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The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion

In this interview with Professor Bryan Turner at the Leeds SocRel 2017 conference, we discuss how the sociology of religion can work to stay central to sociology as a broader discipline, by focusing on how religion functions in contemporary political contexts.

Starting with a consideration of the role religion takes in American political discourse, particularly Trump’s appeals to evangelical communities, Turner discusses how the evangelical ideal of the ‘tender warrior’ can appeal to the blue collar, white, male, working class. This religiously-inflected form of populism is able to bear significant weight on political debates, for example around abortion. This can be compared to the apparent increase of populism in European politics, where the recent success of Emmanuel Macron in France appears to signal that this tide has been halted, for now. Looking even further afield, to Russia and the Philippines, ‘strongman’ politics have become increasingly prominent and relate to religion in different ways: Rodrigo Duterte of the Phillipines has a complicated relationship with the Catholic Church and the Pope, whilst Vladimir Putin allegedly keeps an Eastern Orthodox priest as a counsellor, in an attempt to link Russian identity to Orthodoxy. In many of these cases, religion features heavily in the national insider/outsider debate, further highlighting its salience in contemporary political discourse.

Following the lead of scholars such as Jose Casanova, Professor Turner brings the public and political role of religion into focus. By doing so, he argues, we can push the sociology of religion toward the realms of political theory, international relations, and race relations, thus creating an agenda in which the sociology of religion becomes increasingly mainstream and relevant to the world we live in, rather than fading into a marginal sub-field of sociology.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

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, Snickers bars, pogs, and more.

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

The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion

Podcast with Bryan Turner (15 January 2018).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Turner_-_The_Political_Relevance_of_The_Sociology_of_Religion1.1

Sammy Bishop (SB): I’m Sammy Bishop, I’m here at the SocRel Conference, 2017. And I have with me a man who needs very little introduction, thanks to the huge influence that he’s had on the field. I’m with Professor Bryan Turner. So, welcome. And thank you for being involved with the Religious Studies Project.

Bryan Turner (BT): It’s a pleasure.

SB: OK, so today we’re going to talk a little bit about teaching and Religious Studies, and some of the differences between the British, European and American context as well. So could we start off, perhaps, with just a little about how you became interested in this topic?

BT: Well, I was converted to Methodism when I was about 17 and I was on holiday in Greece with a group of Methodists. In the following year I went to East Germany, Moscow and through Russia by train, and became very interested in Sociology. So, if you put the two together, I was a kind of Methodist with an interest in Communism and Marxism, although the main influence on my work has been Max Weber. I came here, to the University of Leeds, to do a PhD. I was in the Methodist Society. I was the President of the Student Christian Movement, so I had those kind of involvements. And I was taught by a famous comparative religion expert, Trevor Ling, who was a Buddhist Scholar. And through him became very interested in comparative religion. I was appointed to the University of Aberdeen to teach the Sociology of Religion in 1970, I think it was, but very few students were interested in doing religion, so I had very few students! So I retrained as a medical sociologist, which partly explains my interest in the sociology of the body and how medicine and religion connect with each other. To be honest, the Sociology of Religion dropped out of my career a bit, for those sorts of reasons. I became very much interested in Max Weber so, at that level, religion was part of my agenda. But it was also mixed up with all the other things that I was interested in and doing work on. And, to sort-of finish this little biographical sketch, after 9/11 just about anybody with an interest in Islam was suddenly employable. And I had all these kind-of requests to revisit stuff that I’d done. Because my first book was 1974: Weber and Islam. I went to live in America in 2006, I think it was. And I spent a year at Wiley College and then ended up at the Graduate Centre at the City University of New York, where I’ve been teaching the Sociology of Comparative Religion. So perhaps I’d better say something about the teaching method, if you’d like?

SB: Yes, please do.

BT: Well, I try to make religions kind-of relevant to the world they’re living in. So, for example, during the Mitt Romney/Barack Obama presidential race there was a lot of material to work with. Mitt Romney was a Mormon. There was this huge debate in the Media about whether Mormonism was a religion. So that was an easy way in to talking about what we mean by religion, or Mormonism, or Christianity. And the other, of course, was the allegation that Obama was really a secret Muslim of some sort – we had all of those debates. And then, in 2016 when the Clinton/Trump confrontation started, there seemed to be almost nothing to get into. Because I kind-of listened to every debate and read all of the stuff I could possibly get hold of. But I think Clinton mentioned religion only like once, when she read a passage from the New Testament. Bernie Sanders once talked about his Jewish legacy in an interview, but it wasn’t really part of his campaign. And then we had Trump. How does Trump relate to religion? Because we all know – American exceptionalism – religion is prominent in the public sphere. Just about every textbook starts with de Tocqueville’s commentary on civil religion and so on, and so forth. And it seemed very difficult to actually believe that Trump could win the election, given the fact of these disclosures of his attitudes towards women, his groping of women. And Trump, of course, changed his position on just about everything. So, at one stage, Trump was pro-life – very much committed to that kind of agenda. (5:00) And then, of course, during the campaign it comes out that he’s actually totally opposed to Roe Vs Wade which was the legislation that made abortion possible for women. He came out very strongly in favour of removing that legislation to make abortion either impossible or increasingly difficult. But what sort-of emerged after the election is that he has quite strong support from the Evangelical Churches. And one reason is that within the Evangelical Churches there is a kind of crisis around masculinity. A lot of the Evangelical literature has been developing the idea of the “tender warrior”. This is the kind of dominant male who is in charge of the family. He is in charge of the family. The idea is that women’s role is domestic. And that women really kind-of prefer to be subordinated to men, rather than to be liberated. And that part of the crisis in America is connected with: the acceptance of gays in the military; the legislation that made possible same-sex marriage in some states; the general kind of reception of alternative forms of sexuality, particularly on the East Coast. So, some of this election was about the East Coast, versus the Southern States, and so forth. So Jerry Falwell has come about very much in favour of Trump. Trump visited Liberty University which is run by Falwell, one of the founders of the Moral Majority. And so, my puzzlement about how Trump can possibly get support from religious groups has been partly answered by this idea that there is a kind-of deep anxiety, in conservative America, about the status of men, connected to: the rise of women into pink collar occupations; the better performance of women in education; the growth, or the presence of influential women in leadership positions. You know – Merkel in Germany, the head of the IMF, the Fed and so forth – you see women in very powerful political positions. And, insofar as populism and Trump are connected to the erosion of the blue collar male white working class, you can kind-of understand, partly, why Trump is getting support from Evangelicals. But I would point out a couple of things. I mean, Trump and Clinton were the least-attractive, least-supported presidential candidates in the whole of American history. Clinton did win the popular vote, despite Trump’s claims that it was all fake. Trump has huge support from his base, but he’s still a very problematic figure in American culture, I think. And he has divided society right down the middle. And so one never knows what is going to happen next, really, in America.

SB: Could you say more about the idea of Populism itself, and how that concept has become more relevant, perhaps, at the moment?

BT: Yes. Well, people have been studying populism for a long time. And there are arguments that populism has been present in American politics for long time, such as the People’s Party and so forth. “Agrarian populism” has been a notion around for some time. But I agree with you that in the last twelve months populism has been everywhere: conferences, journal articles, books and so on, and so forth. And I mean, it looked at one stage as if the populist parties would swing through Europe with the Northern League and Golden Dawn, and the Freedom Party in Austria and so forth. And then we’ve had this pause, if you like, in which Macron in France has won the election and to some extent the popular vote for extreme positions on foreigners has been slowed down a bit. And then, I think, with Brexit which again . . . . I mean UKIP, having had some electoral success, has virtually disappeared as a party. And it looks as though the complexity of Brexit may grind it into the ground eventually, who knows? But a lot of the populist literature has been saying that Britain is slightly different from other societies, in that the populist vote is weaker than you’ll find in, say, Italy, and so forth. (10:00) I mean, one issue is to what extent Thatcherism was an earlier form of populism. She did want to change everything. She had these structural views about an inside and an outside. I mean, one of the defining characteristics of populism is that it divides the world into “us” and “them”. And then you’ve got the people on the one side and their enemies on the other. I mean, as we’ve heard in this conference, the enemies seem to be connecting to Muslim refugees in Europe and so forth. But again, looking at this from the outside – that is, from America – what struck me was the antagonism towards East Europeans. So, Polish people were being criticised by Conservative people who wanted to argue that the welfare state was being exploited by free-riders from other countries. So I don’t think it’s just Islam, there’s all sorts of other things going on about the insider and the outsider.

