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Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Re-Experiencing Religious Experience

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is RSP Managing Editor, Tommy Coleman.

If I was marooned on a desert island and could only take one book with me I’d pick up my copy of Ann Taves’ David Gordon Wilson’s interview with Taves, entitled Religious Experience. The podcast, which is based on the game changing ideas found in RER, is also special for being our 50th episode. Anyone interested in stepping out the front door of their own discipline will find this podcast, like the book, contains tools for thinking you’d better not leave home without. Additionally, both serve as building blocks to her more recent work on Worldviews and Ways of Life. Have a listen…

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. 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, corkscrews, thermal underwear, and more.

Religion and Film

When thinking about ‘religion and film’ it might be quite tempting to take a simplistic and narrow view, reducing the topic to the study of ‘Biblical Epics’ such as The Robe or The Ten Commandments, or the more recent Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Or perhaps we might think of ‘religious’ censorship of ‘controversial’ films. Or maybe be tempted to view the ubiquity of modern movie-watching as a ‘religious’ practice. However, when we take even a moment to think more critically about what we might mean by these three key terms – RELIGION, AND, FILM – things become much more complicated. To introduce us to this fascinating and important area of research, this week’s podcast features Chris speaking with S. Brent Plate at the recent XXI World Congress of the IAHR in Erfurt.

The interview begins with Plate’s personal research journey into this relatively young field, charting the history of the field in the process. Discussion then turns to the key terms involved… what are we meaning by “religion and film”? The relationship of established “world religions” to cinema? Religion/s on Film? Documentaries? Critiques and Parodies? Religions that exist only in Film? Films as Religious Experiences? Audience reactions to film? Films as myth? Films as a modern form of religion? And so on…

We then discuss further aspects of Plate’s own work, the practicalities of carrying out such research on “fictions”, and whether the word “religion” is necessary in this context at all.

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, movies, liquid nitrogen and more!

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on Religion and Cultural Production, Religion and Comic Books and Religion and the Built Environment.

The Supernatural and the New Comparativism

Jeffrey J. Kripal tells David G. Robertson about his approach to studying “paranormal” and “supernatural” phenomena.

The conversation begins by explaining how Kripal came to be studying figures like Charles Fort and Whitley Strieber from a background in Hinduism. He then argues for a New Comparativism within the study of religion that will put “the impossible” back on the table again, and encourage a more even conversation between the sciences and the humanities. His suggestion is that we should put consciousness at the centre of studies in religion, suggesting a new approach to the sacred, and opening up new theoretical avenues.

Studying Non-Ordinary Realities, and Religious Studies and the Paranormal.

Psychology of Religion at Its Best…and Less Best

There were a number of excellent talks at the (deep breath) American Psychological Association Division 36 Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 2015 Mid-Year Conference hosted by Brigham Young University (BYU) at the Marriott Conference Center in Provo, Utah, United States on March 20th and 21st (exhale). In particular, the second keynote address by Dr. Frank Fincham, Director of the Florida State University Family Institute was an excellent model of how research in the psychology of religion and spirituality can have practical use in designing psychological interventions in addition to the acquisition of knowledge. His and his collaborators’ work involved the psychological impacts of partner-directed prayer on the romantic relationships of religious believers, specifically how prayer can bolster relationship quality by increasing the forgiveness ability of the praying partner. Over a series of carefully framed studies he described the process they used to look at the broad effects of partner directed prayer on relationships. After narrowing their focus, they found that increased cooperative behavior was the primary mediator of the effect of prayer on forgiveness. They used these findings to construct and validate a prayer-focused marriage therapy intervention within an African-American, religious population. Throughout his talk, he was careful to make it clear that these studies were done with, and only apply to, religious believers and that the possibility of comparable mechanisms for nonbeliever couples still need to be researched.

Dr. Julie Exline’s Laboratory at Case Western Reserve University: Alex Uzdavines, Julie Exline, Valencia Harriott, Steffany Homolka, Nick Stauner, and Josh Wilt.

At least for my part, this was greatly appreciated. As someone who studies religious nonbelievers (not to mention being one), it can chafe reading or watching a presentation on research which has broadly sweeping conclusions about the benefits of religious belief which go far beyond what the data allow. Often this research implicitly (sometimes explicitly) assumes that the audience is religious themselves and that the research can be generalized to nonbelievers by just flipping the direction of the results. It was refreshing to have religious-oriented research presented in a manner that both framed the results within the context of the beliefs of the people who participated in the research and explicitly acknowledged that the conclusions drawn could not be applied to nonbelievers without further study.

Dr. Fincham’s focus on measurable psychological mechanisms contrasted sharply with the major themes from symposium presented by a number of scholars from BYU the previous day. The presenters answered the title of the symposium, chaired by Shannon Starks, “Does Psychology’s Naturalism Hamper Understanding of Religious Phenomena?” with a resounding “Yes!” Ms. Starks spoke first and her presentation outlined how widely used introductory psychology texts take a strictly naturalistic stance and often reject supernatural hypotheses for psychological phenomena just as resoundingly. Dr. Jeffery S. Reber presented the second talk and gave a number of examples of psychological theories that grew out of the work of famous theologians. However, when the writers most responsible for bringing these theories into psychology (sometimes the theologian themself!) translated them, all references to a god/gods, the divine, or the supernatural were removed.

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman, APA Div. 36 President Dr. Kevin Ladd, and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr. Melanie Nyhof

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman with Dr. Kevin Ladd and Dr. Melanie Nyhof enjoying the post conference Sundance tour.

The third talk, presented by Dr. Edwinn E. Gantt, built upon the first two presentations but shifted focus examining how psychological research often misses the supernatural reality of an individual’s lived experience, while the majority of researchers hunt for naturalistic mechanisms. He argued that since people qualitatively experience the supernatural as real, psychology is doing a disservice to human experience by saying that the supernatural is just a figment of explainable mechanisms. Finally, Dr. Brent D. Slife discussed a story from his clinical internship where he specifically focused on naturalistic therapeutic approaches at the behest of his supervisor. Over time he began to feel ashamed of how this cognitive-behavioral approach shifted his clients’ focus away from her spirituality and to thoughts and behaviors that seemed to reduce her suffering. In fact, Dr. Slife argued that by focusing on the reduction of suffering, psychologists are doing a disservice to religious clients because God might intend for them to suffer and reducing this risks moving their client away from God’s wishes. This is understandable only as long as a therapist discusses their naturalistic orientation with their client and the client still chooses to continue therapy. Conversely, a religious therapist should discuss their beliefs and intent to bring these beliefs into therapy ahead of time so that if the client does not wish to participate in religious therapy they can find a new therapist.

There were two major themes gleaned from this symposium. The first was one of “religious deletion” which seemed to operate similarly within the psychological community to how “bisexual deletion” works in both gay and straight communities. Aspects of identity, thought, or experience which don’t fit within the dominant culture of the community are either ignored or dismissed as not real, as religious/supernatural ideas and experience are dismissed within the psychological community – according to the speakers (and many other psychologists of religion I have spoken with). Requiring that psychological theories (or psychologists themselves) be stripped of their religious background in order to be taken seriously within the field does a disservice to everyone involved. While the current extent of the anti-religious nature of psychology is open to study, it does seem to be present and working towards a more theologically inclusive field might be a benefit to those who study the psychology of religion and spirituality, regardless of whether or not they are religious themselves.

The second major theme was more questionable, however. The idea that consideration of the supernatural is off-limits to psychological study pervaded all the presentations, with the exception of Dr. Reber’s. Well, off-limits to “naturalistic psychology,” anyways. Ms. Starks even went so far as criticizing studies that looked at Extra Sensory Perception and dreams that could predict future events. Rather than raising any methodological critiques, she simply implied that because the researchers operated within a naturalistic framework the studies were a priori invalid. Despite saying that the supernatural exists and that it impacts the natural world of which psychological processes are a part, the speakers refused to actually discuss any methodology that could be used to study either the supernatural itself or how it impacts naturalistic psychology, even after being directly asked to go into this by a few audience questions. In doing so, the impression I was left with was that it wasn’t psychology’s job to try and peek behind the “wizard’s curtain” of religious experience and if naturalistic scientists can’t prove the non-existence of the supernatural, they should simply acknowledge that it is real since many people experience it as real. The fact that some of us actively experience the supernatural to be imaginary and very much not-real can be safely ignored in the interest of privileging religious experience.

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

The implication that Christianity was the religious experience that should be privileged above all others within the field was made painfully clear during the dinner hosted by BYU. In three events (a Christian prayer; a campus ministry capella group which hoped to convert non-Christian division members; and the final dinner talk in which the speaker railed against non-Christian psychologists throughout the twentieth century, non-Christian moral principles in general, and drug use in Europe, which is a clear, unambiguous indicator of a lack of religious belief in a region) there was a very clear message that non-Christians were not welcome. This was actually news to me, as I have been involved with Division 36 since 2012 and this was the third divisional mid-year conference I’d spoken at. Unfortunately, it was the first time I’d felt deeply unwelcome as an Atheist member of the division. Despite the committee organizing the conference making it clear to BYU that this was not a religious conference, the organizers at BYU ignored this and appeared to go out of their way to make the events they did have control over as hostile to non-Christians as possible, while still maintaining a facade of inclusivity.

Overall, this conference highlighted both the good and bad aspects of our sub-field. The keynote from Dr. Fincham and the symposium lead by Ms. Starks displayed the strides being made towards the rigorous study of the impacts religious and spiritual practices may have on psychological functioning and the arguments we need to have within the field to define the border areas of the natural and supernatural for the purpose of further study. Unfortunately, the sectarian aspects of BYU’s dinner events aimed exclusively towards the Christian attendees showed that we still have a long path ahead. For my part, I’m going to continue going to these mid-year conferences and advocating that those of us who study the psychology of (and/or are) religious/spiritual nonbelievers or non-Christians attend as well.

Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining (Video)

In the academic study of ‘religion’, an organization that is at the forefront of encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue is the Grace Davie and Jay Demerath – were recorded at the SSSR Annual Meeting back in 2011. While SSSR was originally dominated by the field of sociology, there has been a recent shift in attendees toward other disciplines such as psychology, education, religious studies, nursing and others that share an interest in understanding ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ from their respective perspectives. The diversity of presenters is only matched by the diversity of paper topics presented. While SSSR is typically hosted in an US city, SSSR has gained popularity as an international conference as well with the 2014 Annual Meeting hosting the largest number of international scholars to date.

Considering these observations, the RSP collaborated with SSSR at the 2014 Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana to offer an interdisciplinary panel on the study of religion. Each of the papers presented are not only from different fields in the study of religion but also methodologically or theoretically apply an interdisciplinary approach. The authors represent the best in their fields. Some are established scholars with a body of work while others are up-and-coming talent. We hope you enjoy the RSP sponsored panel on an interdisciplinary approach to the study of religion. See below for the abstracts of the papers presented.

