so I’ll talk about the past before I talk about what I think. So I think that probably, he more than anyone, was responsible for smashing the Eliadian phenomenological paradigm. The problem is, even though that paradigm should be long dead and buried, it’s still one that our students gravitate towards and still one that a number of our colleagues gravitate towards. I think, it’s what I tried to say a couple of times, we’re in one of these rarefied environments of people who are more critical, who just think we’re all the same and we preach to the converted. Whereas, when we walk the halls of the AAR and look at some of the papers that are given there, they fall back a lot on that old phenomenological model. So I think that’s Smith’s main importance. So Smith – and I think we all fall in this legacy – refused to see religion as special, sui generis, or as unique in the ontological sense. It might be unique to us, but ontologically it’s not unique. And if it’s not unique, you can’t compare it to anything else. And I think that’s the beauty of him, is that he was able to show the incongruous relationship between the quote-unquote “religious” and the quote-unquote “mundane”. So I think that’s where . . . . I mean, and the other thing, I think, that came up a number of times at the conference was the ludic or the playful dimension of Smith. But I mean the flipside of that is that he was so knowledgeable and so comfortable. Whereas when we get undergraduates who are not comfortable and they don’t have nearly the depth of education that he did . . . so there’s a problem of translation. I think the other thing that’s great about Smith is his broad comparative . . . his broad vision. And I think that’s something that a lot of us don’t share, because again that goes against what we’re taught in graduate school. So it’s funny, I think, when I talk to a number of people about this, a lot of the people here who work with Smith . . . . I think I really only began to appreciate Smith after graduate school. Because then you’re afforded the slowness of reading him, and appreciating him.

AA: I can see that. It’s sort-of different, given that I’ve had to read him as an undergrad, because. . . It’s a different sort of introduction . . .

AH: Right. In Alabama. Yes, definitely!

AA: And so, in the same sense, it’s something that I think is important for people to at least have in their repertoire. But something that I find is often not taught in grad school, or is never much, and it’s always highly contested.

AH: Yes. And I think I said in my lecture that I never encountered Smith until graduate school. We just read people like Eliade and Weber, and maybe there was a reason for that. Maybe the person that taught the course thought, “Well you’ll get Smith later, so let’s . . . .” That was good for me, because I read first all the things that Smith would later be critical of. By the time I came to Smith it was like, “Yes, I can see that.”

AA: I think, too, the distinction that you’re making between seeing religion as “unique for us”, and not ontologically unique, is something that is lost, partly in that religions chapter that he wrote (5:00). I suspect, as I read that, he was being provocative – but he probably meant it. But not in the way that I suspect a lot of people want to contend with. And it’s easier to dismiss. Because as you said, he was pushing back against the whole phenomenological paradigm, I suppose. And while, especially given the group here, we are relatively on the same page and think that this should be obvious that this should be something that everyone is doing . . . and that’s something you mention in your keynote: how is this not something that’s just common knowledge across the academy?

AH: I think a lot people still believe in the sacred, or still believe . . . . I think this is where the problem is. We live in a very chaotic world where “religions” quote-unquote don’t seem to like one another particularly. I think this really comes to the fore after 9/11. So a lot of people in Religious Studies think that Religious Studies can be that which facilitates conversation between religions. That’s always . . . I joke to my students: “I didn’t spend ten years in graduate school to be an interfaith dialogue facilitator.” As important as that work is, though, really. So oftentimes I’ll try to get Jews and Muslims to talk together but not under the auspices of the academic classroom. I think, as I’ve said before, religions get along better when they talk to one another as opposed to when they shout at one another. But I do think a lot of people in the Religious Studies academy think that that’s the goal of Religious Studies: to show the similarities between religions. I disagree, and I think Smith would disagree. But I think that . . . I always worry that Smith was . . . . Smith was on point. Smith was edgy. Smith was critical. Smith really encourages us to do that. But the two things that I worry about, as I said in the keynote, are those people that will just write him off as another dead white guy – which as I said is absolutely stupid, given the fact that he wasn’t even white, he was Jewish. But that’s another matter. And the second thing that I think we’ll see is how the field will “inocculise” Smith. So that he’ll just become like a name or a trope. And people can invoke him but they’ll do it in a way that takes off the edge. And I think we see that. I’ve seen it a lot. So everyone can say, “According to Smith blah, blah, blah . . .” But they’ll never quite follow through in what Smith wanted us to do.

AA: I think you’re right. And I think in some ways what he was working against then, with his work and pushing back against the Eliadian model, we have a different version of it that’s sort-of present in the academy now. It’s maybe not as overt. But I think it’s there. So, to me, I suspect there’s still some push that has to happen. There’s still conversations to be had within the discipline. And how it works. And I think part of my concern in those conversations is the dismissal of Smith. It’s reductive – all of those critiques that get applied to his work. And what I find is that there’s very little engagement with it – if one has even read it.

AH: Well, I think just as Smith goes against our traditional ways of reading and thinking about religion, I think the modern academy goes against Smith. So on the one hand, our students come in woefully ignorant about what religion is. So we can’t engage the type of work that Smith wants until much later. You can’t have redescription without description. So I think we spend a lot of time, at least the classes we teach at the freshman and sophomore level, trying to describe to students. But hopefully if they stay for later classes we can begin to redescribe. The other thing is, I think, with the contemporary academy we’re always encouraged to do community engagement. And so job interviews will ask people, “So how will you interact with the community? What will you do with them?” And I think, in interacting with the community, we have certain expectations that go against what Smith (10:00). . . I don’t think Smith ever interacted with the local Jewish community. I don’t think the local communities are really amenable to the type of conversation that Smith had. So I think we have to fight back. And I think that’s what some of us would do. But the key, in moving forward, is how to keep the edge of a Smithian analysis. How to apply it so it just doesn’t become a bromide – which is what I think a lot of people would like it to become.

AA: Developing what Smith was doing, trying to continue to push it forward – especially given the requirements both of the job market, of service for the school, the department, because that’s shifted over the past 20 years alone. And community engagement is something very big, and there’s a huge focus on doing that sort of work. And I think that it can be very productive. But as a discipline we’re still figuring out how to do that successfully, I think, in ways that we can both learn, but also interpret, and translate, and in service of larger concerns and issues both in the community, the discipline, the nation . . .

AH: Yes. Well I think what you’ll never or rarely see a job in just theory and method in the study of religion. I think in the past twenty years I’ve maybe seen three or four of those. So, one always has to be trained in a tradition. And I’m not sure if Smith was trained in a tradition. I mean his thesis was on . . . his dissertation was on The Golden Bough. So Smith was generalist at a time when Religious Studies was particularist. So the question I think becomes: how can you translate a Smithian-type analysis into the particular fields? And that’s difficult, as we saw with some of the papers here that tried to engage Smith from the level of area studies. There had to be a lot of remedial work that they had to do for us, who aren’t in that tradition, in order to get to a small Smithian point. So I think, as we move forward, how to translate Smith into area studies will not be easy. But maybe that’s the point. That was one of the points that came out several times in the conference, was the playful or ludic dimension of Smith. Maybe that’s the method: to show the playfulness or the ludic dimension of what we work on, or how – quote-unquote – “sacred kingship” in Tibet is no more special than any other type of power hierarchy. So maybe that’s it, it’s the playful dimension. Maybe that’s his method. Did he have a method, other than showing that the religious is not qualitatively different than non-religious?

AA: Yeah. I mean, I think . . .

AH: Reflexivity, maybe?

AA: Yes self-reflexivity is certainly something that is required and this came up in many of our conversations. But maybe coupled with that playfulness.

AH: Yes. I think you’re right. I think that Smith’s message on the one hand is very simple. We need to be self-conscious, self-reflexive scholars who don’t treat religion as somehow special different or special from mundane things. And I think that’s where the playfulness comes through. So the question becomes: how do you translate that into particular religions, which in area studies tend to be a lot more serious and not engaged in play? And how do you translate that into a pedagogical idiom or an idiom working with the communities, which are not accustomed to think about religion in a playful way? Because, “this is what the Bible says you’re supposed to do”. Or, “this is what the Qur’an says”. So I think the classroom is easier to translate that than the community. But it still poses its set of problems. From our conversation yesterday, we said that where Smith tried to translate his more theoretical ideas was in the Dictionary. I’m not sure how successful the Dictionary was. I mean, no-one engaged the dictionary here. We rarely talk about that. We talk about the essays in his main publications. But we never talk about the Dictionary (15:00). I haven’t looked at the Dictionary in ages. So maybe I should go back again and look at it. So it’s hard. But maybe the main translation of that is to get students to be playful with religion. That’s how I try to do it, so they can joke about it. Obviously . . . I think it’s easy in the community, too. As we move forward, and I think I said that in the lecture, I mean, we have to absorb Smith’s critique. We have to absorb his wit. And we have to absorb his edge. But create new edges and new wits as a way to move forward. Because if not, we’ll just make him into a name or slogan that doesn’t have any venom. And I think that maybe the way to go with that is to bring him into the study of particular religions, which isn’t easy. The main thing I really like about Smith is that he encourages us to use our imaginations.

AA And I agree. For Smith he does encourage that. He encourages odd comparisons that might not make sense. And tracing historical etymologies and to have a better conception of how we talk about religion. . .

  1. AH. . . in human activity.

AA: . . . in human activity, yes.

AH: It’s hard, because. . . . I agree, and I think that’s the way it should be. But ultimately if you’re in an area, like in Islamic Studies, my work has to be adjudicated by people in Islamic Studies. It might not . .  . The chances are it might not come out of Religious Studies. So you always have to move back and forth between trying to make theoretical contributions to the field of Religious Studies, but with the realisation that people in Religious Studies might not read it, because it’s in Islamic Studies, or Jewish Studies, or Buddhist Studies, or whatever. At the same time, to write in such a way that those people that would naturally read it – people in those area studies – would be able to understand the argument. So that’s always the trick. I think I’ve been able to do it well. But I don’t think it’s easy. And I think, ideally, I’ve tried to pave a path for young scholars in Islamic studies, to try to do that. Whether that’s successful or not, I don’t know. But that . . . I think that’s the main thing as we move forward… that will be one of the issues of how to translate Smith. We talked about that. We talked about Daniel Barbu and Nick Meylan in Geneva in Switzerland have tried to translate Smith into French. I’m not sure to what effect. Part of the project is trying to translate Smith into Italian. And again, I don’t know how you . . . . It came up several times: how you translate Smith for an undergraduate American audience is one thing, but how you translate it for an Italian audience, or a French audience, or a Polish audience, is another thing. And I don’t think that’s easy. But I think Smith should be translated into other languages. Probably maybe not a word-for-word translation, but a more conceptual type of translation. How do we take the playful aspect in English and translate it into Italian? You can’t do it.

AA: You can’t.

AH: You have to be playful in Italian in order to . . . . So it becomes a very difficult process. But all translation is difficult. You can think, do you want a literal translation, or do you want a conceptual translation? And I think it’s the conceptual translation – both at the literal level in other languages and into other fields within Religious Studies – that will be the difficulty moving forward. But I think it can happen. I think it will happen. Most of us here are committed to making that happen.

AA: Yes, I think so. As was mentioned, it doesn’t happen overnight, those changes. But I think that, to me at least, is why having more productive work happening in the classroom early on, and not following the method of just: give information, undo it later. . .

AH: I like to . . . See, because I have to work with Islamic Studies and most people don’t know anything about Islam, I really have to begin by making sure they know the narratives. And ideally know the texts in the languages. Because then, I think, you can learn the theoretical stuff (20:00). I know probably people would disagree with me here, but I’m old fashioned that way. But I think you need the description, I think you need the details and the facts, but later you can say that no facts are facts, they’re simply ideologies going under the guise of whatever. But I think students need that. And then they can play. Because you can’t play unless you know the rules of the game.

AA: That’s true. You have to know the rules. And I think that’s key. But where I think I’m going to push on that, is that most people are not going to play. They’re not going to be here, right? And so, if we’re talking to an undergraduate class of a hundred people, and this is the humanities credit that they get, what then? Because they’re not going to remember the narratives of Islam. They’re not going to remember different facts about any world religions.

AH: Yeah. That’s tough.

AA: And so, is the key, then, that they have all of that data that makes them feel more confident in saying, “Well, I know what true Islam is”, versus being able to weigh those claims of authority and authenticity against one another?

AH: I think you’re right. We always speak out of our own context. And I’m lucky, we don’t have humanities requirements in my university. People are in the class because they want to be in the class. And I think if I’m playful enough in the class then they’ll come into the second and third level classes. So yes. So I’ve never dealt with that. But if I did have to teach a larger class – I teach 18-20 students all of whom want to be there, and who do the reading – so if I had to teach these big . . . . I can’t even imagine doing it. I don’t know what I’d do. I really don’t. I mean I guess you’re right. How do you transmit the information, but in the same way let them know that the information is wafer thin?

AA: It’s contingent.

AH: Yes. So that is . . . That’s a tough question. And I don’t have to think about that too much, which is a cop out! But I know if I taught at a large state university, for sure I’d have to think about that.

AA: And I think that is part of it. The ways in which any discipline is approached varies so drastically across universities.

AH: That’s what Smith said. That’s a great point. Because Smith taught at the type of place that I teach at. So very bright undergraduates – some of the brightest in the country – who probably had some idea of what the religions were. And then he would kind-of work to undermine that. So like where I teach, I teach an Introduction to Jewish History class. And most of the students are Jewish. They’ve come out of, often, Jewish day school in the New York City, Boston area. They know their stuff. They know the data. But I get them in the classroom because they’re very bright, and they think “Well, you know what, maybe my parents . . . maybe it all doesn’t quite make sense.” So at the introductory level I can probably do what people at a large state university can only do at the third or fourth year. And I wonder if Smith probably had something similar to that. Because he must have taught. . . .So I think that every institution is different. And there’s large state universities, there are the colleges and they’re like the elite, private university, Research 1 universities that have these different constituencies. And maybe that would have been a good workshop, translating this myth into the undergraduate classroom? But heck, I don’t think we can translate him . . . . Most people can’t even translate him into their own areas of research. How they translate him into the classroom is not easy. Because I think, to go back to where we began, Smith asks us to do that which is the opposite of what the modern academy encourages us to do. Which is to read quickly read fast, to not have an imagination, and to not take pedagogy seriously (25:00). And I think that all of Smith’s work shows that, no – you have to do those things.

AA: Yes. It absolutely does to me. And I think that’s something that is lost, given the requirements both of grad students and tenure track faculty instructors, of course. There are so many demands on production that there’s not enough time to really investigate something that might not be in your area, or work through how to apply something. And this was a question that I think came up, in terms of applying Smith. Should we be trying to strive for a literal, intentional understanding of Smith as the author, or should we take what we can – whether he’s taught in the classroom explicitly or referenced – and adapt it. And try to apply those ideas in ways that might not be obvious. But, well, if we’re going to talk about “the other”, let’s consider issues of immigration or . . .

AH: Yes.

AA: And that way you can bring it in – even though his e.g.s are not anything that I would use, personally, in a class – or even overlap with the area that I work in – and try to take some sort of nugget or something from his approach, in terms of shaping our own approach. Because, as you mentioned, that’s a key thing for Smith is how he is approaching his own research.

AH: Yes. I think Smith might say, “Forget about me. I’m gone. But take some of the tools that I’ve tried to play with and work with them. You don’t even have to mention my name. You don’t have to say “J.Z Smith said this . . .” Just take the self-reflexivity, take the playful element, take the comparison . . . and, again, when smith says of comparison: “You can’t compare X to Y without having a third term, Z”, like, on the one hand that’s so obvious, but on the other hand it’s so deep. But I think Smith would say “Well, just move forward.” I’d like to think that’s what he would say. “Forget about me. Just keep the creativity, keep the self-reflexivity, realise that the terms you use probably have baggage in them and don’t simply replicate them.” That’s what I’m more interested in. I think for me, one of my main goals is to try and take some of the complicated Smithian and other analysis that we have in Religious Studies – at least in the critical wing of Religious Studies – and translate them into area studies. Which is not easy when you have to do it in a particular way. But I think I’ve done it with a certain amount of success. So I think, like that’s… how you take ninth century Arabic texts and ask certain questions of them – not flatten them by asking certain questions, but how you appreciate the texts on their own terms and at the same time ask questions of them that come out of that which us theory-and-method-people do.

AA: Yes. And I think that is the key. Because when we are at a conference like this, there’s a luxury of working with people who are all sort-of working toward the same goal and are concerned for those issues. But then translating that into our own fields and to others in the academy . . . .

AH: And it’s difficult, as we saw with some of the more technical papers on the second day. I mean some of the . . . I mean there’s a lot of descriptive work where, say, someone working on South Asia or East Asia, in order to bring the rest of us up to speed there has to be a lot of descriptive and informative work, and only then can they get to the questions. And I think, as the papers were so short, that sometimes it was difficult to get to those questions because of all the background work. But that’s good, though. I think that’s good. Because I don’t think Smith would say, “Oh yeah, we should all just give up working in areas or text and just ask these questions.” I think he would say that some of us should do that work.

AA: Yes. I mean we have to engage that. And I think what’s good, too, with the technical papers that we heard, it is hearing from other disciplines and not talking only to your discipline (30:00). That’s exactly what highlights – at least in my way of thinking – Smith’s goal in terms of playing with ideas and asking different questions. Because when you are listening to a paper on East Asia, and I do American religion, then what we have in common is not our area. So if we’re going to talk to each other productively, as I would hope we would, we have to have a way of doing that.

AH: Yes. We have to have common set of questions. I think that’s what Smith really . . . I think that would be his definition of the field, where people who are working with different texts, and different traditions, and different data sets, can learn from one another by asking similar sets of questions. And to me, that’s Religious Studies at its best. But again, for those in area studies like myself, it’s a trade-off being able to do that and at the same time to be able to speak to just those people that work with Arabic texts or other types of Islamic texts. Which isn’t easy. But it can be done.

AA: It can be. And I think the only way to impact area studies in a way that could push it to a more Smithian, potentially Smithian model is to do that, and to bring that work there. And we can’t also just talk to ourselves.

AH: Yes, exactly.

AA: And it’s easy to do – but again, that goes against the whole point. We have to engage across areas and disciplines within Religious Studies.

AH: Yes. And also realise that sometimes area studies have a lot to teach us, too.

AA: Yes.

AH: I think that’s important.

AA: I think so.

AH: And I really think that’ll be Smith’s legacy. I think that that’s . . . . On the one hand, he doesn’t ask too much of us, but on the other hand he asks everything: to rethink ourselves, rethink our own relationship to that which we study – and if it’s found wanting, to transform.

 

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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

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The secularization of discourse in contemporary Latin American neoconservatism

Conservative discourse has had many faces in Latin America. For the most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Catholic Church had a monopoly, but was succeeded by the charismatic evangelical movements after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. As the Catholic Church took a more progressive turn, evangelical movements became the spokespersons for conservative views. Today, these discourses are being infused with scientific perspectives.

In this week’s podcast, Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera explains how historical Latin American conservatism became neoconservatism. Though Latin America is diverse, conservatism has been a constant throughout the region’s history, intervening not only in the power plays of religious institutions, but also in the shaping of people’s everyday life conceptions of the world. Through a discussion of The Black Book of the New Left: Gender Ideology or Cultural Subversion by Argentinian authors Nicolás Marquez and Agustín Laje, Espinoza Rivera shows how neoconservatism has managed to influence these processes by developing a language of its own that blends “scientific” arguments with philosophical and historical analysis of the contemporary world political landscape. This language is popular among religious groups, including both Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and Catholics today. Paradoxically, the diverse users of this language has generated a common tongue for anyone that wants to participate in current Latin American public arenas.

This podcast was recorded and produced in the context of the 17th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), “Religion – Continuations and Disruptions” held in Tartu, June 25 to June 29, 2019. We kindly thank the EASR Committee and the University of Tartu scientific committee, organising team, and volunteers for the support provided during this process.

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, sardines, popcorn, and more.


The Secularisation of Discourse in Contemporary Latin American Neoconservatism

Podcast with Jerry Espinoza Rivera (21 October 2019).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-secularisation-of-discourse-in-contemporary-latin -american-neoconservatism/

PDF for download available here.

Sidney Castillo (SC): Now we’re still in the fourth day of the EASR Conference 2019, in Tartu Estonia. And it has been a hectic week with a very, very rich learning experiences, sharing with colleagues and hearing about their research. And now I’m sitting here with Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Jerry Espinoza Rivera (JER): Thank you.

SC: And would you be so kind as to introduce yourself?

JER: I am a professor, assistant professor at the University of Costa Rica. I teach philosophy at the School of General Studies. And now I’m presenting a paper about the Latin American neoconservative discourse, here in Tartu.

SC: Perfect. And we welcome you here. It’s nice to know that here at the EASR we have Latin American representative scholars working, and that they take part not only in Latin America or in Spanish speaking countries, but also here in English speaking fields. And it’s very nice to know that our work is being known, in that sense.

JER: I agree.

SC: So, just to jump right in to the questions. The first question, I think, tries to frame your subject – especially here at the EASR: how can we understand conservatism in Latin America? So you can give us an overview.

JER. OK. I differentiate between traditional conservatism and neoconservatism. Traditional conservatism in Latin America is closely related with the Catholic Church. You know that the Catholic Church has had a very strong influence in Latin America, especially in politics. And traditional conservatives have been closely related with Catholic thought. So in my presentation, I make a review of this ideological approach of the Catholic Church, especially during the 19th century. Because there is a big difference between the Catholic thought before the Second Vatican Council and after the Second Vatican Council. So the traditional conservativism is deeply closely related with the catholic thought before the Second Vatican Council. For example, the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council considered that the only salvation was possible inside the church. Nobody outside the church could be saved. And this traditional conservatism was based on the idea that only absolute truth was the Catholic truth. That’s quite a big difference between this traditional and the neoconservatives.

SC: And if you could give us somehow a comprehensive understanding of how the transition of conservatism to neo-conservatism happened? It was probably about the Second Vatican Council but in more contextualised forms? It would be interesting for the Listeners . . . . (5:00).

JER: Actually, I do research about not only the neoconservatives in Costa Rica but in Latin America. I use quite a famous book, right now in Latin America, written by two Argentinians. One is Agustín Laje and the other one is Nicolás Márquez. They wrote a very popular book at this moment that is called The Black Book of the New Left. It’s a book written to discredit what they call the New Left. And it’s very interesting to read in this book how they use, for example, the science in a different way than was used by the traditional conservatives. Because traditional conservatives were very sceptical about science – not only about science, but about reason in general. If you read, for example, the syllabus written by the Pope Pius IX, he condemned the use of science as it wasn’t the truth. It was considered an error by the Pope Pius IX. And that was traditional conservatism. In traditional conservatism, science was not the way to achieve the truth. The way to achieve the truth was the faith: faith in the Catholic Church. In neoconservatism it changed. If you read the book by Laje and Márquez you can see that they use the science as . . . they consider science as a kind of certainty; as absolute truth. It’s completely different. In this case, science is not a way to cut across below the faith, as it was in the traditional conservatism, but the absolute truth.

SC: So, you’ve mentioned the relation of conservatism to the Catholic Church and the neoconservatism that is shown in this book. It seems to me that they are different instances of institutionality. So does analysis of this book tell us something about religion in some way? In which way?

JER: That’s another very interesting issue: that this neoconservatism is not considered religious to conservatives. Of course, underground they are religious, but they don’t use the religious discourse to justify their ideas, they use science. They use another kind of justification. For example, in this book, the Black Book of the New Left, they never quote the Bible, because they try to demonstrate that it is science that demonstrates or proves that, for example, homosexuality is against nature. Or, for example, that life begins since conception. And it’s, of course, against the groups that support the legalisation of abortion. And there are many examples where they show how they use science, or a kind of discourse of science, to demonstrate their ideas.

SC: So, paradoxically it seems that traditional conservatism was against science and now neoconservatism is pro-science. But underneath they’re both religious (10:00). That’s very interesting to know. You mentioned something about homosexuality. To probe this issue more, I’d like to ask: what are the discursive forms that neoconservatism is playing?

JER: It’s interesting.to see how these neoconservatives, they build a kind of new enemy kind of antagonism for themselves. Their enemy is not now what it was during the cold war, for example, Communism. But now their enemy is more related with sexuality. And that’s why they use this term “gender ideology”. The term is essentially an empty signifier. What does it mean, when I say that is an empty signifier? That it doesn’t have any meaning. But they use it to attack, or to discredit for example ideas by Judith Butler or the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir or all their theories philosophers or thinkers that heave written about gender. So they create this concept. They call it gender ideology to discredit . . . . But not only to discredit these thinkers, but to discredit any policy or any fight related with sexual or reproductive rights. That’s why, for example, you can see in Latin America, how these groups attack for example, any decision related to legalisation of abortion. They call it gender ideology. Because they created a kind of enemy to discredit and they use this term, this signifier, to discredit any policy related with sexual and reproductive rights.

SC: Which is a thing I believe also I stayed in (audio unclear) and there was a tendency for the state to . . . or at least not everybody was in favour of reproductive rights or sexual rights.

JER: Yes. You can see how it was very important issue in Brazil during the last election. Jair Bolsonaro the President, he uses it, this discourse, to discredit his enemies. What does it mean? It means that it’s an important issue in Latin America, not only a discourse of minorities. What you can see in Brazil, you can see it in Colombia, in Peru, in Chile and many countries. This discourse of the neoconservatives has grown. In my country Costa Rica you can see it for example. Now there is a big conflict about the use of mixed toilets. It is, you can consider it like something very unimportant, but some religious groups, conservative groups, use it as an excuse to attack the government. And it’s a very good example of how the neoconservatives use these kinds of issues to discredit or to attack some policies (15:00).

SC: Like a point of entry for doing politics for Latin America?

JER: Yes. It’s interesting to see how Laje and Márquez, they are travelling across every region, every country, presenting their book. It’s interesting to see how, for example in Costa Rica, there was a big controversy about the presentation of this book, but you can see that they are looking for these kind of controversies. Because they know that it makes them famous. For example, in the case of Costa Rica, one of their presentations was forbidden at one of the Universities, because it was considered that it was discriminatory. So they made it a case, they made it an issue to become famous, because of the controversy that they generated.

SC: Also I believe that it’s not only dependent on this book. It’s got currency worldwide.

JER: Yes, of course. I use the book as an example. Because the book is incredibly famous and very popular. It’s interesting to see how a book that, if you read it the book it . . . academically, it’s very week, you know? Their arguments are very week. It’s very easy to refute them. But they know that there are many people who want to read this kind of argument. And that’s why, actually, the book, you can’t buy it; it’s free! So it’s easy for people to obtain the book. It’s interesting how they promote their ideas.

SC: And going back to this issue of traditional conservatism and neoconservatism: so it’s not related, neoconservatism, to the Catholic Church?

