Posts

Protected: Empty Signs in an Automatic Signalling System (Classroom Edit)

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Empty Signs in an Automatic Signalling System

This second interview with Timothy Fitzgerald covers his later work, from Discourse on Civility and Barbarity (2007) and Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (2011). In these works, thinking about the historical development of the category “religion” leads to consideration of other ‘modern’ categories which make up the colonial epistemé. If religion is deconstructed, where does that leave the other categories that use or rely on it? What happens to its common opposites like “the secular”, “science”, “liberalism” or even “politics”?

Fitzgerald argues that this mutually-dependent signalling system largely emerged in the late 17th century.  As rhetorical terms expressing specific class interests and aspirations in concrete situations of power, this system of signals originated in the context of the ancient regimes and sacred Monarchies of Christian Europe. Since then, each category has been continually contested, with shifting and unstable meanings. Now they have become so capacious and universalised that they have no clear boundaries, and we cannot properly distinguish between them. Yet these ideas have, over time and through repetition, become normalised and neutralised such that they appear as common sense. Today they form the basic categories for the organisation of our institutions, including academia and universities.

Listen to the first part of David G. Robertson’s interview with Timothy Fitzgerald on The Ideology of Religious Studies here: Episode 322 “The Problem with ‘Religion’ and Related Categories”

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.

Empty Signs in an Automatic Signalling System

Podcast with Timothy Fitzgerald (16 March 2020).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/empty-signs-in-an-automatic-signalling-systerm/

David Robertson (DR): I’m here with Tim Fitzgerald of the University of Queensland, where he’s a visiting research professor. This interview follows on from his recent interview, entitled “The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)“. And at the end of that interview we had talked about his fieldwork in India, and his time living in Japan, and how this had led to him writing The Ideology of Religious Studies. And central to that was an attempt to kind-of pin down and locate this category religion. Maybe you could pick the story up for us there, Tim?

Timothy Fitzgerald (TF): Yes. Sure. I mean one of my targets, when I was in Japan, was the religion industry – which was applied to Japan itself in the form of the study of Japanese religions – and the difficulty in actually identifying what constitutes a religion in Japan – which was also the problem about what constitutes the non-religious secular. And a lot of my work was aimed at trying to show there is this basic contradiction between the study of religion – whether that’s by Japanese or non-Japanese scholars – and, you know, the actual problem of locating it. And the problem of religion is therefore the problem of the non-secular, and how we ended up with this idea that there is a religious world of the Japanese which is somehow distinguishable from the non-religious world of the Japanese. So this led me to look, historically, for the source of this binary that we have in this religion-secular construction. And that led me back, actually, to the seventeenth century in England. And I started doing a lot of reading on . . . well, not only the seventeenth century, but going back to the sixteenth century. The post-Reformation discourse on religion was really what I was looking for. And what I found was that right the way through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – and I think that this is true going right the way through into the 18th and 19th and possibly up to the present in certain respects – is that the dominant meaning of religion was our Protestant faith. And it was a male literate construct of our Protestant faith, in a world where faith does not mean a weak form of belief. Faith is Truth, fundamentally. Christian Truth. It was a claim about Christian Truth. And the opposite of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and coming on much more recently, was not the non-religious secular. It was pagan irrationality, superstition and barbarism. And so what you have is not some dichotomy between the religious and the non-religious, but between True religion and a whole number of practices which are being discovered around the globe which look like a kind of mistaken attempt at finding God, from the point of view of the Christians. So these are superstitious practices. And what interested me, at what point did that discourse on religion as Christian Truth, or Protestant Christian Truth, become re-defined as religion as a private inner personal practice which is completely distinct from government? You see, the thing is that when you go back into reading these texts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there’s no such distinction between religion and non-religion. And this is actually the research that led up to a book I published – two books that I published – in 2007, one was Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories (5:00). And the other was an edited volume which came out of a conference I organised at Sterling, which was called, Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations. And in that collection of essays I published a chapter called “Encompassing Religion, Privatised Religion and the Invention of Modern Politics”. And that theme, privatised religion, encompassing religion and the invention of modern politics, is central to Discourse on Civility and Barbarity. And it represents in some ways a move forward from The Ideology of Religious Studies. Because it’s actually looking at the historical documents that can guide us, or suggest to us, what are the circumstances in which somebody – i.e. someone like John Locke who was probably the most powerful inventor of the modern religion/non-religion dichotomy in my view – John Locke, but not only John Locke – there were plenty of others who were doing it – who were rhetorically redefining what the term religion means, in order to formulate a theory of government in which government is free from the domination of religion. And that introduces many, many interesting problems. Because what you have is, from the time of John Locke going into if you like the Enlightenment . . . . I’m not going to leave the Enlightenment untouched by critique as a term but, for the moment, let’s think of the Enlightenment in the general sense that we do typically think about it, which is a lot of men (mostly men – I didn’t come across any female texts at this period but no doubt there may have been some, but it’s mostly men) who wanted to have the right to accumulate private property, and for that private property to be clearly their property, and not to be invaded and tampered with by the sacred monarch. We have to remember that when John Locke was writing in the 1680s and 1690s this was a time of enormous turmoil in England. We’d had the execution of the previous king, King Charles 1 in 1649. We’d had the Putney Debates in the 1640s, which were very radical and which were questioning a great deal of the status quo. After the execution of Charles 1, in about 1652 I think it was, Hobbes published Leviathan. And in Leviathan you find several references to politics, the noun-word politics. And in John Locke’s essays on government and his other writings, his essays on toleration, for example, you get references to politics, by which he means government which is not dominated by religion and which represents the interests of male private property accumulators. And this was formulated in terms of natural rights. And there are a whole string of natural rights which were argued for. But these were really rights formulated by men, many of them Non-Conformists who were chafing against the restrictions of the sacred monarch and his court, and the Established Church that legitimated the sacred monarch, performed the coronation ceremonies, gave him the legitimation to do what he liked, basically. He was an arbitrary monarch. He was portrayed as a tyrant by the people who wanted to free up government from the control of this particular ideological complex of the sacred monarch. We can call it the Ancien Régime, to generalise it. Because France was in a very similar situation where you have a closed hierarchy of classes, which is born into land ownership and born into status, and it’s basically a fixed order of divine conception (10:00). And the sacred monarch is the heart of the nation. The sacred monarch is God’s appointed and anointed representative on earth. So the sacred monarch had enormous powers. And there were a lot of people at this time who were Non-Conformist, who didn’t believe in the Established Church and who didn’t believe in the sacred monarch. It was very dangerous to say so. Now John Locke was one of the most powerful and influential writers to question the status quo of the time, and to try and redefine what a number of terms really mean. And religion is obviously is one of the most important. But you see, I can’t find a consistent discourse on the noun-word politics in English before around the middle of the seventeenth century. The most consistent, in developed discourse on politics, that I can find is in John Locke where he defines politics as a government not representing the arbitrary power of a sacred monarch, but governments protecting the natural rights of Englishmen. And this is gendered. I’m using the expression Englishmen because women were not really much in the picture.

DR: And it’s not all men either, is it? It’s the wealthy, landowning classes. So it’s not only gendered, but there’s class in there as well.

TF: Oh yes, definitely. Because, of course, one of the great sources . . . the new sources of private property at this time was from the enclosures. And the enclosures were where legislation, bills, were passed in the House of Parliament – which is the legislature – in order to transform a piece of common land into private property. Now common land was land which for centuries had been conventionally shared in ways which were determined by local customs, you know. But there were very definite ways in which people subsisted on common land. Often a lot of the most poor people in feudal society, they were working part of the time for the local master, the local lord, but they were also working for their own subsistence. And they had common land to do this on. Now when that common land started disappearing through the Enclosure Acts, land that had been shared by different classes of people according to different conventions and customs was now being enclosed and declared to be private property of an individual. And I think this is very significant, because these enclosures were continuing right the way through the seventeenth, the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth century. And more and more people were being deprived of their traditional subsistence, and were being forced out into homelessness, and poverty, and starvation. And you get, during that period, you get a growing problem of vagabondage – huge numbers of poor people who were being turned into vagabonds. And these vagabonds were despised by the owners of land, because they were a living source of disharmony, and conflict, and discord. And they were treated really badly. And there was a parish system of which was called the Poor Laws, where people without any kind of subsistence had the right to seek help from various parishes. And the parishes were supposed to give them help, and food, and various other necessities. The Poor Law system was becoming very overburdened because there were more and more poor people who were calling on it. And this created resentments from other people. So you get a very messy situation. Now what’s happening to all these vagabonds, all these poor families that are being turned off the common land and no longer have anywhere to subsist, any land to subsist on? Well gradually – especially during the eighteenth century, they’re going into the new industrial centres and becoming wage labour (15:00). Before that, a lot of them were becoming wage labour, agricultural labour. There was a huge growing agricultural wage labour. So the people who lost subsistence land were losing their conventional ties to the old estate system, the old feudal system, and were becoming like loose cannons. They didn’t have any place in any kind of system or structure. So they were becoming, as it were, peas out of a pod. They were rolling around the place, and looking for work, and often going into the growing craft centres. But they were also working as agricultural wage labour. So that was one of the complex processes, but a very definite process that was occurring as part of what I would describe as the emergence of Modernity. And it’s important to realise that the natural rights that these men were proclaiming – from John Locke and many others going right the way up to the natural rights of the declaration of independence, and the US constitution, and beyond – these natural rights were habeas corpus: you can’t be arrested without being charged with some crime, you have to have access to a lawyer. Another right would be to express one’s views in public, the right to publishing, and so on. But I think that the key right was the right to accumulate private property. And to have that private property represented in parliament. So if you traced the way that parliament and government changed during the second half of the seventeenth century, going on into the eighteenth, you get, increasingly, the idea that the real function of parliament is to represent the natural, inalienable rights of individual private property holders against the predations of the sacred monarch, against the invasions of the tyrant prince, against arbitrary taxation, and these kinds of things.

DR: It’s not a liberty in some abstract, metaphysical sense. It’s the liberal order: the freedom to own property without interference from, as you say, from the divinely appointed monarch.

TF: Yes, I think that’s true. I think that that was . . . . Because, after all, not only through the Enclosure Acts but also in this colonial situation which was burgeoning, more and more money could be made out of colonial production – including the slave trade. I mean, the men that we’re talking about who were demanding representation in parliament on the basis of property qualification, these were often the same men who were not only benefiting from the enclosures but they were benefitting from the plantations and colonies that were being established. For example, in North America, John Locke had very specific interests in the Carolinas. William Penn, who was another rather like-minded Non-Conformist – he was a Quaker – was the founder of Pennsylvania. Both of them were people who loved to write bills of rights. They were the inventors of bills of rights and constitutions. And their bills of rights and constitutions were actually adopted in the Americas. And what they were demanding was, again, they wanted government that represented natural rights – but particularly the natural rights of white, male, private property accumulators – including, of course, the salve trade. I don’t think William Penn was involved in the slave trade.

DR: No. But George Washington certainly was!

TF: Yes, absolutely. And so was John Locke. I mean, John Locke had investments in the Africa Corporation or whatever it was called. You had the East India Company (20:00). But there were also other companies dealing with specialised areas of trade. They were royal charters, but they had private investors. And I think it was the Africa Company that was very much involved in the slave trade. So I mean these men, people like John Locke, they were ambitious. They wanted private property, they wanted to accumulate and they wanted representation in Parliament. I think an awful lot of the 1688 Bill of Rights and the invitation for the Protestants from Holland, William and Mary. . . this was all involved in consolidating this new view of Parliament. Now, you mention the word “liberty” and that’s a very important one. Because liberty was a term that comes up in the Magna Carta in the 1215. And I think there was a second Magna Carta in 1225, or something. Liberty is central to the Magna Carta. But that was in a very, very different situation. The liberty that was being demanded then was the liberty of powerful nobles, with their own private armies, demanding liberties from the king. Well in the beginning of the seventeenth century, Sir Edward Coke, who was a very effective jurist, he began to really do a lot of work on this term liberty, and to extend its meaning in a way which became much more useful for the situation in the seventeenth century. And the meaning of liberty became very much to do with the liberty of being represented in Parliament – your own natural inalienable rights being represented in Parliament. Particularly, it was about property. I mean, you could call it the democratisation of property, but I think it was a new system of private property whereby land became commodified in such a way that it could be bought and sold for cash. And we’re talking about the land which was derived from the enclosures. We’re talking about the theft of Irish Catholic lands by Cromwell, who took over . . . . He took over with him a man called Sir William Petty who was a polymath, a brilliant guy. He was good at just about everything. And he was taken over by Cromwell as the Land Surveyor General of Ireland. And he measured out a great deal of land in measured plots. He devised a method to measure plots of land, so that it could easily be quantified, valued, bought and sold. And the methods that he used were actually used on a much larger scale by Thomas Jefferson in the 1780s, when they started surveying the land systematically from the East Coast, going right up to the Appellations. And later it would go much further. But these are vast tracts of what they thought were empty land. Actually they were Native American lands. But the Native Americans didn’t think that any individual could own land. It was completely inconceivable to them. So these empty lands were being measured out in saleable plots by Thomas Jefferson and a whole team of land surveyors. So what you have is not only the emergence, the birth, of a global private property market in land, but private property in capital. I mean, private property can take a lot of different forms. And going back again to John Locke, John Locke was involved in the founding of the Bank of England in 1694. This seems to me to be . . . . The founding of the Bank of England seems to me to be as important to the invention of religion in its modern dominant sense as a private, personal, communication with God which has nothing to do with government.

DR: Well I think this is what’s so fascinating about Discourse on Civility and Barbarity, particularly, is this analysis of the historic development of the category of religion and its others. In fact it leads to a clearer idea of the function of this category which is to normalise and mystify the processes of colonial power and the power of land owners (25:00). But what’s interesting is that that mystification has been so successful that despite these being historically contingent, and shifting, and unstable, and sometimes empty categories, nonetheless it makes up this contemporary episteme in which we live and in which these ideas have become so normalised. And not only normalised and neutralised, but the actual basic organisation of so many of our institutions – you know, aspects of law and of parliament and academia and just everyday speech.

TF: Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. I think that there is a process where a number of narratives or stories are being told. For example, “man in the state of nature“ – which was a story told slightly differently by Hobbes, by Locke and later by Rousseau. But man in the state of nature, it seems to me to be a complete fiction but which nevertheless had great rhetorical power, because it invented a kind-of an original human nature which is of the lone, individual survivor – kind-of savage survivor – using his native intelligence to accumulate everything that he needs for himself and his family. And, again, I’m using gendered terminology because, after all, it wasn’t woman and the state of nature, it was man and the state of nature. And women don’t . . . they usually get included in family. You can imagine this noble savage, or just let’s say this savage, surviving through the wit of his own native intelligence. And providing for his family against the competition of other individual savages who are also trying to grab what they can for their own ends. And this is a completely unrealistic picture. We know from anthropology . . . . Anthropologists who have studied say hunter-gatherers know that this is completely not as humans groups survived or prospered. They didn’t survive as competing individuals. But this idea of man and the state of nature puts that on the table in a powerful way. And it’s aimed against other alternative versions. For example, John Locke. The first of his treatises on government is an extended critique of a man called Sir Robert Filmer who wrote a book called Patriarcha. And Patriarcha is . . . it’s actually a very powerful representation of what was considered to be an orthodox Christian Protestant, post-Reformation – but pre-Modern, I would say – view of the world. And basically it’s this enclosed, hierarchical, fixed system in which everybody knows their place. And the whole is harmonious as long as everybody does what they’re supposed to do, at whatever level of the organisation they operate, whatever their status is. And man in the state of nature was a deliberate attempt to subvert this idea of the harmonious hierarchical, patriarchal society, and to introduce the idea that we’re all in our real, natural souls individuals who are struggling to survive, and we do it through our own native intelligence. And those of us who have the higher intelligence will be able to accumulate more. However, the people who were in this situation at some point came to realise that this is all so fictitious that they needed a system of rules that protected each other’s property, so that if there was any contestations over property rights then the rules could be used to sort them out (30:00). And, of course, the rules were the laws which we needed a government to represent and to enforce. So government or politics ought to be about the representation of laws that defend the various natural rights that such as private property. So this is the fiction of the contract theory of government. You start with man and the state of nature. How do human beings get out of the state of nature? Why they make a contract with a particular form of government which will look after the laws that ensure that their property is kept safe and that whoever owns what gets their just rewards. That’s a completely new . . . this idea of government completely dislocates the old one. I mean, it was both heretical and treasonous. And that’s why John Locke, and other people who argued like him, had to keep escaping from England and going to Amsterdam to get free of these charges of heresy or treason. So this is what these narratives do, it’s that they explain what the real meaning of other ideas are. Liberty – the real meaning of liberty comes through these narratives. And the term “liberal” is another one that begins to crop up, which I’ve done quite a lot of work on. So I think that . . . does that . . . ? Sorry, I’ve rather lost myself! Does that answer what you were mentioning?

DR: Yes. Well, what I want to do now is kind-of step up a level, and sort-of think a little more broadly about this . . .we can call it like cognitive colonialism, or this modern episteme, where terms like religion, the secular, liberal, liberalism, politics, where these kind-of make sense. And you’ve described these as being “empty signs in an automatic signalling system”. And I wondered if you would tell us a little about what you mean by this?

TF: OK. Well, I mentioned to you that in the last session that I found that there were so many references for religion, so many things are religious that the term seemed to lose any specific meaning.

DR: Right, yes. There’s a religion of everything!

TF: There’s a religion of everything. So it’s become the generic abstraction with very problematic boundaries. It’s very difficult to know what cannot be included in this term. But on the other hand, you’re getting the development at first of a very minority Non-Conformist idea that religion has a very specific meaning, which is that it to do with your own inner devotion and worship and your own morality and your own concerns with life after death and it has to be clearly distinguished from another domain which is about the government of this world, according to laws. And particularly the defence of the private rights of individuals. So but then, at the same time, you find that all of these terms, as they get used in more and more rhetorical situations throughout the eighteenth century, they all develop the sense of losing their original fairly concrete meaning and becoming inter-generic categories. So that today, not only do we have a religion of everything but there’s a politics of everything. So politics, it seems to me, is a noun-word which is actually invented in the second half of the seventeenth century, to talk about a particular form of government which was both treasonous and heretical at the time, but which has become so generic, so abstract, there is now a politics of everything. There are political systems everywhere, and at all times in history. And this also leads onto the question of political economy. Because you know the term political economy is also around from an early time in the seventeenth century (35:00). And by the time of Adam Smith, say, in his Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776, political economy is itself a discourse: there is a subject called political economy which is emerging in the eighteenth century. So the question of where does politics end and political economy begin becomes important. And I couldn’t find . . . I’ve done a lot of research on the history of the term political economy, and I can’t find. . . . There doesn’t seem to be a solution to this. And then in the late eighteenth century, early nineteenth century, you get the term economics breaking off from political economy, and becoming a subject of study in itself: a science of economics, classical economics, liberal classical economics. So economics becomes defined as its own area of expertise. But what is, actually, the area itself? How do we define economics, and distinguish it from political economy, or simply politics? You know, what part of economics can be distinguished from politics, and what part of politics can be distinguished from economics in modern discourse? So that was another problem. There was also. . . I came to realise that what was happening from the late seventeenth century is that a number of terms which have a kind-of typical deployment, were becoming abstracted, and reified, and turned into generic abstractions. And one of them was history, which I’ve more recently been doing a lot of work on. You know, you get an older term, history, which had, if you like, local meanings referring to the genealogies of kings and great events, heroes, local memory, all sorts of things in history. But by the end of the eighteenth century you’ve got History with a capital H emerging as a scientific study, and it’s become Universal History. You know, it’s the History of the World: Turgot in 1751. He was a very influential French philosophe. He developed some really interesting writing on the idea of the progress of the human mind through universal history. I mean, look how far we’ve come – the progress of the human mind through universal history. Progress – you can’t think of history without progress. The modern dominant idea of history as a professionalised academic discipline was born in conjunction with the idea of progress. Not only does history seek to find how we progress – the route by which humans progressed from the past into the present state of European Enlightenment – but also history comes to be a sign of progress. In other words, only Euro-Americans are advanced enough to come to realise that there is a history of the world, a universal history, which is the history of the progress of the human race up until that point in history – i.e., the leaders of this progress, the European philosophes, whether they’re in France, or Germany, or Scotland, or England or North America, or wherever. So you get all of these terms which are increasingly problematic. You’ve got religion, politics, political economy, economics, progress, history. You’ve also got the term “modern”. Well what does modern mean? Where it did come from? You’ve also got the term “the Enlightenment”. Again, I’ve done quite a lot of research into the concept of the Enlightenment. And what I’ve found is that nobody can agree on when the Enlightenment began. Nobody can agree on when it ended, if it at all ended – some people think the Enlightenment is still going on. Nobody can agree on which the most important thinkers were – which is interesting because some come straight to mind, but there’s enormous disagreement among experts on that – nor on what the fundamental ideas of the Enlightenment are. In other words, all of these things are contested (40:00). But the term the Enlightenment, like the term modern, like the term progress, like the term history, like the term religion, or politics, or political economy, we use them as though it’s obvious what they mean. So it seems to me that what’s happened is that they’ve . . . that the rhetorical history, if you like, of these terms, has progressedly buried the history of conflict, contestation, the indefinability of all these terms, and they have become as it were just unitary signs which we can deploy automatically, without thinking about their history of conflictual contestation and so on, without thinking about what they mean. We can bury a whole number of very problematic aspects of these generic categories by simply deploying them as though they’re signs in an automatic signalling system. And in fact, I would go further, it seems to me that we are more operated on than operating. I mean these signs, these general categories, operate our texts. In fact they constitute our own subjectivity to a large extent. Our idea of ourselves as being autonomous agents – which actually feels like an inherently intuitive experience of myself as an autonomous agent, but is very much dependent on this whole ideology that has been constructed out of these empty categories . . . of which the individual may be one of the most empty. So this is how I move from talking in a kind-of Dumontian sense of the configuration of modern categories. I was influenced by Durkheim‘s attempt to describe collective symbolic representations in his work on totemism. I’ve been, to a certain extent, influenced by the idea of the expression meta-categories and meta-narratives of Lyotard. I have probably been influenced, largely unconsciously, by semiotics deriving from Saussure, possibly Derrida, but I’m not directly indebted to them at all, because I didn’t come by that route. I think, probably, I’ve absorbed through the skin a great deal of the influence of these writers and thinkers. But basically, I came to this idea of signs in a signalling system through just looking at these categories and trying to work out what they are, what they mean, what their range of applications is, what their origin was and how they were used in the origin, and how they’re now used. Does that make sense?

DR: Very much so. And I think it’s a perfect place to wrap up. I think you’ve summarised . . . . And it was nice that you brought it back to where we started, actually. That’s nice. But I just wanted to say thanks for speaking to us today, Tim, and sharing your ideas with the RSP.

TF: No, it’s a pleasure. Thank you very much for having me. And I hope we can continue this, because there’s a lot more to be said . . .

DR: Oh, absolutely! I’m stopping because we’ve run out of time. And that’s literally the only reason. But we’ll definitely organise another conversation soon.

TF: That’s brilliant.

DR: Thank you so much.

TF: OK. Thank you very much, David. Thank you. Nice to talk. Very good to hear from you.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, 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.

Critical Approaches to Pre-Islamic Arabia and Early Islam

Given the way in which many introductory courses present the history of early Islam and pre-Islamic Arabia, we may be tempted to think that the historical facts were well established and the narrative uncontested. However, this is far from the case. What evidence do we actually have from this period, and how may it challenge the conventional narratives that have become canonised in sacred and academic histories? What misconceptions might be challenged by modern epigraphic work, or the application of Social Identity theories to ancient texts? And why might this matter for contemporary Islam, contemporary Islamic Studies, and the critical study of religion more broadly? Joining Chris to discuss these questions, is Dr Ilkka Lindstedt of the University of Helsinki.

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, doughnuts, kale, and more.


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


Critical Approaches to Pre-Islamic Arabia and Early Islam

Podcast with Ilka Lindstedt (6 May 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Lindstedt_-_Critical_Approaches_to_Pre-Islamic_Arabia_and_Early_Islam_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): Given the way in which many introductory courses present the history of early Islam and pre-Islamic Arabia, we may be tempted to think that the historical facts are well established and the narrative uncontested. However this is far from the case. What evidence do we actually have from this period, and how may it challenge the conventional narratives that have become canonised in both sacred and academic histories? What misconceptions might be challenged by modern ethnographic work, by the application of Social Identity theories to ancient texts? And why might this matter for contemporary Islam, contemporary Islamic Studies or the Study of Religion more broadly. Joining me to day in Helsinki is Ilka Lindstedt who holds a PhD and title of docent in Arabic Islamic Studies at the University of Helsinki. He is currently University Lecturer in Islamic Theology at the Faculty of Theology. He’s published studies on early Islam, Arabic historiography and Arabic epigraphy and recent edited volumes in English include the co-edited Case Studies in Transmission and the forthcoming Translation and Transmission in the First Millennium, both with Ugarit-Verlag. And you can see his institutional website or academia.edu page for more information. And we’ll link to that on the website. So first off: Dr Ilka Lindstedt – welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Ilka Lindstedt (IL): Thank you very much.

CC: So, broadly, we’re talking about pre-Islamic Arabia and early Islam, today – which will obviously be something that’s quite familiar to you. But to the broader Religious Studies community it might not be. So if we could start off, just broadly, tell me about your area of research and what kind of sources are you using? How do you go about doing such research and things like that? What are you interested in? And why?

IL: Thank you. So, I’m interested in late antique Arabia, pre-Islamic Arabia from the first century Common Era onward, up till the early Islamic period, let’s say the eighth century, Common Era. So, the Prophet Muhammad lived in the sixth and seventh century. He died in 632, so that gives a sort of framework where we are operating. And I’m especially interested in approaching early Islam with Social Identity theories, formulated in Social Psychology, and how those can be used to study early Islam and pre-Islamic Arabia as well. And I try to use – as much as possible, that we have to hand – dated materials, contemporary materials. Especially, epigraphy is an important source-set that we have from pre-Islamic Arabia and the early Islamic era as well.

CC: Excellent. You might want to . . . I actually had to look up what epigraphic sources meant before we spoke about this! So if you clarify for our Listeners what they are. And also, more of our Listeners are probably familiar with perhaps Biblical Studies because, you know, it tends to sit in Study of Religion departments in some way. I certainly did some Biblical Studies, back in the day. So it would be interesting to hear about how similar or different you might describe your work that might be done by a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, for example.

IL: Yeah. So by epigraphic sources I mean inscriptions, and in this particular case especially, lapidary inscriptions. So inscriptions engraved in stone, you know, preserved in tens of thousands from pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabia. And I would say that, in my study, I definitely use as much as possible approaches and methods developed in Biblical Studies. Especially, you know, the understanding that we should use contemporary sources as much as possible. Most people dealing with early Islam have been using Islamic era – much later – sources to study the life of the Prophet or pre-Islamic Arabia, for instance. So also the Social Identity approach is something that has been used in Biblical Studies, since the nineties especially, to study the New Testament. But also the Hebrew Bible and see how people in those texts . . . and how those texts categorise the world. Although one question that has been studied quite a lot in Biblical Studies is the question of the parting of the ways when Judaism and Christianity become different categories: when did people start to see them as Christians as opposed to Jews? And that question is something that hasn’t been asked too much in Islamic Studies (5:00). So until the nineties very few people asked the question: when did Muslims actually start to categorise as Muslims, self-identify as Muslims? So that’s kind-of a new question.

CC: Excellent and we’ll get to that towards the end of the interview. So before we start diving into the misconceptions that might be challenged by some of your work and others into pre-Islamic Arabia, we should get some of those misconceptions out there onto the table. Again, our Listeners might not just know this basic narrative. But, what are some of the times and places in traditional narratives that we’re talking about here, relating to early Islam and pre-Islamic Arabia? I know that I certainly have always thought that, you know, the Arabian Peninsula was full of nomads who all thought of themselves as Arabs, and Mecca was a really central key trading post, and they all came there and there are lots of deities in the Ka’bah and things like that. That’s the narrative that I had. But I think that’s not quite right. So, maybe, tell us a bit about the context and then we can challenge that with some of these sources that you’ve been looking at.

IL: So I guess the received tradition we have to start with, we could start with the birth of the Prophet Muhammad in the year 570 in Mecca, like you said. In the Islamic Era the narrative Mecca is portrayed as being a place where almost everybody was polytheist. So according to this Arabic narrative there might have been a couple of Christians or Jews living in Mecca, but there were only a few of them. They were few and far between. So ninety-nine percent of the people, according to this, seem to be polytheist. So that’s 570 or so. And then in 610 the Prophet starts to receive his first revelations conveyed by the Archangel Gabriel, but coming ultimately from God. And at that time the Meccan polytheist aristocrat is not happy with the monotheist message that the prophet Muhammad is trying to convey in Mecca. So Muhammad receives very few converts, very few followers. One of them is actually his wife, Khadijah who becomes one of the first, or maybe the first convert to Islam. But still he has very few followers in those years, the 610s. And the polytheist aristocracy, as it’s usually called in Western scholarship, tries to come after the Prophet and his followers and they even torture some of his followers. And this situation leads to emigration from Mecca, this is called the Hijra, the emigration from Mecca which happens in 622. And this becomes, later, the first year of the Islamic era, the Islamic calendar. In Medina, the situation becomes better. The Prophet rises quite quickly to the top of this city state, as we might call it, of Medina. And he becomes both a religious and political leader of Medina. So early Muslims of Medina and the polytheists of Mecca are at war during those years. And in the year 630, early Muslims are victorious and conquer Mecca. But still the Prophet stays in Medina, and actually dies there in 632.So that’s sort-of the traditional narrative we have.

