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Artificial Intelligence and Religion

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

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

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Artificial Intelligence and Religion

Podcast with Beth Singler (27 January 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

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

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

PDF at

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

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

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

BS: (Laughs) As foretold . . . !

CC: So many moons ago!

BS: (Laughs).

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

BS: Oh, so much older!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CC: It’s a big one!

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

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

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

CC: Yes. But that’s all a human does.

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

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

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

CC: As we’re hearing now! (Laughs)

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

CC: A new evolutionary step.

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

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

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

CC: OK. You’re an insider!

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

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

BS: Hurray!

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

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

CC: It could be a word!

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

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

BS: Yes. Very, very strong.

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

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

CC: No.

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

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

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

CC: Well, it’s not happened yet.

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

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

BS: Oh, absolutely.

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

BS: Absolutely.

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

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

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

BS: Yes! (Laughs)

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

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

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

BS: Thank you very much for having me today.

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

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Paths to Sexual Ethics

Sexual ethics remains a dominant topic in mainstream discussions of Islam. Like violence, sexuality—specifically the role and position of women—has taken center stage both within the academy and within broader societal discourses in the “West”. As with other discursively-dominant topics, for instance the “headscarf debates” that continue to make waves across Europe, sexuality and gender are cultural sites of both ongoing discomfort and discord. The burkini affair in France was only the latest example of struggles over sexual identity, modesty, ethics and allegiances in Europe. Discussions about sexual ethics are evidently deeply linked to broader spheres of ideas and action in contestation over the role of religion in “secular” states—from freedom to security, identity to rights.

While questions surrounding sexual ethics in Islam permeate the mainstream, scholarship on the topic remains largely lacking. Kecia Ali has pioneered in this respect, reaching deeply into the legal tradition in order to trace sexual ethics (such as in her book Sexual Ethics in Islam). She asserts at the onset of her interview that it is simply impossible not to have this discussion today. The challenge lies in unearthing and employing productive ways of having this discussion. The more specific challenge perhaps lies in moving beyond dominant discourses that tend to determine the direction of the conversation: such as the assumed “intolerance” of Muslims towards sexuality and patriarchal oppression of women.

How does one develop a more nuanced account of sexual ethics that accounts for both the past and adapts to the present? There is a strand of Islamic thought often deemed progressive, but that is in fact traditionalist. This includes the work of Professor Kecia Ali, as well as Professor Khaled Abu El Fadl, who authored (among other texts) The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, arguing that Islam has become distorted from its early tendencies towards increased freedom and inclusion. However, method matters as much as source in our attempts to understand sexual ethics in Islam, as well as other key topics in the study of religion. Meta-methodology further links these two scholars, who similarly argue that the way to present knowledge is to take seriously, while historically contextualizing, the past. To do this, both draw from early legal sources to trace patterns and developments of thought in Islam.
Kecia Ali illuminates the inconsistencies in assumptions about Islam utilized to justify devaluation by “the West” for centuries. Prior to the 20th century and the colonial apparatus that helped to spur disfiguring puritan notions of Islam (e.g. Wahhabism and certain other Salafi movements), Muslims were criticized for being too sexually open. From “the wanton”, as Kecia Ali names it, to the “oppressor/oppressed”, discourse has been consistently used to delegate Muslims to a lower position in the moral hierarchy vis a vis Europe. Sexuality, across religions and cultures, remains one of the most potent ways to both insult morality and forge a moral hierarchy. And yet, paradoxically, it is also a persuasive means to contest this insult and resist this hierarchy.

There is danger in essentialist categories. There is danger in categories, such as “the West” versus “Islam”, in the idea of a single Muslim perspective, when perspectives remain always multiple, and often moving. There is danger in naming Islam a sexually repressive or oppressive religion, just as there is it assuming it to be emancipatory. Human nature veers towards categorization, sense making about self through the perception of the other (we must only look at Freud on toddlerhood to see how early this begins). We cannot eliminate, but must move beyond categories, engaging the multiple, at times contradictory and often dynamic classifications that make up lives lived.

Kecia Ali argues in her interview that sources (such as the Qur’an, the hadith literature/Sunnah—i.e. sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad and legal rulings) provide the most compelling way to complicate the discourse on sexual ethics, and move closer to answers rather than fixate on categories. She draws out an anti-puritanist discourse deeply rooted in early Islam, with important implications for the lives of Muslims today. One particularly evocative discussion between Kecia Ali and interviewer, Christopher Cotter, revolves around the age of Ayse, the Prophet Muhammad’s youngest and arguably favored wife after the death of Khadija (his first wife). The age of Ayse only becomes a site of inquiry in the late 19th/early 20th century, causing discomfort both inside and outside of the Muslim community (as it is cited in hadith literature that she married at 7, with the marriage consummated at 9). Polemical accusations from outside, such as by Reverend Jerry Fine, nominalize Muhammad a demon-possessed pedophile, drawing together long-standing and novel accusations to undermine the authenticity of his prophecy. Apologetics respond by noting that it was another time, with other norms, or citing the unreliability of the texts. Yet what these accounts miss is the rich knowledge about Ayse—a scholar, a source of political conflict, who comes under question in the hadith literature as possibly betraying Muhammad. Ali thus suggests that her age may have been employed as a means to signal her sexual purity, rather than a literal number, a conclusion that can only be reached with deep theological and historical knowledge.

Even those who bring forth this knowledge, such as Kecia Ali, may be deemed suspect by broader religious communities, when it comes to asserting claims about sexual ethics. This is—no pun intended—a touchy subject. Kecia Ali laughs as she recounts a student being told not to read her book on sexual ethics because it is “dangerous.” The highest of compliments, she notes, lies in this statement, as she has thus succeeded at complicating falsely simplified answers to difficult questions: “Answers are great…I don’t think we will get answers until we are asking the right questions”, she explains. The idea of the single encompassing answer is but another false category. Regarding sexual ethics in Islam, as well as many other pressing sociocultural questions, we tend to ask “which is the right way”, Ali notes. Perhaps we should instead be asking: what many ways have there been, how can we authenticate them and where can they lead us in the present?

A takeaway from the interview with Ali for the broader study of religion brings us back to paths, rather than categorical answers, the tracing of lives lived and stories told—perhaps nowhere more colorfully than intricately woven hadith and Islamic legal proceedings—that link believers and non-believers alike to tradition. Paths need not be linear nor our place on them stagnant, rather we can draw from the past and draw it into the present moment, revisiting and revising as we ask new questions in enduring, and uniting, struggles over ethics in sexuality and beyond.

Sexual Ethics and Islam

feetAlongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there is perhaps no other issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of the downtrodden Muslim woman are often countered by the claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there is a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and “problematic” topic? What are some of the most prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for Religious Studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, Chris is joined this week by Professor Kecia Ali, of Boston University.

Check out a recent lecture by Kecia on sexual ethics and Islam here.

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, Tiger Balm, and more.


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


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): Alongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there’s perhaps no issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions surrounding sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of down-trodden Muslim women are often countered by claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there’s a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and problematic topic? What are some of the prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for religious studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, I’m joined today by Kecia Ali, who is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Professor Ali is a scholar of religion, gender and ethics whose work focusses mostly on the Muslim tradition, with an emphasis on law and biography. She is currently Status Committee Director at the AAR and is a past president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. Her publication list is impressive and features five monographs, including The Lives of Muhammed, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, and – most relevant to today’s interview – Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, originally published in 2006, with an expanded revised edition published in 2016. So, Professor Ali, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Kecia Ali (KA): Thank you for having me.

CC: And thanks for joining us here in Edinburgh in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

CC: It is a mouthful, but they’re graciously hosting us today. And we’ll be sure to shout out about your lecture that you’re doing this evening., when we publish this podcast. So first-off, Islam? Sexual ethics? Why are we even having this discussion?

KA: Yes, it’s sort of impossible not to be having the discussion, really. I think the challenge is to find ways to have it that are productive and don’t just inadvertently reinforce the power of certain dominant discourses by contesting them, if that’s the only thing we do. Look, the question of gendered roles and rights and obligations is one that has been present since – as near as we can tell – the first Muslim community, right? Scripture records specific questions about women’s and men’s respective roles, relationship to each other, relationship to religious obligations, relationship to God, etc. Certainly, accounts of the Prophet’s normative community are replete with gendered descriptions and contestations. Now, obviously, to what extent these reflect a 7th-century community and to what extent they reflect 8th/ 9th/10th-century reflections on that community and attempts to ascribe certain later, normative patterns onto that community, that’s a subject of debate among historians of Islam. But, for Muslims, pious Muslims, lay folk, scholars, these are the stories out of which accounts of virtuous ethical life are made. So Muslims certainly have been having internal conversations about gender norms since quite early on. Now, why are “we” having this conversation?

CC: Yes.

KA: Sexuality is always one of the things that comes up when someone wants to insult someone else, right? When one community, or members of a community are looking for a way to stigmatise, oppose, define “others”, sexuality is very frequently something that gets pressed into service. Whether that’s Protestants saying bad things about Catholics, Catholics saying bad things about Protestants, Protestants saying bad things about Catholics by likening them to Muslims, or the reverse , sexuality frequently comes into play. What we know, if we want to just in very broad terms talk about “The West and Islam” – and I object on principle to those categories, but I’m going to use them anyway as a kind of shorthand – we see, really, that in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern era, it wasn’t Muslim oppression of women that was a problem for anybody, it was Muslim lustfulness and debauchery. And it’s really in the 19th-century, with the advent of European colonialism in Muslim majority societies – Egypt, for instance, and also India – that Muslim men’s oppressiveness towards women becomes part of a colonial discourse about civilisation, right? What’s very interesting is to look at the ways that the kinds of accusations levelled against Muslims have really changed over time. So not only from wantonness to oppression, but also you’ll find that today one of the things that tends to get said of Muslims is: “Oh, they’re so intolerant of homosexuality! They’re so repressive! Look how awful . . . !” Well, in the Early Modern era, and even into the 19th-century, the claim was, “They’re too tolerant of homosexuality!” They are attached to the practice of sodomy, “ Unlike us upright Brits,” usually, right? And, “Look how awful they are, compared to how moral we are,” which is basically the gist of all of this. And of course there are Muslims equally scandalised by Western women’s dress and the ways in which women and men outside their family interact.

CC: And that’s an important link there, then, when you mention the Muslim perspective. Because contemporary Muslims, whether we’re talking scholars or lay people going about their lives, are having to articulate their views against this dominant Western view.

KA: Yes, I mean, I think part of what’s particularly challenging for me as a scholar, and for media, for lay folk, for religious studies teachers in the classroom, is : how do we talk about this in way that actually recognises the great diversity of perspectives among Muslims? Because, you know, even that phrase, “the Muslim perspective” . . . it’s one that gets bandied about a lot, including by many Muslims. And, of course, part of what’s interesting to me as a scholar of religion, is: how are claims to representing the “authoritative Muslim perspective” being pressed? What are the sources being cited? What are the extra-textual authoritative norms being deployed? How much is it about where you got your degree from? How much is it abut whether you have a beard? How much is it about whether the media is calling you speak on their programmes? And how much is it about the content of your ideas?

CC: Yes. And that’s something that comes up in Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity

KA: Absolutely.

CC: We’ve had him on the podcast before and he talked about something completely different. We’re going to have to get him on again for that! But, yes, a very broad topic we’re talking about here: sexual ethics and Islam. How does one even go about studying that? I know that you had your own particular approach . . .

KA: So, the book Sexual Ethics and Islam really has its roots in two different things I was doing around the turn of the millennium. I did my doctoral dissertation at Duke University, about marriage and divorce in 8th -10th-century Sunni Muslim Jurisprudence. At the same time, 2001-2003, I was working part-time for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, which was directed by Bernadette Brooton and funded by the Ford Foundation. And so, for the dissertation, which I defended in 2002, I was really looking at about a dozen early Arabic legal texts. And for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project I was actually engaged in putting together a series of short essays for the site, aimed at lay folks – not necessarily Muslim – looking for a general orientation to the Muslim textual tradition. So, Qur’anic and prophetic tradition – to some extent exegesis, to some extent legal tradition – framing particular kinds of issues: issues around female dress, issues around marriage, around divorce, around slavery, around same-sex relationships, but framed in a kind of general way that would make them accessible. And I also wanted to begin to address the ways Muslims today were talking about those topics. Sexual Ethics and Islam really came together out of those two initiatives because, on the one hand, what I found when I was looking at the way contemporary Muslims were talking about these topics, is that they were often completely disconnected and, in fact, making claims that really contradicted, sometimes the positions, but far more often the logic and the assumptions of the early legal tradition. And I wanted to put those two things into conversation: put the 10th-century and the 21st-century into conversation. And I was very frustrated by the kind of “Islam liberated women” apologetic that a lot of Muslims were presenting. And I was equally frustrated with the sort of patriarchal, protective, protectionist . . . you know, “Well, of course, patriarchy done right is the only true Islamic tradition, that protects and respects women.” Which exists in a kind of funny tension with “No, no. The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed gave Muslim women all their rights and so there’s no need for patriarchy, because Islam is against patriarchy.” And none of these really grappling with, “What is it that’s there in the texts?”

CC: And that – when you mentioned the Prophet Muhammed – is perhaps an excellent way for us to leap right into some of that analysis. I know that the undergrads at New College, in Edinburgh, will be quite familiar with the chapter of the book that focuses on the Prophet’s relationship with his wife Aisha, so maybe we could use that as an example of these various competing discourses and how people use claims to authority to negotiate sexual ethics?

KA: Sure, so of course, for the pre-modern Muslim tradition, Aisha is an absolutely vital figure. She is the youngest of the Prophet’s wives, many say his favourite wife – certainly after Khadijah died, who was the wife of his younger years – and she’s a scholar,and she’s a contentious political figure and certainly, for the construction of Sunni identity, she becomes a flash point in those debates over loyalty, over succession, over precedence. And Chase Robinson – I’m going to paraphrase him now – says that Early Christians argued about Christology and early Muslims argued over how 7th-century Muslims’ behaviour should be remembered, right? So, later Muslims are trying to construct their own authentic narratives, their own strategies of power, by reference to these early Muslims. And so Aisha was absolutely central there. Which means that the ways in which she’s remembered ends up being very central. The texts that are giving people fits today really are texts about her marriage, in which she reports in the first person, in Hadith narratives – narratives of Prophetic tradition – that she was six or, in another version, seven when the prophet married her, and nine when the marriage was consummated. And there are other details sometimes given in these accounts. Now it’s useful to point out that this isn’t something that people were particularly worried about for a very long time. And its actually really unusual that any of his wives ages would be so important in texts about the marriage. But this is there in the Hadith compilations that we have from the 9th-century. And this is similar to the ages that are reported by early biographers, who maybe sometimes go as high as 10. But really, its quite a young age that’s reported in these texts. And generally, over the centuries, Muslim biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. Western biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. None of them took much notice, until we get to just about 1700, when Humphrey Prideaux, who was an Anglican clergyman, writes a very nasty biography of Muhammed as, actually, part of his ongoing debate with Unitarian Christians. And he says, “Oh isn’t this sort-of amazing there in Arabia, which is the same clime as India,” just like in all these other hot countries, the torrid zone, “how women mature so quickly”. And, for him, Aisha’s age of 6 and 8 is an indication of something that is sort-of exotic and erotic. What he’s worrying about, though, is that Muhammed is marrying her to make an allegiance with her father, which shows that he is making a power grab, in service of his fraudulent imposture. And basically, it only is really in the late 19th/early 20th-century that people start to, maybe, wonder about this a little bit . . . Western biographers. And by the late 20th-century it’s making lots of people uncomfortable, including some Muslims. So the Arabic translation of Washington Irving, for instance – who though this was all very romantic in the middle of the 19th-century – in the 1960s, when its being translated in Egypt, the translator adds a real note, right? And the original marriage has been demoted to a betrothal, and then the translator feels the need to sort-of explain this. But, by the time I’m writing Sexual Ethics and Islam, the context is different and there are two very serious competing strains. There’s a set of polemical accusations that Muhammed is a paedophile, which the Rev Jerry Vines has linked in an epithet as “Demon-possessed paedophile“. So he’s linking a very old accusation against Muhammed with a very new one: a sort of medicalised rhetoric of evil. And then you start to have Muslim apologetics around this question, which say several things. One is that, “Well, things were different back then”. And a version of that is what a number of secular, sympathetic Western academics have also said. And then, the other thing that you get is, “Well, these texts really aren’t reliable on this point.” And the thing that I point out in Sexual Ethics and Islam is: it’s completely fine if you want to make that argument, but then it’s a problem if you turn to those texts as absolutely true on everything else. The thing that was really striking for me, after writing Sexual Ethics and Islam and moving onto the project that became the Lives of Muhammed – which is an investigation of Biographical texts, specifically – is the ways in which, so often in early texts, numbers have a particular kind of symbolic function and resonance. And while I don’t know that six and seven, or nine and ten have the symbolic resonance that say forty does in the accounts of Khadijah’s age, it seems to me that there is plausibly . . . I don’t want to say probably, and I don’t think we can ever know with any kind of certainty these are factually accurate unless we’re simply willing to say, “These texts are all factually accurate and we accept that.” It seems to me, plausibly, there’s an argument to be made that the very low numbers given for her age are in service of praising her, actually; of presenting her as a particularly pure figure, which is very important given that her chastity was impugned during her lifetime, or at least according to texts.They represent this as something that was challenged. And so making her so young at marriage, emphasising her virginity, becomes a way of emphasising her sexual purity. The other thing, it seems to me, is that it’s possible that making her, say nine, when the marriage is consummated, after the Hijrah to Medina, is also a way of making her age low enough that she’s indisputably born to Muslim parents. So although virtually everybody in that first Muslim community would be a convert – according to pious narratives – by the time these Hadith texts are being compiled, having your parents already be Muslim, being born to Muslim parents is quite a status marker. It becomes important to have a genealogy of Muslim parents going further back.

CC: So, time is already running on here! In terms of positioning: you’re a woman, a Western academic, a feminist . . .

KA: And a Muslim

CC: And a Muslim, writing this book, discussing these topics, how was it received? My stereotypical brain is going, “This isn’t going to be that well received in some circles”. So how do you position yourself, in that respect?