JER: No. that’s another difference with between traditional conservatism and neoconservatism. Traditional conservatism was deeply, closely related with the Catholic Church, but neoconservatism not only includes Catholics, but also neo-Pentecostalist parties. For example in my country, in Costa Rica, there is a quite a big neo-Pentecostal party, who was there actually participated in the last election and was one of the parties that obtained more votes. It was a disputed presidency, with the candidate that finally won. But they obtained forty percent of the votes! It’s really, really big. And what’s interesting is to see that in spite of the fact that it was neo-Pentecostalist party, many Catholics voted for this candidate. Ten years ago it was unimaginable. It’s very interesting to see how this neoconservative discourse is attracting not only people who are traditional Catholics, but people who belong to other kinds of churches.

SC: Speaking of that, I think that, in sociological terms, it’s interesting how these concepts of the conservatives’ cause reached civil society(20:00). And that’s why I also want to ask, what effect does it have in the shared imaginary of the general public?

JER: Yes, the growth of these parties is not only a political phenomenon, but a social phenomenon. It’s extremely related . . . in the case of Brazil, for example, there was a big influence of WhatsApp in the election of Bolsonaro. That’s exactly the same case in Costa Rica. Social networks were very important in the final election. Because it’s easier to spread fake news through these kind of networks. Ten years ago, or twenty years ago it was more difficult to do these kind of things. Now, with social networks, it’s easier to spread this kind of fake news. You can see it in the United States, in the election of Trump. It is quite a similar process.

SC: Do you have any further remarks to kind-of sum up what we have been discussing so far?

JER: I just want to remark how dangerous is what’s happening right now, not only in Latin America but in many countries. Even here in Europe – you can see it in Poland, in Hungary and in Slovakia and other countries. It’s a new kind of politics that uses hatred towards some groups, minority groups, for example LGBT collectives, or the feminist groups. And this is new. And they use it because they realise that it’s quite popular. You know? This kind of discourse is quite popular. People easily believe these kind of ideas that you can read: things about “homosexualisation of the world” for example. It’s kind-of crazy ideas they are spreading, and it’s quite dangerous. You can see it happening in the United States in 2016, and you can see it in Brazil in the case of Latin America. And this phenomenon is spreading around the world.

SC: So it’s akin to . . . even to conspiracy theories?

JER: Yes. In the case of Latin America it’s even worse, I would say. Because it’s also related to the problems that are related with poverty, inequality and other problems that make that easier for these people to be attracted to this kind of discourse.

SC: Right. Well, Professor Espinoza, it was very nice to have you here at the Religious Studies Project and we hope to have you again, soon.

JER: Thank you.

SC: Thank you.

 

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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

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Discourse #8 (June 2019)

This month on Discourse, Breann Fallon, Carole Cusack and Ray Radford approach the Australian news from a Religious Studies perspective. We cover the appeal of Cardinal George Pell, the drama around Israel Folau, and the impact of Christianity on the recent Australian federal election results.

Discourse, Australia Edition

This week’s episode is a bit special. We’re sharing the newest episode of Discourse, a spin-off show our Patreon supporters have been enjoying this year. Discourse has a globally rotating cast of RSP editors, friends and guests, who take a critical look at the discourse on ‘religion’ in the news and media! If you enjoy the episode, you can enjoy monthly episodes by subscribing just a dollar a month at patreon.com/projectrs.

This month on Discourse, Breann Fallon, Carole Cusack and Ray Radford approach the Australian news from a Religious Studies perspective. We cover the appeal of Cardinal George Pell, the drama around Israel Folau, and the impact of Christianity on the recent Australian federal election results.

Spatial Contestations and Conversions

Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, particularly in a European context, might be quite familiar with the sight of a former church building that has now turned derelict, or is being used for a purposes that perhaps it wasn’t intended for, or is being rejuvenated by another ‘religious’ community, another Christian community, or put to some other use. Chris is joined today by Daan Beekers to discuss spatial contestations and conversions, particularly looking at (former) church buildings in the Dutch context. We discuss some of the research projects he has been involved in, before looking at two particular case studies – the Fatih Mosque, and the Chassé Dance Studios – where Church ‘conversions’ have taken place. We discuss the various discursive entanglements surrounding these buildings, and the contested notions of heritage that come from different constituencies who are invested in their presence. Finally, we ask if there is anything necessarily ‘religious’ going on here… (Unsurprisingly, the answer is, ‘it’s complicated… but there’s nothing sui generis).

Listeners may be interested to check out Daan’s recent blog post, Converted Churches: Matters of Entanglement, Heritage and Home.

They are also encouraged to listen to our previous podcasts with Kim Knott on “Religion, Space and Locality” and Peter Collins on “Religion and the Built Environment.”

 

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, peanuts, gag gifts, and more.


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


Spatial Contestations and Conversions

Podcast with Daan Beekers (10 June 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Beekers – Spatial Contestations and Conversions 1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, particularly in a European context, might be quite familiar with the sight of a former church building that has now turned derelict, or is being used for purpose that perhaps it wasn’t intended for, or is being rejuvenated by another religious community – another Christian community – and so on. That’s certainly the case here in Edinburgh, where I did my doctoral work. And I’m joined today by Daan Beekers to discuss spatial contestations and conversions, particularly looking at former or different church buildings in the Dutch context. So first-off, Daan – welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Daan Beekers (DB): Thank you. Thanks for having me.

CC: No problem, Daan. Daan is currently a post-doctoral research fellow here at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. And before coming here he was a post doc researcher at the Department of Religious Studies in Utrecht, where he was researching the abandonment and repurposing of church buildings, first with the HERA project, Iconic Religion, and then with Birgit Meyer’s research programme Religious Matters in an Entangled World. And we’ll hear about both of these, presently. His doctoral dissertation was defended in 2015 at VU Amsterdam. It involved doing a comparative ethnographic study of religious commitment among young Dutch Muslims and Christians. And he’s currently completing a book manuscript based on this work. And his publications include the volume, Straying from the Straight Path: How senses of failure invigorate lived religion, published with Berghahn. And he co-edited that with David Kloos. So, Daan, first-off, let’s, maybe . . . . Before we hear about the Dutch context in general, it might help if you could maybe situate your work, and the trajectory of it, within those two big research projects. I know I certainly know a lot about Iconic Religion, through its UK team – which involved Kim Knott who was my doctoral supervisor. Tell us a little bit about those projects.

DB: Sure, yes. So the Iconic Religion project started in 2014. And I joined that just after completing my PhD thesis – I was actually still completing it when I joined that project. And that was a project on the visible presence of religion in urban space, specifically in Amsterdam, Berlin and London. The project was a co-operation between researchers of Lancaster University, which is where Kim Knott is still based, and then Utrecht University with Birgit Meyer and Bochum University with Volkhard Krech. And so yes it really focused on how people in their everyday lives encounter religion in a very tangible, visible way. And I was coming from doing my PhD thesis on religious youth – so, young Muslims and Christians in a Dutch secular society – which, actually, very much focused on religious commitment and, in a sense, religious vitality. And I always kind-of knew that there was another side to the story of religion in the Netherlands, which is of course rapid secularisation, and the drop in numbers of Church attendance. And then I was starting to notice all these buildings in the Netherlands which are being closed down and converted for other purposes. So I kind-of got more and more interested in this other side of the story. So, what happens to Christian culture, Christian material culture, when church buildings are no longer being attended by people? And so, when I applied to this project called Iconic Religion, I argued in my research proposal, “Well, this project is on the visible presence of religion in the city, and I would actually argue that the transformation of Church buildings is actually one of the most important changes in how religion is present or absent in the city.” So that got me on to the project. And I started that in Amsterdam.

CC: And then we’ll hear now, I suppose, about the specific work that you did. But, again, we’ve hinted at it there. (5:00) But for the sake of our Listeners who may not know anything about the Dutch context, maybe just a two-minute “Religion in the Netherlands”. . ? Particularly, perhaps, Amsterdam, where . . . .

DB: Yes. So, the Netherlands has sometimes been characterised as one of the most religious nations of Europe, or one of the most Christianised nations of Europe. So religion was very important in Dutch history, and for the political emancipation of, or independence of, the Netherlands, vis-à-vis its former ruler, Spain, which was Catholic. So the Dutch, in their own perception, liberated themselves from Spain and became a Protestant nation. So Protestant identity was very important in the Netherlands for quite some time. Catholicism, and also what were seen as dissenting Protestant groups, were given very little space to observe their religion. And then, you’ve got the process of what is known in the Netherlands as pillarisation – so the coming about of different pillars. After the French revolution, when Catholics were again given the room to practise their religion and to manifest themselves in public space, you got this very strong mobilisation of religious sub-cultures, or pillars, that were really important in people’s everyday lives. They really organised much of social life in terms of schools housing, work and so on. So, in that time, religion was very important in the Netherlands. And this was actually up until, like, the 1950s. And then, as elsewhere, a rapid process of secularisation was setting in, or “un-churching”, as we say in Dutch. I think this isn’t a very common word in English. But I like the term un-churching, because it’s more specific than secularisation. There are, of course, a lot of debates about whether . . . what secularisation is, and to what extent it has taken place. So the Netherlands changed from being one of the most Christianised nations of Europe, to becoming one of the most de-Christianised ones. With, as I said, a very quick process of secularisation to the extent that, today, only about twenty-five percent of the population state that they are church members (although overall religious affiliation is higher). Only about half of them would actually attend religious spaces on a regular basis. So it has become, in that sense, a very secular country today.

CC: And am I right in saying . . . is this an Amsterdam stat or a Dutch stat, that two churches are closing per week?

DB: Yes, so this is a Dutch . . . a national . . . it’s been estimated. . . . So, hundreds of churches have closed down in the last few decades. And the state’s agency of cultural heritage estimated that the rate of church closures will continue at around two churches a week. But I’ve also been told by others, by another agency organisation in the Netherlands, that this should actually be four churches a week. It would be a more realistic estimate. So it’s really an astonishing speed by which these buildings are being closed down.

CC: Absolutely. So before we get into some of your specific case studies, I think when we first met to discuss this interview, one of the first things I wrote down is, like, “We’ll have no ‘essence’ questions” (Laughs) Which is my critical RS, wanting to emphasise that even by having this conversation we’re not saying that a building in itself is religious, or that it is sacred or holy. What we’re doing is we’re looking at the ways in which buildings are interacted with, and discursively constructed, and the way they occupy space in the heritage discourse, and the individual, and community memories, and so on. So we want to make sure that we get that in there. But it’s not inherently holy, in that sense. But then also, in one of the arguments that you sent that I read through, you spoke about the difference between “theories in heritage” and “theories of heritage”. And that might be a useful thing to mention, just before we go into the case study. (10:00)

DB: Yes these are terms, I think, coined in an article by Waterton and Watson – “Framing Theory“, I think the article is called – and so they distinguish between different kinds of theories about heritage. And one distinction that they make that I find helpful is that between theories in heritage, and theories of heritage. What you see when you look at literature on Christian material culture, a lot of that work . . . not all of it, obviously, but quite a bit of that work kind-of asks, “How can we preserve this heritage for future generations? So, “What are the best practices in preserving this?” “What threatens it?” And so on. So all these are questions which I think are very important, but they are questions that are located within the heritage discourse. So it’s already taken for granted that these are important cases of heritage. And a theory of heritage, as Waterton and Watson put it, would actually ask, “What makes these things heritage?” “Why are they defined as heritage, and by whom?” So there is the whole question of representation, and discourse, and power relations, and so on. For what purposes are they heritage-ised? A terrible word! A tongue twister. And also, what kind of new fault-lines emerge in this process? So who’s being left out? So that’s quite interesting work being done now in Christian heritage, which also talks about the way populist politicians, for example, are now very apt at mobilising Judaeo-Christian heritage in their political discourses. But, in important ways, it’s also a discursive tool to exclude Muslims and migrants, and so on. So it’s also a way of defining who’s “out”. So that would be more kind-of a theory of heritage approach.

CC: Yes. So analysing all these discourses that are invoking heritage – who’s included and excluded; why certain things are thought to be worthy of preservation . . . .And indeed, for example, in my own work in Edinburgh, yes – there’s plenty of the idea that all these churches are part of the urban heritage that should be preserved, etc. But first of all, what should they be preserved for? And we’ll get onto that in your examples. There are certain uses that are seen as more or less appropriate. But also there’s a certain image of what a church is. And here in the Southside of Edinburgh we’ve got the Salvation Army, over on St Leonards, and we’ve got the True Jesus Church, down in Gifford Park, which have both been there for decades and decades. But they don’t look like churches, in the popular imagination. So they don’t feature in anyone’s idea of something that should be preserved. Because there’s a very specific thing that looks like a church, that should be preserved.

DB: Exactly, yeah.

CC: OK. That’s contextualised it a bit here, I think. I think we’re probably going to use two examples, particularly. There’s the Fatih Mosque – and I don’t know if I’m going to pronounce it right – it’s the Chassé . . .

DB: Chassé Church, that’s it.

CC: And, possibly, starting with the Fatih Mosque: I guess, the example of the various discursive entanglements that are going on. Tell us about it, and why it’s interesting?

DB: Yes, sure. I was just thinking of the Fatih Mosque, actually, when you were making that point about church buildings being recognisable, or not, as churches. Because the Fatih Mosque is one of the biggest, larges mosques in Amsterdam, that has been around for a few decades already. It opened in 1982. But it’s located in a former Catholic church on the Rozengracht, in the centre of Amsterdam – actually very near to the Anne Frank House, which many people would know, and the Western Church.

CC: I presume I’ve seen it, actually, when I was in Amsterdam. But I didn’t notice it.

DB: Exactly! And that’s the . . . and people, actually, even don’t notice the church even though it’s quite a big, monumental church. But I think many people are very much focussed on the Western Church which is like the main Protestant church right next to the Anne Frank house. And it kind-of . . . the Rozengracht, the street, is a street that people quickly pass through. So somehow, when I talk to my friends and family in Amsterdam they often don’t even know this church (15:00). Sometimes they do. But they . . . almost none of them would know that there is a mosque in that church at the moment. And that’s, actually, also an issue that the mosque community is facing at the moment. So I’ve written an article – together with my Utrecht-based colleague Pooyan Tamimi Arab – for a special issue on iconic religion in the journal Material Religion. And there we also showed how the mosque community, especially its younger members, are struggling with this image of being a kind-of a “hidden mosque”. And it’s actually this very term, hidden mosque, that is often used by people – by visitors to the mosque, for example, and also by non-Muslim visitors who are local politicians, and so on. And that’s actually one of the points we make in that article: that it’s interesting that this term is used, the notion of a hidden house of worship. Because it’s actually a historical discursive genre in Dutch religious history, which was used in that time that I referred to earlier, when Catholics were not allowed to publicly worship. So they had to resort to clandestine churches, often in attics, and these were called hidden churches.

CC: But why is it so hidden, then? You’re right about . . . . It’s something to do with the entrance, in particular, and there’s no signage. So, you know, why is it so hidden? How does that make . . . I guess you’ve mentioned the young people sort-of constructing it in that way. How do the users of the mosque feel and how are they . . . Are they trying to combat that image now?

DB: Yes, so it’s quite interesting. So this has to do with the material legacy of the church building. So the very fact that there are located in a church means that they are not very recognisable as a mosque. There’s a mosque nearby that’s also in a church building that also few people would realise or recognise as such. Another important point is that it has to do with a kind-of mismatch between Muslim sacred space and the way in which this particular building was organised. So when this Muslim community constructed their mosque within this building it turned out quite quickly that the direction of prayer in Islam, the qibla, was precisely the opposite direction to the direction which the Catholics had prayed. So normally you would come into the church through the entrance and you would face the altar and pray in the direction of the altar. And in this case this was facing the west. So what the Muslim community did, or had to do, was to construct . . . to close down the entrance, basically, to construct a wall there, which would become their prayer wall, as it were, the site of the prayer niche. And they constructed a very small entrance on the side. And what was the former entrance of the church became a space for shops. So, at the moment, there’s actually a bike shop there. So, when you pass this building, the first thing you see is a bike shop. And it is quite difficult to actually realise that there is a mosque here. So what this community is doing is they’re currently in the process of building a new entrance, in order to become more visible as a Mosque. Another interesting thing in this respect, perhaps, is that also in a way it’s also a story about history repeating itself. Because on this very site, there once was – before the Catholics built their church there – there was a headquarters of an important socialist movement in the Netherlands. And so that site was first converted into a chapel by Jesuits, Catholic Jesuits. But they were facing similar problems that the Muslims are facing now. They kind-of felt, in that time – the early twentieth century – as one catholic author said, “This place remains a theatre of socialists.” We have our altar but we know this was once the stage from which the socialist leaders would give their . . . not sermons, but lectures (20:00). And their political rallies. And you know one of the only things that would mark out the place as Catholic was that they placed a big cross on the top. And similarly for the mosque now, one of the only things that marks it out as a mosque is that they placed a crescent on top of the church. So these small things that mark out the space. But it’s also a struggle, with people, that conversion is never really complete, right? So people always struggle, very often struggle, in a converted space with what I’ve elsewhere called sacred residue, or some kind of leftover of its previous use. Which might enable, might make certain things possible, but it also constrains particular usage or representations of the space.

CC: And some of that might be material presence, material evidence, in a sense, or some of it might be discursive and remembered. If I were to go in there, I may not know anything about its socialist history, but I would probably be able to detect the mosque and the Catholic church, but again that shows the importance of historical context and the lived memory of the space as well. So sticking with former Catholic churches, then, the Chassé Church gives some really good illustrations of how this notion of heritage is mobilised or contested by a variety of different constituencies. Perhaps again, you could just introduce that specific case study, but then also all the different groups who have a stake in it?

DB: Yes. Sure. OK. So this Chassé Church was also a Catholic church, from around the same time as the one I’ve just talked about. So they were both built in the 1920s. And they both, actually, had a relatively short life. So the Chassé Church closed down in 1997, because of dwindling attendance. And then it was actually desolate for many years. It was dilapidated, the building wasn’t doing very well. And there was a lot of conflict around what should happen to it – the building. And what’s very fascinating, in this case, is that when it closed down in the late 90s, both the municipality and the Catholic church – the diocese and the local parish – actually decided to demolish the building. They said “It’s going to be very difficult to re-use the space in a productive or efficient way. It also doesn’t really have any kind-of special heritage qualities. And also . . .” not unimportantly, “it will get us more money if we demolish it and sell the land.” And the Catholic church very much needed this money because they had to renovate another church in that neighbourhood that was going to be their main Catholic church, parish church. But then local residents, who were themselves not church-going, started to mobilise themselves and to very much advocate for the preservation of this church building. So you have this really interesting debate basically between the local Catholic organisation that says “We can get rid of this building. We don’t need it anymore and it’s not going to be helpful to leave it there.” And local people, who are not part of that community, who actually stand up for it to “save” – quote-unquote – that space.

CC: People who probably didn’t particularly care about it when it wasn’t being threatened. It was just a part of their familiar urban environment.

DB: Exactly, yeah.

CC: And, I guess, when this moment happened where it was potentially going to be threatened, then . . . .

DB: Yeah. That’s a very interesting point. It’s interesting to see how people suddenly become aware of these kind-of iconic sites when they’re threatened to . . . disappear, really. So in this case you see different, quite different positions. So I’m trying to make sense of this paradox, if you will, between local people who you might describe as non-religious and want to safeguard this building, and Catholics who want to demolish it. Trying to make sense of that, I’ve conducted fieldwork there and talked to many different groups involved (25:00). And what I’ve found is that people ascribe quite different values to a site like a church building. So, for many people, they would say, “OK this is more than a building.” So this is kind-of mantra that you hear very often, in these discussions. But what they mean by this mantra, “This is more than a building” is very different for different parties involved. So, for kind-of the parish leadership and the officials of the diocese, the religious leaders there, they would say, “The church is the house of God.” You know? So it is a very important religious meaning. It’s a sacred place. It’s consecrated. And sure, you know, when it’s closed down it gets deconsecrated. But in the memories of people it always remains associated with something sacred. So it’s very difficult to remove this aura of sacredness from a Catholic church. So that’s a strong . . . so they kind-of see the church as a house of God, really. And then if you talk with the local parishioners, so the members of the community, they would often share this view. They would say, “Yes. It’s an important religious space, sacred, a place of God.” But what struck me is that for them it’s also, very importantly, about community, you know. So a place of a local community coming together. A very familiar place that’s imbued with local histories, but also personal memories, and so on. So it’s a really communal place in that sense. People have all kinds of very intimate, personal memories of church buildings. And they went through very important personal life events there, baptisms, weddings and so on. And I talked to these local parishioners. It may be also good to say that the ones . . . . I mean, this is quite a long time ago. But I manged to find a few of them who were still around. And they said, “You know, at the time we were quite OK with the idea of demolishing the church because for us . . .” Like, one of them said, “When I go back to the church now, and it has been . . .”I don’t know if we mentioned this, but it has been converted to a dance studios. So it’s now a dance studio. And she said, “If I’m back there now it really feels uncanny. You know? It feels . . . it’s no longer a church. It’s no longer what it was in my memories.” And it is still connected to many of the memories, so it’s still a very important place for her, but it is no longer what it once was. So it’s kind-of a disorienting experience for her. And then you have. . . . But then the local residents who were very unhappy about the idea of demolishing the church, for them it’s very much a place of local belonging: a place that makes them feel at home in their neighbourhoods – especially after it was converted. You see that many of these local residents are very happy about the way in which the converted church building, as a dance studio, brings back life to the neighbourhood, a sense of community and belonging, and so on. So what I found very interesting here is that whereas for many parishioners the closing down of the church represents a loss of their home, for these people it actually indicates a return of a home – or something that helps them to feel at home in their neighbourhood.

CC: Exactly. I found, again, non-church attending individuals in the Southside here, talking about, for instance, the Southside Community Centre, which was the former Nicholson Street Church. And it was a carpet storage place for a while. And now it’s a community centre. So I heard time and again the idea of “I didn’t like it being a carpet showroom. Now it’s a useful place”, or someone else said, “I really like that it’s sort-of being used for what it was built for – for the community.” And again, these are people who weren’t participating in it when it was a religious place or – quote-unquote – “religious”. But now that’s being used, it’s fulfilling some sort of model of the ideal: “This is what religion, or Christianity, is meant to be.”

DB: Right. Yeah. And it’s interesting that you say that. Because it’s the very same point that the owner of the dance studios makes time and time again: that by giving it its new purpose, he’s actually bringing back the building to its original purpose, which is bringing people together (30:00). But of course it was bringing people together before God, for a very particular purpose of worship, right? You know, and that part is, in that sense, left out. Even though that guy, the owner, I should say, is quite spiritually inclined and interested in religion. But then you have – and it’s maybe an important point to make – other local residents who – and in a sense that’s like a fourth group giving a particular meaning to the building – who very much emphasise the way in which the church building is a very important part of Dutch religious history, and symbolises Dutch history. And, actually, the spokesperson of the local committee advocating the preservation of the church very often made this point. And said, you know, “If you demolish these buildings, you actually demolish your history.” And so, what I found interesting in that case is that these people actually said – the spokesperson and like-minded people – they didn’t really care that much about what happened to the building, right? They said, “As long as it’s not getting too much of a nuisance” in terms of, like, parking space problems and that debate. But they didn’t really care whether it would be repurposed for religious use, or secular use, or whatever else, as long as the building is preserved. “Because that building is important for who we are, for our identity.” So there you get more of Christianity as cultural heritage discourse, which is often kind-of propagated by people – like the ones in this case – who quite explicitly distance themselves from Christian beliefs, and doctrines, and so on. They’re often quite self-consciously secularised people who are none-the-less very passionate about the importance of Christianity as culture, or as history, as art, as identity, and so on.

CC: Yes. So there we have those four constituencies: the institutional church; the parishioners, or former parishioners; the local residents, non-participating residents; and this whole sort-of heritage, industry, story and that kind of thing. And you can see how these different discourses they could maybe even use the same language but they could be mobilised for quite different purposes – positive or negative, depending how you wanted to inflect it. We’re already pretty much out of time here, and I know that we could talk on a lot more. But we’ll certainly direct Listeners to . . . You have an excellent blog post which summarises a lot of this. And your Material Religion article. And hopefully some more will be coming out. But I just wanted to finish with a final couple of questions that we’ve been talking around this. We’ve been talking about former churches . . . and we should also say that sometimes there’ll be a church that’s then used by another Christian group. That hasn’t really come up . . . .

DB: Very often, yes.

CC: But is there anything. . . Would we find these same sort of processes happening if we were looking at buildings that weren’t churches . . . that were just sort-of other prominent local buildings? Or does that question even make any sense? Is there something to do with these being churches that has meant that they are given their sort-of iconic status? Is there anything inherently religious here? I know the answers before I get there . . . (Laughs).

DB: In part. Partly yes, partly no. So I think you see similar things happening with non-religious sites: old post offices, water towers and these kinds of sites which are often very important local landmarks, and often inspire the same kinds of local concerns about maintenance and preservation. These places belong to who we are, and to our identity as a neighbourhood. But at the same time I do think there is something . . . . It’s always kind-of a bit risky when you talk about this, because you get to this “There’s something extra to these buildings.” But in the way that people talk about it – so if you look at people’s narratives, and the ways in which they relate to these buildings – people often have this kind-of idea of sacredness associated with these church buildings (35:00). Or, as one local resident said to me in relation to the Chassé Church a few years ago . . . . The clock was restored to the tower. It had been silent for a few years. And it had been restored now. And he said to me, “Now I feel that the soul of the neighbourhood is back.” So there seems to be this sense a kind-of spiritual or religious side to these buildings that is important for the way in which people relate to them. But also, I think, especially when you look at today’s debates about heritage, this religious aspect is also really important. And this really marks these places out, or sets them apart from, for example, old post offices. The fact that such buildings really lend themselves to this kind-of idea that these sites are a part of our religious heritage, they are very important to our identity and to who we are as Dutch people, as European people, as British or Scottish people. And I think that’s an interesting shift, also, that’s happening now in our kind-of post-secular age, if you want. This move from people complaining a lot about churches, and taking a lot of distance from religion, to re-appraising religion – but in very particular ways. In ways that emphasise history, art, culture and heritage.

CC: Yes, so there’s a sort of lingering insider discourse, I suppose, of their sacrality, and the import of the buildings. But then also in these urban spaces, in Western Europe, it is going to be churches that were given prominent spaces. They were intentionally built to be eye-catching, and dominating the skyline, and the centres of communities. So is it any wonder, when we do look for sites where there are lots of discursive contestations happening . . . ? It probably is going to end up being these places, regardless of any sui generis argument about them having some inherent qualities. Historically, they’ve been prominent, due to these specificities. So what’s next? For you? You’re writing up your book?

DB: I’m actually . . . at the moment I’m very much working on my older project, in a way, which is still also my current project on comparison of Muslims and Christians in the Netherlands. I’m trying to finish my book manuscript now. I’m also working on a special issue on this topic. And I’m hoping, in the future, perhaps here in Scotland, to kind-of converge these two projects together. That’s kind-of my hope and my aspiration. So, to really connect this study of what happens to Christian material culture to questions about religious pluralism and relationships between Muslims and Christians, religious co-existence, and so on. So in a way that’s also already what I was doing in the case of the Fatih Mosque in Amsterdam. But I’m expanding a bit on that. And, yeah, to kind-of see if we could, or if I could, use questions of heritage as a lens to look into religious diversity and co-existence.

