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The Dark Goddess: A Post-Jungian Interpretation

In an interview with Ross Downing, PhD candidate Áine Warren discusses her research into the ‘Dark Goddess’ at the University of Edinburgh. Drawn into this community of Dark Goddess adherents through her previous research into altars dedicated to the Celtic goddess The Morrigan, Warren examines similarities and differences among Dark Goddesses from various faith traditions including the Eastern Kali Ma, the Celtic Morrigan, and the Norse goddess Hel.

Focused on the female experience, discourse surrounding Dark Goddesses are as varied and complex as the myriad of goddesses that this sector of Goddess Spirituality entails. Warren accurately notes that, in this context, Dark, as a descriptor, refers to the nature of the goddess in question rather than a direct reference to skin colour. For example, the Black Madonna is often, and incorrectly, referred to as a Dark Goddess because of her dark skin, but that is not the nature in question here. In this context, Dark is indicative of what psychologist Carl Jung refers to as the ‘Shadow.’[i]

As Warren states, the Dark Goddess represents ‘part of nature relegated from society and religious practices.’ She is ‘not to be approached; not to be encouraged, and not to be approached within the self’, yet, for an adherent, working with the Dark Goddess is a vital part of any wholistic understanding of self and nature.  Mirroring my own ethnographic research within the Western Goddess Movement, Warren found that the Dark Goddess worshiped in the West bears striking similarities to Eastern Dark Goddesses despite historical and cultural differences.

However, while Warren has found a consensus on the nature of the Dark Goddess amongst the texts and YouTube communities that she is examining, not all adherents within contemporary Goddess Spirituality view the Dark Goddess in the same way.  In fact, the Dark, or Shadow aspect of Goddess, is a point of heated debate within the Goddess community amongst adherents, feminist theologians, and thealogians. Some Goddess Feminists, such as Carol P. Christ, refute the Dark Goddess as a projection of patriarchy.[ii] Christ favours the opinion that these ‘dark’ and often hostile characteristics applied to Dark Goddesses are a product of the patriarchal lens, which transmutes the goddess into a female hammer for male dominance. This is especially true with goddesses, such as Kali Ma and The Morrigan, who are intricately connected to the art of battle and warfare. Christ, understanding warfare as a patriarchal construct posits that this is an unnatural drive for feminine deities while others embrace the Dark Goddess as part of a greater whole Divine Being.[iii]

It is somewhat problematic to have a dialogue about the Dark Goddess without acknowledging the significant influence of the psychodynamics of Carl Gustav Jung. When asked about the connection between the Dark Goddess and Jung, Warren states that no one has ‘drawn that line’ between Jung and these practices. This is where one must wonder if it was a moment of Jungian synchronicity that Warren’s podcast made its way into my email inbox because my doctoral research directly connects Jung to the birth of the contemporary Western Goddess Movement. (For my conversation with Karen Tate on the topic, click here.) In fact, this isn’t just a ‘therapeutic’ element in Goddess Spirituality as Warren claims; Jung and his student M. Esther Harding who originally brought these ideas to American in the early 1900s have given birth to a psychodynamic Goddess-centred faith tradition. Over the years, Jung’s original ideas about Goddess, whom he often refers to as the Anima or the Anima Mundi (the World Soul), have been transformed by feminist theories beginning with Harding in 1935[iv]  and further revised by Naomi Goldenberg in 1976[v] through to Susan Rowland’s in-depth 2002 study Jung: A Feminist Revision and beyond into contemporary academic research such as my 2016 doctoral study[vi]  of Jung’s influence on the Western Goddess Movement, which traces the roots of a Western post-Jungian Goddess religion back to Jung and Harding through the analysis of an emerging thealogy (goddess-centred) found in contemporary women’s spiritual memoirs. The goddess who was once merely an archetypal theory for Jung (divine immanence in theological terms) has crossed the bridge from the psyche into the real world as various forms of the Goddess are understood as existing beyond the psyche in the natural world (transcendent in theological terms) and are actively worshiped as transcendent beings of divinity.

For Jung, the Dark Goddess is the epitome of one’s ‘Shadow’, and Jung’s concept of the ‘Shadow’ has theological implications. In Aion, Jung writes:

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognising the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance.[vii]

Jung’s model of psychological holism which he deems a path of Individuation[viii] begins with the crucial step of confronting one’s shadow and offers a distinctly feminine alternative to the patriarchal theological construct of sin and evil as disparate parts of ourselves that must be repressed and ignored; instead, Jung offers a system whereby one must integrate one’s shadow.  Not only does Jung ask individuals to stare into the face of their own evil, he asks individuals to embrace this part of themselves as a natural element, which is in direct opposition to the Christian doctrine of evil as the construct of Satan which must, at all costs to the ‘salvation’ of the individual, be avoided.

What post-Jungian Goddess Spirituality offers adherents, and especially women, is an alternate way to both describe and experience the ineffable. More importantly, Jung’s path to Goddess offers adherents a space where their own personal experiences are accepted without question or doubt. Validity is removed as an obstacle to belief. Jung writes:

…there is no question of belief, but of experienceReligious experience is absolute.  It is indisputable.  You can only say that you have never had such an experience, and your opponent will say: “Sorry, I have.” And there your discussion will come to an end.[ix] (emphasis added)

Jung’s theories and models offer an empowering and authentic internal source of power in Goddess. The Dark Goddess is either understood as one side of a multi-faceted Great Goddess (Magna Mater) or as individual goddesses in a pantheon of hundreds.[x] She is a force of death and destruction, and truly encountering a Dark Goddess comes with a steep price. Working with the Dark Goddess often brings the individual to a point of psychological deconstruction. Christine Downing eloquently speaks of her own interaction with the Dark Goddess Persephone in her 1981 memoir The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine. Downing relates how facing fear, weakness, and helplessness brought a significant shift in her psyche. Persephone’s lesson (and the lesson of all Dark Goddesses) was that without weakness and fear one cannot truly know strength and courage. She teaches us that we are capable of both great love and compassion as well as great evil and terrible power. The Dark Goddess shows us our frailties, our weaknesses, and our strengths. She will destroy existing paradigms and provide the path to rebuilding one’s self anew – whole and complete as individuals – empowered. This is the true influence of the Dark Goddess.


  • [i] See Jung, Carl G. (1976) The Portable Jung. Hull RFC (Trans), Campbell J (ed). New York: Penguin Books, The Viking Portable Library, p145-147.
  • [ii] See Christ, Carol P. (1997) Rebirth of the Goddess: Finding Meaning in Feminist Spirituality. New York: Routledge; and (2003) She Who Changes: Re-Imagining the Divine in the World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • [iii] See Woodman, Marion and Dickson, Elinor. (1996) Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness. Boston: Shambhala Publications. Downing, Christine. (2007 [1981]) The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine. Lincoln, NE: Authors Choice Press. Wehr, Demaris S. (1987) Jung & Feminism. Boston: Beacon Press. Bolen, Jean Shinoda. (1984) Goddesses in Everywoman: Powerful Archetypes in Women’s Lives. New York: One Spirit.
  • [iv] See Harding, M. Esther. (1971) Woman’s Mysteries: Ancient and Modern. Introduction by CG Jung. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
  • [v] Goldenberg, Naomi R. (1976) A Feminist Critique of Jung. In: Signs 2.2, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 443–449.
  • [vi] ‘Iolana, Patricia. (2016) Jung and Goddess: The Significance of Jungian and post-Jungian Theory to the Development of the Western Goddess Movement. Doctoral thesis, University of Glasgow. Publication forthcoming. See Also: (2018) ‘Jung’s Legacy: The Western Goddess Movement’. In: MacKian, S., Pile, S., and Bartonlini, N. (eds). (2018) Spaces of Spirituality. London: Routledge, 245-259.
  • [vii] Jung, Carl G. (1976) The Portable Jung. Hull RFC (Trans), Campbell J (ed). New York: Penguin Books, The Viking Portable Library, p144.
  • [viii] Jung, Carl G. (1968) The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Second Edition. Hull RFC (Trans) Read Sir H, Fordham M, Adler G and McGuire W (eds) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series XX, p275.
  • [ix] Jung Carl G. (1938) Psychology and Religion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p113.
  • [x] See Perera, Sylvia Brinton. (1981) Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women. Toronto: Inner City Books and Farrar, Janet and Farrar, Stewart. (1987) The Witches’ Goddess: The Feminine Principle of Divinity. Custer, WA: Phoenix Publishing.

Mother Earth, Sister Earth: A Response to the RSP Interview with Dr. Susannah Crockford

A major theme of the interview with Dr. Crockford concerns the extent to which adherents of the “New Age” currents of thought she has studied in Arizona were motivated, or demotivated, by the framework of their ecospiritualities to address problems of environmental or ecological concern. She observed that, somewhat counterintuitively, a majority of the individuals with whom she had spoken evinced no particular commitment to environmental activism on either a societal or an individual level. Instead, they tended toward a millenarian belief that issues of pollution, mass extinction, climate change, and similar would largely resolve themselves in the course of a coming transformation of planetary consciousness, predominantly understood in terms of a shift from an exploitative relationship with an externalized nature—a paradigm coded as masculine—to a cooperative relationship with a nature in which human beings are understood as holistically embedded—a paradigm coded as feminine. Dr. Crockford further speculated that the apparent passivity of her research subjects toward environmental issues could be connected with this gendering of nature, insofar as the idea of “Mother Earth” implicitly casts nature in the role of caretaker, comforter, and nurturer. Indeed, in many ways it might be seen as effecting a startling transfer of responsibility insofar as nature can then be read, like a mother in respect of her child, as having some form of inherent moral responsibility to attend to the welfare of human beings.

I have lived in the American Southwest much of my life, and so Dr. Crockford’s description of Sedona and its inhabitants was very familiar to me (although I have never visited that particular corner of Arizona). I was somewhat startled, though, by the idea of connecting the kind of hyperemotionalized and largely disembodied approach to spirituality and the environment that she found there to gendered discourses. On a personal level, as a former inhabitant of the region, I see much closer connections between the kind of American New Age spirituality she described and the transhumanist millenarianism that pervades much of the culture of Silicon Valley. Both are driven largely by fear of imminent physical catastrophe that, in the minds of their adherents, can only be escaped by transcending the physical limitations of one’s humanity and finding refuge in a kind of Pleroma, be it “spiritual” or digital. In both cases, the work of reaching this safe-haven is understood as properly belonging only to a chosen few who possess the requisite vision, and one’s personal arrival at the envisioned end-point suffices as a total victory, either because the masses simply don’t matter (as in Silicon Valley) or because their conditions will be magically transformed by the deus ex machinasummoned by the efforts of their spiritual superiors (as in Sedona). That these broadly comparable attitudes thrive among women leading Goddess workshops and men in the commanding heights of one of the world’s most patriarchal subcultures suggests to me that gender-coding of the kind Dr. Crockford investigates is a generally tangential issue to many of these attitudes.

As a scholar in religious studies, however, the idea of this connection surprised me in a different way, as the majority of my own work concerns what some (but never its own participants) might call a “New Age” movement that flourished in Britain and Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s—a religious order called Lux Madriana. The Madrians, as they were known, also believed that the planet was approaching disaster and reconfiguration on a scale unprecedented in recorded history, that their religious movement was a vanguard of a new spiritual awakening, and that the new era would be dominated by feminine conceptions of Divinity and society. Indeed, their religion was based around the worship of God as Mother—a belief they said had once been universal to humanity in the days of what Marija Gimbutas called “Old Europe”, until being overthrown in the period of patriarchy, which they identified with the Hindu Kali Yuga, or Iron Age. Unlike the Sedonans, however, this prompted them to promote genuine political and social matriarchy, as well as to critique industrialism and most modern technology as near-diabolic outworkings of the modern obsession with quantification, scale, and material efficiency (à la the “reign of quantity” described by René Guénon, whom the Madrians greatly admired)—tendencies which they regarded as decidedly masculine. Accordingly, they protested nuclear power, commercial pesticides, and other environmental depridations and dedicated very practical (though ultimately unsuccessful) efforts toward the creation of sustainable, subsistence agricultural communities in several locations. Members of their order returned to the land, without electricity, in order to cultivate traditional trades and crafts as meditative disciplines and pathways to spiritual progress.

In asking myself why the feminine millenarianism of the Madrians did not beguile them into the same passivity that Dr. Crockford found to be so common in Sedona, I suspect the answer has less to do with concepts of gender and more to do with metaphors of family. For all that their social and political teaching was quite radical, Madrian theology was quite traditional (in both the common and the Guénonian senses of the term). While cultivating a strong sense of the Divine presence withinthe material world, they kept careful and nuanced distinctions between Creatrix and Creation; because God was seen as Mother, the Earth, as a part of the Creation, could not be. Instead, their scriptures taught that “the earth is thy sister, and the creatures thereof are thy kin” (The Heart of Water, v. 3)—a position echoing G.K. Chesterton (of whom they were also a great admirer), who wrote that “The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature was not our mother: Nature is our sister.” (Orthodoxy) Among the many creatures of the Earth the Madrians recognized were the fairies, whom they saw nearly everywhere in the natural world but (as they lamented in the pages of their magazineThe Coming Age) with less and less frequency as time went on, for they believed that modern practices of industrialized agriculture were driving the fairies, whom they called the “little sisters”, away from human habitations. In this charming term of endearment we perhaps hear another echo of Chesterton, who observed that “To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”

In both Christianity and Madrianism there are, obviously, vast reaches of gendered implication in images of motherhood and of sisterhood but, in comparison with Sedona, the key aspect seems to be the difference between parenthood and siblinghood. Across many spiritual and religious traditions, including all those considered here, the image of the Divine parent does not contrast an adult child, but rather a little child, as the image of the believer or of humanity, and while a little child can be responsible to a father or a mother, no little child can be responsible forone. This is the symbolic trap of “Mother Earth” into which much of the New Age movement readily falls, implicitly (and perhaps quite accidentally) casting nature as the eternally self-sacrificing parent who will, from natural affection, ultimately give her own life for the welfare of her child. Indeed, one is tempted to read much New Age thought on the subject as a naturalized recapitulation of the Christian theme of Divine self-sacrifice born from the inexhaustible love of a parent. Wherever nature and deity come too close together, human beings will quite readily read themselves into the story of the prodigal son, whose parent, no matter how long he has been gone or what he has done, will gladly slaughter many animals to throw his welcome feast. Even a relatively young child, however, canbe responsible (within reasonable bounds) for a younger sibling, and we might well expect to find a more environmentally engaged attitude among those of any religion who expect that, one day, their Divine parent might call them to answer for what has become of their little sisters on their watch.

Dr. Crockford, at the beginning of the interview, usefully defines ecospiritualities as perspectives and practices that, beyond seeing the natural world as a divine creation or as a field of immanent divine activity, instead relate to nature, reified, as a divine force in its own right. Writers and speakers associated with these movements often portray this as a re-enchantment of the Earth—a return to the primordial worldview of peoples who still lived on lands they knew as sacred. Indeed, the subjects of Dr. Crockford’s research frequently alluded to the reverence in which the area of Sedona was held by the tribes that inhabited it. As jumbo-jet pilgrims seasonally swell the population of the fragile, drought-threatened landscape into a lucrative bazaar of workshops and mined crystals, however, the comparison that comes to mind is not with the respect given by the Apache and Yavapai to the lands from which they were forcibly removed in the 1876 midwinter march that killed nearly half of them. Instead, one cannot help but think of the customs of peoples throughout history who, upon choosing a sacrificial victim, have dressed and celebrated them as a god before delivering them over, bound, to satisfy the true objects of their worship.

Protected: Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature (Classroom Edit)

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Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered… and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining Chris today to discuss these questions and more, is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University.

This interview was recorded at the June 2018 EASR Conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland, where Susannah has delivered a paper entitled “What Gender is ‘Nature’? An approach to new age ecospirituality in theory and practice.” This interview was graciously facilitated by Moritz Klenk, and his podcast studio!

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, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Dickies one piece mechanic suits, and more.


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


Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

Podcast with Susannah Crockford (1 October 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Crockford_-_Ecospirituality,_Gender_and_Nature_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (C.C.): In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered . . . and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining me today to discuss these questions and more is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University. So for a start, Susannah, to the Religious Studies Project, welcome!

Susannah Crockford (SC): Thank you! Welcome.

CC: We are recording in Bern, at the European Association for the Study of Religion Conference, where Susannah has been delivering a paper earlier on called “What Gender is nature? An Approach to New Age Ecospirituality in Theory and Practice.” So I had the pleasure of being in the room. But before we get to today’s conversation I’ll just tell you that Dr Crockford’s a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Literary Studies at Ghent University, which works on the NARMESH, or Narrating the Mesh project, investigating the contemporary narrative of the interrelations between humans and large gamut of non-human realities and its potential for staging, challenging and expanding the human imagination of the non-human. The research interests centre on the use of ethnography to explore narratives of spirituality, millenarianism and climate change. Her doctoral thesis was entitled “After the American Dream: Political Economy and Spirituality in Northern Arizona”. And that was awarded in July 2017 by LSE, following which she spent 9 months as a research officer for INFORM or the Information Network on New Religious Movements. And she has a number of forthcoming articles and chapters on topics relevant to today’s interview coming out in Religion, State and Society, Correspondences, Novo Religio and the Dictionary of Contemporary Esotericism. So, watch this space! I suppose some of them might have changed from forthcoming to published by the time this goes out, who knows?

SC: Probably. Hopefully. You never know.

CC: Yes. Academic publishing is a wonderful, wonderful world!

SC: We love it. We love it. (Laughs).

CC: So, we’re going to get to your case study in Arizona soon, but first of all: gender, nature, ecospirituality – how do you get here?

SC: How did I get here was very much through my fieldwork. Because these were the kind-of topics that came up when I was in Sedona and other places in Arizona. People talked about nature in a very gendered way. It was very striking to me just how much these discourses came up. So it was very much an empirical interest. I didn’t really set out to study ecological issues, or ecospirituality. I mean, I thought nature would be relevant when I got to the field. But I wasn’t so concerned with gender. But it’s kind-of one of these topics that it was going to be in my thesis, and then I didn’t have space. So I kind-of pushed it to one side. And then, for this conference, it kind-of came back. And I was like, “Oh yes! Now I can write my thing about gender and ecospirituality” and how New Age spirituality really kind-of inverts this gender binary, I think in a quite interesting, but also problematic, way. So that’s how it came about.

CC: Well how did you, more broadly, end up in Arizona?

SC: That’s a really good question.  And, I mean, there are several ways that I can date it back to. But let’s just say for the sake of simplicity I ended up in Arizona because I wanted to do a project on contemporary esotericism and I discovered Sedona, which is in Arizona, through a quite tragic case, actually of James Arthur Ray. He set himself up as this spiritual guru. And he ran a sweat lodge as part of a longer Rainbow Warrior workshop, where people paid $9000 to go and “unleash your spiritual warrior within”. And it was held in Sedona. And then three people died in this sweat lodge. It was in 2009. And I was reading about that in the news, because I was doing a lot of work on Shamanism at the time. And I was like, “Oh, That’s terrible.” But then I was like, “Oh there’s this place called Sedona that’s full of these New Age people and full of these things that they call vortexes. That would be a great place for an ethnographic study on contemporary esotericism!” So that, very briefly, is how I ended up in Arizona doing my fieldwork.

CC: I could ask you now to introduce us to Sedona, but maybe I should say first of all – because ecospirituality’s going to be coming up probably throughout the introduction . . . . So I know this is a very broad question but, in terms of the next twenty minutes, what are we meaning by ecospirituality? And then we’ll hear more about it.

SC: Yes, so I’m going to define it in a really simple way – which obviously some people might find simplistic – but: finding nature is, in some form, divinised, or finding divinity in nature. And doing that outside of the framework of some organised religion. So I think the difference between ecospirituality and say, like the Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change, for example. Like you can be concerned for the environment as a mainstream Christian, but I don’t think that’s ecospirituality. Because God, specifically, is not in nature for them. For people who are in some way engaged in ecospirituality the divine is in nature. It’s pantheistic. And it comes up in lots of different forms. Paganism is obviously a really prominent one, Wicca, and it’s obviously very prominent in New Age spiritualties that see nature as part of the energy of the universe, but in a very kind-of high vibrational form. So the energy of nature is one that has a very kind-of high spiritual level. So there’s a very clear association between nature and spirituality and, as we’ll get onto, women and femininity.

CC: And so it’s not environmentalism, and things like that?

SC: No. And that’s actually one of the main points I was making, today: that just because you find spirituality in nature, you think that nature has something to do with your understanding of God, doesn’t mean that you will actually engage in actions that might be considered environmentally friendly, or ecologically engaged, or in fact have anything to do with mitigating largescale ecological problems like pollution and climate change. These are separate things.

CC: Yes. And to the audio editors, we’re going to start banging the table!

SC: Sorry, I need to gesticulate!

CC: It’s alright. Hit me, instead of the table.

Both: (Laugh).

CC: Right. So let’s set the scene then. So, Sedona – a small town in Arizona. What makes it so interesting? You mentioned the vortexes earlier and things . . .

SC: Yes. So Sedona is a fascinating town. It is in Northern Arizona, which is higher up than Southern Arizona. So it’s not low desert with the big Saguaro cactuses which come to most people’s minds when they think about Arizona. It’s up in the mountains, it gets cold in the winter. They even have snow sometimes, but it’s also still, quite hot. Sedona has a river – which is quite rare in Arizona. So it has a fresh water source. So it has the incredible kind-of red rock canyons and the river running through it. There’s trees growing everywhere. So it’s very different from the rest of Arizona. And it’s this sense of landscape that is both striking and substantially different from that around it which I think makes it stand up in human perception as something that this is different enough that “I will perceive it, in some way, maybe, sublime – or even something to do with the divine.” Because a lot of people who live there think that Sedona is a sacred space, whether or not they’re engaged in New Age spirituality. People I spoke to there who were Christians said, you know, “This is a place where God has kind-of bestowed something special on the human race.” Because it is a very beautiful place. So it’s a town of about 17000 people. It is within the Red Rock Canyon. It has one main highway and then another bit splits off to a slightly southern community that’s called the Village of Oak Creek. But they’re all basically Sedona, they’re all pretty much one place. Even though municipally they’re two different places. And Sedona is a tourist resort. It has a lot of kind-of hotels and it has a lot of spas and timeshares, and people go there to enjoy nature, to go on holiday. A lot of people who own property there, own it as a second home. There’s even some kind-of super-rich people there, like John McCain who’s a Republican Senator, Sharon Stone apparently owned a house up the hill from where I first rented a room, in uptown. So there’s these three main locations in Sedona. Uptown has a lot of the stores and a lot of the very wealthy houses. You’ve got West Sedona where there’s a lot of the services, like the Post Office and the school. And it’s where a lot of my informants lived, because it’s a lot cheaper. And then you’ve got the village of Oak Creek which where a lot of retirees live. Because it’s a good place. There’s this phenomena in America of Snowbirds – of people who, once they retire, go and live somewhere sunny for the winter. And then, for the hot months – which are very, very hot – they go back up north to Michigan or Canada or wherever they’re from. So there’s a lot of Snowbirds in Sedona. So, as a town, it’s quite . . . I don’t know, it’s quite typical of small town America in lots of ways. You know, there’s the older people who own all the property and the young people work all the jobs, but don’t really have any resources. And then you’ve also got these things called vortexes. So there’s two ways of talking about the vortexes. Either you can say that there’s four, around town, which are all these kind-of very prominent red rock formations. There are lots of other red rock formations and they have all kinds of names. There’s one called Snoopy, because it looks a bit like Snoopy lying on his back. I never quite saw it myself, but you know people told me it looked like Snoopy anyway. And there’s Cathedral Rock which apparently used to be called Court Rock. And there’s another rock called Courthouse rock. And they got mixed up, and then suddenly Cathedral Rock became Cathedral Rock instead. So this is kind-of like historicity to the naming of the rocks. But they’re also given this kind-of eternal, almost like Eliadian essence of the divine, where people say, “No. They have this special energy. The Native Americans knew about this special energy, that’s why it was sacred to the local tribe s that lived here.” And the reason that people now say there are vortexes there is because this energy emanates from the earth – you know, it’s a real part of the landscape and that’s why we’re drawn there. So people do move there to go and have spiritual experiences. You know, people go on vacations and you know, there’s a lot of services there that cater for this market as well. You can get your aura photograph taken, you can go on a vortex tour. You can have a Shaman take you round to power spots and do rituals with you. So there is a market to it. But there’s also people who genuinely engage with these practices and move there because they feel like it’s a part of their spiritual path. They move there. They would tell me that they were called to Sedona that “the energy drew them in”. And then if they had to leave it was “the energy that spat them out”. And some people would say it was quite a common discourse in Sedona, that the energy could get so intense it could literally drive you crazy. There was a story of a woman who said that she had to leave because “the Red Rocks were screaming at her”. So, you know. There’s this idea that this is a very special place, it’s a very sacred place. But it’s also incredibly intense, and it can be very difficult to live there, both materially and spiritually – if that’s how you kind-of experience your world.