SB: Where do you see it going in the future?

BT: Well I was reminiscing . . . . In the 1960s and 1970s and really into the ’80s, I suppose, we had the three day week, we had the miners’ strike and we had the poll tax strikes. And whilst Thatcher was hugely popular – again amongst her base – and while she was, in many ways, the most successful Prime Minister we’ve had – she won three elections, etc. – living through that period, I mean, Britain did seem amazingly unstable. I mean, just visually, we had piles of rubbish piled up in the streets; electricity was very limited; I remember having to teach with no heating in the university, so we all wore hats and gloves to work, sitting in classrooms. And the current period feels like that as well. Because, I think, if Brexit fails the people that voted to leave will be deeply frustrated. I mean Nigel Farage has threatened to comeback into politics if that happened! The legislative mess – it’s horrendous. And then, looking at the broader picture, we’ve got what you might call “strong man politics” in the Philippines, in China, in Russia and so forth. And, to some extent, some of these figures at least are mobilising religion to bolster their position. I think very interesting is Putin, who allegedly has an Orthodox Priest – an Eastern Orthodox Priest – as a counsellor. He’s obviously appealing to Orthodoxy as a way of defining what it is to be Russian. It’s a fairly complicated picture, I think. Again, I suppose I should have said about Trump that Trump’s foreign policy is deeply worrying, because he seems to want to undermine many of the institutions that have bolstered European peace for 70 years or so. And there is this figure, Steve Bannon, who’s a conservative Catholic with an Irish background, who I think is mobilising Trump’s foreign policy. And I think that’s very problematic. So, from an academic point of view, I think religion is going to be very central to all of these debates, whether it’s conflicts between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, or Buddhists and Muslims in Asia, or Catholic and Pentecostals and Protestants elsewhere.

SB: How do you think scholars of religion or sociologists of religion are best approaching it?

BT: Well, in the talk I’m going to give this evening, I think sociology of religion kind-of bifurcates into those that have gone into spirituality and post-institutional churches, and those who follow people like José Casanova who are interested in public religion. My question is how we make the Sociology of Religion central to the sociological enterprise, as a whole. And I think the public religions debate pushes the sociology of religion into political theory, into international relations, into race relations and creates a kind of agenda where Sociology of Religion is once more part of the mainstream rather than a minority interest on the margins. This conference- I’m going to get the title of the conference wrong, but “On the Edge”: are we part of the periphery or part of the mainstream? I think it’s an important question. And I, personally, don’t want to be on the periphery. Sociology of Religion is central to the modern world. (15:00)If you look at everywhere, basically: Israel, Brazil, America, Germany, France – it’s difficult to find a country that doesn’t have some kind of religious issue going on. And I think it’s’ something we need to address, really.

SB: When you speak about the political aspects of, for example, race relations as well, do you think that there’s a certain amount of activism that could be involved in the Sociology of Religion?

BT: Well, I certainly think Sociology needs to contribute to a solution. And whether that’s social policy or becoming engaged in activism, I think is something we can’t sort-of predict in advance, so to speak. But I think sociologists can’t describe the mess we’re in without taking some responsibility for suggesting ways we might get out of this mess. Otherwise we might all bathe in misery and melancholy, and what would be the point of having a conference like this? We might as stay at home and be miserable! And this is too big a topic for this interview, but I tend to think sociologists are always looking at failure: failed institutions, failed constitutions, failed social movements, failed this, that and the other. And I think we need to turn this around a bit and say: well, ok, can we find any successful institutions, or successful social movements, or successful philosophies or whatever, that have improved the human condition – even if it’s for a short time? My argument is that no institution lasts for ever. They all have fluctuating histories – I mean of success and failure. But the idea that all institutions are failing is an impossible position to take. I tend to say that there’s no such thing as consistent pessimism, because we wouldn’t be having this interview if you and I were consistently pessimistic, I don’t think. You know, we’d be getting drunk or something!

SB: (Laughs).

BT: So I think, I mean I haven’t been an activist in that traditional sort of sense. But I’ve edited the journal Citizenship Studies for about 20 years, which I see as making a contribution to understanding the kind-of erosion of social rights over the last 30 years or so. And that citizenship, revitalised would be some kind of answer to questions about social solidarity and so forth. I’m beginning to lose my voice. I don’t know if we can keep this interview to a limited period, because I have to speak in a while?

SB: Yes. Just one more question?

BT: Yes, sure.

SB: Do you see, when you speak about citizenship, do you see any role for religion in that idea?

BT: Well, I mean there are arguments that a lot of our notions of rights come out of . . . . Some people would argue that a lot of our notions of rights come out of the Protestant Methodist tradition. But, more recently, the Catholic Church was to some extent responsible for developing the concept of human dignity, which was the underpinning to the Declaration of Human Rights. And then, I think, the Christian Democratic tradition was part of this sort-of development. But I think the Sociology of Religion could contribute a more sophisticated understanding of what Judaism is or Islam, or other religions, what Sikhism is about and so on. So as a basic educational role, to undermine false assumptions about – you know – what happens to Muslim women, what Judaism has been about.

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

BT: Thank you.

Citation Info: Turner, Bryan and Sammy Bishop. 2018. “The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 15 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 12 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-political-relevance-of-the-sociology-of-religion/

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Evangelicalism and Civic Space

evangelicalchristianIn this podcast, Anna Strhan talks to Katie Aston about her research among evangelical Christians, exploring their search for coherence in the contemporary city. How do the members of conservative Anglican congregations negotiate their place in a secular multicultural society, and deal with issues of sexuality, parenthood, human rights, etc? The focus of the discussion is on subjectivity – both bodily and among one another. Anna’s work is an interesting example of a multidisciplinary approach to religious studies, bringing in sociology, philosophy and anthropology.

This episode is part of the Sociology of Religion in the UK series, sponsored by Introduction to the Sociology of Religion, and Dawn Llewellyn on “Religion and Feminism“.

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, Nicholas Cage pillow cases, Gordon Lightfoot’s greatest hits, and more.

Music, Marketing and Megachurches

During the 20th century, the media has exploded to include radio, television and most recently and perhaps influentially, the Internet. Music has been a big part of this new emerging “mediapolois”, moving from a mostly stand-alone medium, to part of a marketing matrix of  people, places and industries. Today, music’s meaning is more often part of a branded ecosystem, not limited to entertainment, but part of the experience of everyday life, including religion. Evangelical churches and, increasingly, New Religious Movements use music as part of a branding exercise that helps to transform them from local congregations into a transnational enterprise.

To discuss music, marketing and contemporary religion, David Robertson sat down with Dr. Tom Wagner, an ethnomusicologist, percussionist and lecturer at the Reid School of Music in Edinburgh. They discuss the long history of the use of music in promoting evangelical congregations, and the transformation that came with the development of recording and broadcast technologies. Tom describes his research and fieldwork with Hillsong, an evangelical church movement with an international reach who use music both in their worship and their branding. Later, they discuss the use of music in Scientology, to create and maintain a particular aesthetic, and how Tom sees this research developing in the future.

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, scuba gear, garden gnomes, and more.

Christian Reconstruction

Rousas John Rushdoony might be one of the most important Christian theologians you’ve never heard of. As the primary architect of a unique version of conservative protestantism referred to as Christian Reconstructionism, Rushdoony worked for several decades to implement Old Testament Biblical law in contemporary America. Though he never realized his vision, and though his movement largely died with him, Rushdoony remains an important figure because his comparably extreme vision for Christian America challenged contemporary conservatives on a number of religious and theological issues and helped pull them farther to the political right

In this interview, Professor Michael McVicar discusses Rushdoony and Christian Reconstruction. McVicar gained unprecedented access to Rushdoony’s personal files, archives, and correspondence, which provided invaluable data for McVicar’s book on Rushdoony.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, hamster cages, vintage VHS tapes, and more.

Having Coffee with God: Evangelical Interpretations of God as a Person Among People

Characteristics attributed to God often indicate apotheosis—some quality beyond human understanding, beyond worldly constraints. Commonly used terms include supernatural, omnipotent, and incorporeal, to name a few. Four decades ago, it would have seemed absurd to hear God characterized by American evangelical Christians in terms of personhood, with words such as audible, visible, or coffee-drinker. In this interview, psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann describes how God becomes real for certain groups of evangelicals and how practicing prayer through mental imagery can develop sensory awareness of God’s presence. Discussing the fieldwork of her book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, Luhrmann explains the experience of God, not as a distant transcendent deity, but as a figure who is entirely present and accessible through an intensely personal relationship.

