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Epistemological Sacrifice Zones and the Decolonization of Religion

Epistemological Sacrifice Zones and the Decolonization of Religion by Tyler M. Tully

A response to Episode 337: “Decolonizing the Study of Religion” with Malory Nye by Christopher R. Cotter

 

The invitation to decolonize the academic study of religion that Malory Nye extends in his interview with Chris Cotter is both necessary and complex in that it asks us to acknowledge the field’s formation in, as, and through implementations of colonial power—which, as the most recent round of Black Lives Matter protests is at pains to teach us, is also about the implementation of race/ist power. Nye’s response further asks us to account for how these colonial attachments materialize going forward.

 

French copy of an original Chickasaw/Alabama map, 1737 courtesy of the Centre des Archives d’Outre-mer.
Like their Choctaw and Creek neighbors to the south, the Chickasaws understood themselves as being birthed out from the sacred maternal navel of Nanih Waiya, a Mississippian era mound with a platform enclosure spanning one square mile in what is now central Mississippi. The sun circle motif at the center of this 1737 map represents the central council fire of the Chickasaw Nation and reflects how they saw themselves in relation to the sun and thus also the divine spirit. While the circles on the periphery loosely reflect the Chickasaw’s neighbors, their function portrays levels of social association (such as trade, kinship ties, alliances, etc.) rather than physical proximity.

I am grateful to Nye for his example in facilitating these collaborative conversations, and I appreciate his admonition that this is less about improving the discipline than it is about taking responsibility for it. Rather than reaching an end goal or point of arrival, Nye wants religionists to consider what this “legacy means” and asks “how this discipline can become more critically aware of its past and more rigorously able to define itself beyond the structures of power and exploitation that gave rise to it” (Nye 2019a, 8-9). Ostensible responses to these questions would incorporate critical analyses of a field still largely organized around colonial cartographies, whose research projects, assumptions, and norms continue to ennoble Eurowestern, or white supremacy.

 

Following critical race and Indigenous studies scholars Eve Tuck (Unangax^/ Aleut) and K. Wayne Yang who remind us that “decolonization is not a metaphor” (Tuck & Yang 2012), Nye affirms that decolonization is “a matter of life and death” for peoples still living under colonial projects and not merely colonial legacies (Byrd & Rothberg 2011). Interpreting Tuck and Yang to mean decolonization in the “political, social, and legal” sense, however, Nye differentiates the former against what he sees as decolonizing knowledge and education systems (Nye 2019a, 8). While Nye concedes that this inevitably involves some degree of overlap with the political sphere, he sees the two as somewhat separate and focuses attention on decolonizing religion. Given this emphasis on epistemologies, Nye’s invitation to co-think our material and discursive attachments to what bell hooks famously described as “capitalist imperialist white supremacist (cis-hetero)patriarchy” is not unlike similar discussions occurring elsewhere in the academy (hooks 1992).

 

What these discussions suggest is that colonialism—as constitutive of modernity, and indeed as a producer of the modern world system—sacrifices not just Indigenous peoples, but also (and coterminously) their geographies of knowledge, or what I’m calling epistemological sacrifice zones. If epistemological sacrifice zones are Native peoples and their traditional knowledges and irreducible kinship relations rooted in place (Aikenhead et al 2007; Corntassell et al 2014; Simpson 2014; Watts 2013) that are involuntarily immolated for the benefit of Eurowestern knowledge production as I am arguing, then they are not unlike what environmental humanities scholar Rob Nixon refers to as “unimagined communities” (Nixon 2010). But where Nixon means “communities whose vigorously unimagined condition became indispensable to the maintenance of a highly selective discourse of national development,” I want to instead center these communities on their own terms and thus avoid what Chickasaw decolonial thinker Jodi Byrd calls confusing an “effect for a cause” (Byrd 2014).

 

Epistemological sacrifice zones are made hyper-visible during an apocalypse—whether that crisis is the ongoing genocide of Black and Indigenous peoples, or the state response to the novel coronavirus, which are attain the same ends. As crises cohere over intervals of time, they illuminate epistemic landscapes while intensifying disparities of power. COVID-19, for example, enlarges existing inequities, such as the domestic labor of home-schooling children, the gendered dimensions of knowledge production in higher ed, or the ‘digital divide’ between white/non-white, urban/rural, wealthy/poor populations—depending on which “ethico-onto-epistemological” cuts one makes (Barad 2007).

 

However, not all crises are commensurable, and those spanning over longer periods of time and space are often more difficult to perceive for those not negatively affected by them. In this way, it can be helpful to think of colonialism, not as an event confined to the past, but rather a transmutative set of civilizing projects whose “logics of elimination” and replacement remain largely invisible to white settler-colonial peoples (Wolfe 2006).

 

But ongoing dynamics like these are always hyper-real for Natives and descendants of enslaved Africans in what is currently called the United States of America. A recently published exposé in High Country News, for example, reveals how the U. S. government deceived and coerced approximately 250 tribes to seize 11,000,000 acres of land in the making of America’s public universities. These institutions of higher education, some of which were built by enslaved people, also maintain campus police forces with longstanding histories of racialized terror against Black and Indigenous students. Because the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which established these institutions requires the tracking of monies raised from university lands in perpetuity, researchers have been able to calculate their exact value at almost $500,000,000 when adjusting for inflation. The enormity of wealth stolen from these still extant tribes—the amount of which does not include endowment interest, building and land improvements, athletics income, or returns on intellectual property generation—seems especially poignant given the significant disparities in spending and funding exposed by COVID-19, which overwhelmingly affects Native and Black populations in disproportionate ways, to say nothing of university reparations owed to Black students and faculty also.

 

If colonialism’s projects are context-specific (even as its reach remains global), then white North American scholars must be especially vigilant in discussions around decolonizing education systems given the irreducible entanglements between Native dispossession and university infrastructures built by enslaved Africans. Like Black peoples whose lives are circumscribed by the afterlife of slavery (Sharpe 2016), Native peoples also still exist in spite of colonialism and its afterlives. The genocide of Natives and the ongoing theft of their lands and resources combined with the hyper-visible onslaught of police brutality against Black Americans (matters of “life and death”) work to unsettle settler-colonial divisions between the socio-political and the epistemic.

 

In exposing these disparities and terrestrial defalcations as they affect the original peoples of Turtle Island and the descendants of enslaved Africans (who have continually experienced successive waves of crises since European invasion), I hope to lift up exactly what’s at stake in discussions around the material and epistemological invocations of decolonization—which in the end are coterminous for colonized people still living in North America. These crises involve land and they involve persons, but they also involve politics of knowledge production that make religious studies—and the humanities—possible.

 

While Mignolo et al’s collective on Modernity/Coloniality remains perhaps the most popular iteration of “decolonial theory” in academe, decolonial discourse as it relates to knowledge involves a much larger set of conversations in the Americas, Africa, and the Caribbean, where Indigenous and Black peoples unlink from the hegemonic values, disciplines, and methods of Eurowestern knowledge production (Wynter 1994; Diop 1974; Sefa Dei 2019; Grosfoguel 2011; Mbembe 2015). Decoloniality can thus be seen as an intentional movement away from race/ist colonial hegemony via the processes of epistemic disobedience, reclamation, and reconstitution—not reform. Bolivian feminist and Indigenous activist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, for example, describes decoloniality as form “sweeping counterhegemonic strategies” that draw their inspiration from the past towards new Indigenous futurities (2012, 95-96). As Cusicanqui and many others point out (Cheah 2006; Pappas 2017; Noxolo 2017; Esson et al 2017), adopting decolonial theory as a fashionable methodology “without altering anything of the relations of force in the ‘palaces’ of empire” reproduces the same racialized coloniality it seeks to undo (Cusicanqui, 98).

 

Nye agrees that decolonizing religion means much more than merely expanding one’s reading list. He wants us to employ practical ways of relating religion’s role in the formation of colonial knowledge-complexes and to account for the discipline’s contrapuntal relations with race and racialization (Nye 2019). Multiple iterations of decolonial theory stress that knowledge generation is never non-political or value-neutral. If scholars are serious about decolonizing religious studies—and I hope we do take Nye’s invitation seriously—then this would at least mean taking responsibility for how universities not only traffic in but depend upon ongoing violence against Black and Native bodies of knowledge.


References

Aikenhead, G. S., Ogawa, M. (2007). Indigenous knowledge and science revisited. Cultural Studies of Science Education 2, 539-620.

Byrd, J. A. (2014). Arriving on a different Shore: US empire at Its horizons. College Literature 41(1), 174-181.

Byrd, J. A., & Rothberg, M. (2011). Between subalternity and indigeneity: Critical categories for postcolonial studies. Interventions 13(1), 1-12.

Corntassel, J. (2012). Re-envisioning pesurgence: Indigenous pathways to decolonization and sustainable self-determination. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1), 86-101.

Corntassel, J., & Hardbarger, T. (2019). Educate to perpetuate: Land-based pedagogies and community resurgence. International Review of Education 65(87), 87-116.

Diop, C. A. (1974). The African origin of civilization: Myth or reality (M. Cook, Trans.). New York, NY: Lawrence Hill & Company.

Grosfoguel, R. (2011). Decolonising post-colonial studies and paradigms of political economy: Transmodernity, decolonial thinking, and global coloniality. Transmodernity: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World 1(1), 1-36.

Mbembe, A. (2015). Decolonizing knowledge and the question of the archive. Lecture. May 2, 2015 at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research.

Nye, M. (2019). Decolonizing the study of religion. Open Library of Humanities 5(1): 1-45.

Nye, M. (2019). Race and religion: Postcolonial formations of power and whiteness. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 31: 210-237.

Nixon, R. (2010). Unimagined communities: Developmental refugees, megadams and monumental modernity. New Formations (69), Summer, 62-80.

Simpson, L. B. (2014). Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 3(3): 1-25.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1): 1-40.

Watts, V. (2013). Indigenous place-thought & agency amongst humans and non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European world tour!). Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 2(1): 20-34.

Are NDEs Universal?

Are they universal? The cultural context of near-death experiences by Dr. Natasha Tassell-Matuma

A Response to Episode 329 ” Near Death Experiences” with Jens Schlieter by Christopher R. Cotter

 

The recent RSP podcast with Professor Jens Schlieter provided an interesting discussion on a topic very close to my heart – that of near-death experiences (NDEs). Professor Schlieter speaks to his recent book, What Is It Like to be Dead?, which draws together historical first-hand accounts of Western NDEs from the 16th century through to 1975. Why stop at 1975 you may ask? Well, the truth is I simply don’t know, as I have yet to read the book (although it is now on my list of ‘must reads’)! But, it was around the early-70s that the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (author of On Death and Dying) was becoming well known, while in the mid-70s a ground-breaking book was published by Dr. Raymond Moody. In Life After Life,,  Dr. Moody described unusual psychological occurrences that transcended the boundaries among space, time, and normal everyday perception and appeared to occur on the precipice between physical life and death. These occurrences he termed “near-death experiences”, thereby (re)introducing the expression into contemporary literature. Moody’s work is often touted as responsible for deeply embedding the term into the psyche of the general populace and sprouting the scholarly field of near-death studies (yes, there is such a field).

 

Despite not quite being alive when Life After Life was published, I am one of the by-products of Moody’s work, having proclaimed myself a near-death scholar and spending the past decade conducting research into the phenomenology and aftereffects of NDEs and other exceptional human experiences of consciousness. Over this time, I had the honour of chatting with hundreds of people who told me their NDE story. For many, I was the first person they had ever told about their experience, and the privilege of that is not lost on me. Overall, it has been an emotional but enlightening journey. I have learnt a lot about the substantial changes NDEs tend to facilitate in those who have them. I have learnt a lot about the changes they tend to facilitate in those who have not had them but simply heard about them from others. I have also learnt a lot about key features of NDEs that many people describe. Although Moody first proposed a prototypical NDE containing a total of 15 sequential features, no recorded NDEs to date, nor any that I have personally had disclosed to me, contained all the features outlined by Moody. Near-death scholars now consider NDEs to be comprised of any of a combination of cognitive, affective, paranormal, and transcendental features. An altered perception of time or a comprehensive review of past actions and their implications (often termed a ‘life review’) are commonly reported cognitive features. Feelings of peace, joy, happiness, and love, as well as ineffability, comprise some affective features. Transcendental features include seeing and/or conversing with deceased relatives or a ‘being of light’, entering another realm of existence, and coming to a border beyond that one is not able to progress. An ‘out-of-body’ experience (OBE) and perceived travel through a tunnel are commonly reported paranormal features.