KA: One of the more flattering things somebody once told me about the book, was that her graduate advisor – who was also a Muslim man – had suggested that she not read it, because it would be dangerous. And I thought, “Oh! I must have done something right!” (laughs) But, on the other hand, I think that my original intention for the book was not really to have it end up where it’s ended up, which is in the classroom mostly with students, many of whom are not Muslim. This was written, originally, very much as a book that was engaged in a kind of intra-Muslim conversation, to address some frustrations I had with the way intra-Muslim conversations over issues of sexual ethics, were going: I thought, in not particularly productive ways. However, I’m not writing it only as a Muslim feminist. I’m writing as a scholar of Religious Studies. And I know there are some people who don’t think you can or should do both of those things, but I have Religious Studies training. And one of the things that that training enables me to do is to look at the ways in which particular traditions are being constructed, in which particular claims to authority are being made in particular ways. So, for instance, the chapter on female genital cutting in the book is really an extended meditation on: what does the category Islamic, and what do claims to the category Islamic – or, more pertinently, “un-Islamic” – tell us? How useful are they? And where might things that are useful in particular kinds of activist campaigns really break down, if we’re trying to look at them historically, or from within Religious Studies, or from within the world of scholarship, at all?

CC: Yes. And I can remember the students being a little bit frustrated in the sense that so many different points of view were being considered – and not being necessarily condemned – and they were all . . . “Which is the right way?!” (laughs)

KA: I mean, look, answers are great. I have a lot fewer answers than I have questions. And, if anything, in the expanded edition of the book there are even more questions and even fewer answers! But, look, I don’t think we’re going to get better answers until we get better at asking the right questions.

CC: Exactly

KA: And the right questions are very often – and not just for Muslims, and not just about Muslim questions – what’s behind what we’re being told? What’s the evidence for this perspective? Where is this coming from? And how much credit do we want to give it as an accurate representation of something in the world?

CC: And that leads me into, sort of, where I was wanting to get to in the interview – and you’ve been a fantastic interviewee. Religious Studies: I can imagine that some will have maybe seen the title of this interview and thought, “Oh, that’s Area Studies, Islamic Studies. I don’t need to go there.” You know, everything that you’ve been saying, I think, has been illustrating why this is important for the broader study of religion, but I just, maybe, wondered if you wanted to reflect on that from your perspective . . . in multiple different camps.

KA: Yes. I mean, within the academic world of scholars who study Islam and Muslims, some come from Area Studies training: Middle East Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies. Some are really trained to philological work with old texts, and there’s a lot of good work that’s being done with those texts. And some are not trained to work with those texts and instead are very historical, very presentist, very ethnographic in ways that, I think, sometimes make it difficult to understand the resonance of the appeal to the textual tradition that many Muslims take. I’m very fortunate that the American Academy of Religion brings together, in the programme units that study Islam, quite a fabulous group of scholars who have expertise in training in a variety of different disciplines, but who are committed – at least some of the time in their professional engagement – to Religious Studies as a discipline, which is of course inter-disciplinary of necessity. And I think, given that so many questions about Islam are really pivotal to questions that Religious Studies as a discipline is wrestling with, about the rights and roles and responsibilities of insiders and outsiders, with the formation of the category of religion . . . . Look, it’s not an accident that Orientalist, Imperialist categories are very much at play here. I think it’s tremendously important that Islamic Studies be having conversations with folks in Religious Studies and vice versa, to the extent that you can even draw distinctions between them.

CC: And so, on the topic of conversations between different fields, your work’s taken a different turn of late?

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

CC: Your latest book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in JD Robb’s Novels . . . What’s this got to do with Islam? (laughs)

KA: Well, at one level, nothing. And at the other level, I suppose, everything. I read these novels recreationally. It’s a series that’s been ongoing over 20 years, published by Nora Roberts, whose a premier American author of popular romance, under the pseudonym JD Robb. They are police procedurals, set in New York, circa 2060, and I read them. And I had things to say about them, and about the way that they deal with intimate relationships; about the way they deal with friendship; about the way they deal with work, especially women’s work; about the way they deal with violence, including police violence; about the way they deal with what it means to be a human being; about abilities and perfection and the idea of a post-human future. And I think that, to the extent that this book connects to my other work, it’s really around the questions of ethics: what it means to live a good, ethical, virtuous life in connection with other human beings in a given set of circumstances. I trained as a historian before I moved into Religious Studies. And one of the things that comes up again in this series – just like it comes up looking at 8th and 9th-century legal texts and biographies – is that understanding the present is sometimes best done from a distance. So looking comparatively at the past, looking at one possible imagined future, can give us a new perspective on the world we’re living in right now.

CC: Wonderful. And that, also, illustrates even more the importance of your work with Islamic texts, with contemporary Islam, sexual ethics. And it’s been fantastic that we’ve been having this conversation on International Women’s Day! So, I know this won’t be going out for another few months, but just to get that onto the recording from the Alwaleed Centre. And I think we’re going to have to draw that to a close there. It’s been fantastic speaking with you. And I wish you all the best with the lecture this evening, which, if the recording of the lecture goes ok, we’ll link to it from this page and everyone can see it and hear it, in all its glory!

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


Citation Info: Ali, Kecia 2017. “Sexual Ethics and Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sexual-ethics-and-islam/

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AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation

This roundtable, in association with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, considers the impact of recent technological advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics on religion, religious conceptions of the world, and the human. It draws attention to how such advances push religion beyond how it has been commonly defined and considered.

1389397212614In March 2016 ‘AlphaGo’, a Google/Deepmind programme, defeated an international champion at the Chinese game ‘Go’ in a five game match. This victory was, by current understandings of AI, a vast leap forward towards a future that could contain human-like technological entities, technology-like humans, and embodied machines. As corporations like Google invest heavily in technological and theoretical developments leading towards further, effective advances – a new ‘AI Summer’ – we can also see that hopes, and fears, about what AI and robotics will bring humanity are gaining pace, leading to new speculations and expectations, even amidst those who would position themselves as non-religious.

Speculations include Transhumanist and Singularitarian teleological and eschatological schemes, assumptions about the theistic inclinations of thinking machines, the impact of the non-human on our conception of the uniqueness of human life and consciousness, and the moral boundary work of secular technologists in relation to their construct, ‘religion’. New religious impulses in the face of advancing technology have been largely ignored by the institutions founded to consider the philosophical, ethical and societal meanings of AI and robotics. This roundtable is an initial conversation on this topic, with the intention for further discussion and publications.

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, tin foil hats, Jeff Goldblum custom water proof shower curtains, and more.

Religion, Spirituality, and Addiction Recovery

What is the relationship between ‘religion’, ‘spirituality’, ‘addiction’ and ‘addiction recovery’? What are we meaning by ‘addiction’? Is it socially constructed? Why are we even talking about a relationship between these concepts? Can religion be conceptualized as an addiction? how might a specifically Religious Studies approach help us to productively engage with this particularly sensitive area? And, as ever, how might we go about conducting such research? These are just a few of the questions discussed in today’s podcast, where Chris speaks with Dr Wendy Dossett of the University of Chester, UK.

Be sure to take a peek at some of Wendy’s other scholarship, like the book Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion.

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, flowers, tea tree oil, and more.

Religion, Youth, and Intergenerationality

When we think about ‘religion’ and ‘youth’ a number of images might come to mind. Young people rebelling against their parents. Young people as mere containers for the religiosity of their parents. Creative reinterpretation of stagnant traditions. Systemic abuse and lack of agency. And so on. In the context of the United Kingdom, where we are recording today, with its historically hegemonic Christianity, one scholar has written that

young_old

“It is no secret that Christian churches are struggling to attract and retain young people. The current generation of young people has largely abandoned the church or never known it as a significant part of their lives. The 2005 church census revealed that many churches have no young people at all in their congregations: around half have no 11- to 14-year-olds attending and well over half have no 15- to 19-year-olds (Brierley 2006).” (Stanton 2012, 385)

But of course, this misses much of what is going on. That scholar is Naomi Thompson (formerly Stanton) who joins us today on the Religious Studies Project to give us a more nuanced overview of the broad topic “Religion, Youth, and Intergenerationality.”

We begin this interview by asking what is ‘youth’? How do sociologists define it? What are some of the current trends in sociological research on youth? What, if anything, is distinctive about youth experience? Discussion then turns to ‘religion and youth’, focusing on why scholars might be interested in it, the current state of play, common assumptions, how we might go about researching it, before focusing on some of Dr Thompson’s own research. Towards the end of the interview, we focus on the ‘transmission model’ and the relationship between generations, before thinking to the future of this growing area of research.

This episode is the fourth in a series co-produced with Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan, and ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie.

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, Jaffa Cakes, Lion bars, and more.


References:

Stanton, Naomi. 2012. Christian youth work: teaching faith, filling churches or response to social need? Journal of Beliefs & Values, Vol. 33, No. 3, December 2012, 385–403

Ecological Ecumenicism, Forever Ethical?

After the material turn, it should come as no surprise that scholars are taking a wide aperture approach to religious studies. Actor Network Theory (ANT) and various strains of New Materialism help in formulating horizontal connections between all sorts of objects that speak back to religious people. The strictly discursive approach to religion as dogma is critiqued for neglecting to account for physical bodies, selves and others, that produce ethical orientations. The network approach will lead—should lead—to a global reckoning of how religions are involved in the governance of the physical world. Or according to Whitney Bauman, a planetary account of all that religions have ruined in the name of upholding a strict adherence to traditional ontologies. He recently sat down with George Ioannides to discuss the ideas animating his new book, Religion and Ecology: Developing a Planetary Ethic.

Bauman suggests that a planetary approach to “various modes of becoming” may help religious studies scholars move further away from an austere dogmatic favoring of (arbitrary) religious essences over accidents, and allow for a more authentic engagement with what it means to be religious itself. This means a bringing-together of humans, their various artificial technologies, natural environments, and all non-human members of those lifeworlds that are usually dealt short shrift from religious attitudes that focus on that which lies beyond the physical world.

Drawing on Gayatri Spivak, Bauman embraces the “planetary” over the “globalized” view of ethical habitus. The latter, he claims, tends to reflect what a hegemonic first world dictates through ideology and material practice as an exclusive mode of existing. The planetary approach instead maintains “difference” as a universal commonality and a point of departure from which we can begin to think and discuss a sort of ethical management that accounts for all planetary members.

Clearly Bauman is building on other discussions about an ontological as opposed to an epistemological approach to ethics. This has been advanced in Jean-Luc Nancy’s Being Singular Plural (2000), Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s Strange Wonder (2010), and Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter (2010)— titles that have been popping up recently at the AAR—along with most of Bruno Latour’s work.

Bauman mobilizes this matter-oriented critical theory to argue for a religiously informed approach to ameliorate the malignant environmental effects arising from an exclusively human-centric ethical outlook.

In the environmental debate, I would go so far as to argue that Bauman is himself arguing religiously. What I mean is that an overtly eschatological vision of planetary over-consumption, ecological mismanagement, and inevitable population devastation occasions this ethical reorientation in the first place. In Bauman’s view, exclusively-human modes of existence neglect the wellbeing of non-humans. However, he does not entertain the idea that nonhuman planetary members that have the benefit of rapid evolution may benefit in currently unforeseen ways from our “damage” to the earth’s ecosystem. Therefore, while claiming to remedy the excesses of anthropocentric thinking, Bauman’s eschatology remains overtly anthropocentric. Perhaps that has more to do with political expediency and the affective attunements of most moderns who only change their behavior in the short term when they are the ones suffering in the long term.

But if we accept his basic premise, that we should resist a monolithic global outlook that necessarily privileges one cultural interpretation of human need over all others—how do we arrive at the conversation in the first place, together, in order to identify what levels of environmental devastation are acceptable and what are tolerated externalities created in the name of development? I’m writing from a very sooty Hyderabad, where this is very much an open question. The presentist concerns that motivate certain countries like India to invest in technology at the expense of clean air should also be understood in tandem with other practices that routinely and willingly except certain human lives as collateral for the function and hygienic maintenance of other segments of society. We may demand action from institutions like religions to offer greater care for subaltern planetary members, but we’re still not at all on the same page about human membership and what it means to value humans as selves to begin with.

For this reason, I want to like Bauman’s project, but I do so from a strictly first-world vantage as I remain skeptical of thought projects that claim to be universal in their application, especially those based on human reason.

I do agree with most of Bauman’s political sentiments, especially for retooling human ethical calculus within the fragile ecological matrix at a much deeper level. Yet, introducing ecological orientations and philosophies from ‘eastern’ religions such as Daoism and Buddhism packaged through New Materialist philosophies will not have significant effects on the planetary debate. After all, these ideas have been around for a while and have not supplanted our ingrained ontological moorings with something greener on a wide scale.

I believe Bauman could offer more direct comments about how to engage with monotheist traditions that are responsible for much ecological and human devastation. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, have established pernicious onto-theologies at various historical junctions that have bred violence against other humans in the name of constructing pious communities: post-revolutionary Iranian discrimination of religious minorities like Baha’is; Manifest Destiny of the 19th Century that shattered remaining American communities; and unending militant settler-colonialism in occupied Palestine are just a few examples that come to mind. How do these hierarchical societal manifestations of religious sentiment reform and “expand the locus of ethical and moral concerns beyond tribe and nation to all humanity?” These religions, as institutions, would not necessarily start caring more about the planet if they resolved their issues with non-member humans. We have the convenience of being environmentalists and conservationists while maintaining racist and authoritarian exclusivity, after all.

As a fellow Arkansan using ANT and New Materialist theory in my work, I instead reduce the aperture of my studies on early-modern Persianate Islam to focus on much more localized religious experience. The writings of Iranian physicians, occultists, and naturalists are replete with discourse about animals, plants, gemstones, auspicious astral formations, diseases of the eye, and tales of monsters that force me to bracket off their other dogmatic statements about man’s superiority among God’s creations. Not only do non-humans continually instruct human observers, but early-modern ethical comportment in the world demands caution and deep reflection on the various corporeal and spiritual intrusions that humans constantly experience. The authors I study were not rigidly bounded selves. They were not objective. Their ontological standing above animals and below angels (although this point is contested) was, at best, aspirational and had to do more with an ethical proscription rather than a scientific or cosmological fact.

This is the grey area that we find ourselves in when drawing on very immanent phenomenological experience that has immediate ethical implications and making the grand leap outward to implicate the world at large. I don’t mean to universalize the claims made from my examination of a 17th century manuscript archive in Hyderabad. The tools of New Materialism and ANT work to help describe counter-hegemonic ethical orientations, but I am not sure they can proscribe solutions to the problems of very real, specific, and contingent human selves.

 

Religion and Planetary Ethics

Whitney Bauman discusses with George Ioannides some of the potential and difficult answers to these questions and more, revealing how the field of religion and ecology can go some way in helping to visualise and constitute a planetary, hybrid, ethical community of ecospiritual, biohistorical, and multispecies subjects.

Speaking of religions as “eco-social constructions across multiple species, over multiple generations, and over multiple histories,” Bauman puts forward an ethics of understanding ourselves and others as planetary creatures, and understanding religion, science, and nature as non-foundational, non-substantive categories.

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, biodegradable refuse sacks, poppy seeds and more!

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Bron Taylor on Religion after Darwin, and Bruno Latour, Gaian Animisms, and the Question of the Anthropocene.

Sufism is a paradox?

In his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Milad Milani gives a thoughtful overview of the tradition of Sufism, answering big questions such as: what is Sufism, how did it emerge historically (see Milani 2013), and how is it configured in contemporary Western discourses? As Milani astutely indicates at various points throughout the interview, the complexities of Sufism (if one can even speak of Sufism in the singular) make it quite difficult to pin down straightforward answers to these questions. In other words, there is no single set of doctrines and practices that define Sufism as such; there is no single figure, group, or place in which Sufism emerges; and, there are a number of different contexts in which Sufism is being deployed in contemporary discourses. However, by attempting to unpack some of these complex questions Milani provides substantial insight into how the population in general ought to think about Sufism, how scholars can approach the academic study of Sufism, and how Sufism relates to the Islamic tradition as a whole. Perhaps most importantly in my opinion, his continual recognition of the multiplicities of Sufi traditions is critical for the academic study of Sufism insofar as it counters many of the popular narratives of global and universal Sufism, and provides a context for considering the plurality of the Islamic tradition and the contestations that continually constitute it.

As with most discussions of Sufism, the interview begins with the question ‘What is Sufism?’ Milani’s answer is that, primarily, Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism that emphasizes central aspects of the Islamic tradition and seeks to cultivate an experience of ultimate unity or oneness with the divine. From this definition we can derive two important features of Sufism – one doctrinal and the other practical. In terms of doctrine, this notion of oneness was most clearly elaborated by the twelfth-century Andalusian mystic Ibn al-Arabi who proposed the concept of wahdat al-wujud (‘oneness of being’). The basic premise of this doctrine is that all created things are essentially reflections of God and that therefore God (or Truth – al-Haqq) is present in all things in this world. Today we may call this a kind of pantheism and this affront to the transcendence of the Divine was a main point of tension with normative Islam at the time. However, I highlight this doctrinal component here not because I want to suggest that all Sufis upheld it or interpreted it in precisely the same manner. Instead, I point to it in order to bring out some of the key doctrinal components underlying Sufism because I felt that perhaps too sharp a line was drawn in Milani’s interview between ‘mainstream’ Islam as doctrinal and Sufism as experiential. In other words, there are complex theological doctrines within Sufism, making the doctrinal-experiential differences difficult to render in any straightforward manner.

The second component is the practical dimension, and by that I mean the spiritual techniques for experiencing the divine, which Milani discusses briefly in relation to the ‘aesthetic’ components of Sufism, as well as what might be called the ethical ‘technologies of the self’ (to borrow a term from Foucault). With regard to the former, we have the primary practice of sama’, that is, a ritual practice of ‘audition’ that generally involves the recitation of poetry, the invocation of the names of God (dhikr), and rhythmic bodily movements performed in groups that lead people to an ecstatic experience in which one experiences the dissolution of the self in the face of the Divine (see Frishkopf 1999, Shannon 2006). The actual details of this practice vary greatly across Sufi orders (tariqa), but this is a central practice in much of the Sufi world. In relation to the ethical side, the ethical techniques are critical to Sufism and function not only to develop one’s relationship to the Divine, but also to develop one’s relationship to oneself and one’s community (see Silverstein 2012, Waugh 2008). This practical dimension of ethical Sufism is important because many discussions of Sufism revolve solely around the individual’s relationship to God, a tendency that I heard in Milani’s interview as well. My point, however, is not to criticize him for omitting a discussion of Sufism as an ethical tradition since there is only so much that can be said in such a limited amount of time. Rather, I want to stress that in many ways Sufism is not merely a form of asceticism, i.e., not simply a rejection of the material world, because embedded within the ethical tradition is the need to be involved in an ethical community in order to reach ‘perfection.’