Through years of fieldwork with members of The Vineyard Movement, a multi-branch American evangelical church, Luhrmann observed congregants in direct contact with their friend, God. Through Vineyard prayer practices, congregants develop what Luhrmann describes as a “new theory of mind” in which even mundane thoughts are interpreted as evidence of God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, xxi). In her RSP interview, she recalls a congregant suggesting that, to understand the experience of the divine in real time, she should treat God as a real person and literally have a cup of coffee with him. For American Christians raised on a more formal association with God, positioning him in such a casual role might seem like a return to the playground days of imaginary friends. However, congregants insist that the sense of God’s presence is not only external but also interactive.

Luhrmann posits this conceptualization of a highly participatory God as a natural development within the context of emerging pluralism in America. As she explains in her interview, it all began with “hippie Christians” of the 1960s (e.g. the “Jesus Freaks”) who wove charismatic traditions of Pentecostal Christianity into their philosophy and practices. Instead of dropping acid to contact a transcendent reality, they brought transcendence down to them, making God a “person among people.” Luhrmann suggests that this form of association with God has staying power, providing a way to keep God not only close in heart, but actually present in life.

Though a popular notion in contemporary charismatic evangelical thought, a personal relationship with God does not always come easily; it often requires a learning process of becoming comfortable with God’s presence. Vineyard churches encourage practicing pretend casual conversations with God. In a sense, congregants become comfortable with God by playing house with him, literally pouring him a cup of coffee and chatting. To reinforce God’s presence, prayer groups occasionally designate someone to stand in for him as a human surrogate. Additionally, members are encouraged to imagine God as a loving therapist who is genuinely interested in their lives and concerns.

So, is this imaginary-yet-real God accessible to anyone? Luhrmann observed that about one-quarter of her interviewees do not experience intense sensations of God’s presence, while others experience God so intensely and frequently that Vineyard members refer to them as “prayer warriors” (Luhrmann 2012, 155). To investigate these apparent differences, Luhrmann used the Tellegen Absorption Scale to evaluate subjects on proclivity for absorption, or tendency for becoming absorbed in their imaginations. Results reflected trends of higher scores relative to higher reports of what Luhrmann describes in the interview as “cool, weird spiritual experiences.” She concludes that sharpened mental representations of God described by congregants correlate with (1) belief in God’s direct presence through sensory experiences, (2) absorption tendencies, and (3) practice of imagining God’s presence.

Seemingly central to Lurhmann’s interest is how some congregants report “mental changes” following prayer practices, as if, through prayer training, their minds learn to sense God (Luhrmann 2012, 190). In her book When God Talks Back, she describes Vineyard groups that convene to improve prayer practices through kataphatic exercises, where congregants imagine themselves observing or participating in a biblical scene while paying close attention to sensory details of the experience. She studied the effects of these absorbing imaginative practices among congregants, finding this type of prayer to be more effective in enhancing vividness of mental imagery than listening to scriptural lectures or apophatic prayer (i.e. centering the mind on a spiritually meaningful word). Like training for a triathlon, regularly practicing absorption in this way strengthens sensory awareness, enabling congregants to “give these imagined experiences the sensory vividness associated with the memories of real events,” thus becoming more receptive to (and conscious of) God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, 221-2).

From an etic perspective, it is difficult to accept claims of regularly and casually encountered religious experiences, especially when the caliber is so amplified as to relate a persistent (very real) presence of God. Yet, ironically, skeptics are not alone in facing the problem of interpreting the intangible; this challenge indeed characterizes the Vineyard experience at its core. As the process of sensing God requires an initially effortful imagination, congregants face the issue of discernment in determining the validity of their experiences. Luhrmann notes in the interview that congregants are often skeptical themselves; some even gossip about others who claim questionable divine requests. Interpreting divine inspiration requires the help of the community, with increasing urgency in cases of greater demands. To determine whether God’s instructions are real or imaginary, congregants employ a loose pattern of heuristics: (1) real God experiences are typically spontaneous and surprising; (2) the experience should realistically coincide with God’s expected behavior; (3) the credibility of an experience is valence-dependent; as Luhrmann suggests in the interview, Vineyard’s “teddy bear of a God” should inspire warm and fuzzy feelings.

Luhrmann makes a significant move by highlighting the interpretive challenge facing Vineyard congregants. She shows believers confronting the issue of maintaining faith in something that cannot be proven by scientific means. They are not shying away from epistemological evidence—they are actively engaged in altering their minds to welcome it in the form of God’s sensed presence. By illuminating the believer’s narrative, Luhrmann clarifies the spiritual experience that frequently halts discourse due to its internalized nature. She must be commended for this contribution to the enormous project of bridging the gap between believers and non-believers. For the sake of religious studies discourse, Luhrmann faces the tyrannical problem of communication head-on, enabling the possibility of respect through understanding.

References

Luhrmann, T. M. (2012) When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Vintage Books.

Prayer, Pretense, and Personification: How God becomes real

Over one hundred years ago, William James dedicated an entire chapter in The Varieties of Religious Experience to “The Reality of the Unseen”. When we typically imagine religion, we imagine that religion has to do with something perceivable, yet paradoxically something that we cannot see, taste, smell, or touch. James characterized the relationship of the individual psyche and belief in the supernatural realm as “…if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call ‘something there’…” (1985, p. 55 [emphasis in original]).

While the impulse to believe may be there, one’s relationship to this unseen realm is not easy to cultivate and maintain. Our evolved psychology was not ‘built’ with the intuition that, even though we have minds, there is an unseen – ultimate mind – that has access to our own and shares thoughts with us (Boyer, 2013). Such ideas require cultural scaffolding, and are not easily sustained in the absence of social systems. Although often ignored, “all our ethnography and history suggests that there is learning involved in the practice of religion…” (Luhrmann, 2013, p. 147). How does one learn to experience God as really real?

In her interview with Thomas Coleman, psychological-anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann discusses her multiyear ethnography of American evangelicals where she sought to understand how some of these individuals come to have close, personal, intimate relationships with God (Luhrmann, 2012). She begins by providing the background into her extensive research on the Vineyard Church movement, where she attended sermons, house groups, prayer groups, and many other opportunities to understand evangelicals, specifically, how God becomes real for them. Luhrmann details the rise of evangelicals in the 60’s and 70’s, and how anthropological work can be informed by evolutionary psychology. This serves as a framework to understand the unique training processes that teach an individual that their mind is not only open to their own thoughts, but God’s as well. Luhrmann goes beyond a purely explanatory endeavor and is interested in understanding the processes that lead some to see God as “a person among people”. One aspect of this learning process, she found, involves pretense and instructs the individual to treat God as an imaginary friend, but with one caveat – God (to them) is real and imaginary friends are not.

group_prayer

Furthermore, while imagining God, Luhrmann uncovered that the individual is often instructed to treat God as they would another person, like a close friend you tell your secrets to. This helps to cultivate an understanding and experience of God that is highly anthropomorphic and cognitively pleasing, rather than thinking of God as Aristotle’s “unmoved mover”, who would hardly be interested in your innermost thoughts. In closing, she details some of the prayer exercises that further help individuals to develop this personal sense of divine presence and answers an RSP listener’s question about the possibility of gender differences in experiencing the divine.

You can visit Dr. Luhrmann’s website to find out more about her work and research at: http://luhrmann.net/

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.

Citations

Demons, Exoticism, and the Academy

Something that strikes me about contemporary spiritual warfare is how it’s not so radically different thematically in its interests and its languages than a lot of contemporary American religion. So the argument that ‘this is something out in left field’ really isn’t true, I don’t think. -Sean McCloud

 Dave McConeghy’s interview with Sean McCloud offers so many potential avenues of discussion that it is difficult to pick only one; spiritual warfare is, after all, one of the most-discussed theological issues in contemporary Evangelicalism/Charismaticism today, yet one of the least-discussed points in the Academy: a point which leads McCloud to quip that “most scholars of American religion are completely blind to [spiritual warfare],” and that the study of it still engenders reactions of “Ugh. Why would we study those silly people?”