CC: So before we challenge that narrative through some of the, I guess, written sources . . . what kind of sources do we have from around that period? You know, I know that there’s more literary sources, there’s these inscriptions. So maybe you could just tell us what kind of sources exactly, and then maybe provide some challenges to that narrative?

IL: So, up until very recently, scholars were using Islamic era Arabic literary sources. And we have quite a lot of them, so thousands and thousands of pages of historiographical sources, of different sorts of literary genres, written in Arabic. But that Arabic literature is actually quite late. So we usually say that it’s born in the eighth century and starts to develop from that century onward (10:00). So at least a hundred years later than the Prophet. But still, most of the scholars have been using that source set to engage with pre-Islamic Arabia as well. And the life of the Prophet. But recently people have been turning their sight towards contemporary sources that we might have. And these are especially these inscriptions that I was mentioning. So from pre-Islamic Arabia, from the South and from the North, we have a vast quantity of epigraphic material actually. So from the South, from Yemen we have something like ten thousand pre-Islamic South Arabian inscriptions. And from the North we have even more, so something like fifty thousand or more are published now. And all the time, people doing fieldwork are finding more and more of these inscriptions. And many of them are yet to be published, even though they have already been recorded. So it’s a vast quantity of material and written in different languages. So not all of it is in Arabic, or very little of it, or only a subset of this material is in Arabic. So that’s something that we have from the pre-Islamic era. Then, from the Islamic era of sources we also have Arabic inscriptions. Not so many of them, but let’s say from the first hundred years of Hijra or the Islamic era, we have something like a hundred dated inscriptions, and probably much more that are undated but we can maybe paleographically date to that era as well. So we have quite a few inscriptions that are actually produced in Arabia, preserved in Arabia and produced also oftentimes by people who are not part of the elite. So that’s important to know this. So much of this material is actually graffiti, so stuff that the people were just writing or engraving in stone when they were en route to somewhere, and they were camping somewhere. So they spent an hour or so to carve their name and a message – simpler or longer – on stone. So that’s a very important set of sources that has not been utilised very much.

CC: And so what have these sorts of sources done, perhaps, to that traditional narrative that you laid out beforehand? Maybe a couple of key of examples of things that might challenge that?

IL: Yeah. Especially the polytheist milieu of Arabia in the pre-Islamic era is something that has been challenged by these inscriptions. So, for instance, in Yemen we see quite clearly that up to the fourth century Common Era all of this epigraphic material is polytheist. So there are mention of many gods: Almaqah, for instance, who’s a God associates with the moon; Shamash, associated with the sun. So this traditional polytheist milieu. But then in the fourth century, something happens quite drastically and we see in the epigraphic record that only monotheism is present in these texts and this continues up to the sixth century when the Prophet was born. And, in particular, it seems that the form of monotheism is Judaism that was adopted at least by the elite in Yemen, but probably also by the lay people to an extent, at least. So we don’t have, from the fourth century up to the sixth century, we don’t have any polytheist evidence from Yemen at all. So all the inscriptions that we have are either Jewish or Christian in nature. So they seem all monotheist and also Jewish or Christian identity. And then also in the North we see that Christianity, in particular, is advancing from the third century onward. And we have . . . we don’t have so much material as from the South when it comes to late antiquity – say the third century onward. But everything that we have seems to point towards the idea that Christianity was spreading, and spreading fast. So actually, when we look at what we have from the sixth century, which is the century when the Prophet was born, we don’t have a single text produced and preserved in Arabia that would be polytheist. So everything that we had is monotheist: either Christian or Jewish or something that we cannot actually pinpoint what it actually is. But then, maybe it didn’t even matter to the people who were engraving those inscriptions! (15:00) But this is the case of course in Hejaz, or Western Arabia, where the Prophet lived according to the traditional narrative, and also according to the majority of scholars. So from the Hejaz we don’t actually have so much material, or material at all from the sixth century. So that’s of course still a question mark: what’s going on in the Hejaz in the sixth century? But in any case it seems that in parts of . . . in most parts of Arabia, Christianity and Judaism were spreading past.

CC: Absolutely. Maybe one more example here, before we get onto your social identity work. I mean, perhaps . . . I was quite surprised to hear that Mecca wasn’t quite the big deal that we’ve been led to believe?

IL: Right, yeah. It’s very interesting. This Islamic era sources – which, like I said, are all late – they seem to describe Mecca as a place which was a pilgrimage centre, which was, you know, a trade centre along the trade routes, maybe that criss-crossed Arabia. But when we actually look at pre-Islamic evidence – for instance: Greek literature, Greek geographical literature and also these inscriptions that we have from Arabia – none of them actually mention Mecca. None. And they do mention quite a few Arabian cities and towns. So for instance, they mention Medina – Yathrib, which was the old name of Medina – quite a lot of times. So it seems that Medina was an important . . . or was along these trade routes that started from Yemen and went to Syria and the Mediterranean. But Mecca, maybe, wasn’t such a big deal. So it might have been a local centre but it’s not mentioned at all in the extant evidence that we have from the pre-Islamic era. So that makes me think, at least, that Mecca wasn’t that important in the pre-Islamic era.

CC: Obviously there might be various reasons that it then . . . it’s obviously very important now, and became very important. So there may be an element of reading that into the past. So we’ve only got about ten minutes left. This always happens! So some of your other work then is taking quite a modern Social Identity approach. And specifically, what I’ve read anyway, was looking at, in the Qur’an, looking at the different group dynamics in there. Perhaps you could just quickly introduce what a Social Identity approach might be? And then how you’ve used that to analyse the different groups.

IL: Yes. So the Social Identity approach was developed in Social Psychology since the 1970s by Henri Tajfel and his students, and later many more scholars. And the approach tries to look at social identity, especially. So not so much self-identity but social identity. Some of the group identities and affiliations that we have and possess and signal. And it makes a set of predictions, based on experiments and ethnographic research, about what group affiliation does and categorisation does in the group dynamics. So people have quite clearly noticed that this categorisation into the “in-group” that we affiliate with and the “out-group” which is the others. This sort of categorisation is very natural in us. And it usually and oftentimes leads to the fact that people are more helpful to their in-group members; they attach more positive adjectives to their in-group members; and they allow for different people in the in-group, so a sort-of heterogeneous view of the in-group. Whereas the out-group is usually seen as sort-of like a block, a monolith a homogeneous group of people. And sometimes it is . . . often times it is stereotyped in a way, or negative adjectives and attributes are attached to the out-group.

CC: Yes. And you might have positive attributions biased towards an in-group: some behaviour exhibited by a member of your in-group that would be interpreted positively – and if the same behaviour is in the out-group it might have a different interpretation, based on the same dynamic (20:00).

IL: Right, yeah.

CC: OK. So how does one study that in the Qur’an? I mean it was, maybe, initially developed as a more contemporary ethnographic thing, so how might one study that in this ancient text? And then what have you found regarding different religion-related groups?

IL: So I think the Social Identity approach gives a lot of insight into the ancient or pre-modern texts as well. So instead of actually asking . . . because usually, or sometimes, people have an approach to the Qur’an, and especially the polemic verses in the Qur’an, as signalling that there was some sort of clash between the groups. Whereas people that have been using the Social Identity approach in Biblical Studies have noticed that oftentimes these polemical verses, or polemical passages, in different texts they actually have to do with creation of the in-group identity and creation of this distinct identity. So it doesn’t always have to be the case that there has been some sort of clash in the past. But it actually might have something to do with the present; that the text is trying to signal a distinction to the out-group and trying to make this difference. Whereas the facts on the ground were much more varied and much more of a grey area in how people were viewing themselves and the others. And also, like I said, up until the 1990s people didn’t really ask, in Islamic Studies, the question: “When did Muslims start to view themselves as Muslims as distinct to something else- as distinct to Jews, Christians?” and so on. But in the 1990s Professor Fred Donner, at the University of Chicago, posed this question. But it hasn’t been studied still in depth. There hasn’t been too many people actually trying to approach that question. But I think it is a very important question. And I think we should start with no preconceptions, and start with contemporary sources. Start with the Qur’an and then try to understand the Qur’an in the context of what we know of pre-Islamic Arabia, and then see in the dated material, such as papyri and inscriptions, how that identity evolves later. So when we actually look at the Qur’an we see that the in-group appellation that is used there for the in-group is “believers”. It’s not yet “Muslims” so that is something that seems to happen later. And not only that, but also there are a number of verses that seem to categorise Jews and Christians as part of the in-group, part of the believers. So that makes me think that their situation is not one where Islamic identity was born already at the time of the Prophet. It wasn’t ready at the time, but it evolved later. And when we actually look at the inscriptions that we have that are later than the Qur’an, later than the Prophet Muhammad there we can see that it takes around 100 years before people start to call themselves Muslims or call their religion Islam. So it’s only the 740s when we see this sort of categorisation happening, and also mention of distinctively Islamic rites that happens in the early 8th century, not before.

CC: But again, in a standard into to Islam class, we’ll maybe hear about these verses differentiating Islam from Christianity: “They say that God is three. He is not three he is one,” and all those sorts of things. So there are some things in there which are maybe anti-Christian or anti-Jewish. How does that play into what you’ve just said about believers as a group?

IL: Yes, definitely. There’s definitely polemics against Trinitarianism and against shirk, which means associating anything with God. So absolute monotheism is the central message of the Qur’an, definitely. And I would say that any Jew or Christian who wasn’t willing to part with those associating tendencies wouldn’t be accepted as part of the in-group (25:00). So Trinitarianism is definitely rejected in the Qur’an. But then, there are a number of verses which say that Christians are closest in love to the believers, and they are pious, and they pray, and they will get a reward in the afterlife. And then there are a number of verses that talk about the “People of the Book” in positive manner. And the People of the Book seems to include . . . while the Qur’an doesn’t really spell it out who the People of the Book are, it seems to include at least Jews and Christians and possibly others as well. And so there are a number of verses that seem to suggest that those people in the People of the Book can be part of the in-group if they are willing to part with some of their views which are against the Qur’anic message, and if they are willing to accept the Prophet Muhammad as a Prophet, and the Qur’an as Revelation. Those are definitely sort-of identity signals that people . . . core values that people have to accept. But then, there are a number of others that are later Islamic developments. For instance, there is no conversion ritual mentioned in the Qur’an. The five daily prayers are not mentioned in the Qur’an. Prayer in general is, but the five daily prayers are not. So those sort of things. There are also two verses that explicitly say that Jews and Christians and the believers – and maybe others as well who believe in God – on the last day will get a heavenly reward. And those verses are then, in later Islamic traditions, understood as meaning “Jews and Christians that lived before the Prophet”. But the Qur’an doesn’t say that. And it seems that in the Qur’an the situation is the present tense. So it seems that the Qur’an actually promises, there, some of the Jews and Christians a heavenly reward and salvation, as such.

CC: So obviously I could probe much further but time is going to be our enemy here. So I would urge the Listeners to check out your webpage and dive into some of this. But as a final question: why does this stuff matter? I’ve often, in a sense . . . . As with, say, the historical Jesus studies, we can spend a lot of time working out what exactly was going on, what was happening at the time. But, in a sense, does it matter at all? Because the figure has taken on a life of its own, in a number of different ways. So why does this close study of these sources matter? And what’s its relevance, maybe, for . . . I guess there’s contemporary Islam, there’s contemporary Islamic Studies, the Study of Religion more broadly?

IL: That’s a good question. To an extent, I think it probably doesn’t matter to a lot of people! And maybe people in academia have a tendency to over-emphasise the meaning of their research in the wider society! And, you’re right: scholars who are working in historical Jesus studies, their studies are not probably so relevant to your average believer, your average Christian in say, Finland, or the UK, or South Africa, or wherever. So Jesus is something that matters . . . the Jesus figure that matters to them is probably different to what a scholar of historical Jesus would reconstruct. What I think has some sort-of intrinsic value here, is trying to look at the seventh century people or sixth century people who wrote their inscriptions: how did they see the world? And I think it sort-of gives value to their views, and tries to understand the world as they saw it. But when it comes to contemporary Islam or contemporary Islamic Studies of course, like I said, there’s different verses dealing with the Jews, dealing with the Christians and others in the Qur’an. And those can be understood in different ways. And there are a number of people working inside the tradition as Muslims and as scholars who are approaching these same verses, and maybe drawing similar or the same conclusion that I am here (30:00). So for instance Mun’im Siri, who has written a fine book called Scriptural Polemics, tries to see how the Qur’an itself classifies different religions and Islam, and also probes how later and modern exegists and modernist exegists have understood these verses. And he seems to suggest that the Qur’an can be understand in pluralistic ways, and it can be understood as not being all the time in polemics with Jews and Christians and so on. So, of course, it might have contemporary relevance. But, you know, I’ll leave it to the Listener.

CC: Yes. But it’s a good example of the fine line, in the Study of Religion in general, that we walk between not denying the uniqueness and boundedness of a tradition, but at the same time pointing out that these things are historical developments, and they’re connected to their context. And some may perceive that as an attack or as denigrating, and others may see it as validating. And we’re sort-of walking that line of saying “Things are more complicated than the common narrative might say.” Just as a final question: what are you working on just now? I would hate it if someone asked me that (Laughs).

IL: (Laughs) Yes! I’m actually, with a colleague of mine, we’re writing a book about the Prophet Muhammad, and the narratives about him, and the interpretations of him both in the medieval era and today. This has still got to be finished though, so . . . ! (Laughs).

CC: Excellent. Well, I’m sure some outputs will come out of that in English as well. And hey – you’ve now recorded an English language podcast – you might record a Finnish language podcast! So, Ilka Lindstedt, thank you so much for joining us on the Religious Studies Project!

IL: Thank you.


Citation Info: Lindstedt, Ilka and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “Critical Approaches to Pre-Islamic Arabia and Early Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 6 May 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 25 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/critical-approaches-to-preislamic-arabia-and-early-islam/

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.

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

In this interview Associate Professor Will Sweetman talks to Thomas White about the idea that ‘Hinduism’ and many of the other terms we use to classify religions—including the term religion itself—are modern inventions, emerging out of nineteenth-century inter-cultural contact and European colonialism. Will argues against this critique, and to make his case he draws on historical sources that discuss ‘Hinduism’ both outside of the anglophone experience and long before the nineteenth century. Through identifying alternative, non-anglophone sources of cross-cultural, West-East encounters, where comparative religion is the subject of reflection and description, the concept of ‘Hinduism’ is presented as obtaining a much richer history than the ‘invention thesis’ allows. Such sources include accounts by German Protestant missionaries and those by Jesuits writing in Portuguese, as well as native, expository works by self-reporting Indian religious thinkers. Will argues that ‘Hinduism’ as a concept is older, broader, and indeed more internal to India, than is currently assumed, but this is frequently missed through an overemphasis on relatively late sources almost exclusively in English. The interview goes on to discuss the implications of this research – and endeavours similar to it – for the study of religion in general. The interview closes with a brief chat about Otago’s hosting of the IAHR Congress in 2020.

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

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

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

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

Podcast with Will Sweetman (19 February 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Sweetman_-_Against_Invention_-_A_richer_history_for__Hinduism__1.1

 

Thomas White (TW): Kiaora! And a warm welcome from the Otago University recording studios here in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, where I’m joined today by our very own Associate Professor, Will Sweetman. Professor Sweetman is an historian of religion, whose research focuses on the interactions between the religions of Asia and the West in the modern period, and has published three books and several academic articles that explore the historical and the theoretical aspects of the study of religion, with a theoretical focus on South Indian traditions. Will, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview and welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Will Sweetman (WS): My pleasure, thank you.

TW: Now, the topic I’m hoping to discuss today with you is what you described to me as a defence of the “ism” – with the particular ism in question being Hinduism. But perhaps, to ease our way in, we maybe should start at the beginning, or at least your academic beginning, as it were. So, Will, could you please describe your early training in the study of the history of religion and how this has shaped the trajectory of your research career?

WS: Sure. So it was very much a happy accident. I did my undergraduate degree at Lancaster, which is probably well-known to the listeners of this podcast, but it wasn’t to me. I had chosen to go to Lancaster to study Maths and Philosophy, and Religious Studies was . . . you were required to study a third subject in your first year. And for me, it was very much a toss-up between Religious Studies and Psychology. But the queues for Psychology were much longer!

TW: (Laughs)

WS: So I decided to choose Religious Studies, and really never looked back. So I switched to Philosophy and Religious Studies for the remainder of my degree. But what that meant was my understanding of the academic study of religion was shaped by that Lancaster tradition – which was open to all traditions and emphasised, really, none. And even though much of the work I did was, in fact, on the Christian tradition, because of my interest in Philosophy, and because there were papers in the Lancaster Religious Studies department that were focussed on . . . the paper was called: “Modern Religious and Atheistic Thought.” And it was focussed, really, on 18th century and after philosophical thinking about religion. My work was very much focussed on Western Christian thinkers and thought, coming out of that tradition. But I didn’t privilege that, in a way. Then when I went on, my initial aim was to do more philosophy of religion. And I went to Cambridge to do an MPhil in Philosophy of Religion and very quickly discovered that that wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. But partly because although Cambridge had a Religious Studies . . . the faculty of Divinity was teaching Theology and Religious studies, the assumptions were so different. And really, it was that jarring discovery that the Lancaster way was not the only way – because Lancaster really was my only experience of what it was to treat region in the academy. But at Cambridge it was very different, and that prompted in me the question: how did these two such different traditions emerge? And really, that led me to the 18th century and looking at foundational works, like Hume‘s Natural History of Religion – but how this naturalistic approach, that privileges no religious tradition, emerged. That in turn then led me to looking at the religions that were being studied – or the non-Christian or non-Western traditions that were being studied or discovered in Europe at that time. And because, I suppose, of the colonial expansion going on in India it was particularly Hinduism that was being discovered and discussed at that time. Which then led me to my doctoral work on the study of Hinduism and the conceptualisation of Hinduism from the 17th through to the 18th century. Originally, I intended to include the 19th century but . . .

TW: It got a bit too much?

WS: Yes – as many PhD students discover.

TW: Ok, great. It seem that you’ve got quite a personal narrative feeding into your research interests. In terms of the actual methods of the historical study of religion, particularly inter-religious contact, what would you say are the best habits of analysis, or the important things to watch out for when you’re engaging in such research?

WS: So for me, by temperament I think, as much as anything else – because I’m not really trained as a Historian, although that’s how I would describe myself – attention to the sources is absolutely paramount (5:00). And that means – particularly in the context of what we’re talking about, where most of my work is set, that is, the period of European expansion overseas, encounter with and study of Non-Western cultures – well, two things: first of all the European sources, but particularly, also, the sources on the other side. Now that’s always harder, I think, in . . . . There may be a few exceptions in some periods or highly literate cultures but certainly it’s much harder, generally, to recover the voice from the non-European side of the encounter. Harder but, I would say, not impossible. There are ways of doing it and it’s important, even though it’s difficult, not to short-cut that process. So there is a tendency, I think, even in the works of some scholars whose work otherwise I would admire . . . . I’m thinking here, particularly, of Urs Apps’ The Birth of Orientalism which is wonderful book, but he has a tendency to dismiss the sources that are described by Western scholars as their own inventions, to say that they simply made up the source: it doesn’t exist. Now that’s a possibility, but before you can say the source doesn’t exist, you have to do your damnedest to find out whether it does! And there is a particular example in my own work. This is an early 18th century Protestant German missionary who assembled a library of Tamil Sources, which he documented, he catalogued quite carefully, which is unusual for that period. More often, other similar writers – missionaries and others – would simply have done general term like: “in their books”. But he identifies the texts, and some of them are very well-known and it’s not difficult to identify them. But there’s one particular text which he said is the “most important of all Hindu texts”. It clearly isn’t. Particularly because there is no other reference to this text anywhere, so far as I can discover. I had the good fortune when I came to Otago to be given some research money that was pretty much . . . I didn’t have to compete very hard for it. I simply had to propose a project. So I proposed a project I thought nobody else would ever fund, which was a wild goose chase to go looking for this text.

TW: Yes.

WS: And courtesy of a brilliant research assistant, Ilakkuvan, who worked with me – a young Tamil Scholar. It took him about ten or twelve months going through archives very diligently and he found the source. So it is possible to recover the source. And it’s not the most important text. It was wrongly evaluated. But it was the most important text for this particular missionary. And by reading this source we can see what he’s doing with it, and how that’s shaping his own account of Hinduism. Which is, undoubtedly, shaped by his Protestant, Christian presupposition.

TW: So this is the missionary, Bartholomew?

WS: Ziegenbalg. Sorry. So it’s still . . . It is fed through his Christian presuppositions, but it isn’t sheer invention. He is following a text. And what’s interesting about this text is that it’s a basically monotheistic text. So when Ziegenbalg describes Hindus as monotheist this is not only a relic of Christian assumptions about the natural light of reason and a universal revelation, but the result of his close reading of a text – so we can now follow him, and read that text, and discover. . . . So that’s what I would say is the key to this: attention to those sources. On the European side of the encounter, I would also . . . I regularly bemoan the fact that because the sources are thickest in the 19th century, and because the vast majority of people who work – particularly Indian scholars, but not only – are Anglophone: that’s all they read, is English sources. And it’s really important, I think, to look at sources in other European languages. And there are, of course, people looking at those languages. I’ve recently started using Portuguese sources which are the most amazing mine of material. And they have been read, but largely they’ve been read by Portuguese scholars who tend to publish in Portuguese. Not exclusively, there are exceptions to that. So I would say that going beyond the Anglophone sources – or rather, the failure to go beyond the Anglophone sources is a particular problem in much of the historiography of colonial encounters of religion (10:00). Again, there are exceptions, but as a generalisation.

TW: So the importance of linguistic analysis, and making sure that you’re covering all the different cultural, colonial experiences of the European adventure. Perhaps relating to this, at the start of your book: Mapping Religion, Hinduism and the Study of Indian Religions 1600-1776, published in 2003, you equated the dominant history of religion in India as a “Just So Story”. What did you mean by this?

WS: So a “Just So Story”, as I’m sure you know, is Kipling’s stories of “How the Leopard got his Spots”, and so on. And I think there are a couple of accounts of how many of the terms that we are familiar with in the study of religion, how those terms came to be used. So, in the case of Hinduism, there’s a popular account that this was a matter of divide and rule: that the British, by dividing Muslims from Hindus were able to dominate both – set them against each other. Or there’s another story, which I first heard from one of my teachers at Lancaster, which was that the missionaries needed an opponent. They were used to systematic debates, and therefore they constructed an opponent with whom they could have a debate. Now what’s “Just So” about these stories is that though it could have happened like that, that may be how it happened, there’s no evidence that it did. Or, I would say that obviously there’s a grain of truth in both of those stories, but the real story is much more complicated, and involves, again, patient attention to the sources. So again, in that book, what I trace is how the emergence of the concept of Hinduism as a single pan-Indian religion, distinct from Buddhism and Jainism in particular, emerges – at least in part – from experience of Europeans in India and attention to texts. So the question of the spread of Hinduism as a religion throughout India, but confined to India – and therefore different from similar-looking or outwardly-similar religious traditions elsewhere in Asia – partly arose from Europeans observing phenomena like pan-Indian pilgrimage. There are pilgrims from the North of India coming to the major pilgrimage sites in the South. Or that some of the  . . . . For example, the mythology of Krishna: much of it is set in North India, but there were Europeans reading the mythology of Krishna in South India, in South Indian texts, in Tamil Sources, which describe Krishna in places in North India. So it was on the basis of this that Europeans began to connect phenomena of Hinduism in different parts of India. And then, the opposite part of the question is: what do you exclude? And again it was from looking at Indian sources that Europeans decided that Buddhism and Jainism were regarded as more-or-less beyond the pale. And again, if you look at South Indian religious sources, the Tamil texts are very clear. There’s one Tamil author who devotes one verse in each of his poems to denouncing the “filthy Jains”, and the “heretic Buddhists”. And it was through attention to these sources that Europeans worked out that there was a dividing line here, somewhere. There may well have been  . . . And no doubt this idea was consolidated by the practice of censuses by the British. And there was a degree of the other Just So Story that I mentioned, of the missionaries seeking an opponent: so, using Indian sources saying, “Not all Indians agree with us. The Buddhists disagree with you. They say the Veda is idol worship.” So there’s a grain of truth in those stories. But the full story is more interesting, I think. And it also shows a greater degree of Indian agency in the production of these classifications – or if not directly “agency”, at least “input”.

TW: So, the argument that Hinduism is actually a far more coherent, or far more collected systems of rituals, beliefs and institutions than perhaps the “Hinduisms narrative” presents. How do these arguments sit, perhaps, within more current debate about religion and the public space in India? Is there a way that this kind of scholarship can speak to contemporary issues, perhaps regarding the BJP or Hindutva or other current religious public sphere issues taking place in India at present?(15:00)

WS: It’s an interesting question. And there is a danger, I think, that arguing for a greater coherence in Hinduism will give succour to those who argue that Hinduism is the Indian religion and there should be no other. But there’s also a danger – and you can see this in the works of some modern Hindutva ideologues or thinkers, who present the critique of the idea of Hinduism as an attack on Hinduism. So, “You’re trying to tell us that our religion doesn’t exist.” So in a way, those who – not for that reason of course – but who have attempted to deconstruct the idea of Hinduism are also able to, or are in danger of giving succour to those who want to say, “See. The West is out to destroy you. Hinduism we need to unify and rise up!” So the dangers are. . . . So I guess, in the end, you can’t control how your ideas are going to be used. Some unusual people have cited my work in ways that don’t or were never part of my intention. But that’s . . . you can’t control that. You have to go where the sources lead you. And it’s not an argument, I think, to say, “We shouldn’t say this because it might be used in a way that’s not to our liking.”

TW: Yes. I’m finding similar questions and challenges in relation to my research in Fiji, in terms of: where do these ideas feed into other political agendas? But I think you’re right. You just have to go where the sources take you. Now, as I understand it, you’ve been collecting case studies regarding the conceptualisation of religion, or world religion-type concepts in pre-colonial and colonial encounters outside of India. Can you tell us a little about this?

WS: Yes, so this isn’t really something that I’ve done consciously. But I guess, over the last ten years or so, I have done little more than pay attention to where I have seen arguments similar to my own being made in the case of other traditions. And, for a while now, I’ve thought that it would be interesting to do some kind of survey or compilation of the kinds of evidence that’s being presented, and look at what that is telling us about – or what that suggests about – this broader critique of the formation of the “isms”. So I’ll be giving a paper at the Stephen Berkvitz has recently published an article challenging this idea that you find in the work of people like Philip Almond and others, that Buddhism was a 19th  century invention based on the study of text. And he’s showing that no, very clearly in the 16th and 17th century Portuguese, mostly Jesuits were communicating with each other across Asia, or travelling in some cases. So Loís Fróis, a 16th century Jesuit, spent a lot of time in India and then went to Japan. And he understood the connections between India and Japan, and the trajectory of Buddhism from one to the other (20:00). From the other perspective, or the other direction, Eva Pascal has recently written about Franciscan friars coming from the Philippines into Thailand or Siam and engaging with Buddhism. And again, like Fróis, who described Buddhism as a religion, making the same analogy. So that’s one set of case studies. There’s another which is looking, perhaps, more at indigenous understandings of this. So this would be the work, I’m think here of Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst who’s looked at Islamic South Asian Sources, which not only classify religions in a way that’s not dissimilar to the supposedly modern Western way in which we classify religions, but she’s also shown that the very scholars in the 19th century to whom this classification is usually attributed were influenced by . . . they were reading these sources. So Abu’l-Fazl– a Muslim intellectual, a Mughal intellectual, who describes the religions of India, was being studied intently by British scholars in the middle of the 19th century. And then finally – and again you could see that, the Mughal Empire, as a form of cross-cultural encounter, even though it’s an Empire. But there are even, on a deeper level, indigenous accounts. And here I’m thinking mostly of the work of Andrew Nicholson and his book, Unifying Hinduism. So he looks at pre-modern doxographies, from as early as the 6th Century, in India, which are concerned with classifying the different schools of thought that there are. And so these are not all Hindu, there are Buddhist and Jain texts and, perhaps, particularly Buddhist and Jain sources were interesting in this. But what’s very interesting is that he shows that toward the slightly later texts, but still very much pre-modern, there is a kind of coalescing of an idea of an āstika – so, texts that affirm the Vedas: a unification of . . . it’s not quite what we might call Hinduism,  but it’s not a million miles from it either. So, hence the title of his book is Unifying Hinduism. And again, this is not a reaction to either Muslim or Western incursions or colonial structures, it’s something coming from within the tradition and within different schools of thought within the Indian tradition. So, I think, there are some other older works as well, Michael Pye’s work on Tominaga Nakamoto – again pre-European influence – a Japanese intellectual discussing the three religions, san jiao, in China: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism . And again, coming up with a generic concept that’s not unlike the concept of religion which is supposedly invented, like everything else, in the 19th century.

