Posts

Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes

In this interview, recorded at the SocRel 2017 Annual Conference, Professor James Spickard talks about his latest project. Starting with a critique of North American sociology’s approach to religion, Spickard emphasises how our concepts of religion are historically grounded, arising from a particular time and place. How can we remedy this, and how can we look at our own concepts more critically and reflexively? Spickard presents three examples of how religion might be understood differently – from the point of view of Confucianism, Navajo religion, and the work of Arab scholar Ibn Khaldoun – and shows how these different approaches can alter our perspectives. What can Confucianism show us about North American church congregations? How can the work of Ibn Khaldoun affect our understandings of race and ethnicity? Building on ideas such as Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory, Spickard explores how researchers could begin to move toward a ‘world-conscious sociology 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, Athlete’s foot powder, hot sauce, and more.

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

Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes

Podcast with James V. Spickard  (23 October 2017).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Spickard_-_Alternative_Sociologies_of_Religion-_through_Non-Western_Eyes_1.1

 

Sammy Bishop (SB): Hi, I’m Sammy Bishop. I’m here with the RSP at SocREL 2017. I’m here with Professor James Spickard, from the University of Redlands. So, thank you for joining us today.

James Spickard (JS): It’s a pleasure.

SB: So we’re here to talk abut your newest publication: Alternative Sociologies of Religion:Through Non-Western Eyes. Could you tell us first a little bit about how you came to work on this topic?

JS: Well, every project is complex. And like every other scholar in the world, I’m in the midst of a series of conversations with various folks. Technically, I have a Religious Studies degree, but I’m trained in Anthropology and Sociology. I’m one of those few people who doesn’t make a distinction between them, except historically. So I’m very primed, as a theorist, I’m primed to look and see what the underlying presumptions are of any way of understanding what a particular phenomenon is. And since I’m studying religion and going on the American context, I’ve been reasonably appalled at the kinds of things that the American context can’t seem to understand. The first one of those that came up, during the ‘90s, was the inability of American Sociology of Religion to actually grasp experience in Religious Studies. I did my first fieldwork on one of the Japanese religions where the practitioners do something called (audio unclear). Which, crudely put, involves projecting invisible light out of the palms of peoples hands to clean the clouds off their spiritual bodies. And you can imagine why an anthropologist would be interested in this and I learned all sorts of wonderful anthropological things about it. But – and frankly I don’t much care what [the ritual] was – but it was the thing that attracted everybody. And the discipline of Sociology of Religion said, “Oh no, no, no. That can’t be right. Something else must be going on.” There must be, you know, the deprivation hypothesis or some . . . crap! And so, it wasn’t until a couple of folks did a survey where they asked a bunch of people involved with Asian religions, “Why are you attracted to it ?” And it wasn’t the social life, and it wasn’t connection with other people, and it wasn’t deprivation, it was “Hey, dude. Something happened to us when we were sitting in meditation.” And the discipline had no concepts for dealing with that. So Mary Jo Neitz  and I wrote a couple of articles about that and put together a series of ways of thinking about that. And I ended up working on some pieces based in Navajo religion where you don’t have churches, you don’t have priests. You’ve got myths, you’ve got belief systems, but there aren’t doctrines. But you’ve got these nine day and night ceremonies. And they were categorised as “symbolic”, but they’re not symbolic. I mean, why would you do something as symbolism for nine days and nights? It’s based on the experience, it picks people up from one place and moves them to someplace else. One thing leads to another there. I began working on Confucian ways of seeing what’s sacred in Confucian tradition. I was doing stuff on human rights and on the Confucian notion of human rights – which is a very different notion than in the West – and trying to get at that from the inside, following a series of  contemporary neo-Confucians into this notion of the relation of self. The self is constructed quite differently in Confucianism than it is in the West. And this sacred relationships of . . . . It’s all about relationships. And the sacred inheres in the connections between people and the practice and maintenance of Li, which we call ritual propriety, but it’s . . . . The maintenance of the relationships that create the self and create the social community generates virtue. But virtue isn’t individual, virtue is collective. So, it’s a whole different way of thinking about things. So I get these two things going on, then I got interested in the work of Ibn Khaldoun from the 14th century  who has a way of . . . he thinks about the concept of Asabiyya or group feeling. And it’s a form of social solidarity that is centred, centripetal, it draws things to the centre rather than being boundary oriented. (5:00) But he treats that Asabiyya as something that is generated by kinship, but also by Islam. And so, you know, you’ve got these three things: “What do I do with this stuff?” And it struck me that there was a narrative here. There’s a . . . well, where I end up – and I think the underlying place of this book – is that those are the three examples, but they’re not exhaustive. The argument is that all of our concepts, including Western concepts and Western sociological concepts are historically and culturally grounded. That is, they arise out of a particular time and place. And reading Manuel Vasquez’ article in Religions on the Edge, which is the theme of this conference. Vasquez points out the way in which in sociology’s origins, sociology treated religion as the “other” and so secularisation approaches are built into Sociology from the very beginning. And that was more articulate than I’d been able to get out of it. So, we have a beginning of a narrative. And I had already studied how religion is presented in American Sociology textbooks. And it is all about belief and organisations and morality and its all. . . it’s isolated in its own chapter, just as Sociology of Religion is isolated in the discipline at large. So what was the default view? How was it created? How was it a historical cultural product, that then lets us see certain things really, really well, but not see other things, not see experience, not see relationships, etc? So that’s the opening of the book. And then there’s a chapter where I dive deep – I love writing this stuff because you actually get to dive deeply into things and read everybody in the world. And dive into the Confucian material. And then I take that and I’ve written a chapter where I apply it. And, what would a Confucian sociologist see about American church life? Or church life in Europe? But I’m dealing with the American case here. What would that sociologist see that we don’t normally see? And the Confucian case is probably the most striking, that – despite the patriarchalism of China’s religion and Chinese culture in general – who maintains the sacred relationships that keep the congregation together? It’s women cooking church suppers. They’re doing – or in the Black African American church it’s called “kitchen ministry”, they’ve got a name for it, and it isn’t always women, just women, in African American churches. And in Midwestern Protestantism it is all women. And there’s a long history of church suppers forming the basis of the social church. In San Antonio, on the west side of San Antonio,  which is Latina area, people are in fact nominally Catholic, but people don’t really attend church very often. But there are women who will put on Christmas plays and they will do what they call a promesa, which is: if your nephew gets off drugs or something like that, you promise El Nino Dios that you will do one of these plays and that you will fed the neighbourhood. And the play people, the actors, come and they do the pastoral play, with shepherds and Jesus. And it’s a religious event. But it doesn’t happen in church. And so these women are not counted as religious in American quantitative sociology, they’re just not. We miss all of this richness because we don’t see it. So the relational notion, it wouldn’t necessarily put women at the centre, but it empirically puts them at the centre – which is this lovely irony – and Sociology doesn’t do that. Sociology ignores the role of women by and large. So, you know, then there’s two chapters on Ibn Khaldoun and two chapters on what the Navajo, or what you would do with a Navajo approach. (10:00) And one of them outlines  what the Navajo would do – how Navajo philosophy works and the notion of ritual as creating the original beauty, order its hózhó is the term, creating the beauty, order etc that was present at the creation. And at the creation it was done, in the myth, by thought and speech. Long Life Boy and Happiness Girl who take out this bundle, and they unroll the bundle and they do this sand painting. And that’s what happens in the ceremony: they unroll the bundle, they do the sand painting, they recreate the original perfection. And people experience that connection. So then I take that and apply it. And this was actually an article that I had written in 2005, based on 13 years of fieldwork with a radical Catholic group that you can read the house mass that that group does every week, or did at that time every week, as a way of recreating the world, a sense of rightness, a sense of beauty, or of order in the lives of people who spent their time working with homeless folks, or sitting in at the Cathedral because the Bishop isn’t spending enough money or poor people. Or sitting in at City Hall so that they will release (audio unclear) so that the poor people don’t have to put their stuff all over the street. Those are . . . how do you recreate that world? Well it’s the ritual that does it. And there’s other things too, but the overall argument is that  if we go to these other places and take a look at what other concepts are there, it’s like if you’re a photographer, and I’m a photographer, so I look at it: you hold the camera; you point the camera at something; you frame it, based on whatever; and you take a photo you get something, you see something. If you take twenty steps around to your right or left and take a picture you’ll see something else. And so, what I’m advocating is that if we look at these other cultural, historical settings and places we can get notions, we can locate our camera in different places. The three I happen to choose are ones – I mean there are others, I suggest some in the last chapter, but I could only handle three. From the first article that dealt with some of this stuff to now, I think it’s . . . well, it’s been twenty-eight years. No, twenty-six years. Which is a long time, thank you very much! But the project really only gelled about eleven years ago. Anyway that’s a long answer to a short question!

SB: It’s great.

JS: So, where do you want to go next?

SB: Well, one thing that we could ask would be why you chose to, or why you prefer to go to these other perspectives – such as the Navajo or the Chinese Confucian perspective – rather than looking for relational theories kind-of closer to home?

JS: Well. You can get there by going closer to home. And when I first looked at experience, and wrote the first set of articles on experience I went two places: one, to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi –who’s an American, or Hungarian American psychologist – who looks at the phenomenon of attention and how when you attend to something deeply the ego shifts and the experience of the ego, in that strict Husserlian phenomenological sense, the experience that you have of the world changes. And I went to that and I went to the work of Alfred Schütz, particularly his article on making music together. And Mary Jo Neitz and I wrote a piece on that, her coming out of feminist theory and my coming out of whatever it is I come out of. But we’re fellow travellers on this particular trip. And those were spots in the Western tradition where we could find it. And Schütz basically argues, and I think he’s right, when you listen to music it’s a polythetic experience. That is, there are multiple things happening, it unrolls in time and rituals unroll in time. You can’t grasp a ritual just like you can’t grasp a symphony in a set of words. But you have to play it again. And if you don’t play it again then you lose something. And putting the two – Csikszentmihalyi and Shütz – together, what those rituals do is they focus our attention on different places. And how well you know the ritual . . . Csikszentmihalyi talks about this distinction between the difference between anxiety and boredom (15:00) If you know it too well, you’re bored. If you don’t know it at all, you’re anxious. If you’re exactly on the right spot, then your experience transforms. And so I’m using that to look at Navajo ritual, but I’m also using a Navajo theology to look at the Catholic ritual. Because . . . what is it accomplishing? It rights the world again, it puts the world back in order. And I think that’s significant. Sure, you can get there in another way. Nobody has. Sure, you don’t have to go to China to find out about relationalism. Nobody’s done it. And my complaint, my criticism and I said this in my review of the book Religion on the Edge, is that people are laying out all of these critiques of standard sociology and then what they put in their place are really not very good understandings of symbolic interactionism, not even going to Mead’s Philosophy of the Act where there really is some good stuff, but going  back to Goffman, going to things that don’t actually produce anything new. So the wish is fine, but there’s no delivery. If you go. . . . It’s like travelling. You go some place else. Here I am, an American, sitting in a British conference. People think differently – we have two countries divided by the same language (that’s not my line, it’s probably Churchill. I don’t know who it is) But you begin to see things in a different way. And so I think it’s important, for example, to go and read Ibn Khaldoun even though we don’t have a cyclical . . . I didn’t go to his cyclical notion of history – and Brad  Turner at one point wrote that the problem with Khaldoun is that he has no theory of modernisation. Well, that’s right, but that isn’t where you go in this case. What are the concepts that work? And then realising and we think of him as an historian and he thought of himself as a judge on the Islamic tradition. He was trying to justify Islam, and a particular kind of anti-Sufi Islam which we might call Islamism today, based on the ability of that Islam to overcome kin divisions and create a larger community where people are tied together by ritual. Well, those are really interesting ideas. What do they illumine about a particular case that we wouldn’t otherwise see? In that case, since I haven’t described that one yet,  I use that lens to look at the miracles of magic origin in Bosnia, in the Marian apparition in Bosnia, in 1981 and ongoing. And that was in the sociological literature as a religious experience, and as a religious event. And of course, it was. Then, ten years later, they have this ethnic war in that place, which is then described as an ethnic experience, and an ethnic event. Which of course it was. What’s the relationship between the two of these? Is religion creating social solidarity which then becomes tied up with the ethnic line? because you can’t tell a Croat from a Serb unless you ask as Bosnian what prayers they learned as child. Is it an instrumental way of killing people? In that case, I actually decide that Ibn Khaldoun doesn’t do it right, because he has the centre-focussed notion of  pulling people together. And the war makes it  very clear that this was an edge focussed way of dividing people. but we still learn something by putting ethnicity and religion in the same frame, where they do not appear in standard sociology. Could we get there? Sure we could get there, but nobody’s done it. I mean, it standardly isn’t done. And so that’s why I did this. Now that’s reason one. There’s reason two, which is: my previous book – I write slowly – is on ethnography and  critique of un-reflexive ethnography in the study of religion. And it brought some of the material from anthropology into Sociology and into Religious Studies. So that’s the notion of how ethnographers need to be aware of their own position in the process of doing their ethnography. (20:00)And one of the articles in there has eight different levels of representation in the ethnographic process. I didn’t write that one but it’s a brilliant piece by Shawn Landres. Uh, I discovered there’s a ninth. But, you know, these are the kinds of things we have to think about. Ethnography is now- it’s sort of de rigueur that it’s reflexive. We are not, in the historical cultural position of late nineteenth century France and Germany and the United States. We’re in this sort of emerging global world where there’re connections all over the place. It’s after colonialism but it’s not post-colonial. And that’s particularly true because the post-colonial people are still doing anti-colonialism, effectively. But we’re in a world where we have to begin thinking about it as not a unipolar world. And there’s a long history in Sociology, not just American, and in Anthropology as well. We make the concepts, we export the concepts, folks in other places apply those to their own situations and frequently misunderstand what’s going on. Not their fault. And there’s been a counter-push to, “Ok how do you develop an indigenous sociologies?” and so on.  And the ISA has sponsored some. Some of them are worthwhile, some of them are not. But we live in a world where we’re beginning to have to talk from one another and learn from one another and so on. And so the second reason for going elsewhere is to remind ourselves that we’re not the centre of the universe. Probably my favourite line in the book is the line in the last chapter where, you know: “Only men are allowed to imagine that there’s no such thing as gender; only white people are allowed to imagine that there’s no such thing as race; only heterosexuals are allowed to imagine that there are not these wonderful and glorious and multiple forms of sexuality; and only people living at the centre of the empire can imagine that the empire doesn’t matter. So that’s where we are. And here I am a white male heterosexual inhabitant of the empire and I can’t forget that. And so what are the responsibilities? How do we move from that polarity to do something where we are all at least in conversation with one another? And I spent the last couple of chapters wrestling with questions of  Orientalism, questions of cultural appropriation, and the questions of what is the epistemological grounding of what a global sociology would be. And my first title for the book, the one I sent it to the publisher with, was “Through Non-Western eyes: Towards a World-Conscious Sociology of Religion”. And in many ways, that’s the best description of what the book is about. The marketing department of course, said, “No. You can’t do that. We want Global Sociology”. I said, “No, that’s white male, blahblahblah.” And so we fought for a month, and two months, and then the editor came up with the title we have. I received a copy of the book the day after “alternative facts” became an American political meme. And part of me said, “Oh my God!” and the other part of me said, “Instant Karma for the marketing department.” And yet it also does describe what’s going on. Because it’s not saying, “These are the only ways to do things,” but “these are three models of what we could be doing”. And there’s was dealing with the concept of (audio unclear), that had to do with Latina religious agency. And Nigerian, Professor (audio unclear) was dealing with some (audio unclear) concepts and there are some other people who’ve pursued these.And they’re great. They’re beyond me. I can’t dive into all of those, I’d bee doing this for the next forty life times. But the stuff is out there. Some of it’s good. Some of it isn’t. Some of it works. Some of it doesn’t. Some of the stuff that I think works might not work as well as I think it does. Other things that I think don’t work, might work better, but this is the conversation we have to be having.  (25:00) So there’s a sense that what I’m trying to do here is – well, as the subtitle [suggests], decentring the sociology of religion. Which is the subtitle of the Bender et al. book. It’s the theme of the conference.