 

The accounts I have had the privilege of hearing tended to include descriptions of a couple of these key features, which unfolded in any order (not sequentially). Mostly, these features are incredibly lucid in people’s minds but equally ineffable in that they struggle to find the words to describe exactly what is it is that occurred. For them, there are simply no words to adequately describe the noetic quality of their NDE. The only way they can communicate what occurred during their NDE is to utilise what I term ‘linguistic reference points’, which they obtain by drawing on the linguistic system (i.e., language) they are most familiar with. This linguistic system is most typically the one acquired within the socio-cultural context they have were raised and/or continue to live in. Languages reflect the cosmologies, ontologies, and epistemologies underlying cultures and are mutually constitutive in a culture’s practices, beliefs, ideologies, and norms. As such, when people speak, they are essentially drawing on a collective legacy that speaks to the socially-sanctioned worldview of the culture they affiliate with.

 

While this may appear to be a diversion from the topic of NDEs, it speaks to a key point raised by Professor Jens Schlieter in the podcast – the tantalising possibility offered by some that NDEs reflect a universal quality. That is, they are phenomenon that occur in all cultures, across all times, and in the same phenomenological way. He cites suggestions made linking the 14th century accounts of unusual experiences cited in Tibetan scriptures, such as those recounted in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, with more recently reported contemporary accounts of NDEs. It has been proposed the earlier Tibetan and modern accounts (often reported from ‘Western’ cultures) appear to approximate features now considered key elements of NDEs, despite being experienced by people in different cultural contexts, several centuries apart. As an example, he speaks to the OBE and how in Western reports  individuals often describe looking back and observing their own (seemingly dead) physical bodies from a disembodied position. In Tibetan accounts, the disembodied perspective often focuses on those around the physical body who are grieving, rather than focussing on the physical body itself. As Professor Schlieter hints at, despite such descriptions having differing foci points, which likely reflect the differing epistemological (and cosmological and ontological) realities of each culture, it is the element of disembodiment considered key to characterising the experience as an NDE.

 

It is logical to infer that experiences described in similar ways must reflect similar phenomenology. Yet, moving beyond logic, such conclusions need to be examined in light of development of the field of near-death studies. What I mean by this is that while useful and beneficial in its own right, the current field of near-death studies largely reflects the worldviews, values, and perspectives of Western cultural groups. Most studies have been conducted in and with samples/cases from the United States and Western Europe. Consequently, much of the academic information generated about NDEs derives from a Western lens or perspective and in many ways is treated as the ‘reference point’ for NDEs. An example of this is reflected in previous work critically evaluating the presence or absence of five specific NDE features (tunnel sensation, OBEs, life review, supernatural beings, and other-worldly location) across 16 journal articles describing non-Western NDEs (e.g., Kellehear, 2009). While some NDE features were evident in these cultures, others were not, and conclusions were reached suggesting such features are not present in non-Western NDEs. However, an alternative proposition is that the descriptions analysed may not have explicitly addressed these features in the same linguistic way as Western NDEs. As described above, it is equally possible the features believed evident in non-Western cultures were assumed similar to those reported in Western cultures, yet the terms used to describe the features were informed by distinct epistemologies, suggesting the phenomenology of the NDE was also distinct.

 

Equally, analyses of NDE accounts cross-culturally have been typically limited to cases published in Western literature, and often in the English language. This raises several concerns. Firstly, “Not all words or phrases have an English equivalent…not all social contexts are translatable, particularly outside their contexts ” (Kellehear, 2009, p. 154). Yet NDE research typically translates accounts into English, and it is the English versions of such accounts that are subsequently analysed. This makes it difficult to know for sure the extent translated NDE accounts accurately reflect the intent of the individual’s original native-language account. Secondly, contemporary NDE research is believed to suffer from under-reporting (Zingrone & Alvarado, 2009), meaning many cases are unlikely to have the opportunity of being published to a wider forum, particularly those that remain ‘inaccessible’ to English-as-first-language-speaking researchers, who it is fair to say, comprise a large proportion of researchers in this area. Additionally, NDEs occurring prior to the era of written communication may not have been recorded or transmitted over time, so are likely to have been lost and not available for consumption outside of the community and era that they occurred. Some cultures also have a taboo on speaking of phenomena related to death (Tse, Chong, & Fok, 2003), which means published or even oral reports of NDEs may be severely limited in such cultures. Finally, it is not known to what extent NDE accounts are embedded within other modes of record-taking across cultures. For example, as an indigenous Māori person of Aotearoa New Zealand, I am aware accounts of unusual experiences approximating NDEs are recorded in oral traditions such as singing and physical artefacts such as carvings.

 

Because NDEs have effectively been studied from a Eurocentric perspective, conclusions regarding whether they reflect a universal principal (a phrase used by Professor Schlieter to describe suggestions by others that NDEs are universal) cannot be reached until a more thorough investigation of NDE-like experiences across a variety of cultural contexts is undertaken. I think this speaks well to a point made by Professor Schlieter towards the end of the podcast, in which he suggests difficulty in believing an NDE could be experienced in the absence of exposure to religion. Rather than religion, however, I find it more apt to suggest it is difficult to believe an NDE could be experienced in the absence of exposure to cultural systems and even more difficult to believe presumed NDE accounts could be interpreted without understanding the cosmological, ontological, and epistemological beliefs reflected by the language  individuals use to describe their experience.

 


References

Kellehear, A. (2005). Census of non-Western near-death experiences to 2005: Observations and critical reflections. In J. M. Holden, B. Greyson, & D. James (Eds.), The handbook of near-death experiences. Thirty years of investigation (pp. 135-158). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.

Tse, C. Y., Chong, A., & Fok, S. Y. (2003). Breaking bad news: a Chinese perspective. Palliative Medicine, 17, 339-343.

Zingrone, N. L., & Alvarado, C. S. (2009). Pleasurable Western adult near-death experiences: Features, circumstances, and incidence. In J. M. Holden, B. Greyson, & D. James (Eds.), The handbook of near-death experiences. Thirty years of investigation (pp. 17-40). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.

 

Narrating Belief: Vernacular Religion in India

Beliefs are not written in stone. They change over time and sometimes we hold contradictory beliefs. Taking beliefs as changing and nuanced rather than fixed reveals the role of narratives and cultural context in shaping beliefs.  In this week’s episode, Sidney Castillo’s conversation with Ülo Valk introduces us to some of the ways in which this process occurs in the form of vernacular religion. Focusing on the personal nature of these changes, Valk sees beliefs as fluid, which problematizes the stability of other categories such as knowledge and truth. Especially when we express beliefs as narratives, we change the way we understand the world. Valk’s research in Mayong, a village in northeast India, shows how beliefs about the use of magic, divination, gods, and mantras, allow for personalized and open-ended cultural traditions ripe for innovation.

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.

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.


Narrating Belief: Vernacular Religion in India

Podcast with Ülo Valk (2 March 2020).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/narrating-belief-vernacular-religion-in-india/

A PDF version is available for download.

Sidney Castillo (SC): And now we are back with a Religious Studies Project Podcast. Now the EASR 2019, in Tartu Estonia, is officially over. But we are still here – because we like to work a lot, and hard! We are still doing podcast interviews. And now I’m happy to have Ülo Valk, from the University of Tartu, here with me in the podcast. Welcome, Professor Valk, to the Religious Studies Project!

Ülo Valk (ÜV): Well, thank you. And welcome to the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore. We are sitting here in this library. And the folkloristics of religion . . . this approach is one that we’re introducing here at the University of Tartu. And perhaps we will talk about this as well: what makes it different from other approaches that we . . . . We have so many examples, so many possible methodologies and conceptual tools that we discussed during the conference.

SC: Exactly. It’s very stimulating to be in a room like this, because we are in an academic ambient context. So we can ask the questions properly . . . . But first I would like to do a brief introduction for Professor Valk. Dr Ülo Valk is Professor of Estonian and Comparative Folklore at the University of Tartu. His publications include The Black Gentleman: Manifestations of the Devil in Estonian Folk Religion and two edited volumes: Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life and Storied and Supernatural Places. His recent research has focussed on belief narratives, place lore, folklore in social contexts and vernacular Hinduism. So I will just dive in with the questions. And I would like to ask this question to try to situate our Listeners, a little bit. How can we understand folk religion and its relationship with the supernatural?

ÜV: Well you used the concept of folk religion and perhaps that’s where we’ll start. It used to be a traditional way of talking about folk beliefs as a kind of survival. Folk religion appeared as a kind-of set of old beliefs and practices that was in opposition to the institutionalised religion, like Christianity. And that’s definitely not the way we understand it today. And the shift has been away actually from folk religion as some kind of topic or some kind of system of belief, thoughts, methodologies, theory and approaches. Folk religion offers one way to view religious phenomena as cultural phenomena. And if we talk about folk religion we talk more about the community; what is shared between the people. And it includes shared forms of expressions that we call genres. But then there is another approach, and that’s what we call vernacular religion. It is seeing religion through this lens of vernacularity. And this concept was introduced by Leonard Primiano, an American folklorist. And folklorists have been talking about vernacular culture in many connections, you can take (audio unclear) or Richard Bauman. But what makes the vernacular approach different from studying folk religion is that it’s more focussed on individuality, on subject and on creativity. Well folk, as you can understand it, talks about a group of people and something that is shared. But vernacularity is more about . . . it shows the dynamics of religion on an individual level. And it also includes this ambiguous relationship with institutionalised forms and with power – with authority. So the two are not synonyms.

SC: Oh. That’s very good to know.

ÜV: That something that’s a common mistake. I know my colleague, Leonard Primiano, he’s often quite disappointed when he see that his concept of vernacular religion has been used just to replace the old-fashioned word – the word folk. Both of them are useful, but it’s good to see them as two closely connected but still different approaches. Now to the question of the supernatural – and of course we know, originally, it’s a kind-of theological or philosophical term. And there is also a discussion that perhaps we should not use it at all, because it’s a kind-of Western concept. And there are so many cultures in the world that don’t use this. It’s kind-of intellectual colonialism, or something like this. But when you look at the situation, well, in European . . . in many countries, the term has been turned into a vernacular concept (5:00). It has become an emic term, with a huge field of meanings. And I find these concepts quite helpful. Sometimes words, if they become very technical, very narrow terms, they are not so useful to make sense of phenomena like religion, or culture. Because the semantic field is so broad. But as people who work from this perspective, a folkloristic study of religion, we mainly work with textual material. So our focus is connected to discourse, to verbal expressions, different kinds of genres. And we see, also, the supernatural as a function, as an expressive mode of certain genres. And this is related to the enchantment of the world. We see that the world is composed of many different outlooks, possibilities to understand this, and then these are connected to the modes of expression. And in folklore we talk a lot about genres. These genres are connected with tradition and they offer different perspectives, different outlooks on the world. And that’s a kind-of Bakhtinian approach Bakhtin spoke about the speech genres. So that’s very close to what we are doing.

SC: That’s a very good start to help make a differentiation between concepts. Because oftentimes, as you say, they are either used as synonyms or overlap one with the other. So now that we got that clear, in your presentation at the EASR you touched one of those topics that was the difference between truth and belief. So now I would like to ask: truth and belief are categories constantly in dispute in the study of religion. How can we develop a useful approach to study them?