TW: OK, Well, the argument seems to be that the use of the term religion is older, broader, transects outsider/insider distinctions. Does that mean that scholars of religion are safe? Can we rest easy? Are we no longer at risk from the conceptual tools of our analysis?

WS: I think the approach that I would take to this is to say that it’s better the devil you know. So the work that’s been done in deconstructing historicising the concept of religion is by no means valueless. I’m not saying we should discard that, and go back to a happy sense that this is a natural kind and it emerges from the world unproblematically. But I think the proposals from some scholars that we should replace religion with some other term – I mean, you go all the way back to Cantwell Smith and, I think, “cumulative traditions”, or Timothy Fitzgerald has made various proposals of things that we might . . . . The problem is that those terms are no less the result of our attempts to construct reality in accordance with our presuppositions. So the advantage, to my mind, of terms like religion and Hinduism is that we are now – because of the work of these scholars who’ve deconstructed them – much more keenly aware of their limitations. And I don’t think that they are applicable in every circumstance. So, I think there are scholars who’ve done ethnographic work on sites in India, where you will have people coming to a particular site which is, or might formerly have been described as Hindu, and what they’re showing is this label is very problematic (25:00). And the kinds of people who are coming to those sites aren’t, maybe, clearly identified, or can be labelled as Hindu, or Muslim, or Christian in some cases. And I would agree, in that context, the label Hinduism is perhaps not useful. But that doesn’t mean there’s no context in which it is useful. So it’s always a matter of what the context is, what the purpose is for us. I think one of the things that strikes me as a little bit odd, is – and again this is something I’ve kept track of over the years – is the number of times you will hear a speaker, or at the beginning of a book somebody will deconstruct the term Hinduism. And having cleared their throat and covered their bases with this term will then go on to use the term with exactly the same referent as the supposedly pre-critical scholars who used this. So, Donald Lopez had a nice joke about this. He said you could spot scholars of Hinduism by their over-developed pectoral muscles, from continually having to make “scare quotes” in the air . . .

TW: (Laughs)

WS: …every time they used the word Hinduism! But the point is, that they continue to use the word Hinduism and the scare quotes were there. So, I think we can and we should continue to use the term, and the danger of replacing it, or of replacing religion with some other term– because those terms haven’t been so thoroughly deconstructed – is we would be tempted to think of them as more closely corresponding to some actual reality and less constructed, in a way in which they aren’t really.

TW: Yes. That’s also a lot of heavy lifting to go and create these new terms, and try to describe how they can kind of convey meanings that aren’t subject to the same problems as previously.

WS: I think the other dimension here is that precisely because of their history, these terms have a purchase beyond the academy that we can’t ignore. And so this is sometimes described as, you know, people in Religious Studies sawing off the branch on which they sit. Now, if it were the case that there was a compelling argument for discarding the term and disbanding departments of the study of religion, our own financial self-interest wouldn’t be a reason to retain the term. But there are other reasons, as I’ve tried to explain, why I think we should. And given that, if we are to speak to the public sphere, we need to do so in ways that are intelligible. And talking about cumulative traditions or hierarchical structures simply doesn’t cut it.

TW: It doesn’t communicate.

WS: And we can go on to complicate what those terms mean, but we would be ill-advised, I think, to abandon them from that point of view, as well.

TW: Yes. I agree. I do agree. OK. Last question, Will. We’ve been talking about the historical study of religion and its importance to the broader discipline of Religious Studies and its methodologies. Now in 2020 the International Association for the History of Religion will host its next World Congress here in Dunedin. Now, as head of department for Religion and Theology at Otago, I’d imagine you’ve already started to think through what you hope this might look like, or what ambitions you might have for the event. Can you share some early thoughts that you might have on this, please?

WS: Sure. I think there’s a lot of reasons for doing this. Some of my colleagues think I’m mad for even contemplating it! But I think there’s a lot of benefits that I see in this. I mean, one of the primary aims is to share this wonderful part of the world with scholars from all over the world, and we hope many will come. And I think we should be honest about the fact that that’s a reason why many people will come! Because New Zealand is a wonderful place and it will be great to share it. But it’s also, for me, the other side of that is Religious Studies in New Zealand, as it is in many parts of the world, is a relatively small, and in some cases embattled discipline. We have lost departments of Religious Studies even in the short time that I’ve been in New Zealand. And those that do exist are small, for the most part, and not exactly directly threatened, but not as secure as they’d like to be. So I hope that hosting an event of this sort will help in a host of ways to consolidate the discipline here (30:00): to create visibility both internationally – for work that’s been done in New Zealand – but also within New Zealand, to bring to the attention of our academic colleagues and people more broadly, also, what the academic study of religion is. That’s a constant battle. New Zealand is a country where religion is – I would compare it often . . . . For many people what your religion is, or religion at all is about as much interest as whether you prefer strawberry or chocolate ice-cream. There’s a kind of apathy toward religion. Not always, but. . . . And I think, demonstrating the importance of what we do by bringing the best scholars from around the world to talk about what they’re doing, and why the study of religion is important will be important.  And also it will give our graduate students . . .  . We’re a remote location, we don’t get an opportunity to interact with these people. So it will be a once in a lifetime opportunity, I think, for younger scholars in New Zealand to really see the scope of what’s going on overseas and to interact personally with those people. There’s something irreplaceable about that opportunity which, I think, young scholars in New Zealand don’t have as much as scholars in other parts of the world.

TW: Thank you, Will. Well, on that rather optimistic and forward-looking note I think we’ll draw this interview to a close. But thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and expertise with us.

WS: Thank you. And we look forward to seeing you all in 2020!

TW: Indeed! Thank you.

Citation Info: Sweetman, Will and Thomas White. 2018. “Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/against-invention-a richer-history-for-hinduism/

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

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

African American Spiritual Churches

Dr. Guillory teaches religion at the University of Rochester, but her first love is natural science. After receiving a B.A. in Chemistry, she taught high school science for several years. She draws inspiration from the sciences in her current research as a religion scholar. In her investigations of African American Spiritual Churches in New Orleans, Louisiana, Dr. Guillory describes a “dynamical self,” a fluid state of identity shifting between the individual and the collective. Her knowledge of chemistry directly influenced this theory.

The African American Spiritual Churches are combinatory religious sites, which blend Protestant, Catholic, Spiritualist, Haitian Voodoo, and Benin’s traditional Vodun practices. Female leadership and business management has been essential in the history of these churches. Dr. Guillory’s upcoming book draws on years of archival research, ethnographic observation, and oral history interviews to tell the story of these churches from 1920 to the present day. Hurricane Katrina looms large in this story. Most of the physical churches were destroyed in the flooding — or the former inhabitants were not allowed to return as the government began eminent domain proceedings. Yet this religious community endures. Guillory is one of the first scholars to work with the Spiritual Churches, whose affairs remain largely private. Our interview concludes with a discussion of anthropological ethics and practice — how to earn the trust of a community, and how to tell someone else’s story without “stealing” that story.

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, comic books, Haitian rum, and more.

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

African American Spiritual Churches

Podcast with Margarita Simon Guillory (29 January 2018).

Interviewed by Dan Gorman

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Guillory_-_African_American_Spiritual_Churches_1.1

 

Dan Gorman (DG): Professor Margarita Guillory, thank you for joining us today.

Margarita Guillory (MG): No problem. Thank you for inviting me.

DG: And today we’re going to be talking about your new book on African American Spiritual Churches in New Orleans. Although, I’ve been reading your book proposal. I understand the final title has changed.

MG: Yes, instead of More Than Conjurers being the primary title, it’s now the secondary title. So it’s Spiritual and Social Transformation in African American Spiritual Churches: More than Conjurers.

DG: So, perhaps the reverse order of what you wanted originally?

MG: Yes! But for marketing purposes, More than Conjurers took second place. They really believe that they can market the book better with the Spiritual Churches being in the primary title.

DG: Now, just so people have some brief background – is this what you wrote your dissertation about?

MG: My dissertation was actually based upon ethnographic research pulled from spiritual churches in New Orleans. However, the dissertation was a little bit more theoretical, in that it focussed on the ways in which spiritualists in New Orleans utilise rituals and altars – both personal and public altars – to articulate a complex form of subjectivity that I sort of coined in the dissertation, called the “dynamical self”. So the dissertation was little bit more theoretical. I sort-of was able to use the dissertation to write a peer review article and two edited volume essays. However, it was a little narrow for the publisher’s taste. So I sort-of had to rework . . . . I wrote an entire new book, basically!

DG: I see. So when you mention the idea of the dynamical self, it brings to mind the grandiose theatrical aspect of religious worship. I mean, you could say there’s a dynamic self in many religions. But what’s unique about the way that people express their religious beliefs in these churches?

MG: I would say that the way in which I saw the “dynamic” is this sort of fluidity. Within the dissertation I sort of expand upon this fluid conception of the dynamic – and it’s called the dynamical self. But the dynamical self is this identity form that is sort-of the simultaneous expression of both a public collective identity, based upon association with shared qualities with the grou, but it’s also the construction of a personal identity form that’s based upon one’s uniqueness. And this is a theory that . . . . I didn’t go into these communities with this theory. This theory was really formulated based upon the data that I collected from the communities. So it’s totally the reverse. I went in with no sort-of expectation of what I would actually find. I just thought the communities were really, really interesting. And the data yielded the theory.

DG: So, a data-derived argument, rather than a data-driven argument.

MG: Exactly, exactly.

DG: Now, you came into Religious Studies . . . it’s sort of a second career in some ways. You were a high school science teacher, originally. So, how did your first background in natural science . . . how did that inform how you approached the study of religion?

MG: That’s a great question. And it’s a question that I’m asked quite frequently when people find out that I have a Bachelors in Chemistry. I have a profound love of the physical sciences, specifically Chemistry. You know, Chemistry has allowed me to . . . it has armed me and equipped me with a particular interpretive lens. The dynamical self, even though it’s derived upon the data that I retrieved from these Spiritual Churches in New Orleans, it’s really based upon this equilibrium state that sort-of occurs when you look at certain chemical reactions. So the theory – while based on the data that I retrieved from these churches – the way that I sort of nuanced it, was based upon chemical formulations of just basic equations, something that you’d learn in general Chemistry. So science just gives me a unique lens to view religion. Does that answer your question?

DG: I think so. I think I’m curious to know, do you identify as a Humanist or do you identify as a Social Scientist?

MG: Oh. I don’t like to be placed in a box! I think I am a unique scholar in that way, that I still sort-of follow some of the general trends that are going on in Chemistry, I have a great relationship with a couple of Chemists, even on our campus (5:00). I do use sociological and anthropological approaches to the study of religion. And I do consider myself a Humanist. So in that way, I think I’m sort of like a quilt. Which can be problematic for some people, but it works for me. This is why I can have these really collaborative interdisciplinary projects with people across disciplines and not feel uncomfortable. Because I feel like a piece of me as a scholar is vetted in these multiple disciples.

DG: Which brings me back to your book, when the publisher releases it in a few weeks, what . . . not genre – we know it’s a non-fiction monograph – but, the little stamp on the top cover that says what genre it is and what topic: how is it being sold? Is it history? Is it religion?

MG: Yes. Very good question. It has multiple genres. Because the book I wrote, like I said: a lot of the data that I collected while doing research for the dissertation will be used, but the approach is different. It’s different than the dissertation. The book basically examines the socio-political activities and the spiritual-therapeutic elements that are found in the Spiritual Churches in a really, in a coalescing sort of way. And so, in that way, because the book is political – looking at the political and social activism of these churches – and because it looks at the therapeutic function of these churches, the sort-of tag lines will be history – because I start with the first church in the 1920s and by the end of the book, the chapter on Post Katrina Spiritual Churches – so it’s historical but it’s also being publicised as religion in society. So you see that sort-of band where the sociology is also coming in. So they have marketed it in a variety of fields. Interestingly, they’ve even promoted it in what we would call like “Africana Religions”, So if you do a google search with my name under Voodoo or Hoodoo, my book will actually pop up. So they really cast a wide net when publicising the book.

DG: So I suppose the next question is, what is a Spiritual Church? Aren’t all churches spiritual?

MG: That’s a great question. African American Spiritual Churches that I research are a blended religious group. And I like that term “blended”. And what they’ve done, they have conjoined all of these various elements from institutionalised religions – and I’ll talk about them in just a moment – and they’ve created their own, unique religion. Specifically, the Spiritual Churches in New Orleans have conjoined Protestant traditions with a focus on Pentecostalism; they draw from their worship style. Catholicism is a major bedrock in spiritual churches in New Orleans, just because Catholicism is still the predominant religion that’s practised in New Orleans, in particular, and Louisiana, in general. They also incorporate American Spiritualism: the ability to communicate with the dead, that was birthed in Western New York, in Hydesville; and they also sort of conjoin and mix into their faith Hoodoo and Voodoo. And this notion of Voodoo is derived directly from Haitian Vodou. So when you look at sort of their belief system, and their ritual practices, you can see a little of all of these religions.

DG: So when we talk about Hoodoo – this was sort of an older white term used to describe it in some cases. I’m thinking of sort-of 1920s, white attempts to understand black religion. But Voodoo itself is sort of a combinative thing. You’ve got influences of Islam, Native American and Caribbean religions, Christianity. And, of course, there’s a longstanding debate in the study of African American religions: are these religions more – quote unquote – “African” or are they more “American”? Do you have any thoughts on that?

MG: Well I would say, if we specifically look at the system of Voodoo and I mean V-o-o-d-o-o, I would totally say that that is an American religion (10:00). It is a blended religion that is primarily based – even though you have these other elements like Christianity – it’s primarily based upon Haitian Vodou, V-o-d-o-u, that Haitian immigrants who emigrated very early to New Orleans after the Haitian Revolution. A large population of Haitians immigrated to New Orleans and they took with them the religion. So, even though you have these other elements in Louisianan voodoo, the backbone of that religion is Haitian Vodou. And, of course, we know that Haitian Vodou -o-u- was derived from this combination of Catholicism but it comes directly from Benin.

DG: In West Africa?

MG: Exactly: Vodun. So, in that way, once the Vodou sort-of lands in New Orleans, in the South East, yes, it becomes this syncretic – and that’s not the term I like to use – but this sort-of blended type of religious tradition.

DG: So let’s walk through the genealogy from the top, then, beginning in Benin in West Africa. So this would be what kind of religion there? Are we talking about Islam or are we talking about traditional spiritual beliefs?

MG: So, Benin Vodun is an indigenous religion. It is a combination of – and that word might be seen as maybe a little charged – but it is sort-of a combination of the traditional religions that are being practised in Benin. But the scholarly term for it becomes Vodun.

DG: I see. So, then when slaves were brought to Haiti those indigenous religions are brought there. And then they encounter Spanish and French Catholicism, depending which side of the island they’re on.

MG: Exactly, yes.

DG: And then that finally goes to America, where you have the collisions that you’re describing.

MG: Right. Particularly in New Orleans.

DG: So how big a population are we talking about?

MG: That’s hard for me to say, like, quantitatively.

DG: Hundreds? Thousands?

MG: That’s hard for me to say quantitatively, off the cuff. But I could definitely have these sort of conversations, qualitatively. But that’s sort-of tough to derive. We can sort-of search and crunch the numbers but those numbers would be hard to derive.

DG: So let’s talk about some of the churches you studied, then. Were they packed to the gills on a Sunday?

MG: What’s interesting: pre –Katrina, the churches were packed. You had fifty-plus churches. Post-Katrina, those fifty-plus churches dwindled down to two churches in New Orleans.

DG: Is that because of population displacement?

MG: That’s part of the problem. So, part of the problem would be population displacement. And seventy percent of the fifty-plus churches that were operating in New Orleans pre-Katrina were located in the 9th Ward.

DG: (Whistles)

MG: So they were destroyed. And the last chapter of my book sort-of talks about that. The ways in which not only were some of them structurally destroyed but, because of some very difficult economical and political and structural changes that occurred in post-Katrina New Orleans, the lands of these churches – even if they were in a position where they could have restored the church – they were taken, and they were converted to green spaces.

DG: So was that eminent domain?

MG: Eminent domain. Many of the churches – I calculate about forty percent of the churches that were located in post-Katrina 9th Ward – were sort-of taken back by the City, via eminent domain.

DG: I see.

MG: So, there are multiple factors sort-of feeding into why these churches have dwindled down to two.

DG: Has gentrification also occurred?

MG: In the higher elevated levels of 9th Ward, gentrification is now occurring. They sort-of called this area Holy Cross. They built a school, they have a private developer that’s coming in. And I’m saying higher elevation, but it’s still below sea level! But it’s higher than the dominant part of the 9th Ward. It’s being gentrified.

DG: So they’re pushing out the poorer, mostly African American . . .

MG: Well they never let them back in, really. Because they never built . . . . In the 9th Ward, for people who did choose to come back they had no businesses, no stores. I think within the last two years they might have a health clinic. So the infrastructure wasn’t rebuilt for people to come back (15:00). So we can argue, was this intentional? Was this: “We’re going to let the 9th Ward return to nature so it can sort-of serve as the buffer, or the retention land, for other parts of New Orleans? So they won’t flood if we have another major storm, and if we have the breaching of the levees?” So it becomes very . . . and I try to unpack that in chapter five of my book. The ways in which the changing landscape around Spiritual Churches . . . . If you look at the changing landscape of spiritual churches it tells us a lot about other landscapes and shifting landscapes in New Orleans: demographic landscapes, social landscapes, economic landscapes, political landscapes. If you just focus on the Spiritual Churches we can see all of these sorts of dynamics that are going on, post-Katrina.

DG: So I’m assuming that the flood water has destroyed substantial amounts of material culture: archives . . .

MG: Oh, definitely.

DG: So what’s left? I mean, were you working in people’s attics, were you working in libraries?

MG: So no, actually, what was interesting is: when I first went to New Orleans it was in, maybe 2010, and many of the churches were still standing. They were in horrible condition, but they were still filled with all the material culture – covered in all sorts of mould and everything else. And of course I was in those places. So, some of the spiritual leaders who were really respected leaders in the city: Bishop Jackson, Bishop Stokes. He came from Detroit,to give me a tour. So before they began to tear these structures down . . . . Like, these structures are no longer standing in 2017 but I had the fortune to go while they were still there. Not only was I able to see what was in the inside, I took photos of the inside, I took photos of the outside. I do plan on publishing a book of photos of the before and after, so people can actually see what is happening in New Orleans, still today.

DG: But Spiritualists tend to be quite private. How did you gain this access? And this is something I’ve talked about in my past interviews: Douglas Brooks studying . . . . The only way to study some Hindu rituals is to gain the trust and become part of the community. Or Candy Gunther-Brown, who I spoke to – watching Evangelical yoga, but not participating. How did you get access to these communities?

MG: Well actually, one of the first scholars to publish a comprehensive work on Spiritual churches of New Orleans is Claude Jacobs. He’s now retired. He was at the University of Michigan. Him and my adviser at the time, Dr Anthony Pinn who’s also done some work on Spiritual Churches, they basically . . . . He went to Dr Jacobs and told him, “I have a student who’s interested in the Spiritual Churches.” And I was introduced to Archbishop William Stokes who has now passed on – as the Spiritualists say – to the other side. And it was through him. Because he had been a part of the Spiritual Churches. So he came to Houston – we flew him to Houston – and he and I basically spent two weeks together in Houston, just getting to know one another. I took him to different archives, I interviewed him. And so, basically, it was through him. But we had to sort-of . . . . He had to decide, in those two weeks, whether he was going to trust me, and actually introduce me and open the door or not. So, I guess, at the end of the two weeks – considering I’d published . . . like eighty percent of my scholarships is on Spiritual Churches – I must have gained his trust. Because he was coming from Detroit, he said he would be really excited about introducing me to people in New Orleans. So I won a Ford Dissertation Fellowship and I was able to pay for his travel and we spent a summer – this is how I actually first thought of it – we spent a summer in New Orleans together. And it was remarkable.

DG: Generating trust. . .

MG: Generating trust, and because

DG: . . . that you’re not stealing their stories.

MG: Exactly. And because he did not . . . . Because he had been a part of the Spiritual Churches, by that time over five decades, people trusted him. And they knew that he wouldn’t just bring, you know, anyone into the community that wasn’t going to sort-of take their religion and do something with it, in a really fundamental positive way (20:00).

DG: That’s the line between being curious and then between past scholars, who basically were stealing.

MG: Exactly. And I invested a lot of time. So this was like the groundwork. I wasn’t even really collecting data at this point. I was just building relationships. So, you asked me how did I get in – because they are very secretive. This is why there hasn’t been a lot of scholarship surrounding spiritual churches, because some people have mishandled what they’ve given the scholar. So I had to spend quite a bit of time building relationships. But once I’d built those relationships it was like the floodgates opened. They were so excited about sharing their faith with me.

DG: Professor Guillory, we’re almost out of time. I’d like to ask briefly: several of the early chapters in your book focus on female leaders in the church. Women like Mother Leafy Anderson. Could you just speak briefly about female leadership in the churches?

MG: I can. This is why I like the book that I’ve published, instead of turning the dissertation into a book. This book really highlights the political savviness, the entrepreneurial spirit of women in New Orleans, specifically from the early 1920s through the 1940s. These were women, women like Mother Leafy Anderson, Mother Catherine Seals, these were women who not only purchased property, but they built structures from the ground up. For instance Mother Leafy Anderson, she built her church from the ground up, property that she purchased, and the organisation that actually financed the building of her very lovely church for the 1920s, was the Italian Homestead Association. If you go and look at the history of the Italian Homestead Association in New Orleans they were not freely giving money to African Americans to build businesses and structure. That wasn’t their social function. They were committed to Italians, and Sicilians in particular, who were coming into New Orleans, actually utilising them as a pipeline to build and to invest in these communities. So it was really interesting that she was able to get them to finance . . . .

DG: And a completely different religion!

MG: Well what’s interesting is that her church – and I talk about this a bit in the book – was about thirty percent Sicilian.

DG: Well, that’s interesting! Which means the church was racially integrated in the1920s.

MG: It was. And also, Mother Catherine Seals, the manger was about twenty-five to thirty-five percent. We can’t get our hands wrapped around the exact number, but hers was also an integrated religious compound. And during her time there were segregation laws about cohabitation.

DG: And not only that, you had lynching!

MG: Exactly, exactly. And so these women – and this is what I love about the book – the book sort of highlights the courageous activities. And they were really savvy when it came to business, too. They had an entrepreneur sort-of model of earning money using a religion, in a way that was just . . . they were ahead of their time! They were like – I guess we would call them like our large megachurches today. They were like the megachurches of the 1920s, though the book really highlights the social activism and the ways in which these women also met the spiritual needs of the individuals, both black and white – which is amazing. The book sort-of talks about that, they were . . . . Yes, they wanted to be an anchor for the black community, but they also served the white population who were being marginalised by class and by ethnicity. They also served those populations as well.

DG: So just to wrap up, I’ll say that reminds me of – it’s a quite old book – but Arthur Fauset’s Black Gods of the Metropolis

MG: Yes!

DG: So, for those of our listeners who aren’t familiar, Arthur Fauset, an African American scholar wrote this book in the 1940s about the urban religions, mostly in Philadelphia. And these were – like your Spiritual Churches – many of them small groups led by women, and they’re exercising creativity in ways that white society doesn’t want to allow them. And so Fauset also discusses the idea of, you know, foreign religions being translated in America. So, clearly, these questions are still viable and thought-provoking seventy years later.

MG: A perfect ending! (25:00)

DG: So, I will ask, what’s the next project?

MG: Oh. The next project? African American Religion in the Digital Age. So, while I’m still publishing essays and peer-reviewed articles on Spiritual Churches, I’m sort of moving in the direction of digital religion. Specifically, I’m looking at the ways in which people of African descent are utilising technical advances to express multiple forms of religion. So I’m working on a chapter now on black humanism and black atheism, and the way in which it’s promoted among Millennials using social media platforms.

DG: Be careful, you’ll be getting into transhumanism next!

MG: I know! (Laughs)

DG: Professor Guillory, thank you very much.

MG: Thank you very much, Dan.

Citation Info: Guillory, Margarita and Dan Gorman. 2018. “African American Spiritual Churches”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 29 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 26 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/african-american-spiritual-churches/

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

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

Sitting on the bench: is the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion a team sport?

A Response to Wesley J. Wildman on “Modelling Religion and the Integration of the Sciences and the Humanities in the Bio-cultural Study of Religion”

By Leonardo Ambasciano

Read more

Evangelical Yoga: Cultural Appropriation and Translation in American Religions

super-funny-pet-picture-the-yo-5926Dr. Brown began her career as a historian of evangelicalism, and soon branched out into the study of religious healing and “new religions” in the U.S. In this interview, we discuss her interest in yoga as a new American phenomenon and the way that some evangelical Christians practice it. Brown provides a historic overview of bodily–religious practices in America, starting with mesmerism, occultism, osteopathy, and chiropractic in the nineteenth century. These practices challenged the standard “heroic” model of medicine: Instead of the patient experiencing torturous medical treatments, a practitioner simply realigns the patient’s body or does a quick procedure. Such bodily practices blurred, in some cases, with Pentecostal and Holiness Christians’ use of prayer as a medical treatment. (Today, many chiropractors retain an interest in bodily energy and proper alignment, though they may not articulate this view to their patients.)

As the nineteenth century progressed, many Americans consumed translations of Hindu and Buddhist literature. Asian concepts of bodily practice and energy fields (qi, meridians, chakras) entered the lexicon of new American religions. Theosophy, in particular, borrowed from Hindu and Buddhist concepts. The introduction of Eastern metaphysics to America created a small market for the introduction of yoga. This market grew in the 20th century as Vivekananda and Yogananda brought forms of yoga (and, in Yogananda’s case, a hybrid of Hinduism & Christianity) to the U.S. Today, evangelical Christians are adopting yoga, finding parallels between chakras and the Holy Spirit, or — in an act of cultural appropriation — creating a new kind of yoga shorn of Hindu references. The American Hindu community has criticized such cultural appropriation. Some Hindus have also suggested that a Christian doing yoga poses, or asana, may slowly convert to Hinduism, making evangelical yoga a stealth victory for Vedic culture.

The interview concludes with a discussion of Dr. Brown’s field research methods, along with her and Mr. Gorman’s thoughts about secularization in America and the inadequacies of secularism as a research concept.

Editor’s Note: On 29 June 2017 we published a response to this interview, written by Philip Deslippe, which provides an important and well-argued counter-narrative to this interview. As with every podcast we publish, we encourage listeners/readers to digest the podcast in tandem with the response(s) , to explore further if interested, and to get in touch in the comments, via email, or on social media to continue the discussion. 

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, Nag Champa incense, and more.

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

Evangelical Yoga: Cultural Appropriation and Translation in American Religions

Podcast with Candy Gunther-Brown (19 June 2017).

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Gunther-Brown – Evangelical Yoga 1.1

Daniel Gorman (DG) : Dr Candy Gunther-Brown, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Candy Brown (CB): Thank you.

DG: So, I’m calling you from up-state New York – you’re in Indiana, and I’m told the weather is equally miserable in both places.

CB: That seems to be about right.

DG: OK. So, today we’re going to be talking about your research into new religious movements, particularly: how people who are not Hindu wind up practising yoga.

CB: Sure.

DG: So to begin, why don’t you tell our listeners how you got interested in new religious movements or, in this case , old religious practices being done in a new way?

CB: Sure. Well, my research trajectory really started with looking at Evangelicals in the 19th century and at print culture. And then, as I wanted to move forward in time to look at later 19th century, into the 20th century and into the 21st century, I realised that it was really a much bigger story than just what was going on in the United States with the Evangelicals. And so I needed to start looking at global moments and much more interconnection. And I also realised that a big part of the story was Pentecostal charismatic Christianity. So that took my research, then, into the directions of looking at, particularly, Pentecostal practices of prayer for healing and deliverance from evil spirits. And so I did a lot of interview work in the field, worked with various Pentecostals and asked them about their healing experiences. And so this led to me to start asking questions that were, in a sense, more of an empirical nature of what happens when people pray for healing. So then I was looking at some science and religion kinds of questions. But I also got some very interesting responses from my Pentecostal respondents. Because, when I started asking them about prayer for healing, they also started to volunteer that they loved their chiropractors.

DG: Really?