Often, discussions of American religion seem to start with Cotton Mather and end with Billy Graham, and, in my experience, spiritual warfare is indeed often seen as something that is “out in left field,” a “fringe” practice, or “weird” religion. (For those unfamiliar with the term, “spiritual warfare” refers both to the battle waged between God and demons, as well as the battle waged between Christians and demons.) Many (if not most) of the major texts in the academic canon of American religious history—even those books focused exclusively on church history—omit the practice altogether.  So McCloud is right: while a supernaturalistic demonology may seem exotic to those who have not often encountered it, there is a large swath of Christians who consider spiritual warfare to be both frequent and mainstream.

 Pervasiveness in Evangelical Circles

If there is any useful statistical data on the demonological practices of present-day Evangelicals, I am unaware of it.[1] However, if we look to some of the largest and most influential churches, pastors, or texts in the American landscape, spiritual warfare seems to have a kind of omnipresence. Take Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, for instance, which has eleven branches in the Seattle area alone, in addition to being the “flagship” of the Acts 29 Network, an umbrella group for more than 500 likeminded ministries.[2]  Driscoll asserts that “demons are real and they attack God’s people,” and has developed a rigorously organized theology that seems to have gained a lot of traction, particularly among those who believe in demons yet shun what they see as a kind of looser, laissez-faire mentality amongst their more Charismatic counterparts. It’s worth noting that Driscoll’s demonology has even made its way outside of Christian circles, in the form of a Nightline debate with Deepak Chopra and “heretic” Carlton Pearson.

Similarly, Bethel Church is among the most influential Charismatic groups today, if not the most influential. Spiritual warfare is far from a “fringe” practice for them, nor for Charismatics in general. The many books that Bethel pastors have published are full of the “prayer walks” and “generational inheritances” that McCloud mentioned.  Beni Johnson, for instance, details how she led a prayer walk and ritual cleansing of “Panther’s Meadow,” a space on Mt. Shasta that she claims is used for “ungodly practices,” by which she means New Age and occult spirituality.[3] According to her story, the Pagans practicing there go feral as a result of her prayers, hissing and fleeing the scene. And then there’s Kris Vallotton’s Spirit Wars, in which demonic, generational inheritances are a central feature of the text. At one point, Vallotton claims that when his mother was a young woman, a fortune teller had read tarot cards for her. This reading had caused a curse, which released demons to kill his father, haunt his mother, and which were now haunting he himself in the present day.[4] While these specific cases are on the more extreme end, the point here is that for Bethel and likeminded Charismatics (of which there are many), demons are a very real threat that must be dealt with.

There are, of course, countless other figures we could examine to demonstrate salience: John Hagee, T. D. Jakes, Rick Joyner, Joyce Meyer, to name only a few of the prevailing voices today. And McCloud and McConaghey are right to identify that this isn’t something brand new, but something that has been developing for quite some time. Tanya Luhrmann’s recent book on Evangelical experientiality which depicts an increase in spiritual warfare amidst the spiritual innovation of the 1970s and Cuneo’s argument that The Exorcist birthed the rise of deliverance movements in the years following the film are both legitimately observing real social trends, yet what we think of spiritual warfare today has been a part of the American landscape for much longer than this; whatever spike in spiritual warfare occurred in this period, it was working with material that was already present in the mix.[5]

This, of course, only addresses the contemporary forms, for if one looks deeper into church history, its absence is the exception rather than the rule. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony, for instance, is almost entirely about spiritual warfare, from the ritual cleansing of Pagan temples to demonic manifestations of corporeal abuse.[6] Nancy Caciola has given a wonderfully insightful account of demon possessions (and treatments) that antedate the medieval witch scares.[7] Heiko Obermann’s biography of Martin Luther depicts him as constantly at war with the devil, not just in mind, but physically as well: Satan troubled his bowels and thumped his stove.[8] John Wesley, Thomas More, St. John of the Cross, even the Gnostics had their demons in one form or another. Spiritual warfare doesn’t look the same in every case (and often quite different from how contemporary Evangelicals practice it), but the point here is that demons and spiritual warfare aren’t something that snake handlers invented just yesterday, it is a major thread woven through the entire history of Christianity, and one that continues to be woven through it today.

 Comparable Trends

McCloud’s most important point is that spiritual warfare isn’t some outlying fringe practice, but one that completely dovetails a wider world of supernaturalism in contemporary America. Part of the problem of the Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model of American religious history is that it tends to emphasize the Scottish Common Sense Realist, rationalist, denominational, naturalist, cessationist leitmotif of Calvinist Protestantism. As he pointed out, there is something to be said for contemporary media presenting demonology as something strange and outdated, and of course, these media are part of the issue here: as he argued elsewhere, the mainstream/fringe dichotomy has largely been constructed by those authoring the media, who themselves privileged a white, middle class Protestantism.[9]

In recent years, this Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model has gradually been getting more complicated, as some scholars have started drawing attention to the supernaturalist counternarrative that has always existed alongside rationalism, but in terms of popular perception—including that among many academics—there still seems to be a sense that American religion shuns these hierophantic irruptions. Though we have largely abandoned the idea that “religion” means five world faiths that can be broken into neat little denominations, we often tend to still organize our research (and faculty posts) along such lines. Embedded in that inherited arrangement is decades of scholarship that has omitted the supernatural for ideological reasons: first, in seeing all religions through the lens of Victorian Protestantism, the supernatural has traditionally been deemphasized in favor of texts, beliefs, and rituals, and then second, why dwell on demons, ghosts, or channeled spirits when the juggernaut of secularization is going to eradicate them anyway? The religion of the future was to be logical, heady, and amenable to scientific narratives—the collected repertoires of our fields were forged in this mindset, and though secularization may have fallen by the wayside, it seems like topical reorientation has been slower to acclimate.

Closing

Spiritual warfare is ubiquitous, both in the contemporary American Evangelical milieu, but also in the broad and far-reaching history of religion. It is worth examination, for numerous reasons—phenomenologically, it’s a central part of the experience for many, both as individuals and as groups. Ideologically, it can enshrine social opposition as demonic. Ritually, it can be a means of demarcating space. Sociologically, it can establish the boundaries of group membership.[10] Psychologically, it can be a means of interpreting and moving past one’s own moral failings. Theologically, it is central to theodicies. No matter how you cut it, spiritual warfare is important and needs to be addressed as such.

 Bibliography

Bramadat, Paul. The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Brown, Candy Gunther. Testing Prayer: Science and Healing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Cuneo, Michael W. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

McCloud, Sean. Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Obermann, Heiko. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

 

 


[1] There is a Pew survey from 2008 which registered 68% of Americans as believing “that angels and demons are active in the world today,” but this says nothing about whether they actually believe those demons ought to be confronted, let alone how they should be confronted. I am unaware of any surveys that pry deeper than this one. http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf

[2] Such “networks” are arguably replacing the model of Protestant denominationalism, allowing for individual churches to maintain ideological autonomy while still remaining linked to other churches with similar viewpoints. See Candy Gunther Brown’s Testing Prayer for a more thorough explanation. Candy Gunther Brown, Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 21-63.

[3] Beni Johnson, The Happy Intercessor, (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, Inc, 2009), 95.

[4] Kris Vallotton, Spirit Wars: Winning the Invisible Battle Against Sin and the Enemy, (Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books, 2012), 160-161.

[5] Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 26, 30-32; Michael W. Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, (New York: Doubleday, 2002).

[6] Athansius, The Life of St. Anthony and Letter to Marcillinus, ed. Robert C. Gregg, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.)

[7] Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[8] Heiko Obermann, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 104-109.

[9] Sean McCloud, Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 4-11.

[10] It’s noteworthy that in Paul Bramadat’s ethnography of a Canadian Intervarsity Christian Fellowship chapter, this was one of the more explicit ways he interpreted their spiritual warfare as functioning. “The sense of living among, if not being besieged by, often demonically cozened infidels contributes to what Martin Marty has described as a form of “tribalism” which unites the group…in short, because spiritual warfare discourse is based on a sharp dualism between the saved and the unsaved, it helps believers to retrench their sense of superiority (since that is what it amounts to) and to accentuate the fundamental otherness of non-Christians.” Paul Bramadat, The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000), 115.

Podcasts

The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion

In this interview with Professor Bryan Turner at the Leeds SocRel 2017 conference, we discuss how the sociology of religion can work to stay central to sociology as a broader discipline, by focusing on how religion functions in contemporary political contexts.