CC: So that’s an excellent scene-setting for the milieu, and the spiritual milieu in Sedona. But let’s focus in on the role of nature in this context, and these practices – and then also on gender. I imagine that you can probably talk about those at the same time.

SC: Yes. So nature is really prominent. I mean it would be prominent even with people who didn’t in any way engage with New Age spirituality. And something I should probably say here is that no-one actually called themselves a “New Ager” in Sedona. There was a shop called Centre for the New Age which has psychic where you can go and pay for readings. But if you ask people, “Are you a New Ager?” they would say, “No.” They call it spirituality and they’re quite comfortable with that. They don’t really care about all out disciplinary arguments about what’s spirituality, and what’s religion, and what’s what. They just say, “Yes, I’m spiritual.” Or “Yes, I’m interested in spirituality.” But they would never really call themselves New Agers – unless they were trying to sell a certain product and it helped them as a label. So the people who were engaged in some way in spirituality very often identified nature as a very prominent source of what they would consider kind-of spiritual practice. But also kind-of just the energy of the place. So for some people being spiritual literally just entailed going for hikes amongst the rocks, maybe meditating a bit, but just being close to the earth. And simply moving to Sedona was seen as way of getting closer to nature. Because it was this place of like astounding natural beauty. It was kind-of seen as embodying nature in a very visceral way. And you’ve also got other locations close by like the Grand Canyon, the San Francisco Peaks, which is a larger series of mountains that were also considered sacred and kind-of also embodied this idea of big nature in a similar way. So, when it comes to gender, the experience of nature as sacred was very often feminised in the way they spoke about it. So, you know, obviously mother Earth is quite a common one. But in Sedona they would also talk about the Father Sky. So there’s this idea of gender emerging there already. So you’ve got Mother Earth on the one hand that complements father sky. They would talk about the divine feminine and the complement is the divine masculine. Now these are energies. And the shift that was once called the New Age – but now they talk about it much in terms like the ascension, they call it the shift, they call it the new paradigm – this is when the old male energies kind-of wither away and die and are supplanted with the dominance of the divine feminine. So the change that is called New Age spirituality, that change is a shift from something that’s coded as male to something that’s coded as female. And there are all kinds of associations with this gender binary. So male is aggressive, competitive, you know: men start wars, men destroy the planet, they have an extractive relationship to nature. Whereas the female principle is cooperative: it’s very in tune with emotions and it’s very connected to nature and celebrating the earth and being part of the earth. And so, something that came up in the panel today was . . . . This is a very old association between women and nature, but the way that association is framed is not always the same in all times and all places. So I thought one thing interesting that came up this morning was the feminine being associated with death, which made total sense to me. But that’s not there in the context in Sedona. Women are about life, they are about producing life. The feminine is the mother, is the nurturer, is the care giver. You know, this is the divine feminine principle. So it’s this very kind-of starkly-coded gender binary. And it doesn’t really change anything from what are the kind-of general gender associations in America more generally. It just inverts it and says that the feminine is better than the masculine. And you know, basically, it’s not even that women should be in charge – it’s just that everyone should embrace the feminine within them, and that that complementarity is part of the way that we will progress spiritually and socially. But it doesn’t really lend itself to any sense of action. And this is where we come back to this idea that ecospirituality is not the same as environmentalism. My informants weren’t in any way engaged in environmental politics. They didn’t really do anything that could be seen as particularly environmentally friendly. And in fact in the whole kind-of cosmology of the shift, or the ascension, it’s happening anyway. And the way it happens is like everyone working on their spiritual practice. It doesn’t happen by you going on protests or you switching to an electric car, or whatever. It happens by you sitting at home and meditating. Now from another perspective, you could see how that doesn’t help the environment at all. In fact, it breeds a certain passivity to social action. And means that people are going along with the same kind-of actions that are harming the planet. For example: driving cars, which release a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, carbon monoxide and all the other greenhouse gases. So there’s no sense of social action or social change. It’s all very inward. And everyone going on their spiritual path together cumulatively creates the change. It’s like the 100th monkey idea. Do you know what that is?

CC: Go for it.

SC: Well it’s like this credited idea from Bio-Anth – biological anthropology –

CC: Yes.

SC:   – that if, like, a certain number of monkeys – say 100 – learn a specific skill it will spread out through the rest of the monkeys by, like, collective consciousness. So that’s very dominant, at least amongst my informants in Sedona, that in fact it was detrimental to go out and do political action. I had this one informant who used to be very involved in NGOs, and going to other countries and trying to do development work. And then she said that all her protest work and all of her social action work had actually been making things worse, because she was so focussed on the negativity of these situations and instead she should stay in America and work on her spiritual path. And, you know, she did various kind-of workshops, and she was very much engaged in “embracing this divine feminine” herself. But that seems to basically involve going on these exclusive retreats to places like the Caribbean Islands, like the Bahamas, or like places in Aspen, Colorado, and getting women who had very high-paying jobs to go on them, so that they could go and “explore their divine feminine”, “work on their consciousness”, and “evolution”, and “inner-conscious entrepreneur”. And by doing that, she would help create way more positive action than she ever did working in NGOs. And, you know, so you can kind-of shift the perspective and go, “How is it helping by you kind-of creating all these places where everyone flies into these luxury resorts, has a lovely holiday, goes home, continues doing capitalism every day?” So . . .

CC: So you’ve done a good job of painting the relationship or lack of relationship, potentially, between environmentalism and ecospirituality, and sort of carving out what we’re meaning there. And we’ve spoken about the entanglements of gender and constructions of nature. But how are the two, I guess, entangled? These two: the ecospirituality on the one hand and this gendering of nature. Are there example you can maybe give of that entanglement of the two?

SC: So, how is ecospirituality entangled in gender? Well, I think it’s very much in this idea associating nature with the feminine – and that both of those things are given a positive valence regardless of what those actions actually are. So I could get very frustrated, in fact, in the field, with people talking about things that are nature and natural as thought that means it’s good for human health. So to take as an example: my informants generally liked to get water from the spring in Sedona because it came directly from the earth – and therefore it was good for them, right? But then it actually transpired that that stream had a very high level of naturally occurring anthrax, which is not good for human health. Now that’s entirely natural, in the sense that humans didn’t put it there. It was a part of the composition of the soil and the water in the area.

(Edited audio)

CC: Susannah has a correction to make to what she just said!

SC: Yes, so what I meant to say, instead of anthrax, was in fact arsenic. Arsenic is naturally occurring in water, not anthrax.

CC: Back to the interview!

(End of edit)

SC: Also, with the way this divine feminine principle got expressed in practice. So in my paper today, I talked about the work of an artist who . . . she did this whole series of paintings of the goddess. And it was all different kind-of instantiations of what she called the goddess energy. And it was all like faces of women growing out of trees, for example. And there’s this wonderful one called Blue Corn Woman, which she attached to a re-evaluation of Hopi myth that had something to do them surviving Atlantis because they listened to earth and knew when to go underground. And therefore they survived the cataclysm that destroyed Atlantis. So she had a whole series of paintings in this way. And, in person, she would always talk about the Goddess and how that was how she kind-of tried to live her life – it was in celebration of this divine feminine principle. And then this led to this very kind-of difficult lifestyle that she had, where she didn’t really want to go out and work because “emotionally, that didn’t suit her”. She wanted to do art, because that’s how she “expressed her soul”. But that meant she basically relied on men, who were variously infatuated with her, to support her financially. And she also had a fairly considerable drinking problem. And she drove her car while drunk. She had a blood alcohol level of like 0.3, now the legal limit is like 0.8 or 008, or something, so she was well over the legal limit. And she drove it into a fire station and wrecked the front of a fire station. And afterwards she was arrested, you know . . .  the process . . . . Let out . . . she blamed the fact that she had experienced childhood trauma. And it wasn’t that she was drunk, it was that she was having a “dissociative state” at the time, caused by her childhood trauma. So she, then, refused to come to court many times. She kept firing her lawyer. And this was . . . all she had to serve was a 90 day prison sentence and go on her way. And it took her three years to come to terms and just do that. So, why is this related to the divine feminine and nature? So it was this association between her emotions and her emotional state – the idea of herself as a woman and the idea of what is natural and what is natural for her – led to this lifestyle that is on one hand quite passive, and on the other hand not accepting any sense of social responsibility for her own action. Because she wasn’t responsible because she’d experienced this trauma. Therefore her emotions were such that she just had to express them. And I felt that that was actually quite problematic. Because, on the one hand you’ve got ecospirituality that’s seen as. . . in a way it’s seen as inevitable – you don’t have to do anything – so that breeds passivity on the social level. And then on a personal level it leads to a lack of accountability in your personal actions – or it can. Because you over-value your own emotions to the extent that the consequences of your emotional states are not dealt with. At least, I felt that in that case. Obviously I knew other people who, in different ways, were interested in kind-of the divine feminine aspects of spirituality. And they did quite productive things. So I don’t want to try and claim that everyone was like this. I’m saying that this is like . . . . The worst excesses of this kind-of association could lead to this kind-of situation. I knew someone else, for example, who felt that the divine feminine principle was how she should express her spirituality and she held Goddess wisdom workshops, and they were very fun, and that was fine. (Laughs) But again, I felt like there was this very simplistic association between femininity, nature and the sense of goodness. Like . . . that it was somehow inherent, and that you would just somehow know, as a woman, by being natural, the right thing to do. And I don’t think that that was always the case.

CC: Excellent. So we’re getting on in time, and I know I’ve got two more questions that I want to ask you before we get to the “what’s next on the agenda, for your research”. One is – you’ve just been speaking there a bit to this: what are the practical, social, political, real world – for want of a better term – effects of this gendering of nature, in your research experience? Why does it matter?

SC: OK. Why does it matter? I think it matters because we are in a time, in our society, when actually we really need to pay a great deal of attention to the environment and to ecology, not for the sake of the planet or of the environment in some disconnected way – because they will actually keep on going. What’s happening in terms of climate change is the erosion of the habitability of the planet for humans. You know, we’re destroying our own ecosystem, and we will be the ones that suffer for that eventually. And I think any of these discourses that kind-of separate off nature and the environment as something separate from humans are causing harm. And I think this particular kind-of ecospirituality in terms of the New Age, or whatever you want to a call it, is quite detrimental in terms of ecology, because it doesn’t put any kind-of real world action to the forefront. I think meditating is great, but I also think you need to accompany it with some form of action that will make your goals happen instead of just sitting back and thinking that it will happen inevitably. It’s like: prayer is great, but you should also get out there and do something about the social goals you want to achieve that go along with your religious ethics. So what I see a bit too much in this particular form is the “nature will just take care of these things.” That somehow Mother Nature is this caring powerful being and that that means it’s all going to be ok for humans. And that’s not the case. If we continue destroying our ecosystems humans will not continue living. You know, society will not continue. The planet will find a way to go on, because it’s the planet. So that’s why, in real world terms, I think it matters. I think I’m being a bit more evaluative and normative than I would ever be if I wrote any of this down, right now!

CC: That’s ok, you know.

SC: Is that ok? Because I really feel like that this is the defining important issue of our time. And if you’re not paying attention to it, if you’re not doing something useful about it, whatever that may be – even if it is just your individual actions – then actually, you’re not helping. You’re making things worse.

CC: And just to riff on that normativity a little bit, I can imagine that actually, yes, part of this discourse enables people . . . like, people might feel that they are doing something.

SC: Yes. No, they absolutely think they’re doing . . . . They think they are the only ones that are doing something. Because they’re meditating and expecting the shift any moment through enhancing themselves spiritually. Which . . . from a Religious Studies perspective it’s fascinating! I could sit and describe the cosmology all day. But if we’re going to talk about real world effects and real problems, that’s not helping.

CC: Exactly. We should also just acknowledge that we’ve been speaking in terms of gender binaries here, but that is predominantly what’s going on in the discourse. It is . . . we’re talking in binaries.

SC: Yes, so I very much . . . . Perhaps we should flag that up? I’m not saying, “I believe that these gender binaries are natural.” I’m saying that in this context my informants naturalised these gender binaries: “There is male and there is female”. They don’t really think about any other formation of gender. And that’s the way they see it. I’m not saying that normatively that’s correct.

CC: Exactly. So this is the Religious Studies Project. We’ve been floating around the topic of religion and spirituality here. But could we . . . . We probably could have described a lot of the stuff that was going on without needing to invoke those terms. So I’m just wondering what the role, what role these terms are playing, or if there’s maybe other dynamics that could explain away this gendering of nature.

SC: Yes, so I think I’m probably going to say something that will annoy lots of people who do Religious Studies. But I think that if we’re going to talk about spirituality, for me it’s a very specific thing which is this form of spirituality that was once called New Age. And it has a specific cosmology. And if you go out there amongst people who actually engage in these practices you can see it coming through. And I always say the basic tenet of it is that everything is energy and all energy vibrates at a specific frequency. So I think that spirituality, so defined, is kind-of one of the big religious shifts that we’re currently going through. Spirituality isn’t just something that happens in Sedona. It’s not something that just happens in America. It’s a global phenomenon. One of the things that happens to me a lot as I talk about my work – especially to other anthropologists, which is my background – they’ll say, “Oh yes! People I know in Palestine are really into that, because it gets them over sectarian conflict.” “People in Indonesia that I work with are really interested in that right now, as a form of healing.” And it is spread around the globe. And it is offering people a way of doing religion that is not part of their typical traditional organised religion. And for some people that’s just like a breath of fresh air. For some people that’s, quite literally, a life-saver – that they don’t have to engage in these old sectarian conflicts anymore; that they can create a new way forward without becoming secular. Because a lot of people don’t actually want that. They want to still engage with some kind-of meta-empirical reality – whatever you want to use as a term for it. So I think that spirituality is a form of religion, and it’s one of the growing forms of religion. And if you want to pay attention to the trends in religion now, as it’s actually lived and experienced on a daily basis, then you should really pay attention to spirituality – especially because it doesn’t really show up on stats and censuses, because there’s not really a box to tick for it. And also, people who are into spirituality really don’t like definitions. They wouldn’t really call themselves spiritual in that sense, but if you talk to them about what they do, and if you ask them if they’re interested in spirituality they will “Yes”, and suddenly they will come up with all of these fascinating things that they do. So I think it’s something that has to be studied empirically through qualitative research. And I think it’s something that is probably a lot more prevalent than we realise. Because it doesn’t really show up on these top-down measurements that a lot of scholarship can rely on – not all of it, obviously.

CC: (Laughs). So we have a whirlwind here. And, of course, we’ll point listeners to these forthcoming works. And you’re working on this NARMESH project, just now?

SC: NARMESH, yes.

CC: And so, you’re probably going to say it’s what’s next for you. But do want to say a little bit about your work there, and also, perhaps, anything you would like to see happening in this field of gender, spirituality, nature?

SC: Ok. So NARMESH is one of these ERC projects which . . . I’m kind-of discovering that they all have these kind-of acronyms for what they’re called. It’s from “narrating the mesh” which is from eco-theorist Timothy Morton’s work. So, the mesh is his idea for how everything is interconnected. And our project is looking at narratives of the interconnection of humans and non-humans and climate. So the rest of the people on the project are looking at narratives in literary fiction – which is why I’m in the Literary Studies department – and I’m looking at personal narratives. So what I’ve been doing is taking interviews and doing some short bits of fieldwork amongst groups of people who are differently positioned in the wider climate change discourse. So that’s climate scientists, radical environmentalists or kind-of eco-philosophers and, also, people who do not accept that climate change is happening – or if it is, they do not accept the human role in climate change. So, what we might call deniers or climate change sceptics. So that’s my current work. I’m kind-of in the middle of doing the fieldwork for that over in Sweden, two weeks ago, amongst people who basically see the world as ending and that we’re living through this kind-of destruction of the world. And “how do we kind-of create a new culture?” So that’s what I’ve been doing most recently. In terms of gender, nature and eco spirituality, I think it’s a really fascinating field and it’s one that I think you can kind-of bring together a lot of diverse studies from antiquity, right through to contemporary work, to look at this kind-of question. You know: how is nature gendered? What do we mean by goddess spirituality? And I think it is something that’s quite neglected. I think it’s something that, for a long time, got relegated to that kind-of “women’s studies” area of Religious Studies, and a lot of people don’t see it as particularly interesting or relevant. So I think it’s one of those things, if people start looking at it and studying it, it will come up more and more as a really relevant and important part of everyday religious practice for a very widely placed diversity of people, in different traditions, and different  historical periods and times.

CC: And I’m sure that there’s a lot more that we could get into just there now – but we have run out of time, Listeners. That was an excellent interview Susannah Crockford, and we’re looking forward to all the interest that you will have piqued, and to hearing more from this developing project that you’ve got. NARMESH?

SC: NARMESH, great. Thank you so much.

CC: It does sound like a little farewell, doesn’t it? Narmesh!

SC: Narmesh!

Both: (Laugh).


Citation Info: Crockford, Susannah and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 1 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 6 July 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/ecospirituality-gender-and-nature/

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

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

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Resonance of Vestigial States

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 stalwart (currently our videos producer), Jonathan Tuckett.

Way back in the early days of the RSP when I did interviews and roundtables I interviewed Naomi Goldenberg on religion as vestigial states. This was also back in the early days of my PhD when I had joined Stirling University and its program of phenomenology“. (Don’t worry this isn’t about phenomenology so much as it is about me).

This was all before I started reading Alfred Schutz who turned my thesis onto an entirely new path and eventually to the heights of “proper phenomenology”. The truth is, back then – when I interviewed Naomi – I couldn’t really say that a I “got” Critical Religion. As David has already explained in his editor’s choice, Timothy Fitzgerald is perhaps the most important scholar of religion of our time for the fact that he has made us change the way we think about religion. But I was stubborn and combative, so I had to come to realise the paradigm shift of Tim’s work by a slightly circuitous route.

And ever since I have made that paradigm shift, ever since I “got” Critical Religion and pronounce myself to be a part of that group, I have returned again and again to Naomi’s work on religion as vestigial states. I’m not saying I fully agree with Naomi’s theory. But the more I develop my proper phenomenology (yes, I am going to hammer that distinction again and again – I am no less stubborn and combative these days), the more I find how similarly my own views on “religion” resonate with hers. And, with potentially fortuitous timing, Naomi will be keynote speaker at this year’s BASR conference so we may well have another interview with her in the near future.

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, buckets-o-soldiers, sharpies, and more.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Intersections of Religion and Feminism

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 our editor in charge of sales and marketing, Sammy Bishop.

When asked to choose a podcast to flag up as my ‘editor’s pick’, one immediately sprang to mind: Chris Cotter‘s interview with Dawn Llewellyn on ‘Religion and Feminism‘. Starting on a personal note, this podcast was my initial step toward being involved with the RSP, as it was the first one that I provided a response to; and it was a joy to listen to their conversation.

Not only does the discussion provide a great introduction to how feminism, religion, and the academic study of both, might (or indeed, might not) interact; but Llewellyn also does an excellent job of flagging up how future work in these fields could become more productively interdisciplinary. The interview was recorded in October 2016 – so is very new in terms of academic timelines – but even since then, various forms of contemporary feminism have enjoyed a huge rise in prominence. The themes raised in this interview have more relevance than ever, and are worth revisiting in light of recent discussions on the intersections of feminism and religion.

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, humidors, curling tongs, and more.

From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A developing field…

The twenty-first century has witnessed growing academic and popular interest in a variety of categories which are related to ‘religion’ but conceptualized as ‘other’… atheism, non-religion, secularity, religious indifference, and so on. Each of these categories can be conceptualized as aspects of the general category ‘unbelief’—‘used in a wide sense, implying a generalized lack of belief in a God or gods’ (Lee and Bullivant 2016).

Back in 2012, Chris sat down – with friend and colleague Ethan Quillen – to speak to Lois Lee, on the topic of ‘non-religion’. Since then, a lot has changed. Lee has climbed the academic ladder, publishing her first monograph with OUP in 2015 – Recognizing the Non-Religious: Re-Imagining the Secular – and currently serving as project leader on the Understanding Unbelief programme. This is a major new research programme aiming to advance scientific understanding of atheism and other forms of ‘unbelief’ around the world through core research and an additional £1.25 million being spent on additional projects and public engagement activities. Chris’s career has also progressed, with recent work including co-editing New Atheism: Critical Perspectives and Contemporary Debates, and beginning a postdoctoral project engaging in a comparative study of ‘unbelief’ in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In this podcast, we check in with the state of the field, discuss developments beyond the Anglophone “West”, some of the many exciting projects being worked on under the “Understanding Unbelief” banner, the utility and pitfalls of the terminology of “unbelief”, and some of the critical issues surrounding the reification of survey categories.

Of relevance to the themes discussed, include Marta Trzebiatowska’s blog post on gender issues in non-religion studies: Not for Girls? Gender and Researching Nonreligion. This blog is part of the NSRN/SSNB blog series on research methods. The full series is introduced here: Research Methods for the Scientific Study of Nonreligion, by Lois Lee, Stephen Bullivant, Miguel Farias and Jonathan Lanman, Nonreligion & Secularity Research Network, 2016.

Specific Understanding Unbelief projects mentioned in the podcast include:

* Mapping the Psychology of Unbelief Across Contexts and Cultures, PI: Jonathan Jong, Psychology, Coventry University, UK
* Nonreligious Childhood: Growing Up Unbelieving in Contemporary Britain, PI: Dr Anna Strhan, Religious Studies, University of Kent, UK,

Listeners may also be interested in our podcasts on “Understanding the Secular“, “Permutations of Secularism“, “Non-Religion”, “Secular Humanism“. “The Post-Secular“, “Studying Non-Religion within Religious Studies“, “The Secularization Thesis” and more…

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 finding UNBELIEVABLE deals on academic texts, strawberry jam, vintage clothing, and more.

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

From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A Developing Field

Podcast with Lois Lee (26 February 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Lee_-_Non-Religion_to_Unbelief_-_A_Developing_Field_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): Greetings, Religious Studies Project listeners! I am speaking to you from London, in the abode of Dr Lois Lee, who’s returning to the Religious Studies Project. Hi, Lois.

Lois Lee (LL): Hi. Lovely to be here again.

CC: Lois was one of our first interviewees back in 2012. I can’t remember the specific date, or why it was happening. I can remember sitting in a seminar room in New College – along with my then colleague, and still good friend Ethan Quillen – talking about the concept of non-religion with Lois. And now, five, well possibly six years on – depending how we calculate that – we’re checking in again to talk about non-religion, unbelief, the development of the field, how we go about studying this, other major developments that are happening in the field at the moment, and anything else that we can fit into the next 25 minutes! So, when we last spoke to you I remember you saying, “If we’re still having this conversation in 10 years about non-religion, something’s gone wrong.”

LL: Yes.

CC: We’re not quite having the same conversation – but maybe I’ll just throw that at you as a way to kick things off.

