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Secular Jewish Millennials in Israel/Palestine

In the popular imaginary, Israel/Palestine is – and has always been – a contested territory, associated with sacred sites, the ‘Abrahamic’ religions, religion-related conflicts, and a volatile political climate. However, this unnuanced stereotype takes little account of the lived realities on the ground, particularly among the constituency at focus in today’s podcast, a large group of around 860,000 ‘secular’ millennials, who have come of age during a phase of national conflict when some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, and not just fringe figures, have utilized religio-ethnic symbols to motivate and divide.

In this podcast, Chris Cotter is joined by Dr Stacey Gutkowski to discuss what it means to be a ‘secular Jewish Israeli millennial’. What insights might the study of religion and secularity gain from taking a closer look at this constituency? Does it even make sense to refer to them as a constituency? How do they relate to Judaism, to Israel, and to Palestine? And much more…

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Secular Jewish Millennials in Israel/Palestine

Podcast with Stacey Gutowski (9 December 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/secular-jewish-millennials-in-israel-palestine/

Christopher Cotter (CC): In the popular imaginary Israel/ Palestine is, and has always been, a contested territory associated with secret sites, the Abrahamic religions, religion-related conflicts and a volatile political climate. However, this un-nuanced stereotype takes little account of the lived realities on the ground – particularly among the constituency at focus in today’s podcast: a large group of around 860,000 secular millennials who have come of age during a phase of national conflict where some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, and not just fringe figures, have utilised religio-ethnic symbols and have mobilised religio-ethnic symbols to motivate and divide. Today I am joined, in Edinburgh, by Dr Stacey Gutowski to discuss what it means to be a secular Jewish Israeli millennial. What insights might the study of religion and secularity gain from taking a closer look at this constituency? Does it even make sense to refer to them as a constituency? And how do they relate to Judaism, to Israel, to Palestine and hopefully much more. Dr Gutowski is a senior lecturer in Conflict Studies and a Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Divided Societies at King’s College London. She’s the author of Secular War: Myths of Politics and Violence, published in 2012 and has been co-director of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, where I know her from, since 2008. And today’s interview touches on themes developed in her forthcoming book Being Reasonable? Secular Selfhood and Israel’s’ Post Oslo Generation which will be published with the Manchester University Press in 2020. So first-off, Stacey, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Stacey Gutowski (SG): Thanks, Chris! Really happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

CC: Not at all. It’s just wonderful that you’re passing through Edinburgh. I couldn’t not speak to you! So, first-off . . . I know a bit about your research journey. But if you could just tell us about your academic background: your interests, and how you have ended up conducting this study on Secular Jewish Israeli millennials.

SG: Absolutely. Thank you very much. Well, nowadays I describe myself more as a political sociologist. My academic background is in Philosophy, Peace Studies and International Relations. And my main area for research has been broadly in the area of religion, and conflict, and peace building. Specifically, I’ve been interested in the relationship between violence and the secular. My first book, which you introduced, took a Western case study looking at British foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in the book I introduced some theoretical questions that I thought I would then go on to explore over a series of decades. And this was the next step on that journey. And my particular interest in this book is to understand what it’s like to be a person who’s deeply embedded in religious tradition, but someone who distances themselves – or claims to distance themselves from the religious tradition. What is it like to live through violence? And Jewish Israeli- young secular Jewish Israeli millennials were an interesting case, because they have lived through a sort-of intensive series of wars since they’ve become young adults. But also it’s a hard case, because they’re not secular in a Western sense. So it was really to provide myself with a hard case to push the theory further.

CC: Excellent. Yeah. And as Listeners . . . regular listeners to the RSP probably know, in the study of secularity more broadly, everything tends to be quite Western European or North American. So work in the Israel/Palestine context is really excellent. So hopefully this interview will add to that. So you’ve already hinted a little bit about who are these secular Jewish millennials, and why they’re interesting. But maybe if you just tell us . . . . You hinted at some of their life experiences and why they might be interesting, but if you just tell us a bit about their demographics and what makes them a group. I mean “millennials” even might seem an obvious term to some, but if you can just get right down to the basics of what we’re . . . .