The emphasis on community can then be connected to the formation of Sufi orders called tariqat (sing. tariqa), which in many ways defined classical or medieval Sufism. The tariqa is named after a particular founding saint or ‘friend of God’ (wali Allah) who often gains his/her status through esoteric knowledge, performing miracles (karamat), receiving God’s blessing (baraka), and a spiritual genealogy (silsila) (on sainthood see Ewing 1997, Stauth 2004, Sedgwick 2005). Individuals then enter into discipleship with these types of figures who guide the apprentice along his/her spiritual path, and the group of disciples that enter into this relationship constitute a particular manifestation of the tariqa at a given time, though at any point in history an order can be several generations removed from the founding figure. Some contemporary scholars have argued that, especially in the modern context, the tariqa has ceased to function as it did in the premodern times and that therefore modern Sufism has taken on such a distinct character that it is possible now to speak of ‘Neo-Sufism’ (see Rahman 1979, O’Fahey 1993, and Voll 2008). The details of this debate and the utility of the term aside, it does point to the question of how Sufism articulates with discourses of modernity (see van Bruinessen 2007, Weismann 2003, Johansen 1996). For instance, are Sufi practices and beliefs commensurate with the sensibilities of modern Muslim life, however that might be defined? The relationship between Islam and modernity is a significant question posed by scholars of Islam and I feel that Sufism provides a useful focal point for these studies, but the issue I want to bring into relief here is that discussions of the communal constitution of Sufism are central to how we define Sufism, and therefore an attempt to articulate what Sufism is ought to include the topics of sainthood and tariqa, in addition to individual experience.

While the tendency to think of Sufism as a kind of individualized or more private form of Islam is quite prevalent, the representation of Sufism as a form of ‘peaceful Islam’ or as a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of radical Islam is equally pervasive (see Muedini 2012, Villalon 1994). These conceptions of Sufism are quite popular in the West, but they have also entered the rhetoric of countries like Morocco, for instance, where the government patronizes many Sufi activities as a means to combat the influence of radical Islam in the country. In this context, Sufism is presented as both apolitical and peaceful, and is therefore a non-threatening method for confronting extremism. (An interesting counter-example is contemporary Egypt where the President has actually ordered the closing of Sufi prayer spaces due to supposed connections between Sufi groups and terrorist groups in the country). However, as Milani indicates, many of these formulations of Sufism decontextualize it and overlook the fact Sufi groups have initiated and been intimately involved in various militant movements throughout history. For example, early Sufis were often the ‘frontiersmen’ of Islam, bringing a new religion into hostile territories and were therefore forced to participate in military conquests (see Green 2012). More recently, Sufi leaders sparked many anti-colonial movements and the tariqa system was used as a recruiting mechanism. Examples can be found throughout the Islamic world, but as my own work focuses on the North African context I would point to Algeria, Libya, and Sudan as prime examples of what Milani called ‘militant Sufism’ (see Heck 2007). It is in this sense that I think we can begin to think about Milani’s statement that, “Sufism is a paradox.”

By this phrase I take Milani to mean that Sufism confounds our thought in a number of different ways. It is said to promote peace and tolerance, yet has often been deployed in contexts of violence and militancy. It is claimed to be apolitical and disinterested in worldly affairs, yet Sufi orders have held tremendous economic and political power throughout history (see Cornell 1998). It claims to be Islamic, yet Sufis have continually been criticized as un-Islamic by Muslims. It promotes a kind of universality, yet the myriad forms of Sufism emerged from within specific cultural contexts and retain that cultural character. It is often seen as an esoteric tradition, yet for many centuries was considered ‘popular religion.’ Finally, it emphasizes the individual’s relationship to the Divine, yet this experience is made possible through bodily practices and involvement in a community (for more on the body in Sufism see Kugle 2007, Bashir 2011). These tensions, however, provide incredibly fruitful areas for both historical and ethnographic investigation because it is precisely how individuals and groups navigate these tensions at particular places and times that will enable us to speak about how the different forms of Sufism connect with one another. Such investigations will also give us a better sense of the enduring impact of Sufism on the Islamic landscape as a whole (see de Jong 1999), and allow us to better understand the processes through which visions of normative Islamic identity are constructed.

References

Bashir, Shahzad. Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam. New York: Columbia UP, 2011.

van Bruinessen, Martin, and Julia Day Howell (eds). Sufism and the “modern” in Islam. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

Cornell, Vincent. Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Ewing, Katherine Pratt. Arguing Sainthood: Modernity, Psychoanalysis, and Islam. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

Frishkopf, Michael Aaron. Sufism, Ritual, and Modernity in Egypt: Language Performance as an Adaptive Strategy. PhD dissertation: UCLA, 1999.

Green, Nile. Sufism: A Global History. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Heck, Paul L. Sufism and Politics: The Power of Spirituality. Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2007.

Johansen, Julian. Sufism and Islamic Reform in Egypt: The Battle for Islamic Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

de Jong, Frederick and Berndt Radtke (eds). Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics. Leiden: Brill 1999.

Kugle, Scott Alan. Sufis & Saints’ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, & Sacred Power in Islam. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2007.

Milani, Milad. Sufism in the Secret History of Persia. London: Routledge 2013.

Muedini, Fait. “The Promotion of Sufism in the Politics of Algeria and Morocco.” Islamic Africa 3.2 (2012): 201-26.

Sedgwick, Mark. Saints and Sons: The Making and Remaking of the Rashidi Ahmadi Sufi Order, 1799-2000. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

Shannon, Jonathan Holt. Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2006.

Silverstein, Brian. Islam and Modernity in Turkey. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

Stauth, Georg (ed). On Archaeology and Sainthood and Local Spirituality in Islam. Yearbook of the sociology of Islam. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2004.

Villalon, Leandro. “Sufi Rituals as Rallies: Religious Ceremonies in the Politics of Senegalese State-Society Relations.” Comparative Politics 26.4 (1994): 415-437.

Waugh, Earle H. Visionaries of Silence: The Reformist Sufi Order of the Demirdashiya Al-Khalwatiya in Cairo. Cairo: AUC Press, 2008.

Weismann, Itzchak. Taste of Modernity: Sufism, Salafiyya, and Arabism in Late Ottoman Damascus. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

The First Rule of Adjuncting is…

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.[1]

The second rule of adjuncting is… you don’t talk about adjuncting!

If you have seen the film Fight Club, a visually stunning piece based on Chuck Palhnuik’s book by the same title which savagely critiques modern consumerism, you know that I am making a link here between this film and the role of the adjunct in American higher education. In the film, this underground fraternal club revolves around cage-fighting style matches between two men in abandoned warehouses. These brutal bouts act as therapy for these men who feel emasculated by modern consumer culture. What does that have to do with adjuncting? Nothing and everything.

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.

If you have read my two pieces on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, then you know I have recently come out of the closet as an adjunct. You may not know what an adjunct is. Here is a blurb where I explain the adjunct plight in higher education.

An adjunct is a part-time knowledge worker who teaches 76% of all college courses in the US. We are contract workers (picking up jobs by the semester or year), transient populations (going where the jobs are), we rarely get benefits, are rarely hired in full-time capacity (because this would require we receive benefits), and we often don’t know if we will have work from semester to semester. Many of us have PhDs; some of us, like myself, only have a MA degree. Many of us have written for esteemed journals, published alongside tenured professors, and even written our own books.”

The closest equivalent in the U.K. is perhaps the fixed term temporary lecturer who primarily teaches. This is not to be confused with the more esteemed lecturer position which is more open-ended, fairly stable, and allows for both teaching and research. It seems there is a great deal of confusion regarding nomenclature even within similar systems. In the U.S., students and parents often have no idea how an adjunct (limited term, lowly paid, MA or PhD, instructor with few research opportunities) is different from other faculty… such as full professors (not limited term, well paid, PhD, who usually teaches and does research the rest of the time). Students only see what we do in the classroom… often they assume that those teaching their classes are not part of this underclass, if they even are aware such an underclass exists. Adjuncts don’t usually complain about their situation because they are already living month to month… and they can’t risk getting fired. This allows departments to pay them less and less. The tide is shifting though. Today, adjuncts are fighting for benefits, better wages, and representation in the university. In many small community colleges, adjuncts make up the majority of the faculty and work in less than ideal conditions (no benefits, low wage, no offices or shared offices, and no way to get out). In these cases, the 76% number rings true… where adjuncts teach a majority of the classes. In more prestigious state schools, like where I taught the last two years, about 17% are adjunct (this number is based only on part-time faculty). The count of annual contracted adjuncts is much harder to ascertain. I am sure you can imagine why, no college wants to advertise their use of this contingent labor. Some thinkers warn that the continued corporatization of the American academy is systematically undermining the values of higher education. Even Congress is worried.

So now that you know we exist and that you know that I was one (I taught 52 courses in 10 years at 3 different Georgia universities and colleges) I will explain why you might not have known that I was an adjunct.

Simple…I didn’t want you to know.

Why would I hide my identity as an adjunct? Hello_my_name_is_AdjunctM-773510

1. Fear: Speaking out makes your employers look bad. The first rule of adjuncting is that you don’t talk about adjuncting. The second rule of adjuncting is that you don’t talk about adjuncting! Why? Because if you talk about being underpaid, having no health insurance or benefits, no representation or recourse in administration, your department will be shamed by this disclosure (as they should be) and there will be retribution. I, like other adjuncts, who are disclosing what has happened to them, fear losing our current jobs and we fear that speaking up will make us social and professional pariah. We fear retribution. We also know that by disclosing this information we are burning bridges… I most certainly cannot ask for a letter of recommendation from a department which I have critiqued for unethical employment practices.

2. Shame: Speaking out makes you look bad. I never introduced myself as an adjunct because adjuncting is seen as the dying lands for academic stragglers. It is a job which slowly squeezes out the undesirables from academia. This is a way of culling the herd in the academic world. To say you are an adjunct is to risk being viewed in this negative light. If you are an adjunct, full-time professors want to know why you are an adjunct. They want to know what is wrong with you. If you are a perpetual adjunct, you must be damaged goods. Academia is a lot like high school… who you know, who you sit with, work with, present with… is indicative of your own academic status. Many academics only want to associate with other academics that can raise their scholarly stock. Associating with an adjunct might make your scholarly stock plummet.

So why would I speak out? Why say anything, if it is in my best interest to be silent?

It is no longer in my best interest to be silent. I tried that route and it didn’t work. I have decided to leave adjunct teaching. After all that work, I have finally had it. I had my Towanda moment. I like to call it my Breaking Bad moment… minus the whole becoming a homicidal drug lord part. Once I saw that my department was now hiring annual contracted ‘lecturers’ (PhDs who will teach full-time for up to seven years before a possibility of promotion to senior lecturers), I realized that now that departments could get PhDs to teach classes for pennies on the dollar, they would not need me. Oh they would continue to hire me on a part-time basis semester to semester when these lecturers leave two weeks before the semester starts for a better job. I would still not get benefits. I still wouldn’t be able to even cobble together a living by teaching, tutoring/ etc. at various state schools. I would still need to get a signed letter every single semester from my department so I could check out books from the school library.

adjuncts-e1342612896160

I may be leaving adjunct teaching for a living wage and benefits but I am not leaving academia. I love higher education but I can no longer pretend to be blind to the exploitation in my midst, to the exploitation happening to me. I love to teach, write, and research about religion but the cost of this part-time living is too high. I am personable, resilient, skilled, published, and highly educated… and now fully employed. Most adjuncts are so crippled, emotionally, finically, and physically… that by asking them to fight back you have only given them another job… another job for which they won’t be paid, a job which will likely get them fired and shunned.

I will still speak for adjuncts.

I am breaking the first rule and the second rule of adjuncting.


[1] *editors note: ‘Adjunct’ is a term used in America to denote a college professor who typically has the same and/or greater teaching responsibilities as a tenured professor at a university, but lacks anything even approaching the job security, benefits and stipend of a tenured professor. As Kate has mentioned, 76% of all college courses in the US are taught by adjuncts. Even many PhD’s are adjuncts. As the number of tenured teaching positions in academia continues to shrink, it is likely that most wishing to at least ‘earn a living wage’ will either have to find jobs outside academia altogether, or accept being a contingent laborer who not only teaches but has to compete with the very students they teach for jobs at a local pub for minimum wage – just to make ends meet. You should care about adjuncts for many reasons, but as tenure positions appear more like pipe dreams it’s likely that, if an academic career is your dream, you yourself may be in a similar position one day trying to make ends meet.

Religious Education in State-Funded Schools: An Academic Subject Like Any Other… and Some!

In many ways I am in agreement with Professor Jensen, and see myself as a partner in the campaign to establish a ‘Religious Studies based’ Religious Education in state funded schools throughout Europe and indeed the world. Since experiencing a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion from Theology to Religious Studies on my teacher training year and Lancaster University MA in the mid-1970s (see Cush 2009), I have spent nearly forty years passionate about the ‘Religious Studies Approach’ and applying it in a variety of educational settings. I have also concerned myself throughout that time with the relationship between Religious Studies as understood at university level, and religious education in schools, both in academic publications (see for example Cush, 1999) and on various professional and policy committees on religious education. I currently represent the university Theology and Religious Studies sector (TRS-UK) on the Religious Education Council of England and Wales and its subcommittees, and was on the Steering Group for the new National Curriculum Framework for Religious Education, part of the recent Review of Religious Education in England (REC, 2013) – full report available at http://resubjectreview.recouncil.org.uk/re-review-report. So I am perhaps an example of the ‘publically engaged academic’ Tim seeks, at least in relation to education policy.

Like Professor Jensen, I began my teaching career in a sixth-form college (in Denmark, Gymnasium or ‘upper secondary’), and then moved into university level where I have been involved in both training teachers and undergraduate and postgraduate Religious Studies. Thus we both have much practical experience as well as theoretical perspectives.

I am in total agreement with Professor Jensen – Tim – that religious education should be a compulsory subject in all state-funded schools (see Jensen 2011). A brief note about terminology – I use the term ‘state-funded schools’ rather than ‘public schools’ (which is the term used in US and international English for ‘ordinary’ community schools), to avoid confusion with the English usage of the term ‘public schools’ to refer to certain prestigious, independent, fee-paying, schools. I also use ‘religious education’ as that is the most familiar term in the UK, although I like Tim’s ‘religion education’, which I believe was coined in South Africa in the late 90s, as avoiding the implication that studying religions is somehow ‘religious’. I would prefer another name altogether, possibly avoiding the highly contested term ‘religion’, which can carry negative connotations.

I also agree that religious education should be an academic subject, treated like other school subjects. If only it was treated like other subjects in England, we would not have the situation where it is a subject which is given less time on the timetable (many RE teachers have to enable students to pass their GCSE (16+ qualification) in half the time given for history or geography), where 50% of teachers teaching RE are completely unqualified in the subject, where primary trainee teachers may only have a couple of hours training, where it was not listed in the government’s list of important subjects for 16+ qualifications (the so-called ‘English Baccalaureate), where it is not included in the list of ‘facilitating subjects’ for gaining a place in the more prestigious universities, where trainee teachers are given no bursaries to study in spite of the shortage of specialist teachers, and where the recent Review of the subject had to be funded by charities and worked on by unpaid volunteers because the government provided no funding. For documented evidence on the neglect of religious education, see for example http://religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/media/file/APPG_RE_-_The_Truth_Unmasked.pdf and to illustrate that this neglect is not new, Gates (1993).

I also agree with Tim and the colleague he mentioned, Wanda Alberts, that religious education should be what she calls ‘integrative’ (Alberts, 2007). In other words, the subject should be for all pupils of whatever religious background or none, should be non-confessional (not attempting to evangelise, proselytise, catechise or promote any particular religion or ‘religion’ in general), should be multi-faith (content should include major religions like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism but also smaller ‘indigenous’ traditions such as the Maori, and smaller newer developments such as contemporary Paganism). I also consider that given the fact that c.25% of people in England and Wales consider themselves to be ‘non-religious’ (whatever they mean by that) it is important to include the study of non-religious worldviews such as Humanism. It might come as a surprise to some that non-confessional, multi-faith religious education is still a minority option for states internationally (notably Sweden, Norway, Denmark, South Africa and the UK – and Ireland is thinking about it), most preferring to opt for either confessional religious education in the tradition deemed that of the country (or several separate strands if diversity is noticed) or to leave religious education out of state-funded education altogether, as in France or the USA.

I agree with Tim that multi-faith religious education, if appropriately done, is suitable for pupils of all ages from nursery schools onwards. Attitudes are formed early. I also wish that we in England had the sort of religious education for all students in the 16-19 age group that is found in Denmark, rather than A level Religious studies for the minority that take it and either nothing or a token gesture for the minority. I also agree that it is inappropriate for teachers of religious education to be expected to be somehow more of a moral role model, or more personally religious than any other teacher. Those of us in the subject at any level of education are bored with the predictable responses when introduced as a religious studies teacher/lecturer.

Another point of agreement with Tim is that we should not just be providing information about religious and non-religious traditions, but enabling our students to think critically about religions and to be able to discuss religious and ethical matters in an informed and articulate way (sometimes referred to as ‘religious literacy’). This, as Tim says, should be requisite in any open, democratic society.

I agree that we should have people teaching in schools that are well qualified, have studied the subject at university level, and that the university curriculum should take account of this and other likely careers for Religious Studies graduates, and help to provide skills they will need. Perhaps more controversially, I do agree to some extent with Tim’s aim of inculcating ‘some kind of relativism’, but would prefer to talk of ‘epistemological humility’ (a term apparently arrived at separately and simultaneously by David Chidester and myself) as ‘relativism’ is too misunderstood and explosive a term. What Tim and I mean is people who have their own well-thought out views and perspectives, but are open to accepting that they might just have something to learn from those who disagree with them.

And now for the ‘howevers’…

Although I bounced into the classroom in the 1970s full of enthusiasm to share my ‘Lancaster University Religious Studies’ knowledge of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and so on with my students, over the decades, especially working with younger pupils, I have come to appreciate that there are other, and perhaps even more important aims for religious education. As Tim says, it is unlikely that any ‘scientific’ study of religion will not have side effects such as students reflecting on their own beliefs, values and identity, and becoming better citizens of a diverse society. However, in Religious Education as practised in England and Wales, academic knowledge of religions/non-religious worldviews is only one of the aims of religious education. Tim’s ‘side-effects’ become explicit aims. So, religious education should enable students to develop their own ideas on the important questions dealt with in religious traditions. In the words of the National Curriculum Framework (REC 2013) ‘Religious Education contributes dynamically to children and young people’s education in schools by provoking challenging questions about meaning and purpose in life, beliefs about God, ultimate reality, issues of right and wrong and what it means to be human’. Though agreeing with Tim (2011:143) that religions are more than sets of answers to existential questions, and that not everyone is interested in these issues any more than in religions, there needs to be space for pupils to work out their own beliefs and values, in relation to the community or communities they belong to and the wider society. I do however note Tim’s concern that this can go too far, and am myself concerned that a focus on philosophical and ethical issues in England is in danger of pushing out learning about religions in some examination syllabuses and therefore also in earlier school years.