LL: And we’re not quite ten years on – so I don’t have to falsify the thesis, or prove or disprove it at this stage! But no, it’s very interesting to reflect on that. I remember saying that, and I’ve referred to that quite often since then. A bold claim from someone who’s argued that we need to look at non-religion and that there’s practical, methodological and analytic utility in using that concept to research religion, and something we might think about as religion, religious-like, or religion-related. But I was saying at the time, “Look, it’s a means to an end. And ten years on, hopefully, we won’t need that means to an end anymore.” I would revise that view now, which is good: we need to be moving forward and so on. Because I think that the discursive study of non-religion is much, much more important than I was engaging with in my work at the time. Not that it wasn’t recognised, because work of critical secular scholars and critical religion scholars were showing that quite clearly. So Johannes Quack worked on and so on – these non-religious discourses are very widespread. They are, as all these scholars show and would argue, definitional of a whole epoch, perhaps, and vast swathes of the world. So I think there’s actually a lot of water in looking at – and Jim Beckford has made this point very clearly – that we really need a strong discursive study of non-religion. And I don’t see that disappearing any time soon. So we’re going to need non-religion in the longer term and be engaging with it. But I’m going to stand by the spirit of the claim, if not the letter of the claim, in that what I was getting at was that – and probably this points to my own research interests – is that many people and things that are identified as non-religious are identified because of attachments that are not purely discursive. They’re not just about relationality to religion, they’re a way of describing lots of different things. And I’ve been particularly interested in what I’ve called in my book “existential cultures”, what Baker and Smith call “cosmic meaning systems”, what other scholars refer to as “worldviews”. And what we see now – and this is very timely to address this question now, because all of the work I’ve just mentioned has been published in the last three years at the longest – is a lot of play around working with how we’re going to describe this stuff that is underlying what’s expressed as “non-religious identities”, “non-religious practices” and “positionalities” and so on. Or analytic language: so, identifying as scholars identifying people as non-religious. And really, what we have in mind are, for example, naturalist worldviews and so on. So I feel totally vindicated in fact, in that claim, in that I think in five years, a lot of the work that’s fallen within the language on non-religion – that we use the language of non-religion to identify – we won’t be using that language any more. (5:00)And it’s precisely because there’s so much dynamism at the moment around developing better analytic categories – to get at what a lot of us have been getting at. And learning from our research and so on, that’s important to the people we’re talking with. So a lot of the work that we talk about in terms of non-religion is going to fall within – well, I’m not going to say what, just now! But maybe it’s the study of worldviews, maybe it’s existentiality, maybe it’s cosmic meaning systems, who knows?

CC: Excellent. I’ve just realised that I completely omitted to properly introduce you at this beginning of this interview!

LL: (Laughs) But surely I need no introduction, Chris?

CC: Exactly! But you’ve already touched on it, just there. So, Lois is a research fellow at the University of Kent, where she’s currently principal investigator on the Understanding Unbelief programme, which is something that we’ll get to very shortly. She’s also a founding director of the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network, which you’ll have heard plenty about on this podcast thus far. And her 2015 book with OUP was called Recognising the Non-Religious: Re-Imagining the Secular. So you’ve heard about the book, just there. And we’ll get on to some of this just now. Maybe the book’s actually something to springboard from, since again we didn’t speak about that last time.

LL: Yes

CC: Maybe just tell us about your own trajectory, and how you got to this stage of being PI in a project looking at unbelief.

LL: That’s right. Well, I suppose when we last talked it was a twinkle in the eye! But the book is a culmination of what we were talking about in that earlier podcast, which I’m sure is available to listeners, if they’re interested, to return to it. And as you say, I’ve already sort of alluded to some of the work in that book, which was about identifying and engaging with populations. In particular, I was most interested in populations we identify as non-religious, and saying we need to understand them in their capacity of identifying as non-religious or being identified as others, by others as non-religious. And that many of the claims that are made about the religious would be partial if we didn’t work much more closely with that population. That book arose from work that began in 2006, when sociology – my area – but the human sciences more broadly had not really engaged with this non-religious population, in any detail. They’d had sporadic forays – significant, but sporadic forays – into that area. So the book was very much a kind-of “call to arms” in way. But the title sort-of summarises, I guess, recognising the non-religious: that as researchers we need to recognise the non-religious, as societies we need to recognise the non-religious. I talk a bit about the commitments, investments, social attachments and so on, of non-religious people that lead them to feel a sense of grievance if societies only recognise the analogous needs of religious people. So there’s a political argument there in the end. So where have we got to? How does that lead to the Understanding Unbelief programme?

CC: Yes.

LL: Well, I think we’ve touched on that trajectory slightly already, which is that my kind-of emerging interest was particularly in the kinds of what I shall call “existential beliefs and cultures”. The “worldviews” is a more commonplace word we might think about. I think it’s slightly problematic, and we probably don’t have time to get into that. But I think it’s going to lead to some really interesting conversations with people really engaging closely with that concept, and critically, which hasn’t happened around worldview in the same way it’s happened with religion. So it will be really interesting to see that work. But what I’m interested in is the way in which humans conceptualise their own existence and the nature of reality. That conceptualisation is intrinsically transcendent – so it’s stepping back to take to a perspective on reality and existence – and, in that way, is something that is very much shared between, well, cuts across religious and non-religious divides. Whether all humans are as interested in this conceptualisation is a very open question. And that’s very much where the book ends up, is saying there are lots of things going on when people self-identify or are identified as others, by others as non-religious. There are lots of political things going on. There are lots of socio-cultural things, some of which we might feel very sympathetic to and some of which we might be very, very concerned about (10:00). There’s a lot going on. But one important thing that’s going on is that non-religious people have worldviews and they aren’t recognised clearly enough in the conceptual language we have, or in the academy, for example, or other places in public life. So we have the Sociology of Religion, and it’s not clear how well that makes space for the sociology of non-traditional, nonreligious worldviews, and I’m very much arguing we should do that. The Unbelief programme builds on that in that . . . . So, the focus on belief – there’s a couple of different reasons we’re using the term “unbelief”. And we always use it in scare quotes. I think it’s important to say that one of the reasons that we have turned to that term is that we think it’s very obviously a folk category that emerged from Christian traditions. It can’t be confused with a viable analytic concept. And we had some concerns about atheism, secularism – and non-religion, actually – that they had acquired a kind of veneer of analytic coherence that wasn’t always borne out. And so we wanted to . . . . And this arises from conversations with others in the field about where the field was at. We wanted to slightly step back from that and invite people to be a bit critical about what they’re doing and not close off questions, as well. For example, I’ve spoken recently about the disproportionate focus on positive atheists over and above strong agnostics in research. We now have an emerging scholarship around Atheism, with a capital A, and very little about agnostics. But there are lots of people who make the strong agnostic claim that humans can’t know about the nature of human reality and existence, or God, or whoever. We didn’t want to foreclose on that by having a programme on atheism, for example. So, partly, one of the strengths of unbelief is that it’s very, very broad. It allows people to focus on different things that are going on within that rubric, to not imagine they’ve got a specific or coherent analytic category to start off with, but to think about what they’re doing. But it is a word that includes belief. That’s partly because one stage that I think the field is at is that there’s been a lot of energy in the last ten years . . . . The Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network: I founded that in 2008, so we’re ten years on now. And in that period there’s been a kind of intense period of field-building in lots of different human science disciplines. A group who discussed the formation of this programme said that one of the issues in the field was that there was no longer strong communication between different human science disciplines within the field. At the beginning there was, because there was so little scholarship we were absolutely thrilled to read anything that emerged. Now that it’s a success story it’s great. There’s lots to read. And one of the kind-of unintended consequences of that is that some of that interdisciplinary engagement has faded. You know, it’s enough to keep up with the Sociology of Non-Religion or Secularism – as it might be called in the US – as well as trying to keep up with the Psychology of Atheism which is probably the favoured term in Psychology. And that’s fine, but also a shame, because we could learn from each other and from that material. And, partly, the language of belief just reflects different disciplinary conventions: a focus on the cognitive in Cognitive Anthropology, Cognitive Science; belief is very meaningful and significant within Psychology and Social Psychology. So, we’re trying to kind-of bring those things together and find a language that makes sense to different researchers.

CC: Yes. I mean, I can see perhaps some of our listeners bristling in that we’ve been trying – “we” in Religious Studies – to get way from a belief-centred model of religion, in a sense. You know, because it’s so much more than that, potentially. So then, to take this other side of the coin, and then also say it’s “unbelief”, it’s potentially got the same problems as reifying belief. But it’s under-theorised. It doesn’t have that cachet – as you were saying – that it’s potentially an analytic term. And it also . . . And I’ve got to say that my current project is a comparative study of unbelief in Scotland and Northern Ireland, partly piggy-backing on the UU programme. But also, I found that was a much easier word to utilise with funders, and people who were assessing applications who were outside of these debates. Unbelief wasn’t as problematic in a sense as religion, non-religion – a lot less baggage, but made a bit of intuitive sense (15:00). So that’s part of it.

LL: I think that’s really important point, actually. And I think, sometimes, there are different modes of scholarship. My mode has been to work out what concepts are useful to me and what aren’t and then run away with the ones that are useful to me. But that shuts off a lot of conversation with people who are using different concepts. And unbelief, I think, is really useful, because it’s sort-of salient and intelligent to broader populations. They know where you’re at. Some of the preparatory work for this programme was developed in a programme called the Scientific Study of Non-Religious Belief. And if you’ve read work around relational theories of non-religion, non-religious belief is something that makes sense. But if you haven’t, and this is something that in earlier iterations of the project we came up against, you are not clear what a non-religious belief is. “Is that just any belief, that isn’t religious?” “Well, no. That’s not what we meant.” But that kind of confusion isn’t always helpful to having kind-of knowledge exchange with different kinds of audiences and research partners in a way that unbelief is helpful. It draws out its controversies, too. But a lot of that discussion can be very helpful. I think we have a sense that one of the major goals of the project, which is very descriptive in its intention . . . . So, you can summarise its core research question as being: “To summarise the nature and diversity of – scare quotes – “unbelief”. And I tend to think of one of the major outcomes of the programme being the ability to identify different profiles of unbelievers within national populations, and maybe breaking that down further still. We could think about them as denominations of unbelievers perhaps, but maybe that’s not a helpful way of going about it.

CC: Hmm.

LL: But I think, in doing that, we should be able to identify much more concrete positive language that will hopefully replace, in many ways, the concept of unbelief. I think unbelief is . . . . I’d be interested to know what you think, with your project. But for me, I’m not sure there’s going to be analytic validity usefulness. It’s quite clearly a kind of folk category.

CC: Mmm.

LL: But it’s a gateway to hopefully identifying a set of better, more interesting concepts – better and more interesting also than atheism and secularism and non-religion. And again, that’s a bit of a concern with those concepts, because they’re slightly helpful. They are all helpful in lots of different ways, but because they’re helpful they sort-of close down options to push further in certain directions. Whereas, in a way, unbelief is so clearly a sort-of folk category, it sort of invites us to think: “Well, what am I talking about here?” So I might be inclined to say, again, that unbelief is another transitional concept, like non-religion. And, if I’m still using the concept in 10 years’ time . . . . (Laughs)

CC: (Laughs) Why not?

LL: So we can meet again in a few years, and see what’s come to pass.

CC: Exactly, and what new . . .

LL: I think it’s a productive conversation. And in the programme we’re also concerned to broaden out the conversation from academia and engage much more effectively with broader audiences. And again, a sort of language that makes sense to broader audiences will help us to do that and help us to learn from perspectives outside of academia.

CC: Excellent. Now, there’s a few directions we could go in here. And part of me is wanting to push that button again about: are we potentially reifying groups here, by talking about types of unbelievers and dichotomising the world? But, listen to our previous interview – listen to my interview with Johannes Quack, back from 2015 and also read some of Lois’s work, some of my work where we do engage with this, alright?

LL: (Laughs)

CC: To skip to a debate that hasn’t been had before – well this will just be re-treading ground – but tell us about this Understanding Unbelief programme, then. So, there are four other . . . . You are the principal investigator, there’s a core team and then there’s a whole bunch of other different projects going on?

LL: There’s a lots of people- I won’t mention everyone by name. I hope they’re not offended. But there’s a lot going on

CC: So what is it? What is going on?

LL: I think it does say something about where the field has got to. So, as I sort-of said earlier, I think there’s been a phase of field-building which has been a lot of conceptual work, which has involved a lot of making the argument about why we need to study this group to our colleagues in academia (20:00). And that’s something that you’ve been involved with, and several others have been involved with. And I think that argument has clearly been won, aided and abetted by broader social contexts in which there’s a recognition of non-religious actors: people describing themselves as non-religious. So I think that’s great. And we’re moving into a new phase now, where we’re concreting or pushing that more general work further. There are lots of different ways in which people are seeking to break down those populations and be more specific again. That’s something you’ve done in your work, and I’ve done in my work. So, when we first started discussing this programme there was a sense that . . . . I mentioned some sort-of field-wide interests and concerns: about the usefulness of some inter-disciplinary work; about moving on from some of the conceptual debates we’ve been having; not encouraging a new round of work about concepts, but really getting involved in empirical settings. But, very chiefly, was a sense that, empirically, we needed to work outside of the West; that learning about atheists, people who identify as atheists and go to the atheist church, for example, or read new atheist material, was something that had been quite well-covered in the field by that point. And we needed to think beyond that, so: outside of Anglophone settings; outside of Northern European settings and the US and Canada; but also – within those settings and beyond – thinking about demographic groups that had not been well studied. Matt Sheard has a paper in Secularism and Non-Religion about non-elite, non-religious people within the UK and how little they’ve been researched. I agree. I agree: non-white, women, agnostics rather than atheist. So, there’s a very big population. We’ve done the work of saying: “This is why we need to engage with them. Here are some ways of engaging with all these different groups.” And now we really need to do it. And also, yes, get outside of the kind-of well-worn tracks. So, we wanted to consolidate some of the work that had been done. And from that basis, really, hopefully be part of ushering in this new phase. Which . . . I think there’s lots of other work that’s going on concurrently, which is a part of that. So the approach has been . . . I’m working with a multi-disciplinary team to lead the programme. So we have Jonathan Lanman who’s a cognitive anthropologist, Miguel Farias who’s a social psychologist, and Stephen Bullivant who’s a theologian and also a sociologist with expertise in quantitative work. I’m a sociologist with a focus on qualitative work. So that team – we’re doing research across five different countries, I can’t think how many continents, a few continents – is kind-of the centre of that project. But we also now have 21 project teams working around the world to do work much, much more widely than a small team could ever do, given that, as I’ve already sort of alluded to, actually the empirical work was fairly narrow. And in order to answer questions about the nature and diversity of non-belief we really needed to be very broad. Our core project is working strategically with five countries that are revealing about broader global trends and so on. But actually, it’s great to have work going on in lots of different places. So one of the projects which is grounded in Psychology is working with – I can’t think in total how many countries it is – ten or so countries that have very high numbers of people who identify as non- religious. So that includes South Korea, Australia, Japan, Azerbaijan, Vietnam and so forth. So, a really diverse set of countries that they’ll be going to and using psychological methods to engage with those populations. At the same time, we have close ethnographic research going on. A project based . . . . I should say all of the information on these projects and all the other projects is available on our website.

CC: Which is?

LL: The easiest URL is understanding-unbelief.net. It also lives with the University of Kent system, but you can find it there. And no doubt it will be available on the podcast website. (25:00) I say that, because there are so many projects, and they’re very exciting and so much worth looking at

CC: Yes, we could spend an hour talking about each one.

LL: Yes. But, to just to give a sense of the kind of contrast, there’s an ethnographic project that’s looking at magical thinking in two different European settings and working very closely, very much exploring kind-of unbelief: people who are cast as and cast themselves as unbelievers. And they’re working with a very typical population of rationalist thinkers. But looking at things we might identify, and they, as anthropologists, are used to identifying as magical thinking within those populations. So between those very broad quantitative studies, and those very detailed and nuanced qualitative studies, we’re hoping . . . we’re not going to be able to map the world of unbelievers, but we’re hoping to be able to join a lot of dots and get a much, much broader picture of . . . . How are they described? Is it the fourth-largest faith group in the world? The non-religious, or people who don’t affiliate with a religion are the third-largest religion, and unbelievers are the fourth-largest faith group. To put it somewhat crudely.

CC: Right.

LL: So there’s a lot to learn. And we hope to learn something about that group.

CC: Excellent. And listeners can keep an eye on that website over the coming couple of years. So when’s the project wrapping up? It’s 2019, isn’t it?

LL: Yes. I think it officially ends in late 2019, but there’ll be activity ongoing I would think – with a sense of all these different projects and work coming through from that – for the longer term, I would think.

CC: Absolutely. We’re already coming up to sort-of the end of our time. I’m going to ask you a question now that I didn’t prep you with, so feel free if I have to rewind. But we were saying, before we started recording, that there’s maybe a sort of dearth of female voices speaking in this area and researching in this area. So I just wondered if you have any comments on that. A final thought as a sort-of leading light in this area?

LL: A topical theme in societies more broadly. No, that’s a good thing to focus on. A good question, thank you. Yes, in the last project I was involved with – the Scientific Study of Non-Religious Belief- we had a series of blogs on methods, one of which focuses on gender and talks about a concern, in the study of non-religion and atheism, about the way in which both that field is gendered and the study of that area is gendered. Partly this comes down to kind of quite interesting feedback loops. So, for example, we have studies that show that the language of atheism is slightly more popular with men than it is with women. And that’s reflected in research. So I am a woman. And I quickly said, “I don’t like atheism, that’s not my main framework – I prefer non-religion.” And that’s typical, actually, of quite a lot of researchers, to slightly generalise. But there is a kind of way of engaging with very male dominated atheist cultures – like the New Atheism and so on – that interests men. And then other voices – really interesting work that prefers concepts like non-religion or secularity, or secularism, and so on – that’s sort-of been lost a bit. I’ve noticed that happening. And there are several collections that are very male-dominated. And as much as this is not distinctive to our field, there is, as I say, a sort of relationship between what we’re studying and how we study it that is specific to our field. And actually, that sort-of brings us back to the topic of agnosticism. So we, in my field, are very generally acquainted – and so are sociologists of religion – with the idea that religious people are more likely to be women, and non-religious people are more likely to be men. So wherever you’re coming from, this gendered phenomenon is known. It shouldn’t be overstated, but it is marked. And it’s interesting, within the non-religious field, if you break that down between people who have strong atheistic beliefs and have sort-of strong agnostic beliefs, then the gender profile looks quite different. And the agnostics are more female overall and atheists are more male. So again, there’s that concern that gender may be a factor in what we’re researching, what we’re choosing to research, and what’s being neglected. In the UK the agnostics are a larger group than the atheists. Why haven’t we looked at them? (30:00) Part of the answer to that question is about gender, and it’s by no means the whole answer to that question, but I think it’s an element – or something we should at least be exploring and concerned about. I’m really thrilled, actually, that we have so many research teams on the Understanding Unbelief programme and it is a very gender-balanced set of researchers. And because of the way in which our own perspective shapes the questions we ask and how we look at them, and so on, I think that’s a very good sign for the work we’ll . . . what we’ll learn through the programme. But I do think it’s an interesting topic for us to reflect upon. As I say, there’s an NSRN blog that’s been written on it and I think there’s scope for a bit more work around reflecting on . . . . It’s sort of the other side of the coin of the focus on the study of elites – even within particular cultural settings – is thinking about who’s researching them. And that very much relates to broader questions in academia at the moment about non-elite voices having space to be heard. And the perspectives we might be missing. You know, I think it’s a question of good and bad science in those kinds of terms. Because we will find out new things if we include a broader range of perspectives. This we know. This we know. So yes, I think that would be a good thing for us to be reflecting on as field, going forward into the next phase. I can’t remember if we’re reflecting on the last 5 years or the last 10 years, but . . . looking forward anyway!

CC: Well, reflecting on a lot, anyway! Good. And hopefully the Understanding Unbelief programme will contribute a lot to that as well. So, we’re out of time, Lois. But it’s been wonderful to speak to you.

LL: And you.

CC: And I’m sure the listeners will come back in another 5 years and we’ll see where the conversation is next time. Alright.

LL: (Laughs).

Citation Info: Lee, Lois, and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A Developing Field”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 23 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/from-non-religion-to-unbelief-a-developing-field/

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Angel Spirituality

1a7fd1627b3543072b5c994419e40076In Northern Europe today, many people are engaging with angels, and Tehri Utriainen has been researching them. What is angel spirituality, and who does it appeal to (hint: women)? As with many vernacular systems, it is both ad hoc and highly practical, with a strong focus on healing. She tells us how these practices challenge preconceptions about the relationship between new spiritualities and Christianity, and raise interesting questions about gender, and vernacular religion in supposedly post-Christian Europe.

For more of Tehri’s work on angels, see:

Healing Enchantment: How Does Angel Healing Work?
Utriainen, T. 2017 Spirit and Mind – Mental Health at the Intersection of Religion & Psychiatry. Basu, H., Littlewood, R. & Steinforth, A. (eds.). Berlin: Lit Verlag, p. 253-273 19 p.

Desire for Enchanted Bodies: The Case of Women Engaging in Angel Spirituality
Utriainen, T. 2016 Contemporary Encounters in Gender and Religion: European Perspectives. Gemzöe, L., Keinänen, M-L. & A. M. (eds.). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 175-193 19 p.

Listeners might also be interested in David’s interview with Ingvild Gilhus from three years ago, on the topic “Unruly Angels”.

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, Ko-Lee hot & Spicy Go Noodles, and more.

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

Angel Spirituality

Podcast with Tehri Utriainen (5 June 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Utriainen_-_Angel_Spirituality_1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Edinburgh today. I’m joined by Tehri Utriainen, from the University of Helsinki, where she is Professor in the Study of Religions. And today, we’re going to be talking about angels in kind-of popular spirituality, particularly in Finland, but hopefully also in a slightly larger context as well. So, first of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Tehri Utriainen (TU): Thank you so much David.

DR: Let’s start just with . . . .Tell us a little about these angel practices, angel spirituality. You know – who are we talking about, what are the practices? Just set it up for us.

TU: Ok. Well my context, of course, is Finland but, as you said, it is more wide – you can find it elsewhere. You can find it in the UK. There’s been studies done in the UK, the US, in Norway and in Estonia, for instance, recently. Whom are we talking about? We’re talking about women. This is really the most extremely women-dominated religiosity that you can imagine. Usually people say that: in grassroots religion the practitioners are 60% female; in holistic spiritualities (if you want to use that term ) it’s like around 80% – this was the Kendal Project numbers, for instance; and with angels the figures go much higher. They are over 90%, as far as my research is concerned. So we’re talking about women interested in angels.

DR: What kind of women? Are we talking about the same sort of women that we would expect to find in holistic spiritualities, for instance? You know, generally, from the Kendal Project, for instance, mostly . . . kind-of middle class, fairly well-educated, fairly well-off – these kinds of things?

TU: “Fairly well” women! Yes. Yes, more-or-less, we are. Well, when we go to Finland it’s perhaps a little bit different society from the UK. We like to think that we are more equal in the social way. We don’t have these social strata as much as you have here. But it’s a kind-of, you know . . . . We fool ourselves, of course, with these things, always. But it is middle class . . . I would say that it’s mostly lower to mid-middle class, but all middle classes. But very varied educational backgrounds. A lot of women who work in caring and education professions, for instance. These women are also interested in other practices, not only angels, and all sorts of holistic practices. Something that all my interviewees mentioned, really, was like Reiki. Reiki healing is one form of energy healing which is now so popular in all of the Western world, I guess. It comes from Japan, and through Hawaii, but it’s become popular all over. But these women with angels tend to be, I would say, a little bit more towards Christianity, because there is the central figure. But I see quite a variation with the people that I have interviewed. And I have made, also, a smallish survey and some of them consider themselves Lutheran – Lutheranity is our like home religion in Finland. But then, there is the other end who are kind-of completely disconnected from the church and have their background, for instance, in esotericism, theosophy, spiritualism, anthroposophy. But then, there is a third group of women who come from secular families and, at least, tell me that they don’t really have very much religious background at all. And they got into religion through this.