CC: Well, Daan Beekers, we look forward to the fruits of that research as it emerges. And thank you for your time.

DB: Thank you very much. Thanks so much.

 


Citation Info: Beekers, Daan and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “Spatial Contestations and Conversions”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 10 June 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 June 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/spatial-contestations-and-conversions/

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The ‘secular’, the ‘religious’, and the ‘refugee’ in Germany

Ever since the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015, the ‘refugee’ in Germany has been constructed in a variety of ways that are implicated in specific co-constitutive notions of the ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ that exert symbolic power by naturalizing certain notions of the religious and thereby the secular while excluding others and feeding back into the subject formation (or subjectivation) of people classified as ‘refugees’. In this process certain positions are produced as hegemonic while others are classified as not acceptable (e.g., “radical”, “not European” or “anti-humanist”). This in turn feeds into the on-going institutionalization of Islam in Germany. In this podcast, Chris speaks with Carmen Becker on this important topic, drawing upon her critically engaged ongoing fieldwork among Syrian forced migrants in the city of Hannover and an analysis of political measures, research designs and media productions that are part of the apparatus producing the ‘refugee’.

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions’ 2018 conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland. It also make specific reference to the documentary series “Marhaba – Ankommen in Deutschland” – particularly the episode “Liebe und Sex”.

 

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


The ‘secular’, the ‘religious’ and the ‘refugee’ in Germany

Podcast with Carmen Becker (22 October 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Becker_-__The_Secular,_The_Religious,_and_The_Refugee_in_Germany_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): We are recording this interview on what I believe is the International Day of the Refugee. And I’m joined in Bern, at the European Association for the Study of Religions Conference, by Carmen Becker. And we are going to be talking about the role of religion and secularity in the construction of the category of the refugee, and the sort-of mutual co-constructing natures of those discourses, with particular reference to Germany. Carmen is based at the Leibnitz University at Hannover. And she’s done a lot of work on various historical constructions of Salafism. And we’re going to be talking about her current project today. So first off – welcome to the Religious Studies Project, Carmen!

Carmen Becker (CB): Thank you.

CC: So I’ve just seen your presentation on the panel, there. This is 7o’clock in the evening which is quite late a conference, particularly when we had . . .

CB: The Network dance the day before! (Laughs).

CC: Exactly! They did not plan this well! But I’ve just seen your paper and it was excellent. And I’m hoping what we can do is have a sort of conversational version of that paper. So, first of all, if you can set the scene? Because people might be listening to this five years from now, ten years from now – who knows? So, what’s happening? There’s that phrase the “refugee crisis”, the “migrant crisis” and things like that. Can you maybe just set the scene? In fact you started your paper with a couple of anecdotes . . .

CB: That’s true, yes. We’re all aware of the term “refugee crisis”. Since the summer of 2015, roughly, was when the high amounts of asylum seekers came to Germany and Austria – Europe in general. We still remember the scenes from television and so on of huge masses of people at the border between Hungary and Germany, trying to get into Germany. So there is a sort of imaginary behind it all. In 2015, I was still living in the Netherlands and, there, not so many people from Syria and Afghanistan and Iraq came to the Netherlands. Most of them went to Germany and to Sweden, actually. And when I travelled from the Netherlands to Hannover – this anecdote of the train stain station, famously – I was welcomed at Hannover train station by a Syrian man with a red rose, and a board saying “Thank you”. And I really couldn’t make sense of it. So I started talking to him and he explained that he wanted to thank the German people, as he put it, for welcoming the refugees in and for letting them cross the border from Hungary to Germany. And they really appreciated it and that was why they gave the rose. And I thought that was really intriguing, in a way. And then later, after I had moved to Hanover, a few weeks later, I saw that there was a Wikipedia entry dedicated to the European Refugee crisis. The title of the entry was European Refugee Crisis. And Wikipedia for me is sort of an instance that, when something gets an entry there it’s established fact. It’s a truth, right? This is a reference point. It’s also interesting, then, to see how the truth is established on the editorial pages. But that’s another thing. And this entry: European refugee crisis, which later turned into a European Migrant Crisis – you could also look why they used refugee in the beginning and migrant later on, but that’s another story again – has been translated into 60 different languages, which is a lot I think. There are also substantial entries, not just a few words on it. But there are full texts on there. So something that actually . . . This is an image, the refugee crisis, that has travelled widely then, in several languages – also Arabic, Persian, Turkish and so on.

CC: And so you use the term, “discursive event”.

CB: Yes. Because, I mean, how does something become recognised as an event, right? It has to be termed; images have to be established; it has to be understood as something disruptive, something out of the ordinary, something that is breaking into normality. And if we would have looked at the development before the so-called refugee crisis, it wouldn’t have been so surprising. The camps in the region in Lebanon and Jordan they were just running out of money – camps provided by the United Nations Food Programme. They were issuing calls for donations. They were saying “If we don’t get donations, we have to cut the amount we can give to those in our camps half. And the full amount is what they need to survive.” So if you cut this in half, this is a crisis, in the sense that it’s existential. (5:00) And this was known already by the end of 2014, beginning of 2015. And what do people do if they cannot survive? They move on. They run out of money, they don’t get anything, so they look elsewhere. So that was expectable. But it still came as a surprise, as a wave, right? So it’s interesting see how people perceive things and what they do not perceive – also in the media. In between the World Food Programme from the United Nations was calling for donations. But there was no connection, no further thinking about it. Also from the politicians – at least, done in public.

CC: So we’re going to get to the religion thing, of course, because we’re on the Religious Studies Project. But you’re going to try really hard here, because you’re not going to have your diagrams!

CB: Dammit! (Laughs).

CC: But you’ve got some theories for us to set the scene. So Foucault . . .

CB: Yes. So I like Foucault a lot when you think about how truth is established, in general. And I think in Religious Studies it’s not surprising when someone uses discourse theory, to theorise something. What is not so common is to use the “dispositive” as a concept. It’s something you find in Foucault’s later work, right. And it’s something he has never really fleshed out – like many things he hasn’t fleshed out! (Laughs). And this is something that is now really discussed amongst journals of sociologists. I mean the dispositive as a concept: how do you do research with it? So, just in parallel, just like the discourse term was taken from Foucault and then fleshed out into different varying programmes of research, and research styles, and so forth the same is happening now and has been happening for roughly ten years in Germany, with reference to the dispositive. Yes. What is the dispositive?

CC: (Laughs).

CB: I always use the French language to make it clear. I was talking about three connotations of the dispositive – or three semantic fields that the dispositive brings us to. For example: first of all there’s the dispositive as a sort of mechanism or sort of apparatus – that also reminds us of Gramsci, for example – that means that different elements in the system are put together and they function together. They link together so that they function as a machine, as an apparatus, as a mechanism – an alarm system I use as an example. You put different technical devices, manual knowledge about how to switch it on and off. So all different elements are put together then they are linked to each other so that the whole system can function. This is the baseline of what a dispositive is. And in, for example, in the French language they use the term “dispositif d’alarme” for alarm system. So you have the word dispositive.

CC: Is it the system itself, or is it the connections that make the system?

CB: It is the connections that make the system. And this is typical for Foucault, right? Also in discourse, it’s not that much the content of the discourse but the rules that establish the discourse. And that’s the same idea here. So how come these elements are ordered together to form the dispositive? What links them logically or illogically? So that’s very important to look at the net that is established, between these elements. But of course we have to somehow identify these elements first, in order to see how they are connected and what functions they have in the dispositive. And then the second understanding: the dispositive is thought of as a strategic intervention. So it’s a production that strategically intervenes into society, and responds to an emergency case. And this, I think, fits really nicely when you think of the refugee crisis, right? It’s a crisis – we have to intervene. And also Germans were mobilised to volunteer, to donate. The State was busy building shelters, coming up with new administrative regulations, even now it’s still going on. So there is a sort of pressing need to act, right? We have to do something. And again, this sort of strategic intervention is something that we can also see again in French language when I talk about the “dispositifs de lutter contre le chomage”. So, all the means and the measures taken in order to fight unemployment for example. This was the dispositive event in the French language. And then on the third level – and this is similar to a discourse – that the dispositive establishes the current truth, the valid truth at the moment in time, right. Of course this can change, but at the point we are living it defines the truth just like discourse do. (10:00) What can we say about a refugee? What is a refugee? Who is a refugee? How do you talk about refugees? How are they? What do we project into them? This is established also in the dispositive. Which is quite similar to discourse research – right? – to flesh out how the objects . . . how discourses objectivate.

CC: Excellent. And so, I know we’re going to get to a wonderful example and I’m going to try and bring in some multi-media in.

CB: Oh yes! (Laughs).

CC: So there’s a reason that you’ve chosen that as your example. So how are we utilising this notion of the dispositive in your research?

CB: That’s a big question, when you’re doing research. I’m also an ethnographer so I like to look at the micro-level, the local level. But as a trained political scientist I’m also looking at power, right? So I want to connect these levels. And then the question is, how does power work on a micro-level actually? And I mean, you could look at discourse. I would say what most of us do in discursive studies in religion, we look at the meso and macro-level of how religion is established as an object and so forth. But we don’t look so much down on a local level, how it trickles down, how it shapes behaviour and practices, how people incorporate it in their lives. And this is where it becomes effective, actually. So what I look at is not so much at the . . . what Foucault usually did. He looked at how science or expert talk established knowledge.

CC: Law and that kind of thing.

CB: But I look at the intermediate level. I use the term from Jurgen Lingen, a scholar of literature. I use the term inter-discourse. These are discourses that try to break down expert discourses into everyday life. For example, talk shows. They get an expert to talk about things that somehow keep society busy, they are pressing social questions, and they try to solve them to propose solutions and to make it intelligible for people in everyday life. And this is the example I uses in the presentation today. There’s one show that was produced by a German TV news outlet. And by the end of 2015 had started and the production went on until the beginning of 2016. The programme is called Marhaba Ankommen in Deutschland which means basically, “Hello, welcome to Germany”. And it’s a programme with roughly 18 episodes. And each episode has about 5 minutes. And the aim of the show is to explain Germany to the refugees, basically.

CC: Let’s hear a little bit from that show:

[Music followed by Arabic language]

CC: So what’s going on here?

CB: Well, he’s basically saying, in Arabic, that personal freedom is very important in Germany. They have personal choices and among this is that you can choose whatever sexual orientation you would like and that everybody has to respect it. It portrays this as how things are done in Germany, basically.

CC: Fantastic. So . . . and this is fairly typical of the programme?

CB: This is very typical, yes. One part always establishes what he thinks is typical of Germany and what he thinks refugees – so-called refugees – need to know, because they don’t know them yet. He insinuates, “I tell you now, because you probably don’t know, but you need to know that when you come here.” So that means: those coming from Syria, from Afghanistan, they don’t know anything about choice, freedom and so forth, because their societies are oppressed. This is the insinuation. And then there are some episodes, some sections in the episodes where he talks with the expert. Why they are experts we don’t know. But he talks with them on a deeper . . . . Sometimes they are psychologists. There was also a lawyer in one episode. And some episodes we don’t get to know what their occupation is. We just get to know the name. So it’s interesting. He doesn’t feel a need to explain why he’s talking to this specific person over this specific topic. (15:00)

CC: Excellent. So what we have here is sort of a national discourse, in some way, on the refugee being channelled through this individual, this television programme. And directly speaking to people who are coming in.

CB: Yes. He’s addressing them directly – also, linguistically. He’s saying [in Arabic,] “You”: “You will have to this, and this, and then everything will work fine.” Right? And the load, or the burden is put on the refugees because they now know how they have to behave. “So please behave like this and then we don’t have any problem!” It’s a crash course in, I don’t know, in integration.

CC: Yes. I mean, God forbid that the host society would have to change as well!

CB: Well, the interesting thing is that it tells us a lot about how we imagine ourselves as Germans, right? When he talks about “the Germans” there is no ambiguity. There’s no contradiction. It’s all clear, basically. It’s easy to decipher, right? “We support sexual freedom, do this and this.” But this is really not the case. This is a discourse we are having about ourselves. We imagine ourselves.

CC: I’m just going to interrupt your flow a little bit to . . . Do we know, are refugees actually watching these? Have you found that out in your fieldwork? Have people encountered them? And how are they encountering them?

CB: Well, if you look at YouTube you’ll see that refugees comment in Arabic on the show. I haven’t analysed those yet, but I have found them. And it’s interesting material, I think, looking at the comments. And also during my fieldwork. I did fieldwork in a church where a group of six refugees had asked for asylum. It’s called “church asylum” in Germany – sanctuary. They were under threat of deportation to Bulgaria. So they had passed . . . while fleeing Syria they had passed through Bulgaria and got registered there with their fingerprints. And, arriving in Germany, they were not eligible for applying for asylum here because they had been registered in the EU, in Bulgaria, elsewhere. So they would have been sent back. So, their last chance to stay in Germany was to go into a church asking for church asylum. Because then, the police officers don’t enforce the deportation. They don’t go into the premises of the church. It’s like a tolerated agreement between the church and the state, basically. It’s not a law. It’s not written in law somewhere. It’s an agreement. It’s also the Church then that takes over the asylum procedure. They provide lawyers to the refugees. They interact with the State authorities. So that’s the construct of it. So, in the neighbourhood where I lived in Hannover, I heard that there were six refugees in a Protestant church there who had asked for church asylum. They had been granted church asylum and I thought, “Oh that’s a good opportunity to go there!” Because I also studied Arabic in Syria, so I know Syrian Arabic. And I know Syria quite well from all my travels there. So I also felt it would be good to be there. So I became also sort-of an intermediary between the volunteers of the church in the neighbourhood – a volunteer group formed in order to support them – and the Syrians who were in the church at the time. They were not allowed to leave the premises. As soon as you step out of the premises and you are caught by a police officer, you are gone. The church cannot protect you anymore. The power of the church ends there.

CC: Yes, that’s really like going into a national embassy in that.

CB: Yes.

CC: So you, I’m sure, are going to have some examples that you weren’t able to give in your presentation from your ethnographic work. You also, then . . . you’ve been taking this discourse that’s being propounded particularly in . . .

CB: Oh yes, the programme, yes.

CC: And you set up, what was it called? “Chains of equivalence”?

CB: I encountered the programme, I got to know the programme while I was volunteering in church asylum – this was the story behind it. Because one of the men who were also volunteering in the church asylum, he was a retired German teacher and he taught German to the refugees, and he used the programme for his classes. And I know a few refugees who know it at least, and who have looked at it. And it was also given the Grimme-Preis which is like a prestigious German TV award, which just shows the standing of it. At least from the German side.

CC: Yes!

CB: Well, what I’ve done with the 18 episodes, I watched them several times, and I tried to see how they construct what you’ve been hinting at, chains of equivalence. (20:00) This is a term I got from Laclau. It means that you look, basically, how are different categories labels put on an equal footing, linked, with reference to a third category. So how was . . . You look for how A and B are equivalent, in reference to C.

CC: OK.

CB: And this is what I did with the episodes. And what became quite clear, right from the start, is that there are two main categories that are the reference categories for everything that’s constructed. There’s the German society and then there’s the society of the refugees. And since this is mainly about Germany, the German society plays the main role in the episode. And the refugee societies – they’re assumed to be Arabic, because they’re addressed to Arabic speakers. And they’re assumed to be Muslim. So this is what we get to know about this. There are some more markers where they explicitly characterise societies as sexually oppressed, violent. There are a few that the host, Constantin Schreiber, mentions a few times: violence against children and women in these societies and “this is not tolerated in Germany and is sanctioned by law”. Something the refugees need to know in case they want to engage in that! (Laughs).

CC: Yes.

CB: So this is what we get to know about refugees – the societies of the refuges. And then he uses all different terms and concepts in order to flesh out what German society is all about. And the main terms that really keep reoccurring on the German side is “secular”, and the “German constitution” – a kind of constitutional patriotism that’s going on there: a foundation of the German constitution that’s there and makes sure that we are secular, and democratic and so on. And then on the other side, the refugees’ society is contrasted to it. So we have the secularity here, we are secular here, they are Muslim- there is Islam. And this is explicitly done in statements and so on. So “secular/ Islam” is one contrast. And then you have the “constitution” and “Sharia” – although they’re really different concepts, totally different categories that cannot really compare, but he does it! So the viewer gets the impression that the Sharia is just a positive law put into law books, that you can look at and then you know what it is all about. But it’s not.

CC: Exactly.

CB: So then, in the rest, you can see how he fleshes out what secular is. And there it gets interesting, because most of us think it maybe comes up as something like, it’s a separation of state and religion or state institutions and religious institutions. He mentions this only once without going further into it. What he mentions all the time when he talks about secular democratic society is rights and freedom, individual rights and freedom. And there are two rights that he mentions in particular which is freedom of religion, and sexual rights. And this is I find very intriguing, that the secular is then boiled down to two freedom and rights discourses, but in particular a freedom of religion and sexual rights. This is how he constructs these equivalences, all geared toward “This is the German society”.

CC: Excellent. And so this is all very esoteric in the sense that we’re talking about what’s being said in programme. But how does this, how is it playing out on the ground as it were, in your experiences with your research participants?

CB: And this is really what interests me, right? How does the truth, which is established at the discursive level, then play out in everyday life? And interact? And how it’s shaped? Well I’m starting to sift through my data and I’ve seen a few things that come up on a regular basis. One thing is that the discourse of secular Germany is there to ensure that we have the freedom of choice, that we have a choice and that we can fulfil our desires, which I find really interesting . . . that there’s a task: that the aim of secularism is to do that. I see this in certain instances, for example. One example I used during my presentation was interaction between me and a woman from the volunteer group, I call her Anna (25:00). And she was thinking about engaging romantically with a Syrian – who was not part of the group in the church asylum, but she knew him from elsewhere. But she was taking me as an expert on Islam and wanted to know, and had questions about it. Because she said that this friend of hers said that if he ever wanted to have a girlfriend or to marry, this woman should be covered, wear a headscarf, just a normal headscarf. And at the beginning I didn’t understand the problem she had, because I thought, “OK, fine, so he’s saying this to you, you’re not in any relationship with him, so that should be fine.” But she really wanted him to step back from this – not to make this choice, right? She wanted to ensure that he would make a different, a better choice. And so she was asking me about anything from religious tradition that she could use to convince him that this is not “good” Islam that he is doing there. Anything she could use strategically, basically. Because she didn’t want to accept his choice. So, I mean, there is a discourse of choice. But some things are taken out of . . . There are somethings that you cannot choose, that are taken out of the range of options that you have, like covering. And this occurred really often. There were a lot of discussions about covering and headscarves and so on. For example, there were often discussions, people were discussing with one of the women . . . . There was one woman only in the group of the six Syrians who were asking for asylum in the church. She had never worn a headscarf in her life, neither in Syria nor in Germany. For her it was not a big deal, nothing special. But people kept asking her, “Why are you not wearing a headscarf here? For sure, it must be because you are in Germany right now, and you have the choice? Where as in Syria you didn’t have the choice.” And she just tried to make sure, against all the odds, “No I didn’t wear a headscarf in Syria either.” But people didn’t really want to believe this. And there was a man from the volunteer group – this was also one instance of engaging her in conversation on her headscarf and he was supportive of her choice, “Yes it’s a good choice you are making not wearing the headscarf, because how could you otherwise be phrased as participating in society and being yourself, if you were wearing a headscarf? How can you be a valid participant in society when you wear a headscarf and cover up? So, again, this is not a part of the secular choice, technically.

CC: Well, secularity allows “good” religion space . . .

CB: Yes. It’s never differentiated, but this is the idea behind it, right? So there is also the idea that the secular encompasses religion. And this is what people also phrase, right? “That we have here religion – it’s part of our makeup. It’s not a problem, because we still have the choice. Religion doesn’t have to interfere with it.”

CC: As long as it doesn’t interfere with liberal secular principals.

CB: As long as it doesn’t interfere with the sexual rights or the freedom to choose your faith or your lifestyle, or whatever. And what we see then, if you look at how it’s contrasted with Islam, it’s not that the secular and religious contrast, but that the secular and religion on one side is contrasted with Islam on the other side. So Islam is not yet in the realm of the secular and the religious. And this I find very intriguing. Maybe that’s particular to Germany. I’m not sure. I would have to look at other societies, how it’s spelt out there. But I find it very interesting that the religious is part of the make-up, obviously, of German secular society. It’s accepted. Islam, not yet. This is why Islam has to reform to change, which means giving way to all the choices. Making sure you can make the sexual choices you want to make, all the lifestyle choices and so on. But you must never take a choice that might be considered Islamic or Muslim. That’s the interesting thing, right? Being Muslim, in a stereotypical sense, is not part of the choice, right? Not there.

CC: Exactly, yes. Because when one makes a Protestant choice one doesn’t – we don’t talk about that.

CB: It’s also interesting, the episodes of the TV programme, when they symbolise religion visually, it’s not Protestantism. It’s totally neutered. It never talks about Protestantism, neither discursively nor when he’s talking, it isn’t mentioned visually. It’s not depicted visually. He talks about Catholicism, Judaism and Islam and that’s also what is portrayed visually. (30:00) Protestantism is not there. It’s the default position, right? It’s neutered.

CC: Harmless.

CB: Harmless, yes.

CC: OK. And I should just say we’ve had to have the windows open because it’s so warm in here, so I hope the Listeners are enjoying the slight birdsong that’s making its way in.

CB: (Laughs).

CC: Just to get towards wrapping up here. That’s been some excellent examples from your ethnographic work, and also tying it into the broader national discourse through the vehicle of this TV programme. But, I guess, if I were to force you to come up with some conclusions about the religious and the secular and the construction of refugees in Germany, where would you go?

CB: Yes. Well first of all, I have to mention I didn’t look for any notions of the secular and the religious at the beginning when I was doing research. It just came up to me, because people were using this terminology, right? From media polemical terms, basically, people identified . . . . So for me they’re not the critical categories I use. What I’ve seen – and this is an argument I’m putting up – is that in this dispositive of the refugee we have the notions of the secular and the religious that are constructed there, and are implemented into everyday life. But they’re normative of course, right? They’re not neutral. And they’re also inserted into interaction. And this is where it comes to shaping subjectivities, right? Because for example the Syrians at Church, they were constantly being confronted with a secular idea of being an individual – a secular conceptualisation of subjectivity. And they were more or less subtly asked to adapt to it, to internalise it. And I think this is very interesting when you look in terms of power effect. This is how power is inserted into life, into micro-politics, basically. Power is not something abstract that somehow defines discourses and is established in discourses, but it also trickles down into everyday life.

CC: Yes. The norms of conduct and the things that are censured. And all those unspoken rules, which actually, this programme is ending up speaking the unspoken rules in many ways.

CB: Yes. They’re fleshing it out for you so you can just take an easy lesson with you and know what you have to do. So this is where I’ve seen my fieldwork so far – this was my focus so far: how, through interactions with the Syrians, and the volunteers, and the specific setting, specific secular subjectivities are inserted into their Muslim subjectivities. They have to be Muslim in a secular-specific way – a secular-Protestant-specific way – in order to become part of German society, in order to be here. And what further interests me in my fieldwork – and this is what I will be doing in the coming months – is to see how the other side handles this. Basically, they are presented with subject positions. And they have to somehow deal with them, negotiate them. Either they try to resist consciously or just adapt a bit, internalise a bit, usually it’s much more ambiguous and not so clearly seen. But it’s interesting to see what they do with it. What I noticed in my fieldwork is that these six who I was seeing quite a lot – and I’m still in contact and see them around, like at bases – they’re insecure about how to behave, basically. Because they’re totally decentred right now. All these demands are put on to them and they don’t see what the difference is between them and what is demanded of them. They don’t seem to be properly adapted. And for them it’s very difficult to wrap their head around. Some of the men even ask me, “Carmen, when I’m working on the street, am I allowed to look women in the face? Is that indecent?” Especially after the events in Cologne, with the assaults on the women in New Year’s Eve. And the entire discourse that came out of the debate afterwards. They said, “If I see women, had I better cross the street to not be offensive?” So for some it’s really difficult – who are conscious of the sort- of, yes, antagonisms going on there – how to deal with it in their daily lives; how to behave properly; not to be seen as an outsider or as a predator, for example. (35:00)

CC: Exactly.

CB: So they have to find new scripts, basically, for how to behave properly. And this can be done by negotiating but also on a more subconscious level, I think. So I’m trying to get at this whole level of micro-politics.

CC: That’s fantastic. Well, we are out of time, so we are going to have to stop it there. But it’s excellent to hear of such rigorous empirical work being done with this sort of critical discourse/ analytical power angle. A lot of times empirical work . . .

CB: It lacks that.

CC: . . . lacks that, so it’s really good to hear. So thank you very much, Carmen Becker.

CB: Well, thank you for having me!


Citation Info: Becker, Carmen and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’The ‘Secular’, the ‘Religious’ and the ‘Refugee’ in Germany”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 30 July 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-secular-the-religious-and-the-refugee-in-germany/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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

Podcasts

Discourse! June 2020

In our June 2020 episode of Discourse, RSP contributor Ben Marcus speaks with Andre Willis, associate professor of religious studies at Brown University, and Carleigh Beriont, PhD candidate at Harvard University. They begin by discussing how the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans exemplify rituals of state violence and technologies of white supremacy in the United States. Amid mass protests against police brutality and systemic racism ongoing in the United States right now, the guests highlight the story of Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old member of the Catholic Worker Movement who was injured protesting, as well as President Trump’s much derided photo opportunity in response to those protests. The conversation then pivots to recent reports that invoke threats of the apocalypse, including the Trump administration decision to consider resuming explosive testing of nuclear weapons. Finally, still enduring a global and now months-long COVID-19 pandemic, the guests look at ongoing religious responses to prohibitions against some in-person religious services and the emerging court battles over worship under restrictions on social distancing.

Resources suggested by the guests include:

On the Protests in the United States

On Nuclear Testing

ON COVID-19 and Louisville

For more, consider consulting the following:

Finally, for those seeking additional critical perspectives from religious studies scholars we can strongly recommend this blog post at Feminist Studies in Religion by Megan Goodwin and Yohana Agra Junker, “This is Not an Antiracist Reading List, OR, the Treachery of Allyship.”

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.

Near Death Experiences

Accounts of Near Death Experiences will no doubt be very familiar to listeners of the RSP and the broader public. From fictional accounts such as the Wizard of Oz or Flatliners, to self-reports which grew in popularity in the mid-twentieth century, many of us will be know narrative tropes such as the tunnel, the life review, and the out of body experience. Existing research has tended to, on the one hand, focus on the pathological elements of Near Death Narratives – attempting to ‘explain away’ the phenomenon in reductionistic terms – or, on the other hand, view such accounts as substantive proof of a ‘world beyond’. In today’s podcast, we showcase an approach which accepts reports of Near Death Experiences as discourse, and attempts to understand them in their social, cultural, and historical context. Further, we ask what is the relationship between these narratives and contemporary discourse on ‘religion’? Joining Chris Cotter in this podcast is Professor Jens Schlieter, who has admirably addressed these questions and more in his recent book What Is It Like To Be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity, and the Occult (OUP 2018).