Many thanks to Chris SIlver, Tommy Coleman, and all at the SSSR for making this recording possible. This panel recording is somewhat different from our usual weekly podcast – if you enjoyed this, why not check out the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes? And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, knitting needles, Alien Ant Farms, and more.

The Religious Studies Project Panel on Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJp5DiV3WKc&feature=youtu.be]

Convener: Christopher Silver

W. Paul Williamson,  Poison-Drinking in Obedience to the Faith: A Phenomenological Study of the Experience

Christian serpent handlers of American Appalachia are most noted for handling venomous snakes in obedience to one of five perceived mandates of Christ in Mark 16:17-18: Casting out devils, speaking new tongues, taking up serpents, drinking poison, and laying on hands for healing. Over the past two decades, I have studied several phenomena among this compelling group including their sermons, their music, the anointing, near-death serpent bites, community support (Williamson & Hood, in press), and of course serpent handling (see Hood & Williamson, 2008, for summaries of the above uncited studies). The sign of drinking poison, however, has been largely ignored. To address this neglect, I conducted phenomenological interviews with nine serpent handlers who have practiced poison-drinking. Based on a hermeneutic analysis of these interviews, this paper presents a pattern of themes that describe the structure of meaning in the experience of drinking poison in obedience to the faith.

April Stace Vega, “That’s a Really Real Feeling”: Popular Music and the Sacralization of the Self in Evangelical Worship

“Should Churches Play ‘Highway to Hell’ in order to Reach Unbelievers?” This question is posed on a website catering to evangelical pastors with a link to a video. In the video, several prominent pastors discuss the use of the song (by rock band AC/DC) at a recent Easter morning service. It considered a controversial music choice due to the lyrics of the song and the persona that the band projects, but is also considered a useful tool for evangelism. This project is an ethnographic study on the use of music with no overtly religious lyrics in what sociologist Donald Miller terms “new paradigm” churches in the Washington, D.C. area. I view the use of popular-secular music through the lens of the subjectivization thesis of Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead. In this paper, I focus on one particular meaning ascribed to popular-secular music in these churches: the ability of the music to express “real feeling” in a way traditional sacred music does not.

Tatsushi Hirono, Corroborative Efforts between Social Workers and Religious Leaders in Natural Disaster Relief: A Comparative Analysis among the USA, Philippines and Japan

The United States of America, the Philippines, and Japan, have suffered multiple natural disasters: Typhoon in Philippines (2013), Hurricanes Sandy (2012) and Katrina (2005) in the USA, and the 8.9 Magnitude earthquake (2011) in Japan. Immediately after these natural disasters, victims needed shelter, water, food, and blankets. However, a few weeks after, they needed mental health support. The investigator hypothesizes that religion would reduce the natural disaster victims’ PTSD symptoms and increase their “hope.” He sent 1,500 mailing surveys to Christian and Buddhist clergy in the New Orleans, New York, Manila, Tacloban, Tokyo, and Fukushima areas. He found that cultural differences between Christian and Buddhist religious communities: (a) More Christian clergy thought natural disaster relief efforts are their obligation. (b) Christian clergy focus more on “comfort”, “reducing pain,” and “hope,” while Buddhist clergy focus more on “listening” and “praying” when they talk with family members who lost their loved ones.

Benjamin Bennett-Carpenter, Against Silver Bullet Explanations for Religion: Toward Interdisciplinary Conversations that Allow for Both Consilience and Divergence

Single explanations of religion from within one particular discipline are partial explanations and do not suffice by themselves. As an enterprise, the scientific study of religion will do well to continue to foster conversations across disciplinary boundaries in an overall team effort, moving, on the one hand, toward increased consilience, or a ‘unity of knowledge’ (E.O. Wilson 1998), while also allowing, on the other hand, plenty of freedom for divergence. This presentation briefly highlights key contributions from disciplines such as biology (e.g., Ridley 2004; Feierman 2009), evolutionary anthropology and cognitive psychology (e.g., Barkow, Cosmides, Tooby 1992; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2004), evolutionary-oriented sociology (e.g., D.S. Wilson 2002; Diamond 2012), and semiotic-oriented communication studies (e.g., Baudrillard 1988; Raschke 2012; Bennett-Carpenter 2014) as touch-points for conversation that move toward consilience, while at the same time remaining open to divergence.

Psychology of What? Religion, Spirituality, or Meaning: In Search of a Proper Name for The Field of Psychology of Religion

Psychology of religion provides an avenue of theoretical and methodologically empirical inquiry into the study of belief and experience. Particularly, the individual’s experience, both personal and social, is explored through a variety of methods. One popular method of measuring experience is through measures of religiosity. Religiosity scales (mostly Christian) increased enough to be published as a book (Hill and Hood, 1999) which is still one of the most important sources in the field. In the course of time, many scholars discussed the problem of developing religiosity measures in non-western and non-Christian cultures and religiosity scales for other religious traditions like Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam were added to the literature (see APA Handbook of Psychology of Religion, first volume). And, more recently, the term spirituality has gained an expanding place in academia with some arguing that it is a separate concept from religion/religiosity. A fourfold classification (religious but not spiritual, spiritual but not religious, both, neither) began to be used as a variable in research. Whether as a typology or used as dimensions, the spiritual/religious distinction continues to generate much research and debate. Meanwhile, the “none” category drew academic attention and the terms non-belief, irreligion, and secularity became current issues in the field. Furthermore, Silver’s research put forth that the nonbelievers are more diversely grouped than originally imagined. Among the diversity of being religious, spiritual, agnostic, skeptic, and atheist and so on, Dr. Schnell’s interview presents us a new perspective based on meaning instead of belief/non-belief.

Insisting on the importance of meaning, Dr. Schnell has a unique approach to understand human experience. Her comprehensive study is one of the best examples of how psychology of religion could broaden its scope. She and her colleagues have designed a study to find out not only the first meanings which come to participants’ minds but also their ultimate meanings. Dr. Schnell states that people usually answer with “family”, “friends”, “work” etc. when they are asked about their sources of meaning. However, it is unclear what their statements actually mean. She continues, saying “work can mean so many different things”. For one person, it is the possibility to be creative, for another it is community with colleagues, and for yet another it is the possibility to expand one’s knowledge. Thus, Dr. Schnell asks further detailed questions in order to discover the interviewees’ ultimate meanings. She summarizes her deep research and analysis by stating that “sources of meaning are not conscious. We are not really aware of them but we can reflect upon them.” As researchers we are familiar with this idea both from academia, as Victor Frankl’s (1992) Man’s Search for Meaning, and, indeed, from our personal lives and from others around us. However, what makes Dr. Schnell’s study unique is the scale she developed, The Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life Questionnaire (SoMe) which provides a mirror to reflect ultimate meanings. It has already been translated into 11 languages.

Scale / Dimension Description Factors
VERTICAL SELFTRANSCENDENCE Commitment to an immaterial, supernatural reality Implicit Religiosity, Spirituality
HORIZONTAL SELFTRANSCENDENCE Commitment to worldly affairs beyond one’s immediate concerns Unison with Nature, Social Commitment, etc.
SELFACTUALIZATION Commitment to the employment, Challenge and Promotion ofone’s capacities Development, Individualism, etc.
ORDER Commitment to principles, common sense and the tried and tested Tradition, Practicality, etc.
WELL-BEING AND RELATEDNESS Commitment to enjoyment, sensitivity and warmth in privacy and company Community, Love, etc.

 

What We Mean by Meaning

One of the most impressive aspects of Dr. Schnell’s perspective is her clear conceptual analysis of meaning and her success in reflecting this clarity in her scale. Psychological literature focuses upon meaning from many different perspectives such as values, religiosity, spirituality, well-being, and happiness. Many studies use the term “meaning” almost synonymously with these concepts, which leads to differences and sometimes confusion about their definitions. Dr. Schnell offers clear explanations about the meanings of these key constructs of the field.

Meanings vs. Values

One can easily see that meanings and values are usually used together in the literature. Insisting on a difference between these terms, Dr. Schnell clarifies:

“Values are rather normative. How should it be, what is right etc.? People tell us a lot when we ask them what values they find important but then, if you look at what they’re actually doing, they have a big gap between actual behavior and what the values are. The sources of meaning are what people really do in their lives.”

This differentiation is of vital importance for psychology of religion. Because people tend to answer the questions “as they ought to be” instead of “as they are,” many researchers recognize a big challenge both in qualitative and quantitative studies. Positive attitude scales, like altruism and gratitude scales, are particularly at risk. Although there are some research techniques that enable us to minimize the risk, Dr. Schnell’s questionnaire presents a new approach. She claims that SoMe actually measures what people do and what they find important.

Meanings vs. Religiosity / Spirituality

Religion is usually regarded as a source of meaning in the literature. Likewise, almost all studies on spirituality claim that spirituality is related to meaningfulness. However, even the boundaries of these terms are not clear enough, especially in non-western countries. For instance it is not easy to investigate religiosity and spirituality in a Muslim culture even in a more secular one such as Turkey. Although Islam has an organizational dimension, it cannot be compared with ecclesiastical institutions and denominations.  Religiosity in Muslim countries is still considered as a deeply personal phenomenon as a result of the absence of a certain organization representing religion. Therefore, it is not easy to distinguish religiosity and spirituality from each other as western literature does, insisting on organizational and personal aspects of them.

On the other hand, many theorists and researchers attach value to religiosity and/or (more likely) spirituality. In many writings, the term spirituality is credited with the positive and the term religiosity is credited with the negative (see Zinnbauer and Pargament, 2005).  Dr. Schnell shifts the focus from the content and valence of these concepts to how valuable these concepts are for individuals. Instead of just labeling religion / spirituality as a source of meaning she expresses that these concepts have an effect on individuals as far as religion / spirituality is important for them. Thus, she clarifies the links between religiosity, spirituality, and meaning to some degree.

Meaning vs. Well Being / Happiness

Meaning has also usually been emphasized in studies on well-being. Many writings suggest that meaning is necessary for life satisfaction.  Not surprisingly, since both are understood to involve meaning, well-being and spirituality are frequently associated with each other. A general assumption in the literature is as follows:

There is an ongoing discussion about spirituality, well-being, and meaning. Some scholars, like Koenig (2008), criticize the use of positive psychological traits like meaning in the definitions of spirituality. He argues that it is tautological to look at relationships between spirituality and mental health or well-being, since spirituality scales contain items assessing mental health. On the other hand, Visser (2013) asserts that most of the dimensions of spirituality, including meaning in life, are distinct from well-being. As with spirituality, Dr. Schnell approaches the subject with an emphasis on meaning rather than on well-being. She distinguishes between (eudaimonic) well-being and meaning. She says that the “good life is not necessarily the pleasant life”, which parallels Frankl’s (1992) idea that suffering can be turned into victory. Explaining herself concisely, Schell says, “Meaning is not always happiness.”