DR: What sort of religious make-up are we talking about in Finland, just for the benefit of our listeners? I mean here, obviously, we’re somewhere between 70-55%, depending on what part of the country you’re in.

TU: Like, Church of England or those big churches, or altogether?

DR: Yes, well, the sort-of state churches, yes. I mean, England’s sitting at about 65% and Scotland’s a little bit lower about 58%.

TU: Yes. So the numbers go down regularly all the time in Finland, at the moment. And last year’s survey gives us something like 72%, and the women a bit more than men. And then the next biggest church in Finland would be the Orthodox church, but that is a very low number of participants or members. (5:00) So we are a very Lutheran country, still, but the figures are going down.

DR: Part of the reason I asked that is that I have a kind of personal interest in this subject. Some people in my family are involved in this kind of stuff. My grandmother and my aunty – her youngest daughter – both do these  kind-of angel cards. Now my family is not a strongly religious family, but have become so over time. My granny is now in her early eighties and she converted to Anglicanism when my grandad died, a couple of decades ago . . .

TU: Yes

DR: . . . whereas my aunty converted to Catholicism because she married an Irishman. So they’re the two . . . they’re really the only two properly Christian members of the family. They’re different – you know, one’s Protestant, one’s Catholic – but they have these angel practices in common. Now, they’re a little bit secretive about actually what it is. The few things I’ve been picking up is that there are some cards . . . . But as much as I got was that they sort-of identified with particular figures, and these figures were associated with various qualities, and colours, and things like that. Could you fill us in, a little bit, about that kind of aspect of the practical side of it – what it involves?

TU: Sure. First of all I want to say that I’m pleased that now, through my research, you get the possibility that you can learn something about your family members!

DR: Yes.

TU: I’ve had several men tell me, “Now I understand my mother better!” “Now I understand my sister better!” Or something like this, you know? Because they kind-of get a little glimpse of it. And then the women tell something about it, but don’t open up the whole stuff, immediately. Yes, there are these practices and, the angel is a Christian figure, and we have all this Christian sort of mythology, and narrative, and image traditions on angels, the idea in Christianity is that angels are like Godly power and God gives us angels and angelic power when he wants to do [something]. [Whereas], this contemporary practice is much more practical for the women. It is practical religion: an everyday practical religion that uses several kinds of techniques and means. You mentioned cards – angel card reading is quite popular, and the first angel cards I met in Finland were cards coming from your country, in fact, or the US. Now there are also some indigenous Finnish angel card traditions, too. That goes a bit like Tarot card reading. You can either make a table of them, or you can just take one card for the day, or one card for a puzzling question that you have in your mind. And so, you read an enigmatic answer, just a word: the word might be like, “happiness”; the word might be, like, “balance”; or, you know, these kinds of things that you also might find in horoscopes. So that is one thing, but they also have their imagery. And, like you said, certain angels might be linked to certain colours, for instance, which might give this woman a kind of glance into her life. In the sense that when she learns – either though cards or through somebody – that her colour is linked to the colour green [for example], which would then, perhaps, be the colour of the Archangel Raphael, then, every time she’s drawn to green she gets a message. So, it could go like this. But then there are meditations, several kinds of angel meditations, often like a visual journey: you are led to a sacred garden where you meet your angel; you talk to your angel; you ask something; your angel gives you a symbol or a word, or something; you are led back from the meditation; and then you are there, either with yourself or a group of friends – angel minded friends. And you integrate this thing that you got, and you relate it to your life’s bigger or smaller things. And then, of course, this more-or-less . . . the thing that connects with this holistic milieu even more is the angel healing aspect. (10:00) There are angel healing courses, and you can learn to become a healer – a bit like a Reiki healer – who heals others or who heals yourself. The angel healing, as far as I know , is mostly used for what we might call emotional issues and emotional problems. And I think that this highlights the topic of emotions, and how important emotions are – perhaps particularly to women in the contemporary world – is extremely interesting because, then, it’s related to the high numbers of depression and emotion work in very many ways.

DR: Yes. Which also might . . . . I think there’s quite high rates of depression and suicide and stuff in some of the Northern European countries. But that trajectory of women and the  kind-of therapeutic culture is very, very common. You see that a lot in . . . . Well, you see it a lot in the holistic, mind-body-spirit  kind-of world, here. Particularly female, but you also see the same trajectory with men and also in the conspiracy theory world. I looked at this in my work, for instance, David Icke: his passage into conspiracy theory world was looking for alternative therapies to treat his arthritis. He ended up going to a medium who channelled messages to him.

TU: Yes. Mediumship is present here.

DR: But those discourses on healing, and on holistic healing as well – the idea that your emotions and your body are linked – are found right across that  kind-of cultic milieu, not only in the more overtly spiritual aspects of . . .

TU: Definitely. I think of one other notion that is very, very closely connected to emotions- another “e” word is energy: emotions and energy. And the way that you can sort-of manage them, or you can make use of them, but you can also sort-of control them – like you said, channelling or something. Emotions, in my materials, are often considered as one sort of type of energy, one type of energy that works a lot in the human world. And as energy it’s power and it can be used into good. But it can also be, sort of, if it’s like all loose, it can do bad things.

DR: Yes. And, when we were talking about the colours earlier on, that’s immediately what I thought of was the rays of the theosophical tradition – where the colours represent different frequencies of energy or different energies, you know. And that, by selecting a particular colour, you can encourage that particular emotion or energy. Which leads to my next question, which is: all of this stuff that you’ve been describing so far, from using cards for readings, healings, visualisation, the idea of correspondences of colours attracting particular energies, you know – even the use of cards themselves, and the association with therapeutic culture – this all seems taken exactly from 19th century esotericism, what we would call Western esotericism nowadays. Yet [it] has this Christian kind-of – I don’t want to say veneer – but it’s a Christian framing of those practices.

TU: Yes, well, there always was a kind of Christian esotericism as well. They have never been completely apart – even though, probably, some ruling churches and ruling theologies would like them apart – but there have been much more linkages. But I might also say that – particularly in the context of Finland perhaps, but maybe this applies even larger settings – esotericism earlier on used to be a bit elitist. It was not for everybody, for all the people in Finland, anyway, and openly, anyway. But now, what we see is something like the democratisation and popularisation of this esotericism, and bringing it openly in connection with Christianity.

DR: Yes.

TU: And this, of course, has to do with many things – like things that are marketed to us and how popular culture circulates. (15:00) But it also has to do with the grip of the church loosening: the church doesn’t have the normative power any more in people’s everyday lives. In Finland, for instance – perhaps here too, but in Finland – where the ruling church was the Lutheran Church, Lutheranity meant . . . . For those people who were not very religious or very pious, Lutheranity was mostly a normative system, saying what you do in public life, what you don’t do, but this is less so now.

DR: I wonder if it’s not only its normativity in the society, it’s also the normativity of the scholars in the categories that we’re looking at. I wonder if this stuff was always going on, but it was kind-of hidden from our view, because it wasn’t considered suitable for us to look at, and so on.

TU: For the scholars of religion?

DR: Yes.

TU: Yes: because it was not funded, and it was not taken seriously; because it was not the serious religion, it was the fringe stuff. And I have seen a lot, and I suppose a lot of people have seen it, that bigger money always goes to religion which is considered as cultural heritage stuff,  kind-of elevated, sublime thing, more-or-less. Whereas these hobby-level religions with their crazy knowledge systems . . .

DR: Yes. Well, there is a sense in which you get the impression that people think: “Well, we don’t really want to encourage this . . . “

TU: Yes

DR: “If we pay this too much attention it might be seen that we’re taking it seriously.”

TU: Yes. Exactly!

DR: So tell us, then, how did you get to looking at this stuff? What was your passage into this?

TU: My complete passage into this was that I was involved in a larger project, that was led by Professor Peter Nynäs in Abo Akademi university, which is a Swedish speaking university in Finland, in Turku. And I was lucky enough to jump on that project when it started. And the project was called Post-Secular Culture and the Changing Religious Landscape in Finland. And we wanted to look into the margins and outside fields from Lutheranism, and what was happening there. And we were several people and we had several case studies. We started to pick something that we were interested in, or something that somebody was already engaged with, or something, anyway, that could sort-of give us a good palette, a sort of mosaic-view to things that were happening. And since I was more-or-less kind-of a specialist, if you like, in women’s popular religion . . . . It was not my own idea at all, but we started to think about: what is it that happens in this type of religiosity today? One possible thing would have been, like, healing and Reiki and stuff. But then we decided that angels were, just at that time, becoming so popular in Finland that we thought, “that opens up a window, through which we can see some interesting things”. And so it happened. And some books came out and people got really interested in the angel stuff. And I had a lot of fun doing this for a couple of years. And still have, writing on it, fun in many ways. Not only in the hilarious way, but also that I had very nice fieldwork experiences and I learned very much about both the serious sides of religion and life, but also about the less serious sides of it.

DR: Tell us about how you went about the study, then. Was it predominantly kind-of ethnographic work?

TU: It was ethnographically oriented, multi-method stuff. I love working ethnographically, well. I went to . . . I collected . . . sort-of . . . just went to see what happened. And I took myself into those happenings and situations. Like, for instance, there was a yoga school, when I started my ethnography. In one yoga school they have their yearly “angel week”. So I went through that week and saw how the angels popped into the yoga classes! Which was a good start, in the sense that it brought me into meeting young people – mostly young people – who were interested in this. So I couldn’t work only with the idea that this is only middle-aged women, or women in their late-middle age and stuff. So I started with that and started to contact people. I used the snowball method to get interviews. I went for courses, I contacted people and said, “Can I come?” (20:00) And then there was this very popular Irish – I don’t know how popular she is here, but – woman who writes autobiographies and the books where she recounts her life with angels, Lorna Byrne, whose books, just then, became translated in Finnish and who paid visits to Finland. And all the visits were sold out, there were 1000 women with a handful of men who came there (hand-in-hand with their female friends ) to listen to how this Irish . . . contemporary Irish mystic tells how she sees the place full of angels and describes people’s angels. Well, I made a survey in one of her visits, wanting to know about the backgrounds of these women who came to listen to her, etc, etc. Then I sort-of followed the media reactions, I followed the church reactions. I did sort-of a multi-angle thing.

DR: So it was very much ethnography, then, in all of the senses it can be, so: sort-of qualitative interviewing, but participant observation and media discourse analysis as well.

TU: Yes and also the smallish survey – I had 263 answers, so that I could see the demographic things and stuff.

DR: And how did they take to you? I mean, how open about your research were you? And how interested . . . ?

TU: I was very open about my research. I was open even in the bigger settings. Particularly when I was distributing the questionnaire, of course, I told them what it was about. And I was open when I went to study an angel healer – that was the most participant part of it.

DR: Right.

TU: And well, they were . . . everybody was, at that time, so happy about this thing happening. And they probably considered me as a possible advocate for them, and taking the whole thing to the academy. I remember . . . may I tell you one nice interview situation where there was this woman who channelled angels?

DR: Yes.

TU: I knew that she channelled angels, and that was one of my reasons for contacting her. And she also wanted her husband to be in the interview, so I interviewed the two of them. Before we started the interview she said to me – we had a cup of coffee, we were at their home – she said to me: “What if my angel also wants to become interviewed?” – the angel that she channelled.

DR: Oh, so the angel was present, then?

TU: She said, “What if she comes?”

DR: Oh, what if? Yes.

TU: I said, “Well, I’m very happy of course . . . ” and I tried to make a joke. I said, “I probably don’t have the informed consent for the angel!” (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs)

TU: Because I wasn’t prepared. I had two copies, you know. I had one for the husband and one for her.

DR: It would be an interesting subject to come up at the ethics commission . . .

TU: Well what happened after some time of interview, maybe one hour – it was one of the longest interviews that I made – she says, “Now, I think she wants to come, my angel wants to come.” And I said, “OK.” It was  kind-of exciting, I have to admit.

DR: And did the angel contribute to the conversation?

TU: Yes! Then I have 40 minutes of interview with the angel in my tape.

DR: Oh fantastic!

TU: And after that the angel goes away, and the woman comes back, and we continue. And while the woman has a bit of difficulty – as her husband tells me – in coming back, resuming her own like mortal role, the husband gives me the explanation that, “Well it often is a bit difficult for her to come back after the angel has gone,” because there is this liminal period. Well, what I have there is a sub-chapter in a book that I’m going to publish – in Finnish, unfortunately. But I have one sub-chapter interview with an angel!

DR: Fantastic.

TU: But that is  kind-of a . . . that is interesting also, in the sense of: “What did the angel say, in the interview?” Well several things, but one important thing was that I had my small recorder on the table and the angel goes very close to the recorder and says, “And I want to say this to science, and please go and tell this to Abo Akademi of science!”

DR: (Laughs)

TU: So, it was a very intricate dynamics that was going on there. (25:00) Because was she making fun of me? Or was she really, like, making the angel meet science, not through just meeting the people, but mediating it. It was interesting. I haven’t really found a way to talk about this so far.

DR: What that suggests to me is that, you know . . . . The spirit guide is often . . . there’s a kind of yin/yang relationship, so they’re like the animus and the anima in Jungian psychology or, you know, the various sort of spirit animals are often the opposite gender. So, if she is existing in the modern, rational, secular – well, supposedly so – world, then her spirit companion is the opposite.

TU: Yes

DR: So, represents to her the spiritual world and that is one which is often set up against science: science as the disenchanted . . . you know, the “black iron prison”.

TU: Yes, that’s true.

DR: Whereas the spiritual world is the enchanted one and so, naturally, would be pitted against the rationalism represented by science.

TU: But there I had the two coming together, and the enchanted world coming directly to shout at the disenchanted world represented by the recorder.

DR: Yes. So the recorder is actually representing that as well, yes.

TU: The recorder is there as a hard fact there, and the angel goes into that hard machine.

DR: But happy to use science to make a point . . .

TU: Yes, but also . . .

DR: And capable of doing so . . .

TU: And very capable of doing so. Even considered that it was a small girl angel!

DR: Oh, ok!

TU: Six years old, or something like this. But, nevertheless, very skilful in that.

DR: So, for this woman, the angel was a child? That’s interesting.

TU: Yes, this was a woman in her 50s and the angel was a female child.

DR: That’s interesting. Because that’s not usually the case, is it?

TU: Ah, the angel asked me that!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: “Do you know . . . Can you guess why I appear as a small girl?” And the answer was . . . .Well, I was a bit silly – I offered the answer. I offered my guess and she took it. I don’t know, maybe I should have done something else, but I said, “Maybe it is because we are not afraid of children or small girls?” And she said, “Yes. The enormous power that I bring is kind-of less feared when . . . ”

DR: She was in her 50s , you said? Had they had children?

TU: They had a child together: a boy – early teens. And one of them – I don’t remember which one of them – had bigger children, too.

DR: Ah right, ok. But, generally speaking, the angel is a male figure.

TU: Often, in my material.

DR: And in my experience, as well. What is the appeal, then? Why is it the angel that’s at the centre of this, not fairies, or dragons, or Thor, or Spiderman?

TU: It is . . . . Well, some of these women have a lot of things going on with a lot of other spirits, as well. But some – I might say that those who consider themselves mostly as Lutheran – they don’t take other spirits as easily, but an angel is something that they allow in their lives. Well angels . . . I wouldn’t mind having a male angel in my life, considering how beautiful they are, how wonderful they are depicted!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: They come with their baby faces, but they have strong, wonderful wings and things. And I sometimes play with this idea. Because, you know, in Finland we have . . . like, we think about the mortal men, like the normal, ordinary men. We have a big number of engineers. Engineers are considered, in Finland – this is a bit jokingly said – but men [who are], like, reliable and practical, but not so good always in talking about emotions, with the women.

DR: (Laughs) Yes. I don’t think that’s unique to Finland, to be honest.

TU: Maybe. So these women sometimes even talked about their men who sometimes really were engineers. And they were, sort-of, not replacing these husbands with these male angels, but complementing the scene with this figure which had something male, something masculine in it – a protective sense, for instance, but which was also the perfect male, in the sense that he understood their emotions. Isn’t that good?

DR: Yes. It does make sense, absolutely.

TU: It does make sense. And yes, not all of them were male, but a lot of them were and it appeared that the Archangel Michael, who is the protector of soldiers, was pretty much popular.

DR: (30:00) Yes. There’s going to be a class in here shortly, so we should wrap up. There are so many other questions I could’ve asked. I literally have a page of them written down in front of me, but I’m afraid we’re out of time. Thanks so much for taking part in the Religious Studies Project. If you’re interested in Tehri’s work, do seek out her publications. And best of luck when the book comes out. I hope it comes out in English as well, later on.

TU: If you translate it!

DR: I’d have to learn Finnish first. We’ll see . . .

TU: There are articles in English. Plenty of them came out recently: some related to ritual studies; some related to ritual and healing; and some related to more to general aspects, various theoretical angles.

DR: Fantastic. And if you’re on the website, then the links below will guide you to them. But in the meantime, thanks for taking part.

TU: And thank you.

DR: Thank you.

Citation Info: Utriainen, Tehri 2017. “Angel Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/angel-spirituality/

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Paths to Sexual Ethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Ethics and Islam

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

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

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


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


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

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

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

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

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

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

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

CC: Yes.

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

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

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

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

KA: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

KA: And a Muslim

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

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

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

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

CC: Exactly

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

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

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

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

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

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

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

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

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


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

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 14 March 2017

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Birmingham, UK

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University of Edinburgh

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Theologies That Cannot Be: A Response to the RSP Interview with Dr. Caroline Blyth

I am an admirer of Dr. Caroline Blyth’s work, most especially for her commitment to Religious Studies’ “potential… as a means of cultural critique and change.” It is a practical focus badly needed in a discipline prone to building research foci around its own definition. I was somewhat discomforted, however, to hear her in the interview adopt Rukmini Callimachi’s term, the “theology of rape.”

What disturbs me about this phrase is that, once Dr. Blyth explains it (“justifying rape through the use of religious justification, religious terms, religious rituals…”) we all somehow understand it as a meaningful expression (indeed, an “evocative” one). In truth, however, this phrase, with its implicit suggestion that one can simultaneously engage in the rape of a human being and pursue the knowledge of God, should be semantically unparsable—a colorless, green idea sleeping furiously. “Theology of rape” should be a contradiction in terms.

When it does not immediately strike us so, we must ask ourselves what strange tension we are holding in our thought to make these terms superficially compatible, and as I ask myself this, I note something interesting—while theologies of rape are diverse, theologians of rape are almost invariably men. Some statistics are certainly at work here, since theology is still a field in which men are more heavily represented, but this in itself is a perplexing point worthy of our attention, since, in modern America at least, it is only our daughters that we teach to be Christians.

You know what I mean; just turn on any children’s television program, walk down any toy aisle, or listen carefully to the comments of teachers and fathers and little league coaches. We teach girls to be deferent and collaborative. We teach them to be nurturing and self-sacrificing. We teach them to be obedient. Our little boys we teach to insist on rights and respect. We teach them to be ready for confrontation. We teach them to know what they want and to get it. Both of these lists of virtues are familiar to those versed in Christian culture. The first comes from the Bible, where God enjoins upon us “lowliness… meekness… longsuffering” (Ephesians 4:2), “patience… kindness… gentleness” (Galatians 5:23), humility (Romans 12:14–16), and submission (Titus 3:1). The second comes from what Blyth refers to as the “godly masculinity” of men’s ministries, which uphold the ideal of a man who is “strong… powerful… heroic… authoritative… assertive… competitive… sexually aggressive.”

Taken alone and in moderation, none of those traits need necessarily be an evil, and each can be a positive good in a man (or a woman) of goodwill, but it cannot be denied that the general tenor of the second list is at odds with the first. Thus divided, there is a significant conflict between the virtues of “godly masculinity”—which are simply the virtues of the West’s hegemonic masculinity—and the virtues enjoined in Christian teaching and, for that matter, the teachings of most other religions as well.

I am far from the first person to make this observation, and I am indebted in it to my own research, centering on what Sarah Morrigan has called “the Oxford Goddess Revival” . In the 1970s, a group of young Oxonians brought together streams of thought from Guénonian Traditionalism, Marian devotionalism, and lesbian separatism to craft a unique and multifaceted theology. Among their teachings was a critique of contemporary Western masculinity as being negatively defined by the rejection of traits coded as feminine, which, in our culture, include the religious virtues of humility, meekness, silence, submission, charity, piety, and self-sacrificial love. Masculinity, in their view, was an apostasy from the Perennial Tradition—a rebellion against a necessarily feminine God.

One need not go quite so far as those ingenious young women, however, to observe that, within the context of contemporary Western culture, the term “godly masculinity” is one that should ring hollow and incomprehensible in our ears, just like the “theology of rape,” with which it is intimately connected. It is precisely in the knowledge that this term, too, has the superficial appearance of a meaning in our society that I am not surprised when, as the interview turns to the oft-neglected topic of male victims of gendered violence, we find the perpetrators to be, once again, almost entirely men. Ideas, as Richard Weaver said, have consequences, and the consequence of these pernicious oxymorons has been that acculturation to violence is a gendered phenomenon (as a quick survey of a Toys Я Us aisle or a Saturday morning cartoon lineup will once again confirm); gendered violence is an inevitable result of this.

Every discipline has both power and responsibility to contribute to the dismantling of the Patriarchy by declaring its valorization of avarice, egotism, and violence to be wrong. The particular duty and power of religious studies and theology, is to point out that that valorization is hypocritical—that the culture of Patriarchy is itself inimical to the values of the sacred social order from which it claims its authority and for which it claims to offer protection. Religious Studies is, as Blyth has said, a means for cultural change, and it is also the discipline which should recall most vividly the maxim of Confucius, that such change, to be successful, must begin with the rectification of names. It was certainly not Callimachi’s intention in coining the term to sanction the actions of Daesh, and it is certainly not Blyth’s intention in borrowing it to legitimize Deuteronomy 21:11, but to treat “theology of rape” as an intelligible phrase, rather than the incomprehensible equivalent of a “married bachelor” or a “negative surplus,” is to participate in the structural violence of Newspeak. No matter the religion, English already has a clear term for justifying rape by religion, or identifying machismo with God—nonsense.

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 18 October 2016

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Religion and Feminism

‘Religion’ and ‘Feminism’ are two concepts that have a complex relationship in the popular imaginary. But what do academics mean by these two concepts? And how can we study their interrelationship? What can we say about ‘religion and feminism’, about the academic study of ‘religion and feminism’, or about the ‘academic study of religion’ and feminism? To discuss these basic conceptual issues, and delve deeper into the topic, we are joined by a long-time friend of the RSP, Dr Dawn Llewellyn of the University of Chester.

Along the way we discuss some of the basics of feminism and feminist theory, before thinking about how scholars can or should position themselves in relation to this broad topic, how we might conduct research, and how Dawn herself has done so. In the process we move beyond the problematic ‘wave’ metaphor, and think beyond ‘Christianity’ and ‘the West’ to ask what the study of religion can bring to the study of feminism, and what feminism can bring to the study of religion.

This episode is the second of a series co-produced with introduction to the Sociology of Religion, with Professor Grace Davie. Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, Anna Fedele, Mary Jo Neitz and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon, Claire Miller Skriletz, and George Ioannides.

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, humidors, curling tongs, and more.

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The Dark Goddess: A Post-Jungian Interpretation

In an interview with Ross Downing, PhD candidate Áine Warren discusses her research into the ‘Dark Goddess’ at the University of Edinburgh. Drawn into this community of Dark Goddess adherents through her previous research into altars dedicated to the Celtic goddess The Morrigan, Warren examines similarities and differences among Dark Goddesses from various faith traditions including the Eastern Kali Ma, the Celtic Morrigan, and the Norse goddess Hel.