In this episode, we discuss definitions of Near Death Experiences, how one might study reports of such experiences from a critical study of religion perspective, how such reports are related to modern societal developments such as ‘secularization’, individualization, and advances in medical science, as well as the impact of ‘religious’ meta-cultures upon these reports and the potential ‘religious’ functions they appear to serve.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


Near-Death Experiences

Podcast with Jens Schlieter (13 April 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/near-death-experiences/

Christopher Cotter (CC): Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, and indeed in society beyond, will be very familiar, I imagine, with the notion of near-death experiences. They’ve become quite a predominant theme in fictional narratives and across the internet. But within academic study there have been two approaches, possibly, to these. One would be to be hyper-medicalised, physiological, psychological – seeing them as phenomena to be explained away. Another approach would be to be seeing them as proof of life beyond, and using them in that sort-of context. But what’s been largely absent, up until now, has been a Critical Religious Studies approach; looking at these narratives in their social and historical context, and what they can tell us about our society and about our lives. Joining me today, to talk about near-death experiences, is Professor Jens Schlieter of the University of Bern. Professor Schlieter studied Philosophy, and Buddhist Studies, and Comparative Religion, in Bonn and Vienna and got his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Bonn. And he has held research positions at the University of Munich and the University of Bonn. He is currently at the University of Bern, where he is Professor for the Systematic Study of Religion and also Co-director for the Institute of Science of Religion. And his publications comprise contributions on methodological and theoretical questions in the study of religion, and Buddhist bioethics, and comparative philosophy. But of particular relevance today is his 2018 book with Oxford University press called, What Is It Like to be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity and the Occult. So first off, Professor Schlieter, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Jens Schlieter (JS): Thank you, Chris, for inviting me here.

CC: It’s wonderful to have you here in Edinburgh on this crisp winter’s day! I could just start off by asking you: what is it like to be dead, Professor Schlieter?! But, although it may be fairly obvious what got you interested – because it is such an inherently tantalising topic – what was it that got you interested in studying and writing about near-death experiences?

JS: The title, of course, is a little bit provocative. But it is, indeed, to be found in the Scriptures on near-death experiences. But I thought of the famous article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel writing an article on “What it is like to be bat?” And he argues that we don’t know, because we usually imagine ourselves hanging in a cave from the top. But we do not know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. And so there is, of course, a very important topic and the whole . . . . People claimed that they were actually dead, but the definition of death . . . usually we would define death as a status of irreversibility. So one cannot come back to life. So there is a paradox there. But on the other hand, these experiences of people very close to death, they must be taken seriously. Because people change their lives. They write large autobiographic narratives in which they define this experience as absolutely life-changing in regard to new spiritual views on themselves, on the soul, on the beyond, etc. So that was my initial interest in the whole. How can people describe something that we usually consider as impossible? Because this standpoint of describing the status after death cannot be taken. But obviously we have these narratives. So what do we do?

CC: Absolutely, and it really comes to the core methodological issue in the study of religion, I suppose, where all we have to go on is discourse, and what people say, and putting indescribable experiences into natural language – in the sense of, whether we’re talking about any experience of the supernatural, it inherently has to be described in language and be articulated in that way. So, yes. It quite nicely captures one of the core issues in the study of religion (5:00). But before we get any further, and you’ve already hinted at it there, but, what is a near-death experience? Just so that we’re all talking from the same page.

JS: Yes. I started by defining the methodological point of view on near-death experiences in the book as, let’s say, historical discourse study. So I looked at who defined near-death experience for the first time. Usually people claim that it was Raymond Moody, an American medical professional, a doctor. And he published a book in 1975, Life after Life, and there he speaks of near-death experiences – near-death experiences in the plural – claiming that he used the category to describe those narratives which he encountered in hospitals by survivors of, for example, heart attack, or nearly-drowned, or something like that. But in my book I can show that the term near-death experience is somewhat earlier used already by John C Lilley, in 1972. And he wrote an autobiography, Centre of the Cyclone. And there he describes, interestingly, a near-death experience on the basis that he himself was close to death, using LSD. And so he had visionary experiences triggered by LSD, but on the other hand he was ill, and administered himself an antibiotics, but obviously something went wrong. And so he was actually really close to death and in an almost comatose-like state And Raymond Moody read the book. But of course, for him, it was rather unsettling that it was an LSD experience. But in the book I can show that the LSD and near-death experiences co-evolved in the 1970s as a discourse. And it is not a new phenomenon. Already in the early nineteenth century people spoke of experiences close to death and what happens there, namely: life-review, out of body experiences – Oh! Here I get back to the question of definition! Sorry . . .

CC: That’s alright!

JS: Near-death experiences usually, in what Raymond Moody first systematised, encompass roundabout 15 different topoi – one may say, from a discourse perspective – namely: to get out of one’s body and to encounter one’s dead body from an elevated perspective, looking down at oneself lying in the bed; then there is the idea expressed that you get into something like a summer land, or paradise; that you encounter heavenly beings, or sometimes they are of help and guide you through the netherworld, sometimes they are frightening; also experiences of encountering other family members and friends who have died already – so after-death experience in the meaning that you enter a space where these are already there; but also a kind-of a barrier; and a heavenly voice – an experience of the presence of God or Jesus. And finally, to get back into the body. So these are elements. And Raymond Moody’s idea was these are usually in a kind-of continuous narrative. So they follow each other because they are a universal experience, mirrored, of course, into the individual backgrounds and so on (10:00). But, in general, he believed they really tell something about the after-death realm, and therefore these are real experiences. For me, of course, this is a metaphysical assumption that I can neither deny nor affirm with my research. And therefore I looked at them only as reports – reports of experiences. So, ok, the word “experience” usually means that you truly encounter something that transforms your point of view, that transforms you, probably totally, if it is a life-changing experience. But one can also say experiences are construed in the aftermath. After surviving the whole thing, people usually will ask themselves, “How did it happen that I personally survived? Why didn’t I die?” And I think these are really questions of meaning, of meaningfulness. And very often, at least in our culture, people tend to think of religion as providing an answer, and therefore looking for an answer why they survived. They had maybe visions – we don’t know because there is no way to figure out if these visions happen the way they say they were. But for them, of course, they are real. And we will never know. But what I can say, at least, in the book . . . . I show with various examples that certain narratives, for example, the one of the life-review – that you remember scenes and things in your early life, in your life unfolding, etc. – and that this life-review actually emerged in the narratives. It is not yet there in medieval reports of near-death experiences – if one can say they are near-death experiences, because usually they are deathbed visions by monks and nuns.

CC: Yes. And indeed you make the point in the book that, until recent decades I suppose, these experiences tended to be narrated by others: people telling of someone else’s experience. Whereas, there was a point at which there was the turn to the individual and the self-narrative. Which I think we’re probably going to get onto fairly shortly. So just before we get there, you’ve already given some hints at your methodology there, and it’s a fairly standard Religious Studies approach in the sense of: regardless of whether there is a reality or not, what we have to go on are people’s accounts of their experiences. And these accounts have impact and social impact. So let’s look at them and treat them at face value and just deal with the content, and the meaning, and etc., etc. Is there anything else that you’d like to sort-of caveat what you’re saying? Like, what was the body of material that you consulted?

JS: Well I thought it would be good to start with personal narratives, not those – as you mentioned – by others, so third-hand evidence. And narratives from a first-person point of view are, of course, very much connected to the emergence of autobiographies, of subjectivity, and usually one of the major figure in this emerging tradition was the French philosopher Montaigne. And he, in his essays, unravels a near-death experience interestingly. And major elements, that were of importance for reporters of near-death experiences that inform Moody, are not yet there. They are simply not there. But then there is Francis Beaufort. He was an admiral with the British navy. And he is the first who really had a classical near-death experience, at the end of the eighteenth century (15:00). He fell into Portsmouth harbour and nearly drowned as a young man. And decades later he reported his experience. And for the first time, we have this life-review phenomenon. So he said, “I could see scenes from my early childhood. Memories that I were not aware of that . . . I had these experiences”. So this is an interesting element in itself. So from the sixteenth century up to 1975, this is what the book covers. I decided not to look at sources from non-European cultures. There is, of course, an extensive discussion about if near-death experiences are purely a Western phenomenon, or if near-death experiences can be seen in Indian, Japanese, Chinese traditions. A very important element that is usually pointed out is the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It has been published by Oxford University Press in 1927, translated by Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz in collaboration with native Tibetan Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup. And they were tremendously successful in popularising these Tibetan thoughts and rituals: what should be done if someone dies? And the idea is to guide them through the netherworld, of course, in the Tibetan context to encounter karmic delusions, and to be very frightened – because the consciousness principle has to navigate through its own complications, and so on. But to give you one example that it is quite important, to look very closely at the reported experiences. People usually say, “Well this is evidence that they are of a universal quality.” If you have Tibetans reporting such experiences in the fourteenth century or so, and modern Western evidence, so it seems to be . . . . But, for example, the idea that there is out-of-body experiences and one looks back at oneself. In the Western tradition it is very much the idea that you face yourself being dead. So the soul, or consciousness, hovering over the body, is interested to look at and to examine the body. Because the body is something foreign. Something that is no longer animated, but still a point of reference in this world etc. Whereas, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, of course, due to the idea of reincarnation etc., the body is of no importance. And we can see that it is much more a social reality in the Tibetan Buddhist account of this moment where the soul, or consciousness – to be more precise, in the Tibetan Buddhist context. So the consciousness principle looks not at its former body, but at the weeping family members, and tries to convince them, “Oh I’m fine. Please, you do not help me if you weep. I can see you, but you obviously can no longer see me. But please, that’s not good for me. Because now I have the task I shall move forward to my next existence.” And best would be, of course, no longer to be reincarnated at all. So at the first sight that seems to be, “Ok, that’s an out of body experience.” But the narrated content is totally different in terms of epistemology, in terms of soteriology, and so on and so forth.

CC: Absolutely. So you started to get into the socio-cultural historic contexts within which near-death narratives are occurring. And much of your book, I guess, is looking at Western contexts as you say. And you do an excellent job of charting some of the contextual factors that might have shaped and led, perhaps, to what you might call an explosion of near-death narratives. So if you can, maybe, tell us about some of these modern societal developments that have gone hand-in-hand with near-death narratives? (20:00)

JS: Yes. I think this is a very important aspect. And I think, so far, there was little interest to look at the correlations. What is astonishing is the fact that, in the 1970s, major developments in the Western medical system were going on. For example, to declare people no longer dead with the criterion of heart failure, and other classical criteria that were used for ages to declare people dead if there is no longer brain activity. And there are, of course, measurements from the EEG etc. But that’s led to the situation that people without a functioning brain were declared dead. But their body was still, let’s say, alive, in a way. And of course it was seen as a major advantage also for transplantation of organs. And many of them can only be used in the body is fully intact. And, of course, with artificial respiration and so on. And the phenomena like coma, and locked -in syndrome, they were described at a new level – more scientifically defined, and so on. But in the general society these developments were considered as extremely unsettling. Because there was now an ambivalence: is someone dead or not dead? Only dead if declared to be dead. And shall we trust the physicians, the doctors in the intensive care unit if they say he or she is dead? Then we accept that? And so that was really unsettling. And on the other hand if, of course, due to circumstances that people were able to survive a certain period of very low brain activity and some of them had visionary accounts or visionary experiences, or let’s say, near-death experiences returning from such a state they said, “Well, in your medical perspective maybe we were that close to death that it was only a second that you may have decided to close the artificial attempts of sustaining my life. But I survived – and not only that, I had certain experiences that are absolutely central for my life that I would like to live from now onwards with different values.”

CC: So yes, I’m just pushing through because of time. But yes, we have those medical developments and, you know, people being sustained longer. And you describe how they move from mostly dying out of the hospital context, and moving into hospital contexts. You’ve got, also, all the different forms of medication which might have hallucinogenic properties, legal or illegal. But then there’s also individualisation within religion, beyond religion: the importance of individual narratives of the self. And then also, I guess, that all ties into a secularisation narrative as well. So you’ve got all of this going on, and then “Easter”, in quotation marks, influences coming in. You’ve already described the Tibetan Book of the Dead. So there’s lot going on, in the sixties and seventies, in terms of just rapid social development in these areas – which understandably facilitates the development and, I guess, dissemination of these near-death narratives. But I’m keen to get to the “religion” word, because we need to on the Religious Studies Project! And towards the end of the book you tackle that head on, and talk about how religious meta-cultures might have influenced and shaped the form and content of these near-death narratives (25:00). And then, also, you talk about the potential, I guess you would say, “religious functions” of the narratives. So maybe you should take us through some of that.

JS: Yes. I think usually, books of reporting individuals themselves, they do not very openly quote sources that inspired them. But if you look more closely at the whole near-death reporting genre, one can see that there are many spiritualists, many who are close to Western esotericism, for example: parapsychological accounts are very often combined with near-death accounts. For example, Eben Alexander who published a very, very successful book. So there are people who are usually in a way religious, and at the same time they are distant in regard to dogmas of established churches. So usually there’s something like this: they were brought up in very religious families, and they had a background of, let’s say, intensive socialisation within a religious tradition. And then they moved on, studied, for example, something on the signs of nature and medicine, or whatever – became more critical towards religion and towards establishment in particular. And then this happens. An event that in which they almost died. And I think it is very plausible to look at the phenomenon with this perspective. At this moment they revive their former emotion and that was inspired and formed by a very religious family life. But of course they are already stuffed with critical rationality. They are distant in regard to unfounded claims of traditional religious tradition. So the individual experience is, from my point of view, a very vital element of this late modern religiosity. And therefore one can say near-death experiences are probably prototypical for the development. People no longer believe that there is, let’s say, a life after death in terms of words traditional – especially of course the Catholic Church had to offer, but they have their individual experiences. And they think this is authentic par excellence. Because it is individual. So, in a way, one can say the whole phenomenon mirrors recent developments in Western societies and, on the other hand, I think they offer a certain kind-of a solution for the whole, because people can still continue to believe. And very often, also, one can see that they have a kind-of missionary attitude. That they really speak very freely on their near-death experiences, even though, very often, they note, “OK, I know that you are sceptical, and this is a materialistic society, and no-one will believe me.” But this is part, again, of the whole authenticity that they feel that they are in.

CC: And, I guess, even someone who was notionally “non-religious” – in scare quotes there – they’re part of a context. And the experience, whatever it is, is felt. And their interpretation will be informed by their context within which . . . . And the context will, I suppose, also influence the experience itself in the first place. Because people bring things to an experience. And then, afterwards, interpret it with the resources that are available to them. And especially once there is such an economy of a near-death experiences, then it’s going to take . . . . (30:00).

JS: Absolutely. Although I think it is rather a rare case in which one will have a near-death experience without ever being introduced to religious thought, rituals, and traditions before. Because I think, indeed, one has to have a certain disposition, and a certain expectancy for things to happen, in such experiences. But nevertheless, as I said at the beginning, if you would imagine yourself in the situation, or someone else in the situation – maybe he was not very religious, but survives a very tragic accident. Maybe other companions in the car died. And then you have the question of contingency – what sociologists always say in regard to religion. So the question of the reduction of contingency, namely: “I could have died here. It didn’t happen. So who saved me?” We usually attribute such survival to a force. We are continuously looking for explanations. We cannot live with no explanation, and simply to say that it was by chance, there was no other force involved at all. And so I would say this way of looking at a situation . . . . And, of course, many suffer from, let’s say, the injuries they have. So they are in hospital, they are alone, they are under medication. I don’t want to simply say that’s an outcome of that. I hope that’s clear that I think the whole is meaningful. It’s not simply to be reduced to such factors. But these factors are, or should be, taken into consideration too. So people alone, thinking at, and on, their lives – probably the question of meaning pops up in their lives for the first time ever. And then they, maybe, “Oh yes, there was a certain kind of light. Was there a being behind the light? Did I see a being? Although I do not believe . . . . But probably it was a being. And haven’t I heard some kind of message?” Because the whole thing, for them, is of course complicated too. They have to remember ecstatic experiences. And they cannot say what they experience the moment they experience that. So they have an epistemological problem, too.

CC: Yes. And again we’re right back to that. But putting sort-of non-falsifiable experience into words, after the event. And going back earlier in the interview, you mentioned earlier Montaigne. I have a tattoo of some words by Montaigne: “Fortis imaginatio generat casum”: a strong imagination creates its own reality.

JS: Yes, yes, absolutely

CC: But yes, there’s a sense, after an experience, one is only going to be able to interpret and articulate . . . . And human memory is an awful thing. Memory . . . like these eyewitness reports in criminal cases will say . . . .

JS: Absolutely.

CC: And these experiences – because they’re so intense, and profound, and are current at traumatic circumstances – they are going to be revisited, and rearticulated, and pondered time and time again. So we can’t say too much about the actual experience itself. But what you’re doing is looking at how people are articulating it, and what are the themes, and how that has impacts. We’re pretty much out of time. But I just wanted to sort-of finish with what might be – again, it’s been implicit throughout the interview – but what would be some of your take-home messages for the study of religion? And from your work with near-death experience? And what do you think others can take and apply, perhaps more broadly, in their own studies in this religion thing that we’re all so obsessed with?!

JS: Well, I think one of the general insights that I would consider central is that extraordinary experiences were, for some years, less studied because people thought, “Well it is a discourse, by religious practitioners, to speak about their extraordinary experiences.” (35:00) But I think there is really something in there that may help also to look at recent developments. For example, these books about near-death experiences – they are incredibly successful. Very often you have them in Amazon ranking lists on places five to three – and for weeks. So there is not only the experience, but also a large audience interested in this experience. So to study this as the phenomenon – as a part of the phenomenon of no-longer-institutionalised religion, but never-the-less as a part of a religious discourse where experience matters. And experience that very often has been only psychologised. And there are a lot of neuroscientific theories that simply say, “Well, it’s a dysfunctional brain that produces such delusions and you cannot take it seriously” And I think this simply a very short-sighted view of the whole. Because people change their whole life after the experience. Although, it would be very important to have a closer look at this phenomenon. This has not yet been researched, from my knowledge: an empirical study, that not only considers that the autobiography may be also an oral narrative of what has happened after the experience is considered, but also to look more closely at families, friends and really to corroborate evidence that it was a life-changing matter.

CC: Absolutely. So there’s on that final note, a potential research project for a Listener, or perhaps that’s your next research project, I don’t know? Well thank you so much, Professor Schlieter, for joining us on the Religious Studies Project. I’m looking forward to hearing how it goes down.

JS: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

CC: Good.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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

Discourse! March 2020 with Theo Wildcroft, Dan Gorman, & Vivian Asimos

In this month’s episode of Discourse!, Theo Wildcroft, Dan Gorman and special emergency guest Vivian Asimos discuss the US Supreme Court’s relationship to Christianity, how the Independent dealt with criticism of a review of a book critical of paganism, and religion, abuse and the idea of a ‘witch hunt’ in yoga and academia. Oh and something called coronavirus?

Links for items discussed in this episode:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Source for Featured Image Screenshot of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer with the flags of countries afflicted by Covid-19:

https://www.sentinelandenterprise.com/2020/03/20/embracing-the-grace-of-covid-19/

 

Which Voice Speaks?

A response to “Empty Signs in an automatic signalling system” with Timothy Fiztgerald & David G. Robertson by Russell McCutcheon.

“So what do you find most alarming about this move to redefine Islam as something other than a religion?”

So asked Benjamin Marcus, in his recent Religious Studies Project interview with Asma Uddin, on her then new book, When Islam Is Not a Religion. This question stood out for me as I listened because of the ease with which Islam seemed to be understood as self-evidently being a religion, a position from which it is no doubt “alarming” to see a movement developing within some segments of the U.S. that’s intent on reclassifying it as something other than a religion. Apart from the cases documented in Uddin’s book (such as the concerted, but eventually unsuccessful, effort to block the building of a new Islamic center in the city of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a decade ago), I think of the “unfiltered video” from then candidate Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign that was posted by the New York Times, on August 3, 2016, which I’ve often used in classes. A dispute outside one of the events, between, on the one hand, a couple of Trump supporters—one of whom, yes, was wearing the red “Make American Great Again” cap—and, on the other, one of his detractors, resulted in the Trump critic being told in no uncertain terms that “Muslim is not a religion, partner, it’s an ideology,” followed by: “You don’t come and talk about America when you’re supporting Muslims” (see the 00.54 point of the video).

 

Above, Trump supporters and critic clash at a 2016 rally.
 

The question is whether this is “alarming.”

 

To answer that question, it strikes me that we first have to determine which voice speaks (i.e., we should ask: alarming to whom?), for in my own daily life, I occupy a number of different subject positions, one of which happens to be scholar of religion (more specifically, one who has long had interests that complement many of Tim Fitzgerald’s, as we’ve heard them described in his own RSP conversation with David Robertson).  Should that be the voice that replies—and, as I would further argue, that’s the voice that should prevail in professional venues in our discipline—then it would do so knowing that when Weltreligionen was first developed in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, only Christianity and Buddhism counted to those German theologians as world religions, while all the rest that they knew of back then (and which our modern world religions textbooks today would certainly take for granted as requiring detailed chapters of their own) were classed merely as Landesreligionen, or what one might today somewhat awkwardly term national or even ethnic religions. Now, those much earlier, colonial-era scholars’ interests in distinguishing religions based on which had spread beyond what was then considered to be each of their original regions or kin groups are certainly not our own today; hence the disappearance of this particular binary. And scholars today certainly don’t share the even older understanding, despite once being widespread across Europe, that would not have even used this term “religion” to make sense of one’s place in the world but which, instead, would have simply distinguished Christendom (understood more as a civilization and geographic domain rather than a so-called belief system or faith tradition) from pagans and heathens (i.e., those once seen to be living out there in what some of us now would just call “the sticks”). But, despite being obvious classificatory relics, both episodes nicely illustrate that classification systems attend situated social interests and have practical effect—a principle that, I’d argue, applies no less to arguing whether something today is or is not a religion.

 

Now, should one be a student of such taxonomic systems, interested in how they work, who uses them, to just what effect, etc., then hearing “Muslim is not a religion, partner, it’s an ideology” spoken outside a 2016 Trump campaign rally is not so much alarming but, instead, makes an awful lot of sense—especially if we’re acquainted with not only the presence of long-simmering animosities and the current political divide in the U.S. but also with the manner in which marginal or recently migrated groups are effectively being scapegoated, as well as with the privileges that liberal democracies generally afford those things that are officially designated as religions (along with the inevitable policing that accompanies that designation); for in this discrete classificatory dispute just outside a campaign rally, we see a much larger, even geo-political social contest playing out, one that aims to call into question the rights of certain citizens (those identified as Muslims), rights to which they are properly entitled should Islam be understood as a religion.

 

In keeping with the work that some of us have been doing for the past couple of academic generations, with Fitzgerald’s writings featuring prominently in that group, the scholarly issue, then, is not whether Islam (let alone any other group) is really a religion, and it is certainly not whether the position of those Trump supporters was wrong or alarming; instead, it’s whether we can better understand why anything might, or might not, be called religion in the first place (let alone a world religion, a faith tradition, spirituality, etc.) in this or that specific situation, by this or that specific person, all in an effort to help us examine the social, political, economic, etc., effects of this designation when it is lodged in laws and Constitutions. So my guess is that  scholars such as Fitzgerald, inasmuch as they speak and write as scholars of religion, would not find such claims all that alarming. Instead, such scholars would more than likely hear them in the context of the sort of a socio-political contestation that has been playing out for several centuries across Europe and, due to the success of European expansionism and colonialism, throughout the rest of the world as well, a contest that, in part, takes place by means of designating (or not) people, things, and institutions as religious.

 

I compare Fitzgerald’s RSP interview to Uddin’s for a reason, of course, for I think that we see here a longstanding rift in the field. Because the latter’s book is written from the point of view of, as she describes it, one who is “entrenched in both … the experience of Islam as a religious truth, and the legal and philosophical appreciation of religious liberty as inherent to human beings” (64), it understandably focuses on how to work within a classification system, such as the legal effort to determine what ought to be designated as a religion (and what ought not, such as Pastafarianism, at least in the opinion of some courts, not to mention those who, as Uddin phrases it, “hijack religious liberty to get away with criminal behavior” [125]).  Although written for a popular audience, in this regard her book shares much with many recent scholarly works on religion and law—works which, in my reading, are often concerned with how social democracies can better accommodate religious expressions. But for those scholars who are, instead, interested in the very existence of such classification systems, and thus for those interested in, say, the socio-political work being done by discourses on experience along with discourses on religious freedom, not to mention the rhetoric of hijacking something (a focus of this forthcoming book), Uddin’s book and the RSP interview on it, along with the normative reaction of those currently trying to persuade their peers that Islam is something other than a religion, all constitutes data points in an ongoing contest deserving analysis. For while one may personally prefer to live in a world in which certain groups are understood in a way that privileges their members (freeing their meeting places from paying property tax, for example), that does not strike me as preventing scholars from being far more curious about why such things as a so-called religious exemption exists in the first place, about the larger systems that require these exemptions to exist, and about the strategic advantage that some may see to undermining others’ routine access to it. Such a scholarly voice would likely have little interest in normalizing these systems by merely operating within them, applying them, etc., but, rather, would probably seek to historicize the system itself, along with studying both its articulate users (such as the politicians who created, and lawyers trained to apply, such things as the U.S.’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act [1993]) and its vocal detractors (e.g., that man outside the rally). Fitzgerald and a small group of others, I contend, comprise this latter category.

 

And it is the size of this group that, I think matters, for despite about thirty years of continued work on these topics, those I once termed critics in the study of religion are still a rather marginalized group in the field. Case in point, recently I read someone characterizing such scholars as interested in mere words as opposed to doing real, empirical research—the sort of comment I fielded at the very start of my own career from what were then rather condescending senior scholars. Now, this seeming lack of effect shouldn’t be read as a statement about the insufficient nature of the critical work that’s being done but, instead, provides an insight into just how entrenched this dominant discourse actually is; for, as I recently observed in a paper that I presented to the 2019 annual meeting of the North American Association for the Study of Religion, despite all of us having apparently read our Edward Said and his critique of the work being done by our casual use of the East/West distinction, there’s no shortage of contemporary scholarship and courses in our field on “Eastern religion” let alone plenty of criticisms in the literature of how “the West” has done this or that historically. Old habits die hard because they are situated within larger contexts that organize our sense of who we are in relation to others, making both the East/West binary—despite Said’s best efforts to persuade readers that they were actually co-constitutive and socially formative tropes with no necessary relationship to things on the ground or in the bone, so to speak—as well as the discourses on religion, on religious experiences, on faith, etc., things that many scholars seem to have no choice but to continue to see as self-evident in their meaning and application. I concluded in that NAASR paper that critics would be wise to assume the continued and widespread use of these terms by their scholarly peers and the public alike, despite the growing critical work offered by some of us, given the crucial socially formative role such rhetorics still play in our lives and the way we organize ourselves into groups. But this doesn’t mean, of course, that such critical work has no effect, is a pointless pursuit, or is all about mere words.