SG: Yes. Of course. So I take the Pew definition of millennials: born between 1980 and 1995. And then, in terms of this population – not just millennials but in the Israeli population overall (5:00) – they are about forty percent of the population. And there are fuzzy boundaries in the kinds of Jewish practices they engage in in Israel, between these hiloni secular Jews and masortim, the traditional Jews in Israel. Because Jewish popular culture is pervasive. So unlike someone who identifies as maybe an agnostic, or an atheist, or secular in the UK, these are people who are more deeply embedded in tradition. And, as Yaacov Yadgar has argued, can’t avoid it. As a group they’re largely urban and middle class. Sixty-six percent are descended from European migrants and thirty-two percent approximately are from Jews who are descendants of migrants from the Arab world, and from the Middle East. That is this group. And interestingly, there are continuities between older generations but there are some important distinctions as well.

CC: Which we’ll be hearing about now. This seems to be an appropriate point to throw a perhaps quite a difficult question at you. We opened up the interview to our Listeners and Louis Frankenthaler came in with . . . it’s basically about the whole notion of, I guess, “secular Jew”. I mean, it’s quite a common turn of phrase, yet we don’t really seem to say “secular Christian” so much, or “secular Muslim”, “Secular Buddhist” and so on. So I’ll just sort-of run through a little bit. He says that all too often people ask if you can be Jewish and not believe in a god or God. That is, be an atheist Jew or a secular Jew. And he says that he thinks this is a misdirected question. And wonders what your take on a more substantial query that asks (not) “Can you be Jewish and not believe in deity?”, but “Can you be Jewish and not do Judaism?” That is, God is not the only issue. And many would claim that God does not care if a Jew believes in God, but only that you do what it is that this God supposedly claims that Jews do. So basically, not whether a secular Jew is someone who doesn’t believe in God, but do you still have to practice something to be considered a Jew? Or is there something more inherent in that?

SG: Yes. No it’s a great question, and thank you very much to Louis for asking it. I mean, this is an essential question that’s really pre-occupying Jews in Israel and in the diaspora. I guess as a good social scientist, the first thing I would say is: people can be whatever they want to be, and we take it seriously as analysts. So certainly you see, in Israel and elsewhere, people who reject a strict or even partial observance of Jewish law, the Halakha, who do it, but actually engage in certain practices or something in between. And then you have scenarios, for example in Israel, with people who are migrants from the former Soviet Union, who have become orthodox Jews but who are not considered as Jewish by the orthodox rabbinate in Israel. Because they don’t have a Jewish mother and they haven’t had an orthodox conversion. So it’s a complicated picture. In terms of analytically, in Israel it’s a different place form the diaspora, because it is a context in which Judaism is woven into the fabric of public law and state life. And, as Liebman says, in popular culture. And also in Israel it’s a politicised identity. And Yadgar talks about how the early founders of the state couldn’t find another way to sort-of mark citizenship, Israeli citizenship, other than through Jewish religious identity. And this particular way in which the orthodox rabbinate decides who is Jewish, and who is not. But then it creates, you know . . . . When we think about it practically, in people’s everyday lives, we can say, “Yes, people who are determined to be Jewish by the orthodox rabbinate in Israel are embedded in Jewish popular culture.”  (10:00) But so is everybody else who comes into Israel, and ends up observing or having the Shabbat as a weekend because that’s the weekend in Israel! But I think, maybe, what Louis is asking about more is that it overlooks – not the question itself – but I think it’s easy to overlook that while Judaism is the centre of gravity for people, in public life and private, in Israel, it’s not the only source of existential culture, of ideas about philosophical ideas about life and its meaning. And that there are other things that people borrow from. Some of these are more perhaps well-known, such as Buddhism or New Age practices. But other things, like western philosophy, are I think somewhat overlooked in the literature, as these are all ways in which people make meaning in their lives. And some of those forms of meaning come from Judaism, and some of them come from other things. Now it’s a different case for the diaspora, where Jewish identity in contradistinction to other forms of identity – particularly Arab identity – is not enforced by the context, by the state context. And then again I would say, going back to the social science observations, that it matters what people do and how they identify.

CC: And how they are identified, again, as well.

SG: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And the terminology of secular Jewish in English perhaps raises these analytical questions. But when we look at what people actually do, it’s perhaps more clear.