SB: One final question. How do you hope the book might be used by other scholars or students?

JS:I hope people will read it. You know. You always want people to read your book.And in this case, one of the reasons it’s taken so long to write is that I try to write for . . . I don’t just write for specialists. I try to have the prose be readable by people who are literate and interested in things. I actually write for my father, but he’s dead. So I don’t actually write for him. Somebody who can understand, who is not a scholar but can understand wel- reasoned argument. So I tell stories. And other people will have stories. And if people . . . what I hope is that people will understand what it is I’m trying to do and then figure out ways that they might want to do something similar.Well, there a whole series of fellow travellers here, because I’m not the only person: Raewyn Connell’s book, Southern Theory– it’s a fellow traveller with that. And in that book she looks at a very Western question about the nature of colonialism. But from the point of view of people who have been suffering from colonialism. Not the same question but parallel. Mary Jo Neitz’ work on Feminist Theory, Feminist Sociologies of Religion is a connected work. Meredith McGuire’s work on Lived Religion is . . . . These are things breaking down the sort of standard modal of how religion works and looking at things through other lenses. Now I of course have criticisms of all of those – of things that they catch and things that they don’t catch – but that doesn’t matter if people read this, appreciate the stories, figure out, “Well how does this change how I think about what it is I’m doing, and what might I do differently?” That’s great. And if people then say, “OK, I’m going to engage with people who are really coming from a fundamentally different place.” This is the ethnographer in me. I said that my first fieldwork was with one of the main Japanese religions so I had to immerse myself in a completely different way of thinking about the world. And that, I think, that’s kind-of our duty at this point. Unless we want to ignore the fact that there’s an empire around us, and I can’t do that.

SB: Professor Spickard, thank you very much for your time.

JS: Sure. Thanks a lot.

Citation Info: Spickard, James V. and Sammy Bishop. 2017. “ Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 23 October 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 October 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/alternative-sociologies-of-religion-through-non-western-eyes/

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

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

Evangelical Christian Space is Not a Category, It’s a Relationship – But With What?

The topic of religion and space has been tackled a couple of times by the Religious Studies Project, with interviews and responses featuring Kim Knott and Katie Aston, Peter Collins and David McConeghy. In fact, I drew on the latter interview-and-response pair earlier this year while working on an article on Christianity, space/place, and anthropology, in order to show the bemusing gap that exists between, on the one hand, many scholars in religious studies who rightfully state that much work has been done on religion and space, and, on the other hand, anthropologists (including myself) who still feel confident claiming that there is a dearth of work on this topic. As I explain in the article, it seems to me that this contradiction is not purely the result of anthropological ignorance (though we shouldn’t rule that out completely). Rather, I think it comes down to the ethnographic emphasis: anthropologically-inclined researchers are looking for a sustained, ethnographically-informed discussion about how religious practitioners themselves think about and use their spaces.

And this is why, in my opinion, sociologist Anna Strhan’s greatest contribution to the debate on religion and place is precisely the underlying question that she identifies in this interview as permeating all her work, across different groups: What are their ethics and values? What matters to them? What is it like – for them? This strong ethnographic focus is particularly evident in her most recent book, a study of evangelical Anglicans in London entitled Aliens and Strangers? The Struggle for Coherence in the Everyday Lives of Evangelicals.

So – what matters to them? What do evangelicals in London want? What does place-making mean to them? As part of Strhan’s broader answer to this question, it seems to me that she positions evangelical place-making using a time-honored sociological move: by seeing it not as a category, but as a relationship. And this allows her to give a number of insightful answers.

1. Evangelical place-making is a relationship with coherence

Strhan explains in this interview that Aliens and Strangers started out as a study focused on evangelical subjectivity, but gradually came to include a focus on space as she realized that a central concern for the evangelicals she was interacting with was a search for coherence in the midst of modern, chaotic London. And this evangelical search for coherence is grounded, she argues, in their image of God as coherent.

In Strhan’s analysis the search for coherence is double-edged. On the one hand there is a sense in which evangelicals’ investment in certain marked places – churches, Bible study groups, schools – in the midst of London life gives them an opportunity to “cohere” with other evangelicals. They draw on relationships within the church to support them in an urban modern environment that in some ways runs “counter” to their faith. And their physical coming-together in certain places is a way of orienting themselves toward God’s (existing) coherence as well as their own (desired) coherence – both in themselves and with God. On the other hand, however, the very act of focusing on coherence prompts a rising awareness of fragmentation – both in the city environment as well as in themselves – and the impossibility of achieving complete coherence while still in this world.

Coherence, in other words, is a goal that begins to both shine and recede at the very moment you begin to reach for it. And evangelicals use place-making – delimiting certain Christian places in the city – partly as a way of negotiating their complex relationship with this goal.

2. Evangelical place-making is a relationship with “the good life”

Physical bodies meeting together in material places are important, and are part and parcel of what “the good life” encompasses for these conservative Protestants. Contrary to the common notion that Protestants live out a more disembodied or dematerialized version of Christianity, Strhan demonstrates that evangelicals rely on both a disciplining of their own body (especially in order to hear God) as well as a crafting of physical places where they can come together. These places range from famous “brand” churches with large buildings, through homely dinner tables where church groups share food, to a corner of a cafe where two church members can meet for a cup of tea.

Again, however, Strhan’s work draws out the double-edged nature of this goal. Evangelicals, she argues, are profoundly shaped by secular sensibilities (a point that has been followed up by Omri Elisha). For example, they find it awkward to talk about their “private” faith in certain “public” places, such as at their work. In this sense, one might say they mesh well with modern, secular, multicultural, urban London life. At the same time, they invest the places they fashion as Christians with a type of meaning that marks these spaces as being “outside” – outside the secular, outside the city, outside this world – and, again, as specifically “counter.” Moreover, they view the other spaces of the city through a Christian lens, turning “secular” vistas into potentially lost or redeemed ones.

Reaching for “the good life” as an evangelical Christian in London encompasses both these senses at once: working with secular sensibilities while also countering them. Negotiating a relationship with “the good life” in particular urban Christian places is not easy.

3. Evangelical place-making is a relationship with God

Strhan is especially good on God. To an innocent outsider, a focus on God might not seem like much of an achievement in a study of evangelical Christians, but anyone reading the Religious Studies Project will know otherwise. An ethnographic focus on the social role of God might rightly be considered innovative in religious studies (and I include here the anthropology and sociology of religion).

And as Strhan demonstrates, an attempt to understand evangelicals’ relationship with God is central in trying to understand what matters to them. This is not to say that it is straightforward. These conservative Anglicans do not usually resort to absolute religious certainty in the way that, say, self-proclaimed fundamentalist Protestants might do. Their faith in God, as Strhan sums it up in the interview, is “hard work,” and they come together in marked places and envision certain urban vistas precisely in order to continuously identify this relationship with God, which cannot be taken for granted. Moreover, it is important to them (and has social effects) that their God is pure, perfect, holy coherence. This conservative evangelical Anglican image of God is different, as Strhan has pointed out, from other images, such as that found in charismatic evangelical neo-Pentecostalism in the United States, where God might be your intimate, best friend (which has slightly different social implications).

So, in the end, what matters to them? Why are spaces important to evangelical Christians? Strhan’s thoughtful ethnographic work shows us that evangelicals’ place-making is, amongst other things, a relationship with coherence and fragmentation. It is a relationship with secularism, religion, and “the good life” in the modern city. And it is a relationship with an invisible God, whose existence may be doubted in twenty-first-century London, but of whom a meaningful image (which is not to say a simple one) may also be formed in twenty-first-century London.

References

Elisha, Omri. 2016. “Onward Christian strangers: Omri Elisha on Anna Strhan’s Aliens and Strangers?” Marginalia Review of Books, April 23.

Hovland, Ingie. 2016. “Christianity, space/place, and anthropology: Thinking across recent research on evangelical place-making.Religion 46 (3), 331-358.

Strhan, Anna. 2015. “Looking for God in the sociology of religion and in Game of Thrones.” Oxford University Press Blog, June 14.

Strhan, Anna. 2015. Aliens and Strangers? The Struggle for Coherence in the Everyday Lives of Evangelicals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

UFOs, Conspiracy Theories… and Religion?

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

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

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, like David Robertson’s new book, and more.

Not Just Any Body Will Do!

Dr. Claire White’s research addresses the religious topic of reincarnation that, although perhaps more adhered to by human cultures across time and space than the belief that we have only one earthly life followed by eternal reward or punishment, has received little serious scientific investigation—especially from the question through which Dr. White addresses it. That question is not whether reincarnation (or any other religious belief) is true, but rather “Why do some people have that belief?” It is this type of psychological question that is the hallmark of the cognitive science of religion (CSR).

The long-held assumption, made historically by both scholars and laymen, has been that religious beliefs are created and instilled through cultural transmission and indoctrination. In the past few decades, however, the newly emergent field of CSR has taken that assumption to task with numerous empirical experiments. Contrary to this long-held assumption, research into a wide variety of religious beliefs by CSR has found that many of those beliefs are held by us because they tap into and appeal to our natural cognitive biases. These cognitive biases predispose us to believe in gods, an afterlife, a moral universe, and creationism. Even though each religion addresses these topics in (sometimes very!) different ways, the findings suggest that what binds this great variation together are these underlying intuitions.

Like any human endeavour, however, science sometimes includes missteps.

White’s research, in conjunction with my own and others’, calls into question a theoretical assumption held by many CSR scholars that the body plays a negligible role in beliefs about supernatural agents (see here, here and here). According to such scholars, supernatural agents are represented by believers as disembodied beings, devoid of any bodily properties. This applies to gods as well as the afterliving deceased. Once a human dies, these researchers tell us, the only part of this deceased individual we intuitively represent as continuing is her mind. We no longer represent her as embodied in any way, let alone in any way connected with her previous earthly body. In contradistinction to this view with regard to the latter, both White and myself argue that the body still plays a vital role in representations of the afterliving deceased, and that this bodily representation is sufficiently corporeal and similar enough to allow for recognition and identification as “the same again” as well as continued social interaction.

As White rightly states in her interview, if there were ever a case in which the afterliving deceased’s previous earthly body should play no role whatsoever in her representation, recognition and identity, then it should be in the context of reincarnation. It is believed that the new physical body of the reincarnated individual shares no causal history, in the scientific sense, with her previous body. It could vary in race, sex, and innumerable other ways. Yet White’s empirical findings demonstrate that when trying to determine whether a reincarnated individual is the same again, we intuitively look for and at distinctive physical clues. If it were indeed the case that humans intuitively represented the afterliving deceased as disembodied minds, then there would be no reason, let alone an intuitive bias, to gauge the reincarnated individual’s identity based on her bodily attributes. Yet we do.

The evidence produced by White vividly demonstrates this by the fact that one of the two most important features that one “implicitly” looks for and appeals to in order to recognize a reincarnated individual as the same again are distinctive physical characteristics. Since the individual’s new body shares no causal history—genetic or otherwise—with her previous body (again, in the scientific sense), there should be no implicit reason to expect there to be such specific physical clues of identity. Nevertheless, White’s evidence demonstrates that we still represent and appeal to physical clues in matters of recognizing a reincarnated individual as the same again.

White does not appeal to novel cognitive mechanisms to explain this phenomenon, as is vogue in CSR (and cognitive science as a whole). Instead White claims that this intuitive cognitive bias relies on the known mundane representational processes that we use every day to recognize those we encounter as the same again. We expect them to have a specific causal history which we implicitly track through both mental (i.e., autobiographical memories) and distinctive physical characteristics. Of course, the latter are far more easily tracked than the former (could you imagine how different our interactions would be if we had to establish every individual’s identity by first interrogating her about her memories?).

White is also to be commended for incorporating anthropological evidence in her research. This is something that should be done much more often in CSR. Too often, researchers produce results and theories in their laboratories that appear to share little in common with the religious practices they are attempting to illuminate empirically. They provide us with no bridge to get from their results and theory to religion writ large in human cultures. Even worse, sometimes their results and theories seem to fly in the face of religious beliefs and practices.

Again, take the claim that humans represent supernatural agents as disembodied. This is problematic in that supernatural agents (with very few exceptions) are starkly represented as embodied, not just in iconography but also in mythologies and religious texts, and in fact often with very specific and odd physical features. For instance, think about the pantheons of supernatural agents across such diverse cultures as in ancient Egypt, Greece, Scandinavia, India and China. How could the supernatural agents in these cultures have been represented, let alone carried out their specific mythical exploits, if we believed (intuitively or otherwise) that they were disembodied? Reconciling the laboratory phenomenon of dualism with religious beliefs and practices begins to appear impossible.

To overcome the complaints of its critics, CSR needs to follow White’s lead. Not only must we diligently carry out cross-cultural experiments in the laboratory, but we also need to consult and remain faithful to the anthropological record of religion as it is believed and practiced. If the two appear incompatible, it is our experiments and theories that must be rethought. It is not as though we in CSR can authoritatively tell the religious faithful that they are worshipping all wrong!

In Praise of Polyvocality

A few weeks back, I found myself engaged in a one-sided debate with a colleague/friend over the use of the term ‘non-religion.’ As it was at the end of a two-day conference, it was one of those casual conversations wherein certain sophisticated aspects of the preceding academic discourse spill over into the informality of a chat over drinks.

In other words: like many a conversation amongst academically-minded friends, the casual simplicity of our conversation was periodically peppered with intellectual debate.

This is partly why I refer here to our argument as being rather one-sided, though of course it would be both unfair and erroneous of me to remove myself entirely of any responsibility. After all, I am something of an antagonist [editor’s note: …to say the least]. Then again, I’m also the one telling the story here, so I can shape it any way I wish. Something to consider the next time you read an ethnography.

Nevertheless, from my perspective, our discussion felt ‘one-sided’ because it consisted mostly of my friend emphatically and excitedly arguing (perhaps with himself?) against what he perceived was my own emphatic and excited argument that the term ‘non-religion’ has been reified by those who use it for their own cynical gains. While I would, of course, agree that it has definitely become reified (what term hasn’t?), I could not help but think the argument he was putting forth was veering into a discussion beyond simple term usage. Which, in the end, is partly why I requested to offer this response to Chris Cotter’s interview with Johannes Quack.