CB: And this was a somewhat surprising response to me, given what I knew about Chiropractics: that it’s roots were in mesmerism and spiritualism, and the founders and developers of the tradition saw themselves as doing something very different from Christianity. And the Christian informants that I was talking to, not only did they love their chiropractors but they also insisted that they were Christian. They didn’t bother telling me that their medical doctors were Christian, but they really wanted me to know that their chiropractors were. Again this was very interesting because if you look at survey research that’s been done on chiropractors you see that around 80% or so will say that they’re Christians, and around 80% or so share vitalistic, metaphysical beliefs, very much in line with the founders of chiropractics. So you’ve got a really interesting kind-of blending of worldviews and frameworks and interpretations of the world. And I realised that this was really just the tip of the iceberg. And so, from looking at chiropractic I began to look at other kinds of complementary and alternative medicine, including various kinds of meditation – transcendental meditation, mindfulness meditation, but also Reiki, therapeutic touch, acupuncture, homeothapy, aromatherapy – and realised that some of the most engaged practitioners were actually Evangelical Christians. And particularly the ones who were interested in charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity, who had a kind of worldview where there’s some kind of spiritual force that’s interacting with the world. So a lot of the reasoning process that these Evangelicals used was: if there’s a spirit and it’s having beneficial effects on health, then there must be a kind of an analogy between the Holy Spirit and the spiritual properties that are at work in these other practices. And thus, I landed on yoga and mindfulness practised by Evangelicals, as well as by a lot of other Americans who engage in these practices, for various reasons – related to spirituality as much as health and wellness.

DG: That’s a lot! Let me . . . . I’ll take one thread and we’ll work through this. Some listeners, especially outside the United States, may not be familiar with some of the traditions you mentioned, some of the 19th century occult things: mesmerism, and chiropractic. Could you talk a little bit more about how these alternative viewpoints to Christianity . . . where they came from?

CB: Sure. Well around the middle of the 19th century there was a lot of dissatisfaction among certain Americans who were dealing with both a medical orthodoxy and a religious orthodoxy. (5:00) And the medical orthodoxy was heroic medicine – and by today’s standard, [it was] not very effective and very aggressive. So, things like vomiting with mercury derivatives and bleeding people. And it was the patient who was the hero as they were subjected to all kinds of very strenuous treatments by doctors.

DG: Torture.

CB: Yes. I mean, for many patients that was their perspective. But then a lot of the Calvinist theologians, who were in the dominant mainstream, basically gave the advice that patients should submit to their doctors as a way of resigning to God’s will for sickness. And the reason was that spiritual sanctification required a kind of physical kind of submission and sickness. And so this dominant theology, that sanctification is produced through suffering in the body, aligned well with heroic medicine. But there was also a lot of resistance. And so this is where you start getting the emergence of nature-cure kinds of medical alternatives. But then you also start to get the development of divine healing movements where the interest is in a focus on prayer for healing. So, whether it is a nature-cure looking to water and spiritual forces and kind-of the alignment of the planets, or whether it’s a prayer to God the Father through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, there is a widespread search for something else – some alternative to the mainstream offerings.

DG: That’s very interesting because I recently read, for my graduate school lists, Catherine Albanese’s A Republic of Mind and Spirit. And she talks, in that book, about how osteopathy emerged as sort-of this quasi-religious movement: the idea that you can align the energy forces in your body by manipulating bones.

CB: Yes. And actually the founder of chiropractic, D.D. Palmer, was accused by Still, the founder of osteopathy, of basically stealing his ideas. The ideas are so close. And they both emerge out of a vitalistic metaphysical framework. And what’s interesting is that osteopathy was much more embraced by the medical mainstream. So that, today, there’s really a kind of a sense of equivalence, almost, between an osteopathic medical degree and an MD. Whereas chiropractic is still much more on the fringes, even though it’s become a lot more mainstream. And it’s not necessarily that osteopathy has actually renounced the metaphysical framework, but they’ve been a lot more intentional and effective in terms of gaining mainstream medical legitimacy.

DG: Well, that’s one thing I’ve wondered about – I mean, as just someone looking at medical treatments – you know, chiropractors don’t receive the same training in anatomy and physiology that a doctor or a modern osteopath receives. . .

CB: That’s true. And it’s not just a matter of difference in training, but it’s really a difference in philosophy. An idea that Palmer articulated . . . . So Palmer, the founder of chiropractic, basically said that all disease is a matter of a failure of alignment with innate intelligence – that’s universal intelligence, so “innate” was short for this. And so you may ask the question, what are chiropractors adjusting? And it’s actually, they’re adjusting the spine for the sake of having a free flow of innate. It’s not just a physical kind of adjustment. So that was the rationale for how chiropractic could affect all kinds of other conditions, whether it’s having earaches, or infections, or whether it’s turning a breach baby – I mean there’s all kinds of different claims that, even today, are made for chiropractic. And they stem from the idea that, really, the key to health is the innate intelligence. And so it’s that philosophy that’s really at the core, and why there’s still so much tension with modern medicine.

DG: I do want to move onto the yoga connection. But there’s one question I’ll pose to you as somebody who researches these kinds of movements: so to some, let’s say an atheist medical practitioner, what you’re describing is pseudo-science. But that doesn’t seem that way to people who practise it and believe that it helps them. How do you navigate that balance between judging and understanding?

CB: Well, I think this is where it’s important to really look at a multiplicity of perspectives and to try and explain: well, who are the developers of various practices? But not only what are the roots of these practices, what are today’s philosophies? And this is why for chiropractic, for instance, it’s important that there’s survey research that’s been done by chiropractors, that basically confirm that the beliefs that are held by many chiropractors today are actually very much in alignment with those that were articulated by the Palmers. (10:00) Now that doesn’t mean that the chiropractors always communicate that with their patients. In fact, that often is not the case. And so, one of the things that it’s important for scholars to do is to actually look at the variety of narratives that are articulated by practitioners as well as patients, depending on who their audiences are. And this is something that we’ll see with yoga, as well – that explanation of what practices do, why they’re practices, what they mean – you may not always get the same explanation if you’re looking at different audiences, and different purposes for giving that account of what the practice is.

DG: So now, this is where I think chiropractic and yoga tie together. This concept of energy in the body – well, to someone who knows anything about Hinduism, this sounds a lot like the idea of chakras and energy flows in the body. So, in the 19th century, when people like Palmer and others were starting their work, what understanding in America was there of Indian religions?

CB: Sure. Well, there was a combination of Western metaphysical traditions – something like homeothapy or aromatherapy would be rooted in that kind of tradition – and there was often quite a bit of exchange, though, with Asian religious traditions as well. So a lot of the people who were developing these Western metaphysical ideas, they actually were reading texts that they got from India and other parts of Asia. They were interacting with ideas of say Prana or qi, or chakras and meridians, as you mentioned. And so there’s often a real, kind of, exchange and consonance in these ideas. And a lot of the practitioners of chiropractic or yoga will say, yes, there’s a lot that there actually is in common between the Western and Eastern traditions.

DG: Yes. I was thinking of the Theosophist, people like Madam Blavatsky, who think you can control the spirits with your mind – and then she goes and lives in India for a decade!

CB: Well exactly! And then she actually formally converted to Buddhism, and she drew extensively on Hinduism and a variety of Western traditions and Freemasonry. So, that kind of eclectic interest in various forms of spiritually – sometimes framed as science themselves . . . . A lot of the pioneers in the kinds of movements that are popular today were very interested in exploring a variety of practices and traditions.

DG: So, as far as yoga goes, when did that begin to be introduced to the American market? I’m thinking, for instance, in the 1920s there were the immigration restrictions, so how was this material – about philosophy and exercise – how as that making the crossing to America?

CB: Sure, well even as early as the 19th century you’ve got the transcendental folks, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who are reading as many translated Hindu and Buddhist texts as they’re able to. And you got Thoreau who’s doing his best to practice yoga. So even in the 19th century you can see some of the beginnings of practices coming into America. The World Parliament of Religion, in 1893, was a really important event. Because there you’ve got Vivekananda – actually, several of those Hindu and Buddhist spokespersons – who are starting to frame practices in a language of science, to basically argue that Hinduism and Buddhism (as they’re starting to be named and understood by Westerners) are, actually, more compatible with modern science than Christianity is. And so you start to have a stream of popularisers and, even with immigration restrictions, you’ve got enough who are either coming into the United States themselves or whose books and publications are crossing over, that the influence, again, begins to be disseminated. Yogananda is another one of these hugely influential figures who sets up a base in California and continues to be popular even into the present day with his Self-Realisation Fellowship. And so now his followers are continuing to disseminate the traditions. And so there’ve been a variety of health and beauty promotions, exercise promotions, the use of television – so really an increase over the course of the 20th century, but accelerating with: the lifting of immigration restrictions in the 1960s; the interest of the Beat generation; the counter-culture. But then, even more recently in the 1990s and beyond, you start to see this increasing mainstream status – even to the point of putting yoga and mindfulness practices into public schools. And that really is just within the last couple of decades.

DG: (15:00) Well it was interesting when you mentioned Yogananda in the 1930s, because he was somebody who preached that Jesus was another incarnation of the other Hindu deities, an avatar.

CB: And that’s been a very common strategy. A very common strategy by a lot of the promoters of Yoga is to argue for consonance, for complementarity. And that’s actually been one of the things that’s been motivating for Evangelical Christians even, who feel that there’s something missing in their own tradition. And so they’re trying to fill in and supplement by borrowing from other kinds of traditions.

DG: So Evangelical Christians in the present day: how are they accessing yoga? What kinds of facilities, for instance?

CB: Well, a lot of times there’s the YMCA, there’s health clubs, sometimes more traditional yoga studios. So some Christians will find their way either into the health club version or into the studio version. But then also there’s a proliferation of explicitly Christian versions of yoga or alternatives to yoga. And so you start to get movements like: Christo-yoga, holy yoga, fully fit, Yahweh yoga, praise moves. . . . And some of them keep yoga somewhere in the title, some of them try to remove yoga from the title. And there’s a kind of Evangelical sense that religion, really, is fundamentally reducible to language. It’s about what you believe and what you say that you believe. And so if you change the language, and you say you’re no longer doing “sun salutations” – salutes to the sun – but you say you’re doing “son salutations” – s-o-n, instead of s-u-n – you’ve now repurposed the practice and dedicated it to Jesus. You’re no longer doing pranayana but you’re breathing in the Holy Spirit. So by re-labelling either individual poses or larger practices, many Evangelicals are convinced that they’ve basically emptied the contents . . . . They’ve removed the Hindu contents from the container of neutral yoga practices, and they’ve poured in Bible verses and prayers. Now with a different framework of religion where it’s about practices, not necessarily just beliefs, then that may seem a rather strange or unworkable kind of approach. So some Hindu critics of the Christianisation of yoga will basically say, the prayers are actually the bodily practices. Doing the sun salutation with your body is a form of devotion to Surya the sun god. And so there are actually some warnings by Hindu spokespersons, saying that ultimately Evangelicals are going to find their faith corrupted, by their own standards, and they’re going to be led into the true way of enlightenment. And it may not be so easy just to re-label practices and make them Evangelical.

DG: Do you think – building on this theme of Hindu response – are there Hindu groups that are offended that anyone’s just using this tradition, without any sense of where it comes from?

CB: Oh there are definitely critiques of cultural appropriation. And the Hindu American Foundation launched a Take back Yoga campaign in 2008. And some of their spokespersons have been critical of Christian appropriation. But you find this, similarly, with Buddhists who complain about appropriation of mindfulness practices and claim that they’ve been secularised or, in some cases, they claim that they’ve been Christianised. So that’s definitely a critique that’s present.

DG: Now, I’m curious in the way you go about researching these things. Do you travel to Christian yoga studios? And when you go there, what do you do? Are you a participant or are you just observing?

CB: I’ve done observing. I’ve relied a lot on just the proliferation of online sources and video presentations, and [I’ve] also been present in meditation settings. And I’ve observed – I don’t participate. I think that there are ethical issues that come into play with that, so my stance is that of an observer. I do a lot of interview work with participants and with teachers. And I also do empirical work and look at the studies that have been done. And this is an interesting aspect, is to ask, “Well, what happens when people participate in either secularised or Christianised versions of something like yoga or mindfulness meditation?” And what’s interesting is that there is sociological work that suggests that there are, actually, some profound changes in spiritual and religious experiences that result – even, sometimes, from very short term involvement. But that, basically, the longer people tend to be involved in these practices, the more likely what started off as just an exercise class has turned into a spiritual pursuit. And the content of religious practices does tend to shift towards practices that would be more aligned with, say, Hinduism than with Christianity. And this is, actually, very much parallel to the kinds of claims that are made by yoga teachers and mindfulness teachers, who are very confident that the practices themselves are transformative.(20:00) And so, here, you get both proponents of yoga and mindfulness, and some of the Christian critics, who are essentially arguing that there is something inherent about theses practices themselves that transform people, regardless of what their intentions are going into the practices. Intentions, it seems, can actually change through the experiences of practices. And that claim does, to some degree, seem to be borne out by the sociological research that’s been done.

DG: Do you see any regional differences, in the United States, about the Christian reception of yoga?

CB: Well, it seems that – predictably in some ways – the coasts have a lot more yoga and a lot more Christian yoga. And also, some of the controversies over this . . . . You see more Christian yoga on the coast, you also see just more yoga programmes. But it’s not coincidental that where the most high profile law suit over yoga in public schools took place – it was in Encinita, San Diego County, California. And it was actually right next door to Yogananda’s Self-Realisation Fellowship.

DG: That’s interesting.

CB: This is also the birthplace of Ashtanga yoga in the United States, which was brought over by Pattabhi Jois, and that was the particular form of yoga that was being practised in the public schools where there was a lawsuit. So, a place like Encinita is interesting because something like 45% of the population practices yoga, compared with – as of 2012, which was when that 45% came out – it was about 9%, nationally. Now it’s about 15%, nationally. About 40% of the population is Christian, but that compares to about 70% of the total US population that’s Christian. So you have fewer Christian and more religious diversity in a place like Ansonita. But you still have a lot of Christians who are practising – and it was a minority of those Christians who protested against yoga. The large majority seemed to actually be pretty interested in practising it themselves.

DG: We’re closing in on the end our session, but I want to try to connect this practice of yoga to some of the other things you’ve mentioned, particularly transcendental meditation. It’s billed as TM now, it’s sort-of this exercise, but there’s no real sense of where that comes from. Do you think Christians are also participating in TM movements?

CB: I think that they are in one of the main places where TM has really got in its foothold: in what’s now called “quiet-time programmes” in public schools. So transcendental meditation more comes out of Hindu meditation traditions. And this is, actually, one of the places where . . . . Really, one of the only law suits where there was a judicial decision defining religion was a case of Malnak v. Yogi, in 1979, which found that transcendental meditation was a religion. And one of the lines in the concurring opinion by Arlin Adams, he said, “Well, if a Catholic can’t practice in schools, then neither should a transcendental meditator be allowed to do so.” Even so, TM programmes and quiet-time programmes have proliferated in public schools even until the present day, alongside mindfulness programmes. So I think that, a lot of the time, Christians and others – atheists as well – really don’t know where practices are coming from, and they don’t know how connected to the originating traditions those practices remain. So it’s not just a matter of, “ a long time ago there were ancient religious roots”. But, if you look at how practices are being framed when not being marketed to the public, you actually find that there are still a lot of the same claims that this is, for instance, a “Vedic victory” when yoga gets into public schools, or this is “stealth Buddhism”, when mindfulness gets into the schools. So those are the kinds of claims that are made when talking to Hindu or Buddhist sympathiser audiences. But a lot of the people who are interested in doing practices for health or wellness, they really don’t know where these practices come from and they really haven’t thought that much about how intentions may change through their participation in these practices.

DG: If anything, the future of religion in this country is going to be very interesting, because we’re going to see . . . .

CB: (Laughs) I think so too!

DG: Well I’m thinking, if the country is growing more secular, the question is: if these practices endure, then do we need to rethink the idea of secularisation?

CB: Well, I think we absolutely do. And this is where my working title for the book I’m working on now, on yoga and mindfulness in public schools, is “Secular and Religious”. And I think that practices actually can be both at the same time. (25:00) And that by presenting practices as secular that this can actually be a more effective way of advancing new forms of religion and spirituality.

DG: Thank you for your time, Dr Gunther-Brown.

CB: Thank you very much.

Citation Info: Gunther-Brown, Candy 2017. “Evangelical Yoga: Cultural Appropriation and Translation in American Religions”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/evangelical-yoga-cultural-appropriation-and-translation-in-american-religions/

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

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

Discursive Approaches and the Crises of Religious Studies

Discursive analysis of one kind or another is perhaps the most prominent methodology in the study of religion today. The linguistic turn took longer to influence Religious Studies than many other areas of the social sciences, but in recent years this approach has produced some hugely influential works which challenge many of the traditional assumptions of the field. In this interview recorded at the 2015 IAHR Congress in Erfurt, Kocku von Stuckrad tells David G. Robertson how discursive approaches might help solve the challenges of contemporary Religious Studies: the crisis of representation; the situated observer; and the dilemma of essentialism and relativism.

Bruce Lincoln and Titus Hjelm, and feature essays by Ethan Quillen, David Gordon White, Martin Lepage, Emily Stratton, and Craig Martin. 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, wooden chess sets, monkey nuts, and more!

Of Demons, Saints and Heaven: Andean religious beliefs in Peru

What happens when two vastly different civilizations meet each other? History tells us that on the one hand, they could make war or, on the other, begin to establish kinship or state alliances. The colonization process of Peru is one that had a lot of the first, and a bit of the second. Just as the people came to conflict, so did their gods. However, the local gods who lost this conflict did not vanish in oblivion, but remained in other forms, even in some places in their original one.

In his interview with Sidney Castillo, Dr. Luis Millones discusses some of the traditions that have formed the basis for his research, particularly in the northern coast, northern highlands and south highlands of Peru. He mentions that, with the impact of colonization, many of the indigenous beliefs were replaced or mixed (to some extent), in order to facilitate the installation of a status quo that incorporated many of the ethnic groups’s beliefs (among other, more ‘earthly’ institutions) that were present prior to the Spaniards’ arrival (Millones 2005). And this is when when different traditions emerge commonly know as folklore (see also vernacular religion).

Ranging from different conceptions of the devil – less as a punisher and more as a trickster (Millones & López Austin 2013) – to the festival in honor of Felipe, Santiago de Zebedeo’s horse (Millones 2015), and from Jesus as a punisher, and the existence of an actual hell on earth (Millones 2010), to being joyful at children’s funerals (Millones 2007), Dr. Millones provides a clear articulation of how these local beliefs makes sense in everyday life. Fortunately, in this worldview, one thing is for sure: we all will go to heaven.

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on vernacular religion (in general, and in the US)situational belief, the category of ‘indigenous’, Meso-American religion

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

References

  • Millones, L. (2010). Después de la muerte. Voces del Limbo y el Infierno en territorio andino. Lima: Fondo Editorial del Congreso del Perú.
  • Millones, L. (2005). Ensayos de historia andina. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos-Fondo Editorial.
  • Millones, L. (2015). “Las muchas caras de Santiago, por Luis Millones”. El Comercio. Lima, 01 of August. Accesed on: 04 de agosto de 2015.http://elcomercio.pe/opinion/columnistas/muchas-caras-santiago-luis-millones-noticia-1829935
  • Millones, L. (2007). Todos los niños van al cielo. Lima: Instituto Riva Agüero.
  • Millones, L. & Lopez Austin, A. (2013). Cuernos y colas. Reflexiones en torno al Demonio en los Andes y Mesoamérica. Lima: Asamblea Nacional de Rectores.

The Invention of the Secular Academy

The Religious Studies Project, as an academic endeavour studying religion, is of course devoutly secular. In fact, we tend to take the connection between secularity and the academy completely for granted. But was this always the case? If not, how did it become so? And what does secular mean in this context? In this interview recorded at the 2015 IAHR Congress in Erfurt, Tomoko Masuzawa tells David G. Robertson how the medieval university was transformed – first through the introduction of the collegiate system in the 1700s, which gave private donors a say in who could study, and then again in the late 19th Century, with the Berlin model being exported throughout Europe and the colonies. What we discover is not a dialogue between the religious and the secular, but between different Christian sects. What does this say about our present-day academic endeavours?

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, dried lentils, soft furnishings, and more!

Sufism

Like any religious tradition, the Islamic tradition is made up of countless groups and subgroups that interpret, enact, and commit to the materials of their tradition differently. Although focus is often placed on divisions between Sunni and Shi’a communities, one of the most fascinating modalities of belonging within Islam is that of Sufism, all the more interesting because Sufi sensibilities can extend across the full spectrum of Muslim identities. Sufism is often defined as a “mystical” tradition that shares similarities with forms of mysticism from other traditions in the way that in conceptualizes the nature of divinity and the nature of human understanding.

In this interview, Milad Milani discusses the basic orientation and history of Sufi thought. He also speaks about the diverse national variations of Sufism, particularly with respect to Iranian (or “Persianate”) Sufism. The interview concludes with a few critical remarks on the questionable appropriation of Sufism in contemporary Western discourses on religion.

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

Is Britain still a Christian country?

When scholars involved in the social scientific study of ‘religion’ encounter claims concerning ‘religious identity’ – of states, groups or individuals – a number of questions immediately spring to mind. UK Prime Minster David Cameron’s controversy-inducing statement around Easter 2014 that Britain is ‘a Christian country’ is a perfect example of how an apparently simple statement is actually highly ambiguous and can potentially mask a host of powerful ideological concerns.

What does Cameron’s statement actually mean? In what sense can a country be “Christian”? Today on the Religious Studies Project, we welcome back Professor Linda Woodhead to discuss and interrogate the question “Is Britain Still a Christian Country?”, the topic of her recent Croall Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.

The Secularization Thesis. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, British cookbooks, cakes, model railways and more.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 10 February 2015

Calls for papers

Conference: In Search of the Origins of Religions

September 11–13, 2015

Ghent, Belgium

Deadline: March 1, 2015

More information (English)

Conference: Second Undegraduate Conference on Religion and Culture

March 28, 2015

Syracuse, NY, USA

Deadline: February 15, 2015

More information

Symposium: Society for the Study of Religion and Transhumanism (SSRT)

June 27, 2015

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: March 31, 2015

More information

AAR group: Secularism and Secularity

Deadline: March 2, 2015

More information

Journal: Studi e materiali di storia delle religioni

Theme issue: Religion as a Colonial Concept in Early modern History (Africa, America, Asia)

Deadline: May 15, 2015

More information

Article collection: Religious subcultures in Unexpected Places

Deadline: May 1, 2015

More information

Events

Conference: International Tyndale Conference

October 1–4, 2015

Oxford, UK

More information

Congress: “Ad Astra per Corpora: Astrología y Sexualidad en el Mundo Antiguo

February 19–21, 2015

Málaga, Spain

More information (Spanish)

Jobs

Research assistant: Indology

Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Germany

Deadline: February 28, 2015

More information (German)

Science and Religion in Europe: A Historical Perspective

The idea of long-running clash between the domains of “science” and “religion” has not only been central to western discourses on modernity, but has increasingly become a central supposition in the history of science itself – informing not just the rhetoric of the New Atheists, but also the broader public understanding of the issue.  But is this historically accurate?

In this interview, Professor Peter Harrison (formerly Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford) outlines the flaws in this supposition by providing a historical perspective on the categories “science” and “religion” and the way that they were formerly considered separate virtues (scientia and religio) instead of incompatible domains of knowledge.  Far from the current narrative being correct – often focusing on episodes such as the Church’s response to the Galileo controversy – Professor Harrison explains that religious institutions were originally (and for a long time) key supporters of scientific activity, which was considered broadly as a theological attempt to unlock The Book of Nature.   The middle section of the interview looks at the complex relationship between theological commitment and scientific activity from Newton to Darwin, and in the final section discusses continuing complexities of the relationship in the post-Darwinan western world, right down to problematic assumptions at play in contemporary New Atheism as well as debates about Islamic militancy.

This interview was recorded at the meeting of the Australian Religious History Association in July 2014.  For those interested in the themes of the interview, the keynote talk of the RHA meeting was delivered by one of Professor Harrison’s key collaborators, Ronald Numbers (on a similar topic, focusing especially on the Galileo episode).   A number of related talks and interviews can be found on the CHED website.

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

Conference Report: Religious History Association Biennial Conference/Australian Historical Association Annual Conference 2014

Conference report by Josip Matesic, PhD Candidate, University of Wollongong

The University of Queensland hosted last month (8-10 July) the biennial conference of the Religious History Association (RHA). The conference itself was one stream of a larger conference: the annual conference for the Australian Historical Association (AHA) (7-11 July). The theme of the AHA and therefore RHA conference was ‘Conflict in History’. This theme was broadly interpreted by the presenters. The RHA conference also had its own guest speaker in the form of Professor Emeritus Ron Numbers (Wisconsin-Madison).

conference

The first day only involved a keynote address by Ron Numbers in the evening. I have to admit, I had never heard of Numbers until the conference. Not the best form on my part but it resulted in the feeling of being pleasantly surprised when you hear a speaker speak authoritatively, and humorously. For those who are unaware of Numbers, he is currently the Hilldale Professor of the History of Science and Medicine Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His interests lie principally within the interplay and ‘battle’ between religion and science. In this field his most famous book would be The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (1992), expanded in 2006 and with the subtitle, From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Numbers’ keynote touched broadly the exchange of religion and science in the West over the past few hundred years; rectifying some myths about the Catholic Church and Galileo, and mentioning how religion and science as modern categories did not exist until the mid-nineteenth century. It was fitting that Numbers also spoke about the state of creationism and evolution, since Queensland is globally speaking, an infamous location for creationism, being among one thing, the home state of Ken Ham. The evening was completed by drinks and canapés on a balcony of the Sir Llew Edwards Building, not far from the Brisbane River. The pan fried salmon skewers and vegetarian curry samosas were the best eats.

The first full day started off with a hitch as the ‘Secularism and Human Rights’ session was cancelled in the morning. This left ‘War and Religion on the Australian Battlefront’ as the sole morning session. Independent scholar Yvonne Perkins spoke about the religious beliefs of the soldiers at the battlefront during World War I. Perkins was not concerned about whether the beliefs complied to the teachings of the various churches, but what the soldiers themselves believed irrespective of the churches. Perkins’ primary sources were the soldiers’ diaries. Check her blog piece about her presentation if you’re interested.

Perkins was followed by Simon Farley who presented about the World War I holdings at the State Library of Queensland, which include diaries, letters, newspapers, memoirs, photographs and oral history recordings to name only a few things. Rounding out the morning session was Doris LeRoy who presented on the Czech Lutheran pastor, Professor Josef L. Hromádka and his visit to Australia. All of the papers were well received.

Perhaps two people who travelled the most to reach Brisbane were Willem and Erna Oliver from the University of South Africa. After lunch they presented on Regina Mundi or the ‘the people’s church’ in Soweto and its role in student uprisings in 1976, and the contested nature of the Afrikaner identity and the role religion plays within this respectively.

The Wednesday afternoon session consisted of Ron Numbers chairing a session on ‘Science and Religion’, and Micheline Astley-Boden chairing a session on ‘Religion and Conflict: From the Bible to the Middle Ages’. I attended the first session and heard presentations from Dr Tom Aechtner, PhD candidate James Ungureanu and Professor Peter Harrison, all from the University of Queensland. In many ways, and fittingly, the session touched upon and elaborated on various topics which Numbers had addressed or passed by briefly in his keynote address the night before.

Thursday morning saw two sessions in progress while there was a keynote delivered at the AHA. One session was ‘Empire and Film’, while the other was ‘Church and State’. I cannot comment too much on the first presenter in the ‘Church and State’ session as it myself, although I think I did reasonably well: not my best but not my worst. I was followed by Dr Sarah Walsh (Sydney) who presented about eugenicists in Chile in the early twentieth century and their links to the Catholic Church; and Dr Timothy Jones (LaTrobe) examined canon law and whether it was a help or hindrance to those seeking justice in child sex crimes involving clergy.

Since I became involved in a long discussion about freemasonry during the morning tea break I missed the next session entirely. After lunch though I did manage to hear Dr Sam Hey (Christian Heritage College) talk about problems within Australian Pentecostalism, and PhD candidate Tiarne Barratt (Sydney) present on her research about how the Catholic Church’s views on sexuality have been misrepresented and limited to Humanae Vitae.

I don’t want this report to be simply a list of presentations that I saw. I wasn’t able to see all of them. I do want to highlight though that religion was broached by the presenters even when they were not in the RHA stream/conference. For example, on Friday morning, the RHA conference officially over, Elizabeth Miller (Sydney) presented on popular suspicion that Australians have had towards Pentecostal megachurches. She did this historically, examining how public opinion on megachurches has evolved. Professor Joan Beaumont (ANU) on Wednesday morning in her AHA conference keynote speech spoke on a century of Australian memorial commemorations across the world and how in some aspects, religious elements have seeped in to the commemorations.

At the conference there were a number of diverse speakers, nationally and internationally, and despite some minor hiccups at the beginning, the conference was an overall success. Since I forgot and only took the photo of the main building the presentations were held in below, I should try to give you an idea of the event another way: if you attended and stayed on to Friday after the RHA conference had finished, you would have enjoyed a wonderful barbecue lunch with Jamaican spiced chicken, garlic steak, vegetarian Japanese pancakes, numerous salads, rices and condiments. The conference was not to be missed irrespective of the barbecue lunch! Next year it is at the University of Sydney, 6-10 July.