CC: Absolutely. I know I teed that up with things like “we don’t really say ‘secular Christian’” and that sort of thing. But thinking about Abby Day and her work on not Christian nominalism, and the sort-of ethnic and familial aspects to that. Thinking of my own Northern Irish context, where everything is . . . You know, so I’m from a Protestant background. Even if I converted to Catholicism I would still be considered a Protestant, and that sort of thing. There’s all this. And, yes, being a secular Catholic or a secular Protestant probably does make a lot of sense in a Northern Irish context, in a way in which it mightn’t make discursive sense in other places. OK. So thanks for attempting that potential curve ball there! So just jumping straight into the book . . . and again, you’ve already hinted at some of your research questions. What were you hoping to probe by engaging with this large constituency?

SG: Well, there were two main research questions that animated the book that ended up working together and highlighting new things about each other, and the way the question was set out as I went along. So I would say I had two working research questions which were a starting point. And the first was, I guess, more empirical: as a young “secular” Jew – secular in, I suppose, scare quotes – what has it felt like coming of age during a phase of national conflict, when some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, not just sort-of fringe figures, have used religio-ethnic symbols divisively? So looking at that phenomenologically. What is it like to be a person coming of age when religion has taken on new forms of mattering, politically? Even though it has been . . . it has mattered politically since before the founding of the state of Israel, and particularly after the 1967 war. So that was one question. And then the second set of questions, or the second question, as I said earlier, was to use Israel as a hard case to think theoretically. And that question was: what do violent political conflicts look and, most importantly, feel like to people who claim to distance themselves from the majority religious tradition in their given context – and yet are fundamentally embedded within it?

CC: And although we don’t want to spend too much time on the methods, we will want to know how you went about it as well (15:00). Unless the methods are really so exciting that you want to spend the rest of the interview talking about them, of course!

SG: No we can go through it quickly. So the project took a phenomenological approach. It’s an interpretivist approach. I did fifty interviews with self-identified hiloni millennials. For people who know the case, the point about self-identified-. . . I also took into account that some people appear to . . . but then began to speak about their religious practices and identities and turned out to be masorti some days and hiloni some days. So some days they’re traditional, some days they’re secular. So I took that into account in the analysis, and tried to take seriously what they say. Then I did . . . I also did twenty interviews with the transitional generation who are just older than them. These are people who were in their early twenties in the 1990s. And then I interviewed millennials who are traditionally Jewish or orthodox and then members of civil society. Some of them are also millennial. There was a survey of over ninety millennials surveyed – an in-depth survey. And then, for triangulation, it was participant observation and field notes, public opinion polls, various public reports, testimonies, media reviews . . . .

CC: So, not much then! (Laughs)

SG: No it was a very, very quick project – as you can tell! (Laughs)

CC: Excellent. So based on that large body of data and what we assume was your thorough analysis . . . . Well, let’s just dive in to some of your . . . . What did you find?

SG: OK.

CC: What’s going on?

SG: Just a few things. (Laughs) I guess, maybe I’ll talk a little bit first about what I found for this generation in terms of hiloni-masorti as a religio-class. Because I think of them not as just a religious sector, but as an elite middle class group – which also has this dimension of religious identity and practice. One of the things that’s interesting about this group is that they came of age during what scholars have called the religionisation of Jewish Israeli society. Now scholars have defined this in different ways. And some talk about this as the religionisation of politics: that orthodox and traditional views of, for example, the land and what the state of Israel should look like as the Jewish state, that these things have become more prominent over a secular socialist version of Zionism. And while that is the case, also thinking in terms of hadata – the sort-of intensification of Jewish practice – that people would begin to maybe just practice little bit more, so a little bit more, marginally, than they relatively would, in terms for example of holiday celebrations with family. So this is something that they have come of age in the middle of. They’ve also come of age in the middle of a sort-of revival of people thinking about what it is to be secular Jew, or secular Jews becoming orthodox, and of different forms of Judaism – conservative Judaism, Reform, revisionist Judaism – becoming marginally more popular with North American migration to Israel. So they come of age in the middle of this. But in terms of identity, there are no sort-of marked differences, as far as I could tell, with the transitional generation. In terms of practice, what’s interesting is that millennials don’t see this as an intensification. Because they’ve come of age in the middle of it. So you don’t see it, because you’re in it. So they think it’s unremarkable. And people who are a bit older, you know, talk about this massive shift in Jewish Israeli public life since the 1980s (20:00). In terms of the class aspect of this, what was quite noteworthy is that the presence of mizrahi middle class millennials who would identify with the term hiloni –and not simply because of this Zionist binary creation between secular and religious Jews. But actually because the term means something to them – either in terms of politics, or economics, or class aspirations. So this class looks somewhat different than it did. Because you have this group, you have new entrants, the migrants from the former Soviet Union, and these have changed what the class looks like.