Religions and non-religious worldviews also have much to offer in contribution to discussing some of the pressing issues of our day, such as social justice, equality, wealth and poverty, war and conflict, the environment. The REC document calls these contributions ‘sources of wisdom’, though in an impartial approach we must also enable pupils to think critically about examples where ‘religions’ and ‘worldviews’ have made things worse. Tim also states that in the hands of ‘engaged and dedicated teachers’ (2011:143) such issues arise naturally out of the ‘neutral and factual information about the religions taught’ – but unless planned for, or in the hands of less gifted teachers, they might not.

In order to engage positively with others in a society of diverse religious and non-religious worldviews, pupils need more than just factual information. They also need to empathise with others, and the skills of discussing controversial issues without disrespecting those with whom they disagree. These skills can be honed in the religious education classroom. Although the phenomenological approach to the study of religions has been rightly criticised in some respects, such as essentialism, the practice of epoche and empathy before jumping straight into critical analysis and evaluation have much to be said for them when dealing with matters at the heart of people’s identity.

Tim talked about being bored with observing religion in practice – visiting mosques and gurdwaras.  As a veteran of organising many a field trip, I can sympathise, but without us organising such visits many of our students will never have a chance of meeting some religious communities. Nothing beats actually meeting people to break down stereotypes (OK, sometimes they get reinforced, but that can be discussed), and realising that what we label ‘religion’ is not just about ideas and rules, but community, atmosphere, music, art, who we are, what we eat and how we wash. School religious education did not have to wait for university religious studies to suggest an ethnographic approach to studying religions, this was already happening in the late 60s and 70s (see Cush & Robinson, 2014:7), and more systematically from the 1990s (see Jackson, 1997 and 2004). The part of our undergraduate degree course that I value most is our compulsory seven day residential stay with a community other than the student’s own (see www.livingreligion.co.uk).

I disagree with Tim that school religious education ‘ought to be a miniature of religious studies’ (2007:142), as for philosophical, pedagogical and feminist reasons I am very wary of ‘top-down’ approaches to knowledge. For universities to set the agenda for schools can be patronising (see Cush 1999), and sometimes the flow of information and experience can be the other way round, such as the influence on university curricula in the UK of the stress on philosophy and ethics in schools, or simply when a child from a particular tradition actually knows more than the lecturer in a particular context. I would rather see universities and schools as partners. I also contend that ‘Religious Education in schools is not University Religious Studies watered down to make it suitable for children’ but ‘about the interaction between the religious material and the concerns and interests of the child’ (Cush, 1999:138). Spiritual, or more generally personal, development may be a side-effect of university Religious Studies, but it is an explicit aim of religious education in schools in England, and indeed an aim for the whole curriculum.

Recent development in Religious Studies such as the application of feminist theory, queer theory, and post-colonial theory have undermined the ‘Enlightenment’ concept of ‘objective’ knowledge and stress that ‘the scholar does not so much survey the scene from above but works within the web of his/her own experience and relationships’ (Cush & Robinson 2014: 9). Have our ‘religious studies facts’ been constructed under patriarchy, heteronormativity and colonialism? And how does this change the religious education classroom?

In conclusion, as Peter Schreiner often says (see for example, 2011:30) we all tend to prefer our own system of religious education, partly from a conservative attachment to what we know and are comfortable with, but also because the contexts of different countries, regions and individual schools differ. Although I have some disagreements with Tim Jensen’s approach to religious education as detailed above, I imagine that in practice, in the hands of skilled teachers who have a good relationship with their pupils, Tim’s ‘side-effects’ accomplish much the same as my ‘explicit aims’, and our commitment to a non-confessional, multi-faith religious education outweighs the differences. There is only a small band of Religious Studies scholars who take the time to care about Religious Education in schools (Ninian Smart was one, with his colleagues in the Shap Working Party – see www.shapworkingparty.org.uk/ ) and this partnership must be encouraged.

Bibliography

Alberts, W. (2007) Integrative Religious Education in Europe: A Study of Religions Approach Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

APPG (2013) The Truth Unmasked: the Supply of and Support for Religious Education Teachers available from http://religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/media/file/APPG_RE_-_The_Truth_Unmasked.pdf

 Cush, D. (1999) ‘Big Brother, Little Sister, and the Clerical Uncle: the relationship between Religious Studies, Religious Education and Theology?’ in British Journal of Religious Education 21.3 pp 137-146

Cush, D, (2009) ‘Religious Studies versus Theology: why I’m still glad that I converted from Theology to Religious Studies’ in Bird, D. and Smith, S. Theology and Religious Studies in Higher Education: Global Perspectives Continuum, pp.15-30

Cush, D. (2011) ‘Without Fear or Favour: Forty Years of Non-confessional and Multi-faith Religious Education in Scandinavia and the UK’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann, pp.69-84.

Cush, D. and Robinson, C. (2014) ‘Developments in Religious Studies: Towards a Dialogue with Religious Education’ British Journal of Religious Education 36.1, pp.4-17.

Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) (2011) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann.

Gates, B. (1993) Time for Religious Education and Teachers to Match: a Digest of Under-provision St. Martin’s College, Lancaster: REC.

Jackson, R. (1997) Religious Education, an interpretive approach London, Hodder

Jackson, R. (2004) Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality: Issues in Diversity and Pedagogy London: RoutledgeFalmer

Jensen, T. (2011) ‘Why Religion Education, as a Matter of course, ought to be Part of the Public School Curriculum’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann. Pp.131-149.

Religious Education Council of England and Wales (2013) A Review of Religious Education in England London: REC, also available on-line at http://resubjectreview.recouncil.org.uk/re-review-report

Schreiner, P. (2011) ‘Situation and Current Developments of Religious Education in Europe’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann, pp.17-34.

A useful place to find summaries of how religious education is organised in European countries is the website of the European Forum for Teachers of Religious Education

http://www.eftre.net/

A useful source for example of practical materials and cutting edge debate on religious education is http://www.reonline.org.uk/

For Shap Working Party on World Religions in Education see http://www.shapworkingparty.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

Religious Education

For those of us in Britain the question of Religious Education has become an ever-increasing issue of concern. Just last October Ofsted, the regulatory board for all education at school level, reported that over half the schools in Britain were failing to provide students with adequate RE. In the wake of this calls were made for clearer standardisation of the subject and a “national benchmark”. The deterioration of RE is perhaps not all that surprising after it was excluded from the English Baccalaureate in 2011. But the call for improvement raises with it a number of questions. First and foremost, just what exactly should RE entail? Should RE be teaching about religion or teaching religion? Who, even, should be RE teachers? PGCE (teacher training) courses in RE accept candidates with degrees in Religious Studies, Theology, Philosophy or indeed any other topic so long as they can, in the words of one program, show “demonstrable knowledge of the study of religion”. But does a theologian or a philosopher have the same skill sets as an RS scholar? To be sure, they may know the facts of a particular religion but are the facts enough for a satisfactory education? Just what is exactly is it we are teaching students to do in RE classrooms?

In this interview, Jonathan Tuckett speaks with Tim Jensen to try to answer some of these questions and more. Not only has Jensen spoken widely on the topic of RE he has recently headed the EASR working group in Religious Education which has studied the status of RE in Denmark, Sweden and Norway highlighting that the question of RE is of particular concern to any secular state.

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

‘Secular Humanism’

One axiological challenge facing the secular movement in America today relates to ethics and social value. Detractors often respond to ontological positions such as atheism and agnosticism with expostulation, and even impertinence. This said, there is plenty of evidence to support that secular movements can provide socially responsible and ethical structures, and the Council for Secular Humanism is one such organization which encourages dialogue and ethical responsibility beyond the boundaries of traditional religious ideologies.

Throughout history the dominating attitude towards Freethinkers and nonbelievers in a God or gods might be summed up best in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov when he famously wrote, “If there is no God, everything is permitted”. In other words, and turning this into a question worthy of inquiry, what can help structure the lives of the many people who are often labeled as having ‘no structure’ without God? Certainly, distrust of atheists has historical roots and even persists today (Norenzayan, 2013). While debates about the existence and necessity of God for moral imperatives and ethical obligations between theologians and atheologians alike may never cease, secular humanism offers at least one pragmatic alternative to a religious worldview by providing a normative cynosure of values, ethics and meaning with which to structure the lives of atheists and other nonreligious peoples.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn

In Thomas Coleman’s interview for the RSP with Tom Flynn, secular humanism is described as a “complete and balanced life stance” rejecting supernaturalism. Recorded at the Center For Inquiry’s 2013 Student Leadership Conference, Tom addresses whether secular humanism is a religion by covering the functionalist/substantive dichotomy, and discusses some of the common ‘tenets’ of secular humanism and outlines the growth of secularism, atheism and agnosticism in the United States. Tom departs by drawing parallels with current attempts in America from the LGBT movement, and their effort to gain acceptance, to that of the ongoing battle for equality, acceptance and ‘normality’ for nonbelievers in God leaving us with the following word of advice for atheists around the world: “If you’re in the closet come out”. This interview attempts to bring secular humanism under the academic eye of religious studies as a movement which should fruitfully be considered in discursive relationship to the category ‘religion’.

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

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

References:  Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big gods. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ayahuasca as a Gateway Drug (Toward a Less Stigmatized Academic Discussion of Drugs and Religion)

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 6 November 2013, in response to Andrew Dawson’s interview on Santo Daime  (4 Novemberr 2013).

With the presumption that one of the major purposes of the Religious Studies Project is not simply to describe various religions but to act as a focal point for broader discussions of the academic study of religion, I intend to focus my attention on the apparent sticky areas that discussion of Santo Daime seems to move us into rather than on the specifics of Santo Daime itself.  While Andrew Dawson provided an abundance of insightful food for thought on issues of globalization and modernization, it is apparent that the most salient and polarizing feature of Santo Daime is simply that their rituals consist of the use of a hallucinogenic drug.  In fact, I suspect that if Dawson’s research were on a non-drug-using syncretic Brazilian church, it’s very likely that this podcast would never have happened and that very few of us beyond specialists in that arena would pay any attention.  It is the added ayahuasca component that draws both our attention and our suspicion, and I suspect that it is partly the ways in which such substances are characteristically represented to us and the fact that they are typically illegal which influences our, often unconscious and unreasoned, bias against attributions of religious import to drugs or drug-related experiences. The assertion that an experience which takes place while under the influence of a drug should not be construed as having religious import implicitly makes a value-judgment about what true or valid religion can consist of, whereas an examination of how hermeneutic and discursive resources are drawn upon to develop a personal or communal account in which drugs and the experiences they elicit are ‘deemed religious’ (Taves 2009) is likely to provide significantly more analytical purchase.

My goal in this essay is simply to propose that the discussion of the role of ayahuasca in a contemporary Brazilian church may provide a conceptual framework which could be used to advance the level of academic discourse surrounding the use of psychotropic substances into a broader range of contexts in which the consumption of such substances are deemed religious.  As a heuristic effort, then, relative to this goal, I would like to make an attempt to bridge the ethnographic efforts of Andrew Dawson with the theoretical and corrective aims of Wouter Hanegraaff (2012).  To this effect, Dawson is interested in documenting and contextualizing a Brazilian new religion that, in almost every sense, fits our general intuitions and definitions of what constitutes a religion (it’s community-based, it’s about God and communing with spiritual beings, it involves ritualized communal services, it has a founder who is understood to have been divinely inspired, etc.).  Hanegraaff, with a much broader scope, is interested in overcoming an academically-untenable and methodologically-inconsistent negative response to emic attributions of religious significance to the use of drugs as well as to attempts at etic analysis of the same.  As Hanegraaff notes, “The ‘drugs’ category… causes [such beliefs and practices] to be associated with hedonistic, manipulative, irresponsible, or downright criminal attitudes, so that claims of religious legitimacy are weakened even further” (Hanegraaff 2012, 395).  In contrast to such dismissive attitudes, Hanegraaff endorses an approach which would “treat entheogenic esotericism as just another form of contemporary religion that requires our serious attention” (Ibid).

Editor’s insertion: The album cover Entheogenic’s self-titled album “Entheogenic” (simply because it seemed tangentially relevant, and Chris and Kevin both like them, and think they’re worth checking out!)

The term ‘entheogen’, which Hanegraaff has taken up in discussing this issue, is itself a very good example of the need for a proper academic study of the place of drug-use in the contemporary religious world.  It was expressly coined in an emic framework intended to reorient the discussion of these substances away from terms stressing psychological or sensory effects toward a discourse in which the substances were understood to possess distinctly religious import.  One of the originators of the term, Gordon Wasson, defined it as “’God within us’, those plant substances that, when ingested, give one a divine experience, in the past commonly called ‘hallucinogens’, ‘psychedelics’, ‘psychoto-mimetics’, etc, to each of which serious objections can be made” (Wasson 1980, xiv).  In the face of such obvious efforts of individuals to frame their drug experiences in religious terms, what possible objection could there be to analyzing such instances with all of the theoretical force that a Religious Studies perspective can muster toward the effort?

What I would like to suggest (which struck me as I was listening to this interview) is that opening the door to the discussion of drugs and religion with examples such as Santo Daime and research such as Dawson’s might provide a stepping stone that could allow us to face and address some of the broader and more contentious issues regarding drugs and the study of religion.  Since Santo Daime, without the ayahuasca, fits very easily into almost any academic definition of religion, we can, perhaps, begin to discuss the ‘drug issues’ that inevitably arise but do so in a less contested space before moving the discussion further on into the role of drugs in even more challenging areas of research in the academic study of religion, such as ‘alternative,’ ‘esoteric,’ ‘occult,’ ‘new age,’ ‘popular,’ and similar such amorphous religious frameworks.  Hanegraaff’s chapter on ‘entheogenic religion’ focuses very much on this latter grouping and it is in this milieu (which is often understood to be highly individualistic and shallow) that we are more likely to encounter the kinds of accusations of hedonism and irresponsibility that he expresses concern over.  So, perhaps Santo Daime can be used as a bridge to allow for the venting of worries about drugs on the way toward achieving Hanegraaff’s goal of opening up a perfectly legitimate, prevalent, influential, and, ultimately, theoretically fruitful object of study, which has so often be treated with misapprehension, suspicion, derision, or simply dismissed as unimportant.

Dawson himself suggests a similar ‘bridging’ aim in discussing his underlying interest in “the ways in which the rather exotic, non-mainstream profile of Santo Daime allows us to think about what constitutes religion, religious belief, religious practice in a new way.”  While my own essay is, in effect, an endorsement of this very effort, to use Santo Daime as a heuristic means of addressing broader trends, I take the need for this statement to be incredibly unfortunate in that I don’t believe that the existence of contemporary drug-use, even if it is understood to be ‘exotic’, requires thinking newly about what constitutes religion (though we should certainly continue to do that, as well).  As far as I can tell, there seems to be very little reason to suspect that Santo Daime should be an issue for any of the most prominent contemporary academic definitions of religion.  It involves belief in God and putative engagement with spiritual beings.  It involves communal ritual participation relative to those beliefs.  It is Catholic.  It is soteriological.  It is international.  It is acknowledged by national governments as a religious organization.  As Dawson points out, when you get over the sensationalized notion of Santo Daime as a “drug-fueled religion,” you find that “they are, in many ways, quite traditional in appearance when you look at what goes on.”  In other words, in the case of Santo Daime, it is predominantly the use of drugs that gives people pause.

So, if, as Dawson has admirably done, we can communicate clearly and effectively that a psychotropic substance plays a fundamental role in an otherwise patently obvious example of religion (although, I suppose diminutive reactions to syncretism are also not uncommon), then we stand in a better position to move onto a more mature further discussion of the religious significance of drugs in our own cultures and countercultures where attitudes are typically more highly contentious, as is apparent when Santo Daime attempts to find a home in countries with negative overall views on drug-use (typically excepting alcohol and other already sanctioned drugs).

Assessments of the validity of the source of a religious attribution is not the prerogative of the scholar of religion, or, at best, is relatively uninteresting theoretically.  If someone tells us that drugs or the experiences they render are understood to possess religious import, especially if they then orient their lives around that understanding and influence others to take up a similar position, then there is no case to argue, “but it was only a drug experience.”  For all of the analytical purchase that such a stance provides us, we may as well tell a Catholic at mass, “but it’s only a wafer.”  Such appellations tell us little about the cognitive, social, historical, and other factors which lead the psychonaut or Catholic to hold the religious attributions that they do and even less about how the experience and attribution affect their lives and behavior.  If an informant tells me that he was divinely inspired on a mushroom trip, I wouldn’t bat an eye any more than if he told me that he was divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit during communion.  That is his attribution to make and mine to document and analyze.  In fact, as a scholar of religion, the primary data of import is that he did, in fact, make that attribution.  Our informants provide us with the data about what is and isn’t deemed religious.  If people are telling us, in unequivocal terms, that they attribute religious meaning to their drug experiences, we trivialize them not at our peril but merely at our bias, and in doing so we miss out on important data about the religious lives of a large number of people in the contemporary world who may hold more of a sway over the collective imagination than many might think.  For instance, to use my own research as an example, the recent bout of millennialist expectations for the year 2012 was developed in and propagated by circles of entheogenic enthusiasts, and it is actually very difficult to understand the development of that widespread millennial phenomenon without understanding and addressing the role of drug-experiences in the production of prophecy.  In fact, in many cases, it was the very fact that the prophecy was understood as having arisen from a drug-experience that was seen by an audience as assuring its authenticity.  If we close our eyes to the religious import of drugs in a globalized modern context, there are significant religious phenomena in the world that we will simply fail to see and thereby fail to take into account in our models.

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

  • Hanegraaff, Wouter J. 2012. “Entheogenic Esotericism.” In Contemporary Esotericism, edited by Egil Asprem and Kennet Granholm. Sheffield: Equinox.
  • Taves, Ann. 2009. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. 1980. The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Podcasts

Protected: Artificial Intelligence and Religion (Classroom Edit)

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Artificial Intelligence and Religion

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

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

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Artificial Intelligence and Religion

Podcast with Beth Singler (27 January 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

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

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

PDF at

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

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

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

BS: (Laughs) As foretold . . . !