Focused on the female experience, discourse surrounding Dark Goddesses are as varied and complex as the myriad of goddesses that this sector of Goddess Spirituality entails. Warren accurately notes that, in this context, Dark, as a descriptor, refers to the nature of the goddess in question rather than a direct reference to skin colour. For example, the Black Madonna is often, and incorrectly, referred to as a Dark Goddess because of her dark skin, but that is not the nature in question here. In this context, Dark is indicative of what psychologist Carl Jung refers to as the ‘Shadow.’[i]

As Warren states, the Dark Goddess represents ‘part of nature relegated from society and religious practices.’ She is ‘not to be approached; not to be encouraged, and not to be approached within the self’, yet, for an adherent, working with the Dark Goddess is a vital part of any wholistic understanding of self and nature.  Mirroring my own ethnographic research within the Western Goddess Movement, Warren found that the Dark Goddess worshiped in the West bears striking similarities to Eastern Dark Goddesses despite historical and cultural differences.

However, while Warren has found a consensus on the nature of the Dark Goddess amongst the texts and YouTube communities that she is examining, not all adherents within contemporary Goddess Spirituality view the Dark Goddess in the same way.  In fact, the Dark, or Shadow aspect of Goddess, is a point of heated debate within the Goddess community amongst adherents, feminist theologians, and thealogians. Some Goddess Feminists, such as Carol P. Christ, refute the Dark Goddess as a projection of patriarchy.[ii] Christ favours the opinion that these ‘dark’ and often hostile characteristics applied to Dark Goddesses are a product of the patriarchal lens, which transmutes the goddess into a female hammer for male dominance. This is especially true with goddesses, such as Kali Ma and The Morrigan, who are intricately connected to the art of battle and warfare. Christ, understanding warfare as a patriarchal construct posits that this is an unnatural drive for feminine deities while others embrace the Dark Goddess as part of a greater whole Divine Being.[iii]

It is somewhat problematic to have a dialogue about the Dark Goddess without acknowledging the significant influence of the psychodynamics of Carl Gustav Jung. When asked about the connection between the Dark Goddess and Jung, Warren states that no one has ‘drawn that line’ between Jung and these practices. This is where one must wonder if it was a moment of Jungian synchronicity that Warren’s podcast made its way into my email inbox because my doctoral research directly connects Jung to the birth of the contemporary Western Goddess Movement. (For my conversation with Karen Tate on the topic, click here.) In fact, this isn’t just a ‘therapeutic’ element in Goddess Spirituality as Warren claims; Jung and his student M. Esther Harding who originally brought these ideas to American in the early 1900s have given birth to a psychodynamic Goddess-centred faith tradition. Over the years, Jung’s original ideas about Goddess, whom he often refers to as the Anima or the Anima Mundi (the World Soul), have been transformed by feminist theories beginning with Harding in 1935[iv]  and further revised by Naomi Goldenberg in 1976[v] through to Susan Rowland’s in-depth 2002 study Jung: A Feminist Revision and beyond into contemporary academic research such as my 2016 doctoral study[vi]  of Jung’s influence on the Western Goddess Movement, which traces the roots of a Western post-Jungian Goddess religion back to Jung and Harding through the analysis of an emerging thealogy (goddess-centred) found in contemporary women’s spiritual memoirs. The goddess who was once merely an archetypal theory for Jung (divine immanence in theological terms) has crossed the bridge from the psyche into the real world as various forms of the Goddess are understood as existing beyond the psyche in the natural world (transcendent in theological terms) and are actively worshiped as transcendent beings of divinity.

For Jung, the Dark Goddess is the epitome of one’s ‘Shadow’, and Jung’s concept of the ‘Shadow’ has theological implications. In Aion, Jung writes:

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognising the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance.[vii]

Jung’s model of psychological holism which he deems a path of Individuation[viii] begins with the crucial step of confronting one’s shadow and offers a distinctly feminine alternative to the patriarchal theological construct of sin and evil as disparate parts of ourselves that must be repressed and ignored; instead, Jung offers a system whereby one must integrate one’s shadow.  Not only does Jung ask individuals to stare into the face of their own evil, he asks individuals to embrace this part of themselves as a natural element, which is in direct opposition to the Christian doctrine of evil as the construct of Satan which must, at all costs to the ‘salvation’ of the individual, be avoided.

What post-Jungian Goddess Spirituality offers adherents, and especially women, is an alternate way to both describe and experience the ineffable. More importantly, Jung’s path to Goddess offers adherents a space where their own personal experiences are accepted without question or doubt. Validity is removed as an obstacle to belief. Jung writes:

…there is no question of belief, but of experienceReligious experience is absolute.  It is indisputable.  You can only say that you have never had such an experience, and your opponent will say: “Sorry, I have.” And there your discussion will come to an end.[ix] (emphasis added)

Jung’s theories and models offer an empowering and authentic internal source of power in Goddess. The Dark Goddess is either understood as one side of a multi-faceted Great Goddess (Magna Mater) or as individual goddesses in a pantheon of hundreds.[x] She is a force of death and destruction, and truly encountering a Dark Goddess comes with a steep price. Working with the Dark Goddess often brings the individual to a point of psychological deconstruction. Christine Downing eloquently speaks of her own interaction with the Dark Goddess Persephone in her 1981 memoir The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine. Downing relates how facing fear, weakness, and helplessness brought a significant shift in her psyche. Persephone’s lesson (and the lesson of all Dark Goddesses) was that without weakness and fear one cannot truly know strength and courage. She teaches us that we are capable of both great love and compassion as well as great evil and terrible power. The Dark Goddess shows us our frailties, our weaknesses, and our strengths. She will destroy existing paradigms and provide the path to rebuilding one’s self anew – whole and complete as individuals – empowered. This is the true influence of the Dark Goddess.


  • [i] See Jung, Carl G. (1976) The Portable Jung. Hull RFC (Trans), Campbell J (ed). New York: Penguin Books, The Viking Portable Library, p145-147.
  • [ii] See Christ, Carol P. (1997) Rebirth of the Goddess: Finding Meaning in Feminist Spirituality. New York: Routledge; and (2003) She Who Changes: Re-Imagining the Divine in the World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • [iii] See Woodman, Marion and Dickson, Elinor. (1996) Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness. Boston: Shambhala Publications. Downing, Christine. (2007 [1981]) The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine. Lincoln, NE: Authors Choice Press. Wehr, Demaris S. (1987) Jung & Feminism. Boston: Beacon Press. Bolen, Jean Shinoda. (1984) Goddesses in Everywoman: Powerful Archetypes in Women’s Lives. New York: One Spirit.
  • [iv] See Harding, M. Esther. (1971) Woman’s Mysteries: Ancient and Modern. Introduction by CG Jung. Boston: Shambhala Publications.
  • [v] Goldenberg, Naomi R. (1976) A Feminist Critique of Jung. In: Signs 2.2, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 443–449.
  • [vi] ‘Iolana, Patricia. (2016) Jung and Goddess: The Significance of Jungian and post-Jungian Theory to the Development of the Western Goddess Movement. Doctoral thesis, University of Glasgow. Publication forthcoming. See Also: (2018) ‘Jung’s Legacy: The Western Goddess Movement’. In: MacKian, S., Pile, S., and Bartonlini, N. (eds). (2018) Spaces of Spirituality. London: Routledge, 245-259.
  • [vii] Jung, Carl G. (1976) The Portable Jung. Hull RFC (Trans), Campbell J (ed). New York: Penguin Books, The Viking Portable Library, p144.
  • [viii] Jung, Carl G. (1968) The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Second Edition. Hull RFC (Trans) Read Sir H, Fordham M, Adler G and McGuire W (eds) Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series XX, p275.
  • [ix] Jung Carl G. (1938) Psychology and Religion. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p113.
  • [x] See Perera, Sylvia Brinton. (1981) Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women. Toronto: Inner City Books and Farrar, Janet and Farrar, Stewart. (1987) The Witches’ Goddess: The Feminine Principle of Divinity. Custer, WA: Phoenix Publishing.

Mother Earth, Sister Earth: A Response to the RSP Interview with Dr. Susannah Crockford

A major theme of the interview with Dr. Crockford concerns the extent to which adherents of the “New Age” currents of thought she has studied in Arizona were motivated, or demotivated, by the framework of their ecospiritualities to address problems of environmental or ecological concern. She observed that, somewhat counterintuitively, a majority of the individuals with whom she had spoken evinced no particular commitment to environmental activism on either a societal or an individual level. Instead, they tended toward a millenarian belief that issues of pollution, mass extinction, climate change, and similar would largely resolve themselves in the course of a coming transformation of planetary consciousness, predominantly understood in terms of a shift from an exploitative relationship with an externalized nature—a paradigm coded as masculine—to a cooperative relationship with a nature in which human beings are understood as holistically embedded—a paradigm coded as feminine. Dr. Crockford further speculated that the apparent passivity of her research subjects toward environmental issues could be connected with this gendering of nature, insofar as the idea of “Mother Earth” implicitly casts nature in the role of caretaker, comforter, and nurturer. Indeed, in many ways it might be seen as effecting a startling transfer of responsibility insofar as nature can then be read, like a mother in respect of her child, as having some form of inherent moral responsibility to attend to the welfare of human beings.

I have lived in the American Southwest much of my life, and so Dr. Crockford’s description of Sedona and its inhabitants was very familiar to me (although I have never visited that particular corner of Arizona). I was somewhat startled, though, by the idea of connecting the kind of hyperemotionalized and largely disembodied approach to spirituality and the environment that she found there to gendered discourses. On a personal level, as a former inhabitant of the region, I see much closer connections between the kind of American New Age spirituality she described and the transhumanist millenarianism that pervades much of the culture of Silicon Valley. Both are driven largely by fear of imminent physical catastrophe that, in the minds of their adherents, can only be escaped by transcending the physical limitations of one’s humanity and finding refuge in a kind of Pleroma, be it “spiritual” or digital. In both cases, the work of reaching this safe-haven is understood as properly belonging only to a chosen few who possess the requisite vision, and one’s personal arrival at the envisioned end-point suffices as a total victory, either because the masses simply don’t matter (as in Silicon Valley) or because their conditions will be magically transformed by the deus ex machinasummoned by the efforts of their spiritual superiors (as in Sedona). That these broadly comparable attitudes thrive among women leading Goddess workshops and men in the commanding heights of one of the world’s most patriarchal subcultures suggests to me that gender-coding of the kind Dr. Crockford investigates is a generally tangential issue to many of these attitudes.

As a scholar in religious studies, however, the idea of this connection surprised me in a different way, as the majority of my own work concerns what some (but never its own participants) might call a “New Age” movement that flourished in Britain and Ireland during the 1970s and 1980s—a religious order called Lux Madriana. The Madrians, as they were known, also believed that the planet was approaching disaster and reconfiguration on a scale unprecedented in recorded history, that their religious movement was a vanguard of a new spiritual awakening, and that the new era would be dominated by feminine conceptions of Divinity and society. Indeed, their religion was based around the worship of God as Mother—a belief they said had once been universal to humanity in the days of what Marija Gimbutas called “Old Europe”, until being overthrown in the period of patriarchy, which they identified with the Hindu Kali Yuga, or Iron Age. Unlike the Sedonans, however, this prompted them to promote genuine political and social matriarchy, as well as to critique industrialism and most modern technology as near-diabolic outworkings of the modern obsession with quantification, scale, and material efficiency (à la the “reign of quantity” described by René Guénon, whom the Madrians greatly admired)—tendencies which they regarded as decidedly masculine. Accordingly, they protested nuclear power, commercial pesticides, and other environmental depridations and dedicated very practical (though ultimately unsuccessful) efforts toward the creation of sustainable, subsistence agricultural communities in several locations. Members of their order returned to the land, without electricity, in order to cultivate traditional trades and crafts as meditative disciplines and pathways to spiritual progress.

In asking myself why the feminine millenarianism of the Madrians did not beguile them into the same passivity that Dr. Crockford found to be so common in Sedona, I suspect the answer has less to do with concepts of gender and more to do with metaphors of family. For all that their social and political teaching was quite radical, Madrian theology was quite traditional (in both the common and the Guénonian senses of the term). While cultivating a strong sense of the Divine presence withinthe material world, they kept careful and nuanced distinctions between Creatrix and Creation; because God was seen as Mother, the Earth, as a part of the Creation, could not be. Instead, their scriptures taught that “the earth is thy sister, and the creatures thereof are thy kin” (The Heart of Water, v. 3)—a position echoing G.K. Chesterton (of whom they were also a great admirer), who wrote that “The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature was not our mother: Nature is our sister.” (Orthodoxy) Among the many creatures of the Earth the Madrians recognized were the fairies, whom they saw nearly everywhere in the natural world but (as they lamented in the pages of their magazineThe Coming Age) with less and less frequency as time went on, for they believed that modern practices of industrialized agriculture were driving the fairies, whom they called the “little sisters”, away from human habitations. In this charming term of endearment we perhaps hear another echo of Chesterton, who observed that “To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.”

In both Christianity and Madrianism there are, obviously, vast reaches of gendered implication in images of motherhood and of sisterhood but, in comparison with Sedona, the key aspect seems to be the difference between parenthood and siblinghood. Across many spiritual and religious traditions, including all those considered here, the image of the Divine parent does not contrast an adult child, but rather a little child, as the image of the believer or of humanity, and while a little child can be responsible to a father or a mother, no little child can be responsible forone. This is the symbolic trap of “Mother Earth” into which much of the New Age movement readily falls, implicitly (and perhaps quite accidentally) casting nature as the eternally self-sacrificing parent who will, from natural affection, ultimately give her own life for the welfare of her child. Indeed, one is tempted to read much New Age thought on the subject as a naturalized recapitulation of the Christian theme of Divine self-sacrifice born from the inexhaustible love of a parent. Wherever nature and deity come too close together, human beings will quite readily read themselves into the story of the prodigal son, whose parent, no matter how long he has been gone or what he has done, will gladly slaughter many animals to throw his welcome feast. Even a relatively young child, however, canbe responsible (within reasonable bounds) for a younger sibling, and we might well expect to find a more environmentally engaged attitude among those of any religion who expect that, one day, their Divine parent might call them to answer for what has become of their little sisters on their watch.

Dr. Crockford, at the beginning of the interview, usefully defines ecospiritualities as perspectives and practices that, beyond seeing the natural world as a divine creation or as a field of immanent divine activity, instead relate to nature, reified, as a divine force in its own right. Writers and speakers associated with these movements often portray this as a re-enchantment of the Earth—a return to the primordial worldview of peoples who still lived on lands they knew as sacred. Indeed, the subjects of Dr. Crockford’s research frequently alluded to the reverence in which the area of Sedona was held by the tribes that inhabited it. As jumbo-jet pilgrims seasonally swell the population of the fragile, drought-threatened landscape into a lucrative bazaar of workshops and mined crystals, however, the comparison that comes to mind is not with the respect given by the Apache and Yavapai to the lands from which they were forcibly removed in the 1876 midwinter march that killed nearly half of them. Instead, one cannot help but think of the customs of peoples throughout history who, upon choosing a sacrificial victim, have dressed and celebrated them as a god before delivering them over, bound, to satisfy the true objects of their worship.

Protected: Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature (Classroom Edit)

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Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered… and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining Chris today to discuss these questions and more, is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University.

This interview was recorded at the June 2018 EASR Conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland, where Susannah has delivered a paper entitled “What Gender is ‘Nature’? An approach to new age ecospirituality in theory and practice.” This interview was graciously facilitated by Moritz Klenk, and his podcast studio!

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, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, Dickies one piece mechanic suits, and more.


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


Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature

Podcast with Susannah Crockford (1 October 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Crockford_-_Ecospirituality,_Gender_and_Nature_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (C.C.): In some contexts, asking the question “what gender is nature?” might provoke a condescending response – “of course nature doesn’t have a gender”. Yet, despite this naturalistic – get it? – response, in an enormous array of contemporary and historic discourses we find nature being gendered . . . and, in many cases, this gender is female. Is, as Sherry Ortner once asked, Female to Nature as Male is to Culture? Where does this discourse come from? How does this gendering of nature intersect with contemporary forms of ecospirituality? And religion more generally? Why does it matter? And for whom? Joining me today to discuss these questions and more is Dr Susannah Crockford of Ghent University. So for a start, Susannah, to the Religious Studies Project, welcome!

Susannah Crockford (SC): Thank you! Welcome.

CC: We are recording in Bern, at the European Association for the Study of Religion Conference, where Susannah has been delivering a paper earlier on called “What Gender is nature? An Approach to New Age Ecospirituality in Theory and Practice.” So I had the pleasure of being in the room. But before we get to today’s conversation I’ll just tell you that Dr Crockford’s a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Literary Studies at Ghent University, which works on the NARMESH, or Narrating the Mesh project, investigating the contemporary narrative of the interrelations between humans and large gamut of non-human realities and its potential for staging, challenging and expanding the human imagination of the non-human. The research interests centre on the use of ethnography to explore narratives of spirituality, millenarianism and climate change. Her doctoral thesis was entitled “After the American Dream: Political Economy and Spirituality in Northern Arizona”. And that was awarded in July 2017 by LSE, following which she spent 9 months as a research officer for INFORM or the Information Network on New Religious Movements. And she has a number of forthcoming articles and chapters on topics relevant to today’s interview coming out in Religion, State and Society, Correspondences, Novo Religio and the Dictionary of Contemporary Esotericism. So, watch this space! I suppose some of them might have changed from forthcoming to published by the time this goes out, who knows?

SC: Probably. Hopefully. You never know.

CC: Yes. Academic publishing is a wonderful, wonderful world!

SC: We love it. We love it. (Laughs).

CC: So, we’re going to get to your case study in Arizona soon, but first of all: gender, nature, ecospirituality – how do you get here?

SC: How did I get here was very much through my fieldwork. Because these were the kind-of topics that came up when I was in Sedona and other places in Arizona. People talked about nature in a very gendered way. It was very striking to me just how much these discourses came up. So it was very much an empirical interest. I didn’t really set out to study ecological issues, or ecospirituality. I mean, I thought nature would be relevant when I got to the field. But I wasn’t so concerned with gender. But it’s kind-of one of these topics that it was going to be in my thesis, and then I didn’t have space. So I kind-of pushed it to one side. And then, for this conference, it kind-of came back. And I was like, “Oh yes! Now I can write my thing about gender and ecospirituality” and how New Age spirituality really kind-of inverts this gender binary, I think in a quite interesting, but also problematic, way. So that’s how it came about.

CC: Well how did you, more broadly, end up in Arizona?

SC: That’s a really good question.  And, I mean, there are several ways that I can date it back to. But let’s just say for the sake of simplicity I ended up in Arizona because I wanted to do a project on contemporary esotericism and I discovered Sedona, which is in Arizona, through a quite tragic case, actually of James Arthur Ray. He set himself up as this spiritual guru. And he ran a sweat lodge as part of a longer Rainbow Warrior workshop, where people paid $9000 to go and “unleash your spiritual warrior within”. And it was held in Sedona. And then three people died in this sweat lodge. It was in 2009. And I was reading about that in the news, because I was doing a lot of work on Shamanism at the time. And I was like, “Oh, That’s terrible.” But then I was like, “Oh there’s this place called Sedona that’s full of these New Age people and full of these things that they call vortexes. That would be a great place for an ethnographic study on contemporary esotericism!” So that, very briefly, is how I ended up in Arizona doing my fieldwork.

CC: I could ask you now to introduce us to Sedona, but maybe I should say first of all – because ecospirituality’s going to be coming up probably throughout the introduction . . . . So I know this is a very broad question but, in terms of the next twenty minutes, what are we meaning by ecospirituality? And then we’ll hear more about it.

SC: Yes, so I’m going to define it in a really simple way – which obviously some people might find simplistic – but: finding nature is, in some form, divinised, or finding divinity in nature. And doing that outside of the framework of some organised religion. So I think the difference between ecospirituality and say, like the Pope’s Encyclical on Climate Change, for example. Like you can be concerned for the environment as a mainstream Christian, but I don’t think that’s ecospirituality. Because God, specifically, is not in nature for them. For people who are in some way engaged in ecospirituality the divine is in nature. It’s pantheistic. And it comes up in lots of different forms. Paganism is obviously a really prominent one, Wicca, and it’s obviously very prominent in New Age spiritualties that see nature as part of the energy of the universe, but in a very kind-of high vibrational form. So the energy of nature is one that has a very kind-of high spiritual level. So there’s a very clear association between nature and spirituality and, as we’ll get onto, women and femininity.

CC: And so it’s not environmentalism, and things like that?

SC: No. And that’s actually one of the main points I was making, today: that just because you find spirituality in nature, you think that nature has something to do with your understanding of God, doesn’t mean that you will actually engage in actions that might be considered environmentally friendly, or ecologically engaged, or in fact have anything to do with mitigating largescale ecological problems like pollution and climate change. These are separate things.

CC: Yes. And to the audio editors, we’re going to start banging the table!

SC: Sorry, I need to gesticulate!

CC: It’s alright. Hit me, instead of the table.

Both: (Laugh).

CC: Right. So let’s set the scene then. So, Sedona – a small town in Arizona. What makes it so interesting? You mentioned the vortexes earlier and things . . .

SC: Yes. So Sedona is a fascinating town. It is in Northern Arizona, which is higher up than Southern Arizona. So it’s not low desert with the big Saguaro cactuses which come to most people’s minds when they think about Arizona. It’s up in the mountains, it gets cold in the winter. They even have snow sometimes, but it’s also still, quite hot. Sedona has a river – which is quite rare in Arizona. So it has a fresh water source. So it has the incredible kind-of red rock canyons and the river running through it. There’s trees growing everywhere. So it’s very different from the rest of Arizona. And it’s this sense of landscape that is both striking and substantially different from that around it which I think makes it stand up in human perception as something that this is different enough that “I will perceive it, in some way, maybe, sublime – or even something to do with the divine.” Because a lot of people who live there think that Sedona is a sacred space, whether or not they’re engaged in New Age spirituality. People I spoke to there who were Christians said, you know, “This is a place where God has kind-of bestowed something special on the human race.” Because it is a very beautiful place. So it’s a town of about 17000 people. It is within the Red Rock Canyon. It has one main highway and then another bit splits off to a slightly southern community that’s called the Village of Oak Creek. But they’re all basically Sedona, they’re all pretty much one place. Even though municipally they’re two different places. And Sedona is a tourist resort. It has a lot of kind-of hotels and it has a lot of spas and timeshares, and people go there to enjoy nature, to go on holiday. A lot of people who own property there, own it as a second home. There’s even some kind-of super-rich people there, like John McCain who’s a Republican Senator, Sharon Stone apparently owned a house up the hill from where I first rented a room, in uptown. So there’s these three main locations in Sedona. Uptown has a lot of the stores and a lot of the very wealthy houses. You’ve got West Sedona where there’s a lot of the services, like the Post Office and the school. And it’s where a lot of my informants lived, because it’s a lot cheaper. And then you’ve got the village of Oak Creek which where a lot of retirees live. Because it’s a good place. There’s this phenomena in America of Snowbirds – of people who, once they retire, go and live somewhere sunny for the winter. And then, for the hot months – which are very, very hot – they go back up north to Michigan or Canada or wherever they’re from. So there’s a lot of Snowbirds in Sedona. So, as a town, it’s quite . . . I don’t know, it’s quite typical of small town America in lots of ways. You know, there’s the older people who own all the property and the young people work all the jobs, but don’t really have any resources. And then you’ve also got these things called vortexes. So there’s two ways of talking about the vortexes. Either you can say that there’s four, around town, which are all these kind-of very prominent red rock formations. There are lots of other red rock formations and they have all kinds of names. There’s one called Snoopy, because it looks a bit like Snoopy lying on his back. I never quite saw it myself, but you know people told me it looked like Snoopy anyway. And there’s Cathedral Rock which apparently used to be called Court Rock. And there’s another rock called Courthouse rock. And they got mixed up, and then suddenly Cathedral Rock became Cathedral Rock instead. So this is kind-of like historicity to the naming of the rocks. But they’re also given this kind-of eternal, almost like Eliadian essence of the divine, where people say, “No. They have this special energy. The Native Americans knew about this special energy, that’s why it was sacred to the local tribe s that lived here.” And the reason that people now say there are vortexes there is because this energy emanates from the earth – you know, it’s a real part of the landscape and that’s why we’re drawn there. So people do move there to go and have spiritual experiences. You know, people go on vacations and you know, there’s a lot of services there that cater for this market as well. You can get your aura photograph taken, you can go on a vortex tour. You can have a Shaman take you round to power spots and do rituals with you. So there is a market to it. But there’s also people who genuinely engage with these practices and move there because they feel like it’s a part of their spiritual path. They move there. They would tell me that they were called to Sedona that “the energy drew them in”. And then if they had to leave it was “the energy that spat them out”. And some people would say it was quite a common discourse in Sedona, that the energy could get so intense it could literally drive you crazy. There was a story of a woman who said that she had to leave because “the Red Rocks were screaming at her”. So, you know. There’s this idea that this is a very special place, it’s a very sacred place. But it’s also incredibly intense, and it can be very difficult to live there, both materially and spiritually – if that’s how you kind-of experience your world.