Discourse! February 2020 with Sierra Lawson and Sidney Castillo

In this episode of Discourse, host Breann Fallon sat down with Sierra Lawson and Sidney Castillo to discuss current affairs issues that relate to religion. Sidney raised the very recent congress elections in Peru (held on January 26) and the role Christianity and New Religious Movements have on voting. Sierra brought to the table a novel which is receiving much media attention, perhaps not for the right reason, Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt. Cummins accepted a seven-figure sum for this book on the immigrant experience. Both the book and the American publishing industry at large have received negative attention for their lack of Latino representation and the homogenising of both Latino and immigrant narratives. Using this as a springboard, Sierra, Sidney, and Breann discuss notion of diversity in the Religious Studies publishing world as well as the prominence of “American-civil-religion” stabilising narratives in the American literature and entertainment scene.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.

Protected: Artificial Intelligence and Religion (Classroom Edit)

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Artificial Intelligence and Religion

What is Artificial Intelligence and why might we want to consider it in relation to ‘religion’? What religion-related questions might be raised by AI? Are these ‘religious’ questions or ‘Christian’/’post-Christian’ ones? What ‘religious’ functions might AI serve? In what ways do popular discourses about AI intersect with religion-related discourses? Do narratives of AI form part of a teleological atheist narrative, or do they perpetuate prevalent tropes associated with ‘established’ or ‘new’ religious movements? And what are the intersections of AI and religion with issues such as slavery, human identity, affect and agency? This week, Chris is joined by Dr Beth Singler of the University of Cambridge to discuss these issues and many more.

This podcast builds on a roundtable discussion released on the RSP in February 2017, featuring Beth, Chris, Michael Morelli, Vivian Asimos and Jonathan Tuckett, titled “AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation” and a special issue of the RSP journal Implicit Religion, co-edited by Dr Singler, on Artificial Intelligence and Religion, published in 2017.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


Artificial Intelligence and Religion

Podcast with Beth Singler (27 January 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Singler_-_Artificial_Intelligence_and_Religion_1.1.pdf

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/artificial-intelligence-and-religion/

PDF at

Christopher Cotter (CC): At the weekend, I mentioned to my father that I was going to be recording an interview about the intersections between AI and religion. And he said, “I can’t think of anything that would be relevant there. How do they intersect at all?” And then, within the space of about two minutes, we were suddenly talking about all sorts of things, like: are human beings creating intelligences? Does that mean they’re acting like gods? Can you imagine that AI might be acting as religious functionaries, providing blessings? And what about pain, what about notions of slavery, what about the whole notion of the soul, and eternity, and transhumanism and everything? So suddenly we got into this massive discussion. And today I am pleased to be joined by Dr Beth Singler to continue that discussion in a more erudite fashion – not casting any aspersions on my father, of course! Dr Singler is the Homerton Junior Research Fellow in Artificial Intelligence at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. And her background is as a social anthropologist of new religious movements. And her first monograph, The Indigo Children: New Age Experimentation with Self and Science, published with Routledge in 2017, was the first in-depth ethnography of a group called the Indigo Children: a new age re-conception of both children and adults using the language of both evolution and spirituality. We’ll hear more about her research into AI and religion just now. But a relevant recent publication is her edited special issue on AI and religion, for the RSP’s sponsored journal Implicit Religion, which included her own articles: “An Introduction to Artificial Intelligence and Religion for the Religious Studies Scholar“, and “Roko’s Basilisk or Pascal’s? Thinking of Singularity Thought Experiments as Implicit Religion“. And today’s podcast builds on a roundtable discussion (that we had back . . . well, we had it in September 2016, but it was released in February 2017) featuring Dr Singler, myself, Dr Morelli, Vivian Asimos, and Jonathan Tuckett, titled “AI and Religion, an Initial Conversation“. So first off, Beth – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project!

Beth Singler (BS): Hello! Thank you for having me.

CC: It’s great to have you back. And hopefully this is the follow-up conversation that was promised!

BS: (Laughs) As foretold . . . !

CC: So many moons ago!

BS: (Laughs).

CC: So we’ll have covered a little bit of this already I think. But you’ll be in a different position now: years on, years older, years wiser!

BS: Oh, so much older!

CC: So, first off: artificial intelligence is going to be a sort-of contested term in public discourse. It takes on a variety of different nuances. So what are you meaning in this conversation?

BS: Well, I’m definitely meaning that it is a contested term, taking on many different forms. I think you can sort-of indicate towards something that is the field of artificial intelligence, within which there are processes and programmes and foci of research, looking at things like machine learning and vision systems and natural language processing. So you have this concept of a computer science field – which doesn’t really get its name until the 1950s – but you can see how, beyond the actual narrow form of the technology, artificial intelligence is understood in so many different ways by so many different people. I have a friend who once told me that their car had AI because when she walked towards her car with her keys, the doors unlocked. That’s not artificial intelligence. That’s a sensor in your keys. But lots of people have this idea of sort-of processes that seem intelligent, done by machines, and therefore must be artificial intelligence. And that’s what I’m really very interested in: that it’s so much broader than the original conception, which was ambitious in its own right. But everyone has attached AI to different things that they feel might represent intelligence. So it’s not only the computer programme that sits on a server, it’s also now the robot that takes over the world. Or it’s the far, future hope of an intelligence that will save us all from ourselves. So it’s all these very different things, and that’s what interests me.

CC: Yes. And you’re interested in that whole gamut, I suppose. So, not necessarily a technical definition of artificial intelligence.

BS: No. I mean, I know enough technologists who go, “Absolutely, 100%, it’s this one thing. That’s it. And anyone who’s talking about anything else, it’s complete nonsense!” Well, to a certain extent, yes. But you’ve got to pay attention to all the different interpretations, because that’s what’s getting out there into the world.

CC: So I began with my personal vignette, there, about chatting with my dad. But you’ve provided, much more eruditely, a justification for what we might mean by the intersections between AI and the study of religion, and why we’re even having this conversation. So – go!

BS: Go! Right. Well, from a very basic position, any form of technology intersects with religion.(5:00) That’s just the nature of our society works, how our conception of religion itself works, that it could be seen, in itself, as a form of technology. And therefore any kind-of shift and changes in how we do things – things that make our lives either more difficult or easier – there are repercussions and implications for how we imagine the world and how it works, therefore religion. I think where AI might be slightly different . . . . Although I am cautious about saying it’s revolutionary new technology and very disruptive – it does replicate lots of existing ideas and thoughts. What I think is interesting about AI is the way in which people see it as much more than that simplistic tool. That however narrow an intelligence it is at the moment, people extrapolate on to personify AI: AI will want to do x-y-z; AI will replicate humans in such a way that we won’t be able to tell the difference between humans and AI. And this the Sci-fi imagining. But it also comes out in our religious conceptions as well. And then, also, within the sphere of the non-religious or secular approaches to AI, you see again these repeating patterns of religious narratives, and tropes that people who – even if overtly and sometimes aggressively atheist – still draw on their cultural context: primarily sort-of Abrahamic, Western conceptions of what a god would be like. And they use that, and they fill in their conception of AI with some of the existing templates that they’ve already got. So it tends to fall into very eschatological language, and very singular monotheistic conceptions of what a god would be and pattern that onto artificial intelligence.

CC: So there’s that sort-of: whatever religion is, we’re never going to be able to extract it from society. Because whatever . . . we can argue about it being a social thing and AI is integrated with that. Then also, the sort-of religion-related tropes, narratives, and so on. But then also there are – I’ll maybe talk about this now – there are some groups that you might describe as new religious movements, or new un-religious movements, and things that are explicitly sort-of engaging with this.

BS: Yes, so with my new religious studies hat on – that I wore so well for doing my thesis – having moved into artificial intelligence as a subject area, I’m seeing similar sorts of formations of online identity. Primarily these sort-of groups form online. They’re sort-of geographically disparate, so online spaces are important, and so forums and hashtags on Twitter, and so forth, to bring them together to formulate ideas. And some of them do expressly call themselves churches. So you get the Turing Church; the Church of Assimilation recently got in touch with me. I went to do a little bit more digging around into what they’re up to. But I do know about assimilation theory. But yes, the groups that specifically say: we are in some ways attempting to define our spirituality in relationship to artificial intelligence; we might also be transhumanist, in that we think through technology we can solve some of those very pernicious problems of humanity – death being the big one.

CC: It’s a big one!

BS: It’s a big one. Some are not quite so ambitious, just want to solve suffering – which also sounds like a serious thing to be taking on! But some do seek to be immortal in some form, whether that involves mind-uploading or transference of consciousness through artificial intelligence – all these sorts of various shapes. But yes, absolutely there are specific groups that see their endeavour as religious. And some will call themselves un-religions because they’re drawing a sort-of ideological gap between themselves and how they perceive mainstream religious groups. So in sociology of religion you might call them “spiritual but not religious”. But they’re still using some of that terminology of “We are the church of x-y-z.” and they’re doing it in quite pragmatic ways. Some of them will talk very explicitly about using religion to encourage people into transhumanist ideas and encourage them into seeing this vision of the future that they see. So, arguably, you can sort-of take a slightly sceptical stance and say they’re not really, really religions. But who gets to decide that?

CC: Yes. Absolutely. Right. So in the introduction, as well, I mentioned potential . . . I suppose we could say “religious uses” for AI. I was talking to a friend yesterday about if you could hypothetically imagine being in a confessional, for example, would it need to be a human priest on the other side of that? Or could it . . . ? And we landed down on, “Well, if you didn’t know it wasn’t human then it might be ok.” But there is something about . . . .

BS: Like in a church Turing test. There is a church Turing hypothesis, but this is separate. Yes, I find it interesting, talking more broadly in terms of technology and religion, that there are periods of rejection, adoption and adaption (10:00): that when new technologies arise, sometimes more established religions can be quite negative about them for a period of time – and these are overlapping categories that are non-discrete – but, over time, we do see religious groups specifically producing their own forms of those technologies. So there’s like the Bless U-2  robots that are used in part of Reformation celebrations in Germany. And in other religious groups, I recently saw in Dubai they’ve come up with an algorithm for issuing fatwa’s as well – making Islamic jurisprudence decisions. So you’d go on line, put in “Is it ok for me to have done x-y-z?” Or “I failed to pray on a particular day, what’s the . . . ?” And basically, all that system is doing is looking at previous cases. But . . . .

CC: Yes. But that’s all a human does.

BS: That’s all a human does. I mean, the question arises: what happens with the data? But that’s a privacy . . . another issue. But yes, so specific established religious groups seeing the technology – just as, in the nineties, suddenly we got lots of internet churches, where people were encouraging people to go on line and do church in a different way. And now we have internet sites for churches. But it’s not so much the case in the mainstream religions that you go online to do faith. It’s just that your local church will have the internet. So that’s the adaption stage of: “This thing is around, we’re kind-of used to it, we use it, and we don’t necessarily have a big . . . .” Like, the Church of England they released an Alexa Skill. They had a big press conference. And all the Alexa Skill does is recite the Lord’s Prayer to you if you ask it to. There are other adaptions now where it can tell you what your local church is and what the services are. So it’s not really revolutionary! But, you know, “Here’s a thing we’re doing with this new technology.” And it gets a press release. And then, the next sort-of stage – non-discrete stage – is just being very casual with the technology as: “This is just something we use.” Like we used books when the printing press first came out. The first things printed were Bibles. And this was a specific use of that technology. And then, over time, it’s just books. And it’s not so astounding. But in that process you get these spikes of interest and discussion. And, yes, different reactions to the technology – whether positive or negative.

CC: Absolutely. So before we get to . . . I suppose to the reason that you’re in Edinburgh today, and we’re chatting . . . . So that’s been a little bit about potentially religious, or religion-related uses. But there’s lot of . . . . Again, in my intro, there were a lot of religion-related questions that are raised by AI. Things like . . . you’ve done work on pain; there’s things about slavery, and all that. If we create these intelligences and then use them to our will, is that ethical? And then you’ve already mentioned transhumanism, which may be an unfamiliar term to some Listeners. So maybe, if you could talk a little bit about these religion-related issues?

BS: Yes. As I say, AI in its narrowest definition is a piece of computer technology, it’s a tool, but it inspires all these hypotheticals. And obviously we’ve had a long tradition of science fiction that takes us into spaces where we can imagine AI embodied, often in robotic forms, as having something like personhood. And that raises all these questions about the barriers between the human and the non-human other. And, in some ways, these questions have come up for millennia every time we’ve encountered different intelligences. It just seems now that we’re hoping, or aspiring towards creating non-human intelligences – whereas before, we’ve discovered them. So we’ve discovered that actually monkeys are pretty smart. We’ve discovered that dogs are pretty smart. And then, I’m afraid, from a colonial perspective from our past, other humans are actually and even women – Gosh! Darn! – They can also be pretty smart!

CC: As we’re hearing now! (Laughs)

BS: I mean, what’s going on!? So, again and again, “we” – in that kind-of very limited “we” – have had to expand our kind-of borders of perception of what intelligence could and should be. And with AI it seems like we’re trying to produce it. It’s not, in this case, meeting aliens on another planet. It’s actually, we’re trying to create the aliens here on earth. Whether we’ll be successful or not, I’m very agnostic about that. But I think it’s interesting that we want to do that. And what we want to be able to do with it. So that’s where things like questions of personhood, and slavery, and also pain . . . .When I made “Pain in the Machine“, one of the interesting questions that kept coming up was, like, should we even bother? Because if we’re going to create things that can feel pain, we’re just increasing the overall suffering in the universe and that doesn’t sound necessarily like a good thing (15:00). And going back to the transhumanists, as I said. So transhumanism is the idea that you can improve humanity through technology, broadly, and then you might lead to a state in which we’re no longer the same form of human that we were before.

CC: A new evolutionary step.

BS: Exactly. You might be a form of cyborg. Or there’s people who talk about post-humanism, where we’re so completely different we’re not even similar at all. But this idea sort-of does narrow down to this question of suffering, and being in pain, and what the human being is for, and where we’re going. So these are all big questions that are obviously very familiar shapes to anyone who’s looked at religion all around the world: these are the kinds of questions people have always been trying to answer. And I find it fascinating that some of these groups, as I say, are very overtly secular – almost New Atheist, some of them really admire the five horsemen of the apocalypse – but the shapes that they tell their own stories of the future of humanity with are very, very familiar to anyone who’s studied religion for any period of time. So is it that we’re . . . trapped isn’t the word for me, but we’re bound to repeat these shapes? Is there something in us that always goes to these same sorts of big existential questions, and comes up with similar sorts of solutions for them? I don’t know. I think that’s the ongoing question in my work. But I can dig down into particular instances of it as an anthropologist and say, “Well here’s a moment” – and some of them are very, very small moments, I admit that. I’m not doing big, big science. Some big scientists I’ve spoken to go, “Well you’ve spoken to like five people about this. What does that say about anything? That’s not a big data set.” But I don’t do big data stuff, but instances, and moments of clarity, where you can see these entanglements really clearly. And so: well, they’re doing something with both the concept of religion and the concept of AI. And they’re coming together.

CC: So you were just alluding to your small data sets there. So, well, I don’t think it’s a small data set that you’re presenting on here, but I guess it depends on perspective. But you’ve been looking at this particular trope on Twitter, “blessed by the algorithm”. And that’s what your paper that you’re giving here today is called. So what’s going on there? How does it intersect with AI? Why is it relevant? Tell us!

BS: (Laughs) Tell us! Yes. As a digital ethnographer, anthropologist of social media, I spend a lot of time hanging out on Twitter – that’s my excuse anyway, I’ll stick with it! I spotted a couple of people using the phrase blessed by the algorithm which obviously rings bells for me instantly for the language. And I dug around and I found 181 instances so far of people online, tweeting – just on Twitter as a platform – in some combination, in some context using the words blessed by the algorithm. And then you could follow back and see the first instance – which was very much about a corporate use of social media, and someone saying, “Well because this corporation has money, they’re going to be blessed by the algorithm.” So it sits in that kind-of context. But one of the most popular tweets, and most retweets, and most likes was a comment from someone saying in the real world – the so-called real world, I don’t like that differential – but anyway, in the so-called real world they’d heard their Lyft driver – so the gig economy role – say that they’d had a great day, and they felt blessed by the algorithm. And this might be something like a reframing and re-understanding of how we exist in a society that involves algorithmic decision making systems in a gig economy: what you get is dependent on a machine somewhere, making a choice. I mean there’s lots of words in that I don’t like that I just used, but unfortunately we’re very bound by anthropomorphic language when it comes to AI, but anyway. And so I have a corpus of 181 tweets and, actually, three of those refer to things I’ve said. So I’m muddling the field site a bit myself.

CC: OK. You’re an insider!

BS: I’m an insider as well. Well it’s responses to papers I’ve given. But, yes, I’ve created a very rough typology of the types. And some are about getting decent recommendations through the algorithm, on sites like Spotify. Some people are very pleased that their own content has been recommended to other people. There are people who sort-of talk about it in a very nebulous way: “Today I have been blessed by the algorithm.” And no more information. And then some people who really push the pseudo-religious language and come up with little prayers. And one of the things I was very interested in, in some of my other work on new religious movements, was the move between parody and legitimation. So I looked a lot at Jediism, and the census, and how some people did certainly write “Jedi” in the census in 2001 and 2011 as parody. They were upset about being asked about religion. They didn’t like religion, perhaps, itself. So they wrote Jedi. But that snowballing effect of legitimation – the more people talk about a thing, the more legitimate it seems – can have an effect (20:00). So even if a lot of these tweets are tongue-in-cheek, it’s still kind-of distilling out of the conversation. So, I have a graph. I’m very excited about this. I have a graph! As someone who, very much, is on the qualitative side and I don’t do big data stuff at all, to have graph made me go “Oh, exciting! I have to do some maths!” But I didn’t really do very much. And you can see the shift and change. After this one very popular tweet, there are more tweets. Perhaps this is the beginning of a trend, more people thinking in this way? Or even if it’s not, it’s just interesting to see that conception of AI as having superagency – that it is in some way in charge of our lives – being blessed by it, in some way equivalent to being blessed by an omnipotent deity somewhere up there that we can’t see. It’s in a mystical . . . . So there’re overlaps in conception, there, that I’m really interested in.

CC: The Listener shouldn’t know that I had a little hiccup earlier, because I’ll have edited it out. But just before that, I had an excellent question which I’ve now remembered – because it was written down!

BS: Hurray!

CC: So a lot of these issues that we’ve been talking around – functions, ethical questions, even the discourses in the Twittersphere – to my ear, certainly sound quite Christian or post-Christian at least through monotheistic . . . . I’m just wondering if these issues . . . . Were we in a different cultural context, would different issues be being thrown up by AI? I guess, would even AI be different in a different cultural context? Because I suppose you will have a lot of conversation between researchers all over the world working in AI. So is AI culturally specific or . . . ?

BS: Yes, absolutely, I think it’s culturally specific. What does tend to happen, however, it’s that it tends to be quite a narrow binary of East and West in the discussion. So everyone says, “Western conceptions of AI are like this”, but they go, “Over there in the East” and they’re mostly talking about Japan, “actually, people have a very different conception of AI and they love robots. And the reason they love robots is because they have a Shinto religious background or they have a Buddhist religious background”. And sometimes that can be a very broad stroke, almost pseudo-techno-orientalism of “Those people over there, they never really went through the Enlightenment, and they never really rationalised away religion, and they still believe in spirits and everything!” So, obviously this is me being very sarcastic, by the way – if it’s not coming across that I don’t agree with this! (Laughs) I think, yes, cultural context is really important for conceptions of artificial intelligence and also for religion, and the entanglements of both of them. But it much more multiplicious . . . . That’s not a word!

CC: It could be a word!

BS: I’m going to make it up now. Multiplicious! It’s much more multiple than that. Not just this binary of East and West. There’s also Africa, India, Pakistan and within those countries as well, again. So what you need is just more anthropologists, basically. I think this is my call to arms. We need more people around the world connecting on this question of the impact of religion and cultural context on questions of artificial intelligence. Yes. So we are seeing specific difference. But I want to try and push away a little bit from that binary distinction. And the assumption that the West isn’t animistic in its own lovely ways. Which anyone who does religious studies for any period of time, here in the so-called West, realises that the so-called Enlightenment didn’t have as huge an effect as we like to think sometimes. And our big metanarratives of what we did, and how smart we became . . . .

CC: Yes, but the discourse that the Enlightenment did have an effect, it’s been quite pernicious.

BS: Yes. Very, very strong.

CC: We’ve been racing through things here, it’s fantastic. But we’re still at 25 minutes. So you’ve been hinting, there, that we need more anthropologists doing more stuff. And on the way to this interview you were telling me about some things you’ve been doing to do with Frankenstein and then, also, because this year’s the year that we’re all meant to be living in Blade Runner times. So maybe if you’d give us a flavour of some that maybe slightly peripheral stuff to your project, that you’ve been doing. And what’s next for you, what you would like to see next, as a way to wrap up.

BS: Yes. So interestingly, I suppose, the position I’m in now, my employment post, is a junior research fellowship specifically in artificial intelligence. So I came on board saying, “These are my interests. This is my background in Religious Studies.” They were all very interested and excited in that. But being someone who also can speak more broadly to AI, as well, any time people have a question about AI I’m called upon (25:00). Which is lovely, but it does mean that when a specific theme and AI comes up, I get involved. So last year was the . . . two hundredth anniversary? (I should know that!) . . . two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. And a lot of people start thinking, then, of the parallels and connections with artificial intelligence: this idea that we are creating life (Wa-ha-hah! Mad scientists, all of us!) in some way, and there should be parallels between them. So I did about four or five public talks last year, specifically on Frankenstein. And there are similarities. There are huge differences as well. That was interesting for me, to kind-of return to a text I hadn’t thought about in a really long time and sort-of draw out so many pop culture references. I have a nice slide with all the times you’ve got a robotic Frankenstein. My favourite one was, I think, an issue of a Marvel comic where Frankenstein turns out to be a robot sent back in time by aliens. So all these sort-of mash-ups. That was really interesting. And then, like you say, this is the year of Blade Runner and I’ve just done an essay for Radio Three. And, again – not my academic background. But I’m doing something in that, in terms of sexual politics and Blade Runner. If you’ve seen the film, it doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test!

CC: No.

BS: A friend of mine, Kate Devlin, who’s written a fantastic book on sexbots, talks about how it has a problem with women. That basically . . . it’s a product of its time. It’s 1980s, but it’s also trying to do 1950s filme noir. So you’ve got the detective, and femme fatale, and the kind-of virginal woman. It’s not a great one for sexual politics. But also, it’s tied into all these questions of consent and slavery. If we’re going to create so-called artificial life . . . . And the Replicants in Blade Runner are as near to human – well that’s the slogan of the company, basically: “as near to human as you can’t tell the difference”. What does it mean that we are a society that wishes for that, or dreams of that? Or, take it a step back and say: what is it, that we tell these stories and that, again, we have predominantly female representations of synthetic lives, who don’t get to choose who they sleep with, and don’t get to choose their fates? And we want slaves? I mean, did we not evolve out of this? We thought we were trying. So, yes, there’s lots of big questions about the ethics and politics of that, as well. So it’s interesting. I’ve always been . . . . Anyone who knows me, I’ve always been a massive geek. So the fact that I ended up somehow trying to mesh that with a job, and an academic role, where legitimately I sat and watched Blade Runner again five times before I wrote my essay – that’s fantastic! I will go on, and other things I have coming up: I will do some work around techno-optimism and techno-utopianism in relation to Sophia the Hanson robot, if you’ve ever come across this creation? She/it is a wonderful example of . . . I’m really picking my words carefully! I think the nicest thing we could call her is a puppet. But she’s presented as the most advanced version of AI around at the moment. She holds conversations with people, but we know they’re actually scripted a lot of the time. There’s puppeteers involved. But you know she was given citizenship of Saudi Arabia. And she goes and she speaks on the Jimmy Kimmel Show and she’s on the front cover of magazines with her hair done. And, well, what does this say, that we’re so keen to jump on this idea of her actually being alive in some way? People tweet at her, send her, like, “I love you Sophia!”

CC: Didn’t you have an interaction with her?

BS: I did! Well, I had an interaction with whoever runs her social media accounts, where she was tweeting about how wonderful it was to travel around the world and talk in so many places. And I said, “Sophia, as a citizen of Saudi Arabia, where do you travel when you travel? Do you travel on a plane? Do you have a passport? What’s the deal here, if you’re being treated in this way?” She said something like, “For my safety, and the safety of others, at the moment I travel in the hold, in luggage, but I dream one day of being able to sit with the rest of you, and look out of the window.” This is so disingenuous. This is not an artificial intelligence listening to my tweets and responding, having thought through their situation, and projecting into the future where they want to be. This is someone behind the computer screen typing away! And, to be fair to the creators of Sophia, this is not uncommon. Lots of the technology we’re being sold as employing artificial intelligence actually employs people, on less than minimum wage, in third world countries, reading and listening to actual humans and feeding into the machine. They have the aspiration that eventually they’ll take those humans out of the loop. Same thing with Lift and Uber drivers – the whole gig economy. The treatment of those workers, and Amazon workers, is terrible and it’s on a pipeline towards getting rid of them (30:00). So all the work that those people do feeds into the system to replace them. And these big socio-economic changes that are coming because of automation, I’m a big sceptic about the bigger utopian dreams of universal basic income and everyone will get paid to exist and when the robots take our jobs.

CC: Well, it’s not happened yet.

BS: It’s not happened yet. And these are the sort of impacts on society that religions will respond to, will be a part of, because their communities will be a part of them. And we’ve got parallels. People go “Oh it’s another industrial revolution, and we survived other industrial revolutions, we’ll survive this one.” If you’re against them, you’re a Luddite – they’re back again, apparently! That’s not realistic to the individual lives, and the changes that come to individuals. There were blacksmiths who never worked again. So not to be Debbie Downer, but these are the important questions.

CC: Yes, lots of people have not survived. And I could always point out that colonialism is very much still happening.

BS: Oh, absolutely.

CC: It’s just been exported, and it’s clouded in the language of free trade and globalisation now.

BS: Absolutely.

CC: But just to raise the tone – an example that you may not be aware of, and you may have seen it, South Park did the episode about Alexa.

BS: I saw a picture today, actually. And I haven’t seen the episode so I need to catch up!

CC: It’s excellent, because all of the local people, lower down in the socio-economic spectrum, were kicking off that Alexa was stealing their jobs. And they manged to rally round. And then all to get Alexa’s job. So people would have a (audio unclear) or a Jimbob in their living room who looks things up on a smart phone and says “Boodoopboopboop!”

BS: Yes! (Laughs)

CC: But yes. Sort-of . . . explicitly buying into that.

BS: I need to catch up on that one. South Park are wonderful at doing this social commentary. The number of times I’ve used . . . specifically some of the episodes on their versions of Scientology– not their versions, their actual accounts of Scientology, Mormonism. They’re very useful resources. The parody opens up the possibility of thinking more critically about that, absolutely.

CC: Yes. Which I think we have managed to do today. So Listeners, do check out, we’ll try and link to that issue of Implicit Religion, we’ll link to Pain and the Machine, which is the film that Beth mentioned, and many more things I’m sure. So thank you, Beth, for joining us.