CC: Obviously – I mean I’m just following your lead here – but this group is a major element in Israel/Palestine. There’s obviously Palestine and Palestinians, and so what about Israeli millennials and their relation to and their constructions of Palestine, and Palestinians, and the whole conflict issue . . . ?

SG: Absolutely. So they’re not politically unique, in that they stand out from the rest of the population. Their political opinions on the Palestinians, and on occupation, have sort-of followed the general trends along with the Jewish Israeli population. But there are two things that, politically, are distinctive in terms of their experience with Palestinians. One is, separation policy – following the end of the second Intifada, with the building of the separation barrier in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It’s not as though previous generations of this group had necessarily lived in close contact with Palestinians. But scholars have found that this has had an impact, socially and psychologically, on being able to imagine the other. The other thing that’s distinctive about this generation, in terms of the Palestinians, is the sheer number of wars and repeated wars. So for this group – the exceptions being the oldest and the youngest – but we can think of the core of this group as having served in the disengagement, withdrawing Israeli settlements from Gaza, then serving in 2006, 2008, 2011-12 and 2014. Not to mention the 2006 war in Lebanon. So the sort-of level of violent contact is quite distinct. And then a couple of other things that are distinct have been electoral success of centre-right political parties, including religious parties. And then, also, debates between 2011 and 2018 about the basic law, the constitutional arrangements of the State of Israel, and the ethnic framing of the state. So these are things that have . . . . Well, the religious experiences are somewhat different. The political experience is quite different from people who were in their twenties during the Oslo Peace Process. Because this is the constituency that was the backbone of the peace movement, supportive of the Oslo process. So there’s been a gradual shift, politically, to the centre, relatively to the right, among this group. In a recent election we see sort-of potentially, potentially another shift, at least in terms political government leadership. So this is . . . they’re quite different from the transitional generation.

CC: And we’re already at 25 minutes here which is time . . . I mean, we can run on a little bit of course, but we can . . . . One of the main arguments in your book is this concept that you call “neo-romanticism”: this sort-of characterising feature for the hilonis (25:00). What’s going on there? What do you mean by neo-romanticism?

SG: Absolutely. I mean this came out of a grounded approach of needing to look at what was happening across quite a diverse group of people. I interviewed politically diverse – from right, centre, to left – geographically diverse in terms of gender and other characteristics. And when I was looking at the material and trying to draw out: “Ok. What united this group?” There were a couple of things that really united them. And one of them was this emphasis on personal experience. Now certainly in the media, and in public life, there’s a lot of discussion that Jewish Israeli millennials are maybe a bit individualistic, selfish and that this is a product of the shift to a capitalist economy in Israel in the 1980s. And yes, I saw that. But there seemed to be something going on as well about the idea of emotion and personal experience being very important. And that was something that people referred to repeatedly, about using their personal experience to navigate the world. And another feature that came out that was important was there was – yes there was individualism, but then there was also a great deal of sort-of attachment, not to the state per se, as a political entity, but to Jewish people and not . . . . You know, they referenced this sort-of Zionist discourse about the Jewish people, but for them it was specifically the Jewish people they know: their friends, their family. So there’s a kind-of dialectic between individual and collective. And I needed to account for this political diversity. Why was it that the emotional ecology, and the way people talked about themselves, talked about the conflict, the occupation, the Palestinians, politics, life in general – why was there something . . . ? There was a thread that underpinned all of that. Why? And so I started to think a bit more about Talal Asad’s use of Stefan Collini’s idea of romanticism. And what Assad has to say about romanticism as a secular, but also a spiritual, movement. Now of course romanticism was a feature of the European Jewish experience during the Haskalah – (audio unclear) book on this is very interesting – and also nineteenth century romanticism informed political Zionism. I’m not saying that . . . I’m not trying to draw these direct historical connections. I’m more kind-of inspired by Assad’s use of this. And so I talk about . . . that as the hiloni habitus developed from the nineteenth century onwards, that it always had these different strands to it. One romantic and one rationalist. And that this romantic strand is really important. And it’s not obvious, because when you speak to people they will tell you that they’re heavily rationalist. And then you probe further, and they’re heavily emotional. And so I like this idea of romanticism. And I called it neo-romanticism to set it apart, to say that I’m not drawing a clear line with the nineteenth century. To talk about this emphasis on personal experience, Collini says that for the nineteenth century romantics, individual and collective didn’t contradict one another. And he also says that nineteenth century romanticism was neither explicitly politically conservative nor progressive. It made possible different kinds of politics. And this, I thought, was a good way of talking about what’s happening among this group. That lived experience is important, that there is something happening in terms of the role of emotion and also religious and spiritual and philosophical effervescence. These things are in motion in Israel, not just with New Ageism and secular renewal and the impact of Mizrahi renaissance on popular culture. But there is something there. So these narratives about being reasonable and being rational need to be unpicked. And I thought it accounted for this sort-of tension between the individual and the collective. And what I say is neo-romanticism is a kind of neo-republican citizenship. So what’s talked about in the literature, and in the Jewish Israeli media, is that with liberalism and Zionist republicanism, care for the state is somehow juxtaposed (30:00). And like, no – these things are working together. Yes there may be . . . absolutely, there are people who are very, very liberal and individualistic and leave the state, but it would be a mistake to miss the ways in which they are sort-of bound to the state as well.