Starting with a consideration of the role religion takes in American political discourse, particularly Trump’s appeals to evangelical communities, Turner discusses how the evangelical ideal of the ‘tender warrior’ can appeal to the blue collar, white, male, working class. This religiously-inflected form of populism is able to bear significant weight on political debates, for example around abortion. This can be compared to the apparent increase of populism in European politics, where the recent success of Emmanuel Macron in France appears to signal that this tide has been halted, for now. Looking even further afield, to Russia and the Philippines, ‘strongman’ politics have become increasingly prominent and relate to religion in different ways: Rodrigo Duterte of the Phillipines has a complicated relationship with the Catholic Church and the Pope, whilst Vladimir Putin allegedly keeps an Eastern Orthodox priest as a counsellor, in an attempt to link Russian identity to Orthodoxy. In many of these cases, religion features heavily in the national insider/outsider debate, further highlighting its salience in contemporary political discourse.

Following the lead of scholars such as Jose Casanova, Professor Turner brings the public and political role of religion into focus. By doing so, he argues, we can push the sociology of religion toward the realms of political theory, international relations, and race relations, thus creating an agenda in which the sociology of religion becomes increasingly mainstream and relevant to the world we live in, rather than fading into a marginal sub-field of sociology.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

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, Snickers bars, pogs, and more.

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

The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion

Podcast with Bryan Turner (15 January 2018).

Interviewed by Sammy Bishop

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Turner_-_The_Political_Relevance_of_The_Sociology_of_Religion1.1

Sammy Bishop (SB): I’m Sammy Bishop, I’m here at the SocRel Conference, 2017. And I have with me a man who needs very little introduction, thanks to the huge influence that he’s had on the field. I’m with Professor Bryan Turner. So, welcome. And thank you for being involved with the Religious Studies Project.

Bryan Turner (BT): It’s a pleasure.

SB: OK, so today we’re going to talk a little bit about teaching and Religious Studies, and some of the differences between the British, European and American context as well. So could we start off, perhaps, with just a little about how you became interested in this topic?

BT: Well, I was converted to Methodism when I was about 17 and I was on holiday in Greece with a group of Methodists. In the following year I went to East Germany, Moscow and through Russia by train, and became very interested in Sociology. So, if you put the two together, I was a kind of Methodist with an interest in Communism and Marxism, although the main influence on my work has been Max Weber. I came here, to the University of Leeds, to do a PhD. I was in the Methodist Society. I was the President of the Student Christian Movement, so I had those kind of involvements. And I was taught by a famous comparative religion expert, Trevor Ling, who was a Buddhist Scholar. And through him became very interested in comparative religion. I was appointed to the University of Aberdeen to teach the Sociology of Religion in 1970, I think it was, but very few students were interested in doing religion, so I had very few students! So I retrained as a medical sociologist, which partly explains my interest in the sociology of the body and how medicine and religion connect with each other. To be honest, the Sociology of Religion dropped out of my career a bit, for those sorts of reasons. I became very much interested in Max Weber so, at that level, religion was part of my agenda. But it was also mixed up with all the other things that I was interested in and doing work on. And, to sort-of finish this little biographical sketch, after 9/11 just about anybody with an interest in Islam was suddenly employable. And I had all these kind-of requests to revisit stuff that I’d done. Because my first book was 1974: Weber and Islam. I went to live in America in 2006, I think it was. And I spent a year at Wiley College and then ended up at the Graduate Centre at the City University of New York, where I’ve been teaching the Sociology of Comparative Religion. So perhaps I’d better say something about the teaching method, if you’d like?

SB: Yes, please do.

BT: Well, I try to make religions kind-of relevant to the world they’re living in. So, for example, during the Mitt Romney/Barack Obama presidential race there was a lot of material to work with. Mitt Romney was a Mormon. There was this huge debate in the Media about whether Mormonism was a religion. So that was an easy way in to talking about what we mean by religion, or Mormonism, or Christianity. And the other, of course, was the allegation that Obama was really a secret Muslim of some sort – we had all of those debates. And then, in 2016 when the Clinton/Trump confrontation started, there seemed to be almost nothing to get into. Because I kind-of listened to every debate and read all of the stuff I could possibly get hold of. But I think Clinton mentioned religion only like once, when she read a passage from the New Testament. Bernie Sanders once talked about his Jewish legacy in an interview, but it wasn’t really part of his campaign. And then we had Trump. How does Trump relate to religion? Because we all know – American exceptionalism – religion is prominent in the public sphere. Just about every textbook starts with de Tocqueville’s commentary on civil religion and so on, and so forth. And it seemed very difficult to actually believe that Trump could win the election, given the fact of these disclosures of his attitudes towards women, his groping of women. And Trump, of course, changed his position on just about everything. So, at one stage, Trump was pro-life – very much committed to that kind of agenda. (5:00) And then, of course, during the campaign it comes out that he’s actually totally opposed to Roe Vs Wade which was the legislation that made abortion possible for women. He came out very strongly in favour of removing that legislation to make abortion either impossible or increasingly difficult. But what sort-of emerged after the election is that he has quite strong support from the Evangelical Churches. And one reason is that within the Evangelical Churches there is a kind of crisis around masculinity. A lot of the Evangelical literature has been developing the idea of the “tender warrior”. This is the kind of dominant male who is in charge of the family. He is in charge of the family. The idea is that women’s role is domestic. And that women really kind-of prefer to be subordinated to men, rather than to be liberated. And that part of the crisis in America is connected with: the acceptance of gays in the military; the legislation that made possible same-sex marriage in some states; the general kind of reception of alternative forms of sexuality, particularly on the East Coast. So, some of this election was about the East Coast, versus the Southern States, and so forth. So Jerry Falwell has come about very much in favour of Trump. Trump visited Liberty University which is run by Falwell, one of the founders of the Moral Majority. And so, my puzzlement about how Trump can possibly get support from religious groups has been partly answered by this idea that there is a kind-of deep anxiety, in conservative America, about the status of men, connected to: the rise of women into pink collar occupations; the better performance of women in education; the growth, or the presence of influential women in leadership positions. You know – Merkel in Germany, the head of the IMF, the Fed and so forth – you see women in very powerful political positions. And, insofar as populism and Trump are connected to the erosion of the blue collar male white working class, you can kind-of understand, partly, why Trump is getting support from Evangelicals. But I would point out a couple of things. I mean, Trump and Clinton were the least-attractive, least-supported presidential candidates in the whole of American history. Clinton did win the popular vote, despite Trump’s claims that it was all fake. Trump has huge support from his base, but he’s still a very problematic figure in American culture, I think. And he has divided society right down the middle. And so one never knows what is going to happen next, really, in America.

SB: Could you say more about the idea of Populism itself, and how that concept has become more relevant, perhaps, at the moment?

BT: Yes. Well, people have been studying populism for a long time. And there are arguments that populism has been present in American politics for long time, such as the People’s Party and so forth. “Agrarian populism” has been a notion around for some time. But I agree with you that in the last twelve months populism has been everywhere: conferences, journal articles, books and so on, and so forth. And I mean, it looked at one stage as if the populist parties would swing through Europe with the Northern League and Golden Dawn, and the Freedom Party in Austria and so forth. And then we’ve had this pause, if you like, in which Macron in France has won the election and to some extent the popular vote for extreme positions on foreigners has been slowed down a bit. And then, I think, with Brexit which again . . . . I mean UKIP, having had some electoral success, has virtually disappeared as a party. And it looks as though the complexity of Brexit may grind it into the ground eventually, who knows? But a lot of the populist literature has been saying that Britain is slightly different from other societies, in that the populist vote is weaker than you’ll find in, say, Italy, and so forth. (10:00) I mean, one issue is to what extent Thatcherism was an earlier form of populism. She did want to change everything. She had these structural views about an inside and an outside. I mean, one of the defining characteristics of populism is that it divides the world into “us” and “them”. And then you’ve got the people on the one side and their enemies on the other. I mean, as we’ve heard in this conference, the enemies seem to be connecting to Muslim refugees in Europe and so forth. But again, looking at this from the outside – that is, from America – what struck me was the antagonism towards East Europeans. So, Polish people were being criticised by Conservative people who wanted to argue that the welfare state was being exploited by free-riders from other countries. So I don’t think it’s just Islam, there’s all sorts of other things going on about the insider and the outsider.

SB: Where do you see it going in the future?

