Posts

What is the Public Benefit of the Study of Religion?

This year’s BASR annual conference at the University of Winchester included a panel on the ‘Public benefit in the study of religion’. The panel was organised by BASR Hon. Secretary, Bettina Schmidt, and Chair of BSA-SOCREL, Abby Day, representing the two main professional organisations representing the UK’s scholars of religion. The other speakers taking part were Eileen Barker of INFORM, Tim Jensen and Douglas Davies. Given that the Religious Studies Project has a manifesto of disseminating contemporary RS research to the public, we felt that we wanted to talk to scholars about this question. This edited podcast was the result.  

Does the public benefit from the social-scientific study of religion? Should it? How do we demonstrate benefit, measure it, communicate it? What are the practical and theoretical issues surrounding the idea of how the study of religion can operate in the, or perhaps as a, public good? For that matter, what do we mean by ‘public’ or ‘benefit’?

This question relates to our daily practice as researchers when asking for funding or having to present the outcomes of our research. Research Councils ask every applicant to explain the possible impact of a research project and in the coming years we will have to demonstrate as part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) the wider impact of our research. But are discussions of this type necessary in order to  understand and perhaps improve the relevance to the public of our research – and discipline – or are we simply looking for justifications to be able to continue research which has little public benefit?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Prophecy and American Millennialism

RastafarI is itself a millennial movement with the belief that Haile Selassie I is the God Liberator, an avatar returned to restore True Salvation for the subaltern people of African lineage. It is also a revolutionary movement which wants to change the lot of Africans…

J. Gordon Melton: Prophecy and American Millennialism

By Marzia A. Coltri, University of Birmingham, UK

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with J. Gordon Melton on American Millennialism (15 October 2012).

J. Gorton Melton is a leading academic specialist on new religious movements, a scholar of occultists, Scientologists, Rosicrucianists, Neopagans, Branch Davidians, Theosophists, Reiki groups, UFO, Hare Krishnas, New Age  and vampires, who has spent his academic career investigating and classifying new religious groups throughout the world. He is founder of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, and in an interview at the 2012 annual meeting of INFORM in London he discussed Millennial movements in America, with particular stress on three typologies of movements that await the divine intervention of the Son of God on Earth. This eschatological conjecture in Christianity teaches and disseminates the ‘double resurrection’ of Jesus Christ (“the Messiah is coming again’) and the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth as the supreme signs of salvation and liberation from oppression and tribulation. As Melton observes, many new religious groups in the second half of the 20th century were small in size and had a lack of organizational structure. These movements are, he says, increasing rapidly, changing denominations and metaphysical features, and are waiting a New Era.

The impact of the prophet, with her/his charisma, which is for Weber ‘a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which she/he is set apart from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities’[1], is felt when s/he founds her/his own ‘new religious movement’, and her/his ideas and programme lead the members of the group. In the case of the RastafarI movement, for example, Marcus Garvey is one proponent of Pan-African nationalism and a particularly charismatic voice in the development of the movement.  Through the prophetic teachings of Garvey concerning the coronation of the God-King from Ethiopia (Haile Selassie I), RastafarI develops its belief in the Coming of the Second Messiah to the Earth to save the subaltern people of the African Diaspora and create a new kingdom (the Promised Land, Ethiopia). RastafarI is itself a millennial movement with the belief that Haile Selassie I is the God Liberator, an avatar returned to restore True Salvation for the subaltern people of African lineage. It is also a revolutionary movement which wants to change the lot of Africans and liberate them from the chains of corrupt, evil and sinful Babylon in order to create a new golden age in ‘the millennium kingdom’ of Ethiopia.

Millenarian thought is the belief that after the end of this world a new, fertile and harmonious world will appear. Such a conviction is referred to the term Millennium which is taken from the Apocalypse of John and the Book of Revelation. Millennialisms are expecting either a collective earthly salvation by supernatural agencies or a heavenly salvation. However, as we know, millenarian movements often appear in periods of crisis and act as expressions of frustration, vulnerability and the desire to escape. With their charismatic personalities, millenarianists believe in an earthly Golden Age but have a pessimistic view of the future.  They can be classified as catastrophic (the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses) and progressive millennial movements (the New Agers and the Theosophical movement). The progressive millennial thought has a positive view of the collective growth of society in harmony with the divine (Gods or Angels). Both the progressive and catastrophic millennial movements reflect dramatic episodes of failure and violence, awaiting a radical transit to salvation. They may be violent revolutionaries whose aim is to eradicate the ‘old’ to create the ‘new’. What is common in Millenarian movements is that they are exultant about the predictions of a New Era.