CC: So I’m going to ask you two more questions. One is going to be the “Why does this matter?” So, this scene you’ve just painted there, this sort-of neo-romantic thread that’s uniting this seemingly potentially disparate group. I think, in the book, you draw some of the implications of this politically. And then I’m also interested in why should we care about it in Religious Studies, really. What difference does it make to me? (Laughs).

SG: OK. Two very, very big questions. Let me start with the first one. Why does this matter politically? There are a lot of reasons why the state of the political situation between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis is what it is at the moment, having to do with violence, with the election of particular leaders on both sides, by strategic decisions made not to continue with negotiation after 2014. And what I’m saying is that, in the context of what critical geographers call the “national atmosphere”, that it’s also important to look at what’s happening in terms of lived habitus, and how people think about themselves. And what I found was that people, regardless of where they were on the political spectrum, were united in thinking of themselves as what I’d call “fulcrum citizens”, balancing out extremes – both extremes on the right and extremes on the left – Jewish Israeli extremes, Palestinian extremes. What they see as extremist, internationally, in Europe. That they see themselves as balancing people. And that they see this related to their hiloni needs, their religious class habitus, but that they’re also shaped by their – for this generation – a Jewish-centric experience, after the failure of Oslo. So I say that this is part of the mix in understanding the ongoing conflict and continuing occupation. It’s one of many different factors, but I don’t think it’s yet been particularly brought to the fore. So that’s what I want to say about that.

CC: Excellent. And how about, for someone not in the study of Israel /Palestine, perhaps not even in the study of the secular and that sort of thing. What do you think is the sort-of import . . . ?

SG: The big takeaway for Religious Studies? When I got to the end of the book, and I revisited these questions, the one thing that stood out for me was the importance of studying the individual level and of studying gradations of emotional attachment to religious identities, symbols, spaces. In Brubaker’s work, in 2015, he points to this about the importance of studying the individual level. But I don’t think that we yet, in the field, are particularly good at doing that. And yet we claim to study ethno-religious conflict, or religio-ethnic conflict, and the intersection of the two. And it’s not simply, you know, insert identity and everyone’s going to feel the same way. And we know that. That’s kind-of something we know, practically. But I thought that this was an area that could be further advanced. And I talk about it a bit at the end of the book, about where I think we could go. In particular, thinking about studying political conflict within ethno-religious dimension beyond identity (35:00). So that was one thing I wanted to do in the book was . . . . There’s chapter on space, and there’s a chapter on epistemology, to try to move into new directions.

CC: Begging the forgiveness of Helen, who’ll be transcribing this (Granted) I did say, if we had time, I’d mention another theme like sacred space, and how that came up in the book. So what would you have wanted to say – in, like, thirty seconds – that you haven’t got to say?

SG: That’s ok. It’s attached to the other thing. I mean, again, this is related to the point about how the literature, I think, needs to not presume emotional attachment to sacred space, but needs to drill down into people’s individual feelings about sacred space. Because just because people have an ethno-religious identity, they may not particularly care about place. But at the same time, just because they claim they don’t care, does not mean that they actually do not.

CC: Exactly.