BT: Well I was reminiscing . . . . In the 1960s and 1970s and really into the ’80s, I suppose, we had the three day week, we had the miners’ strike and we had the poll tax strikes. And whilst Thatcher was hugely popular – again amongst her base – and while she was, in many ways, the most successful Prime Minister we’ve had – she won three elections, etc. – living through that period, I mean, Britain did seem amazingly unstable. I mean, just visually, we had piles of rubbish piled up in the streets; electricity was very limited; I remember having to teach with no heating in the university, so we all wore hats and gloves to work, sitting in classrooms. And the current period feels like that as well. Because, I think, if Brexit fails the people that voted to leave will be deeply frustrated. I mean Nigel Farage has threatened to comeback into politics if that happened! The legislative mess – it’s horrendous. And then, looking at the broader picture, we’ve got what you might call “strong man politics” in the Philippines, in China, in Russia and so forth. And, to some extent, some of these figures at least are mobilising religion to bolster their position. I think very interesting is Putin, who allegedly has an Orthodox Priest – an Eastern Orthodox Priest – as a counsellor. He’s obviously appealing to Orthodoxy as a way of defining what it is to be Russian. It’s a fairly complicated picture, I think. Again, I suppose I should have said about Trump that Trump’s foreign policy is deeply worrying, because he seems to want to undermine many of the institutions that have bolstered European peace for 70 years or so. And there is this figure, Steve Bannon, who’s a conservative Catholic with an Irish background, who I think is mobilising Trump’s foreign policy. And I think that’s very problematic. So, from an academic point of view, I think religion is going to be very central to all of these debates, whether it’s conflicts between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, or Buddhists and Muslims in Asia, or Catholic and Pentecostals and Protestants elsewhere.

SB: How do you think scholars of religion or sociologists of religion are best approaching it?

BT: Well, in the talk I’m going to give this evening, I think sociology of religion kind-of bifurcates into those that have gone into spirituality and post-institutional churches, and those who follow people like José Casanova who are interested in public religion. My question is how we make the Sociology of Religion central to the sociological enterprise, as a whole. And I think the public religions debate pushes the sociology of religion into political theory, into international relations, into race relations and creates a kind of agenda where Sociology of Religion is once more part of the mainstream rather than a minority interest on the margins. This conference- I’m going to get the title of the conference wrong, but “On the Edge”: are we part of the periphery or part of the mainstream? I think it’s an important question. And I, personally, don’t want to be on the periphery. Sociology of Religion is central to the modern world. (15:00)If you look at everywhere, basically: Israel, Brazil, America, Germany, France – it’s difficult to find a country that doesn’t have some kind of religious issue going on. And I think it’s’ something we need to address, really.

SB: When you speak about the political aspects of, for example, race relations as well, do you think that there’s a certain amount of activism that could be involved in the Sociology of Religion?

BT: Well, I certainly think Sociology needs to contribute to a solution. And whether that’s social policy or becoming engaged in activism, I think is something we can’t sort-of predict in advance, so to speak. But I think sociologists can’t describe the mess we’re in without taking some responsibility for suggesting ways we might get out of this mess. Otherwise we might all bathe in misery and melancholy, and what would be the point of having a conference like this? We might as stay at home and be miserable! And this is too big a topic for this interview, but I tend to think sociologists are always looking at failure: failed institutions, failed constitutions, failed social movements, failed this, that and the other. And I think we need to turn this around a bit and say: well, ok, can we find any successful institutions, or successful social movements, or successful philosophies or whatever, that have improved the human condition – even if it’s for a short time? My argument is that no institution lasts for ever. They all have fluctuating histories – I mean of success and failure. But the idea that all institutions are failing is an impossible position to take. I tend to say that there’s no such thing as consistent pessimism, because we wouldn’t be having this interview if you and I were consistently pessimistic, I don’t think. You know, we’d be getting drunk or something!

SB: (Laughs).

BT: So I think, I mean I haven’t been an activist in that traditional sort of sense. But I’ve edited the journal Citizenship Studies for about 20 years, which I see as making a contribution to understanding the kind-of erosion of social rights over the last 30 years or so. And that citizenship, revitalised would be some kind of answer to questions about social solidarity and so forth. I’m beginning to lose my voice. I don’t know if we can keep this interview to a limited period, because I have to speak in a while?

SB: Yes. Just one more question?

BT: Yes, sure.

SB: Do you see, when you speak about citizenship, do you see any role for religion in that idea?

BT: Well, I mean there are arguments that a lot of our notions of rights come out of . . . . Some people would argue that a lot of our notions of rights come out of the Protestant Methodist tradition. But, more recently, the Catholic Church was to some extent responsible for developing the concept of human dignity, which was the underpinning to the Declaration of Human Rights. And then, I think, the Christian Democratic tradition was part of this sort-of development. But I think the Sociology of Religion could contribute a more sophisticated understanding of what Judaism is or Islam, or other religions, what Sikhism is about and so on. So as a basic educational role, to undermine false assumptions about – you know – what happens to Muslim women, what Judaism has been about.

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

BT: Thank you.

Citation Info: Turner, Bryan and Sammy Bishop. 2018. “The Political Relevance of the Sociology of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 15 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 12 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-political-relevance-of-the-sociology-of-religion/

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

Evangelicalism and Civic Space

evangelicalchristianIn this podcast, Anna Strhan talks to Katie Aston about her research among evangelical Christians, exploring their search for coherence in the contemporary city. How do the members of conservative Anglican congregations negotiate their place in a secular multicultural society, and deal with issues of sexuality, parenthood, human rights, etc? The focus of the discussion is on subjectivity – both bodily and among one another. Anna’s work is an interesting example of a multidisciplinary approach to religious studies, bringing in sociology, philosophy and anthropology.

This episode is part of the Sociology of Religion in the UK series, sponsored by Introduction to the Sociology of Religion, and Dawn Llewellyn on “Religion and Feminism“.

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, Nicholas Cage pillow cases, Gordon Lightfoot’s greatest hits, and more.

Music, Marketing and Megachurches

During the 20th century, the media has exploded to include radio, television and most recently and perhaps influentially, the Internet. Music has been a big part of this new emerging “mediapolois”, moving from a mostly stand-alone medium, to part of a marketing matrix of  people, places and industries. Today, music’s meaning is more often part of a branded ecosystem, not limited to entertainment, but part of the experience of everyday life, including religion. Evangelical churches and, increasingly, New Religious Movements use music as part of a branding exercise that helps to transform them from local congregations into a transnational enterprise.

To discuss music, marketing and contemporary religion, David Robertson sat down with Dr. Tom Wagner, an ethnomusicologist, percussionist and lecturer at the Reid School of Music in Edinburgh. They discuss the long history of the use of music in promoting evangelical congregations, and the transformation that came with the development of recording and broadcast technologies. Tom describes his research and fieldwork with Hillsong, an evangelical church movement with an international reach who use music both in their worship and their branding. Later, they discuss the use of music in Scientology, to create and maintain a particular aesthetic, and how Tom sees this research developing in the future.

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, scuba gear, garden gnomes, and more.

Christian Reconstruction

Rousas John Rushdoony might be one of the most important Christian theologians you’ve never heard of. As the primary architect of a unique version of conservative protestantism referred to as Christian Reconstructionism, Rushdoony worked for several decades to implement Old Testament Biblical law in contemporary America. Though he never realized his vision, and though his movement largely died with him, Rushdoony remains an important figure because his comparably extreme vision for Christian America challenged contemporary conservatives on a number of religious and theological issues and helped pull them farther to the political right

In this interview, Professor Michael McVicar discusses Rushdoony and Christian Reconstruction. McVicar gained unprecedented access to Rushdoony’s personal files, archives, and correspondence, which provided invaluable data for McVicar’s book on Rushdoony.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, hamster cages, vintage VHS tapes, and more.

Having Coffee with God: Evangelical Interpretations of God as a Person Among People

Characteristics attributed to God often indicate apotheosis—some quality beyond human understanding, beyond worldly constraints. Commonly used terms include supernatural, omnipotent, and incorporeal, to name a few. Four decades ago, it would have seemed absurd to hear God characterized by American evangelical Christians in terms of personhood, with words such as audible, visible, or coffee-drinker. In this interview, psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann describes how God becomes real for certain groups of evangelicals and how practicing prayer through mental imagery can develop sensory awareness of God’s presence. Discussing the fieldwork of her book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, Luhrmann explains the experience of God, not as a distant transcendent deity, but as a figure who is entirely present and accessible through an intensely personal relationship.