ÜV: Yes, well that’s a big question. We know that in Western epistemology – how knowledge is generally defined around Estonia it is justified through belief. So the question is how the justification works, or what makes some arguments valid and the others not valid. But exactly I think that these two concepts are not enough. It’s much better to have more words. Like one of the keynote lectures that was given by Lotta Tarkka, Professor of Folklore Studies from Helsinki, spoke a lot about imagination. And now we have truth, belief, imagination and definitely knowledge. And to refer to the work of one philosopher, Paul Hoyningen-Huene, who has written about how knowledge is produced in the sciences. And he has shown that what makes scientific knowledge different is not so much its content, if compared with everyday knowledge, but its systematicity. Scientific knowledge is systematic. But what you can call vernacular knowledge is connected to belief and truth. It is more disordered, more loose. It is open, it is also systematically open. And of course it’s connected with different forms of expression. As scientists, or scholars of religion, we are used to giving lectures, or we write articles, or we write monographs. And there are certain rules for those genres. But if I talk with you, just person-to-person, and I would like to share with you, for example, some loose narratives from Tartu, or some people who have had some trouble with aliens or UFOs, it would be another very informal form of communication and form of genre. And it’s interesting how these arguments of belief are made in these genres. They’re different from the scientific argumentation that is systematic, that relates to the previous . . . – or it should at least – and connected to the quantitative approach, very often. But, for example, if I have to convince you that the neighbouring house – the Restaurant Verner, the Café Verner – it’s a very haunted house (10:00). Well, my daughter used to work there as a waitress years ago. And she told me there was this tradition of story-telling, among the young waitresses, that the house was haunted: that they heard some footsteps, and some lights, and it was a bit scary to be the last person in the building. And it was very interesting to for me to see this incipient tradition like this: how young people work together in an old house, and how this tradition is emerging, and how to conceptualise this. Is it . . . well, it’s a belief, a narrative. Because, of course, we have a lot of questions and in our rational world. We are generally sceptical, but this all belongs to this genre that we call memorates or legends, also expressing doubt and disbelief and expressing disagreements. So I think the concept of a belief is useful, because it doesn’t fix the meaning. It expresses a kind of modality towards the ways of how we see the world, how we discuss it. And truth, of course, it’s a big word. And it’s not very common to talk about this in vernacular . . . in oral communication. It’s more a question about the goal of scholarship and it’s also a religious concept, because all religions are somehow . . . they’re truth, or they’re connected with this.

SC: Through institutions sometimes. I think, having looked at all of these concepts, we will dive more into your research. And this is the next question I want to orientate towards your EASR presentation. You presented data on “The Mayong of North India: an everyday understanding of supernatural practices”. How does this case give insight on the different ways people relate to the different facts of experience?

ÜV: Well I have been visiting some places in North east India, in Assam, for many years. And one of them is this famous cluster of villages known as Mayong. It’s famous for magical knowledge, magical practices, tantra-mantra. And I have discovered there are many bejes, magicians. There are perhaps around one hundred, or nearly one hundred semi-professional, professional magicians who specialise in snake bites, who are dealing with exorcism, or who is more skilled in divination, etc. And there is also a very lively story-telling tradition among them and about these bejes. A lot of stories are projected into the past. They talk for example about human-animal transformations. The tigers – who were very active in this region – now there is no jungle, very little jungle is left, the tigers are gone. And there were these classical stories about magical flights and fights between the bejes, the magicians: magical fights, and also murders by black magical kind-of tricks that were made with the visitors. And it’s interesting to see how the story world, how it functions, how it empowers also the magical practices. It somehow builds up this aura of the place, this knowledge of a place as a special place. Otherwise it would have been just an ordinary Assamese village. There is nothing there that makes it unique or distinct. But this shows how common story-telling, how it works to enchant a place and also authorise . . . to give power to the people who practice and carry on the traditions there.

SC: Yes. And speaking about this re-enchantment, you spoke about this as well. And there are mechanisms of enchantment, like in the case of this village. Could you speak a little more about that?

ÜV: Well, in this village, what has been quite surprising for me is to see how lively the tradition of the mantras is. It in two ways: there are magical manuscripts and often they are kept in the families and they give also a kind of authority to the bejes. They don’t always use them to recite them, but it’s a source of magical power. On the other hand, sometimes they are considered dangerous. So to continue the tradition they are burned on the pyre (15:00). Or they are thrown into a river. Because there is this idea that the mantras are connected with certain deities, goddesses, and they need worship, they need sacrifice, for example. If you don’t do this, then they turn against you. So there are many scripts, certain traditions connected to them. But there is a lot of knowledge that is transmitted orally. And many mantras are born today, discovered. How the bejes they can revive a tradition, or start reading a manuscript, the mantra, that has been totally forgotten. They say they don’t understand the language. It’s not Sanskrit, it’s not Hindi. But then they start the reading somehow, and it starts to work. So there’s this possibility that tradition can be revived. Also the tradition that is there in the past. For example, the story-world or the knowledge about human-animal transformations. People carry this on. And there is also a belief that it has not gone. It is possible to make it alive again, if necessary. So, again, we see this relationship between practices, and story-world, and belief, and the sense of a place that keeps attracting hundreds and thousands of people who consult them. They come from far away, from big cities. Also educated people, of course, and politicians. There were elections in India recently. So to use this magical knowledge to support running for the parliament is not uncommon. Maybe it’s not so public. So this difference between public and private cultures is also there in India.

SC: Sure. One of the things that I remember from your presentation is also the position you take on vernacular religion (audio unclear). And you have many like vignettes of different magicians describing the process of how to proceed with a particular ritual, or how to make the enchanting of a charm, or to achieve this human transformation into the tiger. It was very, very interesting in the sense that you were focussing on them. Can you speak a little bit more about those cases?

ÜV: Well now, that’s this vernacular dimension of religion. That we are not working with some old, old stuff with some old, old stories. We’re just working with people. And the people have the life stories, they have characters, they have specialisations. And I have been working with a few bejes – most of them are men – whose life stories are quite different, whose status in the village is different. Some of them have been very poor and some more well-to-do. Most of them belong to the Neo-Vaishnava tradition. That’s also an interesting contradiction. Because in Neo-Vaishnava tradition, you’re not supposed to worship the goddess, or to be involved in tantric rites. It’s more a Bhakti movement, about Krishna, and certain forms of public worship. But how the same people can be carriers of alternative different traditions, and how they shift . . . . I will not say it’s shifting between individual identities, but it’s shifting between different forms of knowledge, or different forms of religious culture. So some of them have been raising assistant spirits, for example, working with them. There is a lively story-telling tradition about how their mothers have never, never tried this. But of course there are other magicians who use the help of assistant spirits. And there are local Assamese and there are local Bengali people who come in who carry a different kind of magical tradition. So, to look at this diversity, and to see it on the individual level, it’s very, very interesting. And here is the space, or this dimension in religion, that I think we need to work more with these ethnographic methods. And I know that you are an anthropologist, you are a fieldworker, and I think that’s what makes our work really fascinating.

SC: Definitely. To see the outlook of people as it is on its own terms, I think there’s a lot of value for scholarship in that. I think I’m going to move to the last question that we have here (20:00). It’s kind-of to understand this dimension of . . . more nuanced, having, not contradiction, but it’s just things that cohabit in the same place, at the same time. How is this liminal epistemological uncertainty useful to comprehend religious phenomena? Because you spoke about this . . . .

ÜV: Yes, well there are these two concepts. What I mean by epistemological uncertainty is that things are not fixed in story-telling. Also the belief narrative, it’s quite flexible, an open concept. There is a discussion about the supernatural, what is possible, what is not. Often things are projected into the past. And, well, there is this question that is how to relate to the stories, to take it seriously or not? And that’s one of the basic questions in cognition. It’s about the decision-making between fact and fictionality – what is true and what is not. And, of course, there are a lot of humorous modalities and not all belief narratives are taken seriously, even when they’re transmitted. But in another situation they might start to work to influence the behaviours, the practices of people. And now the concept of liminality – of course, we know it has been taken over from the ritual studies, and it has been applied in so many ways. We can also talk about the liminality between the story-world and the social reality: how experience is turned into a story and how the things that we know from the shared stories can be perceived, or they can become a psychological reality for some people who carry the tradition. It’s a kind of liminal world. Or we can talk about temporal liminality between the past – well, in the case of Mayong, the time of great magicians. And today, the magic is reduced, but the contemporary magicians they are like mediators. They can retrieve this knowledge from the past. And the status is also kind-of liminal. Because they know something that is secret. But they bring it to work in a social world. So these areas where things meet, and then mix, and interact, I think these are very, very interesting. A lot of work can be done there.

SC: Yes. Definitely. I remember that you mentioned about how even they themselves were figuring out if something could be effective. “Maybe, maybe not.”

ÜV: Yes.

SC: I think that there is some usefulness in trying address, vernacularly, what people think in everyday life and to understand. Do you have any comment on that? About this “maybe, maybe not?” How we can understand what the usefulness for the study of religion is in general?

ÜV: So that’s also a question about the epistemology, what we can do, and as scholars of course it’s a big question that we ask: how to see the boundaries between the world of fiction, and the world of facts, and the reality. But also people who carry these beliefs and ideas, they have similar kind of reflections. We can talk about vernacular theorising. And things are very much left open, so you can make different decisions, and see the world differently. And so I think it is also useful sometimes to see how people actually talk and discuss. Very often, they are aware of different frames of interpretation. And seeing how flexible it is in vernacular discussions, it’s also maybe inspiring for scholarship.

SC: So it has been very, very interesting to have this conversation with you, Professor Valk. I wonder if you have any concluding remarks or ideas for us, for closing the podcast.

ÜV: Well, you represent anthropology of religion, and I tried to explain the perspective of folkloristics of religion. I think what makes our approaches interesting is that there is never a final conclusion, because also the sources that we’re making, they’re not ready. They’re always in the making. We keep working with people and these vernacular ideas and the practices, they always go ahead (25:00). They go beyond. And we need to catch them to understand, to make sense. And that’s . . . also it means being on the way, all the time. Being on the move. And thinking about what kind of concepts we need. And if they’re becoming very technical, too narrow, they won’t be so helpful. So we work always in a dialogue with other people who don’t carry this academic burden of academic terminology, and very scientific methodologies. And I think it’s always wonderful to learn from them.

SC: Excellent. I think that’s a good way to wrap up the podcast. We thank you again, Professor Valk, for being with us here at the Religious Studies Project. And we hope to have you again, soon.

ÜV: Thank you for giving me this chance, and I hope to meet you soon at the next conferences.

SC: Perfect.

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.

UFOs, Conspiracy Theories… and Religion?

Area 51, Ancient Aliens, endemic child abuse at the BBC, Reptilians, Watergate, 9/11, renegade preachers rising from the dead, the grassy knoll, The Da Vinci Code, Hydra, climate change, the moon landings, Satanic Ritual Abuse, The X Files… the popular imagination is rife with stories of secret plans and cover-ups, agencies working behind the scenes, grand plans carried without the knowledge of the unsuspecting masses, lies, deceit, and an elect few who know ‘the truth’. Sometimes, stories which at one time seemed far-fetched receive widespread acceptance and become the hegemonically accepted norm. At others, they remain the preserve of relatively small groups of “nutters”, and become designated as “conspiracy theories” by those who have the power to do so. What might this popular discursive trope be able to tell us about contemporary Western society? How might scholars go about studying it, particularly when they themselves are frequently implicated as working against the truth by “insiders”? And what might all of this have to do with the contemporary academic study of religion?

9781474253222To discuss this tantalizing subject, we are joined today by a scholar who will be no stranger to regular listeners of the Religious Studies Project, Dr David Robertson. The interview begins with David’s own journey to this research field, before considering some basic questions such as “what is a conspiracy theory?” David then lays out the historical context of the parallel development of contemporary millennial and conspiracist discourse, and his case studies – Whitley Streiber, David Icke, David Wilcock, and their audiences. Discussion then turns to the meat of Robertson’s theoretical conclusions concerning epistemic capital, popular epistemic strategies, the UFO as a discursive object connecting two fields of discourse, power, and prophecy. The interview concludes with discussion of the relevance of this field of study to Religious Studies more broadly, and some challenging admonitions to for the discipline.

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, like David Robertson’s new book, and more.

Social Constructionism

What is social constructionism, and how is it important to the study of religion? In this interview, Titus Hjelm tells David Robertson about social constructionism – that is, a set of approaches which see social realities as built from language, rather than reflecting ontological realities. Hjelm outlines how these approaches emerged as part of the ‘linguistic turn’ in the social sciences more broadly, as well as pointing to some different interpretations of how these constructivist, discursive or critical approaches operate. Their importance, he suggests, is in challenging how we think about ontology, epistemology and power.

sui generis thing-in-itself, rather than a product of human culture. Despite – or because – of this, constructionism has not been broadly adopted as a theoretical approach in the field.