The other reason for my request is that while I have, for the last five years, been a rather vocal advocate against the term ‘non-religion’ (for a number of reasons that aren’t exactly pertinent to this particular story), I have also, as I assured my friend, come to believe that the term, and its many cognates, shouldn’t be wholly abandoned. That is, just because it doesn’t work for me, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for someone else.

Which, if we really think about it, is the essence of academic discourse.

This simple argument here will be the focus of this response, the thesis around which I will be using Quack’s approach to non-religion in an Indian context, to not only point out the benefits of differing theoretical and methodological views, but to also make the larger anthropological argument that this discourse about terminology provides a pragmatically curious solution.

I call this thesis: in praise of polyvocality.

At the recent XXIst Quinquennial Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions at the University of Erfurt, I had the esteemed pleasure of having Professor Johannes Quack moderate the panel on which I was presenting: “Current Perspectives on Atheism.” Beyond his intriguing, and rather groundbreaking, research on rationalism in India, Professor Quack is perhaps the ideal individual on which to support my thesis.

During the question-answer section of the panel, which also included a very interesting presentation by Ingela Visuri[1] on the correlation between autism and Atheism, there began an interesting diminutive debate between Johannes and I over our different term usages. Where this might have, as it has in the past, veered into a discussion between contesting advocates with no real solution provided in the end, it in fact proved extremely advantageous, and not just for the benefit of the audience. At one point, when asked if there was a strict difference between his use of non-religion and my use of the term Atheism, and in particular if the former was merely a more broad or essentialist version of the latter, Johannes kindly responded with a similar answer to the one he gives in his RSP interview about his use of the term rationalist: from a straightforward anthropological perspective, because the individuals being studied identify themselves using a particular term, it would be unfair to impose a different one on them other than the one they use. While this permission to allow one’s subjects to speak for themselves, of course, makes the discussion about term usage even more difficult (especially as subjects tend not to agree on terminology), it also offered a useful insight into the pragmatism of using such different terms, as well as an argument against assigning a general one under which they might be categorized.

This also returns my discussion to the issue of reification. Perhaps my greatest argument against ‘non-religion’ has been based on the notion that it stands as a relational umbrella: in the discourse on the academic study of religion, the study of the non-religious represents research being done not so much on the ‘opposite,’ but on the relational periphery. This is something that Chris and Johannes discuss toward the end of their interview. While this might prove useful in the sense that it places the discourse of the study of the non-religious within the larger context of the study of religion, I would argue it also, perhaps by accident, reifies the term in the same way that ‘religion’ has become an umbrella over which we categorize all aspects of being or acting religious. In the end, then, it adopts, from its relationship to ‘religion’, all the issues and ambiguous difficulties we’ve had with that term over the last century or so. This, to me, is less a solution to the problem, than a contribution to it. When we add this to the adolescent growing pains of the study of Atheism, ir-religion, un-belief, non-religion, etc., the result is a rather stunted upbringing. Though I digress.

So, then, to move, here, from the critical to the promotional, in Johannes’ answer, as well as via his discussion with Chris about the differences between group and individual identities at the end of their interview, I believe there is a solution to be found: I would argue that a remedy for term reification, be it Atheism, non-religion, religion, or anything relationally similar, and thus a remedy for the terminological issues we may face as researchers, is found within the straightforward anthropological approach which he advocated for in our panel, only turned around in a reflective manner. That is, where we seek out and promote the pragmatic objectivity in permitting each of our subjects to define themselves in their own terms, there is an equal pragmatism in introspectively allowing ourselves to do the same with our own language. While this approach might develop a rather vast terminological discourse, it also breeds a sense of diversity, which, through an anthropological lens, is more beneficial than it is detrimental to our conclusions.

In fact, when we take a further step back, and view the academic discourse itself as an anthropological subject, these terminological differences become their own types of individual identities. In this way, our debates over terminology become differing voices all contributing to a discourse that together comes to represent a cultural whole. Thus, our differences of opinion become less problematic, and more representative, a polyvocality that together create a group identity filled with different individual ones. Then, and just like we would with our subjects, viewing this discourse objectively fosters a much more nuanced insight into this culture than, say, an argument that one subject embodies his or her culture more than another.

In the end, then, I believe the polyvocality of our discourse is indeed a benefit, particularly because we aren’t all talking about the same thing. Our disagreements and debating and arguing over the proper term usage contributes more and more to the discourse upon which our identity, as an academic endeavor, is formed. Thus, while we might quarrel amongst each other over whether or not our terminology is correct, or whether it better represents our subjects, as subjects ourselves, these discussions are in their own way leading toward a process of identification, and thus a sense of academic congruity. From this third level, then, looking down at ourselves as we look down on our subjects, each layer embodying a unique cultural character, we can better make sense of what it is that we’re studying, as we study it. To do otherwise, to me, seems a bit too much like a one-sided debate.

Suggested Reading

Johannes Quack, Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Johannes Quack and Jacob Copeman, “’Godless People’ and Dead Bodies: Materiality and the Morality of Atheist Materialism,“ Social Analysis, Vol. 59, Iss. 2, 2015.

http://www.nonreligion.net/?page_id=35

http://nsrn.net

http://www.everythingisfiction.org/

Lois Lee, Recognizing the Non-Religious: Reimagining the Secular (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Ethan G. Quillen, “Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism,” Science, Religion, and Culture, Vol. 2, Iss. 3, 2015.

[1] https://hig-se.academia.edu/IngelaVisuri

Gender-as-Lived: Considerations in Ethnographic Methodology

virgin-mary-pics-1119

Virgin Mary

In the Religious Studies Project’s recent interview with Dr. Anna Fedele, Dr. Fedele and her interviewer discuss several aspects of interest related to the intersections of gender, religions, and power dynamics. Fedele’s book, Gender and Power in Contemporary Spirituality: Ethnographic Approaches (Routledge, 2013), is a collection of essays exploring the interaction of gender, gender norms, expressions of power, and those movements broadly identified as ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’ (If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, it is an excellent set of essays and well worth the read). Fedele’s current research involves Catholic women in Portugal and the idea of ‘spiritual motherhood.’ ‘Spiritual motherhood,’ in this context, means women who have chosen to be stay-at-home-mothers, breastfeed longer than the average, give birth at home, and/or practice attachment parenting. Fedele looks at not only the experiences of the women as mothers, but their experiences as daughters and granddaughters. Fedele observes that it is very important to understand a woman’s history to know how she conceptualizes gender and motherhood.

Early in the interview Fedele offers an answer to the not-so-simple question of ‘what is gender?’ Her answer is based in both her study of classical theories of gender as well as her extensive experience as an ethnographer: ‘gender’ is what the research participants believe it to be, rather than what the researcher believes it to be. Fedele states that in her research, she tries to understand what ‘gender’ means for the people she studies, especially what gendered images they have received from their mothers and grandmothers. This relates to religion as well, because the women receive a whole set of values from their mothers, and the Catholicism in which they grew up (and still live) tells them that the mother is the center of the family, the mother must always be there for the child, as well as other notions that may not reflect the lives of the women Fedele studies.

Fedele’s approach of being guided by the women she studies resonates strongly with my perspective on studying ‘religion(s).’ The identities claimed by the individual(s) or community being researched must be acknowledged and respected by the researcher, and communicated to the audience (reader, students in a seminar, etc.) along with the researcher’s perspective and conclusions. Fedele further emphasizes this point when she observes that an academic researcher must acknowledge the power issues present in a researcher-interviewee relationship: the academic doesn’t know everything, nor is the participant ignorant. Fedele provides an example from her recent research on women, motherhood, and gendered roles conveyed via religion. The women she interviews are highly educated, intelligent, and have read extensively on pregnancy and motherhood. They are then struggling to reconcile the message of the Catholic Church (that a pregnant woman is in a state of grace, and the ideals of motherhood exemplified by the Virgin Mary) with their lived reality of physical pain and illness, sexuality, and spurts of emotions such as anger or impatience.

Sandro Botticelli - 'The Virgin and the Child' (Madonna of the Book)

Sandro Botticelli – ‘The Virgin and the Child’ (Madonna of the Book)

Fedele also cautions that scholars have an awareness of their own assumptions about the research topic. Some of Fedele’s colleagues had made a couple of highly inaccurate assumptions regarding the Portuguese women in Fedele’s study (for instance, the idea that because the women identify as religious they therefore follow all of the dictates of the Catholic Church, especially regarding abortion); the women must be anti-abortion because they value motherhood so highly, or so the assumption went. But Fedele’s research shows a much more nuanced, complicated picture: the women are not uniformly anti-abortion, owing to a distinct contrast between their Catholic upbringing, which taught that abortion is wrong, and what the women feel in their bodies and the agency they claim.

Later in the interview, Fedele emphasizes that it is crucial for scholars to have an awareness of how the religion is lived, in reality, by the people being studied. She further states that religion only exists in the lives of people and that while religion in texts can be studied, it is not alive. For example, in practice this means that she looks at living women and their stories, and shares her writing with them. She keeps an open mind regarding what they tell her and is careful to use non-judgmental language. Fedele notes that the women aren’t always interested in Fedele’s conclusions – some just read sections about themselves for accuracy or to make sure they aren’t identifiable – but some engage with the research as a whole.

These are valuable lessons for scholars of not only religion and gender, but are more broadly applicable to all scholars of religion. Whether a scholar is studying a living community, as Fedele does, or researching a text, we must be aware of the assumptions we carry with us as scholars. A person living a religion may appear different than a text would lead the researcher to believe and living communities of the same religion will differ based on location. (A point also noted by Jeff Wilson in his 2012 book, Dixie Dharma.) Fedele also leaves the listener contemplating a thorny problem related to the study of religion-as-lived (her preferred phrasing instead of ‘lived religion’): Fedele’s in-depth, ethnographic research is at odds with the pressure within departments for faculty to expediently finish research so that it can be published quickly. This hurried model of research and publication – and the constraints on conducting ethnographic research while teaching – is ultimately detrimental to the field. The trust between scholar and participant cannot be rushed or forced because the scholar is on a deadline. What valuable insights is the field missing by making it difficult for scholars to perform extensive studies on living communities?

References

Fedele, Anna and Kim E. Knibbe, eds. Gender and Power in Contemporary Spirituality: Ethnographic Approaches. Routledge Studies in Religion Series. New York & London: Routledge, 2013.

Fedele, Anna. Looking for Mary Magdalene: Alternative Pilgrimage and Ritual Creativity at Catholic Shrines in France. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Wilson, Jeff. Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. (Paperback released in 2014)

21st Century Irish Paganism

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

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

links in Jenny’s bio and also our previous interviews with Ronald Hutton, Suzanne Owen, Graham Harvey and Wouter Hanegraaf. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, moisturiser, fruit bowls, and more!

 

Human Consciousness & Religious Reality

It was real to me. There I was, curled into a corner, comforter wrapped around my shaking limbs and sweating torso, twisted in terror in the sinister hours of the morning. The salt of my tears were laced with the visceral reality of a specter, a monster, or some strange creature slowly scratching its course along the hallway outside my bedroom. I never saw the demon. I eventually fell asleep in exhaustion, still crimped into the corner of my room. The memory of those tormenting moments is still forbidding and physical for me, etched forever into my consciousness. Was it ontologically real? That is beyond the purview of my recollection. Was it real in my mind? Damn straight.

In a recent interview with Jeffrey J. Kripal, the RSP talked with the man who holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University about his recent works Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (Chicago, 2011) and Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2010).

In these works, Kripal shared how participation in what we call “the sacred” is a critical element that undergirds religious understanding and activity. From his perspective, human consciousness qualifies, as well as anything else, as “the sacred” itself, and must therefore be addressed and wrestled with by any self-respecting student of religion.

Particularly, Kripal argued that generally marginalized authors who have attempted to theorize the paranormal be treated as central to the religious project, even though their work deals with marvels deemed outside both mainstream scientific and/or religious parameters. These authors, Kripal contested, are “authors of the impossible,” but that does not make them charlatans or crackpots. Although Kripal does not come to conclusions about the ontological reality of these phenomena, and maintains a scholarly agnosticism, he does insist that the paranormal must be understood on its own terms (Authors of the Impossible, 158). Though these marvels may not be appreciated as “real,” they cannot be simply explained away or dismissed with snark or sarcasm either (all too often the case among “respectable scholars”).

Kripal fleshes this out in Mutants and Mystics, which acts as a case-study of sorts, applying the aforementioned theory to the symbiosis between paranormal believers and the production of superhero pop culture. As Kripal pointed out, many of the most popular science fiction and superhero creators were metaphysicists and New Age apostles. They imbued their fantasy narratives with spiritual themes that revealed that the sacred resides in each one of us and we, ourselves, are the superheroes, the true miracles of the divine world. Yes, indeed, behind the veil of science in the sci-fi genre, there is a touch of the ethereal, he asserted. This perspective lends itself to a “new anthropology” where, in the words of Kripal, “the Human [is] Two (and One),” which, “is the neuroanatomical, cognitive, and spiritual bedrock of the paranormal and its fantastic both-and, physical-mythical, masterful-mental, real-unreal expressions in popular culture.” (Mutants and Mystics, 333)

All-in-all, Kripal’s outlook stands as a corrective to purely anthropological, political, or economic analyses of religion as social construct. Counteracting strictly Durkheimian models, Kripal re-centers “the sacred” — posited as “consciousness” — as not only important to understanding religion, but as its critical point of departure. Essentially, Kripal calls out the religious studies world for not having a sufficient appreciation of the power of imagination and invites scholars and the interested public into a new comparativism that moves away from strict materialism.

As an ethnographer of religion, I appreciate this remedial position. I first encountered Kripal’s work as a journalist covering religion in Houston, the home of Rice University. This led to multiple conversations between the two of us about religion, the study thereof, and academia in general. While we come from two different perspectives and ask critically different questions as we approach the same topic, I value Kripal’s emphasis on the conscious as the seat of “the sacred.” While he readily admits that he is not concerned with the sociological questions of religion, and instead recasts some of the Otto and Eliade perspectives on “the numinous,” his viewpoint impacts me as an ethnographer.

I am often frustrated by the lack of empathy from the perspective of sociologists and ethnographers who study religion (and, for that matter, historians, political scientists, economists, and armchair scholars), but do not take the reality of religious experiences seriously. There are certainly exceptions to this rule (Daniel Levine’s Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism immediately comes to mind), but in general the great swathe of scholars dealing with religion too easily dismiss the complexity of human consciousness, the power of the psycho-social, and the reality of the sacred.

As Kripal intimated in the interview, the applications of his perspective reach beyond New Religious Movements or paranormal phenomena and include historical analyses and contemporary studies of local and global religioscapes. Immediately, I can think of ethnographers working on the use of amulets and talismans in West Africa, the role of dreams in conversion to Christianity and/or Islam, or Pentecostal healing practices in Latin America.

While these cases may be summarily theorized by many as elements of social control, political context, or economic realities there is ample need to appreciate these occurrences as they occur — as real to those experiencing them. Although researchers should not treat them as ontological fact, they can at the very least be approached as “real” in respect to the human conscious.