CC: So many moons ago!

BS: (Laughs).

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

BS: Oh, so much older!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CC: It’s a big one!

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

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

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

CC: Yes. But that’s all a human does.

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

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

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

CC: As we’re hearing now! (Laughs)

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

CC: A new evolutionary step.

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

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

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

CC: OK. You’re an insider!

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

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

BS: Hurray!

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

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

CC: It could be a word!

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

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

BS: Yes. Very, very strong.

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

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

CC: No.

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

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

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

CC: Well, it’s not happened yet.

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

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

BS: Oh, absolutely.

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

BS: Absolutely.

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

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

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

BS: Yes! (Laughs)

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

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

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

BS: Thank you very much for having me today.

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Paths to Sexual Ethics

Sexual ethics remains a dominant topic in mainstream discussions of Islam. Like violence, sexuality—specifically the role and position of women—has taken center stage both within the academy and within broader societal discourses in the “West”. As with other discursively-dominant topics, for instance the “headscarf debates” that continue to make waves across Europe, sexuality and gender are cultural sites of both ongoing discomfort and discord. The burkini affair in France was only the latest example of struggles over sexual identity, modesty, ethics and allegiances in Europe. Discussions about sexual ethics are evidently deeply linked to broader spheres of ideas and action in contestation over the role of religion in “secular” states—from freedom to security, identity to rights.

While questions surrounding sexual ethics in Islam permeate the mainstream, scholarship on the topic remains largely lacking. Kecia Ali has pioneered in this respect, reaching deeply into the legal tradition in order to trace sexual ethics (such as in her book Sexual Ethics in Islam). She asserts at the onset of her interview that it is simply impossible not to have this discussion today. The challenge lies in unearthing and employing productive ways of having this discussion. The more specific challenge perhaps lies in moving beyond dominant discourses that tend to determine the direction of the conversation: such as the assumed “intolerance” of Muslims towards sexuality and patriarchal oppression of women.

How does one develop a more nuanced account of sexual ethics that accounts for both the past and adapts to the present? There is a strand of Islamic thought often deemed progressive, but that is in fact traditionalist. This includes the work of Professor Kecia Ali, as well as Professor Khaled Abu El Fadl, who authored (among other texts) The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, arguing that Islam has become distorted from its early tendencies towards increased freedom and inclusion. However, method matters as much as source in our attempts to understand sexual ethics in Islam, as well as other key topics in the study of religion. Meta-methodology further links these two scholars, who similarly argue that the way to present knowledge is to take seriously, while historically contextualizing, the past. To do this, both draw from early legal sources to trace patterns and developments of thought in Islam.
Kecia Ali illuminates the inconsistencies in assumptions about Islam utilized to justify devaluation by “the West” for centuries. Prior to the 20th century and the colonial apparatus that helped to spur disfiguring puritan notions of Islam (e.g. Wahhabism and certain other Salafi movements), Muslims were criticized for being too sexually open. From “the wanton”, as Kecia Ali names it, to the “oppressor/oppressed”, discourse has been consistently used to delegate Muslims to a lower position in the moral hierarchy vis a vis Europe. Sexuality, across religions and cultures, remains one of the most potent ways to both insult morality and forge a moral hierarchy. And yet, paradoxically, it is also a persuasive means to contest this insult and resist this hierarchy.

There is danger in essentialist categories. There is danger in categories, such as “the West” versus “Islam”, in the idea of a single Muslim perspective, when perspectives remain always multiple, and often moving. There is danger in naming Islam a sexually repressive or oppressive religion, just as there is it assuming it to be emancipatory. Human nature veers towards categorization, sense making about self through the perception of the other (we must only look at Freud on toddlerhood to see how early this begins). We cannot eliminate, but must move beyond categories, engaging the multiple, at times contradictory and often dynamic classifications that make up lives lived.

Kecia Ali argues in her interview that sources (such as the Qur’an, the hadith literature/Sunnah—i.e. sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad and legal rulings) provide the most compelling way to complicate the discourse on sexual ethics, and move closer to answers rather than fixate on categories. She draws out an anti-puritanist discourse deeply rooted in early Islam, with important implications for the lives of Muslims today. One particularly evocative discussion between Kecia Ali and interviewer, Christopher Cotter, revolves around the age of Ayse, the Prophet Muhammad’s youngest and arguably favored wife after the death of Khadija (his first wife). The age of Ayse only becomes a site of inquiry in the late 19th/early 20th century, causing discomfort both inside and outside of the Muslim community (as it is cited in hadith literature that she married at 7, with the marriage consummated at 9). Polemical accusations from outside, such as by Reverend Jerry Fine, nominalize Muhammad a demon-possessed pedophile, drawing together long-standing and novel accusations to undermine the authenticity of his prophecy. Apologetics respond by noting that it was another time, with other norms, or citing the unreliability of the texts. Yet what these accounts miss is the rich knowledge about Ayse—a scholar, a source of political conflict, who comes under question in the hadith literature as possibly betraying Muhammad. Ali thus suggests that her age may have been employed as a means to signal her sexual purity, rather than a literal number, a conclusion that can only be reached with deep theological and historical knowledge.

Even those who bring forth this knowledge, such as Kecia Ali, may be deemed suspect by broader religious communities, when it comes to asserting claims about sexual ethics. This is—no pun intended—a touchy subject. Kecia Ali laughs as she recounts a student being told not to read her book on sexual ethics because it is “dangerous.” The highest of compliments, she notes, lies in this statement, as she has thus succeeded at complicating falsely simplified answers to difficult questions: “Answers are great…I don’t think we will get answers until we are asking the right questions”, she explains. The idea of the single encompassing answer is but another false category. Regarding sexual ethics in Islam, as well as many other pressing sociocultural questions, we tend to ask “which is the right way”, Ali notes. Perhaps we should instead be asking: what many ways have there been, how can we authenticate them and where can they lead us in the present?

A takeaway from the interview with Ali for the broader study of religion brings us back to paths, rather than categorical answers, the tracing of lives lived and stories told—perhaps nowhere more colorfully than intricately woven hadith and Islamic legal proceedings—that link believers and non-believers alike to tradition. Paths need not be linear nor our place on them stagnant, rather we can draw from the past and draw it into the present moment, revisiting and revising as we ask new questions in enduring, and uniting, struggles over ethics in sexuality and beyond.

Sexual Ethics and Islam

feetAlongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there is perhaps no other issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of the downtrodden Muslim woman are often countered by the claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there is a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and “problematic” topic? What are some of the most prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for Religious Studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, Chris is joined this week by Professor Kecia Ali, of Boston University.

Check out a recent lecture by Kecia on sexual ethics and Islam here.

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, Tiger Balm, and more.


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


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): Alongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there’s perhaps no issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions surrounding sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of down-trodden Muslim women are often countered by claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there’s a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and problematic topic? What are some of the prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for religious studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, I’m joined today by Kecia Ali, who is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Professor Ali is a scholar of religion, gender and ethics whose work focusses mostly on the Muslim tradition, with an emphasis on law and biography. She is currently Status Committee Director at the AAR and is a past president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. Her publication list is impressive and features five monographs, including The Lives of Muhammed, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, and – most relevant to today’s interview – Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, originally published in 2006, with an expanded revised edition published in 2016. So, Professor Ali, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Kecia Ali (KA): Thank you for having me.

CC: And thanks for joining us here in Edinburgh in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

CC: It is a mouthful, but they’re graciously hosting us today. And we’ll be sure to shout out about your lecture that you’re doing this evening., when we publish this podcast. So first-off, Islam? Sexual ethics? Why are we even having this discussion?

KA: Yes, it’s sort of impossible not to be having the discussion, really. I think the challenge is to find ways to have it that are productive and don’t just inadvertently reinforce the power of certain dominant discourses by contesting them, if that’s the only thing we do. Look, the question of gendered roles and rights and obligations is one that has been present since – as near as we can tell – the first Muslim community, right? Scripture records specific questions about women’s and men’s respective roles, relationship to each other, relationship to religious obligations, relationship to God, etc. Certainly, accounts of the Prophet’s normative community are replete with gendered descriptions and contestations. Now, obviously, to what extent these reflect a 7th-century community and to what extent they reflect 8th/ 9th/10th-century reflections on that community and attempts to ascribe certain later, normative patterns onto that community, that’s a subject of debate among historians of Islam. But, for Muslims, pious Muslims, lay folk, scholars, these are the stories out of which accounts of virtuous ethical life are made. So Muslims certainly have been having internal conversations about gender norms since quite early on. Now, why are “we” having this conversation?

CC: Yes.

KA: Sexuality is always one of the things that comes up when someone wants to insult someone else, right? When one community, or members of a community are looking for a way to stigmatise, oppose, define “others”, sexuality is very frequently something that gets pressed into service. Whether that’s Protestants saying bad things about Catholics, Catholics saying bad things about Protestants, Protestants saying bad things about Catholics by likening them to Muslims, or the reverse , sexuality frequently comes into play. What we know, if we want to just in very broad terms talk about “The West and Islam” – and I object on principle to those categories, but I’m going to use them anyway as a kind of shorthand – we see, really, that in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern era, it wasn’t Muslim oppression of women that was a problem for anybody, it was Muslim lustfulness and debauchery. And it’s really in the 19th-century, with the advent of European colonialism in Muslim majority societies – Egypt, for instance, and also India – that Muslim men’s oppressiveness towards women becomes part of a colonial discourse about civilisation, right? What’s very interesting is to look at the ways that the kinds of accusations levelled against Muslims have really changed over time. So not only from wantonness to oppression, but also you’ll find that today one of the things that tends to get said of Muslims is: “Oh, they’re so intolerant of homosexuality! They’re so repressive! Look how awful . . . !” Well, in the Early Modern era, and even into the 19th-century, the claim was, “They’re too tolerant of homosexuality!” They are attached to the practice of sodomy, “ Unlike us upright Brits,” usually, right? And, “Look how awful they are, compared to how moral we are,” which is basically the gist of all of this. And of course there are Muslims equally scandalised by Western women’s dress and the ways in which women and men outside their family interact.

CC: And that’s an important link there, then, when you mention the Muslim perspective. Because contemporary Muslims, whether we’re talking scholars or lay people going about their lives, are having to articulate their views against this dominant Western view.

KA: Yes, I mean, I think part of what’s particularly challenging for me as a scholar, and for media, for lay folk, for religious studies teachers in the classroom, is : how do we talk about this in way that actually recognises the great diversity of perspectives among Muslims? Because, you know, even that phrase, “the Muslim perspective” . . . it’s one that gets bandied about a lot, including by many Muslims. And, of course, part of what’s interesting to me as a scholar of religion, is: how are claims to representing the “authoritative Muslim perspective” being pressed? What are the sources being cited? What are the extra-textual authoritative norms being deployed? How much is it about where you got your degree from? How much is it abut whether you have a beard? How much is it about whether the media is calling you speak on their programmes? And how much is it about the content of your ideas?

CC: Yes. And that’s something that comes up in Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity

KA: Absolutely.

CC: We’ve had him on the podcast before and he talked about something completely different. We’re going to have to get him on again for that! But, yes, a very broad topic we’re talking about here: sexual ethics and Islam. How does one even go about studying that? I know that you had your own particular approach . . .

KA: So, the book Sexual Ethics and Islam really has its roots in two different things I was doing around the turn of the millennium. I did my doctoral dissertation at Duke University, about marriage and divorce in 8th -10th-century Sunni Muslim Jurisprudence. At the same time, 2001-2003, I was working part-time for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, which was directed by Bernadette Brooton and funded by the Ford Foundation. And so, for the dissertation, which I defended in 2002, I was really looking at about a dozen early Arabic legal texts. And for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project I was actually engaged in putting together a series of short essays for the site, aimed at lay folks – not necessarily Muslim – looking for a general orientation to the Muslim textual tradition. So, Qur’anic and prophetic tradition – to some extent exegesis, to some extent legal tradition – framing particular kinds of issues: issues around female dress, issues around marriage, around divorce, around slavery, around same-sex relationships, but framed in a kind of general way that would make them accessible. And I also wanted to begin to address the ways Muslims today were talking about those topics. Sexual Ethics and Islam really came together out of those two initiatives because, on the one hand, what I found when I was looking at the way contemporary Muslims were talking about these topics, is that they were often completely disconnected and, in fact, making claims that really contradicted, sometimes the positions, but far more often the logic and the assumptions of the early legal tradition. And I wanted to put those two things into conversation: put the 10th-century and the 21st-century into conversation. And I was very frustrated by the kind of “Islam liberated women” apologetic that a lot of Muslims were presenting. And I was equally frustrated with the sort of patriarchal, protective, protectionist . . . you know, “Well, of course, patriarchy done right is the only true Islamic tradition, that protects and respects women.” Which exists in a kind of funny tension with “No, no. The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed gave Muslim women all their rights and so there’s no need for patriarchy, because Islam is against patriarchy.” And none of these really grappling with, “What is it that’s there in the texts?”

CC: And that – when you mentioned the Prophet Muhammed – is perhaps an excellent way for us to leap right into some of that analysis. I know that the undergrads at New College, in Edinburgh, will be quite familiar with the chapter of the book that focuses on the Prophet’s relationship with his wife Aisha, so maybe we could use that as an example of these various competing discourses and how people use claims to authority to negotiate sexual ethics?

KA: Sure, so of course, for the pre-modern Muslim tradition, Aisha is an absolutely vital figure. She is the youngest of the Prophet’s wives, many say his favourite wife – certainly after Khadijah died, who was the wife of his younger years – and she’s a scholar,and she’s a contentious political figure and certainly, for the construction of Sunni identity, she becomes a flash point in those debates over loyalty, over succession, over precedence. And Chase Robinson – I’m going to paraphrase him now – says that Early Christians argued about Christology and early Muslims argued over how 7th-century Muslims’ behaviour should be remembered, right? So, later Muslims are trying to construct their own authentic narratives, their own strategies of power, by reference to these early Muslims. And so Aisha was absolutely central there. Which means that the ways in which she’s remembered ends up being very central. The texts that are giving people fits today really are texts about her marriage, in which she reports in the first person, in Hadith narratives – narratives of Prophetic tradition – that she was six or, in another version, seven when the prophet married her, and nine when the marriage was consummated. And there are other details sometimes given in these accounts. Now it’s useful to point out that this isn’t something that people were particularly worried about for a very long time. And its actually really unusual that any of his wives ages would be so important in texts about the marriage. But this is there in the Hadith compilations that we have from the 9th-century. And this is similar to the ages that are reported by early biographers, who maybe sometimes go as high as 10. But really, its quite a young age that’s reported in these texts. And generally, over the centuries, Muslim biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. Western biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. None of them took much notice, until we get to just about 1700, when Humphrey Prideaux, who was an Anglican clergyman, writes a very nasty biography of Muhammed as, actually, part of his ongoing debate with Unitarian Christians. And he says, “Oh isn’t this sort-of amazing there in Arabia, which is the same clime as India,” just like in all these other hot countries, the torrid zone, “how women mature so quickly”. And, for him, Aisha’s age of 6 and 8 is an indication of something that is sort-of exotic and erotic. What he’s worrying about, though, is that Muhammed is marrying her to make an allegiance with her father, which shows that he is making a power grab, in service of his fraudulent imposture. And basically, it only is really in the late 19th/early 20th-century that people start to, maybe, wonder about this a little bit . . . Western biographers. And by the late 20th-century it’s making lots of people uncomfortable, including some Muslims. So the Arabic translation of Washington Irving, for instance – who though this was all very romantic in the middle of the 19th-century – in the 1960s, when its being translated in Egypt, the translator adds a real note, right? And the original marriage has been demoted to a betrothal, and then the translator feels the need to sort-of explain this. But, by the time I’m writing Sexual Ethics and Islam, the context is different and there are two very serious competing strains. There’s a set of polemical accusations that Muhammed is a paedophile, which the Rev Jerry Vines has linked in an epithet as “Demon-possessed paedophile“. So he’s linking a very old accusation against Muhammed with a very new one: a sort of medicalised rhetoric of evil. And then you start to have Muslim apologetics around this question, which say several things. One is that, “Well, things were different back then”. And a version of that is what a number of secular, sympathetic Western academics have also said. And then, the other thing that you get is, “Well, these texts really aren’t reliable on this point.” And the thing that I point out in Sexual Ethics and Islam is: it’s completely fine if you want to make that argument, but then it’s a problem if you turn to those texts as absolutely true on everything else. The thing that was really striking for me, after writing Sexual Ethics and Islam and moving onto the project that became the Lives of Muhammed – which is an investigation of Biographical texts, specifically – is the ways in which, so often in early texts, numbers have a particular kind of symbolic function and resonance. And while I don’t know that six and seven, or nine and ten have the symbolic resonance that say forty does in the accounts of Khadijah’s age, it seems to me that there is plausibly . . . I don’t want to say probably, and I don’t think we can ever know with any kind of certainty these are factually accurate unless we’re simply willing to say, “These texts are all factually accurate and we accept that.” It seems to me, plausibly, there’s an argument to be made that the very low numbers given for her age are in service of praising her, actually; of presenting her as a particularly pure figure, which is very important given that her chastity was impugned during her lifetime, or at least according to texts.They represent this as something that was challenged. And so making her so young at marriage, emphasising her virginity, becomes a way of emphasising her sexual purity. The other thing, it seems to me, is that it’s possible that making her, say nine, when the marriage is consummated, after the Hijrah to Medina, is also a way of making her age low enough that she’s indisputably born to Muslim parents. So although virtually everybody in that first Muslim community would be a convert – according to pious narratives – by the time these Hadith texts are being compiled, having your parents already be Muslim, being born to Muslim parents is quite a status marker. It becomes important to have a genealogy of Muslim parents going further back.

CC: So, time is already running on here! In terms of positioning: you’re a woman, a Western academic, a feminist . . .

KA: And a Muslim

CC: And a Muslim, writing this book, discussing these topics, how was it received? My stereotypical brain is going, “This isn’t going to be that well received in some circles”. So how do you position yourself, in that respect?