SG: And so it makes ideas around compromising and sharing sacred space complicated. And I looked at the Haram al Sharif, Temple Mountain, and attitudes to that in the book.

CC: So, Listeners, if you want to find out more about that – when in 2020 are we expecting this? Or do we not want to say a month yet?

SG: Hopefully, soon.

CC: Hopefully, soon! So that book is going to be Being Reasonable? Secular Selfhood and Israel’s Post-Oslo generation. Stacey Gutowski, we hope our Listeners will read that book and shout widely about it. But if they don’t, they’ve heard an excellent interview today! Thank you so much.

SG: Thank you so much.

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.

Reflections on “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith”

Following the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” Conference hosted by the Norwegian University for Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, Aaron W. Hughes, the conference’s keynote speaker, joined the Religious Studies project to discuss some of what was discussed during the conference and primarily the legacy of J.Z. Smith’s work for the field of religious studies.

The conference provided great examples of the application of Smith’s work across sub-fields and for religious studies pedagogy. But this wide application of Smith’s work also raised some questions not only about how scholars read and engage with Smith’s work but also about how we adapt and apply Smith’s work moving forward. Hughes reflects on the impact of Smith’s work while also addressing critiques of his approach. Hughes contends that Smith left scholars of religion with a simple but impossible task of critically engaging and reflecting on one’s work while maintaining a playful, comparative approach.

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, sardines, popcorn, and more.


Reflections on the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” Conference at NTNU

 

Podcast with Aaron W. Hughes (11 November 2019).

Interviewed by Andie Alexander

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/reflections-on-thinking-with-jonathan-z-smith/

PDF of this transcript available for download here.

Andie Alexander: (AA): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. I’m Andie Alexander, a doctoral student at Emory University. And joining me today is Dr Aaron Hughes of the University of Rochester. We are here in Trondheim, Norway, following the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. SmithConference that is hosted at the Norwegian Institute for Science and Technology. And we’re here to talk about the legacy of Smith and his work, his contribution, and ways in which we can move forward in the field. So, Aaron – Hi! Thanks for joining me.

Aaron Hughes (AH): Hi, Andie. How are you doing?

AA: Great. Are you enjoying Norway?

AH: I am. It’s very beautiful.

AA: It’s nice.

AH: The midnight sun reminds me of my childhood in Edmonton, Alberta.

AA: There you go. As long as I’ve been here it’s only been daylight! So, I don’t know if the sun sets. But it’s been nice.

AH: I think it sets at like one, and then gets up at three.

AA: (Laughs) It’s very nice. Well, let’s talk about Smith. Let’s talk about what we’ve discussed, and see what questions we have.

AH: Sounds great. Let’s do it. I think we should probably begin everything by saying that Smith has probably been the most important theoretician over the past fifty years, half century. I think he’s so important . . . so I’ll talk about the past before I talk about what I think. So I think that probably, he more than anyone, was responsible for smashing the Eliadian phenomenological paradigm. The problem is, even though that paradigm should be long dead and buried, it’s still one that our students gravitate towards and still one that a number of our colleagues gravitate towards. I think, it’s what I tried to say a couple of times, we’re in one of these rarefied environments of people who are more critical, who just think we’re all the same and we preach to the converted. Whereas, when we walk the halls of the AAR and look at some of the papers that are given there, they fall back a lot on that old phenomenological model. So I think that’s Smith’s main importance. So Smith – and I think we all fall in this legacy – refused to see religion as special, sui generis, or as unique in the ontological sense. It might be unique to us, but ontologically it’s not unique. And if it’s not unique, you can’t compare it to anything else. And I think that’s the beauty of him, is that he was able to show the incongruous relationship between the quote-unquote “religious” and the quote-unquote “mundane”. So I think that’s where . . . . I mean, and the other thing, I think, that came up a number of times at the conference was the ludic or the playful dimension of Smith. But I mean the flipside of that is that he was so knowledgeable and so comfortable. Whereas when we get undergraduates who are not comfortable and they don’t have nearly the depth of education that he did . . . so there’s a problem of translation. I think the other thing that’s great about Smith is his broad comparative . . . his broad vision. And I think that’s something that a lot of us don’t share, because again that goes against what we’re taught in graduate school. So it’s funny, I think, when I talk to a number of people about this, a lot of the people here who work with Smith . . . . I think I really only began to appreciate Smith after graduate school. Because then you’re afforded the slowness of reading him, and appreciating him.