And yet, the problem occurs when these experiences contradict each other. Take, for example, dreams that lead to conversion (or occur during the process thereof). While not the majority, I discovered in my own research that some Latina/o Muslims convert because of mystical dream experiences. One “revert” related the content of a dream wherein, “Allah spoke to me and told me I have to change.” Another related that she “had the same dream three times” in which she was in Mecca, wearing a hijab, and felt close to her other Muslim sisters there. Soon after she converted to Islam. Interestingly enough, these experiences mirror reports of many missionaries and Christian converts in the Middle East who also claim that dreams are playing a significant role in Muslims converting to Christianity. Furthermore, there is evidence that dreams have frequently played a role in conversions throughout history, including the mass conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the 7th-century. What does the reality of these experiences mean when they seem to lead in different convictional directions?

Further, while Kripal’s points about consciousness and the sacred prove a potent corrective, they cannot stand on their own in the study of religion. Even if Kripal himself is not concerned with religion as a social construct, we cannot neglect the social realities of religion. In fact, rather than treating the human as two (and one), perhaps we should theorize the human as three (and one). First, as a “conscious subject” (which Kripal makes us critically aware of); second, as an “embodied physicality”; and third, as a “socially constructed being” shaped by their social context and a conscience collective (to invoke Durkheim).

Regardless of these critiques and ruminations on my part, Kripal’s theory deserves attention and examination on the part of religious studies scholars. There certainly is no easy answer in dealing with such complex discussions such as human consciousness and religious reality, but that is no reason why we should not pursue it from multiple perspectives and ends, which Kripal worthily invites us to do.

Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion: A Roundtable Discussion (Video and Audio!)

This week we are bringing you the fruits of a recent RSP venture to the University of Chester, UK. In the early afternoon, Chris and David ran a workshop on “Digital Humanities” for the postgraduate community in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Later on, David interviewed Dr Alana Vincent in from of a ‘live studio audience’ on the topic of ‘Religion and Literature‘. Following directly on from this, Chris chaired a roundtable discussion on ‘Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion’ featuring Dr Wendy Dossett, Prof. Elaine Graham, Dr Dawn Llewellyn and Dr Alana Vincent – all staff in TRS at Chester – and the RSP’s own Ethan Quillen, of the University of Edinburgh.

Chester

The idea for this roundtable was that it would follow on directly from the interview on religion and literature, but expand the discussion to cover a variety of points relating to narrative, autobiography and (auto)ethnography in the study of religion. This was also recorded in front of a live audience, and towards the end of the recording we take questions from the floor.

Thanks to the resources available at the University of Chester – specifically, a wonderful chap named Lee – we are able to bring you this roundtable discussion in video form – something a lot of our listeners have been keen on for quite some time. Let us know what you think! We can’t promise to do this very regularly, but if it is useful we will definitely investigate our options for the future.

Of course, for those who prefer to have the podcast in its usual form, it can be listened to and downloaded as usual.

Discussion addressed the following questions, and a lot more…

  • What do we mean when we speak of incorporating narratives into Religious Studies? Why would we want to?
  • What makes a narrative different from a discourse? Is there any difference?
  • Does studying narrative minimize other aspects of ‘religion’ such as ritual, embodiment, symbols etc? Is there anything particularly Western or gendered about privileging narratives?
  • Given that we focused upon ‘religion and literature’, what is the place of fictional narratives? What can they tell us? Are all narratives fictions? Can one infer anything external to a narrative?
  • What is the place of the scholar in all of this? Are we interpreters? Are we co-creators of narratives? Do we remain outside the data we study or must we write ourselves in? What would this do to ‘objectivity’? Is the whole academic enterprise an exercise in creating narratives? Can academic reflexivity go to too far?

This podcast is presented to you as a co-production with the University of Chester, and we are very grateful for their help in making this happen – particularly to Dawn Llewellyn for organizing, and to Lee Bennett for the technical wizardry.

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

Religion and Literature

How can studying literature help us to study religion? And what the question even mean? In this interview, Alana Vincent, Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of Chester, sets out some of the interesting intersections of these two fields. We can glean ethnographic or historical detail from literary works, and sometimes read particular insider discourses in their pages. We can read literature as a “sacred text” – or indeed, “sacred text” as literature”. Does literature, as a form where imagination is allowed free reign, provide a space for authors and readers to explore ‘matters of ultimate concern’, within or without religious institutions?

DSCF0481This interview was recorded LIVE! at the University of Chester on the 15th of October, 2014. Thanks to Chester and to Dawn Llewellyn for making the event possible. The interview leads directly onto the roundtable “Narrative, Ethnography and Reflexivity” which will be broadcast this Wednesday.

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.

Os serés matáves: Pentecostalism in the Prisons of Rio

BRASIL-997Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is a city of over six million people; it is known for its exotic nightlife, white sand beaches, crystal blue water, and of course, one of the most famous bosa nova songs ever: The Girl From Ipanema. However, beyond the sunny beaches, veritable entertainment, and soothing music lies a very different scene – the Rio de Janeiro prison system. Inside the towering grey concrete walls live Rio’s os serés matáves, or roughly translated into English as, “the killable people”These “killable people” are comprised mostly of proletariat and unemployed minorities with crimes ranging from the benign to the bloody. Gangs rule the prison and every day at 6 pm deafening war cries echo out from within the concrete walls as prison gangs scream allegiance to their “commander” – the head gang leader who runs the prison. The guards largely remain on the outskirts of the prison, they don’t control much of what happens within, as it is too dangerous to go inside. [Note: While the prison system is, of course, very dangerous, the guards’ absence is also due to the penology practiced in that country.]

_MG_9222

Dr. Johnson inside the prison with other inmates during worship.

For Brazil’s “killable people”, there are two prevalent ways to deal with the relative hell of prison – both involving allegiance and devotion. You can give your life to the gang or give your life to God. Only three types of people dare to venture into the heart of a Rio de Janeiro prison: the condemned, the pentecostal pastors leading the prison ministry, and curiously brave sociologists such as Dr. Andrew Johnson.

 

BRASIL-1017-1

In his interview with Thomas J. Coleman III, Dr. Johnson begins by discussing the preparation leading up to his ethnography of the Pentecostal prison ministries in Rio de Janero Brazil. He takes the listener through the streets and slums of Rio, and into a prison cell-block. Here, we learn about the gang life that largely runs the prison, and the “gang like” life (Pentecostal prison ministries) that can provide a temporary escape from the physically and psychologically damaging conditions of the jail, and might just provide eternal redemption through the faith of the pious prisoner. Johnson discusses the role of politics in the prison system, why Pentecostalism dominates the jails in a predominately catholic country such as Brazil, and “answers” the question of how to tell if someone is truly faithful. He discusses how prisoners are viewed by their community after their release, and upon conversion as an allegedly devout pentecostal. In closing, Dr. Johnson speculates about the future of pentecostal prison ministries in Brazil, and argues for “the religious lives of inmates being taken seriously apart from recidivism rates”.

Be sure to check out Dr. Johnson’s plenary address, the world debut of his documentary If I Give My Soul, at the 2014 Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Indianapolis Indiana October 31st – November 2nd. You can register for the conference here: SSSR registration link.

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.

The Burning Saints, Fire-Walking Rituals of the Anastenaria

greece-firewalkingIt’s dark outside. The moon hangs in the sky and the soft smell of smoke permeates the warm air as it stings your eyes. Looking down, you notice the glow from burning coals, as hot as 535 degrees C, scattered on the ground below. The trancelike rhythm from the beating drums fills your ears as the Patron Saints Constantine and Helen are honored in the town of Agia Eleni in Northern Greece. The whole village surrounds you and they share in your moment, as the richness of the surrounding imagery and importance of the ritual consumes the senses. You are in a sublime state of ecstasy as the glowing coals lay before you. But, will you walk across? When Saint Constantine calls you to become a firewalker – you answer – at least if you are one of the Anastenaria.

In his interview with Thomas Coleman for The Religious Studies Project, experimental anthropologist, Dr. Dimitris Xygalatas, discusses his ethnography of the fire walking rituals of the Anastenaria. The Anastenaria are Orthodox Christians in Northern Greece who celebrate the Saints Constantine and Helen in a two part ritual cycle each year. They have no written texts, as the tradition and myths encompassing the firewalkers are passed down orally through story telling and by participation in ritual. Their tradition is, as Xygalatas writes (2012, p. 2) “a good example of a physically and emotionally arousing ritual, and such rituals raise a very important question regarding their participants’ motivation: why do people engage in extreme, costly ritual activities, that offer no obvious advantage but entail evident risks?” Widely known and respected for bringing experimental methods into the tough and fast paced conditions entailed by fieldwork on extreme rituals, Xygalatas combines rich description with scientific explanation to present a portrait of the Anastenaria that holds firm to the ‘anthropological attitude’ of understanding, while also providing an explanation for why people may behave the way they do.

anastenaria1

The interview begins with a discussion of the cultural context of the Anastenaria in Greece, noting widespread discrimination against their religious practices by the government and Greek Orthodox Church. He explains some of the shared beliefs the Anastenaria hold and describes the ritual cycle for the festival of St. Constantine and St. Helen. But, why would anyone be compelled to walk across burning coals? Xygalatas goes on to highlight the underlying cognitive and physiological mechanisms that may contribute to participation in extreme rituals, discusses the transmission of beliefs and revelation in the Anastenaria and highlights the importance and meaning of the rituals. In closing, Dr. Xygalatas shares a very personal moment from additional fieldwork in Spain that turned himself, the researcher, into the subject being researched.

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

Xygalatas, D. (2012). The burning saints cognition and culture in the fire-walking rituals of the Anastenaria. Bristol, CT: Equinox.

Santo Daime

My first experience of Santo Daime occurred in 2005 during research for a book on the non-mainstream religious scene in Brazil (A. Dawson, 2007). Pretty much unprepared for the sensory feast of a Santo Daime ritual, I was visually struck by the colourful ‘uniforms’ and brightly decorated ceremonial space. The strongly rhythmical and fervently sung ‘hymns’ also made an impact, as did the powerful smell and bitter taste of the religious sacrament which practitioners call ‘Daime’. A psychoactive beverage more commonly known as ‘ayahuasca’, the sacrament of Daime and its psychotropic effects further added to the intense sensory stimulation which abides as an enduring memory of my earliest encounter with Santo Daime. Staged within the mountainous terrain of a national park hundreds of miles north of São Paulo, the ritual contents and format originally forged in the Amazon region of north-west Brazil did not seem particularly out of place. However, unlike the poor, mixed-race community which first elaborated Santo Daime as part of its semi-rural subsistence lifestyle, the ritual participants with whom I was celebrating were overwhelmingly drawn from Brazil’s predominantly white urban middle class. Whereas the uniforms, songs and sacrament were very much of the Amazon region, those wearing, singing and consuming the ceremonial accoutrements of Santo Daime certainly were not. By no means discordant, the juxtaposition of Amazonian origins and urban-professional appropriation nevertheless piqued my academic interest. (Dawson 2013, 1)

Upon receiving an email notification through the BASR mailing list about Andrew Dawson’s recently published monograph, Santo Daime: A New World Religion, the RSP’s academic interest was certainly piqued. Thus, towards the end of May 2013, Chris made the arduous journey from his office at one end of B Floor, County South, Lancaster University, to Dr Dawson’s at the other, to discuss this fascinating and engaging book, Santo Daime in general, the various ethical problems associated with conducting this kind of field research, the intentionally multifaceted subtitle ‘New World Religion’, and much more.

This interview marks the beginning of a short series of podcasts from the RSP on Religion, Migration and Diaspora, continuing next week with Mitra Barua speaking to Chris Silver about immigrant Buddhism in the West, and ending in two weeks time with Monika Salzbrunn speaking to Hanna Lehtinen about Religion, Migration and Diaspora.

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 or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc. Remember… Christmas is on the way!

Religion and Food

Religion and Food are two elements which one rarely sees receiving extended and combined scholarly attention. However, even the briefest of brainstorms yields a wide variety of examples which could be “brought to the table” (to use a pun from today’s interview).

Some interactions involve the consumption of food – think of the traditional image of the Jewish Shabbat or Hindu Diwali celebrations; others involve restrictions – be that in terms of diet (such as Jain vegetarianism) or food intake (such as the Muslim month of Ramadan). The Roman Catholic celebration of the Eucharist might be conceptualized as the intake of food and drink by some, whilst others may find this whole notion deeply offensive, preferring to understand these elements as the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And this discourse can be perpetuated in ostensibly ‘secular’ contexts, such as the recently reported release of the new “Ghost Burger” at Chicago’s Kuma’s Corner restaurant, made with a red wine reduction and topped with an unconsecrated Communion wafer (thanks to Sarah Veale of Mysteria Misc. Maxima for the heads up).

This week, Chris and David kick back in Edinburgh’s Doctor’s Bar and bring you an interview with Chris Silver speaking to Professor Michel Desjardins of Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, on this fascinating topic. Connections are made with recent turns in the academic study of religion (gender, materiality etc.), and other areas of study such as religion and nutrition/health. This wide ranging interview builds a strong case for greater scholarly attention to be focused upon this more quotidian aspect of human life, with some stimulating anecdotes and methodological considerations along the way, We are not responsible for any over-eating which may occur as a result of listening to this tantalizing interview…

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 or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when participating in consumer culture in your own way.

This podcast is the penultimate in our series on religion and cultural production, featuring interviews with François Gauthier on Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture, Pauline Hope Cheong on Religious Authority and Social Media, and Carole Cusack on Religion and Cultural Production.

NSRN Annual Lecture 2012 – Matthew Engelke: In spite of Christianity

We’re delighted to bring you a bonus podcast during our summer break – we’ll be back to our normal weekly schedule by mid-September. This is a recording of the are available here.

Details of Matthew Engelke’s lecture are given below. We would like to take this opportunity to remind you that you can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive it weekly, on Psychology of Religion Panel Session at the International Association for the Psychology of Religion World Congress.

In spite of Christianity: Humanism and its others in contemporary Britain – Dr Matthew Engelke

matthew-engelkeWhat do we talk about when we talk about religion? What do we recognize as essential and specific to any given faith, and why? In this lecture, I address these questions by drawing on fieldwork among humanists in Britain, paying particular attention to humanism’s relation to Christianity. In one way or another, humanists often position themselves in relation to Christianity. In a basic way, this has to do with humanists’ commitment to secularism—the differentiation of church and state. In more complex ways, though, it also has to do with an effort to move “beyond” Christianity—to encourage a world in which reason takes the place of revelation—while often, at the same time, recognizing what’s worth saving and even fostering from the legacies of faith. All these various relations and perspectives suggest how we should understand social life in contemporary Britain as what it is in spite of Christianity—and not.

Dr. Engelke has recently completed a year of ethnographic fieldwork in the offices of the British Humanist Association [BHA] and is soon to publish his findings. As part of this research project Dr Engelke worked with BHA accredited celebrants and also trained as a funeral celebrant. This work leads the way for a happily increasing number of similar research projects and this will be further encouraged by the recent launch the Programme for the Study of Religion and Nonreligion at LSE, which is coordinated by Dr. Engelke .

The full text of this lecture is available to download here.