KA: One of the more flattering things somebody once told me about the book, was that her graduate advisor – who was also a Muslim man – had suggested that she not read it, because it would be dangerous. And I thought, “Oh! I must have done something right!” (laughs) But, on the other hand, I think that my original intention for the book was not really to have it end up where it’s ended up, which is in the classroom mostly with students, many of whom are not Muslim. This was written, originally, very much as a book that was engaged in a kind of intra-Muslim conversation, to address some frustrations I had with the way intra-Muslim conversations over issues of sexual ethics, were going: I thought, in not particularly productive ways. However, I’m not writing it only as a Muslim feminist. I’m writing as a scholar of Religious Studies. And I know there are some people who don’t think you can or should do both of those things, but I have Religious Studies training. And one of the things that that training enables me to do is to look at the ways in which particular traditions are being constructed, in which particular claims to authority are being made in particular ways. So, for instance, the chapter on female genital cutting in the book is really an extended meditation on: what does the category Islamic, and what do claims to the category Islamic – or, more pertinently, “un-Islamic” – tell us? How useful are they? And where might things that are useful in particular kinds of activist campaigns really break down, if we’re trying to look at them historically, or from within Religious Studies, or from within the world of scholarship, at all?

CC: Yes. And I can remember the students being a little bit frustrated in the sense that so many different points of view were being considered – and not being necessarily condemned – and they were all . . . “Which is the right way?!” (laughs)

KA: I mean, look, answers are great. I have a lot fewer answers than I have questions. And, if anything, in the expanded edition of the book there are even more questions and even fewer answers! But, look, I don’t think we’re going to get better answers until we get better at asking the right questions.

CC: Exactly

KA: And the right questions are very often – and not just for Muslims, and not just about Muslim questions – what’s behind what we’re being told? What’s the evidence for this perspective? Where is this coming from? And how much credit do we want to give it as an accurate representation of something in the world?

CC: And that leads me into, sort of, where I was wanting to get to in the interview – and you’ve been a fantastic interviewee. Religious Studies: I can imagine that some will have maybe seen the title of this interview and thought, “Oh, that’s Area Studies, Islamic Studies. I don’t need to go there.” You know, everything that you’ve been saying, I think, has been illustrating why this is important for the broader study of religion, but I just, maybe, wondered if you wanted to reflect on that from your perspective . . . in multiple different camps.

KA: Yes. I mean, within the academic world of scholars who study Islam and Muslims, some come from Area Studies training: Middle East Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies. Some are really trained to philological work with old texts, and there’s a lot of good work that’s being done with those texts. And some are not trained to work with those texts and instead are very historical, very presentist, very ethnographic in ways that, I think, sometimes make it difficult to understand the resonance of the appeal to the textual tradition that many Muslims take. I’m very fortunate that the American Academy of Religion brings together, in the programme units that study Islam, quite a fabulous group of scholars who have expertise in training in a variety of different disciplines, but who are committed – at least some of the time in their professional engagement – to Religious Studies as a discipline, which is of course inter-disciplinary of necessity. And I think, given that so many questions about Islam are really pivotal to questions that Religious Studies as a discipline is wrestling with, about the rights and roles and responsibilities of insiders and outsiders, with the formation of the category of religion . . . . Look, it’s not an accident that Orientalist, Imperialist categories are very much at play here. I think it’s tremendously important that Islamic Studies be having conversations with folks in Religious Studies and vice versa, to the extent that you can even draw distinctions between them.

CC: And so, on the topic of conversations between different fields, your work’s taken a different turn of late?

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

CC: Your latest book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in JD Robb’s Novels . . . What’s this got to do with Islam? (laughs)

KA: Well, at one level, nothing. And at the other level, I suppose, everything. I read these novels recreationally. It’s a series that’s been ongoing over 20 years, published by Nora Roberts, whose a premier American author of popular romance, under the pseudonym JD Robb. They are police procedurals, set in New York, circa 2060, and I read them. And I had things to say about them, and about the way that they deal with intimate relationships; about the way they deal with friendship; about the way they deal with work, especially women’s work; about the way they deal with violence, including police violence; about the way they deal with what it means to be a human being; about abilities and perfection and the idea of a post-human future. And I think that, to the extent that this book connects to my other work, it’s really around the questions of ethics: what it means to live a good, ethical, virtuous life in connection with other human beings in a given set of circumstances. I trained as a historian before I moved into Religious Studies. And one of the things that comes up again in this series – just like it comes up looking at 8th and 9th-century legal texts and biographies – is that understanding the present is sometimes best done from a distance. So looking comparatively at the past, looking at one possible imagined future, can give us a new perspective on the world we’re living in right now.

CC: Wonderful. And that, also, illustrates even more the importance of your work with Islamic texts, with contemporary Islam, sexual ethics. And it’s been fantastic that we’ve been having this conversation on International Women’s Day! So, I know this won’t be going out for another few months, but just to get that onto the recording from the Alwaleed Centre. And I think we’re going to have to draw that to a close there. It’s been fantastic speaking with you. And I wish you all the best with the lecture this evening, which, if the recording of the lecture goes ok, we’ll link to it from this page and everyone can see it and hear it, in all its glory!

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


Citation Info: Ali, Kecia 2017. “Sexual Ethics and Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sexual-ethics-and-islam/

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AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation

This roundtable, in association with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, considers the impact of recent technological advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics on religion, religious conceptions of the world, and the human. It draws attention to how such advances push religion beyond how it has been commonly defined and considered.

1389397212614In March 2016 ‘AlphaGo’, a Google/Deepmind programme, defeated an international champion at the Chinese game ‘Go’ in a five game match. This victory was, by current understandings of AI, a vast leap forward towards a future that could contain human-like technological entities, technology-like humans, and embodied machines. As corporations like Google invest heavily in technological and theoretical developments leading towards further, effective advances – a new ‘AI Summer’ – we can also see that hopes, and fears, about what AI and robotics will bring humanity are gaining pace, leading to new speculations and expectations, even amidst those who would position themselves as non-religious.

Speculations include Transhumanist and Singularitarian teleological and eschatological schemes, assumptions about the theistic inclinations of thinking machines, the impact of the non-human on our conception of the uniqueness of human life and consciousness, and the moral boundary work of secular technologists in relation to their construct, ‘religion’. New religious impulses in the face of advancing technology have been largely ignored by the institutions founded to consider the philosophical, ethical and societal meanings of AI and robotics. This roundtable is an initial conversation on this topic, with the intention for further discussion and publications.

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, tin foil hats, Jeff Goldblum custom water proof shower curtains, and more.

Religion, Spirituality, and Addiction Recovery

What is the relationship between ‘religion’, ‘spirituality’, ‘addiction’ and ‘addiction recovery’? What are we meaning by ‘addiction’? Is it socially constructed? Why are we even talking about a relationship between these concepts? Can religion be conceptualized as an addiction? how might a specifically Religious Studies approach help us to productively engage with this particularly sensitive area? And, as ever, how might we go about conducting such research? These are just a few of the questions discussed in today’s podcast, where Chris speaks with Dr Wendy Dossett of the University of Chester, UK.

Be sure to take a peek at some of Wendy’s other scholarship, like the book Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion.

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, flowers, tea tree oil, and more.

Religion, Youth, and Intergenerationality

When we think about ‘religion’ and ‘youth’ a number of images might come to mind. Young people rebelling against their parents. Young people as mere containers for the religiosity of their parents. Creative reinterpretation of stagnant traditions. Systemic abuse and lack of agency. And so on. In the context of the United Kingdom, where we are recording today, with its historically hegemonic Christianity, one scholar has written that

young_old

“It is no secret that Christian churches are struggling to attract and retain young people. The current generation of young people has largely abandoned the church or never known it as a significant part of their lives. The 2005 church census revealed that many churches have no young people at all in their congregations: around half have no 11- to 14-year-olds attending and well over half have no 15- to 19-year-olds (Brierley 2006).” (Stanton 2012, 385)

But of course, this misses much of what is going on. That scholar is Naomi Thompson (formerly Stanton) who joins us today on the Religious Studies Project to give us a more nuanced overview of the broad topic “Religion, Youth, and Intergenerationality.”

We begin this interview by asking what is ‘youth’? How do sociologists define it? What are some of the current trends in sociological research on youth? What, if anything, is distinctive about youth experience? Discussion then turns to ‘religion and youth’, focusing on why scholars might be interested in it, the current state of play, common assumptions, how we might go about researching it, before focusing on some of Dr Thompson’s own research. Towards the end of the interview, we focus on the ‘transmission model’ and the relationship between generations, before thinking to the future of this growing area of research.

This episode is the fourth in a series co-produced with Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan, and ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie.

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, Jaffa Cakes, Lion bars, and more.


References:

Stanton, Naomi. 2012. Christian youth work: teaching faith, filling churches or response to social need? Journal of Beliefs & Values, Vol. 33, No. 3, December 2012, 385–403

Ecological Ecumenicism, Forever Ethical?

After the material turn, it should come as no surprise that scholars are taking a wide aperture approach to religious studies. Actor Network Theory (ANT) and various strains of New Materialism help in formulating horizontal connections between all sorts of objects that speak back to religious people. The strictly discursive approach to religion as dogma is critiqued for neglecting to account for physical bodies, selves and others, that produce ethical orientations. The network approach will lead—should lead—to a global reckoning of how religions are involved in the governance of the physical world. Or according to Whitney Bauman, a planetary account of all that religions have ruined in the name of upholding a strict adherence to traditional ontologies. He recently sat down with George Ioannides to discuss the ideas animating his new book, Religion and Ecology: Developing a Planetary Ethic.

Bauman suggests that a planetary approach to “various modes of becoming” may help religious studies scholars move further away from an austere dogmatic favoring of (arbitrary) religious essences over accidents, and allow for a more authentic engagement with what it means to be religious itself. This means a bringing-together of humans, their various artificial technologies, natural environments, and all non-human members of those lifeworlds that are usually dealt short shrift from religious attitudes that focus on that which lies beyond the physical world.

Drawing on Gayatri Spivak, Bauman embraces the “planetary” over the “globalized” view of ethical habitus. The latter, he claims, tends to reflect what a hegemonic first world dictates through ideology and material practice as an exclusive mode of existing. The planetary approach instead maintains “difference” as a universal commonality and a point of departure from which we can begin to think and discuss a sort of ethical management that accounts for all planetary members.

Clearly Bauman is building on other discussions about an ontological as opposed to an epistemological approach to ethics. This has been advanced in Jean-Luc Nancy’s Being Singular Plural (2000), Mary-Jane Rubenstein’s Strange Wonder (2010), and Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter (2010)— titles that have been popping up recently at the AAR—along with most of Bruno Latour’s work.

Bauman mobilizes this matter-oriented critical theory to argue for a religiously informed approach to ameliorate the malignant environmental effects arising from an exclusively human-centric ethical outlook.

In the environmental debate, I would go so far as to argue that Bauman is himself arguing religiously. What I mean is that an overtly eschatological vision of planetary over-consumption, ecological mismanagement, and inevitable population devastation occasions this ethical reorientation in the first place. In Bauman’s view, exclusively-human modes of existence neglect the wellbeing of non-humans. However, he does not entertain the idea that nonhuman planetary members that have the benefit of rapid evolution may benefit in currently unforeseen ways from our “damage” to the earth’s ecosystem. Therefore, while claiming to remedy the excesses of anthropocentric thinking, Bauman’s eschatology remains overtly anthropocentric. Perhaps that has more to do with political expediency and the affective attunements of most moderns who only change their behavior in the short term when they are the ones suffering in the long term.

But if we accept his basic premise, that we should resist a monolithic global outlook that necessarily privileges one cultural interpretation of human need over all others—how do we arrive at the conversation in the first place, together, in order to identify what levels of environmental devastation are acceptable and what are tolerated externalities created in the name of development? I’m writing from a very sooty Hyderabad, where this is very much an open question. The presentist concerns that motivate certain countries like India to invest in technology at the expense of clean air should also be understood in tandem with other practices that routinely and willingly except certain human lives as collateral for the function and hygienic maintenance of other segments of society. We may demand action from institutions like religions to offer greater care for subaltern planetary members, but we’re still not at all on the same page about human membership and what it means to value humans as selves to begin with.

For this reason, I want to like Bauman’s project, but I do so from a strictly first-world vantage as I remain skeptical of thought projects that claim to be universal in their application, especially those based on human reason.

I do agree with most of Bauman’s political sentiments, especially for retooling human ethical calculus within the fragile ecological matrix at a much deeper level. Yet, introducing ecological orientations and philosophies from ‘eastern’ religions such as Daoism and Buddhism packaged through New Materialist philosophies will not have significant effects on the planetary debate. After all, these ideas have been around for a while and have not supplanted our ingrained ontological moorings with something greener on a wide scale.

I believe Bauman could offer more direct comments about how to engage with monotheist traditions that are responsible for much ecological and human devastation. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, have established pernicious onto-theologies at various historical junctions that have bred violence against other humans in the name of constructing pious communities: post-revolutionary Iranian discrimination of religious minorities like Baha’is; Manifest Destiny of the 19th Century that shattered remaining American communities; and unending militant settler-colonialism in occupied Palestine are just a few examples that come to mind. How do these hierarchical societal manifestations of religious sentiment reform and “expand the locus of ethical and moral concerns beyond tribe and nation to all humanity?” These religions, as institutions, would not necessarily start caring more about the planet if they resolved their issues with non-member humans. We have the convenience of being environmentalists and conservationists while maintaining racist and authoritarian exclusivity, after all.

As a fellow Arkansan using ANT and New Materialist theory in my work, I instead reduce the aperture of my studies on early-modern Persianate Islam to focus on much more localized religious experience. The writings of Iranian physicians, occultists, and naturalists are replete with discourse about animals, plants, gemstones, auspicious astral formations, diseases of the eye, and tales of monsters that force me to bracket off their other dogmatic statements about man’s superiority among God’s creations. Not only do non-humans continually instruct human observers, but early-modern ethical comportment in the world demands caution and deep reflection on the various corporeal and spiritual intrusions that humans constantly experience. The authors I study were not rigidly bounded selves. They were not objective. Their ontological standing above animals and below angels (although this point is contested) was, at best, aspirational and had to do more with an ethical proscription rather than a scientific or cosmological fact.

This is the grey area that we find ourselves in when drawing on very immanent phenomenological experience that has immediate ethical implications and making the grand leap outward to implicate the world at large. I don’t mean to universalize the claims made from my examination of a 17th century manuscript archive in Hyderabad. The tools of New Materialism and ANT work to help describe counter-hegemonic ethical orientations, but I am not sure they can proscribe solutions to the problems of very real, specific, and contingent human selves.

 

Religion and Planetary Ethics

Whitney Bauman discusses with George Ioannides some of the potential and difficult answers to these questions and more, revealing how the field of religion and ecology can go some way in helping to visualise and constitute a planetary, hybrid, ethical community of ecospiritual, biohistorical, and multispecies subjects.

Speaking of religions as “eco-social constructions across multiple species, over multiple generations, and over multiple histories,” Bauman puts forward an ethics of understanding ourselves and others as planetary creatures, and understanding religion, science, and nature as non-foundational, non-substantive categories.

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, biodegradable refuse sacks, poppy seeds and more!

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Bron Taylor on Religion after Darwin, and Bruno Latour, Gaian Animisms, and the Question of the Anthropocene.

Sufism is a paradox?

In his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Milad Milani gives a thoughtful overview of the tradition of Sufism, answering big questions such as: what is Sufism, how did it emerge historically (see Milani 2013), and how is it configured in contemporary Western discourses? As Milani astutely indicates at various points throughout the interview, the complexities of Sufism (if one can even speak of Sufism in the singular) make it quite difficult to pin down straightforward answers to these questions. In other words, there is no single set of doctrines and practices that define Sufism as such; there is no single figure, group, or place in which Sufism emerges; and, there are a number of different contexts in which Sufism is being deployed in contemporary discourses. However, by attempting to unpack some of these complex questions Milani provides substantial insight into how the population in general ought to think about Sufism, how scholars can approach the academic study of Sufism, and how Sufism relates to the Islamic tradition as a whole. Perhaps most importantly in my opinion, his continual recognition of the multiplicities of Sufi traditions is critical for the academic study of Sufism insofar as it counters many of the popular narratives of global and universal Sufism, and provides a context for considering the plurality of the Islamic tradition and the contestations that continually constitute it.

As with most discussions of Sufism, the interview begins with the question ‘What is Sufism?’ Milani’s answer is that, primarily, Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism that emphasizes central aspects of the Islamic tradition and seeks to cultivate an experience of ultimate unity or oneness with the divine. From this definition we can derive two important features of Sufism – one doctrinal and the other practical. In terms of doctrine, this notion of oneness was most clearly elaborated by the twelfth-century Andalusian mystic Ibn al-Arabi who proposed the concept of wahdat al-wujud (‘oneness of being’). The basic premise of this doctrine is that all created things are essentially reflections of God and that therefore God (or Truth – al-Haqq) is present in all things in this world. Today we may call this a kind of pantheism and this affront to the transcendence of the Divine was a main point of tension with normative Islam at the time. However, I highlight this doctrinal component here not because I want to suggest that all Sufis upheld it or interpreted it in precisely the same manner. Instead, I point to it in order to bring out some of the key doctrinal components underlying Sufism because I felt that perhaps too sharp a line was drawn in Milani’s interview between ‘mainstream’ Islam as doctrinal and Sufism as experiential. In other words, there are complex theological doctrines within Sufism, making the doctrinal-experiential differences difficult to render in any straightforward manner.

The second component is the practical dimension, and by that I mean the spiritual techniques for experiencing the divine, which Milani discusses briefly in relation to the ‘aesthetic’ components of Sufism, as well as what might be called the ethical ‘technologies of the self’ (to borrow a term from Foucault). With regard to the former, we have the primary practice of sama’, that is, a ritual practice of ‘audition’ that generally involves the recitation of poetry, the invocation of the names of God (dhikr), and rhythmic bodily movements performed in groups that lead people to an ecstatic experience in which one experiences the dissolution of the self in the face of the Divine (see Frishkopf 1999, Shannon 2006). The actual details of this practice vary greatly across Sufi orders (tariqa), but this is a central practice in much of the Sufi world. In relation to the ethical side, the ethical techniques are critical to Sufism and function not only to develop one’s relationship to the Divine, but also to develop one’s relationship to oneself and one’s community (see Silverstein 2012, Waugh 2008). This practical dimension of ethical Sufism is important because many discussions of Sufism revolve solely around the individual’s relationship to God, a tendency that I heard in Milani’s interview as well. My point, however, is not to criticize him for omitting a discussion of Sufism as an ethical tradition since there is only so much that can be said in such a limited amount of time. Rather, I want to stress that in many ways Sufism is not merely a form of asceticism, i.e., not simply a rejection of the material world, because embedded within the ethical tradition is the need to be involved in an ethical community in order to reach ‘perfection.’