 Further Questions on the Sources of Meaning

The other most impressive aspect of Dr. Schnell’s podcast is its success in directing us to ask further questions. Here are some examples:

1)  Dr. Schnell reports that “when comparing an atheist with a religious person you might not think in many ways they have very similar commitments but one has a vertical transcendence believing in God and the other has not, but what they actually live is very similar.” This finding forces a reader to question the meanings of being Jewish, Buddhist, skeptic, or agnostic. If identities based on belief have less influence on behavior than previously imagined, should the typical classifications in psychology of religion be reviewed?

2)  Dr. Schnell insists on the importance of environmental effects on a person’s sources of meaning, saying “meaning has to do with the systems you are part of.” If the social dimension of meaning is so important, is it possible to speak of copied or unconsciously learned meanings?

3)  According to Dr. Schnell, people from different religious or spiritual traditions and even non-believers may share similar meanings, and individuals’ relationships affect their meanings. So, do people from similar environments and cultures choose similar meanings?

4)  Dr. Schnell claims that meaning-making is not relative but relational. Besides, it is known that globalism, secularism, technological developments, and post-modernism offers (or even forces) certain life-styles and values. So do people choose their meanings or do they remain exposed to them?

5)  One of Dr. Schnell’s most important findings is the fact that “so many people do not live a meaningful life but they do not have any problem with that. They do not suffer from a crisis of meaning, but they do not think their life is in any way meaningful.” She called this situation existential indifference (See Schnell, 2010). 35% of her sample from Germany belonged to this group. If a remarkable percentage of people have a superficial life -from home to work and from work to home- how could the universality of meaning be interpreted?

Actually, one may find some answers to these questions in Dr. Schnell’s publications. However, further questions need to be investigated. More importantly these questions show how inspiring Dr. Schnell’s perspective is.

Psychology of Meaning?

Dr. Schnell points out that “in Europe, less and less people attend church activities. The church loses influence on everyday life but not so many people suffer from a crisis of meaning,” and the first question that came to her mind was “so, what is the basis of their life?” Following her elaborated study, she proposes the centrality of meaning among religiosity, spirituality, non-belief, values, well-being and so on. She indicates that meaning is a core concept in the field.

Then she discusses the name for the field of psychology of religion and/or spirituality. When she says that “religiosity is rather institutional, and spirituality is too vague, so meaning is a broader concept,” she implies a new name for the field. Although it is questionable to restrict the field to the issues people attribute meaning to, this valiant attempt is inspiring for the development of psychology of religion or whatever its name might be.

Dr. Schnell’s podcast has shown, once again, that social sciences in general and the psychology of religion in particular have the potential to produce new perspectives, theories, and research for understanding the human condition. Academic collaborations from different cultures, backgrounds, religious/spiritual/non-religious traditions are needed to contribute to (and improve) these perspectives and studies. Dr. Schnell’s scale, SoMe, which can be adapted to other cultures and languages might be a good step to serve this purpose. Undoubtedly, future studies will add new dimensions to the field.

 References

APA, (2013), APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion and Spirituality, (Ed. Kenneth I. Pargament),1st volume, New York:  American Psychological Association.

Frankl, Victor (1992). Man’s Search for Meaning, (4th ed). Boston: Beacon Press.

Hill, Peter C. and Hood, Ralph W. Jr. (eds.) (1999). Measures of Religiosity, Birmingham: Religious Education Press.

Koenig, Harold G. (2008). Concerns About Measuring “Spirituality” in Research. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 196 (5), 349-355.

Schnell, Tatjana (2010). Existential Indifference: Another Quality of Meaning in Life. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 50 (3) 351 –373.

Visser, Anja (2013). Is being spiritual the same as experiencing well-being?, Paper presented at IAPR 2013 Congress in Switzerland.

Zinnbauer, Brian J. and Pargament, Kenneth. I. (2005). Religiousness and Spirituality. Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Eds. Raymond F. Paloutzian and Crystal L. Parks. New York: The Guilford Press, 21-42.

 

Religious Studies and the Paranormal, Part 2

In October 2013, a four day international conference was held at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, on the theme of ‘Anthropology and the Paranormal’. This special two part episode explores some aspects of the sometimes fraught relationship between “paranormal” events and beliefs (The World Religions“) and Religious Studies. This two-part episode has been produced in collaboration with Jack Hunter, editor of the journal Paranthropology, and co-convenor of the Esalen conference.

In this second part we ask “the epistemic/ontological question”: in studying these experiences, how far should we be concerned with the ontology? Would to do so be an abandonment of the scientific materialism which underpins the discipline, and therefore a slide back into theology? Or can there be a bigger model of materialism – a “complicated materialism”, to use Ann Taves’ expression – in which these phenomena might be suitably explicable? Or, as Bowie puts it, can we use “empathetic engagement” to adopt the ontology for research purposes? You will hear, in the following order, the voices of Jeffery Kripal, Ann Taves, Tanya Luhrmann, Fiona Bowie, Paul Stoller, Charles Emmons and David Hufford. Part 1 can be downloaded here.

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

Fifteen international scholars from anthropology, religious studies, folklore and psychology met to discuss the potential contributions of these interrelated disciplines to the investigation of paranormal beliefs and experiences. Fiona Bowie’s report of the conference may be read here.

esalen_lineup

Religious Studies and the Paranormal, Part 1

In October 2013, a four day international conference was held at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, on the theme of ‘Anthropology and the Paranormal’. This special two part episode explores some aspects of the sometimes fraught relationship between “paranormal” events and beliefs (The World Religions“) and Religious Studies. This two-part episode has been produced in collaboration with Jack Hunter, editor of the journal Paranthropology, and co-convenor of the Esalen conference.

In this first part, we ask, why has the study of “paranormal” experience been somewhat ignored by academia in general and Religious Studies in particular? Is the problem the term “paranormal”? What importance of these kinds of studies have for the field? Is there concern that such studies necessarily seek to justify the ontological claims of the paranormal? This latter issue is pursued in part two, to be broadcast this wednesday. Many of the scholars also offer advice for those interested in this area but are worried about “employability”. You will hear, in the following order, the voices of Jeffery Kripal, Ann Taves, Tanya Luhrmann, Fiona Bowie, Paul Stoller, Charles Emmons, Stanley Krippner and David Hufford.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your Christmas presents etc. Fifteen international scholars from anthropology, religious studies, folklore and psychology met to discuss the potential contributions of these interrelated disciplines to the investigation of paranormal beliefs and experiences. Fiona Bowie’s report of the conference may be read here.

esalen_lineup

From left to right, back row: Michael Murphy, Susan Greenwood, Jane Hartford, Jeffrey Kripal, Raphael Locke, David Hufford, Charles Emmons, Jack Hunter, Thomas E. Bullard, Stanley Krippner, Edward F. Kelly, Loriliai Biernacki. Middle row: Edith Turner, Tanya Luhrmann, Ann Taves, Deb Frost. Front row: Geoffrey Samuel, Antonia Mills, Fiona Bowie, Sam Yau, Frank Poletti, Paul Stoller, Gregory Shushan.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

Ralph Hood on Mysticism

HoodRalph2012_10One of the primary interests of scholars and researchers from diverse academic disciplines has been in exploration of mysticism. Mysticism has been observed within a variety of traditions and philosophies from Neo-Platonism to Hinduism and Christianity. Mysticism as a field of study is pregnant with possibilities for academic inquiry, both cross-disciplinary and discipline specific. The field of psychology is one of those disciplines which have sought to explore the richness of individual claims of mystical experience. This has been done with theoretical depth and methodological sophistication and is centralized within a variety of tools of empirical inquiry.

The study of mysticism necessitates addressing issues of ontology and epistemology, relating to the methodological processes for studying direct personal experiences. Within the psychological perspective, some of these concerns are mediated through what both Porpora (2006) and Hood, Hill and Spika (2009) describe as methodological agnosticism. While Silver (2011) argues that there is no such thing as true objectivity in research, certainly academics and researchers can strive for a post-positivist paradigm of objectivity where they attempt to remove bias and subjectivity from their research or hermeneutic inquiry.

While there is plenty of hermeneutic and observational potential in the study of Mysticism, more needs to be done in exploration of the experiential and psychological correlates related to personal experiences. Dr. Ralph W. Hood Jr. has extensive experience in the field of psychology of religion and particularly in the study of mysticism and mystical experience. As an early pioneer in the renaissance of the field of psychology of religion, Hood’s work is extensive and prolific exploring a variety of research topics in the social sciences of religion. Moreover, much of his collaborative work extends beyond the field of psychology to include sociology, religious studies, medicine, and a variety of other disciplines in the social scientific study of religion. In this week’s podcast, Chris SIlver is joined by Ralph Hood to discuss in detail his work on mysticism and the benefits and disadvantages of this academic exercise.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

HoodRalph2012_10

Ralph W. Hood Jr. is professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is a former editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and former co-editor of the Archive for the Psychology of Religion and The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.  He is a past president of division 36 (psychology of religion) of the American Psychological Association and a recipient of its William James, Mentor, and Distinguished Service awards. He has published over 200 articles in the psychology of religion and has authored, co-authored, or edited numerous book chapters and eleven books, all dealing with the psychology of religion.

References

  • Hood, R.W., P.C. Hill, and B. Spilka. (2009). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach. 4th ed. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Porpora, D. V. (2006). Methodological atheism, methodological agnosticism and religious experience. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 36, 57–75.
  • Silver, C. F. (2011). Psychology and Religion: Explorations in paradigm, theory, and method. In Weathington, B. L., Cunningham,  C. J. L., O’Leary, B. J., & Biderman, M. D. (Eds.), Applied Psychology in Everyday Life (pp. 71-107). Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

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Belief […] can be used as a concept to bridge […] frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it).

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

By Liam T. Sutherland

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 15 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Martin Stringer on Situational Belief (13 May 2013)

The work of Professor Martin Stringer is a breath of fresh air for all those who reject both the simplistic belief-centred approach to religion and its attendant backlash. It makes belief an important part of the way that religions are researched and analysed, but not in a fashion recognisable to many.