For much more on the subject, see Hjelm’s recent book Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religions. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, Finnish metal CDs, fishing tackle, and more.

“Religion and Pluralities of Knowledge”: A Roundtable Discussion

It’s time for another RSP roundtable, folks. Thanks very much to Liam for facilitating this, and to Angus, Essi, George and Hanna for joining him for a stimulating discussion. For now, we’ll pass over to Liam to set the scene…

Angus and Liam looking pleased with themselves.

Angus and Liam looking pleased with themselves.

“This year scholars from across the globe gathered in the city of Groningen in the north-west of the Netherlands for the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religion (EASR), acolytes of the Religious Studies Project among their number. We were hosted by a University on the brink of celebrating its 4ooth year and which looked forward to infinity and beyond! To a city whose name, the President of the University no less assured us is pronounced with a guttural g-, a rolled –r and a silent –g to finish! Not too difficult for a Scotsman but there was plenty of beer, wine and gin to aid in this process

The conference theme this year was ‘religion and the plurality of knowledge’, a topic which I initially considered dubious but which proved to be deeply pertinent. It became clear to me at least, during the many presentations and discussions taking place, that there was a division between those who regarded the kind of knowledge which should be accepted within the field to be singular – rooted in science and empiricism and those who thought the field should be open to a range of types of knowledge.

To address this issue there was only solution for the RSP: hold a roundtable of course! So, in a small room a group of bright young things gathered around ‘Steve’ the dictaphone to have a discussion. Also I was there! They even let me chair it and put up with my no doubt flawed attempt to kick off proceedings in Dutch! So apologies to the people of the Netherlands and His Majesty King Willem-Alexander for that, but it was done with the best of intentions!

What's Essi plotting?

What’s Essi plotting?

It became pretty clear that our cosy little group was not immune to the great gulf widening throughout the conference. Boorishly, from my privileged position of power I set out my case for exclusivity which clearly did not impress Angus and George but luckily Hanna and Essi appeared to be on my side….

What ensued was a debate as heated as it was enjoyed by all (I hope) and which continued long into the evening, kept afloat by a sea of libations! We hope you enjoy the discussion as much as we did and that it will add to the debate on these vital questions.”

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

George didn't realise what he had gotten himself into...

George didn’t realise what he had gotten himself into…

Insider and Outsider: An Anthropological Perspective

 

If an anthropologist holds the same religious beliefs as ‘the natives’ – or even, some might say, any at all – the implicit concern of the discipline is that he or she might be surrendering too much anthropological authority. But as Ewing argues, belief remains an ’embarrassing possibility’ that stems from ‘a refusal to acknowledge that the subjects of one’s research might actually know something about the human condition that is personally valid for the anthropologist’ (1994:571; see also Harding 1987). The problem of belief, then, is the problem of remaining at the proper remove from ‘natives’ inner lives’ (Geertz 1976:236). (Engelke, 2002: 3)

 

Map of Relations between Fields of Knowledge, Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p. 931

At the heart of ethnographers’ method of participant observation, is the paradox of being at once participant and observer; attempting to be both objective and subjective. I want in this short report to flag up some issues of interest and some texts from anthropology which speak both to the insider/outsider problem and to the broader methodological issue in anthropology of subjective and objective data collection. My response to this interview is informed by my own fieldwork with a non-religious organised group and the epistemological issues raised in the process.

This paper is intended to be broad-based; to be read beside, not against the interview. I want to think about the methodological issues which it brought to mind and suggest that – at least within anthropology – being either or both insider and outsider is an inevitable part of the fieldwork setup. The methodological issues raised relate to the balance of access to tacit knowledge vs. the ability to remain objective in the ultimate analysis which seems to present in the insider/outsider problem. It is possible to suggest that while gaining greater access as an insider you forfeit your ability for objective empirical observance.

Acceptance and Accessibility

Two issues which particularly emerge from Chryssides’ interview are those of acceptance and accessibility – and the ability to understand the subject which derives from this. Access, for example, may come more freely if you are not “other” or if you even hold a religious faith yourself, but this is more complicated. To talk only of religion as an isolated phenomena that we can be inside and outside of suggests that we are all doing (or in the case of the atheist ‘not doing’) religion all the time and may even fail to recognise the multiple identities we hold.  Gender or class, for example, may intersect or even interfere with other aspects of insider/outsider status. Being the correct gender may play a more important role in access than religious persuasion in the case of research within a gender segregated religious institution. In attending to the issue of the outsider and insider in the more broadly ethnographic sense, we may gain a reflexive position, attending to our whole positionality, not only that of our religious (or non-religious) position to another.

The problem can also be addressed in terms of a broader epistemological question of how we can know and, especially, how we can attend to the knowledge of another. I would suggest that looking at this broader set of questions may go some way to addressing the issue of the insider and outsider. Chryssides indeed does discuss this in an early and interesting point relating to truth claims: that the key question is not whether people have access to, and practice the truth, but to demonstrate what people understand to be true and how this manifests. .

There are a number of important anthropological works on the possibilities of knowledge and the limits of accessing tacit knowledge; a favourite of mine is Maurice Bloch’s How We Think They Think. There are a significant number of studies of religions, religion-like and supernatural phenomena (notably almost all from the “outsider” perspective). Yet, a survey essay by Dr Matthew Engelke on the problem of belief in anthropological fieldwork, suggests that prominent anthropologists Victor Turner and Edward Evans-Pritchard ultimately argued that they were not total outsiders, but maintained the ability to access participants due to their own Catholic beliefs. In this work, Engelke addresses Evans-Pritchard’s work with the Azande, in which Evans-Pritchard treats beliefs analytically as social facts: ‘beliefs are for [the social anthropologist] sociological facts, not theological facts, and his sole concern is with their relation to each other and to other social facts. His problems are scientific, not metaphysical or ontological’ (Evans-Pritchard 1965:1). So we return to Chryssides’ point above, regarding the nature of the “truth” you seek to find. Evans-Pritchard also speaks to assumptions regarding the internal or external nature of religious phenomena.

Both Engelke and Evans-Pritchard argue that fieldwork is essential. The method allows for access to practice and “this is how anthropologists can best understand religion as a social fact”. But what is also demonstrated by Engelke, is Evans-Pritchard’s belief that it is better to have some form of religion or religious “inner life” in order to access or understand the inner lives of “others” regardless of the context of that religious “inner life”, than to be an atheist. The argument is that the scientific study is the relation of religious practice to the social world and these are better understood if the relations are shared (even partially) between participants. Engelke then turns to the work of Victor Turner, whose view is perhaps more fatalistic: the study of religion is doomed to fail since ‘religion is not determined by anything other than itself’ (Turner in Engleke, 2002: 8). Regardless of the position of the researcher, is it simply the case that religion cannot be researched at all? In summary of this work, Engelke draws on an important critique that can be drawn more broadly across the insider/outsider issue – that of ‘belief.’ If inner life and insider status is framed in the context of ‘belief’ as the contention around which the possibility of access presides, then we run the risk of always encountering religions from a Christian/Euro-centric perspective.

Is it better to be religious or have no religion at all – the case of non-religion

At the end of this interview, Christopher Cotter asks: instead of considering which religion makes you an insider and outsider (as implied throughout the interview, in which Chryssides frequently refers to his Christian background), what of those researchers who have no religion at all? Chryssides does not seem to follow the logic within this question and in many ways this may be an answer in itself: it perhaps demonstrates an assumption that having a religion would be a necessity. But what of the atheist researcher, in the religious or the non-religious setting?

I would suggest that people wanting to learn more about the position of the non-believer in the religious setting (in this case Pentecostal) look to the work of Ruy Llera Blanes.  In a short discussion of his method, entitled “The Atheist Anthropologist”, Blanes explores his reticence to hide his atheism and the rhetorical shifting which evolved between himself and participants in order to find mutual respect and fend off questions of the possibility of his own conversion. When speaking to one participant outside a church, all seems to go well until the question of his own faith, or lack thereof, arises: he is literally shunned by the participant who turns his back. Following this, Blanes approaches the leader of the church who is more able to accept the outsider to the church. We have here two members of a church, with different statuses and perhaps levels of interest in this research, which is another important point to consider and indeed one made by Chryssides. But Blane’s work also speaks to the multiple intersections discussed above, regarding the general issue of being insider and outsider in the research setting. He is aware of the position of his participants as part of the Gypsy community and the different levels of access and sensitivity that this brings with it, demonstrating that a range of considerations may influence the involvement of a researcher.

My own experience in the field – inside an organisation which describes itself as non-religious – provides different, sometimes contradictory answers to this question. I am myself non-religious, but with a religious family, my Father being a Vicar. This is common knowledge among my research participants, and people’s attitudes towards this fact have ranged from active interest to indifference and even to expressions of pity and mock sympathy. The point here is that the division of insider/outsider is often not particularly clear cut and is certainly not fixed amongst individuals within one group or setting. People in the given group may share, for the convenience of research sampling, one aspect of interest to that researcher, but their biographical and temperamental differences make acceptance a complex issue. In my own research setting, I represent the piggy in the middle, bridging the religious and nonreligious worlds, as I have intimately experienced both in my own life. I have been asked by my own research participants, with genuine interest and sometimes bafflement, about the role of the vicar and how it must be to be part of a religious family, especially when I don’t believe, the usual question being “how do your parents feel about you doing this research?”.

What my own position may speak to is the categorisation of “religion”; when talked of in isolation, “religion” remains something fixed and visible. But in fact it intersects heavily across cultural domains, and having been in this ‘piggy in the middle’ situation, it is interesting to note the Christian heritage which is shared both by my family, myself and my non-religious participants: we are all insiders to a point.   So when we discuss this issue, I would think it important to address what we feel inside or outside of; is this cultural or religious division? Or is it one relating to our world view, morals and values?

By way of a summary, or to tack on some further thoughts for consideration – I should stress on the part of the insider/outsider issue in the anthropological project – the final transformation of data. As discussed by Blanes, ambiguities arise over the insider and the outsider, over the faith or world view of the researcher and the researched within the project. But whatever steps are taken to breach the knowledge gap, Blanes also makes the point that it often remerges in the secular project of analysis and critique. We need then to then assess a third and final role, as the outsider, the anthropology academic, who has almost always written in the secular, empirical tradition.  We also need to pay further attention to the strong critiques of the religious and non-religious categories (McCutcheon, 1997; Fitzgerald, 2000; Masuzawa, 2005), on the basis of their historical construction.  At present I am working within a climate-change in anthropology, which is attempting to critique and address its own historical relationship to the secularisation thesis put forward by the ‘founding fathers’ of the social sciences: Weber, Marx and Durkheim. I am excited and interested to see what unfolds and where this reflexivity takes us in regard to the consideration of religions and the general issue of access to ‘inner life’. As we consider the possibilities offered by these works and their continued critique, will it be possible to draw such a simple line implied by the notion of insider and outsider?

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

References

Blanes, Ruy Llera (2006), “The Atheist Anthropologist. Believers and Non-Believers in Anthropological Fieldwork”, Social Anthropology 14 (2), pp. 223-234.

Bloch, Maurice (1998) How We Think They Think: Anthropological Approaches to Cognition, Memory, and Literacy Westview Press

Engelke, Matthew (2002) “The problem of belief: Evans-Pritchard and Victor Turner on “the inner life.”. Anthropology today, 18 (6). pp. 3-8. I

Geertz, Clifford (1976). ‘From  the Native’s Point of View’: On the Nature of Anthropological  Understanding.  In K.H.  Basso & H.A. Selby (eds)  Meaning  in anthropology,  pp.231-237. Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico  Press

Masazawa, Tomoko (2005) The Invention of World Religions, or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism University of Chicago Press

McCutcheon , Russell T. (1997) Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia, Oxford University Press

Podcasts

Epistemological Sacrifice Zones and the Decolonization of Religion

Epistemological Sacrifice Zones and the Decolonization of Religion by Tyler M. Tully

A response to Episode 337: “Decolonizing the Study of Religion” with Malory Nye by Christopher R. Cotter

 

The invitation to decolonize the academic study of religion that Malory Nye extends in his interview with Chris Cotter is both necessary and complex in that it asks us to acknowledge the field’s formation in, as, and through implementations of colonial power—which, as the most recent round of Black Lives Matter protests is at pains to teach us, is also about the implementation of race/ist power. Nye’s response further asks us to account for how these colonial attachments materialize going forward.