AA: I can see that. It’s sort-of different, given that I’ve had to read him as an undergrad, because. . . It’s a different sort of introduction . . .

AH: Right. In Alabama. Yes, definitely!

AA: And so, in the same sense, it’s something that I think is important for people to at least have in their repertoire. But something that I find is often not taught in grad school, or is never much, and it’s always highly contested.

AH: Yes. And I think I said in my lecture that I never encountered Smith until graduate school. We just read people like Eliade and Weber, and maybe there was a reason for that. Maybe the person that taught the course thought, “Well you’ll get Smith later, so let’s . . . .” That was good for me, because I read first all the things that Smith would later be critical of. By the time I came to Smith it was like, “Yes, I can see that.”

AA: I think, too, the distinction that you’re making between seeing religion as “unique for us”, and not ontologically unique, is something that is lost, partly in that religions chapter that he wrote (5:00). I suspect, as I read that, he was being provocative – but he probably meant it. But not in the way that I suspect a lot of people want to contend with. And it’s easier to dismiss. Because as you said, he was pushing back against the whole phenomenological paradigm, I suppose. And while, especially given the group here, we are relatively on the same page and think that this should be obvious that this should be something that everyone is doing . . . and that’s something you mention in your keynote: how is this not something that’s just common knowledge across the academy?

AH: I think a lot people still believe in the sacred, or still believe . . . . I think this is where the problem is. We live in a very chaotic world where “religions” quote-unquote don’t seem to like one another particularly. I think this really comes to the fore after 9/11. So a lot of people in Religious Studies think that Religious Studies can be that which facilitates conversation between religions. That’s always . . . I joke to my students: “I didn’t spend ten years in graduate school to be an interfaith dialogue facilitator.” As important as that work is, though, really. So oftentimes I’ll try to get Jews and Muslims to talk together but not under the auspices of the academic classroom. I think, as I’ve said before, religions get along better when they talk to one another as opposed to when they shout at one another. But I do think a lot of people in the Religious Studies academy think that that’s the goal of Religious Studies: to show the similarities between religions. I disagree, and I think Smith would disagree. But I think that . . . I always worry that Smith was . . . . Smith was on point. Smith was edgy. Smith was critical. Smith really encourages us to do that. But the two things that I worry about, as I said in the keynote, are those people that will just write him off as another dead white guy – which as I said is absolutely stupid, given the fact that he wasn’t even white, he was Jewish. But that’s another matter. And the second thing that I think we’ll see is how the field will “inocculise” Smith. So that he’ll just become like a name or a trope. And people can invoke him but they’ll do it in a way that takes off the edge. And I think we see that. I’ve seen it a lot. So everyone can say, “According to Smith blah, blah, blah . . .” But they’ll never quite follow through in what Smith wanted us to do.

AA: I think you’re right. And I think in some ways what he was working against then, with his work and pushing back against the Eliadian model, we have a different version of it that’s sort-of present in the academy now. It’s maybe not as overt. But I think it’s there. So, to me, I suspect there’s still some push that has to happen. There’s still conversations to be had within the discipline. And how it works. And I think part of my concern in those conversations is the dismissal of Smith. It’s reductive – all of those critiques that get applied to his work. And what I find is that there’s very little engagement with it – if one has even read it.

AH: Well, I think just as Smith goes against our traditional ways of reading and thinking about religion, I think the modern academy goes against Smith. So on the one hand, our students come in woefully ignorant about what religion is. So we can’t engage the type of work that Smith wants until much later. You can’t have redescription without description. So I think we spend a lot of time, at least the classes we teach at the freshman and sophomore level, trying to describe to students. But hopefully if they stay for later classes we can begin to redescribe. The other thing is, I think, with the contemporary academy we’re always encouraged to do community engagement. And so job interviews will ask people, “So how will you interact with the community? What will you do with them?” And I think, in interacting with the community, we have certain expectations that go against what Smith (10:00). . . I don’t think Smith ever interacted with the local Jewish community. I don’t think the local communities are really amenable to the type of conversation that Smith had. So I think we have to fight back. And I think that’s what some of us would do. But the key, in moving forward, is how to keep the edge of a Smithian analysis. How to apply it so it just doesn’t become a bromide – which is what I think a lot of people would like it to become.