Through years of fieldwork with members of The Vineyard Movement, a multi-branch American evangelical church, Luhrmann observed congregants in direct contact with their friend, God. Through Vineyard prayer practices, congregants develop what Luhrmann describes as a “new theory of mind” in which even mundane thoughts are interpreted as evidence of God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, xxi). In her RSP interview, she recalls a congregant suggesting that, to understand the experience of the divine in real time, she should treat God as a real person and literally have a cup of coffee with him. For American Christians raised on a more formal association with God, positioning him in such a casual role might seem like a return to the playground days of imaginary friends. However, congregants insist that the sense of God’s presence is not only external but also interactive.

Luhrmann posits this conceptualization of a highly participatory God as a natural development within the context of emerging pluralism in America. As she explains in her interview, it all began with “hippie Christians” of the 1960s (e.g. the “Jesus Freaks”) who wove charismatic traditions of Pentecostal Christianity into their philosophy and practices. Instead of dropping acid to contact a transcendent reality, they brought transcendence down to them, making God a “person among people.” Luhrmann suggests that this form of association with God has staying power, providing a way to keep God not only close in heart, but actually present in life.

Though a popular notion in contemporary charismatic evangelical thought, a personal relationship with God does not always come easily; it often requires a learning process of becoming comfortable with God’s presence. Vineyard churches encourage practicing pretend casual conversations with God. In a sense, congregants become comfortable with God by playing house with him, literally pouring him a cup of coffee and chatting. To reinforce God’s presence, prayer groups occasionally designate someone to stand in for him as a human surrogate. Additionally, members are encouraged to imagine God as a loving therapist who is genuinely interested in their lives and concerns.

So, is this imaginary-yet-real God accessible to anyone? Luhrmann observed that about one-quarter of her interviewees do not experience intense sensations of God’s presence, while others experience God so intensely and frequently that Vineyard members refer to them as “prayer warriors” (Luhrmann 2012, 155). To investigate these apparent differences, Luhrmann used the Tellegen Absorption Scale to evaluate subjects on proclivity for absorption, or tendency for becoming absorbed in their imaginations. Results reflected trends of higher scores relative to higher reports of what Luhrmann describes in the interview as “cool, weird spiritual experiences.” She concludes that sharpened mental representations of God described by congregants correlate with (1) belief in God’s direct presence through sensory experiences, (2) absorption tendencies, and (3) practice of imagining God’s presence.

Seemingly central to Lurhmann’s interest is how some congregants report “mental changes” following prayer practices, as if, through prayer training, their minds learn to sense God (Luhrmann 2012, 190). In her book When God Talks Back, she describes Vineyard groups that convene to improve prayer practices through kataphatic exercises, where congregants imagine themselves observing or participating in a biblical scene while paying close attention to sensory details of the experience. She studied the effects of these absorbing imaginative practices among congregants, finding this type of prayer to be more effective in enhancing vividness of mental imagery than listening to scriptural lectures or apophatic prayer (i.e. centering the mind on a spiritually meaningful word). Like training for a triathlon, regularly practicing absorption in this way strengthens sensory awareness, enabling congregants to “give these imagined experiences the sensory vividness associated with the memories of real events,” thus becoming more receptive to (and conscious of) God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, 221-2).

From an etic perspective, it is difficult to accept claims of regularly and casually encountered religious experiences, especially when the caliber is so amplified as to relate a persistent (very real) presence of God. Yet, ironically, skeptics are not alone in facing the problem of interpreting the intangible; this challenge indeed characterizes the Vineyard experience at its core. As the process of sensing God requires an initially effortful imagination, congregants face the issue of discernment in determining the validity of their experiences. Luhrmann notes in the interview that congregants are often skeptical themselves; some even gossip about others who claim questionable divine requests. Interpreting divine inspiration requires the help of the community, with increasing urgency in cases of greater demands. To determine whether God’s instructions are real or imaginary, congregants employ a loose pattern of heuristics: (1) real God experiences are typically spontaneous and surprising; (2) the experience should realistically coincide with God’s expected behavior; (3) the credibility of an experience is valence-dependent; as Luhrmann suggests in the interview, Vineyard’s “teddy bear of a God” should inspire warm and fuzzy feelings.

Luhrmann makes a significant move by highlighting the interpretive challenge facing Vineyard congregants. She shows believers confronting the issue of maintaining faith in something that cannot be proven by scientific means. They are not shying away from epistemological evidence—they are actively engaged in altering their minds to welcome it in the form of God’s sensed presence. By illuminating the believer’s narrative, Luhrmann clarifies the spiritual experience that frequently halts discourse due to its internalized nature. She must be commended for this contribution to the enormous project of bridging the gap between believers and non-believers. For the sake of religious studies discourse, Luhrmann faces the tyrannical problem of communication head-on, enabling the possibility of respect through understanding.

References

Luhrmann, T. M. (2012) When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Vintage Books.

Prayer, Pretense, and Personification: How God becomes real

Over one hundred years ago, William James dedicated an entire chapter in The Varieties of Religious Experience to “The Reality of the Unseen”. When we typically imagine religion, we imagine that religion has to do with something perceivable, yet paradoxically something that we cannot see, taste, smell, or touch. James characterized the relationship of the individual psyche and belief in the supernatural realm as “…if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call ‘something there’…” (1985, p. 55 [emphasis in original]).

While the impulse to believe may be there, one’s relationship to this unseen realm is not easy to cultivate and maintain. Our evolved psychology was not ‘built’ with the intuition that, even though we have minds, there is an unseen – ultimate mind – that has access to our own and shares thoughts with us (Boyer, 2013). Such ideas require cultural scaffolding, and are not easily sustained in the absence of social systems. Although often ignored, “all our ethnography and history suggests that there is learning involved in the practice of religion…” (Luhrmann, 2013, p. 147). How does one learn to experience God as really real?

In her interview with Thomas Coleman, psychological-anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann discusses her multiyear ethnography of American evangelicals where she sought to understand how some of these individuals come to have close, personal, intimate relationships with God (Luhrmann, 2012). She begins by providing the background into her extensive research on the Vineyard Church movement, where she attended sermons, house groups, prayer groups, and many other opportunities to understand evangelicals, specifically, how God becomes real for them. Luhrmann details the rise of evangelicals in the 60’s and 70’s, and how anthropological work can be informed by evolutionary psychology. This serves as a framework to understand the unique training processes that teach an individual that their mind is not only open to their own thoughts, but God’s as well. Luhrmann goes beyond a purely explanatory endeavor and is interested in understanding the processes that lead some to see God as “a person among people”. One aspect of this learning process, she found, involves pretense and instructs the individual to treat God as an imaginary friend, but with one caveat – God (to them) is real and imaginary friends are not.

group_prayer

Furthermore, while imagining God, Luhrmann uncovered that the individual is often instructed to treat God as they would another person, like a close friend you tell your secrets to. This helps to cultivate an understanding and experience of God that is highly anthropomorphic and cognitively pleasing, rather than thinking of God as Aristotle’s “unmoved mover”, who would hardly be interested in your innermost thoughts. In closing, she details some of the prayer exercises that further help individuals to develop this personal sense of divine presence and answers an RSP listener’s question about the possibility of gender differences in experiencing the divine.

You can visit Dr. Luhrmann’s website to find out more about her work and research at: http://luhrmann.net/

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Citations

Demons, Exoticism, and the Academy

Something that strikes me about contemporary spiritual warfare is how it’s not so radically different thematically in its interests and its languages than a lot of contemporary American religion. So the argument that ‘this is something out in left field’ really isn’t true, I don’t think. -Sean McCloud

 Dave McConeghy’s interview with Sean McCloud offers so many potential avenues of discussion that it is difficult to pick only one; spiritual warfare is, after all, one of the most-discussed theological issues in contemporary Evangelicalism/Charismaticism today, yet one of the least-discussed points in the Academy: a point which leads McCloud to quip that “most scholars of American religion are completely blind to [spiritual warfare],” and that the study of it still engenders reactions of “Ugh. Why would we study those silly people?”