Podcasts

Protected: Empty Signs in an Automatic Signalling System (Classroom Edit)

This content is password protected. To view it please enter your password below:

Empty Signs in an Automatic Signalling System

This second interview with Timothy Fitzgerald covers his later work, from Discourse on Civility and Barbarity (2007) and Religion and Politics in International Relations: The Modern Myth (2011). In these works, thinking about the historical development of the category “religion” leads to consideration of other ‘modern’ categories which make up the colonial epistemé. If religion is deconstructed, where does that leave the other categories that use or rely on it? What happens to its common opposites like “the secular”, “science”, “liberalism” or even “politics”?

Fitzgerald argues that this mutually-dependent signalling system largely emerged in the late 17th century.  As rhetorical terms expressing specific class interests and aspirations in concrete situations of power, this system of signals originated in the context of the ancient regimes and sacred Monarchies of Christian Europe. Since then, each category has been continually contested, with shifting and unstable meanings. Now they have become so capacious and universalised that they have no clear boundaries, and we cannot properly distinguish between them. Yet these ideas have, over time and through repetition, become normalised and neutralised such that they appear as common sense. Today they form the basic categories for the organisation of our institutions, including academia and universities.

Listen to the first part of David G. Robertson’s interview with Timothy Fitzgerald on The Ideology of Religious Studies here: Episode 322 “The Problem with ‘Religion’ and Related Categories”

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.

Empty Signs in an Automatic Signalling System

Podcast with Timothy Fitzgerald (16 March 2020).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/empty-signs-in-an-automatic-signalling-systerm/

David Robertson (DR): I’m here with Tim Fitzgerald of the University of Queensland, where he’s a visiting research professor. This interview follows on from his recent interview, entitled “The Problem with ‘Religion’ (and related categories)“. And at the end of that interview we had talked about his fieldwork in India, and his time living in Japan, and how this had led to him writing The Ideology of Religious Studies. And central to that was an attempt to kind-of pin down and locate this category religion. Maybe you could pick the story up for us there, Tim?

Timothy Fitzgerald (TF): Yes. Sure. I mean one of my targets, when I was in Japan, was the religion industry – which was applied to Japan itself in the form of the study of Japanese religions – and the difficulty in actually identifying what constitutes a religion in Japan – which was also the problem about what constitutes the non-religious secular. And a lot of my work was aimed at trying to show there is this basic contradiction between the study of religion – whether that’s by Japanese or non-Japanese scholars – and, you know, the actual problem of locating it. And the problem of religion is therefore the problem of the non-secular, and how we ended up with this idea that there is a religious world of the Japanese which is somehow distinguishable from the non-religious world of the Japanese. So this led me to look, historically, for the source of this binary that we have in this religion-secular construction. And that led me back, actually, to the seventeenth century in England. And I started doing a lot of reading on . . . well, not only the seventeenth century, but going back to the sixteenth century. The post-Reformation discourse on religion was really what I was looking for. And what I found was that right the way through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – and I think that this is true going right the way through into the 18th and 19th and possibly up to the present in certain respects – is that the dominant meaning of religion was our Protestant faith. And it was a male literate construct of our Protestant faith, in a world where faith does not mean a weak form of belief. Faith is Truth, fundamentally. Christian Truth. It was a claim about Christian Truth. And the opposite of religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and coming on much more recently, was not the non-religious secular. It was pagan irrationality, superstition and barbarism. And so what you have is not some dichotomy between the religious and the non-religious, but between True religion and a whole number of practices which are being discovered around the globe which look like a kind of mistaken attempt at finding God, from the point of view of the Christians. So these are superstitious practices. And what interested me, at what point did that discourse on religion as Christian Truth, or Protestant Christian Truth, become re-defined as religion as a private inner personal practice which is completely distinct from government? You see, the thing is that when you go back into reading these texts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there’s no such distinction between religion and non-religion. And this is actually the research that led up to a book I published – two books that I published – in 2007, one was Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories (5:00). And the other was an edited volume which came out of a conference I organised at Sterling, which was called, Religion and the Secular: Historical and Colonial Formations. And in that collection of essays I published a chapter called “Encompassing Religion, Privatised Religion and the Invention of Modern Politics”. And that theme, privatised religion, encompassing religion and the invention of modern politics, is central to Discourse on Civility and Barbarity. And it represents in some ways a move forward from The Ideology of Religious Studies. Because it’s actually looking at the historical documents that can guide us, or suggest to us, what are the circumstances in which somebody – i.e. someone like John Locke who was probably the most powerful inventor of the modern religion/non-religion dichotomy in my view – John Locke, but not only John Locke – there were plenty of others who were doing it – who were rhetorically redefining what the term religion means, in order to formulate a theory of government in which government is free from the domination of religion. And that introduces many, many interesting problems. Because what you have is, from the time of John Locke going into if you like the Enlightenment . . . . I’m not going to leave the Enlightenment untouched by critique as a term but, for the moment, let’s think of the Enlightenment in the general sense that we do typically think about it, which is a lot of men (mostly men – I didn’t come across any female texts at this period but no doubt there may have been some, but it’s mostly men) who wanted to have the right to accumulate private property, and for that private property to be clearly their property, and not to be invaded and tampered with by the sacred monarch. We have to remember that when John Locke was writing in the 1680s and 1690s this was a time of enormous turmoil in England. We’d had the execution of the previous king, King Charles 1 in 1649. We’d had the Putney Debates in the 1640s, which were very radical and which were questioning a great deal of the status quo. After the execution of Charles 1, in about 1652 I think it was, Hobbes published Leviathan. And in Leviathan you find several references to politics, the noun-word politics. And in John Locke’s essays on government and his other writings, his essays on toleration, for example, you get references to politics, by which he means government which is not dominated by religion and which represents the interests of male private property accumulators. And this was formulated in terms of natural rights. And there are a whole string of natural rights which were argued for. But these were really rights formulated by men, many of them Non-Conformists who were chafing against the restrictions of the sacred monarch and his court, and the Established Church that legitimated the sacred monarch, performed the coronation ceremonies, gave him the legitimation to do what he liked, basically. He was an arbitrary monarch. He was portrayed as a tyrant by the people who wanted to free up government from the control of this particular ideological complex of the sacred monarch. We can call it the Ancien Régime, to generalise it. Because France was in a very similar situation where you have a closed hierarchy of classes, which is born into land ownership and born into status, and it’s basically a fixed order of divine conception (10:00). And the sacred monarch is the heart of the nation. The sacred monarch is God’s appointed and anointed representative on earth. So the sacred monarch had enormous powers. And there were a lot of people at this time who were Non-Conformist, who didn’t believe in the Established Church and who didn’t believe in the sacred monarch. It was very dangerous to say so. Now John Locke was one of the most powerful and influential writers to question the status quo of the time, and to try and redefine what a number of terms really mean. And religion is obviously is one of the most important. But you see, I can’t find a consistent discourse on the noun-word politics in English before around the middle of the seventeenth century. The most consistent, in developed discourse on politics, that I can find is in John Locke where he defines politics as a government not representing the arbitrary power of a sacred monarch, but governments protecting the natural rights of Englishmen. And this is gendered. I’m using the expression Englishmen because women were not really much in the picture.

DR: And it’s not all men either, is it? It’s the wealthy, landowning classes. So it’s not only gendered, but there’s class in there as well.

TF: Oh yes, definitely. Because, of course, one of the great sources . . . the new sources of private property at this time was from the enclosures. And the enclosures were where legislation, bills, were passed in the House of Parliament – which is the legislature – in order to transform a piece of common land into private property. Now common land was land which for centuries had been conventionally shared in ways which were determined by local customs, you know. But there were very definite ways in which people subsisted on common land. Often a lot of the most poor people in feudal society, they were working part of the time for the local master, the local lord, but they were also working for their own subsistence. And they had common land to do this on. Now when that common land started disappearing through the Enclosure Acts, land that had been shared by different classes of people according to different conventions and customs was now being enclosed and declared to be private property of an individual. And I think this is very significant, because these enclosures were continuing right the way through the seventeenth, the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth century. And more and more people were being deprived of their traditional subsistence, and were being forced out into homelessness, and poverty, and starvation. And you get, during that period, you get a growing problem of vagabondage – huge numbers of poor people who were being turned into vagabonds. And these vagabonds were despised by the owners of land, because they were a living source of disharmony, and conflict, and discord. And they were treated really badly. And there was a parish system of which was called the Poor Laws, where people without any kind of subsistence had the right to seek help from various parishes. And the parishes were supposed to give them help, and food, and various other necessities. The Poor Law system was becoming very overburdened because there were more and more poor people who were calling on it. And this created resentments from other people. So you get a very messy situation. Now what’s happening to all these vagabonds, all these poor families that are being turned off the common land and no longer have anywhere to subsist, any land to subsist on? Well gradually – especially during the eighteenth century, they’re going into the new industrial centres and becoming wage labour (15:00). Before that, a lot of them were becoming wage labour, agricultural labour. There was a huge growing agricultural wage labour. So the people who lost subsistence land were losing their conventional ties to the old estate system, the old feudal system, and were becoming like loose cannons. They didn’t have any place in any kind of system or structure. So they were becoming, as it were, peas out of a pod. They were rolling around the place, and looking for work, and often going into the growing craft centres. But they were also working as agricultural wage labour. So that was one of the complex processes, but a very definite process that was occurring as part of what I would describe as the emergence of Modernity. And it’s important to realise that the natural rights that these men were proclaiming – from John Locke and many others going right the way up to the natural rights of the declaration of independence, and the US constitution, and beyond – these natural rights were habeas corpus: you can’t be arrested without being charged with some crime, you have to have access to a lawyer. Another right would be to express one’s views in public, the right to publishing, and so on. But I think that the key right was the right to accumulate private property. And to have that private property represented in parliament. So if you traced the way that parliament and government changed during the second half of the seventeenth century, going on into the eighteenth, you get, increasingly, the idea that the real function of parliament is to represent the natural, inalienable rights of individual private property holders against the predations of the sacred monarch, against the invasions of the tyrant prince, against arbitrary taxation, and these kinds of things.

DR: It’s not a liberty in some abstract, metaphysical sense. It’s the liberal order: the freedom to own property without interference from, as you say, from the divinely appointed monarch.

TF: Yes, I think that’s true. I think that that was . . . . Because, after all, not only through the Enclosure Acts but also in this colonial situation which was burgeoning, more and more money could be made out of colonial production – including the slave trade. I mean, the men that we’re talking about who were demanding representation in parliament on the basis of property qualification, these were often the same men who were not only benefiting from the enclosures but they were benefitting from the plantations and colonies that were being established. For example, in North America, John Locke had very specific interests in the Carolinas. William Penn, who was another rather like-minded Non-Conformist – he was a Quaker – was the founder of Pennsylvania. Both of them were people who loved to write bills of rights. They were the inventors of bills of rights and constitutions. And their bills of rights and constitutions were actually adopted in the Americas. And what they were demanding was, again, they wanted government that represented natural rights – but particularly the natural rights of white, male, private property accumulators – including, of course, the salve trade. I don’t think William Penn was involved in the slave trade.

DR: No. But George Washington certainly was!

TF: Yes, absolutely. And so was John Locke. I mean, John Locke had investments in the Africa Corporation or whatever it was called. You had the East India Company (20:00). But there were also other companies dealing with specialised areas of trade. They were royal charters, but they had private investors. And I think it was the Africa Company that was very much involved in the slave trade. So I mean these men, people like John Locke, they were ambitious. They wanted private property, they wanted to accumulate and they wanted representation in Parliament. I think an awful lot of the 1688 Bill of Rights and the invitation for the Protestants from Holland, William and Mary. . . this was all involved in consolidating this new view of Parliament. Now, you mention the word “liberty” and that’s a very important one. Because liberty was a term that comes up in the Magna Carta in the 1215. And I think there was a second Magna Carta in 1225, or something. Liberty is central to the Magna Carta. But that was in a very, very different situation. The liberty that was being demanded then was the liberty of powerful nobles, with their own private armies, demanding liberties from the king. Well in the beginning of the seventeenth century, Sir Edward Coke, who was a very effective jurist, he began to really do a lot of work on this term liberty, and to extend its meaning in a way which became much more useful for the situation in the seventeenth century. And the meaning of liberty became very much to do with the liberty of being represented in Parliament – your own natural inalienable rights being represented in Parliament. Particularly, it was about property. I mean, you could call it the democratisation of property, but I think it was a new system of private property whereby land became commodified in such a way that it could be bought and sold for cash. And we’re talking about the land which was derived from the enclosures. We’re talking about the theft of Irish Catholic lands by Cromwell, who took over . . . . He took over with him a man called Sir William Petty who was a polymath, a brilliant guy. He was good at just about everything. And he was taken over by Cromwell as the Land Surveyor General of Ireland. And he measured out a great deal of land in measured plots. He devised a method to measure plots of land, so that it could easily be quantified, valued, bought and sold. And the methods that he used were actually used on a much larger scale by Thomas Jefferson in the 1780s, when they started surveying the land systematically from the East Coast, going right up to the Appellations. And later it would go much further. But these are vast tracts of what they thought were empty land. Actually they were Native American lands. But the Native Americans didn’t think that any individual could own land. It was completely inconceivable to them. So these empty lands were being measured out in saleable plots by Thomas Jefferson and a whole team of land surveyors. So what you have is not only the emergence, the birth, of a global private property market in land, but private property in capital. I mean, private property can take a lot of different forms. And going back again to John Locke, John Locke was involved in the founding of the Bank of England in 1694. This seems to me to be . . . . The founding of the Bank of England seems to me to be as important to the invention of religion in its modern dominant sense as a private, personal, communication with God which has nothing to do with government.

DR: Well I think this is what’s so fascinating about Discourse on Civility and Barbarity, particularly, is this analysis of the historic development of the category of religion and its others. In fact it leads to a clearer idea of the function of this category which is to normalise and mystify the processes of colonial power and the power of land owners (25:00). But what’s interesting is that that mystification has been so successful that despite these being historically contingent, and shifting, and unstable, and sometimes empty categories, nonetheless it makes up this contemporary episteme in which we live and in which these ideas have become so normalised. And not only normalised and neutralised, but the actual basic organisation of so many of our institutions – you know, aspects of law and of parliament and academia and just everyday speech.

TF: Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. I think that there is a process where a number of narratives or stories are being told. For example, “man in the state of nature“ – which was a story told slightly differently by Hobbes, by Locke and later by Rousseau. But man in the state of nature, it seems to me to be a complete fiction but which nevertheless had great rhetorical power, because it invented a kind-of an original human nature which is of the lone, individual survivor – kind-of savage survivor – using his native intelligence to accumulate everything that he needs for himself and his family. And, again, I’m using gendered terminology because, after all, it wasn’t woman and the state of nature, it was man and the state of nature. And women don’t . . . they usually get included in family. You can imagine this noble savage, or just let’s say this savage, surviving through the wit of his own native intelligence. And providing for his family against the competition of other individual savages who are also trying to grab what they can for their own ends. And this is a completely unrealistic picture. We know from anthropology . . . . Anthropologists who have studied say hunter-gatherers know that this is completely not as humans groups survived or prospered. They didn’t survive as competing individuals. But this idea of man and the state of nature puts that on the table in a powerful way. And it’s aimed against other alternative versions. For example, John Locke. The first of his treatises on government is an extended critique of a man called Sir Robert Filmer who wrote a book called Patriarcha. And Patriarcha is . . . it’s actually a very powerful representation of what was considered to be an orthodox Christian Protestant, post-Reformation – but pre-Modern, I would say – view of the world. And basically it’s this enclosed, hierarchical, fixed system in which everybody knows their place. And the whole is harmonious as long as everybody does what they’re supposed to do, at whatever level of the organisation they operate, whatever their status is. And man in the state of nature was a deliberate attempt to subvert this idea of the harmonious hierarchical, patriarchal society, and to introduce the idea that we’re all in our real, natural souls individuals who are struggling to survive, and we do it through our own native intelligence. And those of us who have the higher intelligence will be able to accumulate more. However, the people who were in this situation at some point came to realise that this is all so fictitious that they needed a system of rules that protected each other’s property, so that if there was any contestations over property rights then the rules could be used to sort them out (30:00). And, of course, the rules were the laws which we needed a government to represent and to enforce. So government or politics ought to be about the representation of laws that defend the various natural rights that such as private property. So this is the fiction of the contract theory of government. You start with man and the state of nature. How do human beings get out of the state of nature? Why they make a contract with a particular form of government which will look after the laws that ensure that their property is kept safe and that whoever owns what gets their just rewards. That’s a completely new . . . this idea of government completely dislocates the old one. I mean, it was both heretical and treasonous. And that’s why John Locke, and other people who argued like him, had to keep escaping from England and going to Amsterdam to get free of these charges of heresy or treason. So this is what these narratives do, it’s that they explain what the real meaning of other ideas are. Liberty – the real meaning of liberty comes through these narratives. And the term “liberal” is another one that begins to crop up, which I’ve done quite a lot of work on. So I think that . . . does that . . . ? Sorry, I’ve rather lost myself! Does that answer what you were mentioning?

DR: Yes. Well, what I want to do now is kind-of step up a level, and sort-of think a little more broadly about this . . .we can call it like cognitive colonialism, or this modern episteme, where terms like religion, the secular, liberal, liberalism, politics, where these kind-of make sense. And you’ve described these as being “empty signs in an automatic signalling system”. And I wondered if you would tell us a little about what you mean by this?

TF: OK. Well, I mentioned to you that in the last session that I found that there were so many references for religion, so many things are religious that the term seemed to lose any specific meaning.

DR: Right, yes. There’s a religion of everything!

TF: There’s a religion of everything. So it’s become the generic abstraction with very problematic boundaries. It’s very difficult to know what cannot be included in this term. But on the other hand, you’re getting the development at first of a very minority Non-Conformist idea that religion has a very specific meaning, which is that it to do with your own inner devotion and worship and your own morality and your own concerns with life after death and it has to be clearly distinguished from another domain which is about the government of this world, according to laws. And particularly the defence of the private rights of individuals. So but then, at the same time, you find that all of these terms, as they get used in more and more rhetorical situations throughout the eighteenth century, they all develop the sense of losing their original fairly concrete meaning and becoming inter-generic categories. So that today, not only do we have a religion of everything but there’s a politics of everything. So politics, it seems to me, is a noun-word which is actually invented in the second half of the seventeenth century, to talk about a particular form of government which was both treasonous and heretical at the time, but which has become so generic, so abstract, there is now a politics of everything. There are political systems everywhere, and at all times in history. And this also leads onto the question of political economy. Because you know the term political economy is also around from an early time in the seventeenth century (35:00). And by the time of Adam Smith, say, in his Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776, political economy is itself a discourse: there is a subject called political economy which is emerging in the eighteenth century. So the question of where does politics end and political economy begin becomes important. And I couldn’t find . . . I’ve done a lot of research on the history of the term political economy, and I can’t find. . . . There doesn’t seem to be a solution to this. And then in the late eighteenth century, early nineteenth century, you get the term economics breaking off from political economy, and becoming a subject of study in itself: a science of economics, classical economics, liberal classical economics. So economics becomes defined as its own area of expertise. But what is, actually, the area itself? How do we define economics, and distinguish it from political economy, or simply politics? You know, what part of economics can be distinguished from politics, and what part of politics can be distinguished from economics in modern discourse? So that was another problem. There was also. . . I came to realise that what was happening from the late seventeenth century is that a number of terms which have a kind-of typical deployment, were becoming abstracted, and reified, and turned into generic abstractions. And one of them was history, which I’ve more recently been doing a lot of work on. You know, you get an older term, history, which had, if you like, local meanings referring to the genealogies of kings and great events, heroes, local memory, all sorts of things in history. But by the end of the eighteenth century you’ve got History with a capital H emerging as a scientific study, and it’s become Universal History. You know, it’s the History of the World: Turgot in 1751. He was a very influential French philosophe. He developed some really interesting writing on the idea of the progress of the human mind through universal history. I mean, look how far we’ve come – the progress of the human mind through universal history. Progress – you can’t think of history without progress. The modern dominant idea of history as a professionalised academic discipline was born in conjunction with the idea of progress. Not only does history seek to find how we progress – the route by which humans progressed from the past into the present state of European Enlightenment – but also history comes to be a sign of progress. In other words, only Euro-Americans are advanced enough to come to realise that there is a history of the world, a universal history, which is the history of the progress of the human race up until that point in history – i.e., the leaders of this progress, the European philosophes, whether they’re in France, or Germany, or Scotland, or England or North America, or wherever. So you get all of these terms which are increasingly problematic. You’ve got religion, politics, political economy, economics, progress, history. You’ve also got the term “modern”. Well what does modern mean? Where it did come from? You’ve also got the term “the Enlightenment”. Again, I’ve done quite a lot of research into the concept of the Enlightenment. And what I’ve found is that nobody can agree on when the Enlightenment began. Nobody can agree on when it ended, if it at all ended – some people think the Enlightenment is still going on. Nobody can agree on which the most important thinkers were – which is interesting because some come straight to mind, but there’s enormous disagreement among experts on that – nor on what the fundamental ideas of the Enlightenment are. In other words, all of these things are contested (40:00). But the term the Enlightenment, like the term modern, like the term progress, like the term history, like the term religion, or politics, or political economy, we use them as though it’s obvious what they mean. So it seems to me that what’s happened is that they’ve . . . that the rhetorical history, if you like, of these terms, has progressedly buried the history of conflict, contestation, the indefinability of all these terms, and they have become as it were just unitary signs which we can deploy automatically, without thinking about their history of conflictual contestation and so on, without thinking about what they mean. We can bury a whole number of very problematic aspects of these generic categories by simply deploying them as though they’re signs in an automatic signalling system. And in fact, I would go further, it seems to me that we are more operated on than operating. I mean these signs, these general categories, operate our texts. In fact they constitute our own subjectivity to a large extent. Our idea of ourselves as being autonomous agents – which actually feels like an inherently intuitive experience of myself as an autonomous agent, but is very much dependent on this whole ideology that has been constructed out of these empty categories . . . of which the individual may be one of the most empty. So this is how I move from talking in a kind-of Dumontian sense of the configuration of modern categories. I was influenced by Durkheim‘s attempt to describe collective symbolic representations in his work on totemism. I’ve been, to a certain extent, influenced by the idea of the expression meta-categories and meta-narratives of Lyotard. I have probably been influenced, largely unconsciously, by semiotics deriving from Saussure, possibly Derrida, but I’m not directly indebted to them at all, because I didn’t come by that route. I think, probably, I’ve absorbed through the skin a great deal of the influence of these writers and thinkers. But basically, I came to this idea of signs in a signalling system through just looking at these categories and trying to work out what they are, what they mean, what their range of applications is, what their origin was and how they were used in the origin, and how they’re now used. Does that make sense?

DR: Very much so. And I think it’s a perfect place to wrap up. I think you’ve summarised . . . . And it was nice that you brought it back to where we started, actually. That’s nice. But I just wanted to say thanks for speaking to us today, Tim, and sharing your ideas with the RSP.

TF: No, it’s a pleasure. Thank you very much for having me. And I hope we can continue this, because there’s a lot more to be said . . .

DR: Oh, absolutely! I’m stopping because we’ve run out of time. And that’s literally the only reason. But we’ll definitely organise another conversation soon.

TF: That’s brilliant.

DR: Thank you so much.

TF: OK. Thank you very much, David. Thank you. Nice to talk. Very good to hear from you.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, 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.

Critical Approaches to Pre-Islamic Arabia and Early Islam

Given the way in which many introductory courses present the history of early Islam and pre-Islamic Arabia, we may be tempted to think that the historical facts were well established and the narrative uncontested. However, this is far from the case. What evidence do we actually have from this period, and how may it challenge the conventional narratives that have become canonised in sacred and academic histories? What misconceptions might be challenged by modern epigraphic work, or the application of Social Identity theories to ancient texts? And why might this matter for contemporary Islam, contemporary Islamic Studies, and the critical study of religion more broadly? Joining Chris to discuss these questions, is Dr Ilkka Lindstedt of the University of Helsinki.

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, doughnuts, kale, and more.


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


Critical Approaches to Pre-Islamic Arabia and Early Islam

Podcast with Ilka Lindstedt (6 May 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Lindstedt_-_Critical_Approaches_to_Pre-Islamic_Arabia_and_Early_Islam_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): Given the way in which many introductory courses present the history of early Islam and pre-Islamic Arabia, we may be tempted to think that the historical facts are well established and the narrative uncontested. However this is far from the case. What evidence do we actually have from this period, and how may it challenge the conventional narratives that have become canonised in both sacred and academic histories? What misconceptions might be challenged by modern ethnographic work, by the application of Social Identity theories to ancient texts? And why might this matter for contemporary Islam, contemporary Islamic Studies or the Study of Religion more broadly. Joining me to day in Helsinki is Ilka Lindstedt who holds a PhD and title of docent in Arabic Islamic Studies at the University of Helsinki. He is currently University Lecturer in Islamic Theology at the Faculty of Theology. He’s published studies on early Islam, Arabic historiography and Arabic epigraphy and recent edited volumes in English include the co-edited Case Studies in Transmission and the forthcoming Translation and Transmission in the First Millennium, both with Ugarit-Verlag. And you can see his institutional website or academia.edu page for more information. And we’ll link to that on the website. So first off: Dr Ilka Lindstedt – welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Ilka Lindstedt (IL): Thank you very much.

CC: So, broadly, we’re talking about pre-Islamic Arabia and early Islam, today – which will obviously be something that’s quite familiar to you. But to the broader Religious Studies community it might not be. So if we could start off, just broadly, tell me about your area of research and what kind of sources are you using? How do you go about doing such research and things like that? What are you interested in? And why?

IL: Thank you. So, I’m interested in late antique Arabia, pre-Islamic Arabia from the first century Common Era onward, up till the early Islamic period, let’s say the eighth century, Common Era. So, the Prophet Muhammad lived in the sixth and seventh century. He died in 632, so that gives a sort of framework where we are operating. And I’m especially interested in approaching early Islam with Social Identity theories, formulated in Social Psychology, and how those can be used to study early Islam and pre-Islamic Arabia as well. And I try to use – as much as possible, that we have to hand – dated materials, contemporary materials. Especially, epigraphy is an important source-set that we have from pre-Islamic Arabia and the early Islamic era as well.

CC: Excellent. You might want to . . . I actually had to look up what epigraphic sources meant before we spoke about this! So if you clarify for our Listeners what they are. And also, more of our Listeners are probably familiar with perhaps Biblical Studies because, you know, it tends to sit in Study of Religion departments in some way. I certainly did some Biblical Studies, back in the day. So it would be interesting to hear about how similar or different you might describe your work that might be done by a scholar of the Hebrew Bible, for example.

IL: Yeah. So by epigraphic sources I mean inscriptions, and in this particular case especially, lapidary inscriptions. So inscriptions engraved in stone, you know, preserved in tens of thousands from pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arabia. And I would say that, in my study, I definitely use as much as possible approaches and methods developed in Biblical Studies. Especially, you know, the understanding that we should use contemporary sources as much as possible. Most people dealing with early Islam have been using Islamic era – much later – sources to study the life of the Prophet or pre-Islamic Arabia, for instance. So also the Social Identity approach is something that has been used in Biblical Studies, since the nineties especially, to study the New Testament. But also the Hebrew Bible and see how people in those texts . . . and how those texts categorise the world. Although one question that has been studied quite a lot in Biblical Studies is the question of the parting of the ways when Judaism and Christianity become different categories: when did people start to see them as Christians as opposed to Jews? And that question is something that hasn’t been asked too much in Islamic Studies (5:00). So until the nineties very few people asked the question: when did Muslims actually start to categorise as Muslims, self-identify as Muslims? So that’s kind-of a new question.

CC: Excellent and we’ll get to that towards the end of the interview. So before we start diving into the misconceptions that might be challenged by some of your work and others into pre-Islamic Arabia, we should get some of those misconceptions out there onto the table. Again, our Listeners might not just know this basic narrative. But, what are some of the times and places in traditional narratives that we’re talking about here, relating to early Islam and pre-Islamic Arabia? I know that I certainly have always thought that, you know, the Arabian Peninsula was full of nomads who all thought of themselves as Arabs, and Mecca was a really central key trading post, and they all came there and there are lots of deities in the Ka’bah and things like that. That’s the narrative that I had. But I think that’s not quite right. So, maybe, tell us a bit about the context and then we can challenge that with some of these sources that you’ve been looking at.

IL: So I guess the received tradition we have to start with, we could start with the birth of the Prophet Muhammad in the year 570 in Mecca, like you said. In the Islamic Era the narrative Mecca is portrayed as being a place where almost everybody was polytheist. So according to this Arabic narrative there might have been a couple of Christians or Jews living in Mecca, but there were only a few of them. They were few and far between. So ninety-nine percent of the people, according to this, seem to be polytheist. So that’s 570 or so. And then in 610 the Prophet starts to receive his first revelations conveyed by the Archangel Gabriel, but coming ultimately from God. And at that time the Meccan polytheist aristocrat is not happy with the monotheist message that the prophet Muhammad is trying to convey in Mecca. So Muhammad receives very few converts, very few followers. One of them is actually his wife, Khadijah who becomes one of the first, or maybe the first convert to Islam. But still he has very few followers in those years, the 610s. And the polytheist aristocracy, as it’s usually called in Western scholarship, tries to come after the Prophet and his followers and they even torture some of his followers. And this situation leads to emigration from Mecca, this is called the Hijra, the emigration from Mecca which happens in 622. And this becomes, later, the first year of the Islamic era, the Islamic calendar. In Medina, the situation becomes better. The Prophet rises quite quickly to the top of this city state, as we might call it, of Medina. And he becomes both a religious and political leader of Medina. So early Muslims of Medina and the polytheists of Mecca are at war during those years. And in the year 630, early Muslims are victorious and conquer Mecca. But still the Prophet stays in Medina, and actually dies there in 632.So that’s sort-of the traditional narrative we have.