By way of conclusion, what happens in various millenarian movements is directly connected to the economic, religious, sexual and racial power which puts their adherents in a marginal position in relation to the dominant society. Therefore it is not clear how these forces operate within society due to extreme variations in the movements themselves, especially when the prophets die, which  may cause trauma (see the recent death of the Korean Revd. Sun Myung Moon, founder and charismatic leader of the Unification Church). Many of them are expecting that world will be transformed by divine interventions through prophecies in order to eliminate suffering and to offer collective salvation.

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

About the Author:

Marzia Coltri was born in Verona, Italy and completed a BA in Philosophy with a thesis on the liberal and scientific thought of Karl Popper. After finishing her MA in Philosophical Counselling, she came to England in 2007 to embark on research on minority ethnic religious groups. She recently received her PhD in African and Caribbean religions (the RastafarI movement and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church) in the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham (UK). She is currently part-time visiting lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, UK. Her research focuses on gender studies, post-colonialism and NRMs. She has presented several papers in the UK and abroad, three of which are published in the proceedings of the CESNUR conference. One of her recent articles ‘The Challenge of the Queen of Sheba: The Hidden Matriarchy in the Ancient East’ has also been published in the History of the Ancient World website.

Bibliography:

Melton, J. Gordon. ‘The counter-cult monitoring movement in historical perspective’ in Challenging Religion: Essays in Honour of Eileen Barker, James A. Beckford and James T. Richardson, eds. (London: Routledge, 2003)

Bromley, David and Melton, J. Gordon, eds., Cults, Religion and Violence, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge: 2003)

Melton, J. Gordon. Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices, ABC-Clio (2002)

Melton, J. Gordon. Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions, Thomson Gale; 8th edition (2009),

Miller, Timothy. When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements. ed., Intr. by J. Gordon Melton.  State University of New York Press (Albany, USA: 1991)

Useful links:

http://www.cesnur.org/testi/melton_speak.htmp

http://www.cesnur.org/2010/to-coltri.htm

 


[1] Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, tr. by Ephraim Fischoff (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953), 52.

J. Gordon Melton on American Millennialism

Why is it that millennialism – the belief in an immanent return of Christ to Earth – has had such a particular fascination for the American people? Millennial prophecy is often analysed with relation to violence and minority “cults”, but it is also infused into everyday discourse, in the rhetoric of politicians and the “rolling prophecy” of talk radio hosts. In this wide-ranging interview, David asks Gordon Melton about the history and reasons behind the fascination. Discussion moves from the Millerites and the Great Disappointment of 1844, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas. We discuss the strategies used by these groups when their prophecies fail, which often involves a  shift from premillennialism to postmillennialism.

“When you look at all the groups who have given prophecies at various times, they have one thing in common: they all failed. For most of us, this is a history of successive groups with failed prophecies. But for the groups themselves, prophecy never fails…”

Finally, we come right up to the present day, talking about Harold Camping and other Christian millennialism, and the 2012 narrative so prevalent today in popular spirituality and the media. While these share similarities with 19th century millennialism, but considerable differences also, in particular in relation to media. In closing Melton prophecies about the future of millennialism; as the population continues to grow, and there continues to be a need to fill news shows, then prophecy will continue to fail.

(By the way, the chap who’s name we couldn’t remember is David Spangler.)

Dr. Melton is Distinguished Professor of American Religious History of Baylor University’s Institute for Studies in Religion, as of March, 2011. In 1968 he founded the Institute for the Study of American Religion and has remained it’s director for the last 44 years. The institute is devoted to organizing, motivating, and producing research-based studies and educational material on North American Religion, and has been responsible for the publication of more than 400 reference and scholarly texts, including multiple editions of the Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions (8th edition, 2009). He sits on the international board of the Center for Studies in New Religions (CESNUR) based in Turin, Italy, the primary academic association focusing studies of new and minority religions.

Dr. Melton recently completed the editing of the second edition of the award-winning Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Belief and Practice, which appeared in 2010, and is currently working on a multi-volume Chronological History of the World’s Religions. Melton has publish extensively, but of particular relevance to this interview are Cults, Religion and Violence (With David G. Bromley. Cambridge University Press, 2002.) The Family/The Children of God (Signature Books, 2004.) “Beyond Millennialism: The New Age Transformed.” In Daren Kemp and James R. Lewis, eds. Handbook of New Age (Brill 2007, pp. 77-97), and “Spiritualization and Reaffirmation: What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails.” (American Studies 26:2, 1985, pp. 17-29) [Jstor link]. 