The emphasis on community can then be connected to the formation of Sufi orders called tariqat (sing. tariqa), which in many ways defined classical or medieval Sufism. The tariqa is named after a particular founding saint or ‘friend of God’ (wali Allah) who often gains his/her status through esoteric knowledge, performing miracles (karamat), receiving God’s blessing (baraka), and a spiritual genealogy (silsila) (on sainthood see Ewing 1997, Stauth 2004, Sedgwick 2005). Individuals then enter into discipleship with these types of figures who guide the apprentice along his/her spiritual path, and the group of disciples that enter into this relationship constitute a particular manifestation of the tariqa at a given time, though at any point in history an order can be several generations removed from the founding figure. Some contemporary scholars have argued that, especially in the modern context, the tariqa has ceased to function as it did in the premodern times and that therefore modern Sufism has taken on such a distinct character that it is possible now to speak of ‘Neo-Sufism’ (see Rahman 1979, O’Fahey 1993, and Voll 2008). The details of this debate and the utility of the term aside, it does point to the question of how Sufism articulates with discourses of modernity (see van Bruinessen 2007, Weismann 2003, Johansen 1996). For instance, are Sufi practices and beliefs commensurate with the sensibilities of modern Muslim life, however that might be defined? The relationship between Islam and modernity is a significant question posed by scholars of Islam and I feel that Sufism provides a useful focal point for these studies, but the issue I want to bring into relief here is that discussions of the communal constitution of Sufism are central to how we define Sufism, and therefore an attempt to articulate what Sufism is ought to include the topics of sainthood and tariqa, in addition to individual experience.

While the tendency to think of Sufism as a kind of individualized or more private form of Islam is quite prevalent, the representation of Sufism as a form of ‘peaceful Islam’ or as a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of radical Islam is equally pervasive (see Muedini 2012, Villalon 1994). These conceptions of Sufism are quite popular in the West, but they have also entered the rhetoric of countries like Morocco, for instance, where the government patronizes many Sufi activities as a means to combat the influence of radical Islam in the country. In this context, Sufism is presented as both apolitical and peaceful, and is therefore a non-threatening method for confronting extremism. (An interesting counter-example is contemporary Egypt where the President has actually ordered the closing of Sufi prayer spaces due to supposed connections between Sufi groups and terrorist groups in the country). However, as Milani indicates, many of these formulations of Sufism decontextualize it and overlook the fact Sufi groups have initiated and been intimately involved in various militant movements throughout history. For example, early Sufis were often the ‘frontiersmen’ of Islam, bringing a new religion into hostile territories and were therefore forced to participate in military conquests (see Green 2012). More recently, Sufi leaders sparked many anti-colonial movements and the tariqa system was used as a recruiting mechanism. Examples can be found throughout the Islamic world, but as my own work focuses on the North African context I would point to Algeria, Libya, and Sudan as prime examples of what Milani called ‘militant Sufism’ (see Heck 2007). It is in this sense that I think we can begin to think about Milani’s statement that, “Sufism is a paradox.”

By this phrase I take Milani to mean that Sufism confounds our thought in a number of different ways. It is said to promote peace and tolerance, yet has often been deployed in contexts of violence and militancy. It is claimed to be apolitical and disinterested in worldly affairs, yet Sufi orders have held tremendous economic and political power throughout history (see Cornell 1998). It claims to be Islamic, yet Sufis have continually been criticized as un-Islamic by Muslims. It promotes a kind of universality, yet the myriad forms of Sufism emerged from within specific cultural contexts and retain that cultural character. It is often seen as an esoteric tradition, yet for many centuries was considered ‘popular religion.’ Finally, it emphasizes the individual’s relationship to the Divine, yet this experience is made possible through bodily practices and involvement in a community (for more on the body in Sufism see Kugle 2007, Bashir 2011). These tensions, however, provide incredibly fruitful areas for both historical and ethnographic investigation because it is precisely how individuals and groups navigate these tensions at particular places and times that will enable us to speak about how the different forms of Sufism connect with one another. Such investigations will also give us a better sense of the enduring impact of Sufism on the Islamic landscape as a whole (see de Jong 1999), and allow us to better understand the processes through which visions of normative Islamic identity are constructed.

References

Bashir, Shahzad. Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam. New York: Columbia UP, 2011.

van Bruinessen, Martin, and Julia Day Howell (eds). Sufism and the “modern” in Islam. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

Cornell, Vincent. Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Ewing, Katherine Pratt. Arguing Sainthood: Modernity, Psychoanalysis, and Islam. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

Frishkopf, Michael Aaron. Sufism, Ritual, and Modernity in Egypt: Language Performance as an Adaptive Strategy. PhD dissertation: UCLA, 1999.

Green, Nile. Sufism: A Global History. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Heck, Paul L. Sufism and Politics: The Power of Spirituality. Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2007.

Johansen, Julian. Sufism and Islamic Reform in Egypt: The Battle for Islamic Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

de Jong, Frederick and Berndt Radtke (eds). Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics. Leiden: Brill 1999.

Kugle, Scott Alan. Sufis & Saints’ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, & Sacred Power in Islam. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2007.

Milani, Milad. Sufism in the Secret History of Persia. London: Routledge 2013.

Muedini, Fait. “The Promotion of Sufism in the Politics of Algeria and Morocco.” Islamic Africa 3.2 (2012): 201-26.

Sedgwick, Mark. Saints and Sons: The Making and Remaking of the Rashidi Ahmadi Sufi Order, 1799-2000. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

Shannon, Jonathan Holt. Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2006.

Silverstein, Brian. Islam and Modernity in Turkey. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

Stauth, Georg (ed). On Archaeology and Sainthood and Local Spirituality in Islam. Yearbook of the sociology of Islam. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2004.

Villalon, Leandro. “Sufi Rituals as Rallies: Religious Ceremonies in the Politics of Senegalese State-Society Relations.” Comparative Politics 26.4 (1994): 415-437.

Waugh, Earle H. Visionaries of Silence: The Reformist Sufi Order of the Demirdashiya Al-Khalwatiya in Cairo. Cairo: AUC Press, 2008.

Weismann, Itzchak. Taste of Modernity: Sufism, Salafiyya, and Arabism in Late Ottoman Damascus. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

The First Rule of Adjuncting is…

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.[1]

The second rule of adjuncting is… you don’t talk about adjuncting!

If you have seen the film Fight Club, a visually stunning piece based on Chuck Palhnuik’s book by the same title which savagely critiques modern consumerism, you know that I am making a link here between this film and the role of the adjunct in American higher education. In the film, this underground fraternal club revolves around cage-fighting style matches between two men in abandoned warehouses. These brutal bouts act as therapy for these men who feel emasculated by modern consumer culture. What does that have to do with adjuncting? Nothing and everything.

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.

The first rule of adjuncting is you don’t talk about adjuncting.

If you have read my two pieces on the Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog, then you know I have recently come out of the closet as an adjunct. You may not know what an adjunct is. Here is a blurb where I explain the adjunct plight in higher education.

An adjunct is a part-time knowledge worker who teaches 76% of all college courses in the US. We are contract workers (picking up jobs by the semester or year), transient populations (going where the jobs are), we rarely get benefits, are rarely hired in full-time capacity (because this would require we receive benefits), and we often don’t know if we will have work from semester to semester. Many of us have PhDs; some of us, like myself, only have a MA degree. Many of us have written for esteemed journals, published alongside tenured professors, and even written our own books.”

The closest equivalent in the U.K. is perhaps the fixed term temporary lecturer who primarily teaches. This is not to be confused with the more esteemed lecturer position which is more open-ended, fairly stable, and allows for both teaching and research. It seems there is a great deal of confusion regarding nomenclature even within similar systems. In the U.S., students and parents often have no idea how an adjunct (limited term, lowly paid, MA or PhD, instructor with few research opportunities) is different from other faculty… such as full professors (not limited term, well paid, PhD, who usually teaches and does research the rest of the time). Students only see what we do in the classroom… often they assume that those teaching their classes are not part of this underclass, if they even are aware such an underclass exists. Adjuncts don’t usually complain about their situation because they are already living month to month… and they can’t risk getting fired. This allows departments to pay them less and less. The tide is shifting though. Today, adjuncts are fighting for benefits, better wages, and representation in the university. In many small community colleges, adjuncts make up the majority of the faculty and work in less than ideal conditions (no benefits, low wage, no offices or shared offices, and no way to get out). In these cases, the 76% number rings true… where adjuncts teach a majority of the classes. In more prestigious state schools, like where I taught the last two years, about 17% are adjunct (this number is based only on part-time faculty). The count of annual contracted adjuncts is much harder to ascertain. I am sure you can imagine why, no college wants to advertise their use of this contingent labor. Some thinkers warn that the continued corporatization of the American academy is systematically undermining the values of higher education. Even Congress is worried.

So now that you know we exist and that you know that I was one (I taught 52 courses in 10 years at 3 different Georgia universities and colleges) I will explain why you might not have known that I was an adjunct.

Simple…I didn’t want you to know.

Why would I hide my identity as an adjunct? Hello_my_name_is_AdjunctM-773510

1. Fear: Speaking out makes your employers look bad. The first rule of adjuncting is that you don’t talk about adjuncting. The second rule of adjuncting is that you don’t talk about adjuncting! Why? Because if you talk about being underpaid, having no health insurance or benefits, no representation or recourse in administration, your department will be shamed by this disclosure (as they should be) and there will be retribution. I, like other adjuncts, who are disclosing what has happened to them, fear losing our current jobs and we fear that speaking up will make us social and professional pariah. We fear retribution. We also know that by disclosing this information we are burning bridges… I most certainly cannot ask for a letter of recommendation from a department which I have critiqued for unethical employment practices.

2. Shame: Speaking out makes you look bad. I never introduced myself as an adjunct because adjuncting is seen as the dying lands for academic stragglers. It is a job which slowly squeezes out the undesirables from academia. This is a way of culling the herd in the academic world. To say you are an adjunct is to risk being viewed in this negative light. If you are an adjunct, full-time professors want to know why you are an adjunct. They want to know what is wrong with you. If you are a perpetual adjunct, you must be damaged goods. Academia is a lot like high school… who you know, who you sit with, work with, present with… is indicative of your own academic status. Many academics only want to associate with other academics that can raise their scholarly stock. Associating with an adjunct might make your scholarly stock plummet.

So why would I speak out? Why say anything, if it is in my best interest to be silent?

It is no longer in my best interest to be silent. I tried that route and it didn’t work. I have decided to leave adjunct teaching. After all that work, I have finally had it. I had my Towanda moment. I like to call it my Breaking Bad moment… minus the whole becoming a homicidal drug lord part. Once I saw that my department was now hiring annual contracted ‘lecturers’ (PhDs who will teach full-time for up to seven years before a possibility of promotion to senior lecturers), I realized that now that departments could get PhDs to teach classes for pennies on the dollar, they would not need me. Oh they would continue to hire me on a part-time basis semester to semester when these lecturers leave two weeks before the semester starts for a better job. I would still not get benefits. I still wouldn’t be able to even cobble together a living by teaching, tutoring/ etc. at various state schools. I would still need to get a signed letter every single semester from my department so I could check out books from the school library.

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I may be leaving adjunct teaching for a living wage and benefits but I am not leaving academia. I love higher education but I can no longer pretend to be blind to the exploitation in my midst, to the exploitation happening to me. I love to teach, write, and research about religion but the cost of this part-time living is too high. I am personable, resilient, skilled, published, and highly educated… and now fully employed. Most adjuncts are so crippled, emotionally, finically, and physically… that by asking them to fight back you have only given them another job… another job for which they won’t be paid, a job which will likely get them fired and shunned.

I will still speak for adjuncts.

I am breaking the first rule and the second rule of adjuncting.


[1] *editors note: ‘Adjunct’ is a term used in America to denote a college professor who typically has the same and/or greater teaching responsibilities as a tenured professor at a university, but lacks anything even approaching the job security, benefits and stipend of a tenured professor. As Kate has mentioned, 76% of all college courses in the US are taught by adjuncts. Even many PhD’s are adjuncts. As the number of tenured teaching positions in academia continues to shrink, it is likely that most wishing to at least ‘earn a living wage’ will either have to find jobs outside academia altogether, or accept being a contingent laborer who not only teaches but has to compete with the very students they teach for jobs at a local pub for minimum wage – just to make ends meet. You should care about adjuncts for many reasons, but as tenure positions appear more like pipe dreams it’s likely that, if an academic career is your dream, you yourself may be in a similar position one day trying to make ends meet.

Religious Education in State-Funded Schools: An Academic Subject Like Any Other… and Some!

In many ways I am in agreement with Professor Jensen, and see myself as a partner in the campaign to establish a ‘Religious Studies based’ Religious Education in state funded schools throughout Europe and indeed the world. Since experiencing a ‘road to Damascus’ conversion from Theology to Religious Studies on my teacher training year and Lancaster University MA in the mid-1970s (see Cush 2009), I have spent nearly forty years passionate about the ‘Religious Studies Approach’ and applying it in a variety of educational settings. I have also concerned myself throughout that time with the relationship between Religious Studies as understood at university level, and religious education in schools, both in academic publications (see for example Cush, 1999) and on various professional and policy committees on religious education. I currently represent the university Theology and Religious Studies sector (TRS-UK) on the Religious Education Council of England and Wales and its subcommittees, and was on the Steering Group for the new National Curriculum Framework for Religious Education, part of the recent Review of Religious Education in England (REC, 2013) – full report available at http://resubjectreview.recouncil.org.uk/re-review-report. So I am perhaps an example of the ‘publically engaged academic’ Tim seeks, at least in relation to education policy.

Like Professor Jensen, I began my teaching career in a sixth-form college (in Denmark, Gymnasium or ‘upper secondary’), and then moved into university level where I have been involved in both training teachers and undergraduate and postgraduate Religious Studies. Thus we both have much practical experience as well as theoretical perspectives.

I am in total agreement with Professor Jensen – Tim – that religious education should be a compulsory subject in all state-funded schools (see Jensen 2011). A brief note about terminology – I use the term ‘state-funded schools’ rather than ‘public schools’ (which is the term used in US and international English for ‘ordinary’ community schools), to avoid confusion with the English usage of the term ‘public schools’ to refer to certain prestigious, independent, fee-paying, schools. I also use ‘religious education’ as that is the most familiar term in the UK, although I like Tim’s ‘religion education’, which I believe was coined in South Africa in the late 90s, as avoiding the implication that studying religions is somehow ‘religious’. I would prefer another name altogether, possibly avoiding the highly contested term ‘religion’, which can carry negative connotations.

I also agree that religious education should be an academic subject, treated like other school subjects. If only it was treated like other subjects in England, we would not have the situation where it is a subject which is given less time on the timetable (many RE teachers have to enable students to pass their GCSE (16+ qualification) in half the time given for history or geography), where 50% of teachers teaching RE are completely unqualified in the subject, where primary trainee teachers may only have a couple of hours training, where it was not listed in the government’s list of important subjects for 16+ qualifications (the so-called ‘English Baccalaureate), where it is not included in the list of ‘facilitating subjects’ for gaining a place in the more prestigious universities, where trainee teachers are given no bursaries to study in spite of the shortage of specialist teachers, and where the recent Review of the subject had to be funded by charities and worked on by unpaid volunteers because the government provided no funding. For documented evidence on the neglect of religious education, see for example http://religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/media/file/APPG_RE_-_The_Truth_Unmasked.pdf and to illustrate that this neglect is not new, Gates (1993).

I also agree with Tim and the colleague he mentioned, Wanda Alberts, that religious education should be what she calls ‘integrative’ (Alberts, 2007). In other words, the subject should be for all pupils of whatever religious background or none, should be non-confessional (not attempting to evangelise, proselytise, catechise or promote any particular religion or ‘religion’ in general), should be multi-faith (content should include major religions like Christianity, Islam and Buddhism but also smaller ‘indigenous’ traditions such as the Maori, and smaller newer developments such as contemporary Paganism). I also consider that given the fact that c.25% of people in England and Wales consider themselves to be ‘non-religious’ (whatever they mean by that) it is important to include the study of non-religious worldviews such as Humanism. It might come as a surprise to some that non-confessional, multi-faith religious education is still a minority option for states internationally (notably Sweden, Norway, Denmark, South Africa and the UK – and Ireland is thinking about it), most preferring to opt for either confessional religious education in the tradition deemed that of the country (or several separate strands if diversity is noticed) or to leave religious education out of state-funded education altogether, as in France or the USA.

I agree with Tim that multi-faith religious education, if appropriately done, is suitable for pupils of all ages from nursery schools onwards. Attitudes are formed early. I also wish that we in England had the sort of religious education for all students in the 16-19 age group that is found in Denmark, rather than A level Religious studies for the minority that take it and either nothing or a token gesture for the minority. I also agree that it is inappropriate for teachers of religious education to be expected to be somehow more of a moral role model, or more personally religious than any other teacher. Those of us in the subject at any level of education are bored with the predictable responses when introduced as a religious studies teacher/lecturer.

Another point of agreement with Tim is that we should not just be providing information about religious and non-religious traditions, but enabling our students to think critically about religions and to be able to discuss religious and ethical matters in an informed and articulate way (sometimes referred to as ‘religious literacy’). This, as Tim says, should be requisite in any open, democratic society.

I agree that we should have people teaching in schools that are well qualified, have studied the subject at university level, and that the university curriculum should take account of this and other likely careers for Religious Studies graduates, and help to provide skills they will need. Perhaps more controversially, I do agree to some extent with Tim’s aim of inculcating ‘some kind of relativism’, but would prefer to talk of ‘epistemological humility’ (a term apparently arrived at separately and simultaneously by David Chidester and myself) as ‘relativism’ is too misunderstood and explosive a term. What Tim and I mean is people who have their own well-thought out views and perspectives, but are open to accepting that they might just have something to learn from those who disagree with them.

And now for the ‘howevers’…

Although I bounced into the classroom in the 1970s full of enthusiasm to share my ‘Lancaster University Religious Studies’ knowledge of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and so on with my students, over the decades, especially working with younger pupils, I have come to appreciate that there are other, and perhaps even more important aims for religious education. As Tim says, it is unlikely that any ‘scientific’ study of religion will not have side effects such as students reflecting on their own beliefs, values and identity, and becoming better citizens of a diverse society. However, in Religious Education as practised in England and Wales, academic knowledge of religions/non-religious worldviews is only one of the aims of religious education. Tim’s ‘side-effects’ become explicit aims. So, religious education should enable students to develop their own ideas on the important questions dealt with in religious traditions. In the words of the National Curriculum Framework (REC 2013) ‘Religious Education contributes dynamically to children and young people’s education in schools by provoking challenging questions about meaning and purpose in life, beliefs about God, ultimate reality, issues of right and wrong and what it means to be human’. Though agreeing with Tim (2011:143) that religions are more than sets of answers to existential questions, and that not everyone is interested in these issues any more than in religions, there needs to be space for pupils to work out their own beliefs and values, in relation to the community or communities they belong to and the wider society. I do however note Tim’s concern that this can go too far, and am myself concerned that a focus on philosophical and ethical issues in England is in danger of pushing out learning about religions in some examination syllabuses and therefore also in earlier school years.