CC: So before we challenge that narrative through some of the, I guess, written sources . . . what kind of sources do we have from around that period? You know, I know that there’s more literary sources, there’s these inscriptions. So maybe you could just tell us what kind of sources exactly, and then maybe provide some challenges to that narrative?

IL: So, up until very recently, scholars were using Islamic era Arabic literary sources. And we have quite a lot of them, so thousands and thousands of pages of historiographical sources, of different sorts of literary genres, written in Arabic. But that Arabic literature is actually quite late. So we usually say that it’s born in the eighth century and starts to develop from that century onward (10:00). So at least a hundred years later than the Prophet. But still, most of the scholars have been using that source set to engage with pre-Islamic Arabia as well. And the life of the Prophet. But recently people have been turning their sight towards contemporary sources that we might have. And these are especially these inscriptions that I was mentioning. So from pre-Islamic Arabia, from the South and from the North, we have a vast quantity of epigraphic material actually. So from the South, from Yemen we have something like ten thousand pre-Islamic South Arabian inscriptions. And from the North we have even more, so something like fifty thousand or more are published now. And all the time, people doing fieldwork are finding more and more of these inscriptions. And many of them are yet to be published, even though they have already been recorded. So it’s a vast quantity of material and written in different languages. So not all of it is in Arabic, or very little of it, or only a subset of this material is in Arabic. So that’s something that we have from the pre-Islamic era. Then, from the Islamic era of sources we also have Arabic inscriptions. Not so many of them, but let’s say from the first hundred years of Hijra or the Islamic era, we have something like a hundred dated inscriptions, and probably much more that are undated but we can maybe paleographically date to that era as well. So we have quite a few inscriptions that are actually produced in Arabia, preserved in Arabia and produced also oftentimes by people who are not part of the elite. So that’s important to know this. So much of this material is actually graffiti, so stuff that the people were just writing or engraving in stone when they were en route to somewhere, and they were camping somewhere. So they spent an hour or so to carve their name and a message – simpler or longer – on stone. So that’s a very important set of sources that has not been utilised very much.

CC: And so what have these sorts of sources done, perhaps, to that traditional narrative that you laid out beforehand? Maybe a couple of key of examples of things that might challenge that?

IL: Yeah. Especially the polytheist milieu of Arabia in the pre-Islamic era is something that has been challenged by these inscriptions. So, for instance, in Yemen we see quite clearly that up to the fourth century Common Era all of this epigraphic material is polytheist. So there are mention of many gods: Almaqah, for instance, who’s a God associates with the moon; Shamash, associated with the sun. So this traditional polytheist milieu. But then in the fourth century, something happens quite drastically and we see in the epigraphic record that only monotheism is present in these texts and this continues up to the sixth century when the Prophet was born. And, in particular, it seems that the form of monotheism is Judaism that was adopted at least by the elite in Yemen, but probably also by the lay people to an extent, at least. So we don’t have, from the fourth century up to the sixth century, we don’t have any polytheist evidence from Yemen at all. So all the inscriptions that we have are either Jewish or Christian in nature. So they seem all monotheist and also Jewish or Christian identity. And then also in the North we see that Christianity, in particular, is advancing from the third century onward. And we have . . . we don’t have so much material as from the South when it comes to late antiquity – say the third century onward. But everything that we have seems to point towards the idea that Christianity was spreading, and spreading fast. So actually, when we look at what we have from the sixth century, which is the century when the Prophet was born, we don’t have a single text produced and preserved in Arabia that would be polytheist. So everything that we had is monotheist: either Christian or Jewish or something that we cannot actually pinpoint what it actually is. But then, maybe it didn’t even matter to the people who were engraving those inscriptions! (15:00) But this is the case of course in Hejaz, or Western Arabia, where the Prophet lived according to the traditional narrative, and also according to the majority of scholars. So from the Hejaz we don’t actually have so much material, or material at all from the sixth century. So that’s of course still a question mark: what’s going on in the Hejaz in the sixth century? But in any case it seems that in parts of . . . in most parts of Arabia, Christianity and Judaism were spreading past.

CC: Absolutely. Maybe one more example here, before we get onto your social identity work. I mean, perhaps . . . I was quite surprised to hear that Mecca wasn’t quite the big deal that we’ve been led to believe?

IL: Right, yeah. It’s very interesting. This Islamic era sources – which, like I said, are all late – they seem to describe Mecca as a place which was a pilgrimage centre, which was, you know, a trade centre along the trade routes, maybe that criss-crossed Arabia. But when we actually look at pre-Islamic evidence – for instance: Greek literature, Greek geographical literature and also these inscriptions that we have from Arabia – none of them actually mention Mecca. None. And they do mention quite a few Arabian cities and towns. So for instance, they mention Medina – Yathrib, which was the old name of Medina – quite a lot of times. So it seems that Medina was an important . . . or was along these trade routes that started from Yemen and went to Syria and the Mediterranean. But Mecca, maybe, wasn’t such a big deal. So it might have been a local centre but it’s not mentioned at all in the extant evidence that we have from the pre-Islamic era. So that makes me think, at least, that Mecca wasn’t that important in the pre-Islamic era.

CC: Obviously there might be various reasons that it then . . . it’s obviously very important now, and became very important. So there may be an element of reading that into the past. So we’ve only got about ten minutes left. This always happens! So some of your other work then is taking quite a modern Social Identity approach. And specifically, what I’ve read anyway, was looking at, in the Qur’an, looking at the different group dynamics in there. Perhaps you could just quickly introduce what a Social Identity approach might be? And then how you’ve used that to analyse the different groups.

IL: Yes. So the Social Identity approach was developed in Social Psychology since the 1970s by Henri Tajfel and his students, and later many more scholars. And the approach tries to look at social identity, especially. So not so much self-identity but social identity. Some of the group identities and affiliations that we have and possess and signal. And it makes a set of predictions, based on experiments and ethnographic research, about what group affiliation does and categorisation does in the group dynamics. So people have quite clearly noticed that this categorisation into the “in-group” that we affiliate with and the “out-group” which is the others. This sort of categorisation is very natural in us. And it usually and oftentimes leads to the fact that people are more helpful to their in-group members; they attach more positive adjectives to their in-group members; and they allow for different people in the in-group, so a sort-of heterogeneous view of the in-group. Whereas the out-group is usually seen as sort-of like a block, a monolith a homogeneous group of people. And sometimes it is . . . often times it is stereotyped in a way, or negative adjectives and attributes are attached to the out-group.

CC: Yes. And you might have positive attributions biased towards an in-group: some behaviour exhibited by a member of your in-group that would be interpreted positively – and if the same behaviour is in the out-group it might have a different interpretation, based on the same dynamic (20:00).

IL: Right, yeah.

CC: OK. So how does one study that in the Qur’an? I mean it was, maybe, initially developed as a more contemporary ethnographic thing, so how might one study that in this ancient text? And then what have you found regarding different religion-related groups?

IL: So I think the Social Identity approach gives a lot of insight into the ancient or pre-modern texts as well. So instead of actually asking . . . because usually, or sometimes, people have an approach to the Qur’an, and especially the polemic verses in the Qur’an, as signalling that there was some sort of clash between the groups. Whereas people that have been using the Social Identity approach in Biblical Studies have noticed that oftentimes these polemical verses, or polemical passages, in different texts they actually have to do with creation of the in-group identity and creation of this distinct identity. So it doesn’t always have to be the case that there has been some sort of clash in the past. But it actually might have something to do with the present; that the text is trying to signal a distinction to the out-group and trying to make this difference. Whereas the facts on the ground were much more varied and much more of a grey area in how people were viewing themselves and the others. And also, like I said, up until the 1990s people didn’t really ask, in Islamic Studies, the question: “When did Muslims start to view themselves as Muslims as distinct to something else- as distinct to Jews, Christians?” and so on. But in the 1990s Professor Fred Donner, at the University of Chicago, posed this question. But it hasn’t been studied still in depth. There hasn’t been too many people actually trying to approach that question. But I think it is a very important question. And I think we should start with no preconceptions, and start with contemporary sources. Start with the Qur’an and then try to understand the Qur’an in the context of what we know of pre-Islamic Arabia, and then see in the dated material, such as papyri and inscriptions, how that identity evolves later. So when we actually look at the Qur’an we see that the in-group appellation that is used there for the in-group is “believers”. It’s not yet “Muslims” so that is something that seems to happen later. And not only that, but also there are a number of verses that seem to categorise Jews and Christians as part of the in-group, part of the believers. So that makes me think that their situation is not one where Islamic identity was born already at the time of the Prophet. It wasn’t ready at the time, but it evolved later. And when we actually look at the inscriptions that we have that are later than the Qur’an, later than the Prophet Muhammad there we can see that it takes around 100 years before people start to call themselves Muslims or call their religion Islam. So it’s only the 740s when we see this sort of categorisation happening, and also mention of distinctively Islamic rites that happens in the early 8th century, not before.

CC: But again, in a standard into to Islam class, we’ll maybe hear about these verses differentiating Islam from Christianity: “They say that God is three. He is not three he is one,” and all those sorts of things. So there are some things in there which are maybe anti-Christian or anti-Jewish. How does that play into what you’ve just said about believers as a group?

IL: Yes, definitely. There’s definitely polemics against Trinitarianism and against shirk, which means associating anything with God. So absolute monotheism is the central message of the Qur’an, definitely. And I would say that any Jew or Christian who wasn’t willing to part with those associating tendencies wouldn’t be accepted as part of the in-group (25:00). So Trinitarianism is definitely rejected in the Qur’an. But then, there are a number of verses which say that Christians are closest in love to the believers, and they are pious, and they pray, and they will get a reward in the afterlife. And then there are a number of verses that talk about the “People of the Book” in positive manner. And the People of the Book seems to include . . . while the Qur’an doesn’t really spell it out who the People of the Book are, it seems to include at least Jews and Christians and possibly others as well. And so there are a number of verses that seem to suggest that those people in the People of the Book can be part of the in-group if they are willing to part with some of their views which are against the Qur’anic message, and if they are willing to accept the Prophet Muhammad as a Prophet, and the Qur’an as Revelation. Those are definitely sort-of identity signals that people . . . core values that people have to accept. But then, there are a number of others that are later Islamic developments. For instance, there is no conversion ritual mentioned in the Qur’an. The five daily prayers are not mentioned in the Qur’an. Prayer in general is, but the five daily prayers are not. So those sort of things. There are also two verses that explicitly say that Jews and Christians and the believers – and maybe others as well who believe in God – on the last day will get a heavenly reward. And those verses are then, in later Islamic traditions, understood as meaning “Jews and Christians that lived before the Prophet”. But the Qur’an doesn’t say that. And it seems that in the Qur’an the situation is the present tense. So it seems that the Qur’an actually promises, there, some of the Jews and Christians a heavenly reward and salvation, as such.

CC: So obviously I could probe much further but time is going to be our enemy here. So I would urge the Listeners to check out your webpage and dive into some of this. But as a final question: why does this stuff matter? I’ve often, in a sense . . . . As with, say, the historical Jesus studies, we can spend a lot of time working out what exactly was going on, what was happening at the time. But, in a sense, does it matter at all? Because the figure has taken on a life of its own, in a number of different ways. So why does this close study of these sources matter? And what’s its relevance, maybe, for . . . I guess there’s contemporary Islam, there’s contemporary Islamic Studies, the Study of Religion more broadly?

IL: That’s a good question. To an extent, I think it probably doesn’t matter to a lot of people! And maybe people in academia have a tendency to over-emphasise the meaning of their research in the wider society! And, you’re right: scholars who are working in historical Jesus studies, their studies are not probably so relevant to your average believer, your average Christian in say, Finland, or the UK, or South Africa, or wherever. So Jesus is something that matters . . . the Jesus figure that matters to them is probably different to what a scholar of historical Jesus would reconstruct. What I think has some sort-of intrinsic value here, is trying to look at the seventh century people or sixth century people who wrote their inscriptions: how did they see the world? And I think it sort-of gives value to their views, and tries to understand the world as they saw it. But when it comes to contemporary Islam or contemporary Islamic Studies of course, like I said, there’s different verses dealing with the Jews, dealing with the Christians and others in the Qur’an. And those can be understood in different ways. And there are a number of people working inside the tradition as Muslims and as scholars who are approaching these same verses, and maybe drawing similar or the same conclusion that I am here (30:00). So for instance Mun’im Siri, who has written a fine book called Scriptural Polemics, tries to see how the Qur’an itself classifies different religions and Islam, and also probes how later and modern exegists and modernist exegists have understood these verses. And he seems to suggest that the Qur’an can be understand in pluralistic ways, and it can be understood as not being all the time in polemics with Jews and Christians and so on. So, of course, it might have contemporary relevance. But, you know, I’ll leave it to the Listener.

CC: Yes. But it’s a good example of the fine line, in the Study of Religion in general, that we walk between not denying the uniqueness and boundedness of a tradition, but at the same time pointing out that these things are historical developments, and they’re connected to their context. And some may perceive that as an attack or as denigrating, and others may see it as validating. And we’re sort-of walking that line of saying “Things are more complicated than the common narrative might say.” Just as a final question: what are you working on just now? I would hate it if someone asked me that (Laughs).

IL: (Laughs) Yes! I’m actually, with a colleague of mine, we’re writing a book about the Prophet Muhammad, and the narratives about him, and the interpretations of him both in the medieval era and today. This has still got to be finished though, so . . . ! (Laughs).

CC: Excellent. Well, I’m sure some outputs will come out of that in English as well. And hey – you’ve now recorded an English language podcast – you might record a Finnish language podcast! So, Ilka Lindstedt, thank you so much for joining us on the Religious Studies Project!

IL: Thank you.


Citation Info: Lindstedt, Ilka and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “Critical Approaches to Pre-Islamic Arabia and Early Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 6 May 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 25 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/critical-approaches-to-preislamic-arabia-and-early-islam/

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.

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

In this interview Associate Professor Will Sweetman talks to Thomas White about the idea that ‘Hinduism’ and many of the other terms we use to classify religions—including the term religion itself—are modern inventions, emerging out of nineteenth-century inter-cultural contact and European colonialism. Will argues against this critique, and to make his case he draws on historical sources that discuss ‘Hinduism’ both outside of the anglophone experience and long before the nineteenth century. Through identifying alternative, non-anglophone sources of cross-cultural, West-East encounters, where comparative religion is the subject of reflection and description, the concept of ‘Hinduism’ is presented as obtaining a much richer history than the ‘invention thesis’ allows. Such sources include accounts by German Protestant missionaries and those by Jesuits writing in Portuguese, as well as native, expository works by self-reporting Indian religious thinkers. Will argues that ‘Hinduism’ as a concept is older, broader, and indeed more internal to India, than is currently assumed, but this is frequently missed through an overemphasis on relatively late sources almost exclusively in English. The interview goes on to discuss the implications of this research – and endeavours similar to it – for the study of religion in general. The interview closes with a brief chat about Otago’s hosting of the IAHR Congress in 2020.

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

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

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

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

Podcast with Will Sweetman (19 February 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Sweetman_-_Against_Invention_-_A_richer_history_for__Hinduism__1.1

 

Thomas White (TW): Kiaora! And a warm welcome from the Otago University recording studios here in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, where I’m joined today by our very own Associate Professor, Will Sweetman. Professor Sweetman is an historian of religion, whose research focuses on the interactions between the religions of Asia and the West in the modern period, and has published three books and several academic articles that explore the historical and the theoretical aspects of the study of religion, with a theoretical focus on South Indian traditions. Will, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview and welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Will Sweetman (WS): My pleasure, thank you.

TW: Now, the topic I’m hoping to discuss today with you is what you described to me as a defence of the “ism” – with the particular ism in question being Hinduism. But perhaps, to ease our way in, we maybe should start at the beginning, or at least your academic beginning, as it were. So, Will, could you please describe your early training in the study of the history of religion and how this has shaped the trajectory of your research career?

WS: Sure. So it was very much a happy accident. I did my undergraduate degree at Lancaster, which is probably well-known to the listeners of this podcast, but it wasn’t to me. I had chosen to go to Lancaster to study Maths and Philosophy, and Religious Studies was . . . you were required to study a third subject in your first year. And for me, it was very much a toss-up between Religious Studies and Psychology. But the queues for Psychology were much longer!

TW: (Laughs)

WS: So I decided to choose Religious Studies, and really never looked back. So I switched to Philosophy and Religious Studies for the remainder of my degree. But what that meant was my understanding of the academic study of religion was shaped by that Lancaster tradition – which was open to all traditions and emphasised, really, none. And even though much of the work I did was, in fact, on the Christian tradition, because of my interest in Philosophy, and because there were papers in the Lancaster Religious Studies department that were focussed on . . . the paper was called: “Modern Religious and Atheistic Thought.” And it was focussed, really, on 18th century and after philosophical thinking about religion. My work was very much focussed on Western Christian thinkers and thought, coming out of that tradition. But I didn’t privilege that, in a way. Then when I went on, my initial aim was to do more philosophy of religion. And I went to Cambridge to do an MPhil in Philosophy of Religion and very quickly discovered that that wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. But partly because although Cambridge had a Religious Studies . . . the faculty of Divinity was teaching Theology and Religious studies, the assumptions were so different. And really, it was that jarring discovery that the Lancaster way was not the only way – because Lancaster really was my only experience of what it was to treat region in the academy. But at Cambridge it was very different, and that prompted in me the question: how did these two such different traditions emerge? And really, that led me to the 18th century and looking at foundational works, like Hume‘s Natural History of Religion – but how this naturalistic approach, that privileges no religious tradition, emerged. That in turn then led me to looking at the religions that were being studied – or the non-Christian or non-Western traditions that were being studied or discovered in Europe at that time. And because, I suppose, of the colonial expansion going on in India it was particularly Hinduism that was being discovered and discussed at that time. Which then led me to my doctoral work on the study of Hinduism and the conceptualisation of Hinduism from the 17th through to the 18th century. Originally, I intended to include the 19th century but . . .

TW: It got a bit too much?

WS: Yes – as many PhD students discover.

TW: Ok, great. It seem that you’ve got quite a personal narrative feeding into your research interests. In terms of the actual methods of the historical study of religion, particularly inter-religious contact, what would you say are the best habits of analysis, or the important things to watch out for when you’re engaging in such research?

WS: So for me, by temperament I think, as much as anything else – because I’m not really trained as a Historian, although that’s how I would describe myself – attention to the sources is absolutely paramount (5:00). And that means – particularly in the context of what we’re talking about, where most of my work is set, that is, the period of European expansion overseas, encounter with and study of Non-Western cultures – well, two things: first of all the European sources, but particularly, also, the sources on the other side. Now that’s always harder, I think, in . . . . There may be a few exceptions in some periods or highly literate cultures but certainly it’s much harder, generally, to recover the voice from the non-European side of the encounter. Harder but, I would say, not impossible. There are ways of doing it and it’s important, even though it’s difficult, not to short-cut that process. So there is a tendency, I think, even in the works of some scholars whose work otherwise I would admire . . . . I’m thinking here, particularly, of Urs Apps’ The Birth of Orientalism which is wonderful book, but he has a tendency to dismiss the sources that are described by Western scholars as their own inventions, to say that they simply made up the source: it doesn’t exist. Now that’s a possibility, but before you can say the source doesn’t exist, you have to do your damnedest to find out whether it does! And there is a particular example in my own work. This is an early 18th century Protestant German missionary who assembled a library of Tamil Sources, which he documented, he catalogued quite carefully, which is unusual for that period. More often, other similar writers – missionaries and others – would simply have done general term like: “in their books”. But he identifies the texts, and some of them are very well-known and it’s not difficult to identify them. But there’s one particular text which he said is the “most important of all Hindu texts”. It clearly isn’t. Particularly because there is no other reference to this text anywhere, so far as I can discover. I had the good fortune when I came to Otago to be given some research money that was pretty much . . . I didn’t have to compete very hard for it. I simply had to propose a project. So I proposed a project I thought nobody else would ever fund, which was a wild goose chase to go looking for this text.

TW: Yes.

WS: And courtesy of a brilliant research assistant, Ilakkuvan, who worked with me – a young Tamil Scholar. It took him about ten or twelve months going through archives very diligently and he found the source. So it is possible to recover the source. And it’s not the most important text. It was wrongly evaluated. But it was the most important text for this particular missionary. And by reading this source we can see what he’s doing with it, and how that’s shaping his own account of Hinduism. Which is, undoubtedly, shaped by his Protestant, Christian presupposition.

TW: So this is the missionary, Bartholomew?

WS: Ziegenbalg. Sorry. So it’s still . . . It is fed through his Christian presuppositions, but it isn’t sheer invention. He is following a text. And what’s interesting about this text is that it’s a basically monotheistic text. So when Ziegenbalg describes Hindus as monotheist this is not only a relic of Christian assumptions about the natural light of reason and a universal revelation, but the result of his close reading of a text – so we can now follow him, and read that text, and discover. . . . So that’s what I would say is the key to this: attention to those sources. On the European side of the encounter, I would also . . . I regularly bemoan the fact that because the sources are thickest in the 19th century, and because the vast majority of people who work – particularly Indian scholars, but not only – are Anglophone: that’s all they read, is English sources. And it’s really important, I think, to look at sources in other European languages. And there are, of course, people looking at those languages. I’ve recently started using Portuguese sources which are the most amazing mine of material. And they have been read, but largely they’ve been read by Portuguese scholars who tend to publish in Portuguese. Not exclusively, there are exceptions to that. So I would say that going beyond the Anglophone sources – or rather, the failure to go beyond the Anglophone sources is a particular problem in much of the historiography of colonial encounters of religion (10:00). Again, there are exceptions, but as a generalisation.

TW: So the importance of linguistic analysis, and making sure that you’re covering all the different cultural, colonial experiences of the European adventure. Perhaps relating to this, at the start of your book: Mapping Religion, Hinduism and the Study of Indian Religions 1600-1776, published in 2003, you equated the dominant history of religion in India as a “Just So Story”. What did you mean by this?

WS: So a “Just So Story”, as I’m sure you know, is Kipling’s stories of “How the Leopard got his Spots”, and so on. And I think there are a couple of accounts of how many of the terms that we are familiar with in the study of religion, how those terms came to be used. So, in the case of Hinduism, there’s a popular account that this was a matter of divide and rule: that the British, by dividing Muslims from Hindus were able to dominate both – set them against each other. Or there’s another story, which I first heard from one of my teachers at Lancaster, which was that the missionaries needed an opponent. They were used to systematic debates, and therefore they constructed an opponent with whom they could have a debate. Now what’s “Just So” about these stories is that though it could have happened like that, that may be how it happened, there’s no evidence that it did. Or, I would say that obviously there’s a grain of truth in both of those stories, but the real story is much more complicated, and involves, again, patient attention to the sources. So again, in that book, what I trace is how the emergence of the concept of Hinduism as a single pan-Indian religion, distinct from Buddhism and Jainism in particular, emerges – at least in part – from experience of Europeans in India and attention to texts. So the question of the spread of Hinduism as a religion throughout India, but confined to India – and therefore different from similar-looking or outwardly-similar religious traditions elsewhere in Asia – partly arose from Europeans observing phenomena like pan-Indian pilgrimage. There are pilgrims from the North of India coming to the major pilgrimage sites in the South. Or that some of the  . . . . For example, the mythology of Krishna: much of it is set in North India, but there were Europeans reading the mythology of Krishna in South India, in South Indian texts, in Tamil Sources, which describe Krishna in places in North India. So it was on the basis of this that Europeans began to connect phenomena of Hinduism in different parts of India. And then, the opposite part of the question is: what do you exclude? And again it was from looking at Indian sources that Europeans decided that Buddhism and Jainism were regarded as more-or-less beyond the pale. And again, if you look at South Indian religious sources, the Tamil texts are very clear. There’s one Tamil author who devotes one verse in each of his poems to denouncing the “filthy Jains”, and the “heretic Buddhists”. And it was through attention to these sources that Europeans worked out that there was a dividing line here, somewhere. There may well have been  . . . And no doubt this idea was consolidated by the practice of censuses by the British. And there was a degree of the other Just So Story that I mentioned, of the missionaries seeking an opponent: so, using Indian sources saying, “Not all Indians agree with us. The Buddhists disagree with you. They say the Veda is idol worship.” So there’s a grain of truth in those stories. But the full story is more interesting, I think. And it also shows a greater degree of Indian agency in the production of these classifications – or if not directly “agency”, at least “input”.

TW: So, the argument that Hinduism is actually a far more coherent, or far more collected systems of rituals, beliefs and institutions than perhaps the “Hinduisms narrative” presents. How do these arguments sit, perhaps, within more current debate about religion and the public space in India? Is there a way that this kind of scholarship can speak to contemporary issues, perhaps regarding the BJP or Hindutva or other current religious public sphere issues taking place in India at present?(15:00)

WS: It’s an interesting question. And there is a danger, I think, that arguing for a greater coherence in Hinduism will give succour to those who argue that Hinduism is the Indian religion and there should be no other. But there’s also a danger – and you can see this in the works of some modern Hindutva ideologues or thinkers, who present the critique of the idea of Hinduism as an attack on Hinduism. So, “You’re trying to tell us that our religion doesn’t exist.” So in a way, those who – not for that reason of course – but who have attempted to deconstruct the idea of Hinduism are also able to, or are in danger of giving succour to those who want to say, “See. The West is out to destroy you. Hinduism we need to unify and rise up!” So the dangers are. . . . So I guess, in the end, you can’t control how your ideas are going to be used. Some unusual people have cited my work in ways that don’t or were never part of my intention. But that’s . . . you can’t control that. You have to go where the sources lead you. And it’s not an argument, I think, to say, “We shouldn’t say this because it might be used in a way that’s not to our liking.”

TW: Yes. I’m finding similar questions and challenges in relation to my research in Fiji, in terms of: where do these ideas feed into other political agendas? But I think you’re right. You just have to go where the sources take you. Now, as I understand it, you’ve been collecting case studies regarding the conceptualisation of religion, or world religion-type concepts in pre-colonial and colonial encounters outside of India. Can you tell us a little about this?

WS: Yes, so this isn’t really something that I’ve done consciously. But I guess, over the last ten years or so, I have done little more than pay attention to where I have seen arguments similar to my own being made in the case of other traditions. And, for a while now, I’ve thought that it would be interesting to do some kind of survey or compilation of the kinds of evidence that’s being presented, and look at what that is telling us about – or what that suggests about – this broader critique of the formation of the “isms”. So I’ll be giving a paper at the Stephen Berkvitz has recently published an article challenging this idea that you find in the work of people like Philip Almond and others, that Buddhism was a 19th  century invention based on the study of text. And he’s showing that no, very clearly in the 16th and 17th century Portuguese, mostly Jesuits were communicating with each other across Asia, or travelling in some cases. So Loís Fróis, a 16th century Jesuit, spent a lot of time in India and then went to Japan. And he understood the connections between India and Japan, and the trajectory of Buddhism from one to the other (20:00). From the other perspective, or the other direction, Eva Pascal has recently written about Franciscan friars coming from the Philippines into Thailand or Siam and engaging with Buddhism. And again, like Fróis, who described Buddhism as a religion, making the same analogy. So that’s one set of case studies. There’s another which is looking, perhaps, more at indigenous understandings of this. So this would be the work, I’m think here of Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst who’s looked at Islamic South Asian Sources, which not only classify religions in a way that’s not dissimilar to the supposedly modern Western way in which we classify religions, but she’s also shown that the very scholars in the 19th century to whom this classification is usually attributed were influenced by . . . they were reading these sources. So Abu’l-Fazl– a Muslim intellectual, a Mughal intellectual, who describes the religions of India, was being studied intently by British scholars in the middle of the 19th century. And then finally – and again you could see that, the Mughal Empire, as a form of cross-cultural encounter, even though it’s an Empire. But there are even, on a deeper level, indigenous accounts. And here I’m thinking mostly of the work of Andrew Nicholson and his book, Unifying Hinduism. So he looks at pre-modern doxographies, from as early as the 6th Century, in India, which are concerned with classifying the different schools of thought that there are. And so these are not all Hindu, there are Buddhist and Jain texts and, perhaps, particularly Buddhist and Jain sources were interesting in this. But what’s very interesting is that he shows that toward the slightly later texts, but still very much pre-modern, there is a kind of coalescing of an idea of an āstika – so, texts that affirm the Vedas: a unification of . . . it’s not quite what we might call Hinduism,  but it’s not a million miles from it either. So, hence the title of his book is Unifying Hinduism. And again, this is not a reaction to either Muslim or Western incursions or colonial structures, it’s something coming from within the tradition and within different schools of thought within the Indian tradition. So, I think, there are some other older works as well, Michael Pye’s work on Tominaga Nakamoto – again pre-European influence – a Japanese intellectual discussing the three religions, san jiao, in China: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism . And again, coming up with a generic concept that’s not unlike the concept of religion which is supposedly invented, like everything else, in the 19th century.