CC: So that’s an excellent scene-setting for the milieu, and the spiritual milieu in Sedona. But let’s focus in on the role of nature in this context, and these practices – and then also on gender. I imagine that you can probably talk about those at the same time.

SC: Yes. So nature is really prominent. I mean it would be prominent even with people who didn’t in any way engage with New Age spirituality. And something I should probably say here is that no-one actually called themselves a “New Ager” in Sedona. There was a shop called Centre for the New Age which has psychic where you can go and pay for readings. But if you ask people, “Are you a New Ager?” they would say, “No.” They call it spirituality and they’re quite comfortable with that. They don’t really care about all out disciplinary arguments about what’s spirituality, and what’s religion, and what’s what. They just say, “Yes, I’m spiritual.” Or “Yes, I’m interested in spirituality.” But they would never really call themselves New Agers – unless they were trying to sell a certain product and it helped them as a label. So the people who were engaged in some way in spirituality very often identified nature as a very prominent source of what they would consider kind-of spiritual practice. But also kind-of just the energy of the place. So for some people being spiritual literally just entailed going for hikes amongst the rocks, maybe meditating a bit, but just being close to the earth. And simply moving to Sedona was seen as way of getting closer to nature. Because it was this place of like astounding natural beauty. It was kind-of seen as embodying nature in a very visceral way. And you’ve also got other locations close by like the Grand Canyon, the San Francisco Peaks, which is a larger series of mountains that were also considered sacred and kind-of also embodied this idea of big nature in a similar way. So, when it comes to gender, the experience of nature as sacred was very often feminised in the way they spoke about it. So, you know, obviously mother Earth is quite a common one. But in Sedona they would also talk about the Father Sky. So there’s this idea of gender emerging there already. So you’ve got Mother Earth on the one hand that complements father sky. They would talk about the divine feminine and the complement is the divine masculine. Now these are energies. And the shift that was once called the New Age – but now they talk about it much in terms like the ascension, they call it the shift, they call it the new paradigm – this is when the old male energies kind-of wither away and die and are supplanted with the dominance of the divine feminine. So the change that is called New Age spirituality, that change is a shift from something that’s coded as male to something that’s coded as female. And there are all kinds of associations with this gender binary. So male is aggressive, competitive, you know: men start wars, men destroy the planet, they have an extractive relationship to nature. Whereas the female principle is cooperative: it’s very in tune with emotions and it’s very connected to nature and celebrating the earth and being part of the earth. And so, something that came up in the panel today was . . . . This is a very old association between women and nature, but the way that association is framed is not always the same in all times and all places. So I thought one thing interesting that came up this morning was the feminine being associated with death, which made total sense to me. But that’s not there in the context in Sedona. Women are about life, they are about producing life. The feminine is the mother, is the nurturer, is the care giver. You know, this is the divine feminine principle. So it’s this very kind-of starkly-coded gender binary. And it doesn’t really change anything from what are the kind-of general gender associations in America more generally. It just inverts it and says that the feminine is better than the masculine. And you know, basically, it’s not even that women should be in charge – it’s just that everyone should embrace the feminine within them, and that that complementarity is part of the way that we will progress spiritually and socially. But it doesn’t really lend itself to any sense of action. And this is where we come back to this idea that ecospirituality is not the same as environmentalism. My informants weren’t in any way engaged in environmental politics. They didn’t really do anything that could be seen as particularly environmentally friendly. And in fact in the whole kind-of cosmology of the shift, or the ascension, it’s happening anyway. And the way it happens is like everyone working on their spiritual practice. It doesn’t happen by you going on protests or you switching to an electric car, or whatever. It happens by you sitting at home and meditating. Now from another perspective, you could see how that doesn’t help the environment at all. In fact, it breeds a certain passivity to social action. And means that people are going along with the same kind-of actions that are harming the planet. For example: driving cars, which release a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, carbon monoxide and all the other greenhouse gases. So there’s no sense of social action or social change. It’s all very inward. And everyone going on their spiritual path together cumulatively creates the change. It’s like the 100th monkey idea. Do you know what that is?

CC: Go for it.

SC: Well it’s like this credited idea from Bio-Anth – biological anthropology –

CC: Yes.

SC:   – that if, like, a certain number of monkeys – say 100 – learn a specific skill it will spread out through the rest of the monkeys by, like, collective consciousness. So that’s very dominant, at least amongst my informants in Sedona, that in fact it was detrimental to go out and do political action. I had this one informant who used to be very involved in NGOs, and going to other countries and trying to do development work. And then she said that all her protest work and all of her social action work had actually been making things worse, because she was so focussed on the negativity of these situations and instead she should stay in America and work on her spiritual path. And, you know, she did various kind-of workshops, and she was very much engaged in “embracing this divine feminine” herself. But that seems to basically involve going on these exclusive retreats to places like the Caribbean Islands, like the Bahamas, or like places in Aspen, Colorado, and getting women who had very high-paying jobs to go on them, so that they could go and “explore their divine feminine”, “work on their consciousness”, and “evolution”, and “inner-conscious entrepreneur”. And by doing that, she would help create way more positive action than she ever did working in NGOs. And, you know, so you can kind-of shift the perspective and go, “How is it helping by you kind-of creating all these places where everyone flies into these luxury resorts, has a lovely holiday, goes home, continues doing capitalism every day?” So . . .

CC: So you’ve done a good job of painting the relationship or lack of relationship, potentially, between environmentalism and ecospirituality, and sort of carving out what we’re meaning there. And we’ve spoken about the entanglements of gender and constructions of nature. But how are the two, I guess, entangled? These two: the ecospirituality on the one hand and this gendering of nature. Are there example you can maybe give of that entanglement of the two?

SC: So, how is ecospirituality entangled in gender? Well, I think it’s very much in this idea associating nature with the feminine – and that both of those things are given a positive valence regardless of what those actions actually are. So I could get very frustrated, in fact, in the field, with people talking about things that are nature and natural as thought that means it’s good for human health. So to take as an example: my informants generally liked to get water from the spring in Sedona because it came directly from the earth – and therefore it was good for them, right? But then it actually transpired that that stream had a very high level of naturally occurring anthrax, which is not good for human health. Now that’s entirely natural, in the sense that humans didn’t put it there. It was a part of the composition of the soil and the water in the area.

(Edited audio)

CC: Susannah has a correction to make to what she just said!

SC: Yes, so what I meant to say, instead of anthrax, was in fact arsenic. Arsenic is naturally occurring in water, not anthrax.

CC: Back to the interview!

(End of edit)

SC: Also, with the way this divine feminine principle got expressed in practice. So in my paper today, I talked about the work of an artist who . . . she did this whole series of paintings of the goddess. And it was all different kind-of instantiations of what she called the goddess energy. And it was all like faces of women growing out of trees, for example. And there’s this wonderful one called Blue Corn Woman, which she attached to a re-evaluation of Hopi myth that had something to do them surviving Atlantis because they listened to earth and knew when to go underground. And therefore they survived the cataclysm that destroyed Atlantis. So she had a whole series of paintings in this way. And, in person, she would always talk about the Goddess and how that was how she kind-of tried to live her life – it was in celebration of this divine feminine principle. And then this led to this very kind-of difficult lifestyle that she had, where she didn’t really want to go out and work because “emotionally, that didn’t suit her”. She wanted to do art, because that’s how she “expressed her soul”. But that meant she basically relied on men, who were variously infatuated with her, to support her financially. And she also had a fairly considerable drinking problem. And she drove her car while drunk. She had a blood alcohol level of like 0.3, now the legal limit is like 0.8 or 008, or something, so she was well over the legal limit. And she drove it into a fire station and wrecked the front of a fire station. And afterwards she was arrested, you know . . .  the process . . . . Let out . . . she blamed the fact that she had experienced childhood trauma. And it wasn’t that she was drunk, it was that she was having a “dissociative state” at the time, caused by her childhood trauma. So she, then, refused to come to court many times. She kept firing her lawyer. And this was . . . all she had to serve was a 90 day prison sentence and go on her way. And it took her three years to come to terms and just do that. So, why is this related to the divine feminine and nature? So it was this association between her emotions and her emotional state – the idea of herself as a woman and the idea of what is natural and what is natural for her – led to this lifestyle that is on one hand quite passive, and on the other hand not accepting any sense of social responsibility for her own action. Because she wasn’t responsible because she’d experienced this trauma. Therefore her emotions were such that she just had to express them. And I felt that that was actually quite problematic. Because, on the one hand you’ve got ecospirituality that’s seen as. . . in a way it’s seen as inevitable – you don’t have to do anything – so that breeds passivity on the social level. And then on a personal level it leads to a lack of accountability in your personal actions – or it can. Because you over-value your own emotions to the extent that the consequences of your emotional states are not dealt with. At least, I felt that in that case. Obviously I knew other people who, in different ways, were interested in kind-of the divine feminine aspects of spirituality. And they did quite productive things. So I don’t want to try and claim that everyone was like this. I’m saying that this is like . . . . The worst excesses of this kind-of association could lead to this kind-of situation. I knew someone else, for example, who felt that the divine feminine principle was how she should express her spirituality and she held Goddess wisdom workshops, and they were very fun, and that was fine. (Laughs) But again, I felt like there was this very simplistic association between femininity, nature and the sense of goodness. Like . . . that it was somehow inherent, and that you would just somehow know, as a woman, by being natural, the right thing to do. And I don’t think that that was always the case.

CC: Excellent. So we’re getting on in time, and I know I’ve got two more questions that I want to ask you before we get to the “what’s next on the agenda, for your research”. One is – you’ve just been speaking there a bit to this: what are the practical, social, political, real world – for want of a better term – effects of this gendering of nature, in your research experience? Why does it matter?

SC: OK. Why does it matter? I think it matters because we are in a time, in our society, when actually we really need to pay a great deal of attention to the environment and to ecology, not for the sake of the planet or of the environment in some disconnected way – because they will actually keep on going. What’s happening in terms of climate change is the erosion of the habitability of the planet for humans. You know, we’re destroying our own ecosystem, and we will be the ones that suffer for that eventually. And I think any of these discourses that kind-of separate off nature and the environment as something separate from humans are causing harm. And I think this particular kind-of ecospirituality in terms of the New Age, or whatever you want to a call it, is quite detrimental in terms of ecology, because it doesn’t put any kind-of real world action to the forefront. I think meditating is great, but I also think you need to accompany it with some form of action that will make your goals happen instead of just sitting back and thinking that it will happen inevitably. It’s like: prayer is great, but you should also get out there and do something about the social goals you want to achieve that go along with your religious ethics. So what I see a bit too much in this particular form is the “nature will just take care of these things.” That somehow Mother Nature is this caring powerful being and that that means it’s all going to be ok for humans. And that’s not the case. If we continue destroying our ecosystems humans will not continue living. You know, society will not continue. The planet will find a way to go on, because it’s the planet. So that’s why, in real world terms, I think it matters. I think I’m being a bit more evaluative and normative than I would ever be if I wrote any of this down, right now!

CC: That’s ok, you know.

SC: Is that ok? Because I really feel like that this is the defining important issue of our time. And if you’re not paying attention to it, if you’re not doing something useful about it, whatever that may be – even if it is just your individual actions – then actually, you’re not helping. You’re making things worse.

CC: And just to riff on that normativity a little bit, I can imagine that actually, yes, part of this discourse enables people . . . like, people might feel that they are doing something.

SC: Yes. No, they absolutely think they’re doing . . . . They think they are the only ones that are doing something. Because they’re meditating and expecting the shift any moment through enhancing themselves spiritually. Which . . . from a Religious Studies perspective it’s fascinating! I could sit and describe the cosmology all day. But if we’re going to talk about real world effects and real problems, that’s not helping.

CC: Exactly. We should also just acknowledge that we’ve been speaking in terms of gender binaries here, but that is predominantly what’s going on in the discourse. It is . . . we’re talking in binaries.

SC: Yes, so I very much . . . . Perhaps we should flag that up? I’m not saying, “I believe that these gender binaries are natural.” I’m saying that in this context my informants naturalised these gender binaries: “There is male and there is female”. They don’t really think about any other formation of gender. And that’s the way they see it. I’m not saying that normatively that’s correct.

CC: Exactly. So this is the Religious Studies Project. We’ve been floating around the topic of religion and spirituality here. But could we . . . . We probably could have described a lot of the stuff that was going on without needing to invoke those terms. So I’m just wondering what the role, what role these terms are playing, or if there’s maybe other dynamics that could explain away this gendering of nature.

SC: Yes, so I think I’m probably going to say something that will annoy lots of people who do Religious Studies. But I think that if we’re going to talk about spirituality, for me it’s a very specific thing which is this form of spirituality that was once called New Age. And it has a specific cosmology. And if you go out there amongst people who actually engage in these practices you can see it coming through. And I always say the basic tenet of it is that everything is energy and all energy vibrates at a specific frequency. So I think that spirituality, so defined, is kind-of one of the big religious shifts that we’re currently going through. Spirituality isn’t just something that happens in Sedona. It’s not something that just happens in America. It’s a global phenomenon. One of the things that happens to me a lot as I talk about my work – especially to other anthropologists, which is my background – they’ll say, “Oh yes! People I know in Palestine are really into that, because it gets them over sectarian conflict.” “People in Indonesia that I work with are really interested in that right now, as a form of healing.” And it is spread around the globe. And it is offering people a way of doing religion that is not part of their typical traditional organised religion. And for some people that’s just like a breath of fresh air. For some people that’s, quite literally, a life-saver – that they don’t have to engage in these old sectarian conflicts anymore; that they can create a new way forward without becoming secular. Because a lot of people don’t actually want that. They want to still engage with some kind-of meta-empirical reality – whatever you want to use as a term for it. So I think that spirituality is a form of religion, and it’s one of the growing forms of religion. And if you want to pay attention to the trends in religion now, as it’s actually lived and experienced on a daily basis, then you should really pay attention to spirituality – especially because it doesn’t really show up on stats and censuses, because there’s not really a box to tick for it. And also, people who are into spirituality really don’t like definitions. They wouldn’t really call themselves spiritual in that sense, but if you talk to them about what they do, and if you ask them if they’re interested in spirituality they will “Yes”, and suddenly they will come up with all of these fascinating things that they do. So I think it’s something that has to be studied empirically through qualitative research. And I think it’s something that is probably a lot more prevalent than we realise. Because it doesn’t really show up on these top-down measurements that a lot of scholarship can rely on – not all of it, obviously.

CC: (Laughs). So we have a whirlwind here. And, of course, we’ll point listeners to these forthcoming works. And you’re working on this NARMESH project, just now?

SC: NARMESH, yes.

CC: And so, you’re probably going to say it’s what’s next for you. But do want to say a little bit about your work there, and also, perhaps, anything you would like to see happening in this field of gender, spirituality, nature?

SC: Ok. So NARMESH is one of these ERC projects which . . . I’m kind-of discovering that they all have these kind-of acronyms for what they’re called. It’s from “narrating the mesh” which is from eco-theorist Timothy Morton’s work. So, the mesh is his idea for how everything is interconnected. And our project is looking at narratives of the interconnection of humans and non-humans and climate. So the rest of the people on the project are looking at narratives in literary fiction – which is why I’m in the Literary Studies department – and I’m looking at personal narratives. So what I’ve been doing is taking interviews and doing some short bits of fieldwork amongst groups of people who are differently positioned in the wider climate change discourse. So that’s climate scientists, radical environmentalists or kind-of eco-philosophers and, also, people who do not accept that climate change is happening – or if it is, they do not accept the human role in climate change. So, what we might call deniers or climate change sceptics. So that’s my current work. I’m kind-of in the middle of doing the fieldwork for that over in Sweden, two weeks ago, amongst people who basically see the world as ending and that we’re living through this kind-of destruction of the world. And “how do we kind-of create a new culture?” So that’s what I’ve been doing most recently. In terms of gender, nature and eco spirituality, I think it’s a really fascinating field and it’s one that I think you can kind-of bring together a lot of diverse studies from antiquity, right through to contemporary work, to look at this kind-of question. You know: how is nature gendered? What do we mean by goddess spirituality? And I think it is something that’s quite neglected. I think it’s something that, for a long time, got relegated to that kind-of “women’s studies” area of Religious Studies, and a lot of people don’t see it as particularly interesting or relevant. So I think it’s one of those things, if people start looking at it and studying it, it will come up more and more as a really relevant and important part of everyday religious practice for a very widely placed diversity of people, in different traditions, and different  historical periods and times.

CC: And I’m sure that there’s a lot more that we could get into just there now – but we have run out of time, Listeners. That was an excellent interview Susannah Crockford, and we’re looking forward to all the interest that you will have piqued, and to hearing more from this developing project that you’ve got. NARMESH?

SC: NARMESH, great. Thank you so much.

CC: It does sound like a little farewell, doesn’t it? Narmesh!

SC: Narmesh!

Both: (Laugh).


Citation Info: Crockford, Susannah and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Ecospirituality, Gender and Nature”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 1 October 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 6 July 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/ecospirituality-gender-and-nature/

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

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

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Resonance of Vestigial States

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 stalwart (currently our videos producer), Jonathan Tuckett.

Way back in the early days of the RSP when I did interviews and roundtables I interviewed Naomi Goldenberg on religion as vestigial states. This was also back in the early days of my PhD when I had joined Stirling University and its program of phenomenology“. (Don’t worry this isn’t about phenomenology so much as it is about me).

This was all before I started reading Alfred Schutz who turned my thesis onto an entirely new path and eventually to the heights of “proper phenomenology”. The truth is, back then – when I interviewed Naomi – I couldn’t really say that a I “got” Critical Religion. As David has already explained in his editor’s choice, Timothy Fitzgerald is perhaps the most important scholar of religion of our time for the fact that he has made us change the way we think about religion. But I was stubborn and combative, so I had to come to realise the paradigm shift of Tim’s work by a slightly circuitous route.

And ever since I have made that paradigm shift, ever since I “got” Critical Religion and pronounce myself to be a part of that group, I have returned again and again to Naomi’s work on religion as vestigial states. I’m not saying I fully agree with Naomi’s theory. But the more I develop my proper phenomenology (yes, I am going to hammer that distinction again and again – I am no less stubborn and combative these days), the more I find how similarly my own views on “religion” resonate with hers. And, with potentially fortuitous timing, Naomi will be keynote speaker at this year’s BASR conference so we may well have another interview with her in the near future.

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, buckets-o-soldiers, sharpies, and more.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Intersections of Religion and Feminism

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 our editor in charge of sales and marketing, Sammy Bishop.

When asked to choose a podcast to flag up as my ‘editor’s pick’, one immediately sprang to mind: Chris Cotter‘s interview with Dawn Llewellyn on ‘Religion and Feminism‘. Starting on a personal note, this podcast was my initial step toward being involved with the RSP, as it was the first one that I provided a response to; and it was a joy to listen to their conversation.

Not only does the discussion provide a great introduction to how feminism, religion, and the academic study of both, might (or indeed, might not) interact; but Llewellyn also does an excellent job of flagging up how future work in these fields could become more productively interdisciplinary. The interview was recorded in October 2016 – so is very new in terms of academic timelines – but even since then, various forms of contemporary feminism have enjoyed a huge rise in prominence. The themes raised in this interview have more relevance than ever, and are worth revisiting in light of recent discussions on the intersections of feminism and religion.

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, humidors, curling tongs, and more.

From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A developing field…

The twenty-first century has witnessed growing academic and popular interest in a variety of categories which are related to ‘religion’ but conceptualized as ‘other’… atheism, non-religion, secularity, religious indifference, and so on. Each of these categories can be conceptualized as aspects of the general category ‘unbelief’—‘used in a wide sense, implying a generalized lack of belief in a God or gods’ (Lee and Bullivant 2016).

Back in 2012, Chris sat down – with friend and colleague Ethan Quillen – to speak to Lois Lee, on the topic of ‘non-religion’. Since then, a lot has changed. Lee has climbed the academic ladder, publishing her first monograph with OUP in 2015 – Recognizing the Non-Religious: Re-Imagining the Secular – and currently serving as project leader on the Understanding Unbelief programme. This is a major new research programme aiming to advance scientific understanding of atheism and other forms of ‘unbelief’ around the world through core research and an additional £1.25 million being spent on additional projects and public engagement activities. Chris’s career has also progressed, with recent work including co-editing New Atheism: Critical Perspectives and Contemporary Debates, and beginning a postdoctoral project engaging in a comparative study of ‘unbelief’ in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In this podcast, we check in with the state of the field, discuss developments beyond the Anglophone “West”, some of the many exciting projects being worked on under the “Understanding Unbelief” banner, the utility and pitfalls of the terminology of “unbelief”, and some of the critical issues surrounding the reification of survey categories.

Of relevance to the themes discussed, include Marta Trzebiatowska’s blog post on gender issues in non-religion studies: Not for Girls? Gender and Researching Nonreligion. This blog is part of the NSRN/SSNB blog series on research methods. The full series is introduced here: Research Methods for the Scientific Study of Nonreligion, by Lois Lee, Stephen Bullivant, Miguel Farias and Jonathan Lanman, Nonreligion & Secularity Research Network, 2016.

Specific Understanding Unbelief projects mentioned in the podcast include:

* Mapping the Psychology of Unbelief Across Contexts and Cultures, PI: Jonathan Jong, Psychology, Coventry University, UK
* Nonreligious Childhood: Growing Up Unbelieving in Contemporary Britain, PI: Dr Anna Strhan, Religious Studies, University of Kent, UK,

Listeners may also be interested in our podcasts on “Understanding the Secular“, “Permutations of Secularism“, “Non-Religion”, “Secular Humanism“. “The Post-Secular“, “Studying Non-Religion within Religious Studies“, “The Secularization Thesis” and more…

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 finding UNBELIEVABLE deals on academic texts, strawberry jam, vintage clothing, and more.

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

From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A Developing Field

Podcast with Lois Lee (26 February 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Lee_-_Non-Religion_to_Unbelief_-_A_Developing_Field_1.1

 

Christopher Cotter (CC): Greetings, Religious Studies Project listeners! I am speaking to you from London, in the abode of Dr Lois Lee, who’s returning to the Religious Studies Project. Hi, Lois.

Lois Lee (LL): Hi. Lovely to be here again.

CC: Lois was one of our first interviewees back in 2012. I can’t remember the specific date, or why it was happening. I can remember sitting in a seminar room in New College – along with my then colleague, and still good friend Ethan Quillen – talking about the concept of non-religion with Lois. And now, five, well possibly six years on – depending how we calculate that – we’re checking in again to talk about non-religion, unbelief, the development of the field, how we go about studying this, other major developments that are happening in the field at the moment, and anything else that we can fit into the next 25 minutes! So, when we last spoke to you I remember you saying, “If we’re still having this conversation in 10 years about non-religion, something’s gone wrong.”