 

French copy of an original Chickasaw/Alabama map, 1737 courtesy of the Centre des Archives d’Outre-mer.
Like their Choctaw and Creek neighbors to the south, the Chickasaws understood themselves as being birthed out from the sacred maternal navel of Nanih Waiya, a Mississippian era mound with a platform enclosure spanning one square mile in what is now central Mississippi. The sun circle motif at the center of this 1737 map represents the central council fire of the Chickasaw Nation and reflects how they saw themselves in relation to the sun and thus also the divine spirit. While the circles on the periphery loosely reflect the Chickasaw’s neighbors, their function portrays levels of social association (such as trade, kinship ties, alliances, etc.) rather than physical proximity.

I am grateful to Nye for his example in facilitating these collaborative conversations, and I appreciate his admonition that this is less about improving the discipline than it is about taking responsibility for it. Rather than reaching an end goal or point of arrival, Nye wants religionists to consider what this “legacy means” and asks “how this discipline can become more critically aware of its past and more rigorously able to define itself beyond the structures of power and exploitation that gave rise to it” (Nye 2019a, 8-9). Ostensible responses to these questions would incorporate critical analyses of a field still largely organized around colonial cartographies, whose research projects, assumptions, and norms continue to ennoble Eurowestern, or white supremacy.

 

Following critical race and Indigenous studies scholars Eve Tuck (Unangax^/ Aleut) and K. Wayne Yang who remind us that “decolonization is not a metaphor” (Tuck & Yang 2012), Nye affirms that decolonization is “a matter of life and death” for peoples still living under colonial projects and not merely colonial legacies (Byrd & Rothberg 2011). Interpreting Tuck and Yang to mean decolonization in the “political, social, and legal” sense, however, Nye differentiates the former against what he sees as decolonizing knowledge and education systems (Nye 2019a, 8). While Nye concedes that this inevitably involves some degree of overlap with the political sphere, he sees the two as somewhat separate and focuses attention on decolonizing religion. Given this emphasis on epistemologies, Nye’s invitation to co-think our material and discursive attachments to what bell hooks famously described as “capitalist imperialist white supremacist (cis-hetero)patriarchy” is not unlike similar discussions occurring elsewhere in the academy (hooks 1992).

 

What these discussions suggest is that colonialism—as constitutive of modernity, and indeed as a producer of the modern world system—sacrifices not just Indigenous peoples, but also (and coterminously) their geographies of knowledge, or what I’m calling epistemological sacrifice zones. If epistemological sacrifice zones are Native peoples and their traditional knowledges and irreducible kinship relations rooted in place (Aikenhead et al 2007; Corntassell et al 2014; Simpson 2014; Watts 2013) that are involuntarily immolated for the benefit of Eurowestern knowledge production as I am arguing, then they are not unlike what environmental humanities scholar Rob Nixon refers to as “unimagined communities” (Nixon 2010). But where Nixon means “communities whose vigorously unimagined condition became indispensable to the maintenance of a highly selective discourse of national development,” I want to instead center these communities on their own terms and thus avoid what Chickasaw decolonial thinker Jodi Byrd calls confusing an “effect for a cause” (Byrd 2014).

 

Epistemological sacrifice zones are made hyper-visible during an apocalypse—whether that crisis is the ongoing genocide of Black and Indigenous peoples, or the state response to the novel coronavirus, which are attain the same ends. As crises cohere over intervals of time, they illuminate epistemic landscapes while intensifying disparities of power. COVID-19, for example, enlarges existing inequities, such as the domestic labor of home-schooling children, the gendered dimensions of knowledge production in higher ed, or the ‘digital divide’ between white/non-white, urban/rural, wealthy/poor populations—depending on which “ethico-onto-epistemological” cuts one makes (Barad 2007).

 

However, not all crises are commensurable, and those spanning over longer periods of time and space are often more difficult to perceive for those not negatively affected by them. In this way, it can be helpful to think of colonialism, not as an event confined to the past, but rather a transmutative set of civilizing projects whose “logics of elimination” and replacement remain largely invisible to white settler-colonial peoples (Wolfe 2006).

 

But ongoing dynamics like these are always hyper-real for Natives and descendants of enslaved Africans in what is currently called the United States of America. A recently published exposé in High Country News, for example, reveals how the U. S. government deceived and coerced approximately 250 tribes to seize 11,000,000 acres of land in the making of America’s public universities. These institutions of higher education, some of which were built by enslaved people, also maintain campus police forces with longstanding histories of racialized terror against Black and Indigenous students. Because the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which established these institutions requires the tracking of monies raised from university lands in perpetuity, researchers have been able to calculate their exact value at almost $500,000,000 when adjusting for inflation. The enormity of wealth stolen from these still extant tribes—the amount of which does not include endowment interest, building and land improvements, athletics income, or returns on intellectual property generation—seems especially poignant given the significant disparities in spending and funding exposed by COVID-19, which overwhelmingly affects Native and Black populations in disproportionate ways, to say nothing of university reparations owed to Black students and faculty also.

 

If colonialism’s projects are context-specific (even as its reach remains global), then white North American scholars must be especially vigilant in discussions around decolonizing education systems given the irreducible entanglements between Native dispossession and university infrastructures built by enslaved Africans. Like Black peoples whose lives are circumscribed by the afterlife of slavery (Sharpe 2016), Native peoples also still exist in spite of colonialism and its afterlives. The genocide of Natives and the ongoing theft of their lands and resources combined with the hyper-visible onslaught of police brutality against Black Americans (matters of “life and death”) work to unsettle settler-colonial divisions between the socio-political and the epistemic.

 

In exposing these disparities and terrestrial defalcations as they affect the original peoples of Turtle Island and the descendants of enslaved Africans (who have continually experienced successive waves of crises since European invasion), I hope to lift up exactly what’s at stake in discussions around the material and epistemological invocations of decolonization—which in the end are coterminous for colonized people still living in North America. These crises involve land and they involve persons, but they also involve politics of knowledge production that make religious studies—and the humanities—possible.

 

While Mignolo et al’s collective on Modernity/Coloniality remains perhaps the most popular iteration of “decolonial theory” in academe, decolonial discourse as it relates to knowledge involves a much larger set of conversations in the Americas, Africa, and the Caribbean, where Indigenous and Black peoples unlink from the hegemonic values, disciplines, and methods of Eurowestern knowledge production (Wynter 1994; Diop 1974; Sefa Dei 2019; Grosfoguel 2011; Mbembe 2015). Decoloniality can thus be seen as an intentional movement away from race/ist colonial hegemony via the processes of epistemic disobedience, reclamation, and reconstitution—not reform. Bolivian feminist and Indigenous activist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, for example, describes decoloniality as form “sweeping counterhegemonic strategies” that draw their inspiration from the past towards new Indigenous futurities (2012, 95-96). As Cusicanqui and many others point out (Cheah 2006; Pappas 2017; Noxolo 2017; Esson et al 2017), adopting decolonial theory as a fashionable methodology “without altering anything of the relations of force in the ‘palaces’ of empire” reproduces the same racialized coloniality it seeks to undo (Cusicanqui, 98).

 

Nye agrees that decolonizing religion means much more than merely expanding one’s reading list. He wants us to employ practical ways of relating religion’s role in the formation of colonial knowledge-complexes and to account for the discipline’s contrapuntal relations with race and racialization (Nye 2019). Multiple iterations of decolonial theory stress that knowledge generation is never non-political or value-neutral. If scholars are serious about decolonizing religious studies—and I hope we do take Nye’s invitation seriously—then this would at least mean taking responsibility for how universities not only traffic in but depend upon ongoing violence against Black and Native bodies of knowledge.


References

Aikenhead, G. S., Ogawa, M. (2007). Indigenous knowledge and science revisited. Cultural Studies of Science Education 2, 539-620.

Byrd, J. A. (2014). Arriving on a different Shore: US empire at Its horizons. College Literature 41(1), 174-181.

Byrd, J. A., & Rothberg, M. (2011). Between subalternity and indigeneity: Critical categories for postcolonial studies. Interventions 13(1), 1-12.

Corntassel, J. (2012). Re-envisioning pesurgence: Indigenous pathways to decolonization and sustainable self-determination. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1), 86-101.

Corntassel, J., & Hardbarger, T. (2019). Educate to perpetuate: Land-based pedagogies and community resurgence. International Review of Education 65(87), 87-116.

Diop, C. A. (1974). The African origin of civilization: Myth or reality (M. Cook, Trans.). New York, NY: Lawrence Hill & Company.

Grosfoguel, R. (2011). Decolonising post-colonial studies and paradigms of political economy: Transmodernity, decolonial thinking, and global coloniality. Transmodernity: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of the Luso-Hispanic World 1(1), 1-36.

Mbembe, A. (2015). Decolonizing knowledge and the question of the archive. Lecture. May 2, 2015 at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research.

Nye, M. (2019). Decolonizing the study of religion. Open Library of Humanities 5(1): 1-45.

Nye, M. (2019). Race and religion: Postcolonial formations of power and whiteness. Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 31: 210-237.

Nixon, R. (2010). Unimagined communities: Developmental refugees, megadams and monumental modernity. New Formations (69), Summer, 62-80.

Simpson, L. B. (2014). Land as pedagogy: Nishnaabeg intelligence and rebellious transformation. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 3(3): 1-25.

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1(1): 1-40.

Watts, V. (2013). Indigenous place-thought & agency amongst humans and non-humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European world tour!). Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 2(1): 20-34.

Are NDEs Universal?

Are they universal? The cultural context of near-death experiences by Dr. Natasha Tassell-Matuma

A Response to Episode 329 ” Near Death Experiences” with Jens Schlieter by Christopher R. Cotter

 

The recent RSP podcast with Professor Jens Schlieter provided an interesting discussion on a topic very close to my heart – that of near-death experiences (NDEs). Professor Schlieter speaks to his recent book, What Is It Like to be Dead?, which draws together historical first-hand accounts of Western NDEs from the 16th century through to 1975. Why stop at 1975 you may ask? Well, the truth is I simply don’t know, as I have yet to read the book (although it is now on my list of ‘must reads’)! But, it was around the early-70s that the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (author of On Death and Dying) was becoming well known, while in the mid-70s a ground-breaking book was published by Dr. Raymond Moody. In Life After Life,,  Dr. Moody described unusual psychological occurrences that transcended the boundaries among space, time, and normal everyday perception and appeared to occur on the precipice between physical life and death. These occurrences he termed “near-death experiences”, thereby (re)introducing the expression into contemporary literature. Moody’s work is often touted as responsible for deeply embedding the term into the psyche of the general populace and sprouting the scholarly field of near-death studies (yes, there is such a field).

 

Despite not quite being alive when Life After Life was published, I am one of the by-products of Moody’s work, having proclaimed myself a near-death scholar and spending the past decade conducting research into the phenomenology and aftereffects of NDEs and other exceptional human experiences of consciousness. Over this time, I had the honour of chatting with hundreds of people who told me their NDE story. For many, I was the first person they had ever told about their experience, and the privilege of that is not lost on me. Overall, it has been an emotional but enlightening journey. I have learnt a lot about the substantial changes NDEs tend to facilitate in those who have them. I have learnt a lot about the changes they tend to facilitate in those who have not had them but simply heard about them from others. I have also learnt a lot about key features of NDEs that many people describe. Although Moody first proposed a prototypical NDE containing a total of 15 sequential features, no recorded NDEs to date, nor any that I have personally had disclosed to me, contained all the features outlined by Moody. Near-death scholars now consider NDEs to be comprised of any of a combination of cognitive, affective, paranormal, and transcendental features. An altered perception of time or a comprehensive review of past actions and their implications (often termed a ‘life review’) are commonly reported cognitive features. Feelings of peace, joy, happiness, and love, as well as ineffability, comprise some affective features. Transcendental features include seeing and/or conversing with deceased relatives or a ‘being of light’, entering another realm of existence, and coming to a border beyond that one is not able to progress. An ‘out-of-body’ experience (OBE) and perceived travel through a tunnel are commonly reported paranormal features.