TW: OK, Well, the argument seems to be that the use of the term religion is older, broader, transects outsider/insider distinctions. Does that mean that scholars of religion are safe? Can we rest easy? Are we no longer at risk from the conceptual tools of our analysis?

WS: I think the approach that I would take to this is to say that it’s better the devil you know. So the work that’s been done in deconstructing historicising the concept of religion is by no means valueless. I’m not saying we should discard that, and go back to a happy sense that this is a natural kind and it emerges from the world unproblematically. But I think the proposals from some scholars that we should replace religion with some other term – I mean, you go all the way back to Cantwell Smith and, I think, “cumulative traditions”, or Timothy Fitzgerald has made various proposals of things that we might . . . . The problem is that those terms are no less the result of our attempts to construct reality in accordance with our presuppositions. So the advantage, to my mind, of terms like religion and Hinduism is that we are now – because of the work of these scholars who’ve deconstructed them – much more keenly aware of their limitations. And I don’t think that they are applicable in every circumstance. So, I think there are scholars who’ve done ethnographic work on sites in India, where you will have people coming to a particular site which is, or might formerly have been described as Hindu, and what they’re showing is this label is very problematic (25:00). And the kinds of people who are coming to those sites aren’t, maybe, clearly identified, or can be labelled as Hindu, or Muslim, or Christian in some cases. And I would agree, in that context, the label Hinduism is perhaps not useful. But that doesn’t mean there’s no context in which it is useful. So it’s always a matter of what the context is, what the purpose is for us. I think one of the things that strikes me as a little bit odd, is – and again this is something I’ve kept track of over the years – is the number of times you will hear a speaker, or at the beginning of a book somebody will deconstruct the term Hinduism. And having cleared their throat and covered their bases with this term will then go on to use the term with exactly the same referent as the supposedly pre-critical scholars who used this. So, Donald Lopez had a nice joke about this. He said you could spot scholars of Hinduism by their over-developed pectoral muscles, from continually having to make “scare quotes” in the air . . .

TW: (Laughs)

WS: …every time they used the word Hinduism! But the point is, that they continue to use the word Hinduism and the scare quotes were there. So, I think we can and we should continue to use the term, and the danger of replacing it, or of replacing religion with some other term– because those terms haven’t been so thoroughly deconstructed – is we would be tempted to think of them as more closely corresponding to some actual reality and less constructed, in a way in which they aren’t really.

TW: Yes. That’s also a lot of heavy lifting to go and create these new terms, and try to describe how they can kind of convey meanings that aren’t subject to the same problems as previously.

WS: I think the other dimension here is that precisely because of their history, these terms have a purchase beyond the academy that we can’t ignore. And so this is sometimes described as, you know, people in Religious Studies sawing off the branch on which they sit. Now, if it were the case that there was a compelling argument for discarding the term and disbanding departments of the study of religion, our own financial self-interest wouldn’t be a reason to retain the term. But there are other reasons, as I’ve tried to explain, why I think we should. And given that, if we are to speak to the public sphere, we need to do so in ways that are intelligible. And talking about cumulative traditions or hierarchical structures simply doesn’t cut it.

TW: It doesn’t communicate.

WS: And we can go on to complicate what those terms mean, but we would be ill-advised, I think, to abandon them from that point of view, as well.

TW: Yes. I agree. I do agree. OK. Last question, Will. We’ve been talking about the historical study of religion and its importance to the broader discipline of Religious Studies and its methodologies. Now in 2020 the International Association for the History of Religion will host its next World Congress here in Dunedin. Now, as head of department for Religion and Theology at Otago, I’d imagine you’ve already started to think through what you hope this might look like, or what ambitions you might have for the event. Can you share some early thoughts that you might have on this, please?

WS: Sure. I think there’s a lot of reasons for doing this. Some of my colleagues think I’m mad for even contemplating it! But I think there’s a lot of benefits that I see in this. I mean, one of the primary aims is to share this wonderful part of the world with scholars from all over the world, and we hope many will come. And I think we should be honest about the fact that that’s a reason why many people will come! Because New Zealand is a wonderful place and it will be great to share it. But it’s also, for me, the other side of that is Religious Studies in New Zealand, as it is in many parts of the world, is a relatively small, and in some cases embattled discipline. We have lost departments of Religious Studies even in the short time that I’ve been in New Zealand. And those that do exist are small, for the most part, and not exactly directly threatened, but not as secure as they’d like to be. So I hope that hosting an event of this sort will help in a host of ways to consolidate the discipline here (30:00): to create visibility both internationally – for work that’s been done in New Zealand – but also within New Zealand, to bring to the attention of our academic colleagues and people more broadly, also, what the academic study of religion is. That’s a constant battle. New Zealand is a country where religion is – I would compare it often . . . . For many people what your religion is, or religion at all is about as much interest as whether you prefer strawberry or chocolate ice-cream. There’s a kind of apathy toward religion. Not always, but. . . . And I think, demonstrating the importance of what we do by bringing the best scholars from around the world to talk about what they’re doing, and why the study of religion is important will be important.  And also it will give our graduate students . . .  . We’re a remote location, we don’t get an opportunity to interact with these people. So it will be a once in a lifetime opportunity, I think, for younger scholars in New Zealand to really see the scope of what’s going on overseas and to interact personally with those people. There’s something irreplaceable about that opportunity which, I think, young scholars in New Zealand don’t have as much as scholars in other parts of the world.

TW: Thank you, Will. Well, on that rather optimistic and forward-looking note I think we’ll draw this interview to a close. But thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and expertise with us.

WS: Thank you. And we look forward to seeing you all in 2020!

TW: Indeed! Thank you.

Citation Info: Sweetman, Will and Thomas White. 2018. “Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/against-invention-a richer-history-for-hinduism/

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

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

African American Spiritual Churches

Dr. Guillory teaches religion at the University of Rochester, but her first love is natural science. After receiving a B.A. in Chemistry, she taught high school science for several years. She draws inspiration from the sciences in her current research as a religion scholar. In her investigations of African American Spiritual Churches in New Orleans, Louisiana, Dr. Guillory describes a “dynamical self,” a fluid state of identity shifting between the individual and the collective. Her knowledge of chemistry directly influenced this theory.

The African American Spiritual Churches are combinatory religious sites, which blend Protestant, Catholic, Spiritualist, Haitian Voodoo, and Benin’s traditional Vodun practices. Female leadership and business management has been essential in the history of these churches. Dr. Guillory’s upcoming book draws on years of archival research, ethnographic observation, and oral history interviews to tell the story of these churches from 1920 to the present day. Hurricane Katrina looms large in this story. Most of the physical churches were destroyed in the flooding — or the former inhabitants were not allowed to return as the government began eminent domain proceedings. Yet this religious community endures. Guillory is one of the first scholars to work with the Spiritual Churches, whose affairs remain largely private. Our interview concludes with a discussion of anthropological ethics and practice — how to earn the trust of a community, and how to tell someone else’s story without “stealing” that story.

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, comic books, Haitian rum, and more.

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

African American Spiritual Churches

Podcast with Margarita Simon Guillory (29 January 2018).

Interviewed by Dan Gorman

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Guillory_-_African_American_Spiritual_Churches_1.1

 

Dan Gorman (DG): Professor Margarita Guillory, thank you for joining us today.

Margarita Guillory (MG): No problem. Thank you for inviting me.

DG: And today we’re going to be talking about your new book on African American Spiritual Churches in New Orleans. Although, I’ve been reading your book proposal. I understand the final title has changed.

MG: Yes, instead of More Than Conjurers being the primary title, it’s now the secondary title. So it’s Spiritual and Social Transformation in African American Spiritual Churches: More than Conjurers.

DG: So, perhaps the reverse order of what you wanted originally?

MG: Yes! But for marketing purposes, More than Conjurers took second place. They really believe that they can market the book better with the Spiritual Churches being in the primary title.

DG: Now, just so people have some brief background – is this what you wrote your dissertation about?

MG: My dissertation was actually based upon ethnographic research pulled from spiritual churches in New Orleans. However, the dissertation was a little bit more theoretical, in that it focussed on the ways in which spiritualists in New Orleans utilise rituals and altars – both personal and public altars – to articulate a complex form of subjectivity that I sort of coined in the dissertation, called the “dynamical self”. So the dissertation was little bit more theoretical. I sort-of was able to use the dissertation to write a peer review article and two edited volume essays. However, it was a little narrow for the publisher’s taste. So I sort-of had to rework . . . . I wrote an entire new book, basically!

DG: I see. So when you mention the idea of the dynamical self, it brings to mind the grandiose theatrical aspect of religious worship. I mean, you could say there’s a dynamic self in many religions. But what’s unique about the way that people express their religious beliefs in these churches?

MG: I would say that the way in which I saw the “dynamic” is this sort of fluidity. Within the dissertation I sort of expand upon this fluid conception of the dynamic – and it’s called the dynamical self. But the dynamical self is this identity form that is sort-of the simultaneous expression of both a public collective identity, based upon association with shared qualities with the grou, but it’s also the construction of a personal identity form that’s based upon one’s uniqueness. And this is a theory that . . . . I didn’t go into these communities with this theory. This theory was really formulated based upon the data that I collected from the communities. So it’s totally the reverse. I went in with no sort-of expectation of what I would actually find. I just thought the communities were really, really interesting. And the data yielded the theory.

DG: So, a data-derived argument, rather than a data-driven argument.

MG: Exactly, exactly.

DG: Now, you came into Religious Studies . . . it’s sort of a second career in some ways. You were a high school science teacher, originally. So, how did your first background in natural science . . . how did that inform how you approached the study of religion?

MG: That’s a great question. And it’s a question that I’m asked quite frequently when people find out that I have a Bachelors in Chemistry. I have a profound love of the physical sciences, specifically Chemistry. You know, Chemistry has allowed me to . . . it has armed me and equipped me with a particular interpretive lens. The dynamical self, even though it’s derived upon the data that I retrieved from these Spiritual Churches in New Orleans, it’s really based upon this equilibrium state that sort-of occurs when you look at certain chemical reactions. So the theory – while based on the data that I retrieved from these churches – the way that I sort of nuanced it, was based upon chemical formulations of just basic equations, something that you’d learn in general Chemistry. So science just gives me a unique lens to view religion. Does that answer your question?

DG: I think so. I think I’m curious to know, do you identify as a Humanist or do you identify as a Social Scientist?

MG: Oh. I don’t like to be placed in a box! I think I am a unique scholar in that way, that I still sort-of follow some of the general trends that are going on in Chemistry, I have a great relationship with a couple of Chemists, even on our campus (5:00). I do use sociological and anthropological approaches to the study of religion. And I do consider myself a Humanist. So in that way, I think I’m sort of like a quilt. Which can be problematic for some people, but it works for me. This is why I can have these really collaborative interdisciplinary projects with people across disciplines and not feel uncomfortable. Because I feel like a piece of me as a scholar is vetted in these multiple disciples.

DG: Which brings me back to your book, when the publisher releases it in a few weeks, what . . . not genre – we know it’s a non-fiction monograph – but, the little stamp on the top cover that says what genre it is and what topic: how is it being sold? Is it history? Is it religion?

MG: Yes. Very good question. It has multiple genres. Because the book I wrote, like I said: a lot of the data that I collected while doing research for the dissertation will be used, but the approach is different. It’s different than the dissertation. The book basically examines the socio-political activities and the spiritual-therapeutic elements that are found in the Spiritual Churches in a really, in a coalescing sort of way. And so, in that way, because the book is political – looking at the political and social activism of these churches – and because it looks at the therapeutic function of these churches, the sort-of tag lines will be history – because I start with the first church in the 1920s and by the end of the book, the chapter on Post Katrina Spiritual Churches – so it’s historical but it’s also being publicised as religion in society. So you see that sort-of band where the sociology is also coming in. So they have marketed it in a variety of fields. Interestingly, they’ve even promoted it in what we would call like “Africana Religions”, So if you do a google search with my name under Voodoo or Hoodoo, my book will actually pop up. So they really cast a wide net when publicising the book.

DG: So I suppose the next question is, what is a Spiritual Church? Aren’t all churches spiritual?

MG: That’s a great question. African American Spiritual Churches that I research are a blended religious group. And I like that term “blended”. And what they’ve done, they have conjoined all of these various elements from institutionalised religions – and I’ll talk about them in just a moment – and they’ve created their own, unique religion. Specifically, the Spiritual Churches in New Orleans have conjoined Protestant traditions with a focus on Pentecostalism; they draw from their worship style. Catholicism is a major bedrock in spiritual churches in New Orleans, just because Catholicism is still the predominant religion that’s practised in New Orleans, in particular, and Louisiana, in general. They also incorporate American Spiritualism: the ability to communicate with the dead, that was birthed in Western New York, in Hydesville; and they also sort of conjoin and mix into their faith Hoodoo and Voodoo. And this notion of Voodoo is derived directly from Haitian Vodou. So when you look at sort of their belief system, and their ritual practices, you can see a little of all of these religions.

DG: So when we talk about Hoodoo – this was sort of an older white term used to describe it in some cases. I’m thinking of sort-of 1920s, white attempts to understand black religion. But Voodoo itself is sort of a combinative thing. You’ve got influences of Islam, Native American and Caribbean religions, Christianity. And, of course, there’s a longstanding debate in the study of African American religions: are these religions more – quote unquote – “African” or are they more “American”? Do you have any thoughts on that?

MG: Well I would say, if we specifically look at the system of Voodoo and I mean V-o-o-d-o-o, I would totally say that that is an American religion (10:00). It is a blended religion that is primarily based – even though you have these other elements like Christianity – it’s primarily based upon Haitian Vodou, V-o-d-o-u, that Haitian immigrants who emigrated very early to New Orleans after the Haitian Revolution. A large population of Haitians immigrated to New Orleans and they took with them the religion. So, even though you have these other elements in Louisianan voodoo, the backbone of that religion is Haitian Vodou. And, of course, we know that Haitian Vodou -o-u- was derived from this combination of Catholicism but it comes directly from Benin.

DG: In West Africa?

MG: Exactly: Vodun. So, in that way, once the Vodou sort-of lands in New Orleans, in the South East, yes, it becomes this syncretic – and that’s not the term I like to use – but this sort-of blended type of religious tradition.

DG: So let’s walk through the genealogy from the top, then, beginning in Benin in West Africa. So this would be what kind of religion there? Are we talking about Islam or are we talking about traditional spiritual beliefs?

MG: So, Benin Vodun is an indigenous religion. It is a combination of – and that word might be seen as maybe a little charged – but it is sort-of a combination of the traditional religions that are being practised in Benin. But the scholarly term for it becomes Vodun.

DG: I see. So, then when slaves were brought to Haiti those indigenous religions are brought there. And then they encounter Spanish and French Catholicism, depending which side of the island they’re on.

MG: Exactly, yes.

DG: And then that finally goes to America, where you have the collisions that you’re describing.

MG: Right. Particularly in New Orleans.

DG: So how big a population are we talking about?

MG: That’s hard for me to say, like, quantitatively.

DG: Hundreds? Thousands?

MG: That’s hard for me to say quantitatively, off the cuff. But I could definitely have these sort of conversations, qualitatively. But that’s sort-of tough to derive. We can sort-of search and crunch the numbers but those numbers would be hard to derive.

DG: So let’s talk about some of the churches you studied, then. Were they packed to the gills on a Sunday?

MG: What’s interesting: pre –Katrina, the churches were packed. You had fifty-plus churches. Post-Katrina, those fifty-plus churches dwindled down to two churches in New Orleans.

DG: Is that because of population displacement?

MG: That’s part of the problem. So, part of the problem would be population displacement. And seventy percent of the fifty-plus churches that were operating in New Orleans pre-Katrina were located in the 9th Ward.

DG: (Whistles)

MG: So they were destroyed. And the last chapter of my book sort-of talks about that. The ways in which not only were some of them structurally destroyed but, because of some very difficult economical and political and structural changes that occurred in post-Katrina New Orleans, the lands of these churches – even if they were in a position where they could have restored the church – they were taken, and they were converted to green spaces.

DG: So was that eminent domain?

MG: Eminent domain. Many of the churches – I calculate about forty percent of the churches that were located in post-Katrina 9th Ward – were sort-of taken back by the City, via eminent domain.

DG: I see.

MG: So, there are multiple factors sort-of feeding into why these churches have dwindled down to two.

DG: Has gentrification also occurred?

MG: In the higher elevated levels of 9th Ward, gentrification is now occurring. They sort-of called this area Holy Cross. They built a school, they have a private developer that’s coming in. And I’m saying higher elevation, but it’s still below sea level! But it’s higher than the dominant part of the 9th Ward. It’s being gentrified.

DG: So they’re pushing out the poorer, mostly African American . . .

MG: Well they never let them back in, really. Because they never built . . . . In the 9th Ward, for people who did choose to come back they had no businesses, no stores. I think within the last two years they might have a health clinic. So the infrastructure wasn’t rebuilt for people to come back (15:00). So we can argue, was this intentional? Was this: “We’re going to let the 9th Ward return to nature so it can sort-of serve as the buffer, or the retention land, for other parts of New Orleans? So they won’t flood if we have another major storm, and if we have the breaching of the levees?” So it becomes very . . . and I try to unpack that in chapter five of my book. The ways in which the changing landscape around Spiritual Churches . . . . If you look at the changing landscape of spiritual churches it tells us a lot about other landscapes and shifting landscapes in New Orleans: demographic landscapes, social landscapes, economic landscapes, political landscapes. If you just focus on the Spiritual Churches we can see all of these sorts of dynamics that are going on, post-Katrina.

DG: So I’m assuming that the flood water has destroyed substantial amounts of material culture: archives . . .

MG: Oh, definitely.

DG: So what’s left? I mean, were you working in people’s attics, were you working in libraries?

MG: So no, actually, what was interesting is: when I first went to New Orleans it was in, maybe 2010, and many of the churches were still standing. They were in horrible condition, but they were still filled with all the material culture – covered in all sorts of mould and everything else. And of course I was in those places. So, some of the spiritual leaders who were really respected leaders in the city: Bishop Jackson, Bishop Stokes. He came from Detroit,to give me a tour. So before they began to tear these structures down . . . . Like, these structures are no longer standing in 2017 but I had the fortune to go while they were still there. Not only was I able to see what was in the inside, I took photos of the inside, I took photos of the outside. I do plan on publishing a book of photos of the before and after, so people can actually see what is happening in New Orleans, still today.

DG: But Spiritualists tend to be quite private. How did you gain this access? And this is something I’ve talked about in my past interviews: Douglas Brooks studying . . . . The only way to study some Hindu rituals is to gain the trust and become part of the community. Or Candy Gunther-Brown, who I spoke to – watching Evangelical yoga, but not participating. How did you get access to these communities?

MG: Well actually, one of the first scholars to publish a comprehensive work on Spiritual churches of New Orleans is Claude Jacobs. He’s now retired. He was at the University of Michigan. Him and my adviser at the time, Dr Anthony Pinn who’s also done some work on Spiritual Churches, they basically . . . . He went to Dr Jacobs and told him, “I have a student who’s interested in the Spiritual Churches.” And I was introduced to Archbishop William Stokes who has now passed on – as the Spiritualists say – to the other side. And it was through him. Because he had been a part of the Spiritual Churches. So he came to Houston – we flew him to Houston – and he and I basically spent two weeks together in Houston, just getting to know one another. I took him to different archives, I interviewed him. And so, basically, it was through him. But we had to sort-of . . . . He had to decide, in those two weeks, whether he was going to trust me, and actually introduce me and open the door or not. So, I guess, at the end of the two weeks – considering I’d published . . . like eighty percent of my scholarships is on Spiritual Churches – I must have gained his trust. Because he was coming from Detroit, he said he would be really excited about introducing me to people in New Orleans. So I won a Ford Dissertation Fellowship and I was able to pay for his travel and we spent a summer – this is how I actually first thought of it – we spent a summer in New Orleans together. And it was remarkable.

DG: Generating trust. . .

MG: Generating trust, and because

DG: . . . that you’re not stealing their stories.

MG: Exactly. And because he did not . . . . Because he had been a part of the Spiritual Churches, by that time over five decades, people trusted him. And they knew that he wouldn’t just bring, you know, anyone into the community that wasn’t going to sort-of take their religion and do something with it, in a really fundamental positive way (20:00).

DG: That’s the line between being curious and then between past scholars, who basically were stealing.

MG: Exactly. And I invested a lot of time. So this was like the groundwork. I wasn’t even really collecting data at this point. I was just building relationships. So, you asked me how did I get in – because they are very secretive. This is why there hasn’t been a lot of scholarship surrounding spiritual churches, because some people have mishandled what they’ve given the scholar. So I had to spend quite a bit of time building relationships. But once I’d built those relationships it was like the floodgates opened. They were so excited about sharing their faith with me.

DG: Professor Guillory, we’re almost out of time. I’d like to ask briefly: several of the early chapters in your book focus on female leaders in the church. Women like Mother Leafy Anderson. Could you just speak briefly about female leadership in the churches?

MG: I can. This is why I like the book that I’ve published, instead of turning the dissertation into a book. This book really highlights the political savviness, the entrepreneurial spirit of women in New Orleans, specifically from the early 1920s through the 1940s. These were women, women like Mother Leafy Anderson, Mother Catherine Seals, these were women who not only purchased property, but they built structures from the ground up. For instance Mother Leafy Anderson, she built her church from the ground up, property that she purchased, and the organisation that actually financed the building of her very lovely church for the 1920s, was the Italian Homestead Association. If you go and look at the history of the Italian Homestead Association in New Orleans they were not freely giving money to African Americans to build businesses and structure. That wasn’t their social function. They were committed to Italians, and Sicilians in particular, who were coming into New Orleans, actually utilising them as a pipeline to build and to invest in these communities. So it was really interesting that she was able to get them to finance . . . .

DG: And a completely different religion!

MG: Well what’s interesting is that her church – and I talk about this a bit in the book – was about thirty percent Sicilian.

DG: Well, that’s interesting! Which means the church was racially integrated in the1920s.

MG: It was. And also, Mother Catherine Seals, the manger was about twenty-five to thirty-five percent. We can’t get our hands wrapped around the exact number, but hers was also an integrated religious compound. And during her time there were segregation laws about cohabitation.

DG: And not only that, you had lynching!

MG: Exactly, exactly. And so these women – and this is what I love about the book – the book sort of highlights the courageous activities. And they were really savvy when it came to business, too. They had an entrepreneur sort-of model of earning money using a religion, in a way that was just . . . they were ahead of their time! They were like – I guess we would call them like our large megachurches today. They were like the megachurches of the 1920s, though the book really highlights the social activism and the ways in which these women also met the spiritual needs of the individuals, both black and white – which is amazing. The book sort-of talks about that, they were . . . . Yes, they wanted to be an anchor for the black community, but they also served the white population who were being marginalised by class and by ethnicity. They also served those populations as well.

DG: So just to wrap up, I’ll say that reminds me of – it’s a quite old book – but Arthur Fauset’s Black Gods of the Metropolis

MG: Yes!

DG: So, for those of our listeners who aren’t familiar, Arthur Fauset, an African American scholar wrote this book in the 1940s about the urban religions, mostly in Philadelphia. And these were – like your Spiritual Churches – many of them small groups led by women, and they’re exercising creativity in ways that white society doesn’t want to allow them. And so Fauset also discusses the idea of, you know, foreign religions being translated in America. So, clearly, these questions are still viable and thought-provoking seventy years later.

MG: A perfect ending! (25:00)

DG: So, I will ask, what’s the next project?

MG: Oh. The next project? African American Religion in the Digital Age. So, while I’m still publishing essays and peer-reviewed articles on Spiritual Churches, I’m sort of moving in the direction of digital religion. Specifically, I’m looking at the ways in which people of African descent are utilising technical advances to express multiple forms of religion. So I’m working on a chapter now on black humanism and black atheism, and the way in which it’s promoted among Millennials using social media platforms.

DG: Be careful, you’ll be getting into transhumanism next!

MG: I know! (Laughs)

DG: Professor Guillory, thank you very much.

MG: Thank you very much, Dan.

Citation Info: Guillory, Margarita and Dan Gorman. 2018. “African American Spiritual Churches”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 29 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 26 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/african-american-spiritual-churches/

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

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

Sitting on the bench: is the cognitive and evolutionary study of religion a team sport?

A Response to Wesley J. Wildman on “Modelling Religion and the Integration of the Sciences and the Humanities in the Bio-cultural Study of Religion”

By Leonardo Ambasciano

Read more

Evangelical Yoga: Cultural Appropriation and Translation in American Religions

super-funny-pet-picture-the-yo-5926Dr. Brown began her career as a historian of evangelicalism, and soon branched out into the study of religious healing and “new religions” in the U.S. In this interview, we discuss her interest in yoga as a new American phenomenon and the way that some evangelical Christians practice it. Brown provides a historic overview of bodily–religious practices in America, starting with mesmerism, occultism, osteopathy, and chiropractic in the nineteenth century. These practices challenged the standard “heroic” model of medicine: Instead of the patient experiencing torturous medical treatments, a practitioner simply realigns the patient’s body or does a quick procedure. Such bodily practices blurred, in some cases, with Pentecostal and Holiness Christians’ use of prayer as a medical treatment. (Today, many chiropractors retain an interest in bodily energy and proper alignment, though they may not articulate this view to their patients.)

As the nineteenth century progressed, many Americans consumed translations of Hindu and Buddhist literature. Asian concepts of bodily practice and energy fields (qi, meridians, chakras) entered the lexicon of new American religions. Theosophy, in particular, borrowed from Hindu and Buddhist concepts. The introduction of Eastern metaphysics to America created a small market for the introduction of yoga. This market grew in the 20th century as Vivekananda and Yogananda brought forms of yoga (and, in Yogananda’s case, a hybrid of Hinduism & Christianity) to the U.S. Today, evangelical Christians are adopting yoga, finding parallels between chakras and the Holy Spirit, or — in an act of cultural appropriation — creating a new kind of yoga shorn of Hindu references. The American Hindu community has criticized such cultural appropriation. Some Hindus have also suggested that a Christian doing yoga poses, or asana, may slowly convert to Hinduism, making evangelical yoga a stealth victory for Vedic culture.

The interview concludes with a discussion of Dr. Brown’s field research methods, along with her and Mr. Gorman’s thoughts about secularization in America and the inadequacies of secularism as a research concept.

Editor’s Note: On 29 June 2017 we published a response to this interview, written by Philip Deslippe, which provides an important and well-argued counter-narrative to this interview. As with every podcast we publish, we encourage listeners/readers to digest the podcast in tandem with the response(s) , to explore further if interested, and to get in touch in the comments, via email, or on social media to continue the discussion. 

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, Nag Champa incense, and more.

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

Evangelical Yoga: Cultural Appropriation and Translation in American Religions

Podcast with Candy Gunther-Brown (19 June 2017).

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Gunther-Brown – Evangelical Yoga 1.1

Daniel Gorman (DG) : Dr Candy Gunther-Brown, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Candy Brown (CB): Thank you.

DG: So, I’m calling you from up-state New York – you’re in Indiana, and I’m told the weather is equally miserable in both places.

CB: That seems to be about right.

DG: OK. So, today we’re going to be talking about your research into new religious movements, particularly: how people who are not Hindu wind up practising yoga.

CB: Sure.

DG: So to begin, why don’t you tell our listeners how you got interested in new religious movements or, in this case , old religious practices being done in a new way?

CB: Sure. Well, my research trajectory really started with looking at Evangelicals in the 19th century and at print culture. And then, as I wanted to move forward in time to look at later 19th century, into the 20th century and into the 21st century, I realised that it was really a much bigger story than just what was going on in the United States with the Evangelicals. And so I needed to start looking at global moments and much more interconnection. And I also realised that a big part of the story was Pentecostal charismatic Christianity. So that took my research, then, into the directions of looking at, particularly, Pentecostal practices of prayer for healing and deliverance from evil spirits. And so I did a lot of interview work in the field, worked with various Pentecostals and asked them about their healing experiences. And so this led to me to start asking questions that were, in a sense, more of an empirical nature of what happens when people pray for healing. So then I was looking at some science and religion kinds of questions. But I also got some very interesting responses from my Pentecostal respondents. Because, when I started asking them about prayer for healing, they also started to volunteer that they loved their chiropractors.

DG: Really?