LL: Yes.

CC: We’re not quite having the same conversation – but maybe I’ll just throw that at you as a way to kick things off.

LL: And we’re not quite ten years on – so I don’t have to falsify the thesis, or prove or disprove it at this stage! But no, it’s very interesting to reflect on that. I remember saying that, and I’ve referred to that quite often since then. A bold claim from someone who’s argued that we need to look at non-religion and that there’s practical, methodological and analytic utility in using that concept to research religion, and something we might think about as religion, religious-like, or religion-related. But I was saying at the time, “Look, it’s a means to an end. And ten years on, hopefully, we won’t need that means to an end anymore.” I would revise that view now, which is good: we need to be moving forward and so on. Because I think that the discursive study of non-religion is much, much more important than I was engaging with in my work at the time. Not that it wasn’t recognised, because work of critical secular scholars and critical religion scholars were showing that quite clearly. So Johannes Quack worked on and so on – these non-religious discourses are very widespread. They are, as all these scholars show and would argue, definitional of a whole epoch, perhaps, and vast swathes of the world. So I think there’s actually a lot of water in looking at – and Jim Beckford has made this point very clearly – that we really need a strong discursive study of non-religion. And I don’t see that disappearing any time soon. So we’re going to need non-religion in the longer term and be engaging with it. But I’m going to stand by the spirit of the claim, if not the letter of the claim, in that what I was getting at was that – and probably this points to my own research interests – is that many people and things that are identified as non-religious are identified because of attachments that are not purely discursive. They’re not just about relationality to religion, they’re a way of describing lots of different things. And I’ve been particularly interested in what I’ve called in my book “existential cultures”, what Baker and Smith call “cosmic meaning systems”, what other scholars refer to as “worldviews”. And what we see now – and this is very timely to address this question now, because all of the work I’ve just mentioned has been published in the last three years at the longest – is a lot of play around working with how we’re going to describe this stuff that is underlying what’s expressed as “non-religious identities”, “non-religious practices” and “positionalities” and so on. Or analytic language: so, identifying as scholars identifying people as non-religious. And really, what we have in mind are, for example, naturalist worldviews and so on. So I feel totally vindicated in fact, in that claim, in that I think in five years, a lot of the work that’s fallen within the language on non-religion – that we use the language of non-religion to identify – we won’t be using that language any more. (5:00)And it’s precisely because there’s so much dynamism at the moment around developing better analytic categories – to get at what a lot of us have been getting at. And learning from our research and so on, that’s important to the people we’re talking with. So a lot of the work that we talk about in terms of non-religion is going to fall within – well, I’m not going to say what, just now! But maybe it’s the study of worldviews, maybe it’s existentiality, maybe it’s cosmic meaning systems, who knows?

CC: Excellent. I’ve just realised that I completely omitted to properly introduce you at this beginning of this interview!

LL: (Laughs) But surely I need no introduction, Chris?

CC: Exactly! But you’ve already touched on it, just there. So, Lois is a research fellow at the University of Kent, where she’s currently principal investigator on the Understanding Unbelief programme, which is something that we’ll get to very shortly. She’s also a founding director of the Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network, which you’ll have heard plenty about on this podcast thus far. And her 2015 book with OUP was called Recognising the Non-Religious: Re-Imagining the Secular. So you’ve heard about the book, just there. And we’ll get on to some of this just now. Maybe the book’s actually something to springboard from, since again we didn’t speak about that last time.

LL: Yes

CC: Maybe just tell us about your own trajectory, and how you got to this stage of being PI in a project looking at unbelief.

LL: That’s right. Well, I suppose when we last talked it was a twinkle in the eye! But the book is a culmination of what we were talking about in that earlier podcast, which I’m sure is available to listeners, if they’re interested, to return to it. And as you say, I’ve already sort of alluded to some of the work in that book, which was about identifying and engaging with populations. In particular, I was most interested in populations we identify as non-religious, and saying we need to understand them in their capacity of identifying as non-religious or being identified as others, by others as non-religious. And that many of the claims that are made about the religious would be partial if we didn’t work much more closely with that population. That book arose from work that began in 2006, when sociology – my area – but the human sciences more broadly had not really engaged with this non-religious population, in any detail. They’d had sporadic forays – significant, but sporadic forays – into that area. So the book was very much a kind-of “call to arms” in way. But the title sort-of summarises, I guess, recognising the non-religious: that as researchers we need to recognise the non-religious, as societies we need to recognise the non-religious. I talk a bit about the commitments, investments, social attachments and so on, of non-religious people that lead them to feel a sense of grievance if societies only recognise the analogous needs of religious people. So there’s a political argument there in the end. So where have we got to? How does that lead to the Understanding Unbelief programme?

CC: Yes.

LL: Well, I think we’ve touched on that trajectory slightly already, which is that my kind-of emerging interest was particularly in the kinds of what I shall call “existential beliefs and cultures”. The “worldviews” is a more commonplace word we might think about. I think it’s slightly problematic, and we probably don’t have time to get into that. But I think it’s going to lead to some really interesting conversations with people really engaging closely with that concept, and critically, which hasn’t happened around worldview in the same way it’s happened with religion. So it will be really interesting to see that work. But what I’m interested in is the way in which humans conceptualise their own existence and the nature of reality. That conceptualisation is intrinsically transcendent – so it’s stepping back to take to a perspective on reality and existence – and, in that way, is something that is very much shared between, well, cuts across religious and non-religious divides. Whether all humans are as interested in this conceptualisation is a very open question. And that’s very much where the book ends up, is saying there are lots of things going on when people self-identify or are identified as others, by others as non-religious. There are lots of political things going on. There are lots of socio-cultural things, some of which we might feel very sympathetic to and some of which we might be very, very concerned about (10:00). There’s a lot going on. But one important thing that’s going on is that non-religious people have worldviews and they aren’t recognised clearly enough in the conceptual language we have, or in the academy, for example, or other places in public life. So we have the Sociology of Religion, and it’s not clear how well that makes space for the sociology of non-traditional, nonreligious worldviews, and I’m very much arguing we should do that. The Unbelief programme builds on that in that . . . . So, the focus on belief – there’s a couple of different reasons we’re using the term “unbelief”. And we always use it in scare quotes. I think it’s important to say that one of the reasons that we have turned to that term is that we think it’s very obviously a folk category that emerged from Christian traditions. It can’t be confused with a viable analytic concept. And we had some concerns about atheism, secularism – and non-religion, actually – that they had acquired a kind of veneer of analytic coherence that wasn’t always borne out. And so we wanted to . . . . And this arises from conversations with others in the field about where the field was at. We wanted to slightly step back from that and invite people to be a bit critical about what they’re doing and not close off questions, as well. For example, I’ve spoken recently about the disproportionate focus on positive atheists over and above strong agnostics in research. We now have an emerging scholarship around Atheism, with a capital A, and very little about agnostics. But there are lots of people who make the strong agnostic claim that humans can’t know about the nature of human reality and existence, or God, or whoever. We didn’t want to foreclose on that by having a programme on atheism, for example. So, partly, one of the strengths of unbelief is that it’s very, very broad. It allows people to focus on different things that are going on within that rubric, to not imagine they’ve got a specific or coherent analytic category to start off with, but to think about what they’re doing. But it is a word that includes belief. That’s partly because one stage that I think the field is at is that there’s been a lot of energy in the last ten years . . . . The Non-Religion and Secularity Research Network: I founded that in 2008, so we’re ten years on now. And in that period there’s been a kind of intense period of field-building in lots of different human science disciplines. A group who discussed the formation of this programme said that one of the issues in the field was that there was no longer strong communication between different human science disciplines within the field. At the beginning there was, because there was so little scholarship we were absolutely thrilled to read anything that emerged. Now that it’s a success story it’s great. There’s lots to read. And one of the kind-of unintended consequences of that is that some of that interdisciplinary engagement has faded. You know, it’s enough to keep up with the Sociology of Non-Religion or Secularism – as it might be called in the US – as well as trying to keep up with the Psychology of Atheism which is probably the favoured term in Psychology. And that’s fine, but also a shame, because we could learn from each other and from that material. And, partly, the language of belief just reflects different disciplinary conventions: a focus on the cognitive in Cognitive Anthropology, Cognitive Science; belief is very meaningful and significant within Psychology and Social Psychology. So, we’re trying to kind-of bring those things together and find a language that makes sense to different researchers.

CC: Yes. I mean, I can see perhaps some of our listeners bristling in that we’ve been trying – “we” in Religious Studies – to get way from a belief-centred model of religion, in a sense. You know, because it’s so much more than that, potentially. So then, to take this other side of the coin, and then also say it’s “unbelief”, it’s potentially got the same problems as reifying belief. But it’s under-theorised. It doesn’t have that cachet – as you were saying – that it’s potentially an analytic term. And it also . . . And I’ve got to say that my current project is a comparative study of unbelief in Scotland and Northern Ireland, partly piggy-backing on the UU programme. But also, I found that was a much easier word to utilise with funders, and people who were assessing applications who were outside of these debates. Unbelief wasn’t as problematic in a sense as religion, non-religion – a lot less baggage, but made a bit of intuitive sense (15:00). So that’s part of it.

LL: I think that’s really important point, actually. And I think, sometimes, there are different modes of scholarship. My mode has been to work out what concepts are useful to me and what aren’t and then run away with the ones that are useful to me. But that shuts off a lot of conversation with people who are using different concepts. And unbelief, I think, is really useful, because it’s sort-of salient and intelligent to broader populations. They know where you’re at. Some of the preparatory work for this programme was developed in a programme called the Scientific Study of Non-Religious Belief. And if you’ve read work around relational theories of non-religion, non-religious belief is something that makes sense. But if you haven’t, and this is something that in earlier iterations of the project we came up against, you are not clear what a non-religious belief is. “Is that just any belief, that isn’t religious?” “Well, no. That’s not what we meant.” But that kind of confusion isn’t always helpful to having kind-of knowledge exchange with different kinds of audiences and research partners in a way that unbelief is helpful. It draws out its controversies, too. But a lot of that discussion can be very helpful. I think we have a sense that one of the major goals of the project, which is very descriptive in its intention . . . . So, you can summarise its core research question as being: “To summarise the nature and diversity of – scare quotes – “unbelief”. And I tend to think of one of the major outcomes of the programme being the ability to identify different profiles of unbelievers within national populations, and maybe breaking that down further still. We could think about them as denominations of unbelievers perhaps, but maybe that’s not a helpful way of going about it.

CC: Hmm.

LL: But I think, in doing that, we should be able to identify much more concrete positive language that will hopefully replace, in many ways, the concept of unbelief. I think unbelief is . . . . I’d be interested to know what you think, with your project. But for me, I’m not sure there’s going to be analytic validity usefulness. It’s quite clearly a kind of folk category.

CC: Mmm.

LL: But it’s a gateway to hopefully identifying a set of better, more interesting concepts – better and more interesting also than atheism and secularism and non-religion. And again, that’s a bit of a concern with those concepts, because they’re slightly helpful. They are all helpful in lots of different ways, but because they’re helpful they sort-of close down options to push further in certain directions. Whereas, in a way, unbelief is so clearly a sort-of folk category, it sort of invites us to think: “Well, what am I talking about here?” So I might be inclined to say, again, that unbelief is another transitional concept, like non-religion. And, if I’m still using the concept in 10 years’ time . . . . (Laughs)

CC: (Laughs) Why not?

LL: So we can meet again in a few years, and see what’s come to pass.

CC: Exactly, and what new . . .

LL: I think it’s a productive conversation. And in the programme we’re also concerned to broaden out the conversation from academia and engage much more effectively with broader audiences. And again, a sort of language that makes sense to broader audiences will help us to do that and help us to learn from perspectives outside of academia.

CC: Excellent. Now, there’s a few directions we could go in here. And part of me is wanting to push that button again about: are we potentially reifying groups here, by talking about types of unbelievers and dichotomising the world? But, listen to our previous interview – listen to my interview with Johannes Quack, back from 2015 and also read some of Lois’s work, some of my work where we do engage with this, alright?

LL: (Laughs)

CC: To skip to a debate that hasn’t been had before – well this will just be re-treading ground – but tell us about this Understanding Unbelief programme, then. So, there are four other . . . . You are the principal investigator, there’s a core team and then there’s a whole bunch of other different projects going on?

LL: There’s a lots of people- I won’t mention everyone by name. I hope they’re not offended. But there’s a lot going on

CC: So what is it? What is going on?

LL: I think it does say something about where the field has got to. So, as I sort-of said earlier, I think there’s been a phase of field-building which has been a lot of conceptual work, which has involved a lot of making the argument about why we need to study this group to our colleagues in academia (20:00). And that’s something that you’ve been involved with, and several others have been involved with. And I think that argument has clearly been won, aided and abetted by broader social contexts in which there’s a recognition of non-religious actors: people describing themselves as non-religious. So I think that’s great. And we’re moving into a new phase now, where we’re concreting or pushing that more general work further. There are lots of different ways in which people are seeking to break down those populations and be more specific again. That’s something you’ve done in your work, and I’ve done in my work. So, when we first started discussing this programme there was a sense that . . . . I mentioned some sort-of field-wide interests and concerns: about the usefulness of some inter-disciplinary work; about moving on from some of the conceptual debates we’ve been having; not encouraging a new round of work about concepts, but really getting involved in empirical settings. But, very chiefly, was a sense that, empirically, we needed to work outside of the West; that learning about atheists, people who identify as atheists and go to the atheist church, for example, or read new atheist material, was something that had been quite well-covered in the field by that point. And we needed to think beyond that, so: outside of Anglophone settings; outside of Northern European settings and the US and Canada; but also – within those settings and beyond – thinking about demographic groups that had not been well studied. Matt Sheard has a paper in Secularism and Non-Religion about non-elite, non-religious people within the UK and how little they’ve been researched. I agree. I agree: non-white, women, agnostics rather than atheist. So, there’s a very big population. We’ve done the work of saying: “This is why we need to engage with them. Here are some ways of engaging with all these different groups.” And now we really need to do it. And also, yes, get outside of the kind-of well-worn tracks. So, we wanted to consolidate some of the work that had been done. And from that basis, really, hopefully be part of ushering in this new phase. Which . . . I think there’s lots of other work that’s going on concurrently, which is a part of that. So the approach has been . . . I’m working with a multi-disciplinary team to lead the programme. So we have Jonathan Lanman who’s a cognitive anthropologist, Miguel Farias who’s a social psychologist, and Stephen Bullivant who’s a theologian and also a sociologist with expertise in quantitative work. I’m a sociologist with a focus on qualitative work. So that team – we’re doing research across five different countries, I can’t think how many continents, a few continents – is kind-of the centre of that project. But we also now have 21 project teams working around the world to do work much, much more widely than a small team could ever do, given that, as I’ve already sort of alluded to, actually the empirical work was fairly narrow. And in order to answer questions about the nature and diversity of non-belief we really needed to be very broad. Our core project is working strategically with five countries that are revealing about broader global trends and so on. But actually, it’s great to have work going on in lots of different places. So one of the projects which is grounded in Psychology is working with – I can’t think in total how many countries it is – ten or so countries that have very high numbers of people who identify as non- religious. So that includes South Korea, Australia, Japan, Azerbaijan, Vietnam and so forth. So, a really diverse set of countries that they’ll be going to and using psychological methods to engage with those populations. At the same time, we have close ethnographic research going on. A project based . . . . I should say all of the information on these projects and all the other projects is available on our website.

CC: Which is?

LL: The easiest URL is understanding-unbelief.net. It also lives with the University of Kent system, but you can find it there. And no doubt it will be available on the podcast website. (25:00) I say that, because there are so many projects, and they’re very exciting and so much worth looking at

CC: Yes, we could spend an hour talking about each one.

LL: Yes. But, to just to give a sense of the kind of contrast, there’s an ethnographic project that’s looking at magical thinking in two different European settings and working very closely, very much exploring kind-of unbelief: people who are cast as and cast themselves as unbelievers. And they’re working with a very typical population of rationalist thinkers. But looking at things we might identify, and they, as anthropologists, are used to identifying as magical thinking within those populations. So between those very broad quantitative studies, and those very detailed and nuanced qualitative studies, we’re hoping . . . we’re not going to be able to map the world of unbelievers, but we’re hoping to be able to join a lot of dots and get a much, much broader picture of . . . . How are they described? Is it the fourth-largest faith group in the world? The non-religious, or people who don’t affiliate with a religion are the third-largest religion, and unbelievers are the fourth-largest faith group. To put it somewhat crudely.

CC: Right.

LL: So there’s a lot to learn. And we hope to learn something about that group.

CC: Excellent. And listeners can keep an eye on that website over the coming couple of years. So when’s the project wrapping up? It’s 2019, isn’t it?

LL: Yes. I think it officially ends in late 2019, but there’ll be activity ongoing I would think – with a sense of all these different projects and work coming through from that – for the longer term, I would think.

CC: Absolutely. We’re already coming up to sort-of the end of our time. I’m going to ask you a question now that I didn’t prep you with, so feel free if I have to rewind. But we were saying, before we started recording, that there’s maybe a sort of dearth of female voices speaking in this area and researching in this area. So I just wondered if you have any comments on that. A final thought as a sort-of leading light in this area?

LL: A topical theme in societies more broadly. No, that’s a good thing to focus on. A good question, thank you. Yes, in the last project I was involved with – the Scientific Study of Non-Religious Belief- we had a series of blogs on methods, one of which focuses on gender and talks about a concern, in the study of non-religion and atheism, about the way in which both that field is gendered and the study of that area is gendered. Partly this comes down to kind of quite interesting feedback loops. So, for example, we have studies that show that the language of atheism is slightly more popular with men than it is with women. And that’s reflected in research. So I am a woman. And I quickly said, “I don’t like atheism, that’s not my main framework – I prefer non-religion.” And that’s typical, actually, of quite a lot of researchers, to slightly generalise. But there is a kind of way of engaging with very male dominated atheist cultures – like the New Atheism and so on – that interests men. And then other voices – really interesting work that prefers concepts like non-religion or secularity, or secularism, and so on – that’s sort-of been lost a bit. I’ve noticed that happening. And there are several collections that are very male-dominated. And as much as this is not distinctive to our field, there is, as I say, a sort of relationship between what we’re studying and how we study it that is specific to our field. And actually, that sort-of brings us back to the topic of agnosticism. So we, in my field, are very generally acquainted – and so are sociologists of religion – with the idea that religious people are more likely to be women, and non-religious people are more likely to be men. So wherever you’re coming from, this gendered phenomenon is known. It shouldn’t be overstated, but it is marked. And it’s interesting, within the non-religious field, if you break that down between people who have strong atheistic beliefs and have sort-of strong agnostic beliefs, then the gender profile looks quite different. And the agnostics are more female overall and atheists are more male. So again, there’s that concern that gender may be a factor in what we’re researching, what we’re choosing to research, and what’s being neglected. In the UK the agnostics are a larger group than the atheists. Why haven’t we looked at them? (30:00) Part of the answer to that question is about gender, and it’s by no means the whole answer to that question, but I think it’s an element – or something we should at least be exploring and concerned about. I’m really thrilled, actually, that we have so many research teams on the Understanding Unbelief programme and it is a very gender-balanced set of researchers. And because of the way in which our own perspective shapes the questions we ask and how we look at them, and so on, I think that’s a very good sign for the work we’ll . . . what we’ll learn through the programme. But I do think it’s an interesting topic for us to reflect upon. As I say, there’s an NSRN blog that’s been written on it and I think there’s scope for a bit more work around reflecting on . . . . It’s sort of the other side of the coin of the focus on the study of elites – even within particular cultural settings – is thinking about who’s researching them. And that very much relates to broader questions in academia at the moment about non-elite voices having space to be heard. And the perspectives we might be missing. You know, I think it’s a question of good and bad science in those kinds of terms. Because we will find out new things if we include a broader range of perspectives. This we know. This we know. So yes, I think that would be a good thing for us to be reflecting on as field, going forward into the next phase. I can’t remember if we’re reflecting on the last 5 years or the last 10 years, but . . . looking forward anyway!

CC: Well, reflecting on a lot, anyway! Good. And hopefully the Understanding Unbelief programme will contribute a lot to that as well. So, we’re out of time, Lois. But it’s been wonderful to speak to you.

LL: And you.

CC: And I’m sure the listeners will come back in another 5 years and we’ll see where the conversation is next time. Alright.

LL: (Laughs).

Citation Info: Lee, Lois, and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “From Non-Religion to Unbelief? A Developing Field”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 23 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/from-non-religion-to-unbelief-a-developing-field/

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Angel Spirituality

1a7fd1627b3543072b5c994419e40076In Northern Europe today, many people are engaging with angels, and Tehri Utriainen has been researching them. What is angel spirituality, and who does it appeal to (hint: women)? As with many vernacular systems, it is both ad hoc and highly practical, with a strong focus on healing. She tells us how these practices challenge preconceptions about the relationship between new spiritualities and Christianity, and raise interesting questions about gender, and vernacular religion in supposedly post-Christian Europe.

For more of Tehri’s work on angels, see:

Healing Enchantment: How Does Angel Healing Work?
Utriainen, T. 2017 Spirit and Mind – Mental Health at the Intersection of Religion & Psychiatry. Basu, H., Littlewood, R. & Steinforth, A. (eds.). Berlin: Lit Verlag, p. 253-273 19 p.

Desire for Enchanted Bodies: The Case of Women Engaging in Angel Spirituality
Utriainen, T. 2016 Contemporary Encounters in Gender and Religion: European Perspectives. Gemzöe, L., Keinänen, M-L. & A. M. (eds.). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 175-193 19 p.

Listeners might also be interested in David’s interview with Ingvild Gilhus from three years ago, on the topic “Unruly Angels”.

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, Ko-Lee hot & Spicy Go Noodles, and more.

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

Angel Spirituality

Podcast with Tehri Utriainen (5 June 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Utriainen_-_Angel_Spirituality_1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Edinburgh today. I’m joined by Tehri Utriainen, from the University of Helsinki, where she is Professor in the Study of Religions. And today, we’re going to be talking about angels in kind-of popular spirituality, particularly in Finland, but hopefully also in a slightly larger context as well. So, first of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Tehri Utriainen (TU): Thank you so much David.

DR: Let’s start just with . . . .Tell us a little about these angel practices, angel spirituality. You know – who are we talking about, what are the practices? Just set it up for us.

TU: Ok. Well my context, of course, is Finland but, as you said, it is more wide – you can find it elsewhere. You can find it in the UK. There’s been studies done in the UK, the US, in Norway and in Estonia, for instance, recently. Whom are we talking about? We’re talking about women. This is really the most extremely women-dominated religiosity that you can imagine. Usually people say that: in grassroots religion the practitioners are 60% female; in holistic spiritualities (if you want to use that term ) it’s like around 80% – this was the Kendal Project numbers, for instance; and with angels the figures go much higher. They are over 90%, as far as my research is concerned. So we’re talking about women interested in angels.

DR: What kind of women? Are we talking about the same sort of women that we would expect to find in holistic spiritualities, for instance? You know, generally, from the Kendal Project, for instance, mostly . . . kind-of middle class, fairly well-educated, fairly well-off – these kinds of things?