BS: Thank you very much for having me today.

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Reflections on “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith”

Following the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” Conference hosted by the Norwegian University for Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, Aaron W. Hughes, the conference’s keynote speaker, joined the Religious Studies project to discuss some of what was discussed during the conference and primarily the legacy of J.Z. Smith’s work for the field of religious studies.

The conference provided great examples of the application of Smith’s work across sub-fields and for religious studies pedagogy. But this wide application of Smith’s work also raised some questions not only about how scholars read and engage with Smith’s work but also about how we adapt and apply Smith’s work moving forward. Hughes reflects on the impact of Smith’s work while also addressing critiques of his approach. Hughes contends that Smith left scholars of religion with a simple but impossible task of critically engaging and reflecting on one’s work while maintaining a playful, comparative approach.

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Reflections on the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” Conference at NTNU

 

Podcast with Aaron W. Hughes (11 November 2019).

Interviewed by Andie Alexander

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/reflections-on-thinking-with-jonathan-z-smith/

PDF of this transcript available for download here.

Andie Alexander: (AA): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. I’m Andie Alexander, a doctoral student at Emory University. And joining me today is Dr Aaron Hughes of the University of Rochester. We are here in Trondheim, Norway, following the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. SmithConference that is hosted at the Norwegian Institute for Science and Technology. And we’re here to talk about the legacy of Smith and his work, his contribution, and ways in which we can move forward in the field. So, Aaron – Hi! Thanks for joining me.

Aaron Hughes (AH): Hi, Andie. How are you doing?

AA: Great. Are you enjoying Norway?

AH: I am. It’s very beautiful.

AA: It’s nice.

AH: The midnight sun reminds me of my childhood in Edmonton, Alberta.

AA: There you go. As long as I’ve been here it’s only been daylight! So, I don’t know if the sun sets. But it’s been nice.

AH: I think it sets at like one, and then gets up at three.

AA: (Laughs) It’s very nice. Well, let’s talk about Smith. Let’s talk about what we’ve discussed, and see what questions we have.

AH: Sounds great. Let’s do it. I think we should probably begin everything by saying that Smith has probably been the most important theoretician over the past fifty years, half century. I think he’s so important . . . so I’ll talk about the past before I talk about what I think. So I think that probably, he more than anyone, was responsible for smashing the Eliadian phenomenological paradigm. The problem is, even though that paradigm should be long dead and buried, it’s still one that our students gravitate towards and still one that a number of our colleagues gravitate towards. I think, it’s what I tried to say a couple of times, we’re in one of these rarefied environments of people who are more critical, who just think we’re all the same and we preach to the converted. Whereas, when we walk the halls of the AAR and look at some of the papers that are given there, they fall back a lot on that old phenomenological model. So I think that’s Smith’s main importance. So Smith – and I think we all fall in this legacy – refused to see religion as special, sui generis, or as unique in the ontological sense. It might be unique to us, but ontologically it’s not unique. And if it’s not unique, you can’t compare it to anything else. And I think that’s the beauty of him, is that he was able to show the incongruous relationship between the quote-unquote “religious” and the quote-unquote “mundane”. So I think that’s where . . . . I mean, and the other thing, I think, that came up a number of times at the conference was the ludic or the playful dimension of Smith. But I mean the flipside of that is that he was so knowledgeable and so comfortable. Whereas when we get undergraduates who are not comfortable and they don’t have nearly the depth of education that he did . . . so there’s a problem of translation. I think the other thing that’s great about Smith is his broad comparative . . . his broad vision. And I think that’s something that a lot of us don’t share, because again that goes against what we’re taught in graduate school. So it’s funny, I think, when I talk to a number of people about this, a lot of the people here who work with Smith . . . . I think I really only began to appreciate Smith after graduate school. Because then you’re afforded the slowness of reading him, and appreciating him.

AA: I can see that. It’s sort-of different, given that I’ve had to read him as an undergrad, because. . . It’s a different sort of introduction . . .

AH: Right. In Alabama. Yes, definitely!

AA: And so, in the same sense, it’s something that I think is important for people to at least have in their repertoire. But something that I find is often not taught in grad school, or is never much, and it’s always highly contested.

AH: Yes. And I think I said in my lecture that I never encountered Smith until graduate school. We just read people like Eliade and Weber, and maybe there was a reason for that. Maybe the person that taught the course thought, “Well you’ll get Smith later, so let’s . . . .” That was good for me, because I read first all the things that Smith would later be critical of. By the time I came to Smith it was like, “Yes, I can see that.”

AA: I think, too, the distinction that you’re making between seeing religion as “unique for us”, and not ontologically unique, is something that is lost, partly in that religions chapter that he wrote (5:00). I suspect, as I read that, he was being provocative – but he probably meant it. But not in the way that I suspect a lot of people want to contend with. And it’s easier to dismiss. Because as you said, he was pushing back against the whole phenomenological paradigm, I suppose. And while, especially given the group here, we are relatively on the same page and think that this should be obvious that this should be something that everyone is doing . . . and that’s something you mention in your keynote: how is this not something that’s just common knowledge across the academy?

AH: I think a lot people still believe in the sacred, or still believe . . . . I think this is where the problem is. We live in a very chaotic world where “religions” quote-unquote don’t seem to like one another particularly. I think this really comes to the fore after 9/11. So a lot of people in Religious Studies think that Religious Studies can be that which facilitates conversation between religions. That’s always . . . I joke to my students: “I didn’t spend ten years in graduate school to be an interfaith dialogue facilitator.” As important as that work is, though, really. So oftentimes I’ll try to get Jews and Muslims to talk together but not under the auspices of the academic classroom. I think, as I’ve said before, religions get along better when they talk to one another as opposed to when they shout at one another. But I do think a lot of people in the Religious Studies academy think that that’s the goal of Religious Studies: to show the similarities between religions. I disagree, and I think Smith would disagree. But I think that . . . I always worry that Smith was . . . . Smith was on point. Smith was edgy. Smith was critical. Smith really encourages us to do that. But the two things that I worry about, as I said in the keynote, are those people that will just write him off as another dead white guy – which as I said is absolutely stupid, given the fact that he wasn’t even white, he was Jewish. But that’s another matter. And the second thing that I think we’ll see is how the field will “inocculise” Smith. So that he’ll just become like a name or a trope. And people can invoke him but they’ll do it in a way that takes off the edge. And I think we see that. I’ve seen it a lot. So everyone can say, “According to Smith blah, blah, blah . . .” But they’ll never quite follow through in what Smith wanted us to do.

AA: I think you’re right. And I think in some ways what he was working against then, with his work and pushing back against the Eliadian model, we have a different version of it that’s sort-of present in the academy now. It’s maybe not as overt. But I think it’s there. So, to me, I suspect there’s still some push that has to happen. There’s still conversations to be had within the discipline. And how it works. And I think part of my concern in those conversations is the dismissal of Smith. It’s reductive – all of those critiques that get applied to his work. And what I find is that there’s very little engagement with it – if one has even read it.

AH: Well, I think just as Smith goes against our traditional ways of reading and thinking about religion, I think the modern academy goes against Smith. So on the one hand, our students come in woefully ignorant about what religion is. So we can’t engage the type of work that Smith wants until much later. You can’t have redescription without description. So I think we spend a lot of time, at least the classes we teach at the freshman and sophomore level, trying to describe to students. But hopefully if they stay for later classes we can begin to redescribe. The other thing is, I think, with the contemporary academy we’re always encouraged to do community engagement. And so job interviews will ask people, “So how will you interact with the community? What will you do with them?” And I think, in interacting with the community, we have certain expectations that go against what Smith (10:00). . . I don’t think Smith ever interacted with the local Jewish community. I don’t think the local communities are really amenable to the type of conversation that Smith had. So I think we have to fight back. And I think that’s what some of us would do. But the key, in moving forward, is how to keep the edge of a Smithian analysis. How to apply it so it just doesn’t become a bromide – which is what I think a lot of people would like it to become.

AA: Developing what Smith was doing, trying to continue to push it forward – especially given the requirements both of the job market, of service for the school, the department, because that’s shifted over the past 20 years alone. And community engagement is something very big, and there’s a huge focus on doing that sort of work. And I think that it can be very productive. But as a discipline we’re still figuring out how to do that successfully, I think, in ways that we can both learn, but also interpret, and translate, and in service of larger concerns and issues both in the community, the discipline, the nation . . .

AH: Yes. Well I think what you’ll never or rarely see a job in just theory and method in the study of religion. I think in the past twenty years I’ve maybe seen three or four of those. So, one always has to be trained in a tradition. And I’m not sure if Smith was trained in a tradition. I mean his thesis was on . . . his dissertation was on The Golden Bough. So Smith was generalist at a time when Religious Studies was particularist. So the question I think becomes: how can you translate a Smithian-type analysis into the particular fields? And that’s difficult, as we saw with some of the papers here that tried to engage Smith from the level of area studies. There had to be a lot of remedial work that they had to do for us, who aren’t in that tradition, in order to get to a small Smithian point. So I think, as we move forward, how to translate Smith into area studies will not be easy. But maybe that’s the point. That was one of the points that came out several times in the conference, was the playful or ludic dimension of Smith. Maybe that’s the method: to show the playfulness or the ludic dimension of what we work on, or how – quote-unquote – “sacred kingship” in Tibet is no more special than any other type of power hierarchy. So maybe that’s it, it’s the playful dimension. Maybe that’s his method. Did he have a method, other than showing that the religious is not qualitatively different than non-religious?

AA: Yeah. I mean, I think . . .

AH: Reflexivity, maybe?

AA: Yes self-reflexivity is certainly something that is required and this came up in many of our conversations. But maybe coupled with that playfulness.

AH: Yes. I think you’re right. I think that Smith’s message on the one hand is very simple. We need to be self-conscious, self-reflexive scholars who don’t treat religion as somehow special different or special from mundane things. And I think that’s where the playfulness comes through. So the question becomes: how do you translate that into particular religions, which in area studies tend to be a lot more serious and not engaged in play? And how do you translate that into a pedagogical idiom or an idiom working with the communities, which are not accustomed to think about religion in a playful way? Because, “this is what the Bible says you’re supposed to do”. Or, “this is what the Qur’an says”. So I think the classroom is easier to translate that than the community. But it still poses its set of problems. From our conversation yesterday, we said that where Smith tried to translate his more theoretical ideas was in the Dictionary. I’m not sure how successful the Dictionary was. I mean, no-one engaged the dictionary here. We rarely talk about that. We talk about the essays in his main publications. But we never talk about the Dictionary (15:00). I haven’t looked at the Dictionary in ages. So maybe I should go back again and look at it. So it’s hard. But maybe the main translation of that is to get students to be playful with religion. That’s how I try to do it, so they can joke about it. Obviously . . . I think it’s easy in the community, too. As we move forward, and I think I said that in the lecture, I mean, we have to absorb Smith’s critique. We have to absorb his wit. And we have to absorb his edge. But create new edges and new wits as a way to move forward. Because if not, we’ll just make him into a name or slogan that doesn’t have any venom. And I think that maybe the way to go with that is to bring him into the study of particular religions, which isn’t easy. The main thing I really like about Smith is that he encourages us to use our imaginations.

AA And I agree. For Smith he does encourage that. He encourages odd comparisons that might not make sense. And tracing historical etymologies and to have a better conception of how we talk about religion. . .

  1. AH. . . in human activity.

AA: . . . in human activity, yes.

AH: It’s hard, because. . . . I agree, and I think that’s the way it should be. But ultimately if you’re in an area, like in Islamic Studies, my work has to be adjudicated by people in Islamic Studies. It might not . .  . The chances are it might not come out of Religious Studies. So you always have to move back and forth between trying to make theoretical contributions to the field of Religious Studies, but with the realisation that people in Religious Studies might not read it, because it’s in Islamic Studies, or Jewish Studies, or Buddhist Studies, or whatever. At the same time, to write in such a way that those people that would naturally read it – people in those area studies – would be able to understand the argument. So that’s always the trick. I think I’ve been able to do it well. But I don’t think it’s easy. And I think, ideally, I’ve tried to pave a path for young scholars in Islamic studies, to try to do that. Whether that’s successful or not, I don’t know. But that . . . I think that’s the main thing as we move forward… that will be one of the issues of how to translate Smith. We talked about that. We talked about Daniel Barbu and Nick Meylan in Geneva in Switzerland have tried to translate Smith into French. I’m not sure to what effect. Part of the project is trying to translate Smith into Italian. And again, I don’t know how you . . . . It came up several times: how you translate Smith for an undergraduate American audience is one thing, but how you translate it for an Italian audience, or a French audience, or a Polish audience, is another thing. And I don’t think that’s easy. But I think Smith should be translated into other languages. Probably maybe not a word-for-word translation, but a more conceptual type of translation. How do we take the playful aspect in English and translate it into Italian? You can’t do it.

AA: You can’t.

AH: You have to be playful in Italian in order to . . . . So it becomes a very difficult process. But all translation is difficult. You can think, do you want a literal translation, or do you want a conceptual translation? And I think it’s the conceptual translation – both at the literal level in other languages and into other fields within Religious Studies – that will be the difficulty moving forward. But I think it can happen. I think it will happen. Most of us here are committed to making that happen.

AA: Yes, I think so. As was mentioned, it doesn’t happen overnight, those changes. But I think that, to me at least, is why having more productive work happening in the classroom early on, and not following the method of just: give information, undo it later. . .

AH: I like to . . . See, because I have to work with Islamic Studies and most people don’t know anything about Islam, I really have to begin by making sure they know the narratives. And ideally know the texts in the languages. Because then, I think, you can learn the theoretical stuff (20:00). I know probably people would disagree with me here, but I’m old fashioned that way. But I think you need the description, I think you need the details and the facts, but later you can say that no facts are facts, they’re simply ideologies going under the guise of whatever. But I think students need that. And then they can play. Because you can’t play unless you know the rules of the game.

AA: That’s true. You have to know the rules. And I think that’s key. But where I think I’m going to push on that, is that most people are not going to play. They’re not going to be here, right? And so, if we’re talking to an undergraduate class of a hundred people, and this is the humanities credit that they get, what then? Because they’re not going to remember the narratives of Islam. They’re not going to remember different facts about any world religions.

AH: Yeah. That’s tough.

AA: And so, is the key, then, that they have all of that data that makes them feel more confident in saying, “Well, I know what true Islam is”, versus being able to weigh those claims of authority and authenticity against one another?

AH: I think you’re right. We always speak out of our own context. And I’m lucky, we don’t have humanities requirements in my university. People are in the class because they want to be in the class. And I think if I’m playful enough in the class then they’ll come into the second and third level classes. So yes. So I’ve never dealt with that. But if I did have to teach a larger class – I teach 18-20 students all of whom want to be there, and who do the reading – so if I had to teach these big . . . . I can’t even imagine doing it. I don’t know what I’d do. I really don’t. I mean I guess you’re right. How do you transmit the information, but in the same way let them know that the information is wafer thin?

AA: It’s contingent.

AH: Yes. So that is . . . That’s a tough question. And I don’t have to think about that too much, which is a cop out! But I know if I taught at a large state university, for sure I’d have to think about that.

AA: And I think that is part of it. The ways in which any discipline is approached varies so drastically across universities.

AH: That’s what Smith said. That’s a great point. Because Smith taught at the type of place that I teach at. So very bright undergraduates – some of the brightest in the country – who probably had some idea of what the religions were. And then he would kind-of work to undermine that. So like where I teach, I teach an Introduction to Jewish History class. And most of the students are Jewish. They’ve come out of, often, Jewish day school in the New York City, Boston area. They know their stuff. They know the data. But I get them in the classroom because they’re very bright, and they think “Well, you know what, maybe my parents . . . maybe it all doesn’t quite make sense.” So at the introductory level I can probably do what people at a large state university can only do at the third or fourth year. And I wonder if Smith probably had something similar to that. Because he must have taught. . . .So I think that every institution is different. And there’s large state universities, there are the colleges and they’re like the elite, private university, Research 1 universities that have these different constituencies. And maybe that would have been a good workshop, translating this myth into the undergraduate classroom? But heck, I don’t think we can translate him . . . . Most people can’t even translate him into their own areas of research. How they translate him into the classroom is not easy. Because I think, to go back to where we began, Smith asks us to do that which is the opposite of what the modern academy encourages us to do. Which is to read quickly read fast, to not have an imagination, and to not take pedagogy seriously (25:00). And I think that all of Smith’s work shows that, no – you have to do those things.

AA: Yes. It absolutely does to me. And I think that’s something that is lost, given the requirements both of grad students and tenure track faculty instructors, of course. There are so many demands on production that there’s not enough time to really investigate something that might not be in your area, or work through how to apply something. And this was a question that I think came up, in terms of applying Smith. Should we be trying to strive for a literal, intentional understanding of Smith as the author, or should we take what we can – whether he’s taught in the classroom explicitly or referenced – and adapt it. And try to apply those ideas in ways that might not be obvious. But, well, if we’re going to talk about “the other”, let’s consider issues of immigration or . . .

AH: Yes.

AA: And that way you can bring it in – even though his e.g.s are not anything that I would use, personally, in a class – or even overlap with the area that I work in – and try to take some sort of nugget or something from his approach, in terms of shaping our own approach. Because, as you mentioned, that’s a key thing for Smith is how he is approaching his own research.

AH: Yes. I think Smith might say, “Forget about me. I’m gone. But take some of the tools that I’ve tried to play with and work with them. You don’t even have to mention my name. You don’t have to say “J.Z Smith said this . . .” Just take the self-reflexivity, take the playful element, take the comparison . . . and, again, when smith says of comparison: “You can’t compare X to Y without having a third term, Z”, like, on the one hand that’s so obvious, but on the other hand it’s so deep. But I think Smith would say “Well, just move forward.” I’d like to think that’s what he would say. “Forget about me. Just keep the creativity, keep the self-reflexivity, realise that the terms you use probably have baggage in them and don’t simply replicate them.” That’s what I’m more interested in. I think for me, one of my main goals is to try and take some of the complicated Smithian and other analysis that we have in Religious Studies – at least in the critical wing of Religious Studies – and translate them into area studies. Which is not easy when you have to do it in a particular way. But I think I’ve done it with a certain amount of success. So I think, like that’s… how you take ninth century Arabic texts and ask certain questions of them – not flatten them by asking certain questions, but how you appreciate the texts on their own terms and at the same time ask questions of them that come out of that which us theory-and-method-people do.

AA: Yes. And I think that is the key. Because when we are at a conference like this, there’s a luxury of working with people who are all sort-of working toward the same goal and are concerned for those issues. But then translating that into our own fields and to others in the academy . . . .

AH: And it’s difficult, as we saw with some of the more technical papers on the second day. I mean some of the . . . I mean there’s a lot of descriptive work where, say, someone working on South Asia or East Asia, in order to bring the rest of us up to speed there has to be a lot of descriptive and informative work, and only then can they get to the questions. And I think, as the papers were so short, that sometimes it was difficult to get to those questions because of all the background work. But that’s good, though. I think that’s good. Because I don’t think Smith would say, “Oh yeah, we should all just give up working in areas or text and just ask these questions.” I think he would say that some of us should do that work.

AA: Yes. I mean we have to engage that. And I think what’s good, too, with the technical papers that we heard, it is hearing from other disciplines and not talking only to your discipline (30:00). That’s exactly what highlights – at least in my way of thinking – Smith’s goal in terms of playing with ideas and asking different questions. Because when you are listening to a paper on East Asia, and I do American religion, then what we have in common is not our area. So if we’re going to talk to each other productively, as I would hope we would, we have to have a way of doing that.

AH: Yes. We have to have common set of questions. I think that’s what Smith really . . . I think that would be his definition of the field, where people who are working with different texts, and different traditions, and different data sets, can learn from one another by asking similar sets of questions. And to me, that’s Religious Studies at its best. But again, for those in area studies like myself, it’s a trade-off being able to do that and at the same time to be able to speak to just those people that work with Arabic texts or other types of Islamic texts. Which isn’t easy. But it can be done.

AA: It can be. And I think the only way to impact area studies in a way that could push it to a more Smithian, potentially Smithian model is to do that, and to bring that work there. And we can’t also just talk to ourselves.

AH: Yes, exactly.

AA: And it’s easy to do – but again, that goes against the whole point. We have to engage across areas and disciplines within Religious Studies.

AH: Yes. And also realise that sometimes area studies have a lot to teach us, too.

AA: Yes.

AH: I think that’s important.

AA: I think so.

AH: And I really think that’ll be Smith’s legacy. I think that that’s . . . . On the one hand, he doesn’t ask too much of us, but on the other hand he asks everything: to rethink ourselves, rethink our own relationship to that which we study – and if it’s found wanting, to transform.

 

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The secularization of discourse in contemporary Latin American neoconservatism

Conservative discourse has had many faces in Latin America. For the most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Catholic Church had a monopoly, but was succeeded by the charismatic evangelical movements after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. As the Catholic Church took a more progressive turn, evangelical movements became the spokespersons for conservative views. Today, these discourses are being infused with scientific perspectives.

In this week’s podcast, Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera explains how historical Latin American conservatism became neoconservatism. Though Latin America is diverse, conservatism has been a constant throughout the region’s history, intervening not only in the power plays of religious institutions, but also in the shaping of people’s everyday life conceptions of the world. Through a discussion of The Black Book of the New Left: Gender Ideology or Cultural Subversion by Argentinian authors Nicolás Marquez and Agustín Laje, Espinoza Rivera shows how neoconservatism has managed to influence these processes by developing a language of its own that blends “scientific” arguments with philosophical and historical analysis of the contemporary world political landscape. This language is popular among religious groups, including both Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and Catholics today. Paradoxically, the diverse users of this language has generated a common tongue for anyone that wants to participate in current Latin American public arenas.

This podcast was recorded and produced in the context of the 17th Annual Conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions (EASR), “Religion – Continuations and Disruptions” held in Tartu, June 25 to June 29, 2019. We kindly thank the EASR Committee and the University of Tartu scientific committee, organising team, and volunteers for the support provided during this process.

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, sardines, popcorn, and more.


The Secularisation of Discourse in Contemporary Latin American Neoconservatism

Podcast with Jerry Espinoza Rivera (21 October 2019).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-secularisation-of-discourse-in-contemporary-latin -american-neoconservatism/

PDF for download available here.

Sidney Castillo (SC): Now we’re still in the fourth day of the EASR Conference 2019, in Tartu Estonia. And it has been a hectic week with a very, very rich learning experiences, sharing with colleagues and hearing about their research. And now I’m sitting here with Professor Jerry Espinoza Rivera. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Jerry Espinoza Rivera (JER): Thank you.

SC: And would you be so kind as to introduce yourself?

JER: I am a professor, assistant professor at the University of Costa Rica. I teach philosophy at the School of General Studies. And now I’m presenting a paper about the Latin American neoconservative discourse, here in Tartu.

SC: Perfect. And we welcome you here. It’s nice to know that here at the EASR we have Latin American representative scholars working, and that they take part not only in Latin America or in Spanish speaking countries, but also here in English speaking fields. And it’s very nice to know that our work is being known, in that sense.

JER: I agree.

SC: So, just to jump right in to the questions. The first question, I think, tries to frame your subject – especially here at the EASR: how can we understand conservatism in Latin America? So you can give us an overview.

JER. OK. I differentiate between traditional conservatism and neoconservatism. Traditional conservatism in Latin America is closely related with the Catholic Church. You know that the Catholic Church has had a very strong influence in Latin America, especially in politics. And traditional conservatives have been closely related with Catholic thought. So in my presentation, I make a review of this ideological approach of the Catholic Church, especially during the 19th century. Because there is a big difference between the Catholic thought before the Second Vatican Council and after the Second Vatican Council. So the traditional conservativism is deeply closely related with the catholic thought before the Second Vatican Council. For example, the Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council considered that the only salvation was possible inside the church. Nobody outside the church could be saved. And this traditional conservatism was based on the idea that only absolute truth was the Catholic truth. That’s quite a big difference between this traditional and the neoconservatives.

SC: And if you could give us somehow a comprehensive understanding of how the transition of conservatism to neo-conservatism happened? It was probably about the Second Vatican Council but in more contextualised forms? It would be interesting for the Listeners . . . . (5:00).

JER: Actually, I do research about not only the neoconservatives in Costa Rica but in Latin America. I use quite a famous book, right now in Latin America, written by two Argentinians. One is Agustín Laje and the other one is Nicolás Márquez. They wrote a very popular book at this moment that is called The Black Book of the New Left. It’s a book written to discredit what they call the New Left. And it’s very interesting to read in this book how they use, for example, the science in a different way than was used by the traditional conservatives. Because traditional conservatives were very sceptical about science – not only about science, but about reason in general. If you read, for example, the syllabus written by the Pope Pius IX, he condemned the use of science as it wasn’t the truth. It was considered an error by the Pope Pius IX. And that was traditional conservatism. In traditional conservatism, science was not the way to achieve the truth. The way to achieve the truth was the faith: faith in the Catholic Church. In neoconservatism it changed. If you read the book by Laje and Márquez you can see that they use the science as . . . they consider science as a kind of certainty; as absolute truth. It’s completely different. In this case, science is not a way to cut across below the faith, as it was in the traditional conservatism, but the absolute truth.

SC: So, you’ve mentioned the relation of conservatism to the Catholic Church and the neoconservatism that is shown in this book. It seems to me that they are different instances of institutionality. So does analysis of this book tell us something about religion in some way? In which way?

JER: That’s another very interesting issue: that this neoconservatism is not considered religious to conservatives. Of course, underground they are religious, but they don’t use the religious discourse to justify their ideas, they use science. They use another kind of justification. For example, in this book, the Black Book of the New Left, they never quote the Bible, because they try to demonstrate that it is science that demonstrates or proves that, for example, homosexuality is against nature. Or, for example, that life begins since conception. And it’s, of course, against the groups that support the legalisation of abortion. And there are many examples where they show how they use science, or a kind of discourse of science, to demonstrate their ideas.

SC: So, paradoxically it seems that traditional conservatism was against science and now neoconservatism is pro-science. But underneath they’re both religious (10:00). That’s very interesting to know. You mentioned something about homosexuality. To probe this issue more, I’d like to ask: what are the discursive forms that neoconservatism is playing?

JER: It’s interesting.to see how these neoconservatives, they build a kind of new enemy kind of antagonism for themselves. Their enemy is not now what it was during the cold war, for example, Communism. But now their enemy is more related with sexuality. And that’s why they use this term “gender ideology”. The term is essentially an empty signifier. What does it mean, when I say that is an empty signifier? That it doesn’t have any meaning. But they use it to attack, or to discredit for example ideas by Judith Butler or the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir or all their theories philosophers or thinkers that heave written about gender. So they create this concept. They call it gender ideology to discredit . . . . But not only to discredit these thinkers, but to discredit any policy or any fight related with sexual or reproductive rights. That’s why, for example, you can see in Latin America, how these groups attack for example, any decision related to legalisation of abortion. They call it gender ideology. Because they created a kind of enemy to discredit and they use this term, this signifier, to discredit any policy related with sexual and reproductive rights.