The traditional belief-centred approach drags with it a raft of assumptions that have proved consistently absent in the field, most notably that religious communities are centred on a coherent body of beliefs which mediates membership and divides them sharply from outsiders. Religious beliefs are often described in ways so philosophical and abstract that they would appear to in no way relate to the everyday lives of practitioners, who may have never encountered such supposedly integral doctrines. This approach has been overturned by examinations of ritual, visual religion, ethnicity, kinship, power etc.  Other assumptions have been overturned, such as the notion that adherents engage exclusively in practices sanctioned by their tradition. Stringer found in his own fieldwork in the North of England that professing Christians would seek the advice of astrologers and claim to believe in reincarnation.

The inaccuracy of such assumptions has led to a rejection of ‘belief’ as a problematic concept. However, many of these assumptions cannot be countered without re-examining the concept of belief. Arguably this is because they reflect a misrepresentation of the workings of belief, not the applicability of the concept itself.  The rejection of belief is based on equally untenable assumptions, usually simple, negative or inverted versions of those mentioned above. ‘Belief’ is often described by its critics in the words of Clifford Geertz, as though it always entailed some kind of ‘abstract Baconian deduction’, always hermetically sealed, intellectual, elite systems which are removed from everyday life. Attempting to remove belief from accounts of religion is a hollow, unsatisfying and deliberately blinkered means of avoiding its pitfalls –  as Geertz added it is like staging Hamlet without the prince.

Stringer has shown that people use belief in extra-empirical beings as coping mechanisms and to anticipate and deal with problems. People may seek the structure, resources and cultural resonance of a Christian church, the ability to predict and respond to future problems offered by an astrologer, and the comfort of being able to chat with dead relatives who can listen and respond. All of these examples depend on a variety of factors, one of which is surely that they are considered to reflect belief in powerful, efficacious and therefore useful realities.

This approach to belief highlights the fact that while religion may have ritual, visual and ideological functions, it is never devoid of interpretations of the cosmos. The fact that some religions are orthopraxic, emphasising the necessity of correct practice not correct belief, does not mean that such religions are devoid of belief. As Segal has argued, religion could not perform any kind of ideological or psychological function if it was not a somewhat independent factor: that is, if many did not believe in the claims being made. A deity may need to be ritually appealed to or appeased but may not be concerned with the mental state of practitioners. This fact does not mean that no one considers the deity to be a real being that requires appeasement. While there may be evidence for other motivations for the performance – cultural heritage, to legitimate the traditional power structure etc. – a practitioner’s statement is surely the best evidence we have. As Horton pointed out, it would be incredibly patronising and unsound for scholars to assume that they have the ‘correct’ interpretation of believers’ statements.

Another crucial contribution that Stringer has made in the rehabilitation of the concept of belief is his notion of ‘situational beliefs’, which serves to explain the apparent ‘contradictory’ nature of many popular religious practices in the modern west. The fact that people may appear to practice many traditions simultaneously, or engage in practices prohibited by their (orthodox) tradition, cannot necessarily be taken as clear evidence that they do not believe in the belief statements they are making. Stringer contends that beliefs are most powerful and consciously thought about in specific situations in which they are relevant, such as a ritual-communal setting like a Church service or in the context of problems or obstacles in the person’s life. While the cognitive dimensions and interpretation which attend religious practices should not be downplayed, not all believers will insist on indivisible, coherent bodies of doctrines, but rather adopt piecemeal and patchwork systems. This may be derided by its critics as a ‘pick and mix’ approach but Stringer’s evidence contributes to the evidence that it is the norm not the exception throughout the world.

However, the concept of belief itself must be examined more closely if it is to be of any value as a scholarly tool. Beliefs must be differentiable in some way from thoughts, and could generally be defined as thoughts which are considered to respond to reality with varying degrees of conviction and held over a notable length of time. The thorny question of where the division lies between belief and knowledge was broached by the interviewer, David Robertson. Stringer places the divide along the lines of how much a statement could possibly be verified, i.e. if I put my cup down it is on the table (knowledge), or whether all leopards are Christian (belief).

According to traditional epistemology, however, all knowledge contains belief. One can claim knowledge if one believes a proposition, has sound reasons to justify this, and the proposition happens to in fact be true[1] Belief is thus a constituent part of the process of gaining knowledge, all knowledge contains belief but not all beliefs count as knowledge. Beliefs themselves can be sub-divided according to how they are justified, whether the belief is empirical and rational and thus accessible to all, or based on experiential or cultural justifications.

One of the interesting questions to come out of Stringer’s research is: how incoherent are the beliefs of the practitioners under study? It is certainly the case that they may not match the traditional expected forms of practice, but while Stringer’s model of situational belief is highly useful, it does not necessarily mean that human beings do not retain a drive for coherence[2]. Stewart Guthrie argued that the worldwide tendency of anthropomorphism, which lies at the heart of many religions, is based on a tendency to seek coherent patterns.

Are the forms of religion in evidence here not so different from the traditional orthodoxies, which no longer have the power or legitimacy to maintain their hegemony, that we find it difficult to recognise them? Practitioners don’t feel a need to accept traditions as whole packages, as Stringer mentioned, and may not even be aware of doctrines that they are contradicting. Furthermore, their God may no longer be a jealous one. That is not to argue that Stringer did not find very palpable evidence of contradictions and a loose attitude to creating a unitary, coherent worldview, even for the individual.

Another traditional view of belief challenged by Stringer is the idea that religious beliefs are always deeply held, of ‘ultimate concern’ to use Paul Tillich’s phrase. This arguably reflects Stringer’s link to the Tylorian tradition, which describes religious belief as a pragmatic means of interpreting the cosmos and indeed to coping with it. This means that believers may not develop an intense ‘faith’ in or sacred aura around these beliefs but, instead, may be willing to adopt new beliefs and abandon old ones, according to how well they appear to offer a valid interpretive mechanism.  As Fitzgerald has astutely pointed out, belief in deities or spirits may be considerably less important or sacred than values such as hierarchy, purity or democracy.

One of the main concepts employed by scholars in place of ‘belief’ is ‘experience.’ Experience is an extremely useful focus but it can be used problematically much like belief and does not perform the same role.  It would certainly be implausible to deny that religious practitioners have real experiences: social, psychological and sensory but the problem is of course that experiences can never be separated out of their frameworks of interpretation. Religious believers frequently claim to have experiences of the love of God and the power of crystals, not just the warmth of their congregation or the pageantry of a festival.

By using the notion of ‘experience’ scholars can conveniently ignore the inherent tension between the naturalistic-cultural and theological frameworks of interpretation. Scholars should not ignore this tension but face it head on: religious people claim to know or experience metaphysical realities because they have interpreted experiences found among specific groups and inculcated by rituals etc. in a particular way. Scholars of religion study only these human beings and do not interpret these experiences in the same way, but cannot simply dismiss them because they lie outside the scientific framework. Belief here can be used as a concept to bridge these frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it). Many would not claim to believe in metaphysical realities, but to know them or experience them, but that does not mean that it is useful for scholars to adopt these turns of phrase. They must ‘re-describe’ religious claims in a manner which does not endorse their position.

Experience here takes on the same character as the concept of ‘faith’ that Stringer critiqued, which is used to keep scholars at arm’s length. Adding the concept of belief to the analysis makes it more precise and rich by clarifying  how subjects understand and interpret their experiences, how they separate perceived reality from perceived illusion and modelling the cognitive framework within which actors presume to act. Certainly if social networks can inculcate common behaviour and even common experiences, they can inculcate frameworks of interpretation which are genuinely held to correspond to reality.  The point is that religious believers claim to believe in more than the emotive content of rituals, to believe in ontological realities. Social scientists may be methodologically agnostic to the existence of such phenomena, but they should not leave belief in them out of analysis, because concern with human beings means concern with the cognitive worlds they inhabit.

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

About the Author:

481753_10151274231722302_1786021171_nLiam Sutherland is a native of Edinburgh who has studied Religious Studies twice at Edinburgh University and is about to go back for third time in September of this year. His undergraduate work focused on Indigenous Religions, taking contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality as his dissertation topic. His Masters by research concerned the legacy and influence of Sir E.B. Tylor on contemporary theoretical debates in the study of religion and his upcoming PhD will focus on religion and Scottish National identity. He has previously written An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy,and The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald for the Religious Studies project, and participated in roundtable recordings on What is the Future of Religious Studies? and Should Religious Studies be Multidisciplinary?

Bibliography

  • Fitzgerald, T. The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000) Oxford University Press
  • Geertz, C.  “Religion as a Cultural System” in Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (1973) Basic Books
  • Guthrie, S.E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) Oxford University Press
  • Horton, R. Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science(1993) Cambridge University Press
  • Lévy-Bruhl, L. Primitive Mentality (1966) Clare, A.L. (trans.) Beacon Press
  • McCutcheon, R.T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion (2001) State University of New York Press
  • Segal, R. “Theories of Religion” in Hinnels, J. R. (ed.) Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (2005) Routledge
  • Stringer, M.D. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion (2008) Continuum
  • Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom Volumes 1 & 2 (1871) John Murray

[1] This approach may well be criticised by many but mostly due to the seemingly arbitrary third factor: that a proposition happens to be true!

[2] I would not argue that Stringer is attempting to revive the position of the early anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl who argued that many cultures could not recognise contradictions because they thought only in a ‘mystical’ and ‘pre-logical’ framework. Stringer’s account of religion is far too embedded in ordinary life for that. It is possible to speculate that religious people much like non-religious people do not think about the totality of their cognitive cosmos at any one time, rather the aspects that concern them at any one time.

Religious Experience

In this wide-ranging interview (our 50th!), Ann Taves and David Wilson discuss the concept of religious experience. Taves challenges traditional models of religious experience, rejecting both an essentialist approach with a sui generis category and a constructivist approach which accepts only discourses. Instead, she argues that not only can we examine unusual experiences in themselves, as they affect individual agents. From there, we can examine how these experiences become reified and institutionalised by specific traditions, as well as providing impetus for new religious movements. Taves’ work utilises historical and ethnographic methods in an attempt to establish an approach which might allow cross-cultural and diachronic analysis of unusual experiences without recourse to specific theologies.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Ann Taves is Professor of Religious Studies and holder of the Virgil Cordano OFM Chair in Catholic Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, a position she has held since 2005. Previously she taught at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate School. Her major publications include Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things (Princeton University Press, 2009), which received the 2010 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and Fits, Trances and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, 1999), which received the Outstanding Professional and Scholarly Book Award in Philosophy and Religion from the Association of American Publishers in 2000.

Podcasts

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Re-Experiencing Religious Experience

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is RSP Managing Editor, Tommy Coleman.

If I was marooned on a desert island and could only take one book with me I’d pick up my copy of Ann Taves’ David Gordon Wilson’s interview with Taves, entitled Religious Experience. The podcast, which is based on the game changing ideas found in RER, is also special for being our 50th episode. Anyone interested in stepping out the front door of their own discipline will find this podcast, like the book, contains tools for thinking you’d better not leave home without. Additionally, both serve as building blocks to her more recent work on Worldviews and Ways of Life. Have a listen…

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. 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, corkscrews, thermal underwear, and more.