Podcasts

Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes

In this interview, recorded at the SocRel 2017 Annual Conference, Professor James Spickard talks about his latest project. Starting with a critique of North American sociology’s approach to religion, Spickard emphasises how our concepts of religion are historically grounded, arising from a particular time and place. How can we remedy this, and how can we look at our own concepts more critically and reflexively? Spickard presents three examples of how religion might be understood differently – from the point of view of Confucianism, Navajo religion, and the work of Arab scholar Ibn Khaldoun – and shows how these different approaches can alter our perspectives. What can Confucianism show us about North American church congregations? How can the work of Ibn Khaldoun affect our understandings of race and ethnicity? Building on ideas such as Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory, Spickard explores how researchers could begin to move toward a ‘world-conscious sociology 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, Athlete’s foot powder, hot sauce, and more.

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

Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes

Podcast with James V. Spickard  (23 October 2017).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Spickard_-_Alternative_Sociologies_of_Religion-_through_Non-Western_Eyes_1.1

 

Sammy Bishop (SB): Hi, I’m Sammy Bishop. I’m here with the RSP at SocREL 2017. I’m here with Professor James Spickard, from the University of Redlands. So, thank you for joining us today.

James Spickard (JS): It’s a pleasure.

SB: So we’re here to talk abut your newest publication: Alternative Sociologies of Religion:Through Non-Western Eyes. Could you tell us first a little bit about how you came to work on this topic?

JS: Well, every project is complex. And like every other scholar in the world, I’m in the midst of a series of conversations with various folks. Technically, I have a Religious Studies degree, but I’m trained in Anthropology and Sociology. I’m one of those few people who doesn’t make a distinction between them, except historically. So I’m very primed, as a theorist, I’m primed to look and see what the underlying presumptions are of any way of understanding what a particular phenomenon is. And since I’m studying religion and going on the American context, I’ve been reasonably appalled at the kinds of things that the American context can’t seem to understand. The first one of those that came up, during the ‘90s, was the inability of American Sociology of Religion to actually grasp experience in Religious Studies. I did my first fieldwork on one of the Japanese religions where the practitioners do something called (audio unclear). Which, crudely put, involves projecting invisible light out of the palms of peoples hands to clean the clouds off their spiritual bodies. And you can imagine why an anthropologist would be interested in this and I learned all sorts of wonderful anthropological things about it. But – and frankly I don’t much care what [the ritual] was – but it was the thing that attracted everybody. And the discipline of Sociology of Religion said, “Oh no, no, no. That can’t be right. Something else must be going on.” There must be, you know, the deprivation hypothesis or some . . . crap! And so, it wasn’t until a couple of folks did a survey where they asked a bunch of people involved with Asian religions, “Why are you attracted to it ?” And it wasn’t the social life, and it wasn’t connection with other people, and it wasn’t deprivation, it was “Hey, dude. Something happened to us when we were sitting in meditation.” And the discipline had no concepts for dealing with that. So Mary Jo Neitz  and I wrote a couple of articles about that and put together a series of ways of thinking about that. And I ended up working on some pieces based in Navajo religion where you don’t have churches, you don’t have priests. You’ve got myths, you’ve got belief systems, but there aren’t doctrines. But you’ve got these nine day and night ceremonies. And they were categorised as “symbolic”, but they’re not symbolic. I mean, why would you do something as symbolism for nine days and nights? It’s based on the experience, it picks people up from one place and moves them to someplace else. One thing leads to another there. I began working on Confucian ways of seeing what’s sacred in Confucian tradition. I was doing stuff on human rights and on the Confucian notion of human rights – which is a very different notion than in the West – and trying to get at that from the inside, following a series of  contemporary neo-Confucians into this notion of the relation of self. The self is constructed quite differently in Confucianism than it is in the West. And this sacred relationships of . . . . It’s all about relationships. And the sacred inheres in the connections between people and the practice and maintenance of Li, which we call ritual propriety, but it’s . . . . The maintenance of the relationships that create the self and create the social community generates virtue. But virtue isn’t individual, virtue is collective. So, it’s a whole different way of thinking about things. So I get these two things going on, then I got interested in the work of Ibn Khaldoun from the 14th century  who has a way of . . . he thinks about the concept of Asabiyya or group feeling. And it’s a form of social solidarity that is centred, centripetal, it draws things to the centre rather than being boundary oriented. (5:00) But he treats that Asabiyya as something that is generated by kinship, but also by Islam. And so, you know, you’ve got these three things: “What do I do with this stuff?” And it struck me that there was a narrative here. There’s a . . . well, where I end up – and I think the underlying place of this book – is that those are the three examples, but they’re not exhaustive. The argument is that all of our concepts, including Western concepts and Western sociological concepts are historically and culturally grounded. That is, they arise out of a particular time and place. And reading Manuel Vasquez’ article in Religions on the Edge, which is the theme of this conference. Vasquez points out the way in which in sociology’s origins, sociology treated religion as the “other” and so secularisation approaches are built into Sociology from the very beginning. And that was more articulate than I’d been able to get out of it. So, we have a beginning of a narrative. And I had already studied how religion is presented in American Sociology textbooks. And it is all about belief and organisations and morality and its all. . . it’s isolated in its own chapter, just as Sociology of Religion is isolated in the discipline at large. So what was the default view? How was it created? How was it a historical cultural product, that then lets us see certain things really, really well, but not see other things, not see experience, not see relationships, etc? So that’s the opening of the book. And then there’s a chapter where I dive deep – I love writing this stuff because you actually get to dive deeply into things and read everybody in the world. And dive into the Confucian material. And then I take that and I’ve written a chapter where I apply it. And, what would a Confucian sociologist see about American church life? Or church life in Europe? But I’m dealing with the American case here. What would that sociologist see that we don’t normally see? And the Confucian case is probably the most striking, that – despite the patriarchalism of China’s religion and Chinese culture in general – who maintains the sacred relationships that keep the congregation together? It’s women cooking church suppers. They’re doing – or in the Black African American church it’s called “kitchen ministry”, they’ve got a name for it, and it isn’t always women, just women, in African American churches. And in Midwestern Protestantism it is all women. And there’s a long history of church suppers forming the basis of the social church. In San Antonio, on the west side of San Antonio,  which is Latina area, people are in fact nominally Catholic, but people don’t really attend church very often. But there are women who will put on Christmas plays and they will do what they call a promesa, which is: if your nephew gets off drugs or something like that, you promise El Nino Dios that you will do one of these plays and that you will fed the neighbourhood. And the play people, the actors, come and they do the pastoral play, with shepherds and Jesus. And it’s a religious event. But it doesn’t happen in church. And so these women are not counted as religious in American quantitative sociology, they’re just not. We miss all of this richness because we don’t see it. So the relational notion, it wouldn’t necessarily put women at the centre, but it empirically puts them at the centre – which is this lovely irony – and Sociology doesn’t do that. Sociology ignores the role of women by and large. So, you know, then there’s two chapters on Ibn Khaldoun and two chapters on what the Navajo, or what you would do with a Navajo approach. (10:00) And one of them outlines  what the Navajo would do – how Navajo philosophy works and the notion of ritual as creating the original beauty, order its hózhó is the term, creating the beauty, order etc that was present at the creation. And at the creation it was done, in the myth, by thought and speech. Long Life Boy and Happiness Girl who take out this bundle, and they unroll the bundle and they do this sand painting. And that’s what happens in the ceremony: they unroll the bundle, they do the sand painting, they recreate the original perfection. And people experience that connection. So then I take that and apply it. And this was actually an article that I had written in 2005, based on 13 years of fieldwork with a radical Catholic group that you can read the house mass that that group does every week, or did at that time every week, as a way of recreating the world, a sense of rightness, a sense of beauty, or of order in the lives of people who spent their time working with homeless folks, or sitting in at the Cathedral because the Bishop isn’t spending enough money or poor people. Or sitting in at City Hall so that they will release (audio unclear) so that the poor people don’t have to put their stuff all over the street. Those are . . . how do you recreate that world? Well it’s the ritual that does it. And there’s other things too, but the overall argument is that  if we go to these other places and take a look at what other concepts are there, it’s like if you’re a photographer, and I’m a photographer, so I look at it: you hold the camera; you point the camera at something; you frame it, based on whatever; and you take a photo you get something, you see something. If you take twenty steps around to your right or left and take a picture you’ll see something else. And so, what I’m advocating is that if we look at these other cultural, historical settings and places we can get notions, we can locate our camera in different places. The three I happen to choose are ones – I mean there are others, I suggest some in the last chapter, but I could only handle three. From the first article that dealt with some of this stuff to now, I think it’s . . . well, it’s been twenty-eight years. No, twenty-six years. Which is a long time, thank you very much! But the project really only gelled about eleven years ago. Anyway that’s a long answer to a short question!

SB: It’s great.

JS: So, where do you want to go next?

SB: Well, one thing that we could ask would be why you chose to, or why you prefer to go to these other perspectives – such as the Navajo or the Chinese Confucian perspective – rather than looking for relational theories kind-of closer to home?

JS: Well. You can get there by going closer to home. And when I first looked at experience, and wrote the first set of articles on experience I went two places: one, to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi –who’s an American, or Hungarian American psychologist – who looks at the phenomenon of attention and how when you attend to something deeply the ego shifts and the experience of the ego, in that strict Husserlian phenomenological sense, the experience that you have of the world changes. And I went to that and I went to the work of Alfred Schütz, particularly his article on making music together. And Mary Jo Neitz and I wrote a piece on that, her coming out of feminist theory and my coming out of whatever it is I come out of. But we’re fellow travellers on this particular trip. And those were spots in the Western tradition where we could find it. And Schütz basically argues, and I think he’s right, when you listen to music it’s a polythetic experience. That is, there are multiple things happening, it unrolls in time and rituals unroll in time. You can’t grasp a ritual just like you can’t grasp a symphony in a set of words. But you have to play it again. And if you don’t play it again then you lose something. And putting the two – Csikszentmihalyi and Shütz – together, what those rituals do is they focus our attention on different places. And how well you know the ritual . . . Csikszentmihalyi talks about this distinction between the difference between anxiety and boredom (15:00) If you know it too well, you’re bored. If you don’t know it at all, you’re anxious. If you’re exactly on the right spot, then your experience transforms. And so I’m using that to look at Navajo ritual, but I’m also using a Navajo theology to look at the Catholic ritual. Because . . . what is it accomplishing? It rights the world again, it puts the world back in order. And I think that’s significant. Sure, you can get there in another way. Nobody has. Sure, you don’t have to go to China to find out about relationalism. Nobody’s done it. And my complaint, my criticism and I said this in my review of the book Religion on the Edge, is that people are laying out all of these critiques of standard sociology and then what they put in their place are really not very good understandings of symbolic interactionism, not even going to Mead’s Philosophy of the Act where there really is some good stuff, but going  back to Goffman, going to things that don’t actually produce anything new. So the wish is fine, but there’s no delivery. If you go. . . . It’s like travelling. You go some place else. Here I am, an American, sitting in a British conference. People think differently – we have two countries divided by the same language (that’s not my line, it’s probably Churchill. I don’t know who it is) But you begin to see things in a different way. And so I think it’s important, for example, to go and read Ibn Khaldoun even though we don’t have a cyclical . . . I didn’t go to his cyclical notion of history – and Brad  Turner at one point wrote that the problem with Khaldoun is that he has no theory of modernisation. Well, that’s right, but that isn’t where you go in this case. What are the concepts that work? And then realising and we think of him as an historian and he thought of himself as a judge on the Islamic tradition. He was trying to justify Islam, and a particular kind of anti-Sufi Islam which we might call Islamism today, based on the ability of that Islam to overcome kin divisions and create a larger community where people are tied together by ritual. Well, those are really interesting ideas. What do they illumine about a particular case that we wouldn’t otherwise see? In that case, since I haven’t described that one yet,  I use that lens to look at the miracles of magic origin in Bosnia, in the Marian apparition in Bosnia, in 1981 and ongoing. And that was in the sociological literature as a religious experience, and as a religious event. And of course, it was. Then, ten years later, they have this ethnic war in that place, which is then described as an ethnic experience, and an ethnic event. Which of course it was. What’s the relationship between the two of these? Is religion creating social solidarity which then becomes tied up with the ethnic line? because you can’t tell a Croat from a Serb unless you ask as Bosnian what prayers they learned as child. Is it an instrumental way of killing people? In that case, I actually decide that Ibn Khaldoun doesn’t do it right, because he has the centre-focussed notion of  pulling people together. And the war makes it  very clear that this was an edge focussed way of dividing people. but we still learn something by putting ethnicity and religion in the same frame, where they do not appear in standard sociology. Could we get there? Sure we could get there, but nobody’s done it. I mean, it standardly isn’t done. And so that’s why I did this. Now that’s reason one. There’s reason two, which is: my previous book – I write slowly – is on ethnography and  critique of un-reflexive ethnography in the study of religion. And it brought some of the material from anthropology into Sociology and into Religious Studies. So that’s the notion of how ethnographers need to be aware of their own position in the process of doing their ethnography. (20:00)And one of the articles in there has eight different levels of representation in the ethnographic process. I didn’t write that one but it’s a brilliant piece by Shawn Landres. Uh, I discovered there’s a ninth. But, you know, these are the kinds of things we have to think about. Ethnography is now- it’s sort of de rigueur that it’s reflexive. We are not, in the historical cultural position of late nineteenth century France and Germany and the United States. We’re in this sort of emerging global world where there’re connections all over the place. It’s after colonialism but it’s not post-colonial. And that’s particularly true because the post-colonial people are still doing anti-colonialism, effectively. But we’re in a world where we have to begin thinking about it as not a unipolar world. And there’s a long history in Sociology, not just American, and in Anthropology as well. We make the concepts, we export the concepts, folks in other places apply those to their own situations and frequently misunderstand what’s going on. Not their fault. And there’s been a counter-push to, “Ok how do you develop an indigenous sociologies?” and so on.  And the ISA has sponsored some. Some of them are worthwhile, some of them are not. But we live in a world where we’re beginning to have to talk from one another and learn from one another and so on. And so the second reason for going elsewhere is to remind ourselves that we’re not the centre of the universe. Probably my favourite line in the book is the line in the last chapter where, you know: “Only men are allowed to imagine that there’s no such thing as gender; only white people are allowed to imagine that there’s no such thing as race; only heterosexuals are allowed to imagine that there are not these wonderful and glorious and multiple forms of sexuality; and only people living at the centre of the empire can imagine that the empire doesn’t matter. So that’s where we are. And here I am a white male heterosexual inhabitant of the empire and I can’t forget that. And so what are the responsibilities? How do we move from that polarity to do something where we are all at least in conversation with one another? And I spent the last couple of chapters wrestling with questions of  Orientalism, questions of cultural appropriation, and the questions of what is the epistemological grounding of what a global sociology would be. And my first title for the book, the one I sent it to the publisher with, was “Through Non-Western eyes: Towards a World-Conscious Sociology of Religion”. And in many ways, that’s the best description of what the book is about. The marketing department of course, said, “No. You can’t do that. We want Global Sociology”. I said, “No, that’s white male, blahblahblah.” And so we fought for a month, and two months, and then the editor came up with the title we have. I received a copy of the book the day after “alternative facts” became an American political meme. And part of me said, “Oh my God!” and the other part of me said, “Instant Karma for the marketing department.” And yet it also does describe what’s going on. Because it’s not saying, “These are the only ways to do things,” but “these are three models of what we could be doing”. And there’s was dealing with the concept of (audio unclear), that had to do with Latina religious agency. And Nigerian, Professor (audio unclear) was dealing with some (audio unclear) concepts and there are some other people who’ve pursued these.And they’re great. They’re beyond me. I can’t dive into all of those, I’d bee doing this for the next forty life times. But the stuff is out there. Some of it’s good. Some of it isn’t. Some of it works. Some of it doesn’t. Some of the stuff that I think works might not work as well as I think it does. Other things that I think don’t work, might work better, but this is the conversation we have to be having.  (25:00) So there’s a sense that what I’m trying to do here is – well, as the subtitle [suggests], decentring the sociology of religion. Which is the subtitle of the Bender et al. book. It’s the theme of the conference.