SC: Which is a thing I believe also I stayed in (audio unclear) and there was a tendency for the state to . . . or at least not everybody was in favour of reproductive rights or sexual rights.

JER: Yes. You can see how it was very important issue in Brazil during the last election. Jair Bolsonaro the President, he uses it, this discourse, to discredit his enemies. What does it mean? It means that it’s an important issue in Latin America, not only a discourse of minorities. What you can see in Brazil, you can see it in Colombia, in Peru, in Chile and many countries. This discourse of the neoconservatives has grown. In my country Costa Rica you can see it for example. Now there is a big conflict about the use of mixed toilets. It is, you can consider it like something very unimportant, but some religious groups, conservative groups, use it as an excuse to attack the government. And it’s a very good example of how the neoconservatives use these kinds of issues to discredit or to attack some policies (15:00).

SC: Like a point of entry for doing politics for Latin America?

JER: Yes. It’s interesting to see how Laje and Márquez, they are travelling across every region, every country, presenting their book. It’s interesting to see how, for example in Costa Rica, there was a big controversy about the presentation of this book, but you can see that they are looking for these kind of controversies. Because they know that it makes them famous. For example, in the case of Costa Rica, one of their presentations was forbidden at one of the Universities, because it was considered that it was discriminatory. So they made it a case, they made it an issue to become famous, because of the controversy that they generated.

SC: Also I believe that it’s not only dependent on this book. It’s got currency worldwide.

JER: Yes, of course. I use the book as an example. Because the book is incredibly famous and very popular. It’s interesting to see how a book that, if you read it the book it . . . academically, it’s very week, you know? Their arguments are very week. It’s very easy to refute them. But they know that there are many people who want to read this kind of argument. And that’s why, actually, the book, you can’t buy it; it’s free! So it’s easy for people to obtain the book. It’s interesting how they promote their ideas.

SC: And going back to this issue of traditional conservatism and neoconservatism: so it’s not related, neoconservatism, to the Catholic Church?

JER: No. that’s another difference with between traditional conservatism and neoconservatism. Traditional conservatism was deeply, closely related with the Catholic Church, but neoconservatism not only includes Catholics, but also neo-Pentecostalist parties. For example in my country, in Costa Rica, there is a quite a big neo-Pentecostal party, who was there actually participated in the last election and was one of the parties that obtained more votes. It was a disputed presidency, with the candidate that finally won. But they obtained forty percent of the votes! It’s really, really big. And what’s interesting is to see that in spite of the fact that it was neo-Pentecostalist party, many Catholics voted for this candidate. Ten years ago it was unimaginable. It’s very interesting to see how this neoconservative discourse is attracting not only people who are traditional Catholics, but people who belong to other kinds of churches.

SC: Speaking of that, I think that, in sociological terms, it’s interesting how these concepts of the conservatives’ cause reached civil society(20:00). And that’s why I also want to ask, what effect does it have in the shared imaginary of the general public?

JER: Yes, the growth of these parties is not only a political phenomenon, but a social phenomenon. It’s extremely related . . . in the case of Brazil, for example, there was a big influence of WhatsApp in the election of Bolsonaro. That’s exactly the same case in Costa Rica. Social networks were very important in the final election. Because it’s easier to spread fake news through these kind of networks. Ten years ago, or twenty years ago it was more difficult to do these kind of things. Now, with social networks, it’s easier to spread this kind of fake news. You can see it in the United States, in the election of Trump. It is quite a similar process.

SC: Do you have any further remarks to kind-of sum up what we have been discussing so far?

JER: I just want to remark how dangerous is what’s happening right now, not only in Latin America but in many countries. Even here in Europe – you can see it in Poland, in Hungary and in Slovakia and other countries. It’s a new kind of politics that uses hatred towards some groups, minority groups, for example LGBT collectives, or the feminist groups. And this is new. And they use it because they realise that it’s quite popular. You know? This kind of discourse is quite popular. People easily believe these kind of ideas that you can read: things about “homosexualisation of the world” for example. It’s kind-of crazy ideas they are spreading, and it’s quite dangerous. You can see it happening in the United States in 2016, and you can see it in Brazil in the case of Latin America. And this phenomenon is spreading around the world.

SC: So it’s akin to . . . even to conspiracy theories?

JER: Yes. In the case of Latin America it’s even worse, I would say. Because it’s also related to the problems that are related with poverty, inequality and other problems that make that easier for these people to be attracted to this kind of discourse.

SC: Right. Well, Professor Espinoza, it was very nice to have you here at the Religious Studies Project and we hope to have you again, soon.

JER: Thank you.

SC: Thank you.

 

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Discourse #8 (June 2019)

This month on Discourse, Breann Fallon, Carole Cusack and Ray Radford approach the Australian news from a Religious Studies perspective. We cover the appeal of Cardinal George Pell, the drama around Israel Folau, and the impact of Christianity on the recent Australian federal election results.

Discourse, Australia Edition

This week’s episode is a bit special. We’re sharing the newest episode of Discourse, a spin-off show our Patreon supporters have been enjoying this year. Discourse has a globally rotating cast of RSP editors, friends and guests, who take a critical look at the discourse on ‘religion’ in the news and media! If you enjoy the episode, you can enjoy monthly episodes by subscribing just a dollar a month at patreon.com/projectrs.

This month on Discourse, Breann Fallon, Carole Cusack and Ray Radford approach the Australian news from a Religious Studies perspective. We cover the appeal of Cardinal George Pell, the drama around Israel Folau, and the impact of Christianity on the recent Australian federal election results.

Spatial Contestations and Conversions

Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, particularly in a European context, might be quite familiar with the sight of a former church building that has now turned derelict, or is being used for a purposes that perhaps it wasn’t intended for, or is being rejuvenated by another ‘religious’ community, another Christian community, or put to some other use. Chris is joined today by Daan Beekers to discuss spatial contestations and conversions, particularly looking at (former) church buildings in the Dutch context. We discuss some of the research projects he has been involved in, before looking at two particular case studies – the Fatih Mosque, and the Chassé Dance Studios – where Church ‘conversions’ have taken place. We discuss the various discursive entanglements surrounding these buildings, and the contested notions of heritage that come from different constituencies who are invested in their presence. Finally, we ask if there is anything necessarily ‘religious’ going on here… (Unsurprisingly, the answer is, ‘it’s complicated… but there’s nothing sui generis).

Listeners may be interested to check out Daan’s recent blog post, Converted Churches: Matters of Entanglement, Heritage and Home.

They are also encouraged to listen to our previous podcasts with Kim Knott on “Religion, Space and Locality” and Peter Collins on “Religion and the Built Environment.”

 

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, peanuts, gag gifts, and more.


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


Spatial Contestations and Conversions

Podcast with Daan Beekers (10 June 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Beekers – Spatial Contestations and Conversions 1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, particularly in a European context, might be quite familiar with the sight of a former church building that has now turned derelict, or is being used for purpose that perhaps it wasn’t intended for, or is being rejuvenated by another religious community – another Christian community – and so on. That’s certainly the case here in Edinburgh, where I did my doctoral work. And I’m joined today by Daan Beekers to discuss spatial contestations and conversions, particularly looking at former or different church buildings in the Dutch context. So first-off, Daan – welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Daan Beekers (DB): Thank you. Thanks for having me.

CC: No problem, Daan. Daan is currently a post-doctoral research fellow here at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. And before coming here he was a post doc researcher at the Department of Religious Studies in Utrecht, where he was researching the abandonment and repurposing of church buildings, first with the HERA project, Iconic Religion, and then with Birgit Meyer’s research programme Religious Matters in an Entangled World. And we’ll hear about both of these, presently. His doctoral dissertation was defended in 2015 at VU Amsterdam. It involved doing a comparative ethnographic study of religious commitment among young Dutch Muslims and Christians. And he’s currently completing a book manuscript based on this work. And his publications include the volume, Straying from the Straight Path: How senses of failure invigorate lived religion, published with Berghahn. And he co-edited that with David Kloos. So, Daan, first-off, let’s, maybe . . . . Before we hear about the Dutch context in general, it might help if you could maybe situate your work, and the trajectory of it, within those two big research projects. I know I certainly know a lot about Iconic Religion, through its UK team – which involved Kim Knott who was my doctoral supervisor. Tell us a little bit about those projects.

DB: Sure, yes. So the Iconic Religion project started in 2014. And I joined that just after completing my PhD thesis – I was actually still completing it when I joined that project. And that was a project on the visible presence of religion in urban space, specifically in Amsterdam, Berlin and London. The project was a co-operation between researchers of Lancaster University, which is where Kim Knott is still based, and then Utrecht University with Birgit Meyer and Bochum University with Volkhard Krech. And so yes it really focused on how people in their everyday lives encounter religion in a very tangible, visible way. And I was coming from doing my PhD thesis on religious youth – so, young Muslims and Christians in a Dutch secular society – which, actually, very much focused on religious commitment and, in a sense, religious vitality. And I always kind-of knew that there was another side to the story of religion in the Netherlands, which is of course rapid secularisation, and the drop in numbers of Church attendance. And then I was starting to notice all these buildings in the Netherlands which are being closed down and converted for other purposes. So I kind-of got more and more interested in this other side of the story. So, what happens to Christian culture, Christian material culture, when church buildings are no longer being attended by people? And so, when I applied to this project called Iconic Religion, I argued in my research proposal, “Well, this project is on the visible presence of religion in the city, and I would actually argue that the transformation of Church buildings is actually one of the most important changes in how religion is present or absent in the city.” So that got me on to the project. And I started that in Amsterdam.

CC: And then we’ll hear now, I suppose, about the specific work that you did. But, again, we’ve hinted at it there. (5:00) But for the sake of our Listeners who may not know anything about the Dutch context, maybe just a two-minute “Religion in the Netherlands”. . ? Particularly, perhaps, Amsterdam, where . . . .

DB: Yes. So, the Netherlands has sometimes been characterised as one of the most religious nations of Europe, or one of the most Christianised nations of Europe. So religion was very important in Dutch history, and for the political emancipation of, or independence of, the Netherlands, vis-à-vis its former ruler, Spain, which was Catholic. So the Dutch, in their own perception, liberated themselves from Spain and became a Protestant nation. So Protestant identity was very important in the Netherlands for quite some time. Catholicism, and also what were seen as dissenting Protestant groups, were given very little space to observe their religion. And then, you’ve got the process of what is known in the Netherlands as pillarisation – so the coming about of different pillars. After the French revolution, when Catholics were again given the room to practise their religion and to manifest themselves in public space, you got this very strong mobilisation of religious sub-cultures, or pillars, that were really important in people’s everyday lives. They really organised much of social life in terms of schools housing, work and so on. So, in that time, religion was very important in the Netherlands. And this was actually up until, like, the 1950s. And then, as elsewhere, a rapid process of secularisation was setting in, or “un-churching”, as we say in Dutch. I think this isn’t a very common word in English. But I like the term un-churching, because it’s more specific than secularisation. There are, of course, a lot of debates about whether . . . what secularisation is, and to what extent it has taken place. So the Netherlands changed from being one of the most Christianised nations of Europe, to becoming one of the most de-Christianised ones. With, as I said, a very quick process of secularisation to the extent that, today, only about twenty-five percent of the population state that they are church members (although overall religious affiliation is higher). Only about half of them would actually attend religious spaces on a regular basis. So it has become, in that sense, a very secular country today.

CC: And am I right in saying . . . is this an Amsterdam stat or a Dutch stat, that two churches are closing per week?

DB: Yes, so this is a Dutch . . . a national . . . it’s been estimated. . . . So, hundreds of churches have closed down in the last few decades. And the state’s agency of cultural heritage estimated that the rate of church closures will continue at around two churches a week. But I’ve also been told by others, by another agency organisation in the Netherlands, that this should actually be four churches a week. It would be a more realistic estimate. So it’s really an astonishing speed by which these buildings are being closed down.

CC: Absolutely. So before we get into some of your specific case studies, I think when we first met to discuss this interview, one of the first things I wrote down is, like, “We’ll have no ‘essence’ questions” (Laughs) Which is my critical RS, wanting to emphasise that even by having this conversation we’re not saying that a building in itself is religious, or that it is sacred or holy. What we’re doing is we’re looking at the ways in which buildings are interacted with, and discursively constructed, and the way they occupy space in the heritage discourse, and the individual, and community memories, and so on. So we want to make sure that we get that in there. But it’s not inherently holy, in that sense. But then also, in one of the arguments that you sent that I read through, you spoke about the difference between “theories in heritage” and “theories of heritage”. And that might be a useful thing to mention, just before we go into the case study. (10:00)

DB: Yes these are terms, I think, coined in an article by Waterton and Watson – “Framing Theory“, I think the article is called – and so they distinguish between different kinds of theories about heritage. And one distinction that they make that I find helpful is that between theories in heritage, and theories of heritage. What you see when you look at literature on Christian material culture, a lot of that work . . . not all of it, obviously, but quite a bit of that work kind-of asks, “How can we preserve this heritage for future generations? So, “What are the best practices in preserving this?” “What threatens it?” And so on. So all these are questions which I think are very important, but they are questions that are located within the heritage discourse. So it’s already taken for granted that these are important cases of heritage. And a theory of heritage, as Waterton and Watson put it, would actually ask, “What makes these things heritage?” “Why are they defined as heritage, and by whom?” So there is the whole question of representation, and discourse, and power relations, and so on. For what purposes are they heritage-ised? A terrible word! A tongue twister. And also, what kind of new fault-lines emerge in this process? So who’s being left out? So that’s quite interesting work being done now in Christian heritage, which also talks about the way populist politicians, for example, are now very apt at mobilising Judaeo-Christian heritage in their political discourses. But, in important ways, it’s also a discursive tool to exclude Muslims and migrants, and so on. So it’s also a way of defining who’s “out”. So that would be more kind-of a theory of heritage approach.

CC: Yes. So analysing all these discourses that are invoking heritage – who’s included and excluded; why certain things are thought to be worthy of preservation . . . .And indeed, for example, in my own work in Edinburgh, yes – there’s plenty of the idea that all these churches are part of the urban heritage that should be preserved, etc. But first of all, what should they be preserved for? And we’ll get onto that in your examples. There are certain uses that are seen as more or less appropriate. But also there’s a certain image of what a church is. And here in the Southside of Edinburgh we’ve got the Salvation Army, over on St Leonards, and we’ve got the True Jesus Church, down in Gifford Park, which have both been there for decades and decades. But they don’t look like churches, in the popular imagination. So they don’t feature in anyone’s idea of something that should be preserved. Because there’s a very specific thing that looks like a church, that should be preserved.

DB: Exactly, yeah.

CC: OK. That’s contextualised it a bit here, I think. I think we’re probably going to use two examples, particularly. There’s the Fatih Mosque – and I don’t know if I’m going to pronounce it right – it’s the Chassé . . .

DB: Chassé Church, that’s it.

CC: And, possibly, starting with the Fatih Mosque: I guess, the example of the various discursive entanglements that are going on. Tell us about it, and why it’s interesting?

DB: Yes, sure. I was just thinking of the Fatih Mosque, actually, when you were making that point about church buildings being recognisable, or not, as churches. Because the Fatih Mosque is one of the biggest, larges mosques in Amsterdam, that has been around for a few decades already. It opened in 1982. But it’s located in a former Catholic church on the Rozengracht, in the centre of Amsterdam – actually very near to the Anne Frank House, which many people would know, and the Western Church.

CC: I presume I’ve seen it, actually, when I was in Amsterdam. But I didn’t notice it.

DB: Exactly! And that’s the . . . and people, actually, even don’t notice the church even though it’s quite a big, monumental church. But I think many people are very much focussed on the Western Church which is like the main Protestant church right next to the Anne Frank house. And it kind-of . . . the Rozengracht, the street, is a street that people quickly pass through. So somehow, when I talk to my friends and family in Amsterdam they often don’t even know this church (15:00). Sometimes they do. But they . . . almost none of them would know that there is a mosque in that church at the moment. And that’s, actually, also an issue that the mosque community is facing at the moment. So I’ve written an article – together with my Utrecht-based colleague Pooyan Tamimi Arab – for a special issue on iconic religion in the journal Material Religion. And there we also showed how the mosque community, especially its younger members, are struggling with this image of being a kind-of a “hidden mosque”. And it’s actually this very term, hidden mosque, that is often used by people – by visitors to the mosque, for example, and also by non-Muslim visitors who are local politicians, and so on. And that’s actually one of the points we make in that article: that it’s interesting that this term is used, the notion of a hidden house of worship. Because it’s actually a historical discursive genre in Dutch religious history, which was used in that time that I referred to earlier, when Catholics were not allowed to publicly worship. So they had to resort to clandestine churches, often in attics, and these were called hidden churches.

CC: But why is it so hidden, then? You’re right about . . . . It’s something to do with the entrance, in particular, and there’s no signage. So, you know, why is it so hidden? How does that make . . . I guess you’ve mentioned the young people sort-of constructing it in that way. How do the users of the mosque feel and how are they . . . Are they trying to combat that image now?

DB: Yes, so it’s quite interesting. So this has to do with the material legacy of the church building. So the very fact that there are located in a church means that they are not very recognisable as a mosque. There’s a mosque nearby that’s also in a church building that also few people would realise or recognise as such. Another important point is that it has to do with a kind-of mismatch between Muslim sacred space and the way in which this particular building was organised. So when this Muslim community constructed their mosque within this building it turned out quite quickly that the direction of prayer in Islam, the qibla, was precisely the opposite direction to the direction which the Catholics had prayed. So normally you would come into the church through the entrance and you would face the altar and pray in the direction of the altar. And in this case this was facing the west. So what the Muslim community did, or had to do, was to construct . . . to close down the entrance, basically, to construct a wall there, which would become their prayer wall, as it were, the site of the prayer niche. And they constructed a very small entrance on the side. And what was the former entrance of the church became a space for shops. So, at the moment, there’s actually a bike shop there. So, when you pass this building, the first thing you see is a bike shop. And it is quite difficult to actually realise that there is a mosque here. So what this community is doing is they’re currently in the process of building a new entrance, in order to become more visible as a Mosque. Another interesting thing in this respect, perhaps, is that also in a way it’s also a story about history repeating itself. Because on this very site, there once was – before the Catholics built their church there – there was a headquarters of an important socialist movement in the Netherlands. And so that site was first converted into a chapel by Jesuits, Catholic Jesuits. But they were facing similar problems that the Muslims are facing now. They kind-of felt, in that time – the early twentieth century – as one catholic author said, “This place remains a theatre of socialists.” We have our altar but we know this was once the stage from which the socialist leaders would give their . . . not sermons, but lectures (20:00). And their political rallies. And you know one of the only things that would mark out the place as Catholic was that they placed a big cross on the top. And similarly for the mosque now, one of the only things that marks it out as a mosque is that they placed a crescent on top of the church. So these small things that mark out the space. But it’s also a struggle, with people, that conversion is never really complete, right? So people always struggle, very often struggle, in a converted space with what I’ve elsewhere called sacred residue, or some kind of leftover of its previous use. Which might enable, might make certain things possible, but it also constrains particular usage or representations of the space.

CC: And some of that might be material presence, material evidence, in a sense, or some of it might be discursive and remembered. If I were to go in there, I may not know anything about its socialist history, but I would probably be able to detect the mosque and the Catholic church, but again that shows the importance of historical context and the lived memory of the space as well. So sticking with former Catholic churches, then, the Chassé Church gives some really good illustrations of how this notion of heritage is mobilised or contested by a variety of different constituencies. Perhaps again, you could just introduce that specific case study, but then also all the different groups who have a stake in it?

DB: Yes. Sure. OK. So this Chassé Church was also a Catholic church, from around the same time as the one I’ve just talked about. So they were both built in the 1920s. And they both, actually, had a relatively short life. So the Chassé Church closed down in 1997, because of dwindling attendance. And then it was actually desolate for many years. It was dilapidated, the building wasn’t doing very well. And there was a lot of conflict around what should happen to it – the building. And what’s very fascinating, in this case, is that when it closed down in the late 90s, both the municipality and the Catholic church – the diocese and the local parish – actually decided to demolish the building. They said “It’s going to be very difficult to re-use the space in a productive or efficient way. It also doesn’t really have any kind-of special heritage qualities. And also . . .” not unimportantly, “it will get us more money if we demolish it and sell the land.” And the Catholic church very much needed this money because they had to renovate another church in that neighbourhood that was going to be their main Catholic church, parish church. But then local residents, who were themselves not church-going, started to mobilise themselves and to very much advocate for the preservation of this church building. So you have this really interesting debate basically between the local Catholic organisation that says “We can get rid of this building. We don’t need it anymore and it’s not going to be helpful to leave it there.” And local people, who are not part of that community, who actually stand up for it to “save” – quote-unquote – that space.

CC: People who probably didn’t particularly care about it when it wasn’t being threatened. It was just a part of their familiar urban environment.

DB: Exactly, yeah.

CC: And, I guess, when this moment happened where it was potentially going to be threatened, then . . . .

DB: Yeah. That’s a very interesting point. It’s interesting to see how people suddenly become aware of these kind-of iconic sites when they’re threatened to . . . disappear, really. So in this case you see different, quite different positions. So I’m trying to make sense of this paradox, if you will, between local people who you might describe as non-religious and want to safeguard this building, and Catholics who want to demolish it. Trying to make sense of that, I’ve conducted fieldwork there and talked to many different groups involved (25:00). And what I’ve found is that people ascribe quite different values to a site like a church building. So, for many people, they would say, “OK this is more than a building.” So this is kind-of mantra that you hear very often, in these discussions. But what they mean by this mantra, “This is more than a building” is very different for different parties involved. So, for kind-of the parish leadership and the officials of the diocese, the religious leaders there, they would say, “The church is the house of God.” You know? So it is a very important religious meaning. It’s a sacred place. It’s consecrated. And sure, you know, when it’s closed down it gets deconsecrated. But in the memories of people it always remains associated with something sacred. So it’s very difficult to remove this aura of sacredness from a Catholic church. So that’s a strong . . . so they kind-of see the church as a house of God, really. And then if you talk with the local parishioners, so the members of the community, they would often share this view. They would say, “Yes. It’s an important religious space, sacred, a place of God.” But what struck me is that for them it’s also, very importantly, about community, you know. So a place of a local community coming together. A very familiar place that’s imbued with local histories, but also personal memories, and so on. So it’s a really communal place in that sense. People have all kinds of very intimate, personal memories of church buildings. And they went through very important personal life events there, baptisms, weddings and so on. And I talked to these local parishioners. It may be also good to say that the ones . . . . I mean, this is quite a long time ago. But I manged to find a few of them who were still around. And they said, “You know, at the time we were quite OK with the idea of demolishing the church because for us . . .” Like, one of them said, “When I go back to the church now, and it has been . . .”I don’t know if we mentioned this, but it has been converted to a dance studios. So it’s now a dance studio. And she said, “If I’m back there now it really feels uncanny. You know? It feels . . . it’s no longer a church. It’s no longer what it was in my memories.” And it is still connected to many of the memories, so it’s still a very important place for her, but it is no longer what it once was. So it’s kind-of a disorienting experience for her. And then you have. . . . But then the local residents who were very unhappy about the idea of demolishing the church, for them it’s very much a place of local belonging: a place that makes them feel at home in their neighbourhoods – especially after it was converted. You see that many of these local residents are very happy about the way in which the converted church building, as a dance studio, brings back life to the neighbourhood, a sense of community and belonging, and so on. So what I found very interesting here is that whereas for many parishioners the closing down of the church represents a loss of their home, for these people it actually indicates a return of a home – or something that helps them to feel at home in their neighbourhood.

CC: Exactly. I found, again, non-church attending individuals in the Southside here, talking about, for instance, the Southside Community Centre, which was the former Nicholson Street Church. And it was a carpet storage place for a while. And now it’s a community centre. So I heard time and again the idea of “I didn’t like it being a carpet showroom. Now it’s a useful place”, or someone else said, “I really like that it’s sort-of being used for what it was built for – for the community.” And again, these are people who weren’t participating in it when it was a religious place or – quote-unquote – “religious”. But now that’s being used, it’s fulfilling some sort of model of the ideal: “This is what religion, or Christianity, is meant to be.”

DB: Right. Yeah. And it’s interesting that you say that. Because it’s the very same point that the owner of the dance studios makes time and time again: that by giving it its new purpose, he’s actually bringing back the building to its original purpose, which is bringing people together (30:00). But of course it was bringing people together before God, for a very particular purpose of worship, right? You know, and that part is, in that sense, left out. Even though that guy, the owner, I should say, is quite spiritually inclined and interested in religion. But then you have – and it’s maybe an important point to make – other local residents who – and in a sense that’s like a fourth group giving a particular meaning to the building – who very much emphasise the way in which the church building is a very important part of Dutch religious history, and symbolises Dutch history. And, actually, the spokesperson of the local committee advocating the preservation of the church very often made this point. And said, you know, “If you demolish these buildings, you actually demolish your history.” And so, what I found interesting in that case is that these people actually said – the spokesperson and like-minded people – they didn’t really care that much about what happened to the building, right? They said, “As long as it’s not getting too much of a nuisance” in terms of, like, parking space problems and that debate. But they didn’t really care whether it would be repurposed for religious use, or secular use, or whatever else, as long as the building is preserved. “Because that building is important for who we are, for our identity.” So there you get more of Christianity as cultural heritage discourse, which is often kind-of propagated by people – like the ones in this case – who quite explicitly distance themselves from Christian beliefs, and doctrines, and so on. They’re often quite self-consciously secularised people who are none-the-less very passionate about the importance of Christianity as culture, or as history, as art, as identity, and so on.

CC: Yes. So there we have those four constituencies: the institutional church; the parishioners, or former parishioners; the local residents, non-participating residents; and this whole sort-of heritage, industry, story and that kind of thing. And you can see how these different discourses they could maybe even use the same language but they could be mobilised for quite different purposes – positive or negative, depending how you wanted to inflect it. We’re already pretty much out of time here, and I know that we could talk on a lot more. But we’ll certainly direct Listeners to . . . You have an excellent blog post which summarises a lot of this. And your Material Religion article. And hopefully some more will be coming out. But I just wanted to finish with a final couple of questions that we’ve been talking around this. We’ve been talking about former churches . . . and we should also say that sometimes there’ll be a church that’s then used by another Christian group. That hasn’t really come up . . . .

DB: Very often, yes.

CC: But is there anything. . . Would we find these same sort of processes happening if we were looking at buildings that weren’t churches . . . that were just sort-of other prominent local buildings? Or does that question even make any sense? Is there something to do with these being churches that has meant that they are given their sort-of iconic status? Is there anything inherently religious here? I know the answers before I get there . . . (Laughs).