Religions and non-religious worldviews also have much to offer in contribution to discussing some of the pressing issues of our day, such as social justice, equality, wealth and poverty, war and conflict, the environment. The REC document calls these contributions ‘sources of wisdom’, though in an impartial approach we must also enable pupils to think critically about examples where ‘religions’ and ‘worldviews’ have made things worse. Tim also states that in the hands of ‘engaged and dedicated teachers’ (2011:143) such issues arise naturally out of the ‘neutral and factual information about the religions taught’ – but unless planned for, or in the hands of less gifted teachers, they might not.

In order to engage positively with others in a society of diverse religious and non-religious worldviews, pupils need more than just factual information. They also need to empathise with others, and the skills of discussing controversial issues without disrespecting those with whom they disagree. These skills can be honed in the religious education classroom. Although the phenomenological approach to the study of religions has been rightly criticised in some respects, such as essentialism, the practice of epoche and empathy before jumping straight into critical analysis and evaluation have much to be said for them when dealing with matters at the heart of people’s identity.

Tim talked about being bored with observing religion in practice – visiting mosques and gurdwaras.  As a veteran of organising many a field trip, I can sympathise, but without us organising such visits many of our students will never have a chance of meeting some religious communities. Nothing beats actually meeting people to break down stereotypes (OK, sometimes they get reinforced, but that can be discussed), and realising that what we label ‘religion’ is not just about ideas and rules, but community, atmosphere, music, art, who we are, what we eat and how we wash. School religious education did not have to wait for university religious studies to suggest an ethnographic approach to studying religions, this was already happening in the late 60s and 70s (see Cush & Robinson, 2014:7), and more systematically from the 1990s (see Jackson, 1997 and 2004). The part of our undergraduate degree course that I value most is our compulsory seven day residential stay with a community other than the student’s own (see www.livingreligion.co.uk).

I disagree with Tim that school religious education ‘ought to be a miniature of religious studies’ (2007:142), as for philosophical, pedagogical and feminist reasons I am very wary of ‘top-down’ approaches to knowledge. For universities to set the agenda for schools can be patronising (see Cush 1999), and sometimes the flow of information and experience can be the other way round, such as the influence on university curricula in the UK of the stress on philosophy and ethics in schools, or simply when a child from a particular tradition actually knows more than the lecturer in a particular context. I would rather see universities and schools as partners. I also contend that ‘Religious Education in schools is not University Religious Studies watered down to make it suitable for children’ but ‘about the interaction between the religious material and the concerns and interests of the child’ (Cush, 1999:138). Spiritual, or more generally personal, development may be a side-effect of university Religious Studies, but it is an explicit aim of religious education in schools in England, and indeed an aim for the whole curriculum.

Recent development in Religious Studies such as the application of feminist theory, queer theory, and post-colonial theory have undermined the ‘Enlightenment’ concept of ‘objective’ knowledge and stress that ‘the scholar does not so much survey the scene from above but works within the web of his/her own experience and relationships’ (Cush & Robinson 2014: 9). Have our ‘religious studies facts’ been constructed under patriarchy, heteronormativity and colonialism? And how does this change the religious education classroom?

In conclusion, as Peter Schreiner often says (see for example, 2011:30) we all tend to prefer our own system of religious education, partly from a conservative attachment to what we know and are comfortable with, but also because the contexts of different countries, regions and individual schools differ. Although I have some disagreements with Tim Jensen’s approach to religious education as detailed above, I imagine that in practice, in the hands of skilled teachers who have a good relationship with their pupils, Tim’s ‘side-effects’ accomplish much the same as my ‘explicit aims’, and our commitment to a non-confessional, multi-faith religious education outweighs the differences. There is only a small band of Religious Studies scholars who take the time to care about Religious Education in schools (Ninian Smart was one, with his colleagues in the Shap Working Party – see www.shapworkingparty.org.uk/ ) and this partnership must be encouraged.

Bibliography

Alberts, W. (2007) Integrative Religious Education in Europe: A Study of Religions Approach Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

APPG (2013) The Truth Unmasked: the Supply of and Support for Religious Education Teachers available from http://religiouseducationcouncil.org.uk/media/file/APPG_RE_-_The_Truth_Unmasked.pdf

 Cush, D. (1999) ‘Big Brother, Little Sister, and the Clerical Uncle: the relationship between Religious Studies, Religious Education and Theology?’ in British Journal of Religious Education 21.3 pp 137-146

Cush, D, (2009) ‘Religious Studies versus Theology: why I’m still glad that I converted from Theology to Religious Studies’ in Bird, D. and Smith, S. Theology and Religious Studies in Higher Education: Global Perspectives Continuum, pp.15-30

Cush, D. (2011) ‘Without Fear or Favour: Forty Years of Non-confessional and Multi-faith Religious Education in Scandinavia and the UK’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann, pp.69-84.

Cush, D. and Robinson, C. (2014) ‘Developments in Religious Studies: Towards a Dialogue with Religious Education’ British Journal of Religious Education 36.1, pp.4-17.

Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) (2011) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann.

Gates, B. (1993) Time for Religious Education and Teachers to Match: a Digest of Under-provision St. Martin’s College, Lancaster: REC.

Jackson, R. (1997) Religious Education, an interpretive approach London, Hodder

Jackson, R. (2004) Rethinking Religious Education and Plurality: Issues in Diversity and Pedagogy London: RoutledgeFalmer

Jensen, T. (2011) ‘Why Religion Education, as a Matter of course, ought to be Part of the Public School Curriculum’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann. Pp.131-149.

Religious Education Council of England and Wales (2013) A Review of Religious Education in England London: REC, also available on-line at http://resubjectreview.recouncil.org.uk/re-review-report

Schreiner, P. (2011) ‘Situation and Current Developments of Religious Education in Europe’ In: Franken, L. and Loobuyck, P. (eds.) Religious Education in a Plural, Secularised Society: A Paradigm Shift Münster: Waxmann, pp.17-34.

A useful place to find summaries of how religious education is organised in European countries is the website of the European Forum for Teachers of Religious Education

http://www.eftre.net/

A useful source for example of practical materials and cutting edge debate on religious education is http://www.reonline.org.uk/

For Shap Working Party on World Religions in Education see http://www.shapworkingparty.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

Religious Education

For those of us in Britain the question of Religious Education has become an ever-increasing issue of concern. Just last October Ofsted, the regulatory board for all education at school level, reported that over half the schools in Britain were failing to provide students with adequate RE. In the wake of this calls were made for clearer standardisation of the subject and a “national benchmark”. The deterioration of RE is perhaps not all that surprising after it was excluded from the English Baccalaureate in 2011. But the call for improvement raises with it a number of questions. First and foremost, just what exactly should RE entail? Should RE be teaching about religion or teaching religion? Who, even, should be RE teachers? PGCE (teacher training) courses in RE accept candidates with degrees in Religious Studies, Theology, Philosophy or indeed any other topic so long as they can, in the words of one program, show “demonstrable knowledge of the study of religion”. But does a theologian or a philosopher have the same skill sets as an RS scholar? To be sure, they may know the facts of a particular religion but are the facts enough for a satisfactory education? Just what is exactly is it we are teaching students to do in RE classrooms?

In this interview, Jonathan Tuckett speaks with Tim Jensen to try to answer some of these questions and more. Not only has Jensen spoken widely on the topic of RE he has recently headed the EASR working group in Religious Education which has studied the status of RE in Denmark, Sweden and Norway highlighting that the question of RE is of particular concern to any secular state.

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

‘Secular Humanism’

One axiological challenge facing the secular movement in America today relates to ethics and social value. Detractors often respond to ontological positions such as atheism and agnosticism with expostulation, and even impertinence. This said, there is plenty of evidence to support that secular movements can provide socially responsible and ethical structures, and the Council for Secular Humanism is one such organization which encourages dialogue and ethical responsibility beyond the boundaries of traditional religious ideologies.

Throughout history the dominating attitude towards Freethinkers and nonbelievers in a God or gods might be summed up best in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov when he famously wrote, “If there is no God, everything is permitted”. In other words, and turning this into a question worthy of inquiry, what can help structure the lives of the many people who are often labeled as having ‘no structure’ without God? Certainly, distrust of atheists has historical roots and even persists today (Norenzayan, 2013). While debates about the existence and necessity of God for moral imperatives and ethical obligations between theologians and atheologians alike may never cease, secular humanism offers at least one pragmatic alternative to a religious worldview by providing a normative cynosure of values, ethics and meaning with which to structure the lives of atheists and other nonreligious peoples.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn

In Thomas Coleman’s interview for the RSP with Tom Flynn, secular humanism is described as a “complete and balanced life stance” rejecting supernaturalism. Recorded at the Center For Inquiry’s 2013 Student Leadership Conference, Tom addresses whether secular humanism is a religion by covering the functionalist/substantive dichotomy, and discusses some of the common ‘tenets’ of secular humanism and outlines the growth of secularism, atheism and agnosticism in the United States. Tom departs by drawing parallels with current attempts in America from the LGBT movement, and their effort to gain acceptance, to that of the ongoing battle for equality, acceptance and ‘normality’ for nonbelievers in God leaving us with the following word of advice for atheists around the world: “If you’re in the closet come out”. This interview attempts to bring secular humanism under the academic eye of religious studies as a movement which should fruitfully be considered in discursive relationship to the category ‘religion’.

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

2013 Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference

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

References:  Norenzayan, A. (2013). Big gods. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ayahuasca as a Gateway Drug (Toward a Less Stigmatized Academic Discussion of Drugs and Religion)

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 6 November 2013, in response to Andrew Dawson’s interview on Santo Daime  (4 Novemberr 2013).

With the presumption that one of the major purposes of the Religious Studies Project is not simply to describe various religions but to act as a focal point for broader discussions of the academic study of religion, I intend to focus my attention on the apparent sticky areas that discussion of Santo Daime seems to move us into rather than on the specifics of Santo Daime itself.  While Andrew Dawson provided an abundance of insightful food for thought on issues of globalization and modernization, it is apparent that the most salient and polarizing feature of Santo Daime is simply that their rituals consist of the use of a hallucinogenic drug.  In fact, I suspect that if Dawson’s research were on a non-drug-using syncretic Brazilian church, it’s very likely that this podcast would never have happened and that very few of us beyond specialists in that arena would pay any attention.  It is the added ayahuasca component that draws both our attention and our suspicion, and I suspect that it is partly the ways in which such substances are characteristically represented to us and the fact that they are typically illegal which influences our, often unconscious and unreasoned, bias against attributions of religious import to drugs or drug-related experiences. The assertion that an experience which takes place while under the influence of a drug should not be construed as having religious import implicitly makes a value-judgment about what true or valid religion can consist of, whereas an examination of how hermeneutic and discursive resources are drawn upon to develop a personal or communal account in which drugs and the experiences they elicit are ‘deemed religious’ (Taves 2009) is likely to provide significantly more analytical purchase.

My goal in this essay is simply to propose that the discussion of the role of ayahuasca in a contemporary Brazilian church may provide a conceptual framework which could be used to advance the level of academic discourse surrounding the use of psychotropic substances into a broader range of contexts in which the consumption of such substances are deemed religious.  As a heuristic effort, then, relative to this goal, I would like to make an attempt to bridge the ethnographic efforts of Andrew Dawson with the theoretical and corrective aims of Wouter Hanegraaff (2012).  To this effect, Dawson is interested in documenting and contextualizing a Brazilian new religion that, in almost every sense, fits our general intuitions and definitions of what constitutes a religion (it’s community-based, it’s about God and communing with spiritual beings, it involves ritualized communal services, it has a founder who is understood to have been divinely inspired, etc.).  Hanegraaff, with a much broader scope, is interested in overcoming an academically-untenable and methodologically-inconsistent negative response to emic attributions of religious significance to the use of drugs as well as to attempts at etic analysis of the same.  As Hanegraaff notes, “The ‘drugs’ category… causes [such beliefs and practices] to be associated with hedonistic, manipulative, irresponsible, or downright criminal attitudes, so that claims of religious legitimacy are weakened even further” (Hanegraaff 2012, 395).  In contrast to such dismissive attitudes, Hanegraaff endorses an approach which would “treat entheogenic esotericism as just another form of contemporary religion that requires our serious attention” (Ibid).

Editor’s insertion: The album cover Entheogenic’s self-titled album “Entheogenic” (simply because it seemed tangentially relevant, and Chris and Kevin both like them, and think they’re worth checking out!)

The term ‘entheogen’, which Hanegraaff has taken up in discussing this issue, is itself a very good example of the need for a proper academic study of the place of drug-use in the contemporary religious world.  It was expressly coined in an emic framework intended to reorient the discussion of these substances away from terms stressing psychological or sensory effects toward a discourse in which the substances were understood to possess distinctly religious import.  One of the originators of the term, Gordon Wasson, defined it as “’God within us’, those plant substances that, when ingested, give one a divine experience, in the past commonly called ‘hallucinogens’, ‘psychedelics’, ‘psychoto-mimetics’, etc, to each of which serious objections can be made” (Wasson 1980, xiv).  In the face of such obvious efforts of individuals to frame their drug experiences in religious terms, what possible objection could there be to analyzing such instances with all of the theoretical force that a Religious Studies perspective can muster toward the effort?

What I would like to suggest (which struck me as I was listening to this interview) is that opening the door to the discussion of drugs and religion with examples such as Santo Daime and research such as Dawson’s might provide a stepping stone that could allow us to face and address some of the broader and more contentious issues regarding drugs and the study of religion.  Since Santo Daime, without the ayahuasca, fits very easily into almost any academic definition of religion, we can, perhaps, begin to discuss the ‘drug issues’ that inevitably arise but do so in a less contested space before moving the discussion further on into the role of drugs in even more challenging areas of research in the academic study of religion, such as ‘alternative,’ ‘esoteric,’ ‘occult,’ ‘new age,’ ‘popular,’ and similar such amorphous religious frameworks.  Hanegraaff’s chapter on ‘entheogenic religion’ focuses very much on this latter grouping and it is in this milieu (which is often understood to be highly individualistic and shallow) that we are more likely to encounter the kinds of accusations of hedonism and irresponsibility that he expresses concern over.  So, perhaps Santo Daime can be used as a bridge to allow for the venting of worries about drugs on the way toward achieving Hanegraaff’s goal of opening up a perfectly legitimate, prevalent, influential, and, ultimately, theoretically fruitful object of study, which has so often be treated with misapprehension, suspicion, derision, or simply dismissed as unimportant.

Dawson himself suggests a similar ‘bridging’ aim in discussing his underlying interest in “the ways in which the rather exotic, non-mainstream profile of Santo Daime allows us to think about what constitutes religion, religious belief, religious practice in a new way.”  While my own essay is, in effect, an endorsement of this very effort, to use Santo Daime as a heuristic means of addressing broader trends, I take the need for this statement to be incredibly unfortunate in that I don’t believe that the existence of contemporary drug-use, even if it is understood to be ‘exotic’, requires thinking newly about what constitutes religion (though we should certainly continue to do that, as well).  As far as I can tell, there seems to be very little reason to suspect that Santo Daime should be an issue for any of the most prominent contemporary academic definitions of religion.  It involves belief in God and putative engagement with spiritual beings.  It involves communal ritual participation relative to those beliefs.  It is Catholic.  It is soteriological.  It is international.  It is acknowledged by national governments as a religious organization.  As Dawson points out, when you get over the sensationalized notion of Santo Daime as a “drug-fueled religion,” you find that “they are, in many ways, quite traditional in appearance when you look at what goes on.”  In other words, in the case of Santo Daime, it is predominantly the use of drugs that gives people pause.

So, if, as Dawson has admirably done, we can communicate clearly and effectively that a psychotropic substance plays a fundamental role in an otherwise patently obvious example of religion (although, I suppose diminutive reactions to syncretism are also not uncommon), then we stand in a better position to move onto a more mature further discussion of the religious significance of drugs in our own cultures and countercultures where attitudes are typically more highly contentious, as is apparent when Santo Daime attempts to find a home in countries with negative overall views on drug-use (typically excepting alcohol and other already sanctioned drugs).

Assessments of the validity of the source of a religious attribution is not the prerogative of the scholar of religion, or, at best, is relatively uninteresting theoretically.  If someone tells us that drugs or the experiences they render are understood to possess religious import, especially if they then orient their lives around that understanding and influence others to take up a similar position, then there is no case to argue, “but it was only a drug experience.”  For all of the analytical purchase that such a stance provides us, we may as well tell a Catholic at mass, “but it’s only a wafer.”  Such appellations tell us little about the cognitive, social, historical, and other factors which lead the psychonaut or Catholic to hold the religious attributions that they do and even less about how the experience and attribution affect their lives and behavior.  If an informant tells me that he was divinely inspired on a mushroom trip, I wouldn’t bat an eye any more than if he told me that he was divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit during communion.  That is his attribution to make and mine to document and analyze.  In fact, as a scholar of religion, the primary data of import is that he did, in fact, make that attribution.  Our informants provide us with the data about what is and isn’t deemed religious.  If people are telling us, in unequivocal terms, that they attribute religious meaning to their drug experiences, we trivialize them not at our peril but merely at our bias, and in doing so we miss out on important data about the religious lives of a large number of people in the contemporary world who may hold more of a sway over the collective imagination than many might think.  For instance, to use my own research as an example, the recent bout of millennialist expectations for the year 2012 was developed in and propagated by circles of entheogenic enthusiasts, and it is actually very difficult to understand the development of that widespread millennial phenomenon without understanding and addressing the role of drug-experiences in the production of prophecy.  In fact, in many cases, it was the very fact that the prophecy was understood as having arisen from a drug-experience that was seen by an audience as assuring its authenticity.  If we close our eyes to the religious import of drugs in a globalized modern context, there are significant religious phenomena in the world that we will simply fail to see and thereby fail to take into account in our models.

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

  • Hanegraaff, Wouter J. 2012. “Entheogenic Esotericism.” In Contemporary Esotericism, edited by Egil Asprem and Kennet Granholm. Sheffield: Equinox.
  • Taves, Ann. 2009. Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Wasson, R. Gordon. 1980. The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica. New York: McGraw-Hill.