Religion and Film

When thinking about ‘religion and film’ it might be quite tempting to take a simplistic and narrow view, reducing the topic to the study of ‘Biblical Epics’ such as The Robe or The Ten Commandments, or the more recent Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Or perhaps we might think of ‘religious’ censorship of ‘controversial’ films. Or maybe be tempted to view the ubiquity of modern movie-watching as a ‘religious’ practice. However, when we take even a moment to think more critically about what we might mean by these three key terms – RELIGION, AND, FILM – things become much more complicated. To introduce us to this fascinating and important area of research, this week’s podcast features Chris speaking with S. Brent Plate at the recent XXI World Congress of the IAHR in Erfurt.

The interview begins with Plate’s personal research journey into this relatively young field, charting the history of the field in the process. Discussion then turns to the key terms involved… what are we meaning by “religion and film”? The relationship of established “world religions” to cinema? Religion/s on Film? Documentaries? Critiques and Parodies? Religions that exist only in Film? Films as Religious Experiences? Audience reactions to film? Films as myth? Films as a modern form of religion? And so on…

We then discuss further aspects of Plate’s own work, the practicalities of carrying out such research on “fictions”, and whether the word “religion” is necessary in this context at all.

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, movies, liquid nitrogen and more!

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on Religion and Cultural Production, Religion and Comic Books and Religion and the Built Environment.

The Supernatural and the New Comparativism

Jeffrey J. Kripal tells David G. Robertson about his approach to studying “paranormal” and “supernatural” phenomena.

The conversation begins by explaining how Kripal came to be studying figures like Charles Fort and Whitley Strieber from a background in Hinduism. He then argues for a New Comparativism within the study of religion that will put “the impossible” back on the table again, and encourage a more even conversation between the sciences and the humanities. His suggestion is that we should put consciousness at the centre of studies in religion, suggesting a new approach to the sacred, and opening up new theoretical avenues.

Studying Non-Ordinary Realities, and Religious Studies and the Paranormal.

Psychology of Religion at Its Best…and Less Best

There were a number of excellent talks at the (deep breath) American Psychological Association Division 36 Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 2015 Mid-Year Conference hosted by Brigham Young University (BYU) at the Marriott Conference Center in Provo, Utah, United States on March 20th and 21st (exhale). In particular, the second keynote address by Dr. Frank Fincham, Director of the Florida State University Family Institute was an excellent model of how research in the psychology of religion and spirituality can have practical use in designing psychological interventions in addition to the acquisition of knowledge. His and his collaborators’ work involved the psychological impacts of partner-directed prayer on the romantic relationships of religious believers, specifically how prayer can bolster relationship quality by increasing the forgiveness ability of the praying partner. Over a series of carefully framed studies he described the process they used to look at the broad effects of partner directed prayer on relationships. After narrowing their focus, they found that increased cooperative behavior was the primary mediator of the effect of prayer on forgiveness. They used these findings to construct and validate a prayer-focused marriage therapy intervention within an African-American, religious population. Throughout his talk, he was careful to make it clear that these studies were done with, and only apply to, religious believers and that the possibility of comparable mechanisms for nonbeliever couples still need to be researched.

Dr. Julie Exline’s Laboratory at Case Western Reserve University: Alex Uzdavines, Julie Exline, Valencia Harriott, Steffany Homolka, Nick Stauner, and Josh Wilt.

At least for my part, this was greatly appreciated. As someone who studies religious nonbelievers (not to mention being one), it can chafe reading or watching a presentation on research which has broadly sweeping conclusions about the benefits of religious belief which go far beyond what the data allow. Often this research implicitly (sometimes explicitly) assumes that the audience is religious themselves and that the research can be generalized to nonbelievers by just flipping the direction of the results. It was refreshing to have religious-oriented research presented in a manner that both framed the results within the context of the beliefs of the people who participated in the research and explicitly acknowledged that the conclusions drawn could not be applied to nonbelievers without further study.

Dr. Fincham’s focus on measurable psychological mechanisms contrasted sharply with the major themes from symposium presented by a number of scholars from BYU the previous day. The presenters answered the title of the symposium, chaired by Shannon Starks, “Does Psychology’s Naturalism Hamper Understanding of Religious Phenomena?” with a resounding “Yes!” Ms. Starks spoke first and her presentation outlined how widely used introductory psychology texts take a strictly naturalistic stance and often reject supernatural hypotheses for psychological phenomena just as resoundingly. Dr. Jeffery S. Reber presented the second talk and gave a number of examples of psychological theories that grew out of the work of famous theologians. However, when the writers most responsible for bringing these theories into psychology (sometimes the theologian themself!) translated them, all references to a god/gods, the divine, or the supernatural were removed.

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman, APA Div. 36 President Dr. Kevin Ladd, and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr. Melanie Nyhof

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman with Dr. Kevin Ladd and Dr. Melanie Nyhof enjoying the post conference Sundance tour.

The third talk, presented by Dr. Edwinn E. Gantt, built upon the first two presentations but shifted focus examining how psychological research often misses the supernatural reality of an individual’s lived experience, while the majority of researchers hunt for naturalistic mechanisms. He argued that since people qualitatively experience the supernatural as real, psychology is doing a disservice to human experience by saying that the supernatural is just a figment of explainable mechanisms. Finally, Dr. Brent D. Slife discussed a story from his clinical internship where he specifically focused on naturalistic therapeutic approaches at the behest of his supervisor. Over time he began to feel ashamed of how this cognitive-behavioral approach shifted his clients’ focus away from her spirituality and to thoughts and behaviors that seemed to reduce her suffering. In fact, Dr. Slife argued that by focusing on the reduction of suffering, psychologists are doing a disservice to religious clients because God might intend for them to suffer and reducing this risks moving their client away from God’s wishes. This is understandable only as long as a therapist discusses their naturalistic orientation with their client and the client still chooses to continue therapy. Conversely, a religious therapist should discuss their beliefs and intent to bring these beliefs into therapy ahead of time so that if the client does not wish to participate in religious therapy they can find a new therapist.

There were two major themes gleaned from this symposium. The first was one of “religious deletion” which seemed to operate similarly within the psychological community to how “bisexual deletion” works in both gay and straight communities. Aspects of identity, thought, or experience which don’t fit within the dominant culture of the community are either ignored or dismissed as not real, as religious/supernatural ideas and experience are dismissed within the psychological community – according to the speakers (and many other psychologists of religion I have spoken with). Requiring that psychological theories (or psychologists themselves) be stripped of their religious background in order to be taken seriously within the field does a disservice to everyone involved. While the current extent of the anti-religious nature of psychology is open to study, it does seem to be present and working towards a more theologically inclusive field might be a benefit to those who study the psychology of religion and spirituality, regardless of whether or not they are religious themselves.

The second major theme was more questionable, however. The idea that consideration of the supernatural is off-limits to psychological study pervaded all the presentations, with the exception of Dr. Reber’s. Well, off-limits to “naturalistic psychology,” anyways. Ms. Starks even went so far as criticizing studies that looked at Extra Sensory Perception and dreams that could predict future events. Rather than raising any methodological critiques, she simply implied that because the researchers operated within a naturalistic framework the studies were a priori invalid. Despite saying that the supernatural exists and that it impacts the natural world of which psychological processes are a part, the speakers refused to actually discuss any methodology that could be used to study either the supernatural itself or how it impacts naturalistic psychology, even after being directly asked to go into this by a few audience questions. In doing so, the impression I was left with was that it wasn’t psychology’s job to try and peek behind the “wizard’s curtain” of religious experience and if naturalistic scientists can’t prove the non-existence of the supernatural, they should simply acknowledge that it is real since many people experience it as real. The fact that some of us actively experience the supernatural to be imaginary and very much not-real can be safely ignored in the interest of privileging religious experience.

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

The implication that Christianity was the religious experience that should be privileged above all others within the field was made painfully clear during the dinner hosted by BYU. In three events (a Christian prayer; a campus ministry capella group which hoped to convert non-Christian division members; and the final dinner talk in which the speaker railed against non-Christian psychologists throughout the twentieth century, non-Christian moral principles in general, and drug use in Europe, which is a clear, unambiguous indicator of a lack of religious belief in a region) there was a very clear message that non-Christians were not welcome. This was actually news to me, as I have been involved with Division 36 since 2012 and this was the third divisional mid-year conference I’d spoken at. Unfortunately, it was the first time I’d felt deeply unwelcome as an Atheist member of the division. Despite the committee organizing the conference making it clear to BYU that this was not a religious conference, the organizers at BYU ignored this and appeared to go out of their way to make the events they did have control over as hostile to non-Christians as possible, while still maintaining a facade of inclusivity.

Overall, this conference highlighted both the good and bad aspects of our sub-field. The keynote from Dr. Fincham and the symposium lead by Ms. Starks displayed the strides being made towards the rigorous study of the impacts religious and spiritual practices may have on psychological functioning and the arguments we need to have within the field to define the border areas of the natural and supernatural for the purpose of further study. Unfortunately, the sectarian aspects of BYU’s dinner events aimed exclusively towards the Christian attendees showed that we still have a long path ahead. For my part, I’m going to continue going to these mid-year conferences and advocating that those of us who study the psychology of (and/or are) religious/spiritual nonbelievers or non-Christians attend as well.

Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining (Video)

In the academic study of ‘religion’, an organization that is at the forefront of encouraging interdisciplinary dialogue is the Grace Davie and Jay Demerath – were recorded at the SSSR Annual Meeting back in 2011. While SSSR was originally dominated by the field of sociology, there has been a recent shift in attendees toward other disciplines such as psychology, education, religious studies, nursing and others that share an interest in understanding ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ from their respective perspectives. The diversity of presenters is only matched by the diversity of paper topics presented. While SSSR is typically hosted in an US city, SSSR has gained popularity as an international conference as well with the 2014 Annual Meeting hosting the largest number of international scholars to date.

Considering these observations, the RSP collaborated with SSSR at the 2014 Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana to offer an interdisciplinary panel on the study of religion. Each of the papers presented are not only from different fields in the study of religion but also methodologically or theoretically apply an interdisciplinary approach. The authors represent the best in their fields. Some are established scholars with a body of work while others are up-and-coming talent. We hope you enjoy the RSP sponsored panel on an interdisciplinary approach to the study of religion. See below for the abstracts of the papers presented.

Many thanks to Chris SIlver, Tommy Coleman, and all at the SSSR for making this recording possible. This panel recording is somewhat different from our usual weekly podcast – if you enjoyed this, why not check out the podcast, or subscribe on iTunes? And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, knitting needles, Alien Ant Farms, and more.