 

The accounts I have had the privilege of hearing tended to include descriptions of a couple of these key features, which unfolded in any order (not sequentially). Mostly, these features are incredibly lucid in people’s minds but equally ineffable in that they struggle to find the words to describe exactly what is it is that occurred. For them, there are simply no words to adequately describe the noetic quality of their NDE. The only way they can communicate what occurred during their NDE is to utilise what I term ‘linguistic reference points’, which they obtain by drawing on the linguistic system (i.e., language) they are most familiar with. This linguistic system is most typically the one acquired within the socio-cultural context they have were raised and/or continue to live in. Languages reflect the cosmologies, ontologies, and epistemologies underlying cultures and are mutually constitutive in a culture’s practices, beliefs, ideologies, and norms. As such, when people speak, they are essentially drawing on a collective legacy that speaks to the socially-sanctioned worldview of the culture they affiliate with.

 

While this may appear to be a diversion from the topic of NDEs, it speaks to a key point raised by Professor Jens Schlieter in the podcast – the tantalising possibility offered by some that NDEs reflect a universal quality. That is, they are phenomenon that occur in all cultures, across all times, and in the same phenomenological way. He cites suggestions made linking the 14th century accounts of unusual experiences cited in Tibetan scriptures, such as those recounted in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, with more recently reported contemporary accounts of NDEs. It has been proposed the earlier Tibetan and modern accounts (often reported from ‘Western’ cultures) appear to approximate features now considered key elements of NDEs, despite being experienced by people in different cultural contexts, several centuries apart. As an example, he speaks to the OBE and how in Western reports  individuals often describe looking back and observing their own (seemingly dead) physical bodies from a disembodied position. In Tibetan accounts, the disembodied perspective often focuses on those around the physical body who are grieving, rather than focussing on the physical body itself. As Professor Schlieter hints at, despite such descriptions having differing foci points, which likely reflect the differing epistemological (and cosmological and ontological) realities of each culture, it is the element of disembodiment considered key to characterising the experience as an NDE.

 

It is logical to infer that experiences described in similar ways must reflect similar phenomenology. Yet, moving beyond logic, such conclusions need to be examined in light of development of the field of near-death studies. What I mean by this is that while useful and beneficial in its own right, the current field of near-death studies largely reflects the worldviews, values, and perspectives of Western cultural groups. Most studies have been conducted in and with samples/cases from the United States and Western Europe. Consequently, much of the academic information generated about NDEs derives from a Western lens or perspective and in many ways is treated as the ‘reference point’ for NDEs. An example of this is reflected in previous work critically evaluating the presence or absence of five specific NDE features (tunnel sensation, OBEs, life review, supernatural beings, and other-worldly location) across 16 journal articles describing non-Western NDEs (e.g., Kellehear, 2009). While some NDE features were evident in these cultures, others were not, and conclusions were reached suggesting such features are not present in non-Western NDEs. However, an alternative proposition is that the descriptions analysed may not have explicitly addressed these features in the same linguistic way as Western NDEs. As described above, it is equally possible the features believed evident in non-Western cultures were assumed similar to those reported in Western cultures, yet the terms used to describe the features were informed by distinct epistemologies, suggesting the phenomenology of the NDE was also distinct.

 

Equally, analyses of NDE accounts cross-culturally have been typically limited to cases published in Western literature, and often in the English language. This raises several concerns. Firstly, “Not all words or phrases have an English equivalent…not all social contexts are translatable, particularly outside their contexts ” (Kellehear, 2009, p. 154). Yet NDE research typically translates accounts into English, and it is the English versions of such accounts that are subsequently analysed. This makes it difficult to know for sure the extent translated NDE accounts accurately reflect the intent of the individual’s original native-language account. Secondly, contemporary NDE research is believed to suffer from under-reporting (Zingrone & Alvarado, 2009), meaning many cases are unlikely to have the opportunity of being published to a wider forum, particularly those that remain ‘inaccessible’ to English-as-first-language-speaking researchers, who it is fair to say, comprise a large proportion of researchers in this area. Additionally, NDEs occurring prior to the era of written communication may not have been recorded or transmitted over time, so are likely to have been lost and not available for consumption outside of the community and era that they occurred. Some cultures also have a taboo on speaking of phenomena related to death (Tse, Chong, & Fok, 2003), which means published or even oral reports of NDEs may be severely limited in such cultures. Finally, it is not known to what extent NDE accounts are embedded within other modes of record-taking across cultures. For example, as an indigenous Māori person of Aotearoa New Zealand, I am aware accounts of unusual experiences approximating NDEs are recorded in oral traditions such as singing and physical artefacts such as carvings.

 

Because NDEs have effectively been studied from a Eurocentric perspective, conclusions regarding whether they reflect a universal principal (a phrase used by Professor Schlieter to describe suggestions by others that NDEs are universal) cannot be reached until a more thorough investigation of NDE-like experiences across a variety of cultural contexts is undertaken. I think this speaks well to a point made by Professor Schlieter towards the end of the podcast, in which he suggests difficulty in believing an NDE could be experienced in the absence of exposure to religion. Rather than religion, however, I find it more apt to suggest it is difficult to believe an NDE could be experienced in the absence of exposure to cultural systems and even more difficult to believe presumed NDE accounts could be interpreted without understanding the cosmological, ontological, and epistemological beliefs reflected by the language  individuals use to describe their experience.

 


References

Kellehear, A. (2005). Census of non-Western near-death experiences to 2005: Observations and critical reflections. In J. M. Holden, B. Greyson, & D. James (Eds.), The handbook of near-death experiences. Thirty years of investigation (pp. 135-158). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.

Tse, C. Y., Chong, A., & Fok, S. Y. (2003). Breaking bad news: a Chinese perspective. Palliative Medicine, 17, 339-343.

Zingrone, N. L., & Alvarado, C. S. (2009). Pleasurable Western adult near-death experiences: Features, circumstances, and incidence. In J. M. Holden, B. Greyson, & D. James (Eds.), The handbook of near-death experiences. Thirty years of investigation (pp. 17-40). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.

 

Narrating Belief: Vernacular Religion in India

Beliefs are not written in stone. They change over time and sometimes we hold contradictory beliefs. Taking beliefs as changing and nuanced rather than fixed reveals the role of narratives and cultural context in shaping beliefs.  In this week’s episode, Sidney Castillo’s conversation with Ülo Valk introduces us to some of the ways in which this process occurs in the form of vernacular religion. Focusing on the personal nature of these changes, Valk sees beliefs as fluid, which problematizes the stability of other categories such as knowledge and truth. Especially when we express beliefs as narratives, we change the way we understand the world. Valk’s research in Mayong, a village in northeast India, shows how beliefs about the use of magic, divination, gods, and mantras, allow for personalized and open-ended cultural traditions ripe for innovation.

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.

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.


Narrating Belief: Vernacular Religion in India

Podcast with Ülo Valk (2 March 2020).

Interviewed by Sidney Castillo.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/narrating-belief-vernacular-religion-in-india/

A PDF version is available for download.

Sidney Castillo (SC): And now we are back with a Religious Studies Project Podcast. Now the EASR 2019, in Tartu Estonia, is officially over. But we are still here – because we like to work a lot, and hard! We are still doing podcast interviews. And now I’m happy to have Ülo Valk, from the University of Tartu, here with me in the podcast. Welcome, Professor Valk, to the Religious Studies Project!

Ülo Valk (ÜV): Well, thank you. And welcome to the Department of Estonian and Comparative Folklore. We are sitting here in this library. And the folkloristics of religion . . . this approach is one that we’re introducing here at the University of Tartu. And perhaps we will talk about this as well: what makes it different from other approaches that we . . . . We have so many examples, so many possible methodologies and conceptual tools that we discussed during the conference.

SC: Exactly. It’s very stimulating to be in a room like this, because we are in an academic ambient context. So we can ask the questions properly . . . . But first I would like to do a brief introduction for Professor Valk. Dr Ülo Valk is Professor of Estonian and Comparative Folklore at the University of Tartu. His publications include The Black Gentleman: Manifestations of the Devil in Estonian Folk Religion and two edited volumes: Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life and Storied and Supernatural Places. His recent research has focussed on belief narratives, place lore, folklore in social contexts and vernacular Hinduism. So I will just dive in with the questions. And I would like to ask this question to try to situate our Listeners, a little bit. How can we understand folk religion and its relationship with the supernatural?

ÜV: Well you used the concept of folk religion and perhaps that’s where we’ll start. It used to be a traditional way of talking about folk beliefs as a kind of survival. Folk religion appeared as a kind-of set of old beliefs and practices that was in opposition to the institutionalised religion, like Christianity. And that’s definitely not the way we understand it today. And the shift has been away actually from folk religion as some kind of topic or some kind of system of belief, thoughts, methodologies, theory and approaches. Folk religion offers one way to view religious phenomena as cultural phenomena. And if we talk about folk religion we talk more about the community; what is shared between the people. And it includes shared forms of expressions that we call genres. But then there is another approach, and that’s what we call vernacular religion. It is seeing religion through this lens of vernacularity. And this concept was introduced by Leonard Primiano, an American folklorist. And folklorists have been talking about vernacular culture in many connections, you can take (audio unclear) or Richard Bauman. But what makes the vernacular approach different from studying folk religion is that it’s more focussed on individuality, on subject and on creativity. Well folk, as you can understand it, talks about a group of people and something that is shared. But vernacularity is more about . . . it shows the dynamics of religion on an individual level. And it also includes this ambiguous relationship with institutionalised forms and with power – with authority. So the two are not synonyms.

SC: Oh. That’s very good to know.

ÜV: That something that’s a common mistake. I know my colleague, Leonard Primiano, he’s often quite disappointed when he see that his concept of vernacular religion has been used just to replace the old-fashioned word – the word folk. Both of them are useful, but it’s good to see them as two closely connected but still different approaches. Now to the question of the supernatural – and of course we know, originally, it’s a kind-of theological or philosophical term. And there is also a discussion that perhaps we should not use it at all, because it’s a kind-of Western concept. And there are so many cultures in the world that don’t use this. It’s kind-of intellectual colonialism, or something like this. But when you look at the situation, well, in European . . . in many countries, the term has been turned into a vernacular concept (5:00). It has become an emic term, with a huge field of meanings. And I find these concepts quite helpful. Sometimes words, if they become very technical, very narrow terms, they are not so useful to make sense of phenomena like religion, or culture. Because the semantic field is so broad. But as people who work from this perspective, a folkloristic study of religion, we mainly work with textual material. So our focus is connected to discourse, to verbal expressions, different kinds of genres. And we see, also, the supernatural as a function, as an expressive mode of certain genres. And this is related to the enchantment of the world. We see that the world is composed of many different outlooks, possibilities to understand this, and then these are connected to the modes of expression. And in folklore we talk a lot about genres. These genres are connected with tradition and they offer different perspectives, different outlooks on the world. And that’s a kind-of Bakhtinian approach Bakhtin spoke about the speech genres. So that’s very close to what we are doing.

SC: That’s a very good start to help make a differentiation between concepts. Because oftentimes, as you say, they are either used as synonyms or overlap one with the other. So now that we got that clear, in your presentation at the EASR you touched one of those topics that was the difference between truth and belief. So now I would like to ask: truth and belief are categories constantly in dispute in the study of religion. How can we develop a useful approach to study them?