TU: “Fairly well” women! Yes. Yes, more-or-less, we are. Well, when we go to Finland it’s perhaps a little bit different society from the UK. We like to think that we are more equal in the social way. We don’t have these social strata as much as you have here. But it’s a kind-of, you know . . . . We fool ourselves, of course, with these things, always. But it is middle class . . . I would say that it’s mostly lower to mid-middle class, but all middle classes. But very varied educational backgrounds. A lot of women who work in caring and education professions, for instance. These women are also interested in other practices, not only angels, and all sorts of holistic practices. Something that all my interviewees mentioned, really, was like Reiki. Reiki healing is one form of energy healing which is now so popular in all of the Western world, I guess. It comes from Japan, and through Hawaii, but it’s become popular all over. But these women with angels tend to be, I would say, a little bit more towards Christianity, because there is the central figure. But I see quite a variation with the people that I have interviewed. And I have made, also, a smallish survey and some of them consider themselves Lutheran – Lutheranity is our like home religion in Finland. But then, there is the other end who are kind-of completely disconnected from the church and have their background, for instance, in esotericism, theosophy, spiritualism, anthroposophy. But then, there is a third group of women who come from secular families and, at least, tell me that they don’t really have very much religious background at all. And they got into religion through this.

DR: What sort of religious make-up are we talking about in Finland, just for the benefit of our listeners? I mean here, obviously, we’re somewhere between 70-55%, depending on what part of the country you’re in.

TU: Like, Church of England or those big churches, or altogether?

DR: Yes, well, the sort-of state churches, yes. I mean, England’s sitting at about 65% and Scotland’s a little bit lower about 58%.

TU: Yes. So the numbers go down regularly all the time in Finland, at the moment. And last year’s survey gives us something like 72%, and the women a bit more than men. And then the next biggest church in Finland would be the Orthodox church, but that is a very low number of participants or members. (5:00) So we are a very Lutheran country, still, but the figures are going down.

DR: Part of the reason I asked that is that I have a kind of personal interest in this subject. Some people in my family are involved in this kind of stuff. My grandmother and my aunty – her youngest daughter – both do these  kind-of angel cards. Now my family is not a strongly religious family, but have become so over time. My granny is now in her early eighties and she converted to Anglicanism when my grandad died, a couple of decades ago . . .

TU: Yes

DR: . . . whereas my aunty converted to Catholicism because she married an Irishman. So they’re the two . . . they’re really the only two properly Christian members of the family. They’re different – you know, one’s Protestant, one’s Catholic – but they have these angel practices in common. Now, they’re a little bit secretive about actually what it is. The few things I’ve been picking up is that there are some cards . . . . But as much as I got was that they sort-of identified with particular figures, and these figures were associated with various qualities, and colours, and things like that. Could you fill us in, a little bit, about that kind of aspect of the practical side of it – what it involves?

TU: Sure. First of all I want to say that I’m pleased that now, through my research, you get the possibility that you can learn something about your family members!

DR: Yes.

TU: I’ve had several men tell me, “Now I understand my mother better!” “Now I understand my sister better!” Or something like this, you know? Because they kind-of get a little glimpse of it. And then the women tell something about it, but don’t open up the whole stuff, immediately. Yes, there are these practices and, the angel is a Christian figure, and we have all this Christian sort of mythology, and narrative, and image traditions on angels, the idea in Christianity is that angels are like Godly power and God gives us angels and angelic power when he wants to do [something]. [Whereas], this contemporary practice is much more practical for the women. It is practical religion: an everyday practical religion that uses several kinds of techniques and means. You mentioned cards – angel card reading is quite popular, and the first angel cards I met in Finland were cards coming from your country, in fact, or the US. Now there are also some indigenous Finnish angel card traditions, too. That goes a bit like Tarot card reading. You can either make a table of them, or you can just take one card for the day, or one card for a puzzling question that you have in your mind. And so, you read an enigmatic answer, just a word: the word might be like, “happiness”; the word might be, like, “balance”; or, you know, these kinds of things that you also might find in horoscopes. So that is one thing, but they also have their imagery. And, like you said, certain angels might be linked to certain colours, for instance, which might give this woman a kind of glance into her life. In the sense that when she learns – either though cards or through somebody – that her colour is linked to the colour green [for example], which would then, perhaps, be the colour of the Archangel Raphael, then, every time she’s drawn to green she gets a message. So, it could go like this. But then there are meditations, several kinds of angel meditations, often like a visual journey: you are led to a sacred garden where you meet your angel; you talk to your angel; you ask something; your angel gives you a symbol or a word, or something; you are led back from the meditation; and then you are there, either with yourself or a group of friends – angel minded friends. And you integrate this thing that you got, and you relate it to your life’s bigger or smaller things. And then, of course, this more-or-less . . . the thing that connects with this holistic milieu even more is the angel healing aspect. (10:00) There are angel healing courses, and you can learn to become a healer – a bit like a Reiki healer – who heals others or who heals yourself. The angel healing, as far as I know , is mostly used for what we might call emotional issues and emotional problems. And I think that this highlights the topic of emotions, and how important emotions are – perhaps particularly to women in the contemporary world – is extremely interesting because, then, it’s related to the high numbers of depression and emotion work in very many ways.

DR: Yes. Which also might . . . . I think there’s quite high rates of depression and suicide and stuff in some of the Northern European countries. But that trajectory of women and the  kind-of therapeutic culture is very, very common. You see that a lot in . . . . Well, you see it a lot in the holistic, mind-body-spirit  kind-of world, here. Particularly female, but you also see the same trajectory with men and also in the conspiracy theory world. I looked at this in my work, for instance, David Icke: his passage into conspiracy theory world was looking for alternative therapies to treat his arthritis. He ended up going to a medium who channelled messages to him.

TU: Yes. Mediumship is present here.

DR: But those discourses on healing, and on holistic healing as well – the idea that your emotions and your body are linked – are found right across that  kind-of cultic milieu, not only in the more overtly spiritual aspects of . . .

TU: Definitely. I think of one other notion that is very, very closely connected to emotions- another “e” word is energy: emotions and energy. And the way that you can sort-of manage them, or you can make use of them, but you can also sort-of control them – like you said, channelling or something. Emotions, in my materials, are often considered as one sort of type of energy, one type of energy that works a lot in the human world. And as energy it’s power and it can be used into good. But it can also be, sort of, if it’s like all loose, it can do bad things.

DR: Yes. And, when we were talking about the colours earlier on, that’s immediately what I thought of was the rays of the theosophical tradition – where the colours represent different frequencies of energy or different energies, you know. And that, by selecting a particular colour, you can encourage that particular emotion or energy. Which leads to my next question, which is: all of this stuff that you’ve been describing so far, from using cards for readings, healings, visualisation, the idea of correspondences of colours attracting particular energies, you know – even the use of cards themselves, and the association with therapeutic culture – this all seems taken exactly from 19th century esotericism, what we would call Western esotericism nowadays. Yet [it] has this Christian kind-of – I don’t want to say veneer – but it’s a Christian framing of those practices.

TU: Yes, well, there always was a kind of Christian esotericism as well. They have never been completely apart – even though, probably, some ruling churches and ruling theologies would like them apart – but there have been much more linkages. But I might also say that – particularly in the context of Finland perhaps, but maybe this applies even larger settings – esotericism earlier on used to be a bit elitist. It was not for everybody, for all the people in Finland, anyway, and openly, anyway. But now, what we see is something like the democratisation and popularisation of this esotericism, and bringing it openly in connection with Christianity.

DR: Yes.

TU: And this, of course, has to do with many things – like things that are marketed to us and how popular culture circulates. (15:00) But it also has to do with the grip of the church loosening: the church doesn’t have the normative power any more in people’s everyday lives. In Finland, for instance – perhaps here too, but in Finland – where the ruling church was the Lutheran Church, Lutheranity meant . . . . For those people who were not very religious or very pious, Lutheranity was mostly a normative system, saying what you do in public life, what you don’t do, but this is less so now.

DR: I wonder if it’s not only its normativity in the society, it’s also the normativity of the scholars in the categories that we’re looking at. I wonder if this stuff was always going on, but it was kind-of hidden from our view, because it wasn’t considered suitable for us to look at, and so on.

TU: For the scholars of religion?

DR: Yes.

TU: Yes: because it was not funded, and it was not taken seriously; because it was not the serious religion, it was the fringe stuff. And I have seen a lot, and I suppose a lot of people have seen it, that bigger money always goes to religion which is considered as cultural heritage stuff,  kind-of elevated, sublime thing, more-or-less. Whereas these hobby-level religions with their crazy knowledge systems . . .

DR: Yes. Well, there is a sense in which you get the impression that people think: “Well, we don’t really want to encourage this . . . “

TU: Yes

DR: “If we pay this too much attention it might be seen that we’re taking it seriously.”

TU: Yes. Exactly!

DR: So tell us, then, how did you get to looking at this stuff? What was your passage into this?

TU: My complete passage into this was that I was involved in a larger project, that was led by Professor Peter Nynäs in Abo Akademi university, which is a Swedish speaking university in Finland, in Turku. And I was lucky enough to jump on that project when it started. And the project was called Post-Secular Culture and the Changing Religious Landscape in Finland. And we wanted to look into the margins and outside fields from Lutheranism, and what was happening there. And we were several people and we had several case studies. We started to pick something that we were interested in, or something that somebody was already engaged with, or something, anyway, that could sort-of give us a good palette, a sort of mosaic-view to things that were happening. And since I was more-or-less kind-of a specialist, if you like, in women’s popular religion . . . . It was not my own idea at all, but we started to think about: what is it that happens in this type of religiosity today? One possible thing would have been, like, healing and Reiki and stuff. But then we decided that angels were, just at that time, becoming so popular in Finland that we thought, “that opens up a window, through which we can see some interesting things”. And so it happened. And some books came out and people got really interested in the angel stuff. And I had a lot of fun doing this for a couple of years. And still have, writing on it, fun in many ways. Not only in the hilarious way, but also that I had very nice fieldwork experiences and I learned very much about both the serious sides of religion and life, but also about the less serious sides of it.

DR: Tell us about how you went about the study, then. Was it predominantly kind-of ethnographic work?

TU: It was ethnographically oriented, multi-method stuff. I love working ethnographically, well. I went to . . . I collected . . . sort-of . . . just went to see what happened. And I took myself into those happenings and situations. Like, for instance, there was a yoga school, when I started my ethnography. In one yoga school they have their yearly “angel week”. So I went through that week and saw how the angels popped into the yoga classes! Which was a good start, in the sense that it brought me into meeting young people – mostly young people – who were interested in this. So I couldn’t work only with the idea that this is only middle-aged women, or women in their late-middle age and stuff. So I started with that and started to contact people. I used the snowball method to get interviews. I went for courses, I contacted people and said, “Can I come?” (20:00) And then there was this very popular Irish – I don’t know how popular she is here, but – woman who writes autobiographies and the books where she recounts her life with angels, Lorna Byrne, whose books, just then, became translated in Finnish and who paid visits to Finland. And all the visits were sold out, there were 1000 women with a handful of men who came there (hand-in-hand with their female friends ) to listen to how this Irish . . . contemporary Irish mystic tells how she sees the place full of angels and describes people’s angels. Well, I made a survey in one of her visits, wanting to know about the backgrounds of these women who came to listen to her, etc, etc. Then I sort-of followed the media reactions, I followed the church reactions. I did sort-of a multi-angle thing.

DR: So it was very much ethnography, then, in all of the senses it can be, so: sort-of qualitative interviewing, but participant observation and media discourse analysis as well.

TU: Yes and also the smallish survey – I had 263 answers, so that I could see the demographic things and stuff.

DR: And how did they take to you? I mean, how open about your research were you? And how interested . . . ?

TU: I was very open about my research. I was open even in the bigger settings. Particularly when I was distributing the questionnaire, of course, I told them what it was about. And I was open when I went to study an angel healer – that was the most participant part of it.

DR: Right.

TU: And well, they were . . . everybody was, at that time, so happy about this thing happening. And they probably considered me as a possible advocate for them, and taking the whole thing to the academy. I remember . . . may I tell you one nice interview situation where there was this woman who channelled angels?

DR: Yes.

TU: I knew that she channelled angels, and that was one of my reasons for contacting her. And she also wanted her husband to be in the interview, so I interviewed the two of them. Before we started the interview she said to me – we had a cup of coffee, we were at their home – she said to me: “What if my angel also wants to become interviewed?” – the angel that she channelled.

DR: Oh, so the angel was present, then?

TU: She said, “What if she comes?”

DR: Oh, what if? Yes.

TU: I said, “Well, I’m very happy of course . . . ” and I tried to make a joke. I said, “I probably don’t have the informed consent for the angel!” (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs)

TU: Because I wasn’t prepared. I had two copies, you know. I had one for the husband and one for her.

DR: It would be an interesting subject to come up at the ethics commission . . .

TU: Well what happened after some time of interview, maybe one hour – it was one of the longest interviews that I made – she says, “Now, I think she wants to come, my angel wants to come.” And I said, “OK.” It was  kind-of exciting, I have to admit.

DR: And did the angel contribute to the conversation?

TU: Yes! Then I have 40 minutes of interview with the angel in my tape.

DR: Oh fantastic!

TU: And after that the angel goes away, and the woman comes back, and we continue. And while the woman has a bit of difficulty – as her husband tells me – in coming back, resuming her own like mortal role, the husband gives me the explanation that, “Well it often is a bit difficult for her to come back after the angel has gone,” because there is this liminal period. Well, what I have there is a sub-chapter in a book that I’m going to publish – in Finnish, unfortunately. But I have one sub-chapter interview with an angel!

DR: Fantastic.

TU: But that is  kind-of a . . . that is interesting also, in the sense of: “What did the angel say, in the interview?” Well several things, but one important thing was that I had my small recorder on the table and the angel goes very close to the recorder and says, “And I want to say this to science, and please go and tell this to Abo Akademi of science!”

DR: (Laughs)

TU: So, it was a very intricate dynamics that was going on there. (25:00) Because was she making fun of me? Or was she really, like, making the angel meet science, not through just meeting the people, but mediating it. It was interesting. I haven’t really found a way to talk about this so far.

DR: What that suggests to me is that, you know . . . . The spirit guide is often . . . there’s a kind of yin/yang relationship, so they’re like the animus and the anima in Jungian psychology or, you know, the various sort of spirit animals are often the opposite gender. So, if she is existing in the modern, rational, secular – well, supposedly so – world, then her spirit companion is the opposite.

TU: Yes

DR: So, represents to her the spiritual world and that is one which is often set up against science: science as the disenchanted . . . you know, the “black iron prison”.

TU: Yes, that’s true.

DR: Whereas the spiritual world is the enchanted one and so, naturally, would be pitted against the rationalism represented by science.

TU: But there I had the two coming together, and the enchanted world coming directly to shout at the disenchanted world represented by the recorder.

DR: Yes. So the recorder is actually representing that as well, yes.

TU: The recorder is there as a hard fact there, and the angel goes into that hard machine.

DR: But happy to use science to make a point . . .

TU: Yes, but also . . .

DR: And capable of doing so . . .

TU: And very capable of doing so. Even considered that it was a small girl angel!

DR: Oh, ok!

TU: Six years old, or something like this. But, nevertheless, very skilful in that.

DR: So, for this woman, the angel was a child? That’s interesting.

TU: Yes, this was a woman in her 50s and the angel was a female child.

DR: That’s interesting. Because that’s not usually the case, is it?

TU: Ah, the angel asked me that!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: “Do you know . . . Can you guess why I appear as a small girl?” And the answer was . . . .Well, I was a bit silly – I offered the answer. I offered my guess and she took it. I don’t know, maybe I should have done something else, but I said, “Maybe it is because we are not afraid of children or small girls?” And she said, “Yes. The enormous power that I bring is kind-of less feared when . . . ”

DR: She was in her 50s , you said? Had they had children?

TU: They had a child together: a boy – early teens. And one of them – I don’t remember which one of them – had bigger children, too.

DR: Ah right, ok. But, generally speaking, the angel is a male figure.

TU: Often, in my material.

DR: And in my experience, as well. What is the appeal, then? Why is it the angel that’s at the centre of this, not fairies, or dragons, or Thor, or Spiderman?

TU: It is . . . . Well, some of these women have a lot of things going on with a lot of other spirits, as well. But some – I might say that those who consider themselves mostly as Lutheran – they don’t take other spirits as easily, but an angel is something that they allow in their lives. Well angels . . . I wouldn’t mind having a male angel in my life, considering how beautiful they are, how wonderful they are depicted!

DR: (Laughs)

TU: They come with their baby faces, but they have strong, wonderful wings and things. And I sometimes play with this idea. Because, you know, in Finland we have . . . like, we think about the mortal men, like the normal, ordinary men. We have a big number of engineers. Engineers are considered, in Finland – this is a bit jokingly said – but men [who are], like, reliable and practical, but not so good always in talking about emotions, with the women.

DR: (Laughs) Yes. I don’t think that’s unique to Finland, to be honest.

TU: Maybe. So these women sometimes even talked about their men who sometimes really were engineers. And they were, sort-of, not replacing these husbands with these male angels, but complementing the scene with this figure which had something male, something masculine in it – a protective sense, for instance, but which was also the perfect male, in the sense that he understood their emotions. Isn’t that good?

DR: Yes. It does make sense, absolutely.

TU: It does make sense. And yes, not all of them were male, but a lot of them were and it appeared that the Archangel Michael, who is the protector of soldiers, was pretty much popular.

DR: (30:00) Yes. There’s going to be a class in here shortly, so we should wrap up. There are so many other questions I could’ve asked. I literally have a page of them written down in front of me, but I’m afraid we’re out of time. Thanks so much for taking part in the Religious Studies Project. If you’re interested in Tehri’s work, do seek out her publications. And best of luck when the book comes out. I hope it comes out in English as well, later on.

TU: If you translate it!

DR: I’d have to learn Finnish first. We’ll see . . .

TU: There are articles in English. Plenty of them came out recently: some related to ritual studies; some related to ritual and healing; and some related to more to general aspects, various theoretical angles.

DR: Fantastic. And if you’re on the website, then the links below will guide you to them. But in the meantime, thanks for taking part.

TU: And thank you.

DR: Thank you.

Citation Info: Utriainen, Tehri 2017. “Angel Spirituality”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/angel-spirituality/

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Paths to Sexual Ethics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Ethics and Islam

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

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

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


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


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

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

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

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

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

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

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

CC: Yes.

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

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

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

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

KA: Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

KA: And a Muslim

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

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

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

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

CC: Exactly

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

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

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

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

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

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

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

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

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


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

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 14 March 2017

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Theologies That Cannot Be: A Response to the RSP Interview with Dr. Caroline Blyth

I am an admirer of Dr. Caroline Blyth’s work, most especially for her commitment to Religious Studies’ “potential… as a means of cultural critique and change.” It is a practical focus badly needed in a discipline prone to building research foci around its own definition. I was somewhat discomforted, however, to hear her in the interview adopt Rukmini Callimachi’s term, the “theology of rape.”

What disturbs me about this phrase is that, once Dr. Blyth explains it (“justifying rape through the use of religious justification, religious terms, religious rituals…”) we all somehow understand it as a meaningful expression (indeed, an “evocative” one). In truth, however, this phrase, with its implicit suggestion that one can simultaneously engage in the rape of a human being and pursue the knowledge of God, should be semantically unparsable—a colorless, green idea sleeping furiously. “Theology of rape” should be a contradiction in terms.

When it does not immediately strike us so, we must ask ourselves what strange tension we are holding in our thought to make these terms superficially compatible, and as I ask myself this, I note something interesting—while theologies of rape are diverse, theologians of rape are almost invariably men. Some statistics are certainly at work here, since theology is still a field in which men are more heavily represented, but this in itself is a perplexing point worthy of our attention, since, in modern America at least, it is only our daughters that we teach to be Christians.

You know what I mean; just turn on any children’s television program, walk down any toy aisle, or listen carefully to the comments of teachers and fathers and little league coaches. We teach girls to be deferent and collaborative. We teach them to be nurturing and self-sacrificing. We teach them to be obedient. Our little boys we teach to insist on rights and respect. We teach them to be ready for confrontation. We teach them to know what they want and to get it. Both of these lists of virtues are familiar to those versed in Christian culture. The first comes from the Bible, where God enjoins upon us “lowliness… meekness… longsuffering” (Ephesians 4:2), “patience… kindness… gentleness” (Galatians 5:23), humility (Romans 12:14–16), and submission (Titus 3:1). The second comes from what Blyth refers to as the “godly masculinity” of men’s ministries, which uphold the ideal of a man who is “strong… powerful… heroic… authoritative… assertive… competitive… sexually aggressive.”

Taken alone and in moderation, none of those traits need necessarily be an evil, and each can be a positive good in a man (or a woman) of goodwill, but it cannot be denied that the general tenor of the second list is at odds with the first. Thus divided, there is a significant conflict between the virtues of “godly masculinity”—which are simply the virtues of the West’s hegemonic masculinity—and the virtues enjoined in Christian teaching and, for that matter, the teachings of most other religions as well.

I am far from the first person to make this observation, and I am indebted in it to my own research, centering on what Sarah Morrigan has called “the Oxford Goddess Revival” . In the 1970s, a group of young Oxonians brought together streams of thought from Guénonian Traditionalism, Marian devotionalism, and lesbian separatism to craft a unique and multifaceted theology. Among their teachings was a critique of contemporary Western masculinity as being negatively defined by the rejection of traits coded as feminine, which, in our culture, include the religious virtues of humility, meekness, silence, submission, charity, piety, and self-sacrificial love. Masculinity, in their view, was an apostasy from the Perennial Tradition—a rebellion against a necessarily feminine God.

One need not go quite so far as those ingenious young women, however, to observe that, within the context of contemporary Western culture, the term “godly masculinity” is one that should ring hollow and incomprehensible in our ears, just like the “theology of rape,” with which it is intimately connected. It is precisely in the knowledge that this term, too, has the superficial appearance of a meaning in our society that I am not surprised when, as the interview turns to the oft-neglected topic of male victims of gendered violence, we find the perpetrators to be, once again, almost entirely men. Ideas, as Richard Weaver said, have consequences, and the consequence of these pernicious oxymorons has been that acculturation to violence is a gendered phenomenon (as a quick survey of a Toys Я Us aisle or a Saturday morning cartoon lineup will once again confirm); gendered violence is an inevitable result of this.

Every discipline has both power and responsibility to contribute to the dismantling of the Patriarchy by declaring its valorization of avarice, egotism, and violence to be wrong. The particular duty and power of religious studies and theology, is to point out that that valorization is hypocritical—that the culture of Patriarchy is itself inimical to the values of the sacred social order from which it claims its authority and for which it claims to offer protection. Religious Studies is, as Blyth has said, a means for cultural change, and it is also the discipline which should recall most vividly the maxim of Confucius, that such change, to be successful, must begin with the rectification of names. It was certainly not Callimachi’s intention in coining the term to sanction the actions of Daesh, and it is certainly not Blyth’s intention in borrowing it to legitimize Deuteronomy 21:11, but to treat “theology of rape” as an intelligible phrase, rather than the incomprehensible equivalent of a “married bachelor” or a “negative surplus,” is to participate in the structural violence of Newspeak. No matter the religion, English already has a clear term for justifying rape by religion, or identifying machismo with God—nonsense.

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 18 October 2016

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Religion and Feminism

‘Religion’ and ‘Feminism’ are two concepts that have a complex relationship in the popular imaginary. But what do academics mean by these two concepts? And how can we study their interrelationship? What can we say about ‘religion and feminism’, about the academic study of ‘religion and feminism’, or about the ‘academic study of religion’ and feminism? To discuss these basic conceptual issues, and delve deeper into the topic, we are joined by a long-time friend of the RSP, Dr Dawn Llewellyn of the University of Chester.

Along the way we discuss some of the basics of feminism and feminist theory, before thinking about how scholars can or should position themselves in relation to this broad topic, how we might conduct research, and how Dawn herself has done so. In the process we move beyond the problematic ‘wave’ metaphor, and think beyond ‘Christianity’ and ‘the West’ to ask what the study of religion can bring to the study of feminism, and what feminism can bring to the study of religion.

This episode is the second of a series co-produced with introduction to the Sociology of Religion, with Professor Grace Davie. Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, Anna Fedele, Mary Jo Neitz and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon, Claire Miller Skriletz, and George Ioannides.

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