The Religious Studies Project Panel on Religious Experience: Understanding and Explaining

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJp5DiV3WKc&feature=youtu.be]

Convener: Christopher Silver

W. Paul Williamson,  Poison-Drinking in Obedience to the Faith: A Phenomenological Study of the Experience

Christian serpent handlers of American Appalachia are most noted for handling venomous snakes in obedience to one of five perceived mandates of Christ in Mark 16:17-18: Casting out devils, speaking new tongues, taking up serpents, drinking poison, and laying on hands for healing. Over the past two decades, I have studied several phenomena among this compelling group including their sermons, their music, the anointing, near-death serpent bites, community support (Williamson & Hood, in press), and of course serpent handling (see Hood & Williamson, 2008, for summaries of the above uncited studies). The sign of drinking poison, however, has been largely ignored. To address this neglect, I conducted phenomenological interviews with nine serpent handlers who have practiced poison-drinking. Based on a hermeneutic analysis of these interviews, this paper presents a pattern of themes that describe the structure of meaning in the experience of drinking poison in obedience to the faith.

April Stace Vega, “That’s a Really Real Feeling”: Popular Music and the Sacralization of the Self in Evangelical Worship

“Should Churches Play ‘Highway to Hell’ in order to Reach Unbelievers?” This question is posed on a website catering to evangelical pastors with a link to a video. In the video, several prominent pastors discuss the use of the song (by rock band AC/DC) at a recent Easter morning service. It considered a controversial music choice due to the lyrics of the song and the persona that the band projects, but is also considered a useful tool for evangelism. This project is an ethnographic study on the use of music with no overtly religious lyrics in what sociologist Donald Miller terms “new paradigm” churches in the Washington, D.C. area. I view the use of popular-secular music through the lens of the subjectivization thesis of Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead. In this paper, I focus on one particular meaning ascribed to popular-secular music in these churches: the ability of the music to express “real feeling” in a way traditional sacred music does not.

Tatsushi Hirono, Corroborative Efforts between Social Workers and Religious Leaders in Natural Disaster Relief: A Comparative Analysis among the USA, Philippines and Japan

The United States of America, the Philippines, and Japan, have suffered multiple natural disasters: Typhoon in Philippines (2013), Hurricanes Sandy (2012) and Katrina (2005) in the USA, and the 8.9 Magnitude earthquake (2011) in Japan. Immediately after these natural disasters, victims needed shelter, water, food, and blankets. However, a few weeks after, they needed mental health support. The investigator hypothesizes that religion would reduce the natural disaster victims’ PTSD symptoms and increase their “hope.” He sent 1,500 mailing surveys to Christian and Buddhist clergy in the New Orleans, New York, Manila, Tacloban, Tokyo, and Fukushima areas. He found that cultural differences between Christian and Buddhist religious communities: (a) More Christian clergy thought natural disaster relief efforts are their obligation. (b) Christian clergy focus more on “comfort”, “reducing pain,” and “hope,” while Buddhist clergy focus more on “listening” and “praying” when they talk with family members who lost their loved ones.

Benjamin Bennett-Carpenter, Against Silver Bullet Explanations for Religion: Toward Interdisciplinary Conversations that Allow for Both Consilience and Divergence

Single explanations of religion from within one particular discipline are partial explanations and do not suffice by themselves. As an enterprise, the scientific study of religion will do well to continue to foster conversations across disciplinary boundaries in an overall team effort, moving, on the one hand, toward increased consilience, or a ‘unity of knowledge’ (E.O. Wilson 1998), while also allowing, on the other hand, plenty of freedom for divergence. This presentation briefly highlights key contributions from disciplines such as biology (e.g., Ridley 2004; Feierman 2009), evolutionary anthropology and cognitive psychology (e.g., Barkow, Cosmides, Tooby 1992; Boyer 2001; Atran 2002; Barrett 2004), evolutionary-oriented sociology (e.g., D.S. Wilson 2002; Diamond 2012), and semiotic-oriented communication studies (e.g., Baudrillard 1988; Raschke 2012; Bennett-Carpenter 2014) as touch-points for conversation that move toward consilience, while at the same time remaining open to divergence.

Psychology of What? Religion, Spirituality, or Meaning: In Search of a Proper Name for The Field of Psychology of Religion

Psychology of religion provides an avenue of theoretical and methodologically empirical inquiry into the study of belief and experience. Particularly, the individual’s experience, both personal and social, is explored through a variety of methods. One popular method of measuring experience is through measures of religiosity. Religiosity scales (mostly Christian) increased enough to be published as a book (Hill and Hood, 1999) which is still one of the most important sources in the field. In the course of time, many scholars discussed the problem of developing religiosity measures in non-western and non-Christian cultures and religiosity scales for other religious traditions like Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam were added to the literature (see APA Handbook of Psychology of Religion, first volume). And, more recently, the term spirituality has gained an expanding place in academia with some arguing that it is a separate concept from religion/religiosity. A fourfold classification (religious but not spiritual, spiritual but not religious, both, neither) began to be used as a variable in research. Whether as a typology or used as dimensions, the spiritual/religious distinction continues to generate much research and debate. Meanwhile, the “none” category drew academic attention and the terms non-belief, irreligion, and secularity became current issues in the field. Furthermore, Silver’s research put forth that the nonbelievers are more diversely grouped than originally imagined. Among the diversity of being religious, spiritual, agnostic, skeptic, and atheist and so on, Dr. Schnell’s interview presents us a new perspective based on meaning instead of belief/non-belief.

Insisting on the importance of meaning, Dr. Schnell has a unique approach to understand human experience. Her comprehensive study is one of the best examples of how psychology of religion could broaden its scope. She and her colleagues have designed a study to find out not only the first meanings which come to participants’ minds but also their ultimate meanings. Dr. Schnell states that people usually answer with “family”, “friends”, “work” etc. when they are asked about their sources of meaning. However, it is unclear what their statements actually mean. She continues, saying “work can mean so many different things”. For one person, it is the possibility to be creative, for another it is community with colleagues, and for yet another it is the possibility to expand one’s knowledge. Thus, Dr. Schnell asks further detailed questions in order to discover the interviewees’ ultimate meanings. She summarizes her deep research and analysis by stating that “sources of meaning are not conscious. We are not really aware of them but we can reflect upon them.” As researchers we are familiar with this idea both from academia, as Victor Frankl’s (1992) Man’s Search for Meaning, and, indeed, from our personal lives and from others around us. However, what makes Dr. Schnell’s study unique is the scale she developed, The Sources of Meaning and Meaning in Life Questionnaire (SoMe) which provides a mirror to reflect ultimate meanings. It has already been translated into 11 languages.

Scale / Dimension Description Factors
VERTICAL SELFTRANSCENDENCE Commitment to an immaterial, supernatural reality Implicit Religiosity, Spirituality
HORIZONTAL SELFTRANSCENDENCE Commitment to worldly affairs beyond one’s immediate concerns Unison with Nature, Social Commitment, etc.
SELFACTUALIZATION Commitment to the employment, Challenge and Promotion ofone’s capacities Development, Individualism, etc.
ORDER Commitment to principles, common sense and the tried and tested Tradition, Practicality, etc.
WELL-BEING AND RELATEDNESS Commitment to enjoyment, sensitivity and warmth in privacy and company Community, Love, etc.

 

What We Mean by Meaning

One of the most impressive aspects of Dr. Schnell’s perspective is her clear conceptual analysis of meaning and her success in reflecting this clarity in her scale. Psychological literature focuses upon meaning from many different perspectives such as values, religiosity, spirituality, well-being, and happiness. Many studies use the term “meaning” almost synonymously with these concepts, which leads to differences and sometimes confusion about their definitions. Dr. Schnell offers clear explanations about the meanings of these key constructs of the field.

Meanings vs. Values

One can easily see that meanings and values are usually used together in the literature. Insisting on a difference between these terms, Dr. Schnell clarifies:

“Values are rather normative. How should it be, what is right etc.? People tell us a lot when we ask them what values they find important but then, if you look at what they’re actually doing, they have a big gap between actual behavior and what the values are. The sources of meaning are what people really do in their lives.”

This differentiation is of vital importance for psychology of religion. Because people tend to answer the questions “as they ought to be” instead of “as they are,” many researchers recognize a big challenge both in qualitative and quantitative studies. Positive attitude scales, like altruism and gratitude scales, are particularly at risk. Although there are some research techniques that enable us to minimize the risk, Dr. Schnell’s questionnaire presents a new approach. She claims that SoMe actually measures what people do and what they find important.

Meanings vs. Religiosity / Spirituality

Religion is usually regarded as a source of meaning in the literature. Likewise, almost all studies on spirituality claim that spirituality is related to meaningfulness. However, even the boundaries of these terms are not clear enough, especially in non-western countries. For instance it is not easy to investigate religiosity and spirituality in a Muslim culture even in a more secular one such as Turkey. Although Islam has an organizational dimension, it cannot be compared with ecclesiastical institutions and denominations.  Religiosity in Muslim countries is still considered as a deeply personal phenomenon as a result of the absence of a certain organization representing religion. Therefore, it is not easy to distinguish religiosity and spirituality from each other as western literature does, insisting on organizational and personal aspects of them.

On the other hand, many theorists and researchers attach value to religiosity and/or (more likely) spirituality. In many writings, the term spirituality is credited with the positive and the term religiosity is credited with the negative (see Zinnbauer and Pargament, 2005).  Dr. Schnell shifts the focus from the content and valence of these concepts to how valuable these concepts are for individuals. Instead of just labeling religion / spirituality as a source of meaning she expresses that these concepts have an effect on individuals as far as religion / spirituality is important for them. Thus, she clarifies the links between religiosity, spirituality, and meaning to some degree.

Meaning vs. Well Being / Happiness

Meaning has also usually been emphasized in studies on well-being. Many writings suggest that meaning is necessary for life satisfaction.  Not surprisingly, since both are understood to involve meaning, well-being and spirituality are frequently associated with each other. A general assumption in the literature is as follows:

There is an ongoing discussion about spirituality, well-being, and meaning. Some scholars, like Koenig (2008), criticize the use of positive psychological traits like meaning in the definitions of spirituality. He argues that it is tautological to look at relationships between spirituality and mental health or well-being, since spirituality scales contain items assessing mental health. On the other hand, Visser (2013) asserts that most of the dimensions of spirituality, including meaning in life, are distinct from well-being. As with spirituality, Dr. Schnell approaches the subject with an emphasis on meaning rather than on well-being. She distinguishes between (eudaimonic) well-being and meaning. She says that the “good life is not necessarily the pleasant life”, which parallels Frankl’s (1992) idea that suffering can be turned into victory. Explaining herself concisely, Schell says, “Meaning is not always happiness.”