Podcasts

What is the Public Benefit of the Study of Religion?

This year’s BASR annual conference at the University of Winchester included a panel on the ‘Public benefit in the study of religion’. The panel was organised by BASR Hon. Secretary, Bettina Schmidt, and Chair of BSA-SOCREL, Abby Day, representing the two main professional organisations representing the UK’s scholars of religion. The other speakers taking part were Eileen Barker of INFORM, Tim Jensen and Douglas Davies. Given that the Religious Studies Project has a manifesto of disseminating contemporary RS research to the public, we felt that we wanted to talk to scholars about this question. This edited podcast was the result.  

Does the public benefit from the social-scientific study of religion? Should it? How do we demonstrate benefit, measure it, communicate it? What are the practical and theoretical issues surrounding the idea of how the study of religion can operate in the, or perhaps as a, public good? For that matter, what do we mean by ‘public’ or ‘benefit’?

This question relates to our daily practice as researchers when asking for funding or having to present the outcomes of our research. Research Councils ask every applicant to explain the possible impact of a research project and in the coming years we will have to demonstrate as part of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) the wider impact of our research. But are discussions of this type necessary in order to  understand and perhaps improve the relevance to the public of our research – and discipline – or are we simply looking for justifications to be able to continue research which has little public benefit?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Prophecy and American Millennialism

RastafarI is itself a millennial movement with the belief that Haile Selassie I is the God Liberator, an avatar returned to restore True Salvation for the subaltern people of African lineage. It is also a revolutionary movement which wants to change the lot of Africans…

J. Gordon Melton: Prophecy and American Millennialism

By Marzia A. Coltri, University of Birmingham, UK

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with J. Gordon Melton on American Millennialism (15 October 2012).

J. Gorton Melton is a leading academic specialist on new religious movements, a scholar of occultists, Scientologists, Rosicrucianists, Neopagans, Branch Davidians, Theosophists, Reiki groups, UFO, Hare Krishnas, New Age  and vampires, who has spent his academic career investigating and classifying new religious groups throughout the world. He is founder of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, and in an interview at the 2012 annual meeting of INFORM in London he discussed Millennial movements in America, with particular stress on three typologies of movements that await the divine intervention of the Son of God on Earth. This eschatological conjecture in Christianity teaches and disseminates the ‘double resurrection’ of Jesus Christ (“the Messiah is coming again’) and the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth as the supreme signs of salvation and liberation from oppression and tribulation. As Melton observes, many new religious groups in the second half of the 20th century were small in size and had a lack of organizational structure. These movements are, he says, increasing rapidly, changing denominations and metaphysical features, and are waiting a New Era.

The impact of the prophet, with her/his charisma, which is for Weber ‘a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which she/he is set apart from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities’[1], is felt when s/he founds her/his own ‘new religious movement’, and her/his ideas and programme lead the members of the group. In the case of the RastafarI movement, for example, Marcus Garvey is one proponent of Pan-African nationalism and a particularly charismatic voice in the development of the movement.  Through the prophetic teachings of Garvey concerning the coronation of the God-King from Ethiopia (Haile Selassie I), RastafarI develops its belief in the Coming of the Second Messiah to the Earth to save the subaltern people of the African Diaspora and create a new kingdom (the Promised Land, Ethiopia). RastafarI is itself a millennial movement with the belief that Haile Selassie I is the God Liberator, an avatar returned to restore True Salvation for the subaltern people of African lineage. It is also a revolutionary movement which wants to change the lot of Africans and liberate them from the chains of corrupt, evil and sinful Babylon in order to create a new golden age in ‘the millennium kingdom’ of Ethiopia.

Millenarian thought is the belief that after the end of this world a new, fertile and harmonious world will appear. Such a conviction is referred to the term Millennium which is taken from the Apocalypse of John and the Book of Revelation. Millennialisms are expecting either a collective earthly salvation by supernatural agencies or a heavenly salvation. However, as we know, millenarian movements often appear in periods of crisis and act as expressions of frustration, vulnerability and the desire to escape. With their charismatic personalities, millenarianists believe in an earthly Golden Age but have a pessimistic view of the future.  They can be classified as catastrophic (the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses) and progressive millennial movements (the New Agers and the Theosophical movement). The progressive millennial thought has a positive view of the collective growth of society in harmony with the divine (Gods or Angels). Both the progressive and catastrophic millennial movements reflect dramatic episodes of failure and violence, awaiting a radical transit to salvation. They may be violent revolutionaries whose aim is to eradicate the ‘old’ to create the ‘new’. What is common in Millenarian movements is that they are exultant about the predictions of a New Era.