Often, discussions of American religion seem to start with Cotton Mather and end with Billy Graham, and, in my experience, spiritual warfare is indeed often seen as something that is “out in left field,” a “fringe” practice, or “weird” religion. (For those unfamiliar with the term, “spiritual warfare” refers both to the battle waged between God and demons, as well as the battle waged between Christians and demons.) Many (if not most) of the major texts in the academic canon of American religious history—even those books focused exclusively on church history—omit the practice altogether.  So McCloud is right: while a supernaturalistic demonology may seem exotic to those who have not often encountered it, there is a large swath of Christians who consider spiritual warfare to be both frequent and mainstream.

 Pervasiveness in Evangelical Circles

If there is any useful statistical data on the demonological practices of present-day Evangelicals, I am unaware of it.[1] However, if we look to some of the largest and most influential churches, pastors, or texts in the American landscape, spiritual warfare seems to have a kind of omnipresence. Take Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church, for instance, which has eleven branches in the Seattle area alone, in addition to being the “flagship” of the Acts 29 Network, an umbrella group for more than 500 likeminded ministries.[2]  Driscoll asserts that “demons are real and they attack God’s people,” and has developed a rigorously organized theology that seems to have gained a lot of traction, particularly among those who believe in demons yet shun what they see as a kind of looser, laissez-faire mentality amongst their more Charismatic counterparts. It’s worth noting that Driscoll’s demonology has even made its way outside of Christian circles, in the form of a Nightline debate with Deepak Chopra and “heretic” Carlton Pearson.

Similarly, Bethel Church is among the most influential Charismatic groups today, if not the most influential. Spiritual warfare is far from a “fringe” practice for them, nor for Charismatics in general. The many books that Bethel pastors have published are full of the “prayer walks” and “generational inheritances” that McCloud mentioned.  Beni Johnson, for instance, details how she led a prayer walk and ritual cleansing of “Panther’s Meadow,” a space on Mt. Shasta that she claims is used for “ungodly practices,” by which she means New Age and occult spirituality.[3] According to her story, the Pagans practicing there go feral as a result of her prayers, hissing and fleeing the scene. And then there’s Kris Vallotton’s Spirit Wars, in which demonic, generational inheritances are a central feature of the text. At one point, Vallotton claims that when his mother was a young woman, a fortune teller had read tarot cards for her. This reading had caused a curse, which released demons to kill his father, haunt his mother, and which were now haunting he himself in the present day.[4] While these specific cases are on the more extreme end, the point here is that for Bethel and likeminded Charismatics (of which there are many), demons are a very real threat that must be dealt with.

There are, of course, countless other figures we could examine to demonstrate salience: John Hagee, T. D. Jakes, Rick Joyner, Joyce Meyer, to name only a few of the prevailing voices today. And McCloud and McConaghey are right to identify that this isn’t something brand new, but something that has been developing for quite some time. Tanya Luhrmann’s recent book on Evangelical experientiality which depicts an increase in spiritual warfare amidst the spiritual innovation of the 1970s and Cuneo’s argument that The Exorcist birthed the rise of deliverance movements in the years following the film are both legitimately observing real social trends, yet what we think of spiritual warfare today has been a part of the American landscape for much longer than this; whatever spike in spiritual warfare occurred in this period, it was working with material that was already present in the mix.[5]

This, of course, only addresses the contemporary forms, for if one looks deeper into church history, its absence is the exception rather than the rule. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony, for instance, is almost entirely about spiritual warfare, from the ritual cleansing of Pagan temples to demonic manifestations of corporeal abuse.[6] Nancy Caciola has given a wonderfully insightful account of demon possessions (and treatments) that antedate the medieval witch scares.[7] Heiko Obermann’s biography of Martin Luther depicts him as constantly at war with the devil, not just in mind, but physically as well: Satan troubled his bowels and thumped his stove.[8] John Wesley, Thomas More, St. John of the Cross, even the Gnostics had their demons in one form or another. Spiritual warfare doesn’t look the same in every case (and often quite different from how contemporary Evangelicals practice it), but the point here is that demons and spiritual warfare aren’t something that snake handlers invented just yesterday, it is a major thread woven through the entire history of Christianity, and one that continues to be woven through it today.

 Comparable Trends

McCloud’s most important point is that spiritual warfare isn’t some outlying fringe practice, but one that completely dovetails a wider world of supernaturalism in contemporary America. Part of the problem of the Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model of American religious history is that it tends to emphasize the Scottish Common Sense Realist, rationalist, denominational, naturalist, cessationist leitmotif of Calvinist Protestantism. As he pointed out, there is something to be said for contemporary media presenting demonology as something strange and outdated, and of course, these media are part of the issue here: as he argued elsewhere, the mainstream/fringe dichotomy has largely been constructed by those authoring the media, who themselves privileged a white, middle class Protestantism.[9]

In recent years, this Cotton-Mather-to-Billy-Graham model has gradually been getting more complicated, as some scholars have started drawing attention to the supernaturalist counternarrative that has always existed alongside rationalism, but in terms of popular perception—including that among many academics—there still seems to be a sense that American religion shuns these hierophantic irruptions. Though we have largely abandoned the idea that “religion” means five world faiths that can be broken into neat little denominations, we often tend to still organize our research (and faculty posts) along such lines. Embedded in that inherited arrangement is decades of scholarship that has omitted the supernatural for ideological reasons: first, in seeing all religions through the lens of Victorian Protestantism, the supernatural has traditionally been deemphasized in favor of texts, beliefs, and rituals, and then second, why dwell on demons, ghosts, or channeled spirits when the juggernaut of secularization is going to eradicate them anyway? The religion of the future was to be logical, heady, and amenable to scientific narratives—the collected repertoires of our fields were forged in this mindset, and though secularization may have fallen by the wayside, it seems like topical reorientation has been slower to acclimate.

Closing

Spiritual warfare is ubiquitous, both in the contemporary American Evangelical milieu, but also in the broad and far-reaching history of religion. It is worth examination, for numerous reasons—phenomenologically, it’s a central part of the experience for many, both as individuals and as groups. Ideologically, it can enshrine social opposition as demonic. Ritually, it can be a means of demarcating space. Sociologically, it can establish the boundaries of group membership.[10] Psychologically, it can be a means of interpreting and moving past one’s own moral failings. Theologically, it is central to theodicies. No matter how you cut it, spiritual warfare is important and needs to be addressed as such.

 Bibliography

Bramadat, Paul. The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Brown, Candy Gunther. Testing Prayer: Science and Healing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Caciola, Nancy. Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006.

Cuneo, Michael W. American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Luhrmann, Tanya M. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

McCloud, Sean. Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Obermann, Heiko. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

 

 


[1] There is a Pew survey from 2008 which registered 68% of Americans as believing “that angels and demons are active in the world today,” but this says nothing about whether they actually believe those demons ought to be confronted, let alone how they should be confronted. I am unaware of any surveys that pry deeper than this one. http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report2-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf

[2] Such “networks” are arguably replacing the model of Protestant denominationalism, allowing for individual churches to maintain ideological autonomy while still remaining linked to other churches with similar viewpoints. See Candy Gunther Brown’s Testing Prayer for a more thorough explanation. Candy Gunther Brown, Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 21-63.

[3] Beni Johnson, The Happy Intercessor, (Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image Publishers, Inc, 2009), 95.

[4] Kris Vallotton, Spirit Wars: Winning the Invisible Battle Against Sin and the Enemy, (Bloomington, MN: Chosen Books, 2012), 160-161.

[5] Tanya M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), 26, 30-32; Michael W. Cuneo, American Exorcism: Expelling Demons in the Land of Plenty, (New York: Doubleday, 2002).

[6] Athansius, The Life of St. Anthony and Letter to Marcillinus, ed. Robert C. Gregg, (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.)

[7] Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006).

[8] Heiko Obermann, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 104-109.

[9] Sean McCloud, Making the American Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives, & Journalists, 1955-1993, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 4-11.

[10] It’s noteworthy that in Paul Bramadat’s ethnography of a Canadian Intervarsity Christian Fellowship chapter, this was one of the more explicit ways he interpreted their spiritual warfare as functioning. “The sense of living among, if not being besieged by, often demonically cozened infidels contributes to what Martin Marty has described as a form of “tribalism” which unites the group…in short, because spiritual warfare discourse is based on a sharp dualism between the saved and the unsaved, it helps believers to retrench their sense of superiority (since that is what it amounts to) and to accentuate the fundamental otherness of non-Christians.” Paul Bramadat, The Church on the World’s Turf: An Evangelical Christian Group at a Secular University (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2000), 115.