 Further Questions on the Sources of Meaning

The other most impressive aspect of Dr. Schnell’s podcast is its success in directing us to ask further questions. Here are some examples:

1)  Dr. Schnell reports that “when comparing an atheist with a religious person you might not think in many ways they have very similar commitments but one has a vertical transcendence believing in God and the other has not, but what they actually live is very similar.” This finding forces a reader to question the meanings of being Jewish, Buddhist, skeptic, or agnostic. If identities based on belief have less influence on behavior than previously imagined, should the typical classifications in psychology of religion be reviewed?

2)  Dr. Schnell insists on the importance of environmental effects on a person’s sources of meaning, saying “meaning has to do with the systems you are part of.” If the social dimension of meaning is so important, is it possible to speak of copied or unconsciously learned meanings?

3)  According to Dr. Schnell, people from different religious or spiritual traditions and even non-believers may share similar meanings, and individuals’ relationships affect their meanings. So, do people from similar environments and cultures choose similar meanings?

4)  Dr. Schnell claims that meaning-making is not relative but relational. Besides, it is known that globalism, secularism, technological developments, and post-modernism offers (or even forces) certain life-styles and values. So do people choose their meanings or do they remain exposed to them?

5)  One of Dr. Schnell’s most important findings is the fact that “so many people do not live a meaningful life but they do not have any problem with that. They do not suffer from a crisis of meaning, but they do not think their life is in any way meaningful.” She called this situation existential indifference (See Schnell, 2010). 35% of her sample from Germany belonged to this group. If a remarkable percentage of people have a superficial life -from home to work and from work to home- how could the universality of meaning be interpreted?

Actually, one may find some answers to these questions in Dr. Schnell’s publications. However, further questions need to be investigated. More importantly these questions show how inspiring Dr. Schnell’s perspective is.

Psychology of Meaning?

Dr. Schnell points out that “in Europe, less and less people attend church activities. The church loses influence on everyday life but not so many people suffer from a crisis of meaning,” and the first question that came to her mind was “so, what is the basis of their life?” Following her elaborated study, she proposes the centrality of meaning among religiosity, spirituality, non-belief, values, well-being and so on. She indicates that meaning is a core concept in the field.

Then she discusses the name for the field of psychology of religion and/or spirituality. When she says that “religiosity is rather institutional, and spirituality is too vague, so meaning is a broader concept,” she implies a new name for the field. Although it is questionable to restrict the field to the issues people attribute meaning to, this valiant attempt is inspiring for the development of psychology of religion or whatever its name might be.

Dr. Schnell’s podcast has shown, once again, that social sciences in general and the psychology of religion in particular have the potential to produce new perspectives, theories, and research for understanding the human condition. Academic collaborations from different cultures, backgrounds, religious/spiritual/non-religious traditions are needed to contribute to (and improve) these perspectives and studies. Dr. Schnell’s scale, SoMe, which can be adapted to other cultures and languages might be a good step to serve this purpose. Undoubtedly, future studies will add new dimensions to the field.

 References

APA, (2013), APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion and Spirituality, (Ed. Kenneth I. Pargament),1st volume, New York:  American Psychological Association.

Frankl, Victor (1992). Man’s Search for Meaning, (4th ed). Boston: Beacon Press.

Hill, Peter C. and Hood, Ralph W. Jr. (eds.) (1999). Measures of Religiosity, Birmingham: Religious Education Press.

Koenig, Harold G. (2008). Concerns About Measuring “Spirituality” in Research. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 196 (5), 349-355.

Schnell, Tatjana (2010). Existential Indifference: Another Quality of Meaning in Life. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 50 (3) 351 –373.

Visser, Anja (2013). Is being spiritual the same as experiencing well-being?, Paper presented at IAPR 2013 Congress in Switzerland.

Zinnbauer, Brian J. and Pargament, Kenneth. I. (2005). Religiousness and Spirituality. Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Eds. Raymond F. Paloutzian and Crystal L. Parks. New York: The Guilford Press, 21-42.

 

Religious Studies and the Paranormal, Part 2

In October 2013, a four day international conference was held at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, on the theme of ‘Anthropology and the Paranormal’. This special two part episode explores some aspects of the sometimes fraught relationship between “paranormal” events and beliefs (The World Religions“) and Religious Studies. This two-part episode has been produced in collaboration with Jack Hunter, editor of the journal Paranthropology, and co-convenor of the Esalen conference.

In this second part we ask “the epistemic/ontological question”: in studying these experiences, how far should we be concerned with the ontology? Would to do so be an abandonment of the scientific materialism which underpins the discipline, and therefore a slide back into theology? Or can there be a bigger model of materialism – a “complicated materialism”, to use Ann Taves’ expression – in which these phenomena might be suitably explicable? Or, as Bowie puts it, can we use “empathetic engagement” to adopt the ontology for research purposes? You will hear, in the following order, the voices of Jeffery Kripal, Ann Taves, Tanya Luhrmann, Fiona Bowie, Paul Stoller, Charles Emmons and David Hufford. Part 1 can be downloaded here.

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

Fifteen international scholars from anthropology, religious studies, folklore and psychology met to discuss the potential contributions of these interrelated disciplines to the investigation of paranormal beliefs and experiences. Fiona Bowie’s report of the conference may be read here.

esalen_lineup

Religious Studies and the Paranormal, Part 1

In October 2013, a four day international conference was held at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, on the theme of ‘Anthropology and the Paranormal’. This special two part episode explores some aspects of the sometimes fraught relationship between “paranormal” events and beliefs (The World Religions“) and Religious Studies. This two-part episode has been produced in collaboration with Jack Hunter, editor of the journal Paranthropology, and co-convenor of the Esalen conference.

In this first part, we ask, why has the study of “paranormal” experience been somewhat ignored by academia in general and Religious Studies in particular? Is the problem the term “paranormal”? What importance of these kinds of studies have for the field? Is there concern that such studies necessarily seek to justify the ontological claims of the paranormal? This latter issue is pursued in part two, to be broadcast this wednesday. Many of the scholars also offer advice for those interested in this area but are worried about “employability”. You will hear, in the following order, the voices of Jeffery Kripal, Ann Taves, Tanya Luhrmann, Fiona Bowie, Paul Stoller, Charles Emmons, Stanley Krippner and David Hufford.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your Christmas presents etc. Fifteen international scholars from anthropology, religious studies, folklore and psychology met to discuss the potential contributions of these interrelated disciplines to the investigation of paranormal beliefs and experiences. Fiona Bowie’s report of the conference may be read here.

esalen_lineup

From left to right, back row: Michael Murphy, Susan Greenwood, Jane Hartford, Jeffrey Kripal, Raphael Locke, David Hufford, Charles Emmons, Jack Hunter, Thomas E. Bullard, Stanley Krippner, Edward F. Kelly, Loriliai Biernacki. Middle row: Edith Turner, Tanya Luhrmann, Ann Taves, Deb Frost. Front row: Geoffrey Samuel, Antonia Mills, Fiona Bowie, Sam Yau, Frank Poletti, Paul Stoller, Gregory Shushan.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

Ralph Hood on Mysticism

HoodRalph2012_10One of the primary interests of scholars and researchers from diverse academic disciplines has been in exploration of mysticism. Mysticism has been observed within a variety of traditions and philosophies from Neo-Platonism to Hinduism and Christianity. Mysticism as a field of study is pregnant with possibilities for academic inquiry, both cross-disciplinary and discipline specific. The field of psychology is one of those disciplines which have sought to explore the richness of individual claims of mystical experience. This has been done with theoretical depth and methodological sophistication and is centralized within a variety of tools of empirical inquiry.

The study of mysticism necessitates addressing issues of ontology and epistemology, relating to the methodological processes for studying direct personal experiences. Within the psychological perspective, some of these concerns are mediated through what both Porpora (2006) and Hood, Hill and Spika (2009) describe as methodological agnosticism. While Silver (2011) argues that there is no such thing as true objectivity in research, certainly academics and researchers can strive for a post-positivist paradigm of objectivity where they attempt to remove bias and subjectivity from their research or hermeneutic inquiry.

While there is plenty of hermeneutic and observational potential in the study of Mysticism, more needs to be done in exploration of the experiential and psychological correlates related to personal experiences. Dr. Ralph W. Hood Jr. has extensive experience in the field of psychology of religion and particularly in the study of mysticism and mystical experience. As an early pioneer in the renaissance of the field of psychology of religion, Hood’s work is extensive and prolific exploring a variety of research topics in the social sciences of religion. Moreover, much of his collaborative work extends beyond the field of psychology to include sociology, religious studies, medicine, and a variety of other disciplines in the social scientific study of religion. In this week’s podcast, Chris SIlver is joined by Ralph Hood to discuss in detail his work on mysticism and the benefits and disadvantages of this academic exercise.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc.

HoodRalph2012_10

Ralph W. Hood Jr. is professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is a former editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and former co-editor of the Archive for the Psychology of Religion and The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion.  He is a past president of division 36 (psychology of religion) of the American Psychological Association and a recipient of its William James, Mentor, and Distinguished Service awards. He has published over 200 articles in the psychology of religion and has authored, co-authored, or edited numerous book chapters and eleven books, all dealing with the psychology of religion.

References

  • Hood, R.W., P.C. Hill, and B. Spilka. (2009). The psychology of religion: An empirical approach. 4th ed. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
  • Porpora, D. V. (2006). Methodological atheism, methodological agnosticism and religious experience. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 36, 57–75.
  • Silver, C. F. (2011). Psychology and Religion: Explorations in paradigm, theory, and method. In Weathington, B. L., Cunningham,  C. J. L., O’Leary, B. J., & Biderman, M. D. (Eds.), Applied Psychology in Everyday Life (pp. 71-107). Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

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Belief […] can be used as a concept to bridge […] frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it).

A Brief Re-Examination of the Concept of Belief in the Study of Religion

By Liam T. Sutherland

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 15 May 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Martin Stringer on Situational Belief (13 May 2013)

The work of Professor Martin Stringer is a breath of fresh air for all those who reject both the simplistic belief-centred approach to religion and its attendant backlash. It makes belief an important part of the way that religions are researched and analysed, but not in a fashion recognisable to many.

The traditional belief-centred approach drags with it a raft of assumptions that have proved consistently absent in the field, most notably that religious communities are centred on a coherent body of beliefs which mediates membership and divides them sharply from outsiders. Religious beliefs are often described in ways so philosophical and abstract that they would appear to in no way relate to the everyday lives of practitioners, who may have never encountered such supposedly integral doctrines. This approach has been overturned by examinations of ritual, visual religion, ethnicity, kinship, power etc.  Other assumptions have been overturned, such as the notion that adherents engage exclusively in practices sanctioned by their tradition. Stringer found in his own fieldwork in the North of England that professing Christians would seek the advice of astrologers and claim to believe in reincarnation.