SB: One final question. How do you hope the book might be used by other scholars or students?

JS:I hope people will read it. You know. You always want people to read your book.And in this case, one of the reasons it’s taken so long to write is that I try to write for . . . I don’t just write for specialists. I try to have the prose be readable by people who are literate and interested in things. I actually write for my father, but he’s dead. So I don’t actually write for him. Somebody who can understand, who is not a scholar but can understand wel- reasoned argument. So I tell stories. And other people will have stories. And if people . . . what I hope is that people will understand what it is I’m trying to do and then figure out ways that they might want to do something similar.Well, there a whole series of fellow travellers here, because I’m not the only person: Raewyn Connell’s book, Southern Theory– it’s a fellow traveller with that. And in that book she looks at a very Western question about the nature of colonialism. But from the point of view of people who have been suffering from colonialism. Not the same question but parallel. Mary Jo Neitz’ work on Feminist Theory, Feminist Sociologies of Religion is a connected work. Meredith McGuire’s work on Lived Religion is . . . . These are things breaking down the sort of standard modal of how religion works and looking at things through other lenses. Now I of course have criticisms of all of those – of things that they catch and things that they don’t catch – but that doesn’t matter if people read this, appreciate the stories, figure out, “Well how does this change how I think about what it is I’m doing, and what might I do differently?” That’s great. And if people then say, “OK, I’m going to engage with people who are really coming from a fundamentally different place.” This is the ethnographer in me. I said that my first fieldwork was with one of the main Japanese religions so I had to immerse myself in a completely different way of thinking about the world. And that, I think, that’s kind-of our duty at this point. Unless we want to ignore the fact that there’s an empire around us, and I can’t do that.

SB: Professor Spickard, thank you very much for your time.

JS: Sure. Thanks a lot.

Citation Info: Spickard, James V. and Sammy Bishop. 2017. “ Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 23 October 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 October 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/alternative-sociologies-of-religion-through-non-western-eyes/

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

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

Evangelical Christian Space is Not a Category, It’s a Relationship – But With What?

The topic of religion and space has been tackled a couple of times by the Religious Studies Project, with interviews and responses featuring Kim Knott and Katie Aston, Peter Collins and David McConeghy. In fact, I drew on the latter interview-and-response pair earlier this year while working on an article on Christianity, space/place, and anthropology, in order to show the bemusing gap that exists between, on the one hand, many scholars in religious studies who rightfully state that much work has been done on religion and space, and, on the other hand, anthropologists (including myself) who still feel confident claiming that there is a dearth of work on this topic. As I explain in the article, it seems to me that this contradiction is not purely the result of anthropological ignorance (though we shouldn’t rule that out completely). Rather, I think it comes down to the ethnographic emphasis: anthropologically-inclined researchers are looking for a sustained, ethnographically-informed discussion about how religious practitioners themselves think about and use their spaces.

And this is why, in my opinion, sociologist Anna Strhan’s greatest contribution to the debate on religion and place is precisely the underlying question that she identifies in this interview as permeating all her work, across different groups: What are their ethics and values? What matters to them? What is it like – for them? This strong ethnographic focus is particularly evident in her most recent book, a study of evangelical Anglicans in London entitled Aliens and Strangers? The Struggle for Coherence in the Everyday Lives of Evangelicals.

So – what matters to them? What do evangelicals in London want? What does place-making mean to them? As part of Strhan’s broader answer to this question, it seems to me that she positions evangelical place-making using a time-honored sociological move: by seeing it not as a category, but as a relationship. And this allows her to give a number of insightful answers.

1. Evangelical place-making is a relationship with coherence

Strhan explains in this interview that Aliens and Strangers started out as a study focused on evangelical subjectivity, but gradually came to include a focus on space as she realized that a central concern for the evangelicals she was interacting with was a search for coherence in the midst of modern, chaotic London. And this evangelical search for coherence is grounded, she argues, in their image of God as coherent.

In Strhan’s analysis the search for coherence is double-edged. On the one hand there is a sense in which evangelicals’ investment in certain marked places – churches, Bible study groups, schools – in the midst of London life gives them an opportunity to “cohere” with other evangelicals. They draw on relationships within the church to support them in an urban modern environment that in some ways runs “counter” to their faith. And their physical coming-together in certain places is a way of orienting themselves toward God’s (existing) coherence as well as their own (desired) coherence – both in themselves and with God. On the other hand, however, the very act of focusing on coherence prompts a rising awareness of fragmentation – both in the city environment as well as in themselves – and the impossibility of achieving complete coherence while still in this world.

Coherence, in other words, is a goal that begins to both shine and recede at the very moment you begin to reach for it. And evangelicals use place-making – delimiting certain Christian places in the city – partly as a way of negotiating their complex relationship with this goal.

2. Evangelical place-making is a relationship with “the good life”

Physical bodies meeting together in material places are important, and are part and parcel of what “the good life” encompasses for these conservative Protestants. Contrary to the common notion that Protestants live out a more disembodied or dematerialized version of Christianity, Strhan demonstrates that evangelicals rely on both a disciplining of their own body (especially in order to hear God) as well as a crafting of physical places where they can come together. These places range from famous “brand” churches with large buildings, through homely dinner tables where church groups share food, to a corner of a cafe where two church members can meet for a cup of tea.

Again, however, Strhan’s work draws out the double-edged nature of this goal. Evangelicals, she argues, are profoundly shaped by secular sensibilities (a point that has been followed up by Omri Elisha). For example, they find it awkward to talk about their “private” faith in certain “public” places, such as at their work. In this sense, one might say they mesh well with modern, secular, multicultural, urban London life. At the same time, they invest the places they fashion as Christians with a type of meaning that marks these spaces as being “outside” – outside the secular, outside the city, outside this world – and, again, as specifically “counter.” Moreover, they view the other spaces of the city through a Christian lens, turning “secular” vistas into potentially lost or redeemed ones.

Reaching for “the good life” as an evangelical Christian in London encompasses both these senses at once: working with secular sensibilities while also countering them. Negotiating a relationship with “the good life” in particular urban Christian places is not easy.

3. Evangelical place-making is a relationship with God

Strhan is especially good on God. To an innocent outsider, a focus on God might not seem like much of an achievement in a study of evangelical Christians, but anyone reading the Religious Studies Project will know otherwise. An ethnographic focus on the social role of God might rightly be considered innovative in religious studies (and I include here the anthropology and sociology of religion).

And as Strhan demonstrates, an attempt to understand evangelicals’ relationship with God is central in trying to understand what matters to them. This is not to say that it is straightforward. These conservative Anglicans do not usually resort to absolute religious certainty in the way that, say, self-proclaimed fundamentalist Protestants might do. Their faith in God, as Strhan sums it up in the interview, is “hard work,” and they come together in marked places and envision certain urban vistas precisely in order to continuously identify this relationship with God, which cannot be taken for granted. Moreover, it is important to them (and has social effects) that their God is pure, perfect, holy coherence. This conservative evangelical Anglican image of God is different, as Strhan has pointed out, from other images, such as that found in charismatic evangelical neo-Pentecostalism in the United States, where God might be your intimate, best friend (which has slightly different social implications).

So, in the end, what matters to them? Why are spaces important to evangelical Christians? Strhan’s thoughtful ethnographic work shows us that evangelicals’ place-making is, amongst other things, a relationship with coherence and fragmentation. It is a relationship with secularism, religion, and “the good life” in the modern city. And it is a relationship with an invisible God, whose existence may be doubted in twenty-first-century London, but of whom a meaningful image (which is not to say a simple one) may also be formed in twenty-first-century London.

References

Elisha, Omri. 2016. “Onward Christian strangers: Omri Elisha on Anna Strhan’s Aliens and Strangers?” Marginalia Review of Books, April 23.

Hovland, Ingie. 2016. “Christianity, space/place, and anthropology: Thinking across recent research on evangelical place-making.Religion 46 (3), 331-358.

Strhan, Anna. 2015. “Looking for God in the sociology of religion and in Game of Thrones.” Oxford University Press Blog, June 14.

Strhan, Anna. 2015. Aliens and Strangers? The Struggle for Coherence in the Everyday Lives of Evangelicals. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

UFOs, Conspiracy Theories… and Religion?

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

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

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, like David Robertson’s new book, and more.

Not Just Any Body Will Do!

Dr. Claire White’s research addresses the religious topic of reincarnation that, although perhaps more adhered to by human cultures across time and space than the belief that we have only one earthly life followed by eternal reward or punishment, has received little serious scientific investigation—especially from the question through which Dr. White addresses it. That question is not whether reincarnation (or any other religious belief) is true, but rather “Why do some people have that belief?” It is this type of psychological question that is the hallmark of the cognitive science of religion (CSR).

The long-held assumption, made historically by both scholars and laymen, has been that religious beliefs are created and instilled through cultural transmission and indoctrination. In the past few decades, however, the newly emergent field of CSR has taken that assumption to task with numerous empirical experiments. Contrary to this long-held assumption, research into a wide variety of religious beliefs by CSR has found that many of those beliefs are held by us because they tap into and appeal to our natural cognitive biases. These cognitive biases predispose us to believe in gods, an afterlife, a moral universe, and creationism. Even though each religion addresses these topics in (sometimes very!) different ways, the findings suggest that what binds this great variation together are these underlying intuitions.

Like any human endeavour, however, science sometimes includes missteps.

White’s research, in conjunction with my own and others’, calls into question a theoretical assumption held by many CSR scholars that the body plays a negligible role in beliefs about supernatural agents (see here, here and here). According to such scholars, supernatural agents are represented by believers as disembodied beings, devoid of any bodily properties. This applies to gods as well as the afterliving deceased. Once a human dies, these researchers tell us, the only part of this deceased individual we intuitively represent as continuing is her mind. We no longer represent her as embodied in any way, let alone in any way connected with her previous earthly body. In contradistinction to this view with regard to the latter, both White and myself argue that the body still plays a vital role in representations of the afterliving deceased, and that this bodily representation is sufficiently corporeal and similar enough to allow for recognition and identification as “the same again” as well as continued social interaction.

As White rightly states in her interview, if there were ever a case in which the afterliving deceased’s previous earthly body should play no role whatsoever in her representation, recognition and identity, then it should be in the context of reincarnation. It is believed that the new physical body of the reincarnated individual shares no causal history, in the scientific sense, with her previous body. It could vary in race, sex, and innumerable other ways. Yet White’s empirical findings demonstrate that when trying to determine whether a reincarnated individual is the same again, we intuitively look for and at distinctive physical clues. If it were indeed the case that humans intuitively represented the afterliving deceased as disembodied minds, then there would be no reason, let alone an intuitive bias, to gauge the reincarnated individual’s identity based on her bodily attributes. Yet we do.

The evidence produced by White vividly demonstrates this by the fact that one of the two most important features that one “implicitly” looks for and appeals to in order to recognize a reincarnated individual as the same again are distinctive physical characteristics. Since the individual’s new body shares no causal history—genetic or otherwise—with her previous body (again, in the scientific sense), there should be no implicit reason to expect there to be such specific physical clues of identity. Nevertheless, White’s evidence demonstrates that we still represent and appeal to physical clues in matters of recognizing a reincarnated individual as the same again.

White does not appeal to novel cognitive mechanisms to explain this phenomenon, as is vogue in CSR (and cognitive science as a whole). Instead White claims that this intuitive cognitive bias relies on the known mundane representational processes that we use every day to recognize those we encounter as the same again. We expect them to have a specific causal history which we implicitly track through both mental (i.e., autobiographical memories) and distinctive physical characteristics. Of course, the latter are far more easily tracked than the former (could you imagine how different our interactions would be if we had to establish every individual’s identity by first interrogating her about her memories?).

White is also to be commended for incorporating anthropological evidence in her research. This is something that should be done much more often in CSR. Too often, researchers produce results and theories in their laboratories that appear to share little in common with the religious practices they are attempting to illuminate empirically. They provide us with no bridge to get from their results and theory to religion writ large in human cultures. Even worse, sometimes their results and theories seem to fly in the face of religious beliefs and practices.

Again, take the claim that humans represent supernatural agents as disembodied. This is problematic in that supernatural agents (with very few exceptions) are starkly represented as embodied, not just in iconography but also in mythologies and religious texts, and in fact often with very specific and odd physical features. For instance, think about the pantheons of supernatural agents across such diverse cultures as in ancient Egypt, Greece, Scandinavia, India and China. How could the supernatural agents in these cultures have been represented, let alone carried out their specific mythical exploits, if we believed (intuitively or otherwise) that they were disembodied? Reconciling the laboratory phenomenon of dualism with religious beliefs and practices begins to appear impossible.

To overcome the complaints of its critics, CSR needs to follow White’s lead. Not only must we diligently carry out cross-cultural experiments in the laboratory, but we also need to consult and remain faithful to the anthropological record of religion as it is believed and practiced. If the two appear incompatible, it is our experiments and theories that must be rethought. It is not as though we in CSR can authoritatively tell the religious faithful that they are worshipping all wrong!

In Praise of Polyvocality

A few weeks back, I found myself engaged in a one-sided debate with a colleague/friend over the use of the term ‘non-religion.’ As it was at the end of a two-day conference, it was one of those casual conversations wherein certain sophisticated aspects of the preceding academic discourse spill over into the informality of a chat over drinks.

In other words: like many a conversation amongst academically-minded friends, the casual simplicity of our conversation was periodically peppered with intellectual debate.

This is partly why I refer here to our argument as being rather one-sided, though of course it would be both unfair and erroneous of me to remove myself entirely of any responsibility. After all, I am something of an antagonist [editor’s note: …to say the least]. Then again, I’m also the one telling the story here, so I can shape it any way I wish. Something to consider the next time you read an ethnography.

Nevertheless, from my perspective, our discussion felt ‘one-sided’ because it consisted mostly of my friend emphatically and excitedly arguing (perhaps with himself?) against what he perceived was my own emphatic and excited argument that the term ‘non-religion’ has been reified by those who use it for their own cynical gains. While I would, of course, agree that it has definitely become reified (what term hasn’t?), I could not help but think the argument he was putting forth was veering into a discussion beyond simple term usage. Which, in the end, is partly why I requested to offer this response to Chris Cotter’s interview with Johannes Quack.