By way of conclusion, what happens in various millenarian movements is directly connected to the economic, religious, sexual and racial power which puts their adherents in a marginal position in relation to the dominant society. Therefore it is not clear how these forces operate within society due to extreme variations in the movements themselves, especially when the prophets die, which  may cause trauma (see the recent death of the Korean Revd. Sun Myung Moon, founder and charismatic leader of the Unification Church). Many of them are expecting that world will be transformed by divine interventions through prophecies in order to eliminate suffering and to offer collective salvation.

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

About the Author:

Marzia Coltri was born in Verona, Italy and completed a BA in Philosophy with a thesis on the liberal and scientific thought of Karl Popper. After finishing her MA in Philosophical Counselling, she came to England in 2007 to embark on research on minority ethnic religious groups. She recently received her PhD in African and Caribbean religions (the RastafarI movement and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church) in the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham (UK). She is currently part-time visiting lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, UK. Her research focuses on gender studies, post-colonialism and NRMs. She has presented several papers in the UK and abroad, three of which are published in the proceedings of the CESNUR conference. One of her recent articles ‘The Challenge of the Queen of Sheba: The Hidden Matriarchy in the Ancient East’ has also been published in the History of the Ancient World website.

Bibliography:

Melton, J. Gordon. ‘The counter-cult monitoring movement in historical perspective’ in Challenging Religion: Essays in Honour of Eileen Barker, James A. Beckford and James T. Richardson, eds. (London: Routledge, 2003)

Bromley, David and Melton, J. Gordon, eds., Cults, Religion and Violence, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge: 2003)

Melton, J. Gordon. Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices, ABC-Clio (2002)

Melton, J. Gordon. Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions, Thomson Gale; 8th edition (2009),

Miller, Timothy. When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements. ed., Intr. by J. Gordon Melton.  State University of New York Press (Albany, USA: 1991)

Useful links:

http://www.cesnur.org/testi/melton_speak.htmp

http://www.cesnur.org/2010/to-coltri.htm

 


[1] Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, tr. by Ephraim Fischoff (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953), 52.

J. Gordon Melton on American Millennialism

Why is it that millennialism – the belief in an immanent return of Christ to Earth – has had such a particular fascination for the American people? Millennial prophecy is often analysed with relation to violence and minority “cults”, but it is also infused into everyday discourse, in the rhetoric of politicians and the “rolling prophecy” of talk radio hosts. In this wide-ranging interview, David asks Gordon Melton about the history and reasons behind the fascination. Discussion moves from the Millerites and the Great Disappointment of 1844, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas. We discuss the strategies used by these groups when their prophecies fail, which often involves a  shift from premillennialism to postmillennialism.

“When you look at all the groups who have given prophecies at various times, they have one thing in common: they all failed. For most of us, this is a history of successive groups with failed prophecies. But for the groups themselves, prophecy never fails…”

Finally, we come right up to the present day, talking about Harold Camping and other Christian millennialism, and the 2012 narrative so prevalent today in popular spirituality and the media. While these share similarities with 19th century millennialism, but considerable differences also, in particular in relation to media. In closing Melton prophecies about the future of millennialism; as the population continues to grow, and there continues to be a need to fill news shows, then prophecy will continue to fail.

(By the way, the chap who’s name we couldn’t remember is David Spangler.)

Dr. Melton is Distinguished Professor of American Religious History of Baylor University’s Institute for Studies in Religion, as of March, 2011. In 1968 he founded the Institute for the Study of American Religion and has remained it’s director for the last 44 years. The institute is devoted to organizing, motivating, and producing research-based studies and educational material on North American Religion, and has been responsible for the publication of more than 400 reference and scholarly texts, including multiple editions of the Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions (8th edition, 2009). He sits on the international board of the Center for Studies in New Religions (CESNUR) based in Turin, Italy, the primary academic association focusing studies of new and minority religions.

Dr. Melton recently completed the editing of the second edition of the award-winning Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Belief and Practice, which appeared in 2010, and is currently working on a multi-volume Chronological History of the World’s Religions. Melton has publish extensively, but of particular relevance to this interview are Cults, Religion and Violence (With David G. Bromley. Cambridge University Press, 2002.) The Family/The Children of God (Signature Books, 2004.) “Beyond Millennialism: The New Age Transformed.” In Daren Kemp and James R. Lewis, eds. Handbook of New Age (Brill 2007, pp. 77-97), and “Spiritualization and Reaffirmation: What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails.” (American Studies 26:2, 1985, pp. 17-29) [Jstor link].