The inaccuracy of such assumptions has led to a rejection of ‘belief’ as a problematic concept. However, many of these assumptions cannot be countered without re-examining the concept of belief. Arguably this is because they reflect a misrepresentation of the workings of belief, not the applicability of the concept itself.  The rejection of belief is based on equally untenable assumptions, usually simple, negative or inverted versions of those mentioned above. ‘Belief’ is often described by its critics in the words of Clifford Geertz, as though it always entailed some kind of ‘abstract Baconian deduction’, always hermetically sealed, intellectual, elite systems which are removed from everyday life. Attempting to remove belief from accounts of religion is a hollow, unsatisfying and deliberately blinkered means of avoiding its pitfalls –  as Geertz added it is like staging Hamlet without the prince.

Stringer has shown that people use belief in extra-empirical beings as coping mechanisms and to anticipate and deal with problems. People may seek the structure, resources and cultural resonance of a Christian church, the ability to predict and respond to future problems offered by an astrologer, and the comfort of being able to chat with dead relatives who can listen and respond. All of these examples depend on a variety of factors, one of which is surely that they are considered to reflect belief in powerful, efficacious and therefore useful realities.

This approach to belief highlights the fact that while religion may have ritual, visual and ideological functions, it is never devoid of interpretations of the cosmos. The fact that some religions are orthopraxic, emphasising the necessity of correct practice not correct belief, does not mean that such religions are devoid of belief. As Segal has argued, religion could not perform any kind of ideological or psychological function if it was not a somewhat independent factor: that is, if many did not believe in the claims being made. A deity may need to be ritually appealed to or appeased but may not be concerned with the mental state of practitioners. This fact does not mean that no one considers the deity to be a real being that requires appeasement. While there may be evidence for other motivations for the performance – cultural heritage, to legitimate the traditional power structure etc. – a practitioner’s statement is surely the best evidence we have. As Horton pointed out, it would be incredibly patronising and unsound for scholars to assume that they have the ‘correct’ interpretation of believers’ statements.

Another crucial contribution that Stringer has made in the rehabilitation of the concept of belief is his notion of ‘situational beliefs’, which serves to explain the apparent ‘contradictory’ nature of many popular religious practices in the modern west. The fact that people may appear to practice many traditions simultaneously, or engage in practices prohibited by their (orthodox) tradition, cannot necessarily be taken as clear evidence that they do not believe in the belief statements they are making. Stringer contends that beliefs are most powerful and consciously thought about in specific situations in which they are relevant, such as a ritual-communal setting like a Church service or in the context of problems or obstacles in the person’s life. While the cognitive dimensions and interpretation which attend religious practices should not be downplayed, not all believers will insist on indivisible, coherent bodies of doctrines, but rather adopt piecemeal and patchwork systems. This may be derided by its critics as a ‘pick and mix’ approach but Stringer’s evidence contributes to the evidence that it is the norm not the exception throughout the world.

However, the concept of belief itself must be examined more closely if it is to be of any value as a scholarly tool. Beliefs must be differentiable in some way from thoughts, and could generally be defined as thoughts which are considered to respond to reality with varying degrees of conviction and held over a notable length of time. The thorny question of where the division lies between belief and knowledge was broached by the interviewer, David Robertson. Stringer places the divide along the lines of how much a statement could possibly be verified, i.e. if I put my cup down it is on the table (knowledge), or whether all leopards are Christian (belief).

According to traditional epistemology, however, all knowledge contains belief. One can claim knowledge if one believes a proposition, has sound reasons to justify this, and the proposition happens to in fact be true[1] Belief is thus a constituent part of the process of gaining knowledge, all knowledge contains belief but not all beliefs count as knowledge. Beliefs themselves can be sub-divided according to how they are justified, whether the belief is empirical and rational and thus accessible to all, or based on experiential or cultural justifications.

One of the interesting questions to come out of Stringer’s research is: how incoherent are the beliefs of the practitioners under study? It is certainly the case that they may not match the traditional expected forms of practice, but while Stringer’s model of situational belief is highly useful, it does not necessarily mean that human beings do not retain a drive for coherence[2]. Stewart Guthrie argued that the worldwide tendency of anthropomorphism, which lies at the heart of many religions, is based on a tendency to seek coherent patterns.

Are the forms of religion in evidence here not so different from the traditional orthodoxies, which no longer have the power or legitimacy to maintain their hegemony, that we find it difficult to recognise them? Practitioners don’t feel a need to accept traditions as whole packages, as Stringer mentioned, and may not even be aware of doctrines that they are contradicting. Furthermore, their God may no longer be a jealous one. That is not to argue that Stringer did not find very palpable evidence of contradictions and a loose attitude to creating a unitary, coherent worldview, even for the individual.

Another traditional view of belief challenged by Stringer is the idea that religious beliefs are always deeply held, of ‘ultimate concern’ to use Paul Tillich’s phrase. This arguably reflects Stringer’s link to the Tylorian tradition, which describes religious belief as a pragmatic means of interpreting the cosmos and indeed to coping with it. This means that believers may not develop an intense ‘faith’ in or sacred aura around these beliefs but, instead, may be willing to adopt new beliefs and abandon old ones, according to how well they appear to offer a valid interpretive mechanism.  As Fitzgerald has astutely pointed out, belief in deities or spirits may be considerably less important or sacred than values such as hierarchy, purity or democracy.

One of the main concepts employed by scholars in place of ‘belief’ is ‘experience.’ Experience is an extremely useful focus but it can be used problematically much like belief and does not perform the same role.  It would certainly be implausible to deny that religious practitioners have real experiences: social, psychological and sensory but the problem is of course that experiences can never be separated out of their frameworks of interpretation. Religious believers frequently claim to have experiences of the love of God and the power of crystals, not just the warmth of their congregation or the pageantry of a festival.

By using the notion of ‘experience’ scholars can conveniently ignore the inherent tension between the naturalistic-cultural and theological frameworks of interpretation. Scholars should not ignore this tension but face it head on: religious people claim to know or experience metaphysical realities because they have interpreted experiences found among specific groups and inculcated by rituals etc. in a particular way. Scholars of religion study only these human beings and do not interpret these experiences in the same way, but cannot simply dismiss them because they lie outside the scientific framework. Belief here can be used as a concept to bridge these frameworks, to allow scholars to understand and appreciate the framework within which religious actors presume to act without using it themselves (or necessarily having to adopt it). Many would not claim to believe in metaphysical realities, but to know them or experience them, but that does not mean that it is useful for scholars to adopt these turns of phrase. They must ‘re-describe’ religious claims in a manner which does not endorse their position.

Experience here takes on the same character as the concept of ‘faith’ that Stringer critiqued, which is used to keep scholars at arm’s length. Adding the concept of belief to the analysis makes it more precise and rich by clarifying  how subjects understand and interpret their experiences, how they separate perceived reality from perceived illusion and modelling the cognitive framework within which actors presume to act. Certainly if social networks can inculcate common behaviour and even common experiences, they can inculcate frameworks of interpretation which are genuinely held to correspond to reality.  The point is that religious believers claim to believe in more than the emotive content of rituals, to believe in ontological realities. Social scientists may be methodologically agnostic to the existence of such phenomena, but they should not leave belief in them out of analysis, because concern with human beings means concern with the cognitive worlds they inhabit.

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

About the Author:

481753_10151274231722302_1786021171_nLiam Sutherland is a native of Edinburgh who has studied Religious Studies twice at Edinburgh University and is about to go back for third time in September of this year. His undergraduate work focused on Indigenous Religions, taking contemporary Indigenous Australian spirituality as his dissertation topic. His Masters by research concerned the legacy and influence of Sir E.B. Tylor on contemporary theoretical debates in the study of religion and his upcoming PhD will focus on religion and Scottish National identity. He has previously written An Evaluation of Harvey’s Approach to Animism and the Tylorian Legacy,and The Spirit of the Matter: a Neo-Tylorian Response to Timothy Fitzgerald for the Religious Studies project, and participated in roundtable recordings on What is the Future of Religious Studies? and Should Religious Studies be Multidisciplinary?

Bibliography

  • Fitzgerald, T. The Ideology of Religious Studies (2000) Oxford University Press
  • Geertz, C.  “Religion as a Cultural System” in Geertz, C. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz (1973) Basic Books
  • Guthrie, S.E. Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993) Oxford University Press
  • Horton, R. Patterns of Thought in Africa and the West: Essays on Magic, Religion and Science(1993) Cambridge University Press
  • Lévy-Bruhl, L. Primitive Mentality (1966) Clare, A.L. (trans.) Beacon Press
  • McCutcheon, R.T. Critics Not Caretakers: Redescribing the Public Study of Religion (2001) State University of New York Press
  • Segal, R. “Theories of Religion” in Hinnels, J. R. (ed.) Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion (2005) Routledge
  • Stringer, M.D. Contemporary Western Ethnography and the Definition of Religion (2008) Continuum
  • Tylor, E.B Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art and Custom Volumes 1 & 2 (1871) John Murray

[1] This approach may well be criticised by many but mostly due to the seemingly arbitrary third factor: that a proposition happens to be true!

[2] I would not argue that Stringer is attempting to revive the position of the early anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl who argued that many cultures could not recognise contradictions because they thought only in a ‘mystical’ and ‘pre-logical’ framework. Stringer’s account of religion is far too embedded in ordinary life for that. It is possible to speculate that religious people much like non-religious people do not think about the totality of their cognitive cosmos at any one time, rather the aspects that concern them at any one time.

Religious Experience

In this wide-ranging interview (our 50th!), Ann Taves and David Wilson discuss the concept of religious experience. Taves challenges traditional models of religious experience, rejecting both an essentialist approach with a sui generis category and a constructivist approach which accepts only discourses. Instead, she argues that not only can we examine unusual experiences in themselves, as they affect individual agents. From there, we can examine how these experiences become reified and institutionalised by specific traditions, as well as providing impetus for new religious movements. Taves’ work utilises historical and ethnographic methods in an attempt to establish an approach which might allow cross-cultural and diachronic analysis of unusual experiences without recourse to specific theologies.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

Ann Taves is Professor of Religious Studies and holder of the Virgil Cordano OFM Chair in Catholic Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, a position she has held since 2005. Previously she taught at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate School. Her major publications include Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things (Princeton University Press, 2009), which received the 2010 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and Fits, Trances and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, 1999), which received the Outstanding Professional and Scholarly Book Award in Philosophy and Religion from the Association of American Publishers in 2000.