The other reason for my request is that while I have, for the last five years, been a rather vocal advocate against the term ‘non-religion’ (for a number of reasons that aren’t exactly pertinent to this particular story), I have also, as I assured my friend, come to believe that the term, and its many cognates, shouldn’t be wholly abandoned. That is, just because it doesn’t work for me, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for someone else.

Which, if we really think about it, is the essence of academic discourse.

This simple argument here will be the focus of this response, the thesis around which I will be using Quack’s approach to non-religion in an Indian context, to not only point out the benefits of differing theoretical and methodological views, but to also make the larger anthropological argument that this discourse about terminology provides a pragmatically curious solution.

I call this thesis: in praise of polyvocality.

At the recent XXIst Quinquennial Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions at the University of Erfurt, I had the esteemed pleasure of having Professor Johannes Quack moderate the panel on which I was presenting: “Current Perspectives on Atheism.” Beyond his intriguing, and rather groundbreaking, research on rationalism in India, Professor Quack is perhaps the ideal individual on which to support my thesis.

During the question-answer section of the panel, which also included a very interesting presentation by Ingela Visuri[1] on the correlation between autism and Atheism, there began an interesting diminutive debate between Johannes and I over our different term usages. Where this might have, as it has in the past, veered into a discussion between contesting advocates with no real solution provided in the end, it in fact proved extremely advantageous, and not just for the benefit of the audience. At one point, when asked if there was a strict difference between his use of non-religion and my use of the term Atheism, and in particular if the former was merely a more broad or essentialist version of the latter, Johannes kindly responded with a similar answer to the one he gives in his RSP interview about his use of the term rationalist: from a straightforward anthropological perspective, because the individuals being studied identify themselves using a particular term, it would be unfair to impose a different one on them other than the one they use. While this permission to allow one’s subjects to speak for themselves, of course, makes the discussion about term usage even more difficult (especially as subjects tend not to agree on terminology), it also offered a useful insight into the pragmatism of using such different terms, as well as an argument against assigning a general one under which they might be categorized.

This also returns my discussion to the issue of reification. Perhaps my greatest argument against ‘non-religion’ has been based on the notion that it stands as a relational umbrella: in the discourse on the academic study of religion, the study of the non-religious represents research being done not so much on the ‘opposite,’ but on the relational periphery. This is something that Chris and Johannes discuss toward the end of their interview. While this might prove useful in the sense that it places the discourse of the study of the non-religious within the larger context of the study of religion, I would argue it also, perhaps by accident, reifies the term in the same way that ‘religion’ has become an umbrella over which we categorize all aspects of being or acting religious. In the end, then, it adopts, from its relationship to ‘religion’, all the issues and ambiguous difficulties we’ve had with that term over the last century or so. This, to me, is less a solution to the problem, than a contribution to it. When we add this to the adolescent growing pains of the study of Atheism, ir-religion, un-belief, non-religion, etc., the result is a rather stunted upbringing. Though I digress.

So, then, to move, here, from the critical to the promotional, in Johannes’ answer, as well as via his discussion with Chris about the differences between group and individual identities at the end of their interview, I believe there is a solution to be found: I would argue that a remedy for term reification, be it Atheism, non-religion, religion, or anything relationally similar, and thus a remedy for the terminological issues we may face as researchers, is found within the straightforward anthropological approach which he advocated for in our panel, only turned around in a reflective manner. That is, where we seek out and promote the pragmatic objectivity in permitting each of our subjects to define themselves in their own terms, there is an equal pragmatism in introspectively allowing ourselves to do the same with our own language. While this approach might develop a rather vast terminological discourse, it also breeds a sense of diversity, which, through an anthropological lens, is more beneficial than it is detrimental to our conclusions.

In fact, when we take a further step back, and view the academic discourse itself as an anthropological subject, these terminological differences become their own types of individual identities. In this way, our debates over terminology become differing voices all contributing to a discourse that together comes to represent a cultural whole. Thus, our differences of opinion become less problematic, and more representative, a polyvocality that together create a group identity filled with different individual ones. Then, and just like we would with our subjects, viewing this discourse objectively fosters a much more nuanced insight into this culture than, say, an argument that one subject embodies his or her culture more than another.

In the end, then, I believe the polyvocality of our discourse is indeed a benefit, particularly because we aren’t all talking about the same thing. Our disagreements and debating and arguing over the proper term usage contributes more and more to the discourse upon which our identity, as an academic endeavor, is formed. Thus, while we might quarrel amongst each other over whether or not our terminology is correct, or whether it better represents our subjects, as subjects ourselves, these discussions are in their own way leading toward a process of identification, and thus a sense of academic congruity. From this third level, then, looking down at ourselves as we look down on our subjects, each layer embodying a unique cultural character, we can better make sense of what it is that we’re studying, as we study it. To do otherwise, to me, seems a bit too much like a one-sided debate.

Suggested Reading

Johannes Quack, Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

Johannes Quack and Jacob Copeman, “’Godless People’ and Dead Bodies: Materiality and the Morality of Atheist Materialism,“ Social Analysis, Vol. 59, Iss. 2, 2015.

http://www.nonreligion.net/?page_id=35

http://nsrn.net

http://www.everythingisfiction.org/

Lois Lee, Recognizing the Non-Religious: Reimagining the Secular (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Ethan G. Quillen, “Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism,” Science, Religion, and Culture, Vol. 2, Iss. 3, 2015.

[1] https://hig-se.academia.edu/IngelaVisuri

Gender-as-Lived: Considerations in Ethnographic Methodology

virgin-mary-pics-1119

Virgin Mary

In the Religious Studies Project’s recent interview with Dr. Anna Fedele, Dr. Fedele and her interviewer discuss several aspects of interest related to the intersections of gender, religions, and power dynamics. Fedele’s book, Gender and Power in Contemporary Spirituality: Ethnographic Approaches (Routledge, 2013), is a collection of essays exploring the interaction of gender, gender norms, expressions of power, and those movements broadly identified as ‘spiritual’ or ‘spirituality’ (If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, it is an excellent set of essays and well worth the read). Fedele’s current research involves Catholic women in Portugal and the idea of ‘spiritual motherhood.’ ‘Spiritual motherhood,’ in this context, means women who have chosen to be stay-at-home-mothers, breastfeed longer than the average, give birth at home, and/or practice attachment parenting. Fedele looks at not only the experiences of the women as mothers, but their experiences as daughters and granddaughters. Fedele observes that it is very important to understand a woman’s history to know how she conceptualizes gender and motherhood.

Early in the interview Fedele offers an answer to the not-so-simple question of ‘what is gender?’ Her answer is based in both her study of classical theories of gender as well as her extensive experience as an ethnographer: ‘gender’ is what the research participants believe it to be, rather than what the researcher believes it to be. Fedele states that in her research, she tries to understand what ‘gender’ means for the people she studies, especially what gendered images they have received from their mothers and grandmothers. This relates to religion as well, because the women receive a whole set of values from their mothers, and the Catholicism in which they grew up (and still live) tells them that the mother is the center of the family, the mother must always be there for the child, as well as other notions that may not reflect the lives of the women Fedele studies.

Fedele’s approach of being guided by the women she studies resonates strongly with my perspective on studying ‘religion(s).’ The identities claimed by the individual(s) or community being researched must be acknowledged and respected by the researcher, and communicated to the audience (reader, students in a seminar, etc.) along with the researcher’s perspective and conclusions. Fedele further emphasizes this point when she observes that an academic researcher must acknowledge the power issues present in a researcher-interviewee relationship: the academic doesn’t know everything, nor is the participant ignorant. Fedele provides an example from her recent research on women, motherhood, and gendered roles conveyed via religion. The women she interviews are highly educated, intelligent, and have read extensively on pregnancy and motherhood. They are then struggling to reconcile the message of the Catholic Church (that a pregnant woman is in a state of grace, and the ideals of motherhood exemplified by the Virgin Mary) with their lived reality of physical pain and illness, sexuality, and spurts of emotions such as anger or impatience.

Sandro Botticelli - 'The Virgin and the Child' (Madonna of the Book)

Sandro Botticelli – ‘The Virgin and the Child’ (Madonna of the Book)

Fedele also cautions that scholars have an awareness of their own assumptions about the research topic. Some of Fedele’s colleagues had made a couple of highly inaccurate assumptions regarding the Portuguese women in Fedele’s study (for instance, the idea that because the women identify as religious they therefore follow all of the dictates of the Catholic Church, especially regarding abortion); the women must be anti-abortion because they value motherhood so highly, or so the assumption went. But Fedele’s research shows a much more nuanced, complicated picture: the women are not uniformly anti-abortion, owing to a distinct contrast between their Catholic upbringing, which taught that abortion is wrong, and what the women feel in their bodies and the agency they claim.

Later in the interview, Fedele emphasizes that it is crucial for scholars to have an awareness of how the religion is lived, in reality, by the people being studied. She further states that religion only exists in the lives of people and that while religion in texts can be studied, it is not alive. For example, in practice this means that she looks at living women and their stories, and shares her writing with them. She keeps an open mind regarding what they tell her and is careful to use non-judgmental language. Fedele notes that the women aren’t always interested in Fedele’s conclusions – some just read sections about themselves for accuracy or to make sure they aren’t identifiable – but some engage with the research as a whole.

These are valuable lessons for scholars of not only religion and gender, but are more broadly applicable to all scholars of religion. Whether a scholar is studying a living community, as Fedele does, or researching a text, we must be aware of the assumptions we carry with us as scholars. A person living a religion may appear different than a text would lead the researcher to believe and living communities of the same religion will differ based on location. (A point also noted by Jeff Wilson in his 2012 book, Dixie Dharma.) Fedele also leaves the listener contemplating a thorny problem related to the study of religion-as-lived (her preferred phrasing instead of ‘lived religion’): Fedele’s in-depth, ethnographic research is at odds with the pressure within departments for faculty to expediently finish research so that it can be published quickly. This hurried model of research and publication – and the constraints on conducting ethnographic research while teaching – is ultimately detrimental to the field. The trust between scholar and participant cannot be rushed or forced because the scholar is on a deadline. What valuable insights is the field missing by making it difficult for scholars to perform extensive studies on living communities?

References

Fedele, Anna and Kim E. Knibbe, eds. Gender and Power in Contemporary Spirituality: Ethnographic Approaches. Routledge Studies in Religion Series. New York & London: Routledge, 2013.

Fedele, Anna. Looking for Mary Magdalene: Alternative Pilgrimage and Ritual Creativity at Catholic Shrines in France. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Wilson, Jeff. Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. (Paperback released in 2014)

21st Century Irish Paganism

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

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

links in Jenny’s bio and also our previous interviews with Ronald Hutton, Suzanne Owen, Graham Harvey and Wouter Hanegraaf. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, moisturiser, fruit bowls, and more!

 

Human Consciousness & Religious Reality

It was real to me. There I was, curled into a corner, comforter wrapped around my shaking limbs and sweating torso, twisted in terror in the sinister hours of the morning. The salt of my tears were laced with the visceral reality of a specter, a monster, or some strange creature slowly scratching its course along the hallway outside my bedroom. I never saw the demon. I eventually fell asleep in exhaustion, still crimped into the corner of my room. The memory of those tormenting moments is still forbidding and physical for me, etched forever into my consciousness. Was it ontologically real? That is beyond the purview of my recollection. Was it real in my mind? Damn straight.

In a recent interview with Jeffrey J. Kripal, the RSP talked with the man who holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University about his recent works Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (Chicago, 2011) and Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (Chicago, 2010).

In these works, Kripal shared how participation in what we call “the sacred” is a critical element that undergirds religious understanding and activity. From his perspective, human consciousness qualifies, as well as anything else, as “the sacred” itself, and must therefore be addressed and wrestled with by any self-respecting student of religion.

Particularly, Kripal argued that generally marginalized authors who have attempted to theorize the paranormal be treated as central to the religious project, even though their work deals with marvels deemed outside both mainstream scientific and/or religious parameters. These authors, Kripal contested, are “authors of the impossible,” but that does not make them charlatans or crackpots. Although Kripal does not come to conclusions about the ontological reality of these phenomena, and maintains a scholarly agnosticism, he does insist that the paranormal must be understood on its own terms (Authors of the Impossible, 158). Though these marvels may not be appreciated as “real,” they cannot be simply explained away or dismissed with snark or sarcasm either (all too often the case among “respectable scholars”).

Kripal fleshes this out in Mutants and Mystics, which acts as a case-study of sorts, applying the aforementioned theory to the symbiosis between paranormal believers and the production of superhero pop culture. As Kripal pointed out, many of the most popular science fiction and superhero creators were metaphysicists and New Age apostles. They imbued their fantasy narratives with spiritual themes that revealed that the sacred resides in each one of us and we, ourselves, are the superheroes, the true miracles of the divine world. Yes, indeed, behind the veil of science in the sci-fi genre, there is a touch of the ethereal, he asserted. This perspective lends itself to a “new anthropology” where, in the words of Kripal, “the Human [is] Two (and One),” which, “is the neuroanatomical, cognitive, and spiritual bedrock of the paranormal and its fantastic both-and, physical-mythical, masterful-mental, real-unreal expressions in popular culture.” (Mutants and Mystics, 333)

All-in-all, Kripal’s outlook stands as a corrective to purely anthropological, political, or economic analyses of religion as social construct. Counteracting strictly Durkheimian models, Kripal re-centers “the sacred” — posited as “consciousness” — as not only important to understanding religion, but as its critical point of departure. Essentially, Kripal calls out the religious studies world for not having a sufficient appreciation of the power of imagination and invites scholars and the interested public into a new comparativism that moves away from strict materialism.

As an ethnographer of religion, I appreciate this remedial position. I first encountered Kripal’s work as a journalist covering religion in Houston, the home of Rice University. This led to multiple conversations between the two of us about religion, the study thereof, and academia in general. While we come from two different perspectives and ask critically different questions as we approach the same topic, I value Kripal’s emphasis on the conscious as the seat of “the sacred.” While he readily admits that he is not concerned with the sociological questions of religion, and instead recasts some of the Otto and Eliade perspectives on “the numinous,” his viewpoint impacts me as an ethnographer.

I am often frustrated by the lack of empathy from the perspective of sociologists and ethnographers who study religion (and, for that matter, historians, political scientists, economists, and armchair scholars), but do not take the reality of religious experiences seriously. There are certainly exceptions to this rule (Daniel Levine’s Popular Voices in Latin American Catholicism immediately comes to mind), but in general the great swathe of scholars dealing with religion too easily dismiss the complexity of human consciousness, the power of the psycho-social, and the reality of the sacred.

As Kripal intimated in the interview, the applications of his perspective reach beyond New Religious Movements or paranormal phenomena and include historical analyses and contemporary studies of local and global religioscapes. Immediately, I can think of ethnographers working on the use of amulets and talismans in West Africa, the role of dreams in conversion to Christianity and/or Islam, or Pentecostal healing practices in Latin America.

While these cases may be summarily theorized by many as elements of social control, political context, or economic realities there is ample need to appreciate these occurrences as they occur — as real to those experiencing them. Although researchers should not treat them as ontological fact, they can at the very least be approached as “real” in respect to the human conscious.