ÜV: Yes, well that’s a big question. We know that in Western epistemology – how knowledge is generally defined around Estonia it is justified through belief. So the question is how the justification works, or what makes some arguments valid and the others not valid. But exactly I think that these two concepts are not enough. It’s much better to have more words. Like one of the keynote lectures that was given by Lotta Tarkka, Professor of Folklore Studies from Helsinki, spoke a lot about imagination. And now we have truth, belief, imagination and definitely knowledge. And to refer to the work of one philosopher, Paul Hoyningen-Huene, who has written about how knowledge is produced in the sciences. And he has shown that what makes scientific knowledge different is not so much its content, if compared with everyday knowledge, but its systematicity. Scientific knowledge is systematic. But what you can call vernacular knowledge is connected to belief and truth. It is more disordered, more loose. It is open, it is also systematically open. And of course it’s connected with different forms of expression. As scientists, or scholars of religion, we are used to giving lectures, or we write articles, or we write monographs. And there are certain rules for those genres. But if I talk with you, just person-to-person, and I would like to share with you, for example, some loose narratives from Tartu, or some people who have had some trouble with aliens or UFOs, it would be another very informal form of communication and form of genre. And it’s interesting how these arguments of belief are made in these genres. They’re different from the scientific argumentation that is systematic, that relates to the previous . . . – or it should at least – and connected to the quantitative approach, very often. But, for example, if I have to convince you that the neighbouring house – the Restaurant Verner, the Café Verner – it’s a very haunted house (10:00). Well, my daughter used to work there as a waitress years ago. And she told me there was this tradition of story-telling, among the young waitresses, that the house was haunted: that they heard some footsteps, and some lights, and it was a bit scary to be the last person in the building. And it was very interesting to for me to see this incipient tradition like this: how young people work together in an old house, and how this tradition is emerging, and how to conceptualise this. Is it . . . well, it’s a belief, a narrative. Because, of course, we have a lot of questions and in our rational world. We are generally sceptical, but this all belongs to this genre that we call memorates or legends, also expressing doubt and disbelief and expressing disagreements. So I think the concept of a belief is useful, because it doesn’t fix the meaning. It expresses a kind of modality towards the ways of how we see the world, how we discuss it. And truth, of course, it’s a big word. And it’s not very common to talk about this in vernacular . . . in oral communication. It’s more a question about the goal of scholarship and it’s also a religious concept, because all religions are somehow . . . they’re truth, or they’re connected with this.

SC: Through institutions sometimes. I think, having looked at all of these concepts, we will dive more into your research. And this is the next question I want to orientate towards your EASR presentation. You presented data on “The Mayong of North India: an everyday understanding of supernatural practices”. How does this case give insight on the different ways people relate to the different facts of experience?

ÜV: Well I have been visiting some places in North east India, in Assam, for many years. And one of them is this famous cluster of villages known as Mayong. It’s famous for magical knowledge, magical practices, tantra-mantra. And I have discovered there are many bejes, magicians. There are perhaps around one hundred, or nearly one hundred semi-professional, professional magicians who specialise in snake bites, who are dealing with exorcism, or who is more skilled in divination, etc. And there is also a very lively story-telling tradition among them and about these bejes. A lot of stories are projected into the past. They talk for example about human-animal transformations. The tigers – who were very active in this region – now there is no jungle, very little jungle is left, the tigers are gone. And there were these classical stories about magical flights and fights between the bejes, the magicians: magical fights, and also murders by black magical kind-of tricks that were made with the visitors. And it’s interesting to see how the story world, how it functions, how it empowers also the magical practices. It somehow builds up this aura of the place, this knowledge of a place as a special place. Otherwise it would have been just an ordinary Assamese village. There is nothing there that makes it unique or distinct. But this shows how common story-telling, how it works to enchant a place and also authorise . . . to give power to the people who practice and carry on the traditions there.

SC: Yes. And speaking about this re-enchantment, you spoke about this as well. And there are mechanisms of enchantment, like in the case of this village. Could you speak a little more about that?

ÜV: Well, in this village, what has been quite surprising for me is to see how lively the tradition of the mantras is. It in two ways: there are magical manuscripts and often they are kept in the families and they give also a kind of authority to the bejes. They don’t always use them to recite them, but it’s a source of magical power. On the other hand, sometimes they are considered dangerous. So to continue the tradition they are burned on the pyre (15:00). Or they are thrown into a river. Because there is this idea that the mantras are connected with certain deities, goddesses, and they need worship, they need sacrifice, for example. If you don’t do this, then they turn against you. So there are many scripts, certain traditions connected to them. But there is a lot of knowledge that is transmitted orally. And many mantras are born today, discovered. How the bejes they can revive a tradition, or start reading a manuscript, the mantra, that has been totally forgotten. They say they don’t understand the language. It’s not Sanskrit, it’s not Hindi. But then they start the reading somehow, and it starts to work. So there’s this possibility that tradition can be revived. Also the tradition that is there in the past. For example, the story-world or the knowledge about human-animal transformations. People carry this on. And there is also a belief that it has not gone. It is possible to make it alive again, if necessary. So, again, we see this relationship between practices, and story-world, and belief, and the sense of a place that keeps attracting hundreds and thousands of people who consult them. They come from far away, from big cities. Also educated people, of course, and politicians. There were elections in India recently. So to use this magical knowledge to support running for the parliament is not uncommon. Maybe it’s not so public. So this difference between public and private cultures is also there in India.

SC: Sure. One of the things that I remember from your presentation is also the position you take on vernacular religion (audio unclear). And you have many like vignettes of different magicians describing the process of how to proceed with a particular ritual, or how to make the enchanting of a charm, or to achieve this human transformation into the tiger. It was very, very interesting in the sense that you were focussing on them. Can you speak a little bit more about those cases?

ÜV: Well now, that’s this vernacular dimension of religion. That we are not working with some old, old stuff with some old, old stories. We’re just working with people. And the people have the life stories, they have characters, they have specialisations. And I have been working with a few bejes – most of them are men – whose life stories are quite different, whose status in the village is different. Some of them have been very poor and some more well-to-do. Most of them belong to the Neo-Vaishnava tradition. That’s also an interesting contradiction. Because in Neo-Vaishnava tradition, you’re not supposed to worship the goddess, or to be involved in tantric rites. It’s more a Bhakti movement, about Krishna, and certain forms of public worship. But how the same people can be carriers of alternative different traditions, and how they shift . . . . I will not say it’s shifting between individual identities, but it’s shifting between different forms of knowledge, or different forms of religious culture. So some of them have been raising assistant spirits, for example, working with them. There is a lively story-telling tradition about how their mothers have never, never tried this. But of course there are other magicians who use the help of assistant spirits. And there are local Assamese and there are local Bengali people who come in who carry a different kind of magical tradition. So, to look at this diversity, and to see it on the individual level, it’s very, very interesting. And here is the space, or this dimension in religion, that I think we need to work more with these ethnographic methods. And I know that you are an anthropologist, you are a fieldworker, and I think that’s what makes our work really fascinating.

SC: Definitely. To see the outlook of people as it is on its own terms, I think there’s a lot of value for scholarship in that. I think I’m going to move to the last question that we have here (20:00). It’s kind-of to understand this dimension of . . . more nuanced, having, not contradiction, but it’s just things that cohabit in the same place, at the same time. How is this liminal epistemological uncertainty useful to comprehend religious phenomena? Because you spoke about this . . . .

ÜV: Yes, well there are these two concepts. What I mean by epistemological uncertainty is that things are not fixed in story-telling. Also the belief narrative, it’s quite flexible, an open concept. There is a discussion about the supernatural, what is possible, what is not. Often things are projected into the past. And, well, there is this question that is how to relate to the stories, to take it seriously or not? And that’s one of the basic questions in cognition. It’s about the decision-making between fact and fictionality – what is true and what is not. And, of course, there are a lot of humorous modalities and not all belief narratives are taken seriously, even when they’re transmitted. But in another situation they might start to work to influence the behaviours, the practices of people. And now the concept of liminality – of course, we know it has been taken over from the ritual studies, and it has been applied in so many ways. We can also talk about the liminality between the story-world and the social reality: how experience is turned into a story and how the things that we know from the shared stories can be perceived, or they can become a psychological reality for some people who carry the tradition. It’s a kind of liminal world. Or we can talk about temporal liminality between the past – well, in the case of Mayong, the time of great magicians. And today, the magic is reduced, but the contemporary magicians they are like mediators. They can retrieve this knowledge from the past. And the status is also kind-of liminal. Because they know something that is secret. But they bring it to work in a social world. So these areas where things meet, and then mix, and interact, I think these are very, very interesting. A lot of work can be done there.

SC: Yes. Definitely. I remember that you mentioned about how even they themselves were figuring out if something could be effective. “Maybe, maybe not.”

ÜV: Yes.

SC: I think that there is some usefulness in trying address, vernacularly, what people think in everyday life and to understand. Do you have any comment on that? About this “maybe, maybe not?” How we can understand what the usefulness for the study of religion is in general?

ÜV: So that’s also a question about the epistemology, what we can do, and as scholars of course it’s a big question that we ask: how to see the boundaries between the world of fiction, and the world of facts, and the reality. But also people who carry these beliefs and ideas, they have similar kind of reflections. We can talk about vernacular theorising. And things are very much left open, so you can make different decisions, and see the world differently. And so I think it is also useful sometimes to see how people actually talk and discuss. Very often, they are aware of different frames of interpretation. And seeing how flexible it is in vernacular discussions, it’s also maybe inspiring for scholarship.

SC: So it has been very, very interesting to have this conversation with you, Professor Valk. I wonder if you have any concluding remarks or ideas for us, for closing the podcast.

ÜV: Well, you represent anthropology of religion, and I tried to explain the perspective of folkloristics of religion. I think what makes our approaches interesting is that there is never a final conclusion, because also the sources that we’re making, they’re not ready. They’re always in the making. We keep working with people and these vernacular ideas and the practices, they always go ahead (25:00). They go beyond. And we need to catch them to understand, to make sense. And that’s . . . also it means being on the way, all the time. Being on the move. And thinking about what kind of concepts we need. And if they’re becoming very technical, too narrow, they won’t be so helpful. So we work always in a dialogue with other people who don’t carry this academic burden of academic terminology, and very scientific methodologies. And I think it’s always wonderful to learn from them.

SC: Excellent. I think that’s a good way to wrap up the podcast. We thank you again, Professor Valk, for being with us here at the Religious Studies Project. And we hope to have you again, soon.

ÜV: Thank you for giving me this chance, and I hope to meet you soon at the next conferences.

SC: Perfect.

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.

UFOs, Conspiracy Theories… and Religion?

Area 51, Ancient Aliens, endemic child abuse at the BBC, Reptilians, Watergate, 9/11, renegade preachers rising from the dead, the grassy knoll, The Da Vinci Code, Hydra, climate change, the moon landings, Satanic Ritual Abuse, The X Files… the popular imagination is rife with stories of secret plans and cover-ups, agencies working behind the scenes, grand plans carried without the knowledge of the unsuspecting masses, lies, deceit, and an elect few who know ‘the truth’. Sometimes, stories which at one time seemed far-fetched receive widespread acceptance and become the hegemonically accepted norm. At others, they remain the preserve of relatively small groups of “nutters”, and become designated as “conspiracy theories” by those who have the power to do so. What might this popular discursive trope be able to tell us about contemporary Western society? How might scholars go about studying it, particularly when they themselves are frequently implicated as working against the truth by “insiders”? And what might all of this have to do with the contemporary academic study of religion?

9781474253222To discuss this tantalizing subject, we are joined today by a scholar who will be no stranger to regular listeners of the Religious Studies Project, Dr David Robertson. The interview begins with David’s own journey to this research field, before considering some basic questions such as “what is a conspiracy theory?” David then lays out the historical context of the parallel development of contemporary millennial and conspiracist discourse, and his case studies – Whitley Streiber, David Icke, David Wilcock, and their audiences. Discussion then turns to the meat of Robertson’s theoretical conclusions concerning epistemic capital, popular epistemic strategies, the UFO as a discursive object connecting two fields of discourse, power, and prophecy. The interview concludes with discussion of the relevance of this field of study to Religious Studies more broadly, and some challenging admonitions to for the discipline.

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, like David Robertson’s new book, and more.