DB: In part. Partly yes, partly no. So I think you see similar things happening with non-religious sites: old post offices, water towers and these kinds of sites which are often very important local landmarks, and often inspire the same kinds of local concerns about maintenance and preservation. These places belong to who we are, and to our identity as a neighbourhood. But at the same time I do think there is something . . . . It’s always kind-of a bit risky when you talk about this, because you get to this “There’s something extra to these buildings.” But in the way that people talk about it – so if you look at people’s narratives, and the ways in which they relate to these buildings – people often have this kind-of idea of sacredness associated with these church buildings (35:00). Or, as one local resident said to me in relation to the Chassé Church a few years ago . . . . The clock was restored to the tower. It had been silent for a few years. And it had been restored now. And he said to me, “Now I feel that the soul of the neighbourhood is back.” So there seems to be this sense a kind-of spiritual or religious side to these buildings that is important for the way in which people relate to them. But also, I think, especially when you look at today’s debates about heritage, this religious aspect is also really important. And this really marks these places out, or sets them apart from, for example, old post offices. The fact that such buildings really lend themselves to this kind-of idea that these sites are a part of our religious heritage, they are very important to our identity and to who we are as Dutch people, as European people, as British or Scottish people. And I think that’s an interesting shift, also, that’s happening now in our kind-of post-secular age, if you want. This move from people complaining a lot about churches, and taking a lot of distance from religion, to re-appraising religion – but in very particular ways. In ways that emphasise history, art, culture and heritage.

CC: Yes, so there’s a sort of lingering insider discourse, I suppose, of their sacrality, and the import of the buildings. But then also in these urban spaces, in Western Europe, it is going to be churches that were given prominent spaces. They were intentionally built to be eye-catching, and dominating the skyline, and the centres of communities. So is it any wonder, when we do look for sites where there are lots of discursive contestations happening . . . ? It probably is going to end up being these places, regardless of any sui generis argument about them having some inherent qualities. Historically, they’ve been prominent, due to these specificities. So what’s next? For you? You’re writing up your book?

DB: I’m actually . . . at the moment I’m very much working on my older project, in a way, which is still also my current project on comparison of Muslims and Christians in the Netherlands. I’m trying to finish my book manuscript now. I’m also working on a special issue on this topic. And I’m hoping, in the future, perhaps here in Scotland, to kind-of converge these two projects together. That’s kind-of my hope and my aspiration. So, to really connect this study of what happens to Christian material culture to questions about religious pluralism and relationships between Muslims and Christians, religious co-existence, and so on. So in a way that’s also already what I was doing in the case of the Fatih Mosque in Amsterdam. But I’m expanding a bit on that. And, yeah, to kind-of see if we could, or if I could, use questions of heritage as a lens to look into religious diversity and co-existence.

CC: Well, Daan Beekers, we look forward to the fruits of that research as it emerges. And thank you for your time.

DB: Thank you very much. Thanks so much.

 


Citation Info: Beekers, Daan and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “Spatial Contestations and Conversions”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 10 June 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 June 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/spatial-contestations-and-conversions/

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The ‘secular’, the ‘religious’, and the ‘refugee’ in Germany

Ever since the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015, the ‘refugee’ in Germany has been constructed in a variety of ways that are implicated in specific co-constitutive notions of the ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ that exert symbolic power by naturalizing certain notions of the religious and thereby the secular while excluding others and feeding back into the subject formation (or subjectivation) of people classified as ‘refugees’. In this process certain positions are produced as hegemonic while others are classified as not acceptable (e.g., “radical”, “not European” or “anti-humanist”). This in turn feeds into the on-going institutionalization of Islam in Germany. In this podcast, Chris speaks with Carmen Becker on this important topic, drawing upon her critically engaged ongoing fieldwork among Syrian forced migrants in the city of Hannover and an analysis of political measures, research designs and media productions that are part of the apparatus producing the ‘refugee’.

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions’ 2018 conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland. It also make specific reference to the documentary series “Marhaba – Ankommen in Deutschland” – particularly the episode “Liebe und Sex”.

 

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


The ‘secular’, the ‘religious’ and the ‘refugee’ in Germany

Podcast with Carmen Becker (22 October 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Becker_-__The_Secular,_The_Religious,_and_The_Refugee_in_Germany_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): We are recording this interview on what I believe is the International Day of the Refugee. And I’m joined in Bern, at the European Association for the Study of Religions Conference, by Carmen Becker. And we are going to be talking about the role of religion and secularity in the construction of the category of the refugee, and the sort-of mutual co-constructing natures of those discourses, with particular reference to Germany. Carmen is based at the Leibnitz University at Hannover. And she’s done a lot of work on various historical constructions of Salafism. And we’re going to be talking about her current project today. So first off – welcome to the Religious Studies Project, Carmen!

Carmen Becker (CB): Thank you.

CC: So I’ve just seen your presentation on the panel, there. This is 7o’clock in the evening which is quite late a conference, particularly when we had . . .

CB: The Network dance the day before! (Laughs).

CC: Exactly! They did not plan this well! But I’ve just seen your paper and it was excellent. And I’m hoping what we can do is have a sort of conversational version of that paper. So, first of all, if you can set the scene? Because people might be listening to this five years from now, ten years from now – who knows? So, what’s happening? There’s that phrase the “refugee crisis”, the “migrant crisis” and things like that. Can you maybe just set the scene? In fact you started your paper with a couple of anecdotes . . .

CB: That’s true, yes. We’re all aware of the term “refugee crisis”. Since the summer of 2015, roughly, was when the high amounts of asylum seekers came to Germany and Austria – Europe in general. We still remember the scenes from television and so on of huge masses of people at the border between Hungary and Germany, trying to get into Germany. So there is a sort of imaginary behind it all. In 2015, I was still living in the Netherlands and, there, not so many people from Syria and Afghanistan and Iraq came to the Netherlands. Most of them went to Germany and to Sweden, actually. And when I travelled from the Netherlands to Hannover – this anecdote of the train stain station, famously – I was welcomed at Hannover train station by a Syrian man with a red rose, and a board saying “Thank you”. And I really couldn’t make sense of it. So I started talking to him and he explained that he wanted to thank the German people, as he put it, for welcoming the refugees in and for letting them cross the border from Hungary to Germany. And they really appreciated it and that was why they gave the rose. And I thought that was really intriguing, in a way. And then later, after I had moved to Hanover, a few weeks later, I saw that there was a Wikipedia entry dedicated to the European Refugee crisis. The title of the entry was European Refugee Crisis. And Wikipedia for me is sort of an instance that, when something gets an entry there it’s established fact. It’s a truth, right? This is a reference point. It’s also interesting, then, to see how the truth is established on the editorial pages. But that’s another thing. And this entry: European refugee crisis, which later turned into a European Migrant Crisis – you could also look why they used refugee in the beginning and migrant later on, but that’s another story again – has been translated into 60 different languages, which is a lot I think. There are also substantial entries, not just a few words on it. But there are full texts on there. So something that actually . . . This is an image, the refugee crisis, that has travelled widely then, in several languages – also Arabic, Persian, Turkish and so on.

CC: And so you use the term, “discursive event”.

CB: Yes. Because, I mean, how does something become recognised as an event, right? It has to be termed; images have to be established; it has to be understood as something disruptive, something out of the ordinary, something that is breaking into normality. And if we would have looked at the development before the so-called refugee crisis, it wouldn’t have been so surprising. The camps in the region in Lebanon and Jordan they were just running out of money – camps provided by the United Nations Food Programme. They were issuing calls for donations. They were saying “If we don’t get donations, we have to cut the amount we can give to those in our camps half. And the full amount is what they need to survive.” So if you cut this in half, this is a crisis, in the sense that it’s existential. (5:00) And this was known already by the end of 2014, beginning of 2015. And what do people do if they cannot survive? They move on. They run out of money, they don’t get anything, so they look elsewhere. So that was expectable. But it still came as a surprise, as a wave, right? So it’s interesting see how people perceive things and what they do not perceive – also in the media. In between the World Food Programme from the United Nations was calling for donations. But there was no connection, no further thinking about it. Also from the politicians – at least, done in public.

CC: So we’re going to get to the religion thing, of course, because we’re on the Religious Studies Project. But you’re going to try really hard here, because you’re not going to have your diagrams!

CB: Dammit! (Laughs).

CC: But you’ve got some theories for us to set the scene. So Foucault . . .

CB: Yes. So I like Foucault a lot when you think about how truth is established, in general. And I think in Religious Studies it’s not surprising when someone uses discourse theory, to theorise something. What is not so common is to use the “dispositive” as a concept. It’s something you find in Foucault’s later work, right. And it’s something he has never really fleshed out – like many things he hasn’t fleshed out! (Laughs). And this is something that is now really discussed amongst journals of sociologists. I mean the dispositive as a concept: how do you do research with it? So, just in parallel, just like the discourse term was taken from Foucault and then fleshed out into different varying programmes of research, and research styles, and so forth the same is happening now and has been happening for roughly ten years in Germany, with reference to the dispositive. Yes. What is the dispositive?

CC: (Laughs).

CB: I always use the French language to make it clear. I was talking about three connotations of the dispositive – or three semantic fields that the dispositive brings us to. For example: first of all there’s the dispositive as a sort of mechanism or sort of apparatus – that also reminds us of Gramsci, for example – that means that different elements in the system are put together and they function together. They link together so that they function as a machine, as an apparatus, as a mechanism – an alarm system I use as an example. You put different technical devices, manual knowledge about how to switch it on and off. So all different elements are put together then they are linked to each other so that the whole system can function. This is the baseline of what a dispositive is. And in, for example, in the French language they use the term “dispositif d’alarme” for alarm system. So you have the word dispositive.

CC: Is it the system itself, or is it the connections that make the system?

CB: It is the connections that make the system. And this is typical for Foucault, right? Also in discourse, it’s not that much the content of the discourse but the rules that establish the discourse. And that’s the same idea here. So how come these elements are ordered together to form the dispositive? What links them logically or illogically? So that’s very important to look at the net that is established, between these elements. But of course we have to somehow identify these elements first, in order to see how they are connected and what functions they have in the dispositive. And then the second understanding: the dispositive is thought of as a strategic intervention. So it’s a production that strategically intervenes into society, and responds to an emergency case. And this, I think, fits really nicely when you think of the refugee crisis, right? It’s a crisis – we have to intervene. And also Germans were mobilised to volunteer, to donate. The State was busy building shelters, coming up with new administrative regulations, even now it’s still going on. So there is a sort of pressing need to act, right? We have to do something. And again, this sort of strategic intervention is something that we can also see again in French language when I talk about the “dispositifs de lutter contre le chomage”. So, all the means and the measures taken in order to fight unemployment for example. This was the dispositive event in the French language. And then on the third level – and this is similar to a discourse – that the dispositive establishes the current truth, the valid truth at the moment in time, right. Of course this can change, but at the point we are living it defines the truth just like discourse do. (10:00) What can we say about a refugee? What is a refugee? Who is a refugee? How do you talk about refugees? How are they? What do we project into them? This is established also in the dispositive. Which is quite similar to discourse research – right? – to flesh out how the objects . . . how discourses objectivate.

CC: Excellent. And so, I know we’re going to get to a wonderful example and I’m going to try and bring in some multi-media in.

CB: Oh yes! (Laughs).

CC: So there’s a reason that you’ve chosen that as your example. So how are we utilising this notion of the dispositive in your research?

CB: That’s a big question, when you’re doing research. I’m also an ethnographer so I like to look at the micro-level, the local level. But as a trained political scientist I’m also looking at power, right? So I want to connect these levels. And then the question is, how does power work on a micro-level actually? And I mean, you could look at discourse. I would say what most of us do in discursive studies in religion, we look at the meso and macro-level of how religion is established as an object and so forth. But we don’t look so much down on a local level, how it trickles down, how it shapes behaviour and practices, how people incorporate it in their lives. And this is where it becomes effective, actually. So what I look at is not so much at the . . . what Foucault usually did. He looked at how science or expert talk established knowledge.

CC: Law and that kind of thing.

CB: But I look at the intermediate level. I use the term from Jurgen Lingen, a scholar of literature. I use the term inter-discourse. These are discourses that try to break down expert discourses into everyday life. For example, talk shows. They get an expert to talk about things that somehow keep society busy, they are pressing social questions, and they try to solve them to propose solutions and to make it intelligible for people in everyday life. And this is the example I uses in the presentation today. There’s one show that was produced by a German TV news outlet. And by the end of 2015 had started and the production went on until the beginning of 2016. The programme is called Marhaba Ankommen in Deutschland which means basically, “Hello, welcome to Germany”. And it’s a programme with roughly 18 episodes. And each episode has about 5 minutes. And the aim of the show is to explain Germany to the refugees, basically.

CC: Let’s hear a little bit from that show:

[Music followed by Arabic language]

CC: So what’s going on here?

CB: Well, he’s basically saying, in Arabic, that personal freedom is very important in Germany. They have personal choices and among this is that you can choose whatever sexual orientation you would like and that everybody has to respect it. It portrays this as how things are done in Germany, basically.

CC: Fantastic. So . . . and this is fairly typical of the programme?

CB: This is very typical, yes. One part always establishes what he thinks is typical of Germany and what he thinks refugees – so-called refugees – need to know, because they don’t know them yet. He insinuates, “I tell you now, because you probably don’t know, but you need to know that when you come here.” So that means: those coming from Syria, from Afghanistan, they don’t know anything about choice, freedom and so forth, because their societies are oppressed. This is the insinuation. And then there are some episodes, some sections in the episodes where he talks with the expert. Why they are experts we don’t know. But he talks with them on a deeper . . . . Sometimes they are psychologists. There was also a lawyer in one episode. And some episodes we don’t get to know what their occupation is. We just get to know the name. So it’s interesting. He doesn’t feel a need to explain why he’s talking to this specific person over this specific topic. (15:00)

CC: Excellent. So what we have here is sort of a national discourse, in some way, on the refugee being channelled through this individual, this television programme. And directly speaking to people who are coming in.

CB: Yes. He’s addressing them directly – also, linguistically. He’s saying [in Arabic,] “You”: “You will have to this, and this, and then everything will work fine.” Right? And the load, or the burden is put on the refugees because they now know how they have to behave. “So please behave like this and then we don’t have any problem!” It’s a crash course in, I don’t know, in integration.

CC: Yes. I mean, God forbid that the host society would have to change as well!

CB: Well, the interesting thing is that it tells us a lot about how we imagine ourselves as Germans, right? When he talks about “the Germans” there is no ambiguity. There’s no contradiction. It’s all clear, basically. It’s easy to decipher, right? “We support sexual freedom, do this and this.” But this is really not the case. This is a discourse we are having about ourselves. We imagine ourselves.

CC: I’m just going to interrupt your flow a little bit to . . . Do we know, are refugees actually watching these? Have you found that out in your fieldwork? Have people encountered them? And how are they encountering them?

CB: Well, if you look at YouTube you’ll see that refugees comment in Arabic on the show. I haven’t analysed those yet, but I have found them. And it’s interesting material, I think, looking at the comments. And also during my fieldwork. I did fieldwork in a church where a group of six refugees had asked for asylum. It’s called “church asylum” in Germany – sanctuary. They were under threat of deportation to Bulgaria. So they had passed . . . while fleeing Syria they had passed through Bulgaria and got registered there with their fingerprints. And, arriving in Germany, they were not eligible for applying for asylum here because they had been registered in the EU, in Bulgaria, elsewhere. So they would have been sent back. So, their last chance to stay in Germany was to go into a church asking for church asylum. Because then, the police officers don’t enforce the deportation. They don’t go into the premises of the church. It’s like a tolerated agreement between the church and the state, basically. It’s not a law. It’s not written in law somewhere. It’s an agreement. It’s also the Church then that takes over the asylum procedure. They provide lawyers to the refugees. They interact with the State authorities. So that’s the construct of it. So, in the neighbourhood where I lived in Hannover, I heard that there were six refugees in a Protestant church there who had asked for church asylum. They had been granted church asylum and I thought, “Oh that’s a good opportunity to go there!” Because I also studied Arabic in Syria, so I know Syrian Arabic. And I know Syria quite well from all my travels there. So I also felt it would be good to be there. So I became also sort-of an intermediary between the volunteers of the church in the neighbourhood – a volunteer group formed in order to support them – and the Syrians who were in the church at the time. They were not allowed to leave the premises. As soon as you step out of the premises and you are caught by a police officer, you are gone. The church cannot protect you anymore. The power of the church ends there.

CC: Yes, that’s really like going into a national embassy in that.

CB: Yes.

CC: So you, I’m sure, are going to have some examples that you weren’t able to give in your presentation from your ethnographic work. You also, then . . . you’ve been taking this discourse that’s being propounded particularly in . . .

CB: Oh yes, the programme, yes.

CC: And you set up, what was it called? “Chains of equivalence”?

CB: I encountered the programme, I got to know the programme while I was volunteering in church asylum – this was the story behind it. Because one of the men who were also volunteering in the church asylum, he was a retired German teacher and he taught German to the refugees, and he used the programme for his classes. And I know a few refugees who know it at least, and who have looked at it. And it was also given the Grimme-Preis which is like a prestigious German TV award, which just shows the standing of it. At least from the German side.

CC: Yes!

CB: Well, what I’ve done with the 18 episodes, I watched them several times, and I tried to see how they construct what you’ve been hinting at, chains of equivalence. (20:00) This is a term I got from Laclau. It means that you look, basically, how are different categories labels put on an equal footing, linked, with reference to a third category. So how was . . . You look for how A and B are equivalent, in reference to C.

CC: OK.

CB: And this is what I did with the episodes. And what became quite clear, right from the start, is that there are two main categories that are the reference categories for everything that’s constructed. There’s the German society and then there’s the society of the refugees. And since this is mainly about Germany, the German society plays the main role in the episode. And the refugee societies – they’re assumed to be Arabic, because they’re addressed to Arabic speakers. And they’re assumed to be Muslim. So this is what we get to know about this. There are some more markers where they explicitly characterise societies as sexually oppressed, violent. There are a few that the host, Constantin Schreiber, mentions a few times: violence against children and women in these societies and “this is not tolerated in Germany and is sanctioned by law”. Something the refugees need to know in case they want to engage in that! (Laughs).

CC: Yes.

CB: So this is what we get to know about refugees – the societies of the refuges. And then he uses all different terms and concepts in order to flesh out what German society is all about. And the main terms that really keep reoccurring on the German side is “secular”, and the “German constitution” – a kind of constitutional patriotism that’s going on there: a foundation of the German constitution that’s there and makes sure that we are secular, and democratic and so on. And then on the other side, the refugees’ society is contrasted to it. So we have the secularity here, we are secular here, they are Muslim- there is Islam. And this is explicitly done in statements and so on. So “secular/ Islam” is one contrast. And then you have the “constitution” and “Sharia” – although they’re really different concepts, totally different categories that cannot really compare, but he does it! So the viewer gets the impression that the Sharia is just a positive law put into law books, that you can look at and then you know what it is all about. But it’s not.

CC: Exactly.

CB: So then, in the rest, you can see how he fleshes out what secular is. And there it gets interesting, because most of us think it maybe comes up as something like, it’s a separation of state and religion or state institutions and religious institutions. He mentions this only once without going further into it. What he mentions all the time when he talks about secular democratic society is rights and freedom, individual rights and freedom. And there are two rights that he mentions in particular which is freedom of religion, and sexual rights. And this is I find very intriguing, that the secular is then boiled down to two freedom and rights discourses, but in particular a freedom of religion and sexual rights. This is how he constructs these equivalences, all geared toward “This is the German society”.

CC: Excellent. And so this is all very esoteric in the sense that we’re talking about what’s being said in programme. But how does this, how is it playing out on the ground as it were, in your experiences with your research participants?

CB: And this is really what interests me, right? How does the truth, which is established at the discursive level, then play out in everyday life? And interact? And how it’s shaped? Well I’m starting to sift through my data and I’ve seen a few things that come up on a regular basis. One thing is that the discourse of secular Germany is there to ensure that we have the freedom of choice, that we have a choice and that we can fulfil our desires, which I find really interesting . . . that there’s a task: that the aim of secularism is to do that. I see this in certain instances, for example. One example I used during my presentation was interaction between me and a woman from the volunteer group, I call her Anna (25:00). And she was thinking about engaging romantically with a Syrian – who was not part of the group in the church asylum, but she knew him from elsewhere. But she was taking me as an expert on Islam and wanted to know, and had questions about it. Because she said that this friend of hers said that if he ever wanted to have a girlfriend or to marry, this woman should be covered, wear a headscarf, just a normal headscarf. And at the beginning I didn’t understand the problem she had, because I thought, “OK, fine, so he’s saying this to you, you’re not in any relationship with him, so that should be fine.” But she really wanted him to step back from this – not to make this choice, right? She wanted to ensure that he would make a different, a better choice. And so she was asking me about anything from religious tradition that she could use to convince him that this is not “good” Islam that he is doing there. Anything she could use strategically, basically. Because she didn’t want to accept his choice. So, I mean, there is a discourse of choice. But some things are taken out of . . . There are somethings that you cannot choose, that are taken out of the range of options that you have, like covering. And this occurred really often. There were a lot of discussions about covering and headscarves and so on. For example, there were often discussions, people were discussing with one of the women . . . . There was one woman only in the group of the six Syrians who were asking for asylum in the church. She had never worn a headscarf in her life, neither in Syria nor in Germany. For her it was not a big deal, nothing special. But people kept asking her, “Why are you not wearing a headscarf here? For sure, it must be because you are in Germany right now, and you have the choice? Where as in Syria you didn’t have the choice.” And she just tried to make sure, against all the odds, “No I didn’t wear a headscarf in Syria either.” But people didn’t really want to believe this. And there was a man from the volunteer group – this was also one instance of engaging her in conversation on her headscarf and he was supportive of her choice, “Yes it’s a good choice you are making not wearing the headscarf, because how could you otherwise be phrased as participating in society and being yourself, if you were wearing a headscarf? How can you be a valid participant in society when you wear a headscarf and cover up? So, again, this is not a part of the secular choice, technically.

CC: Well, secularity allows “good” religion space . . .

CB: Yes. It’s never differentiated, but this is the idea behind it, right? So there is also the idea that the secular encompasses religion. And this is what people also phrase, right? “That we have here religion – it’s part of our makeup. It’s not a problem, because we still have the choice. Religion doesn’t have to interfere with it.”

CC: As long as it doesn’t interfere with liberal secular principals.

CB: As long as it doesn’t interfere with the sexual rights or the freedom to choose your faith or your lifestyle, or whatever. And what we see then, if you look at how it’s contrasted with Islam, it’s not that the secular and religious contrast, but that the secular and religion on one side is contrasted with Islam on the other side. So Islam is not yet in the realm of the secular and the religious. And this I find very intriguing. Maybe that’s particular to Germany. I’m not sure. I would have to look at other societies, how it’s spelt out there. But I find it very interesting that the religious is part of the make-up, obviously, of German secular society. It’s accepted. Islam, not yet. This is why Islam has to reform to change, which means giving way to all the choices. Making sure you can make the sexual choices you want to make, all the lifestyle choices and so on. But you must never take a choice that might be considered Islamic or Muslim. That’s the interesting thing, right? Being Muslim, in a stereotypical sense, is not part of the choice, right? Not there.

CC: Exactly, yes. Because when one makes a Protestant choice one doesn’t – we don’t talk about that.

CB: It’s also interesting, the episodes of the TV programme, when they symbolise religion visually, it’s not Protestantism. It’s totally neutered. It never talks about Protestantism, neither discursively nor when he’s talking, it isn’t mentioned visually. It’s not depicted visually. He talks about Catholicism, Judaism and Islam and that’s also what is portrayed visually. (30:00) Protestantism is not there. It’s the default position, right? It’s neutered.

CC: Harmless.

CB: Harmless, yes.

CC: OK. And I should just say we’ve had to have the windows open because it’s so warm in here, so I hope the Listeners are enjoying the slight birdsong that’s making its way in.

CB: (Laughs).

CC: Just to get towards wrapping up here. That’s been some excellent examples from your ethnographic work, and also tying it into the broader national discourse through the vehicle of this TV programme. But, I guess, if I were to force you to come up with some conclusions about the religious and the secular and the construction of refugees in Germany, where would you go?

CB: Yes. Well first of all, I have to mention I didn’t look for any notions of the secular and the religious at the beginning when I was doing research. It just came up to me, because people were using this terminology, right? From media polemical terms, basically, people identified . . . . So for me they’re not the critical categories I use. What I’ve seen – and this is an argument I’m putting up – is that in this dispositive of the refugee we have the notions of the secular and the religious that are constructed there, and are implemented into everyday life. But they’re normative of course, right? They’re not neutral. And they’re also inserted into interaction. And this is where it comes to shaping subjectivities, right? Because for example the Syrians at Church, they were constantly being confronted with a secular idea of being an individual – a secular conceptualisation of subjectivity. And they were more or less subtly asked to adapt to it, to internalise it. And I think this is very interesting when you look in terms of power effect. This is how power is inserted into life, into micro-politics, basically. Power is not something abstract that somehow defines discourses and is established in discourses, but it also trickles down into everyday life.

CC: Yes. The norms of conduct and the things that are censured. And all those unspoken rules, which actually, this programme is ending up speaking the unspoken rules in many ways.

CB: Yes. They’re fleshing it out for you so you can just take an easy lesson with you and know what you have to do. So this is where I’ve seen my fieldwork so far – this was my focus so far: how, through interactions with the Syrians, and the volunteers, and the specific setting, specific secular subjectivities are inserted into their Muslim subjectivities. They have to be Muslim in a secular-specific way – a secular-Protestant-specific way – in order to become part of German society, in order to be here. And what further interests me in my fieldwork – and this is what I will be doing in the coming months – is to see how the other side handles this. Basically, they are presented with subject positions. And they have to somehow deal with them, negotiate them. Either they try to resist consciously or just adapt a bit, internalise a bit, usually it’s much more ambiguous and not so clearly seen. But it’s interesting to see what they do with it. What I noticed in my fieldwork is that these six who I was seeing quite a lot – and I’m still in contact and see them around, like at bases – they’re insecure about how to behave, basically. Because they’re totally decentred right now. All these demands are put on to them and they don’t see what the difference is between them and what is demanded of them. They don’t seem to be properly adapted. And for them it’s very difficult to wrap their head around. Some of the men even ask me, “Carmen, when I’m working on the street, am I allowed to look women in the face? Is that indecent?” Especially after the events in Cologne, with the assaults on the women in New Year’s Eve. And the entire discourse that came out of the debate afterwards. They said, “If I see women, had I better cross the street to not be offensive?” So for some it’s really difficult – who are conscious of the sort- of, yes, antagonisms going on there – how to deal with it in their daily lives; how to behave properly; not to be seen as an outsider or as a predator, for example. (35:00)

CC: Exactly.

CB: So they have to find new scripts, basically, for how to behave properly. And this can be done by negotiating but also on a more subconscious level, I think. So I’m trying to get at this whole level of micro-politics.

CC: That’s fantastic. Well, we are out of time, so we are going to have to stop it there. But it’s excellent to hear of such rigorous empirical work being done with this sort of critical discourse/ analytical power angle. A lot of times empirical work . . .

CB: It lacks that.

CC: . . . lacks that, so it’s really good to hear. So thank you very much, Carmen Becker.

CB: Well, thank you for having me!


Citation Info: Becker, Carmen and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’The ‘Secular’, the ‘Religious’ and the ‘Refugee’ in Germany”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 30 July 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-secular-the-religious-and-the-refugee-in-germany/

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