And yet, the problem occurs when these experiences contradict each other. Take, for example, dreams that lead to conversion (or occur during the process thereof). While not the majority, I discovered in my own research that some Latina/o Muslims convert because of mystical dream experiences. One “revert” related the content of a dream wherein, “Allah spoke to me and told me I have to change.” Another related that she “had the same dream three times” in which she was in Mecca, wearing a hijab, and felt close to her other Muslim sisters there. Soon after she converted to Islam. Interestingly enough, these experiences mirror reports of many missionaries and Christian converts in the Middle East who also claim that dreams are playing a significant role in Muslims converting to Christianity. Furthermore, there is evidence that dreams have frequently played a role in conversions throughout history, including the mass conversion of Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in the 7th-century. What does the reality of these experiences mean when they seem to lead in different convictional directions?

Further, while Kripal’s points about consciousness and the sacred prove a potent corrective, they cannot stand on their own in the study of religion. Even if Kripal himself is not concerned with religion as a social construct, we cannot neglect the social realities of religion. In fact, rather than treating the human as two (and one), perhaps we should theorize the human as three (and one). First, as a “conscious subject” (which Kripal makes us critically aware of); second, as an “embodied physicality”; and third, as a “socially constructed being” shaped by their social context and a conscience collective (to invoke Durkheim).

Regardless of these critiques and ruminations on my part, Kripal’s theory deserves attention and examination on the part of religious studies scholars. There certainly is no easy answer in dealing with such complex discussions such as human consciousness and religious reality, but that is no reason why we should not pursue it from multiple perspectives and ends, which Kripal worthily invites us to do.

Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion: A Roundtable Discussion (Video and Audio!)

This week we are bringing you the fruits of a recent RSP venture to the University of Chester, UK. In the early afternoon, Chris and David ran a workshop on “Digital Humanities” for the postgraduate community in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Later on, David interviewed Dr Alana Vincent in from of a ‘live studio audience’ on the topic of ‘Religion and Literature‘. Following directly on from this, Chris chaired a roundtable discussion on ‘Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion’ featuring Dr Wendy Dossett, Prof. Elaine Graham, Dr Dawn Llewellyn and Dr Alana Vincent – all staff in TRS at Chester – and the RSP’s own Ethan Quillen, of the University of Edinburgh.

Chester

The idea for this roundtable was that it would follow on directly from the interview on religion and literature, but expand the discussion to cover a variety of points relating to narrative, autobiography and (auto)ethnography in the study of religion. This was also recorded in front of a live audience, and towards the end of the recording we take questions from the floor.

Thanks to the resources available at the University of Chester – specifically, a wonderful chap named Lee – we are able to bring you this roundtable discussion in video form – something a lot of our listeners have been keen on for quite some time. Let us know what you think! We can’t promise to do this very regularly, but if it is useful we will definitely investigate our options for the future.

Of course, for those who prefer to have the podcast in its usual form, it can be listened to and downloaded as usual.

Discussion addressed the following questions, and a lot more…

  • What do we mean when we speak of incorporating narratives into Religious Studies? Why would we want to?
  • What makes a narrative different from a discourse? Is there any difference?
  • Does studying narrative minimize other aspects of ‘religion’ such as ritual, embodiment, symbols etc? Is there anything particularly Western or gendered about privileging narratives?
  • Given that we focused upon ‘religion and literature’, what is the place of fictional narratives? What can they tell us? Are all narratives fictions? Can one infer anything external to a narrative?
  • What is the place of the scholar in all of this? Are we interpreters? Are we co-creators of narratives? Do we remain outside the data we study or must we write ourselves in? What would this do to ‘objectivity’? Is the whole academic enterprise an exercise in creating narratives? Can academic reflexivity go to too far?

This podcast is presented to you as a co-production with the University of Chester, and we are very grateful for their help in making this happen – particularly to Dawn Llewellyn for organizing, and to Lee Bennett for the technical wizardry.

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

Religion and Literature

How can studying literature help us to study religion? And what the question even mean? In this interview, Alana Vincent, Lecturer in Jewish Studies at the University of Chester, sets out some of the interesting intersections of these two fields. We can glean ethnographic or historical detail from literary works, and sometimes read particular insider discourses in their pages. We can read literature as a “sacred text” – or indeed, “sacred text” as literature”. Does literature, as a form where imagination is allowed free reign, provide a space for authors and readers to explore ‘matters of ultimate concern’, within or without religious institutions?

DSCF0481This interview was recorded LIVE! at the University of Chester on the 15th of October, 2014. Thanks to Chester and to Dawn Llewellyn for making the event possible. The interview leads directly onto the roundtable “Narrative, Ethnography and Reflexivity” which will be broadcast this Wednesday.

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.

Os serés matáves: Pentecostalism in the Prisons of Rio

BRASIL-997Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is a city of over six million people; it is known for its exotic nightlife, white sand beaches, crystal blue water, and of course, one of the most famous bosa nova songs ever: The Girl From Ipanema. However, beyond the sunny beaches, veritable entertainment, and soothing music lies a very different scene – the Rio de Janeiro prison system. Inside the towering grey concrete walls live Rio’s os serés matáves, or roughly translated into English as, “the killable people”These “killable people” are comprised mostly of proletariat and unemployed minorities with crimes ranging from the benign to the bloody. Gangs rule the prison and every day at 6 pm deafening war cries echo out from within the concrete walls as prison gangs scream allegiance to their “commander” – the head gang leader who runs the prison. The guards largely remain on the outskirts of the prison, they don’t control much of what happens within, as it is too dangerous to go inside. [Note: While the prison system is, of course, very dangerous, the guards’ absence is also due to the penology practiced in that country.]

_MG_9222

Dr. Johnson inside the prison with other inmates during worship.

For Brazil’s “killable people”, there are two prevalent ways to deal with the relative hell of prison – both involving allegiance and devotion. You can give your life to the gang or give your life to God. Only three types of people dare to venture into the heart of a Rio de Janeiro prison: the condemned, the pentecostal pastors leading the prison ministry, and curiously brave sociologists such as Dr. Andrew Johnson.

 

BRASIL-1017-1

In his interview with Thomas J. Coleman III, Dr. Johnson begins by discussing the preparation leading up to his ethnography of the Pentecostal prison ministries in Rio de Janero Brazil. He takes the listener through the streets and slums of Rio, and into a prison cell-block. Here, we learn about the gang life that largely runs the prison, and the “gang like” life (Pentecostal prison ministries) that can provide a temporary escape from the physically and psychologically damaging conditions of the jail, and might just provide eternal redemption through the faith of the pious prisoner. Johnson discusses the role of politics in the prison system, why Pentecostalism dominates the jails in a predominately catholic country such as Brazil, and “answers” the question of how to tell if someone is truly faithful. He discusses how prisoners are viewed by their community after their release, and upon conversion as an allegedly devout pentecostal. In closing, Dr. Johnson speculates about the future of pentecostal prison ministries in Brazil, and argues for “the religious lives of inmates being taken seriously apart from recidivism rates”.

Be sure to check out Dr. Johnson’s plenary address, the world debut of his documentary If I Give My Soul, at the 2014 Society for the Scientific Study of Religion conference in Indianapolis Indiana October 31st – November 2nd. You can register for the conference here: SSSR registration link.

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.

The Burning Saints, Fire-Walking Rituals of the Anastenaria

greece-firewalkingIt’s dark outside. The moon hangs in the sky and the soft smell of smoke permeates the warm air as it stings your eyes. Looking down, you notice the glow from burning coals, as hot as 535 degrees C, scattered on the ground below. The trancelike rhythm from the beating drums fills your ears as the Patron Saints Constantine and Helen are honored in the town of Agia Eleni in Northern Greece. The whole village surrounds you and they share in your moment, as the richness of the surrounding imagery and importance of the ritual consumes the senses. You are in a sublime state of ecstasy as the glowing coals lay before you. But, will you walk across? When Saint Constantine calls you to become a firewalker – you answer – at least if you are one of the Anastenaria.

In his interview with Thomas Coleman for The Religious Studies Project, experimental anthropologist, Dr. Dimitris Xygalatas, discusses his ethnography of the fire walking rituals of the Anastenaria. The Anastenaria are Orthodox Christians in Northern Greece who celebrate the Saints Constantine and Helen in a two part ritual cycle each year. They have no written texts, as the tradition and myths encompassing the firewalkers are passed down orally through story telling and by participation in ritual. Their tradition is, as Xygalatas writes (2012, p. 2) “a good example of a physically and emotionally arousing ritual, and such rituals raise a very important question regarding their participants’ motivation: why do people engage in extreme, costly ritual activities, that offer no obvious advantage but entail evident risks?” Widely known and respected for bringing experimental methods into the tough and fast paced conditions entailed by fieldwork on extreme rituals, Xygalatas combines rich description with scientific explanation to present a portrait of the Anastenaria that holds firm to the ‘anthropological attitude’ of understanding, while also providing an explanation for why people may behave the way they do.

anastenaria1

The interview begins with a discussion of the cultural context of the Anastenaria in Greece, noting widespread discrimination against their religious practices by the government and Greek Orthodox Church. He explains some of the shared beliefs the Anastenaria hold and describes the ritual cycle for the festival of St. Constantine and St. Helen. But, why would anyone be compelled to walk across burning coals? Xygalatas goes on to highlight the underlying cognitive and physiological mechanisms that may contribute to participation in extreme rituals, discusses the transmission of beliefs and revelation in the Anastenaria and highlights the importance and meaning of the rituals. In closing, Dr. Xygalatas shares a very personal moment from additional fieldwork in Spain that turned himself, the researcher, into the subject being researched.

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

Xygalatas, D. (2012). The burning saints cognition and culture in the fire-walking rituals of the Anastenaria. Bristol, CT: Equinox.

Santo Daime

My first experience of Santo Daime occurred in 2005 during research for a book on the non-mainstream religious scene in Brazil (A. Dawson, 2007). Pretty much unprepared for the sensory feast of a Santo Daime ritual, I was visually struck by the colourful ‘uniforms’ and brightly decorated ceremonial space. The strongly rhythmical and fervently sung ‘hymns’ also made an impact, as did the powerful smell and bitter taste of the religious sacrament which practitioners call ‘Daime’. A psychoactive beverage more commonly known as ‘ayahuasca’, the sacrament of Daime and its psychotropic effects further added to the intense sensory stimulation which abides as an enduring memory of my earliest encounter with Santo Daime. Staged within the mountainous terrain of a national park hundreds of miles north of São Paulo, the ritual contents and format originally forged in the Amazon region of north-west Brazil did not seem particularly out of place. However, unlike the poor, mixed-race community which first elaborated Santo Daime as part of its semi-rural subsistence lifestyle, the ritual participants with whom I was celebrating were overwhelmingly drawn from Brazil’s predominantly white urban middle class. Whereas the uniforms, songs and sacrament were very much of the Amazon region, those wearing, singing and consuming the ceremonial accoutrements of Santo Daime certainly were not. By no means discordant, the juxtaposition of Amazonian origins and urban-professional appropriation nevertheless piqued my academic interest. (Dawson 2013, 1)

Upon receiving an email notification through the BASR mailing list about Andrew Dawson’s recently published monograph, Santo Daime: A New World Religion, the RSP’s academic interest was certainly piqued. Thus, towards the end of May 2013, Chris made the arduous journey from his office at one end of B Floor, County South, Lancaster University, to Dr Dawson’s at the other, to discuss this fascinating and engaging book, Santo Daime in general, the various ethical problems associated with conducting this kind of field research, the intentionally multifaceted subtitle ‘New World Religion’, and much more.

This interview marks the beginning of a short series of podcasts from the RSP on Religion, Migration and Diaspora, continuing next week with Mitra Barua speaking to Chris Silver about immigrant Buddhism in the West, and ending in two weeks time with Monika Salzbrunn speaking to Hanna Lehtinen about Religion, Migration and Diaspora.

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 or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc. Remember… Christmas is on the way!

Religion and Food

Religion and Food are two elements which one rarely sees receiving extended and combined scholarly attention. However, even the briefest of brainstorms yields a wide variety of examples which could be “brought to the table” (to use a pun from today’s interview).

Some interactions involve the consumption of food – think of the traditional image of the Jewish Shabbat or Hindu Diwali celebrations; others involve restrictions – be that in terms of diet (such as Jain vegetarianism) or food intake (such as the Muslim month of Ramadan). The Roman Catholic celebration of the Eucharist might be conceptualized as the intake of food and drink by some, whilst others may find this whole notion deeply offensive, preferring to understand these elements as the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And this discourse can be perpetuated in ostensibly ‘secular’ contexts, such as the recently reported release of the new “Ghost Burger” at Chicago’s Kuma’s Corner restaurant, made with a red wine reduction and topped with an unconsecrated Communion wafer (thanks to Sarah Veale of Mysteria Misc. Maxima for the heads up).

This week, Chris and David kick back in Edinburgh’s Doctor’s Bar and bring you an interview with Chris Silver speaking to Professor Michel Desjardins of Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, on this fascinating topic. Connections are made with recent turns in the academic study of religion (gender, materiality etc.), and other areas of study such as religion and nutrition/health. This wide ranging interview builds a strong case for greater scholarly attention to be focused upon this more quotidian aspect of human life, with some stimulating anecdotes and methodological considerations along the way, We are not responsible for any over-eating which may occur as a result of listening to this tantalizing interview…

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 or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when participating in consumer culture in your own way.

This podcast is the penultimate in our series on religion and cultural production, featuring interviews with François Gauthier on Religion, Neoliberalism and Consumer Culture, Pauline Hope Cheong on Religious Authority and Social Media, and Carole Cusack on Religion and Cultural Production.

NSRN Annual Lecture 2012 – Matthew Engelke: In spite of Christianity

We’re delighted to bring you a bonus podcast during our summer break – we’ll be back to our normal weekly schedule by mid-September. This is a recording of the are available here.

Details of Matthew Engelke’s lecture are given below. We would like to take this opportunity to remind you that you can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive it weekly, on Psychology of Religion Panel Session at the International Association for the Psychology of Religion World Congress.

In spite of Christianity: Humanism and its others in contemporary Britain – Dr Matthew Engelke

matthew-engelkeWhat do we talk about when we talk about religion? What do we recognize as essential and specific to any given faith, and why? In this lecture, I address these questions by drawing on fieldwork among humanists in Britain, paying particular attention to humanism’s relation to Christianity. In one way or another, humanists often position themselves in relation to Christianity. In a basic way, this has to do with humanists’ commitment to secularism—the differentiation of church and state. In more complex ways, though, it also has to do with an effort to move “beyond” Christianity—to encourage a world in which reason takes the place of revelation—while often, at the same time, recognizing what’s worth saving and even fostering from the legacies of faith. All these various relations and perspectives suggest how we should understand social life in contemporary Britain as what it is in spite of Christianity—and not.

Dr. Engelke has recently completed a year of ethnographic fieldwork in the offices of the British Humanist Association [BHA] and is soon to publish his findings. As part of this research project Dr Engelke worked with BHA accredited celebrants and also trained as a funeral celebrant. This work leads the way for a happily increasing number of similar research projects and this will be further encouraged by the recent launch the Programme for the Study of Religion and Nonreligion at LSE, which is coordinated by Dr. Engelke .

The full text of this lecture is available to download here.