Social Constructionism

What is social constructionism, and how is it important to the study of religion? In this interview, Titus Hjelm tells David Robertson about social constructionism – that is, a set of approaches which see social realities as built from language, rather than reflecting ontological realities. Hjelm outlines how these approaches emerged as part of the ‘linguistic turn’ in the social sciences more broadly, as well as pointing to some different interpretations of how these constructivist, discursive or critical approaches operate. Their importance, he suggests, is in challenging how we think about ontology, epistemology and power.

sui generis thing-in-itself, rather than a product of human culture. Despite – or because – of this, constructionism has not been broadly adopted as a theoretical approach in the field.

For much more on the subject, see Hjelm’s recent book Marxist Approaches to the Study of Religions. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, Finnish metal CDs, fishing tackle, and more.

“Religion and Pluralities of Knowledge”: A Roundtable Discussion

It’s time for another RSP roundtable, folks. Thanks very much to Liam for facilitating this, and to Angus, Essi, George and Hanna for joining him for a stimulating discussion. For now, we’ll pass over to Liam to set the scene…

Angus and Liam looking pleased with themselves.

Angus and Liam looking pleased with themselves.

“This year scholars from across the globe gathered in the city of Groningen in the north-west of the Netherlands for the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religion (EASR), acolytes of the Religious Studies Project among their number. We were hosted by a University on the brink of celebrating its 4ooth year and which looked forward to infinity and beyond! To a city whose name, the President of the University no less assured us is pronounced with a guttural g-, a rolled –r and a silent –g to finish! Not too difficult for a Scotsman but there was plenty of beer, wine and gin to aid in this process

The conference theme this year was ‘religion and the plurality of knowledge’, a topic which I initially considered dubious but which proved to be deeply pertinent. It became clear to me at least, during the many presentations and discussions taking place, that there was a division between those who regarded the kind of knowledge which should be accepted within the field to be singular – rooted in science and empiricism and those who thought the field should be open to a range of types of knowledge.

To address this issue there was only solution for the RSP: hold a roundtable of course! So, in a small room a group of bright young things gathered around ‘Steve’ the dictaphone to have a discussion. Also I was there! They even let me chair it and put up with my no doubt flawed attempt to kick off proceedings in Dutch! So apologies to the people of the Netherlands and His Majesty King Willem-Alexander for that, but it was done with the best of intentions!

What's Essi plotting?

What’s Essi plotting?

It became pretty clear that our cosy little group was not immune to the great gulf widening throughout the conference. Boorishly, from my privileged position of power I set out my case for exclusivity which clearly did not impress Angus and George but luckily Hanna and Essi appeared to be on my side….

What ensued was a debate as heated as it was enjoyed by all (I hope) and which continued long into the evening, kept afloat by a sea of libations! We hope you enjoy the discussion as much as we did and that it will add to the debate on these vital questions.”

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

George didn't realise what he had gotten himself into...

George didn’t realise what he had gotten himself into…

Insider and Outsider: An Anthropological Perspective

 

If an anthropologist holds the same religious beliefs as ‘the natives’ – or even, some might say, any at all – the implicit concern of the discipline is that he or she might be surrendering too much anthropological authority. But as Ewing argues, belief remains an ’embarrassing possibility’ that stems from ‘a refusal to acknowledge that the subjects of one’s research might actually know something about the human condition that is personally valid for the anthropologist’ (1994:571; see also Harding 1987). The problem of belief, then, is the problem of remaining at the proper remove from ‘natives’ inner lives’ (Geertz 1976:236). (Engelke, 2002: 3)

 

Map of Relations between Fields of Knowledge, Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p. 931

At the heart of ethnographers’ method of participant observation, is the paradox of being at once participant and observer; attempting to be both objective and subjective. I want in this short report to flag up some issues of interest and some texts from anthropology which speak both to the insider/outsider problem and to the broader methodological issue in anthropology of subjective and objective data collection. My response to this interview is informed by my own fieldwork with a non-religious organised group and the epistemological issues raised in the process.

This paper is intended to be broad-based; to be read beside, not against the interview. I want to think about the methodological issues which it brought to mind and suggest that – at least within anthropology – being either or both insider and outsider is an inevitable part of the fieldwork setup. The methodological issues raised relate to the balance of access to tacit knowledge vs. the ability to remain objective in the ultimate analysis which seems to present in the insider/outsider problem. It is possible to suggest that while gaining greater access as an insider you forfeit your ability for objective empirical observance.

Acceptance and Accessibility

Two issues which particularly emerge from Chryssides’ interview are those of acceptance and accessibility – and the ability to understand the subject which derives from this. Access, for example, may come more freely if you are not “other” or if you even hold a religious faith yourself, but this is more complicated. To talk only of religion as an isolated phenomena that we can be inside and outside of suggests that we are all doing (or in the case of the atheist ‘not doing’) religion all the time and may even fail to recognise the multiple identities we hold.  Gender or class, for example, may intersect or even interfere with other aspects of insider/outsider status. Being the correct gender may play a more important role in access than religious persuasion in the case of research within a gender segregated religious institution. In attending to the issue of the outsider and insider in the more broadly ethnographic sense, we may gain a reflexive position, attending to our whole positionality, not only that of our religious (or non-religious) position to another.

The problem can also be addressed in terms of a broader epistemological question of how we can know and, especially, how we can attend to the knowledge of another. I would suggest that looking at this broader set of questions may go some way to addressing the issue of the insider and outsider. Chryssides indeed does discuss this in an early and interesting point relating to truth claims: that the key question is not whether people have access to, and practice the truth, but to demonstrate what people understand to be true and how this manifests. .

There are a number of important anthropological works on the possibilities of knowledge and the limits of accessing tacit knowledge; a favourite of mine is Maurice Bloch’s How We Think They Think. There are a significant number of studies of religions, religion-like and supernatural phenomena (notably almost all from the “outsider” perspective). Yet, a survey essay by Dr Matthew Engelke on the problem of belief in anthropological fieldwork, suggests that prominent anthropologists Victor Turner and Edward Evans-Pritchard ultimately argued that they were not total outsiders, but maintained the ability to access participants due to their own Catholic beliefs. In this work, Engelke addresses Evans-Pritchard’s work with the Azande, in which Evans-Pritchard treats beliefs analytically as social facts: ‘beliefs are for [the social anthropologist] sociological facts, not theological facts, and his sole concern is with their relation to each other and to other social facts. His problems are scientific, not metaphysical or ontological’ (Evans-Pritchard 1965:1). So we return to Chryssides’ point above, regarding the nature of the “truth” you seek to find. Evans-Pritchard also speaks to assumptions regarding the internal or external nature of religious phenomena.

Both Engelke and Evans-Pritchard argue that fieldwork is essential. The method allows for access to practice and “this is how anthropologists can best understand religion as a social fact”. But what is also demonstrated by Engelke, is Evans-Pritchard’s belief that it is better to have some form of religion or religious “inner life” in order to access or understand the inner lives of “others” regardless of the context of that religious “inner life”, than to be an atheist. The argument is that the scientific study is the relation of religious practice to the social world and these are better understood if the relations are shared (even partially) between participants. Engelke then turns to the work of Victor Turner, whose view is perhaps more fatalistic: the study of religion is doomed to fail since ‘religion is not determined by anything other than itself’ (Turner in Engleke, 2002: 8). Regardless of the position of the researcher, is it simply the case that religion cannot be researched at all? In summary of this work, Engelke draws on an important critique that can be drawn more broadly across the insider/outsider issue – that of ‘belief.’ If inner life and insider status is framed in the context of ‘belief’ as the contention around which the possibility of access presides, then we run the risk of always encountering religions from a Christian/Euro-centric perspective.

Is it better to be religious or have no religion at all – the case of non-religion

At the end of this interview, Christopher Cotter asks: instead of considering which religion makes you an insider and outsider (as implied throughout the interview, in which Chryssides frequently refers to his Christian background), what of those researchers who have no religion at all? Chryssides does not seem to follow the logic within this question and in many ways this may be an answer in itself: it perhaps demonstrates an assumption that having a religion would be a necessity. But what of the atheist researcher, in the religious or the non-religious setting?

I would suggest that people wanting to learn more about the position of the non-believer in the religious setting (in this case Pentecostal) look to the work of Ruy Llera Blanes.  In a short discussion of his method, entitled “The Atheist Anthropologist”, Blanes explores his reticence to hide his atheism and the rhetorical shifting which evolved between himself and participants in order to find mutual respect and fend off questions of the possibility of his own conversion. When speaking to one participant outside a church, all seems to go well until the question of his own faith, or lack thereof, arises: he is literally shunned by the participant who turns his back. Following this, Blanes approaches the leader of the church who is more able to accept the outsider to the church. We have here two members of a church, with different statuses and perhaps levels of interest in this research, which is another important point to consider and indeed one made by Chryssides. But Blane’s work also speaks to the multiple intersections discussed above, regarding the general issue of being insider and outsider in the research setting. He is aware of the position of his participants as part of the Gypsy community and the different levels of access and sensitivity that this brings with it, demonstrating that a range of considerations may influence the involvement of a researcher.

My own experience in the field – inside an organisation which describes itself as non-religious – provides different, sometimes contradictory answers to this question. I am myself non-religious, but with a religious family, my Father being a Vicar. This is common knowledge among my research participants, and people’s attitudes towards this fact have ranged from active interest to indifference and even to expressions of pity and mock sympathy. The point here is that the division of insider/outsider is often not particularly clear cut and is certainly not fixed amongst individuals within one group or setting. People in the given group may share, for the convenience of research sampling, one aspect of interest to that researcher, but their biographical and temperamental differences make acceptance a complex issue. In my own research setting, I represent the piggy in the middle, bridging the religious and nonreligious worlds, as I have intimately experienced both in my own life. I have been asked by my own research participants, with genuine interest and sometimes bafflement, about the role of the vicar and how it must be to be part of a religious family, especially when I don’t believe, the usual question being “how do your parents feel about you doing this research?”.

What my own position may speak to is the categorisation of “religion”; when talked of in isolation, “religion” remains something fixed and visible. But in fact it intersects heavily across cultural domains, and having been in this ‘piggy in the middle’ situation, it is interesting to note the Christian heritage which is shared both by my family, myself and my non-religious participants: we are all insiders to a point.   So when we discuss this issue, I would think it important to address what we feel inside or outside of; is this cultural or religious division? Or is it one relating to our world view, morals and values?

By way of a summary, or to tack on some further thoughts for consideration – I should stress on the part of the insider/outsider issue in the anthropological project – the final transformation of data. As discussed by Blanes, ambiguities arise over the insider and the outsider, over the faith or world view of the researcher and the researched within the project. But whatever steps are taken to breach the knowledge gap, Blanes also makes the point that it often remerges in the secular project of analysis and critique. We need then to then assess a third and final role, as the outsider, the anthropology academic, who has almost always written in the secular, empirical tradition.  We also need to pay further attention to the strong critiques of the religious and non-religious categories (McCutcheon, 1997; Fitzgerald, 2000; Masuzawa, 2005), on the basis of their historical construction.  At present I am working within a climate-change in anthropology, which is attempting to critique and address its own historical relationship to the secularisation thesis put forward by the ‘founding fathers’ of the social sciences: Weber, Marx and Durkheim. I am excited and interested to see what unfolds and where this reflexivity takes us in regard to the consideration of religions and the general issue of access to ‘inner life’. As we consider the possibilities offered by these works and their continued critique, will it be possible to draw such a simple line implied by the notion of insider and outsider?

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References

Blanes, Ruy Llera (2006), “The Atheist Anthropologist. Believers and Non-Believers in Anthropological Fieldwork”, Social Anthropology 14 (2), pp. 223-234.

Bloch, Maurice (1998) How We Think They Think: Anthropological Approaches to Cognition, Memory, and Literacy Westview Press

Engelke, Matthew (2002) “The problem of belief: Evans-Pritchard and Victor Turner on “the inner life.”. Anthropology today, 18 (6). pp. 3-8. I

Geertz, Clifford (1976). ‘From  the Native’s Point of View’: On the Nature of Anthropological  Understanding.  In K.H.  Basso & H.A. Selby (eds)  Meaning  in anthropology,  pp.231-237. Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico  Press

Masazawa, Tomoko (2005) The Invention of World Religions, or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism University of Chicago Press

McCutcheon , Russell T. (1997) Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia, Oxford University Press