CB: And this was a somewhat surprising response to me, given what I knew about Chiropractics: that it’s roots were in mesmerism and spiritualism, and the founders and developers of the tradition saw themselves as doing something very different from Christianity. And the Christian informants that I was talking to, not only did they love their chiropractors but they also insisted that they were Christian. They didn’t bother telling me that their medical doctors were Christian, but they really wanted me to know that their chiropractors were. Again this was very interesting because if you look at survey research that’s been done on chiropractors you see that around 80% or so will say that they’re Christians, and around 80% or so share vitalistic, metaphysical beliefs, very much in line with the founders of chiropractics. So you’ve got a really interesting kind-of blending of worldviews and frameworks and interpretations of the world. And I realised that this was really just the tip of the iceberg. And so, from looking at chiropractic I began to look at other kinds of complementary and alternative medicine, including various kinds of meditation – transcendental meditation, mindfulness meditation, but also Reiki, therapeutic touch, acupuncture, homeothapy, aromatherapy – and realised that some of the most engaged practitioners were actually Evangelical Christians. And particularly the ones who were interested in charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity, who had a kind of worldview where there’s some kind of spiritual force that’s interacting with the world. So a lot of the reasoning process that these Evangelicals used was: if there’s a spirit and it’s having beneficial effects on health, then there must be a kind of an analogy between the Holy Spirit and the spiritual properties that are at work in these other practices. And thus, I landed on yoga and mindfulness practised by Evangelicals, as well as by a lot of other Americans who engage in these practices, for various reasons – related to spirituality as much as health and wellness.

DG: That’s a lot! Let me . . . . I’ll take one thread and we’ll work through this. Some listeners, especially outside the United States, may not be familiar with some of the traditions you mentioned, some of the 19th century occult things: mesmerism, and chiropractic. Could you talk a little bit more about how these alternative viewpoints to Christianity . . . where they came from?

CB: Sure. Well around the middle of the 19th century there was a lot of dissatisfaction among certain Americans who were dealing with both a medical orthodoxy and a religious orthodoxy. (5:00) And the medical orthodoxy was heroic medicine – and by today’s standard, [it was] not very effective and very aggressive. So, things like vomiting with mercury derivatives and bleeding people. And it was the patient who was the hero as they were subjected to all kinds of very strenuous treatments by doctors.

DG: Torture.

CB: Yes. I mean, for many patients that was their perspective. But then a lot of the Calvinist theologians, who were in the dominant mainstream, basically gave the advice that patients should submit to their doctors as a way of resigning to God’s will for sickness. And the reason was that spiritual sanctification required a kind of physical kind of submission and sickness. And so this dominant theology, that sanctification is produced through suffering in the body, aligned well with heroic medicine. But there was also a lot of resistance. And so this is where you start getting the emergence of nature-cure kinds of medical alternatives. But then you also start to get the development of divine healing movements where the interest is in a focus on prayer for healing. So, whether it is a nature-cure looking to water and spiritual forces and kind-of the alignment of the planets, or whether it’s a prayer to God the Father through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, there is a widespread search for something else – some alternative to the mainstream offerings.

DG: That’s very interesting because I recently read, for my graduate school lists, Catherine Albanese’s A Republic of Mind and Spirit. And she talks, in that book, about how osteopathy emerged as sort-of this quasi-religious movement: the idea that you can align the energy forces in your body by manipulating bones.

CB: Yes. And actually the founder of chiropractic, D.D. Palmer, was accused by Still, the founder of osteopathy, of basically stealing his ideas. The ideas are so close. And they both emerge out of a vitalistic metaphysical framework. And what’s interesting is that osteopathy was much more embraced by the medical mainstream. So that, today, there’s really a kind of a sense of equivalence, almost, between an osteopathic medical degree and an MD. Whereas chiropractic is still much more on the fringes, even though it’s become a lot more mainstream. And it’s not necessarily that osteopathy has actually renounced the metaphysical framework, but they’ve been a lot more intentional and effective in terms of gaining mainstream medical legitimacy.

DG: Well, that’s one thing I’ve wondered about – I mean, as just someone looking at medical treatments – you know, chiropractors don’t receive the same training in anatomy and physiology that a doctor or a modern osteopath receives. . .

CB: That’s true. And it’s not just a matter of difference in training, but it’s really a difference in philosophy. An idea that Palmer articulated . . . . So Palmer, the founder of chiropractic, basically said that all disease is a matter of a failure of alignment with innate intelligence – that’s universal intelligence, so “innate” was short for this. And so you may ask the question, what are chiropractors adjusting? And it’s actually, they’re adjusting the spine for the sake of having a free flow of innate. It’s not just a physical kind of adjustment. So that was the rationale for how chiropractic could affect all kinds of other conditions, whether it’s having earaches, or infections, or whether it’s turning a breach baby – I mean there’s all kinds of different claims that, even today, are made for chiropractic. And they stem from the idea that, really, the key to health is the innate intelligence. And so it’s that philosophy that’s really at the core, and why there’s still so much tension with modern medicine.

DG: I do want to move onto the yoga connection. But there’s one question I’ll pose to you as somebody who researches these kinds of movements: so to some, let’s say an atheist medical practitioner, what you’re describing is pseudo-science. But that doesn’t seem that way to people who practise it and believe that it helps them. How do you navigate that balance between judging and understanding?

CB: Well, I think this is where it’s important to really look at a multiplicity of perspectives and to try and explain: well, who are the developers of various practices? But not only what are the roots of these practices, what are today’s philosophies? And this is why for chiropractic, for instance, it’s important that there’s survey research that’s been done by chiropractors, that basically confirm that the beliefs that are held by many chiropractors today are actually very much in alignment with those that were articulated by the Palmers. (10:00) Now that doesn’t mean that the chiropractors always communicate that with their patients. In fact, that often is not the case. And so, one of the things that it’s important for scholars to do is to actually look at the variety of narratives that are articulated by practitioners as well as patients, depending on who their audiences are. And this is something that we’ll see with yoga, as well – that explanation of what practices do, why they’re practices, what they mean – you may not always get the same explanation if you’re looking at different audiences, and different purposes for giving that account of what the practice is.

DG: So now, this is where I think chiropractic and yoga tie together. This concept of energy in the body – well, to someone who knows anything about Hinduism, this sounds a lot like the idea of chakras and energy flows in the body. So, in the 19th century, when people like Palmer and others were starting their work, what understanding in America was there of Indian religions?

CB: Sure. Well, there was a combination of Western metaphysical traditions – something like homeothapy or aromatherapy would be rooted in that kind of tradition – and there was often quite a bit of exchange, though, with Asian religious traditions as well. So a lot of the people who were developing these Western metaphysical ideas, they actually were reading texts that they got from India and other parts of Asia. They were interacting with ideas of say Prana or qi, or chakras and meridians, as you mentioned. And so there’s often a real, kind of, exchange and consonance in these ideas. And a lot of the practitioners of chiropractic or yoga will say, yes, there’s a lot that there actually is in common between the Western and Eastern traditions.

DG: Yes. I was thinking of the Theosophist, people like Madam Blavatsky, who think you can control the spirits with your mind – and then she goes and lives in India for a decade!

CB: Well exactly! And then she actually formally converted to Buddhism, and she drew extensively on Hinduism and a variety of Western traditions and Freemasonry. So, that kind of eclectic interest in various forms of spiritually – sometimes framed as science themselves . . . . A lot of the pioneers in the kinds of movements that are popular today were very interested in exploring a variety of practices and traditions.

DG: So, as far as yoga goes, when did that begin to be introduced to the American market? I’m thinking, for instance, in the 1920s there were the immigration restrictions, so how was this material – about philosophy and exercise – how as that making the crossing to America?

CB: Sure, well even as early as the 19th century you’ve got the transcendental folks, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who are reading as many translated Hindu and Buddhist texts as they’re able to. And you got Thoreau who’s doing his best to practice yoga. So even in the 19th century you can see some of the beginnings of practices coming into America. The World Parliament of Religion, in 1893, was a really important event. Because there you’ve got Vivekananda – actually, several of those Hindu and Buddhist spokespersons – who are starting to frame practices in a language of science, to basically argue that Hinduism and Buddhism (as they’re starting to be named and understood by Westerners) are, actually, more compatible with modern science than Christianity is. And so you start to have a stream of popularisers and, even with immigration restrictions, you’ve got enough who are either coming into the United States themselves or whose books and publications are crossing over, that the influence, again, begins to be disseminated. Yogananda is another one of these hugely influential figures who sets up a base in California and continues to be popular even into the present day with his Self-Realisation Fellowship. And so now his followers are continuing to disseminate the traditions. And so there’ve been a variety of health and beauty promotions, exercise promotions, the use of television – so really an increase over the course of the 20th century, but accelerating with: the lifting of immigration restrictions in the 1960s; the interest of the Beat generation; the counter-culture. But then, even more recently in the 1990s and beyond, you start to see this increasing mainstream status – even to the point of putting yoga and mindfulness practices into public schools. And that really is just within the last couple of decades.

DG: (15:00) Well it was interesting when you mentioned Yogananda in the 1930s, because he was somebody who preached that Jesus was another incarnation of the other Hindu deities, an avatar.

CB: And that’s been a very common strategy. A very common strategy by a lot of the promoters of Yoga is to argue for consonance, for complementarity. And that’s actually been one of the things that’s been motivating for Evangelical Christians even, who feel that there’s something missing in their own tradition. And so they’re trying to fill in and supplement by borrowing from other kinds of traditions.

DG: So Evangelical Christians in the present day: how are they accessing yoga? What kinds of facilities, for instance?

CB: Well, a lot of times there’s the YMCA, there’s health clubs, sometimes more traditional yoga studios. So some Christians will find their way either into the health club version or into the studio version. But then also there’s a proliferation of explicitly Christian versions of yoga or alternatives to yoga. And so you start to get movements like: Christo-yoga, holy yoga, fully fit, Yahweh yoga, praise moves. . . . And some of them keep yoga somewhere in the title, some of them try to remove yoga from the title. And there’s a kind of Evangelical sense that religion, really, is fundamentally reducible to language. It’s about what you believe and what you say that you believe. And so if you change the language, and you say you’re no longer doing “sun salutations” – salutes to the sun – but you say you’re doing “son salutations” – s-o-n, instead of s-u-n – you’ve now repurposed the practice and dedicated it to Jesus. You’re no longer doing pranayana but you’re breathing in the Holy Spirit. So by re-labelling either individual poses or larger practices, many Evangelicals are convinced that they’ve basically emptied the contents . . . . They’ve removed the Hindu contents from the container of neutral yoga practices, and they’ve poured in Bible verses and prayers. Now with a different framework of religion where it’s about practices, not necessarily just beliefs, then that may seem a rather strange or unworkable kind of approach. So some Hindu critics of the Christianisation of yoga will basically say, the prayers are actually the bodily practices. Doing the sun salutation with your body is a form of devotion to Surya the sun god. And so there are actually some warnings by Hindu spokespersons, saying that ultimately Evangelicals are going to find their faith corrupted, by their own standards, and they’re going to be led into the true way of enlightenment. And it may not be so easy just to re-label practices and make them Evangelical.

DG: Do you think – building on this theme of Hindu response – are there Hindu groups that are offended that anyone’s just using this tradition, without any sense of where it comes from?

CB: Oh there are definitely critiques of cultural appropriation. And the Hindu American Foundation launched a Take back Yoga campaign in 2008. And some of their spokespersons have been critical of Christian appropriation. But you find this, similarly, with Buddhists who complain about appropriation of mindfulness practices and claim that they’ve been secularised or, in some cases, they claim that they’ve been Christianised. So that’s definitely a critique that’s present.

DG: Now, I’m curious in the way you go about researching these things. Do you travel to Christian yoga studios? And when you go there, what do you do? Are you a participant or are you just observing?

CB: I’ve done observing. I’ve relied a lot on just the proliferation of online sources and video presentations, and [I’ve] also been present in meditation settings. And I’ve observed – I don’t participate. I think that there are ethical issues that come into play with that, so my stance is that of an observer. I do a lot of interview work with participants and with teachers. And I also do empirical work and look at the studies that have been done. And this is an interesting aspect, is to ask, “Well, what happens when people participate in either secularised or Christianised versions of something like yoga or mindfulness meditation?” And what’s interesting is that there is sociological work that suggests that there are, actually, some profound changes in spiritual and religious experiences that result – even, sometimes, from very short term involvement. But that, basically, the longer people tend to be involved in these practices, the more likely what started off as just an exercise class has turned into a spiritual pursuit. And the content of religious practices does tend to shift towards practices that would be more aligned with, say, Hinduism than with Christianity. And this is, actually, very much parallel to the kinds of claims that are made by yoga teachers and mindfulness teachers, who are very confident that the practices themselves are transformative.(20:00) And so, here, you get both proponents of yoga and mindfulness, and some of the Christian critics, who are essentially arguing that there is something inherent about theses practices themselves that transform people, regardless of what their intentions are going into the practices. Intentions, it seems, can actually change through the experiences of practices. And that claim does, to some degree, seem to be borne out by the sociological research that’s been done.

DG: Do you see any regional differences, in the United States, about the Christian reception of yoga?

CB: Well, it seems that – predictably in some ways – the coasts have a lot more yoga and a lot more Christian yoga. And also, some of the controversies over this . . . . You see more Christian yoga on the coast, you also see just more yoga programmes. But it’s not coincidental that where the most high profile law suit over yoga in public schools took place – it was in Encinita, San Diego County, California. And it was actually right next door to Yogananda’s Self-Realisation Fellowship.

DG: That’s interesting.

CB: This is also the birthplace of Ashtanga yoga in the United States, which was brought over by Pattabhi Jois, and that was the particular form of yoga that was being practised in the public schools where there was a lawsuit. So, a place like Encinita is interesting because something like 45% of the population practices yoga, compared with – as of 2012, which was when that 45% came out – it was about 9%, nationally. Now it’s about 15%, nationally. About 40% of the population is Christian, but that compares to about 70% of the total US population that’s Christian. So you have fewer Christian and more religious diversity in a place like Ansonita. But you still have a lot of Christians who are practising – and it was a minority of those Christians who protested against yoga. The large majority seemed to actually be pretty interested in practising it themselves.

DG: We’re closing in on the end our session, but I want to try to connect this practice of yoga to some of the other things you’ve mentioned, particularly transcendental meditation. It’s billed as TM now, it’s sort-of this exercise, but there’s no real sense of where that comes from. Do you think Christians are also participating in TM movements?

CB: I think that they are in one of the main places where TM has really got in its foothold: in what’s now called “quiet-time programmes” in public schools. So transcendental meditation more comes out of Hindu meditation traditions. And this is, actually, one of the places where . . . . Really, one of the only law suits where there was a judicial decision defining religion was a case of Malnak v. Yogi, in 1979, which found that transcendental meditation was a religion. And one of the lines in the concurring opinion by Arlin Adams, he said, “Well, if a Catholic can’t practice in schools, then neither should a transcendental meditator be allowed to do so.” Even so, TM programmes and quiet-time programmes have proliferated in public schools even until the present day, alongside mindfulness programmes. So I think that, a lot of the time, Christians and others – atheists as well – really don’t know where practices are coming from, and they don’t know how connected to the originating traditions those practices remain. So it’s not just a matter of, “ a long time ago there were ancient religious roots”. But, if you look at how practices are being framed when not being marketed to the public, you actually find that there are still a lot of the same claims that this is, for instance, a “Vedic victory” when yoga gets into public schools, or this is “stealth Buddhism”, when mindfulness gets into the schools. So those are the kinds of claims that are made when talking to Hindu or Buddhist sympathiser audiences. But a lot of the people who are interested in doing practices for health or wellness, they really don’t know where these practices come from and they really haven’t thought that much about how intentions may change through their participation in these practices.

DG: If anything, the future of religion in this country is going to be very interesting, because we’re going to see . . . .

CB: (Laughs) I think so too!

DG: Well I’m thinking, if the country is growing more secular, the question is: if these practices endure, then do we need to rethink the idea of secularisation?

CB: Well, I think we absolutely do. And this is where my working title for the book I’m working on now, on yoga and mindfulness in public schools, is “Secular and Religious”. And I think that practices actually can be both at the same time. (25:00) And that by presenting practices as secular that this can actually be a more effective way of advancing new forms of religion and spirituality.

DG: Thank you for your time, Dr Gunther-Brown.

CB: Thank you very much.

Citation Info: Gunther-Brown, Candy 2017. “Evangelical Yoga: Cultural Appropriation and Translation in American Religions”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/evangelical-yoga-cultural-appropriation-and-translation-in-american-religions/

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

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

Discursive Approaches and the Crises of Religious Studies

Discursive analysis of one kind or another is perhaps the most prominent methodology in the study of religion today. The linguistic turn took longer to influence Religious Studies than many other areas of the social sciences, but in recent years this approach has produced some hugely influential works which challenge many of the traditional assumptions of the field. In this interview recorded at the 2015 IAHR Congress in Erfurt, Kocku von Stuckrad tells David G. Robertson how discursive approaches might help solve the challenges of contemporary Religious Studies: the crisis of representation; the situated observer; and the dilemma of essentialism and relativism.

Bruce Lincoln and Titus Hjelm, and feature essays by Ethan Quillen, David Gordon White, Martin Lepage, Emily Stratton, and Craig Martin. 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, wooden chess sets, monkey nuts, and more!

Of Demons, Saints and Heaven: Andean religious beliefs in Peru

What happens when two vastly different civilizations meet each other? History tells us that on the one hand, they could make war or, on the other, begin to establish kinship or state alliances. The colonization process of Peru is one that had a lot of the first, and a bit of the second. Just as the people came to conflict, so did their gods. However, the local gods who lost this conflict did not vanish in oblivion, but remained in other forms, even in some places in their original one.

In his interview with Sidney Castillo, Dr. Luis Millones discusses some of the traditions that have formed the basis for his research, particularly in the northern coast, northern highlands and south highlands of Peru. He mentions that, with the impact of colonization, many of the indigenous beliefs were replaced or mixed (to some extent), in order to facilitate the installation of a status quo that incorporated many of the ethnic groups’s beliefs (among other, more ‘earthly’ institutions) that were present prior to the Spaniards’ arrival (Millones 2005). And this is when when different traditions emerge commonly know as folklore (see also vernacular religion).

Ranging from different conceptions of the devil – less as a punisher and more as a trickster (Millones & López Austin 2013) – to the festival in honor of Felipe, Santiago de Zebedeo’s horse (Millones 2015), and from Jesus as a punisher, and the existence of an actual hell on earth (Millones 2010), to being joyful at children’s funerals (Millones 2007), Dr. Millones provides a clear articulation of how these local beliefs makes sense in everyday life. Fortunately, in this worldview, one thing is for sure: we all will go to heaven.

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts on vernacular religion (in general, and in the US)situational belief, the category of ‘indigenous’, Meso-American religion

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

References

  • Millones, L. (2010). Después de la muerte. Voces del Limbo y el Infierno en territorio andino. Lima: Fondo Editorial del Congreso del Perú.
  • Millones, L. (2005). Ensayos de historia andina. Lima: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos-Fondo Editorial.
  • Millones, L. (2015). “Las muchas caras de Santiago, por Luis Millones”. El Comercio. Lima, 01 of August. Accesed on: 04 de agosto de 2015.http://elcomercio.pe/opinion/columnistas/muchas-caras-santiago-luis-millones-noticia-1829935
  • Millones, L. (2007). Todos los niños van al cielo. Lima: Instituto Riva Agüero.
  • Millones, L. & Lopez Austin, A. (2013). Cuernos y colas. Reflexiones en torno al Demonio en los Andes y Mesoamérica. Lima: Asamblea Nacional de Rectores.

The Invention of the Secular Academy

The Religious Studies Project, as an academic endeavour studying religion, is of course devoutly secular. In fact, we tend to take the connection between secularity and the academy completely for granted. But was this always the case? If not, how did it become so? And what does secular mean in this context? In this interview recorded at the 2015 IAHR Congress in Erfurt, Tomoko Masuzawa tells David G. Robertson how the medieval university was transformed – first through the introduction of the collegiate system in the 1700s, which gave private donors a say in who could study, and then again in the late 19th Century, with the Berlin model being exported throughout Europe and the colonies. What we discover is not a dialogue between the religious and the secular, but between different Christian sects. What does this say about our present-day academic endeavours?

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, dried lentils, soft furnishings, and more!

Sufism

Like any religious tradition, the Islamic tradition is made up of countless groups and subgroups that interpret, enact, and commit to the materials of their tradition differently. Although focus is often placed on divisions between Sunni and Shi’a communities, one of the most fascinating modalities of belonging within Islam is that of Sufism, all the more interesting because Sufi sensibilities can extend across the full spectrum of Muslim identities. Sufism is often defined as a “mystical” tradition that shares similarities with forms of mysticism from other traditions in the way that in conceptualizes the nature of divinity and the nature of human understanding.

In this interview, Milad Milani discusses the basic orientation and history of Sufi thought. He also speaks about the diverse national variations of Sufism, particularly with respect to Iranian (or “Persianate”) Sufism. The interview concludes with a few critical remarks on the questionable appropriation of Sufism in contemporary Western discourses on religion.

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

Is Britain still a Christian country?

When scholars involved in the social scientific study of ‘religion’ encounter claims concerning ‘religious identity’ – of states, groups or individuals – a number of questions immediately spring to mind. UK Prime Minster David Cameron’s controversy-inducing statement around Easter 2014 that Britain is ‘a Christian country’ is a perfect example of how an apparently simple statement is actually highly ambiguous and can potentially mask a host of powerful ideological concerns.

What does Cameron’s statement actually mean? In what sense can a country be “Christian”? Today on the Religious Studies Project, we welcome back Professor Linda Woodhead to discuss and interrogate the question “Is Britain Still a Christian Country?”, the topic of her recent Croall Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.

The Secularization Thesis. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, British cookbooks, cakes, model railways and more.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 10 February 2015

Calls for papers

Conference: In Search of the Origins of Religions

September 11–13, 2015

Ghent, Belgium

Deadline: March 1, 2015

More information (English)

Conference: Second Undegraduate Conference on Religion and Culture

March 28, 2015

Syracuse, NY, USA

Deadline: February 15, 2015

More information

Symposium: Society for the Study of Religion and Transhumanism (SSRT)

June 27, 2015

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: March 31, 2015

More information

AAR group: Secularism and Secularity

Deadline: March 2, 2015

More information

Journal: Studi e materiali di storia delle religioni

Theme issue: Religion as a Colonial Concept in Early modern History (Africa, America, Asia)

Deadline: May 15, 2015

More information

Article collection: Religious subcultures in Unexpected Places

Deadline: May 1, 2015

More information

Events

Conference: International Tyndale Conference

October 1–4, 2015

Oxford, UK

More information

Congress: “Ad Astra per Corpora: Astrología y Sexualidad en el Mundo Antiguo

February 19–21, 2015

Málaga, Spain

More information (Spanish)

Jobs

Research assistant: Indology

Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Germany

Deadline: February 28, 2015

More information (German)

Science and Religion in Europe: A Historical Perspective

The idea of long-running clash between the domains of “science” and “religion” has not only been central to western discourses on modernity, but has increasingly become a central supposition in the history of science itself – informing not just the rhetoric of the New Atheists, but also the broader public understanding of the issue.  But is this historically accurate?

In this interview, Professor Peter Harrison (formerly Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford) outlines the flaws in this supposition by providing a historical perspective on the categories “science” and “religion” and the way that they were formerly considered separate virtues (scientia and religio) instead of incompatible domains of knowledge.  Far from the current narrative being correct – often focusing on episodes such as the Church’s response to the Galileo controversy – Professor Harrison explains that religious institutions were originally (and for a long time) key supporters of scientific activity, which was considered broadly as a theological attempt to unlock The Book of Nature.   The middle section of the interview looks at the complex relationship between theological commitment and scientific activity from Newton to Darwin, and in the final section discusses continuing complexities of the relationship in the post-Darwinan western world, right down to problematic assumptions at play in contemporary New Atheism as well as debates about Islamic militancy.

This interview was recorded at the meeting of the Australian Religious History Association in July 2014.  For those interested in the themes of the interview, the keynote talk of the RHA meeting was delivered by one of Professor Harrison’s key collaborators, Ronald Numbers (on a similar topic, focusing especially on the Galileo episode).   A number of related talks and interviews can be found on the CHED website.

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

Conference Report: Religious History Association Biennial Conference/Australian Historical Association Annual Conference 2014

Conference report by Josip Matesic, PhD Candidate, University of Wollongong

The University of Queensland hosted last month (8-10 July) the biennial conference of the Religious History Association (RHA). The conference itself was one stream of a larger conference: the annual conference for the Australian Historical Association (AHA) (7-11 July). The theme of the AHA and therefore RHA conference was ‘Conflict in History’. This theme was broadly interpreted by the presenters. The RHA conference also had its own guest speaker in the form of Professor Emeritus Ron Numbers (Wisconsin-Madison).

conference

The first day only involved a keynote address by Ron Numbers in the evening. I have to admit, I had never heard of Numbers until the conference. Not the best form on my part but it resulted in the feeling of being pleasantly surprised when you hear a speaker speak authoritatively, and humorously. For those who are unaware of Numbers, he is currently the Hilldale Professor of the History of Science and Medicine Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His interests lie principally within the interplay and ‘battle’ between religion and science. In this field his most famous book would be The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (1992), expanded in 2006 and with the subtitle, From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design. Numbers’ keynote touched broadly the exchange of religion and science in the West over the past few hundred years; rectifying some myths about the Catholic Church and Galileo, and mentioning how religion and science as modern categories did not exist until the mid-nineteenth century. It was fitting that Numbers also spoke about the state of creationism and evolution, since Queensland is globally speaking, an infamous location for creationism, being among one thing, the home state of Ken Ham. The evening was completed by drinks and canapés on a balcony of the Sir Llew Edwards Building, not far from the Brisbane River. The pan fried salmon skewers and vegetarian curry samosas were the best eats.

The first full day started off with a hitch as the ‘Secularism and Human Rights’ session was cancelled in the morning. This left ‘War and Religion on the Australian Battlefront’ as the sole morning session. Independent scholar Yvonne Perkins spoke about the religious beliefs of the soldiers at the battlefront during World War I. Perkins was not concerned about whether the beliefs complied to the teachings of the various churches, but what the soldiers themselves believed irrespective of the churches. Perkins’ primary sources were the soldiers’ diaries. Check her blog piece about her presentation if you’re interested.

Perkins was followed by Simon Farley who presented about the World War I holdings at the State Library of Queensland, which include diaries, letters, newspapers, memoirs, photographs and oral history recordings to name only a few things. Rounding out the morning session was Doris LeRoy who presented on the Czech Lutheran pastor, Professor Josef L. Hromádka and his visit to Australia. All of the papers were well received.

Perhaps two people who travelled the most to reach Brisbane were Willem and Erna Oliver from the University of South Africa. After lunch they presented on Regina Mundi or the ‘the people’s church’ in Soweto and its role in student uprisings in 1976, and the contested nature of the Afrikaner identity and the role religion plays within this respectively.

The Wednesday afternoon session consisted of Ron Numbers chairing a session on ‘Science and Religion’, and Micheline Astley-Boden chairing a session on ‘Religion and Conflict: From the Bible to the Middle Ages’. I attended the first session and heard presentations from Dr Tom Aechtner, PhD candidate James Ungureanu and Professor Peter Harrison, all from the University of Queensland. In many ways, and fittingly, the session touched upon and elaborated on various topics which Numbers had addressed or passed by briefly in his keynote address the night before.

Thursday morning saw two sessions in progress while there was a keynote delivered at the AHA. One session was ‘Empire and Film’, while the other was ‘Church and State’. I cannot comment too much on the first presenter in the ‘Church and State’ session as it myself, although I think I did reasonably well: not my best but not my worst. I was followed by Dr Sarah Walsh (Sydney) who presented about eugenicists in Chile in the early twentieth century and their links to the Catholic Church; and Dr Timothy Jones (LaTrobe) examined canon law and whether it was a help or hindrance to those seeking justice in child sex crimes involving clergy.

Since I became involved in a long discussion about freemasonry during the morning tea break I missed the next session entirely. After lunch though I did manage to hear Dr Sam Hey (Christian Heritage College) talk about problems within Australian Pentecostalism, and PhD candidate Tiarne Barratt (Sydney) present on her research about how the Catholic Church’s views on sexuality have been misrepresented and limited to Humanae Vitae.

I don’t want this report to be simply a list of presentations that I saw. I wasn’t able to see all of them. I do want to highlight though that religion was broached by the presenters even when they were not in the RHA stream/conference. For example, on Friday morning, the RHA conference officially over, Elizabeth Miller (Sydney) presented on popular suspicion that Australians have had towards Pentecostal megachurches. She did this historically, examining how public opinion on megachurches has evolved. Professor Joan Beaumont (ANU) on Wednesday morning in her AHA conference keynote speech spoke on a century of Australian memorial commemorations across the world and how in some aspects, religious elements have seeped in to the commemorations.

At the conference there were a number of diverse speakers, nationally and internationally, and despite some minor hiccups at the beginning, the conference was an overall success. Since I forgot and only took the photo of the main building the presentations were held in below, I should try to give you an idea of the event another way: if you attended and stayed on to Friday after the RHA conference had finished, you would have enjoyed a wonderful barbecue lunch with Jamaican spiced chicken, garlic steak, vegetarian Japanese pancakes, numerous salads, rices and condiments. The conference was not to be missed irrespective of the barbecue lunch! Next year it is at the University of Sydney, 6-10 July.