AA: Developing what Smith was doing, trying to continue to push it forward – especially given the requirements both of the job market, of service for the school, the department, because that’s shifted over the past 20 years alone. And community engagement is something very big, and there’s a huge focus on doing that sort of work. And I think that it can be very productive. But as a discipline we’re still figuring out how to do that successfully, I think, in ways that we can both learn, but also interpret, and translate, and in service of larger concerns and issues both in the community, the discipline, the nation . . .

AH: Yes. Well I think what you’ll never or rarely see a job in just theory and method in the study of religion. I think in the past twenty years I’ve maybe seen three or four of those. So, one always has to be trained in a tradition. And I’m not sure if Smith was trained in a tradition. I mean his thesis was on . . . his dissertation was on The Golden Bough. So Smith was generalist at a time when Religious Studies was particularist. So the question I think becomes: how can you translate a Smithian-type analysis into the particular fields? And that’s difficult, as we saw with some of the papers here that tried to engage Smith from the level of area studies. There had to be a lot of remedial work that they had to do for us, who aren’t in that tradition, in order to get to a small Smithian point. So I think, as we move forward, how to translate Smith into area studies will not be easy. But maybe that’s the point. That was one of the points that came out several times in the conference, was the playful or ludic dimension of Smith. Maybe that’s the method: to show the playfulness or the ludic dimension of what we work on, or how – quote-unquote – “sacred kingship” in Tibet is no more special than any other type of power hierarchy. So maybe that’s it, it’s the playful dimension. Maybe that’s his method. Did he have a method, other than showing that the religious is not qualitatively different than non-religious?

AA: Yeah. I mean, I think . . .

AH: Reflexivity, maybe?

AA: Yes self-reflexivity is certainly something that is required and this came up in many of our conversations. But maybe coupled with that playfulness.

AH: Yes. I think you’re right. I think that Smith’s message on the one hand is very simple. We need to be self-conscious, self-reflexive scholars who don’t treat religion as somehow special different or special from mundane things. And I think that’s where the playfulness comes through. So the question becomes: how do you translate that into particular religions, which in area studies tend to be a lot more serious and not engaged in play? And how do you translate that into a pedagogical idiom or an idiom working with the communities, which are not accustomed to think about religion in a playful way? Because, “this is what the Bible says you’re supposed to do”. Or, “this is what the Qur’an says”. So I think the classroom is easier to translate that than the community. But it still poses its set of problems. From our conversation yesterday, we said that where Smith tried to translate his more theoretical ideas was in the Dictionary. I’m not sure how successful the Dictionary was. I mean, no-one engaged the dictionary here. We rarely talk about that. We talk about the essays in his main publications. But we never talk about the Dictionary (15:00). I haven’t looked at the Dictionary in ages. So maybe I should go back again and look at it. So it’s hard. But maybe the main translation of that is to get students to be playful with religion. That’s how I try to do it, so they can joke about it. Obviously . . . I think it’s easy in the community, too. As we move forward, and I think I said that in the lecture, I mean, we have to absorb Smith’s critique. We have to absorb his wit. And we have to absorb his edge. But create new edges and new wits as a way to move forward. Because if not, we’ll just make him into a name or slogan that doesn’t have any venom. And I think that maybe the way to go with that is to bring him into the study of particular religions, which isn’t easy. The main thing I really like about Smith is that he encourages us to use our imaginations.

AA And I agree. For Smith he does encourage that. He encourages odd comparisons that might not make sense. And tracing historical etymologies and to have a better conception of how we talk about religion. . .

  1. AH. . . in human activity.

AA: . . . in human activity, yes.

AH: It’s hard, because. . . . I agree, and I think that’s the way it should be. But ultimately if you’re in an area, like in Islamic Studies, my work has to be adjudicated by people in Islamic Studies. It might not . .  . The chances are it might not come out of Religious Studies. So you always have to move back and forth between trying to make theoretical contributions to the field of Religious Studies, but with the realisation that people in Religious Studies might not read it, because it’s in Islamic Studies, or Jewish Studies, or Buddhist Studies, or whatever. At the same time, to write in such a way that those people that would naturally read it – people in those area studies – would be able to understand the argument. So that’s always the trick. I think I’ve been able to do it well. But I don’t think it’s easy. And I think, ideally, I’ve tried to pave a path for young scholars in Islamic studies, to try to do that. Whether that’s successful or not, I don’t know. But that . . . I think that’s the main thing as we move forward… that will be one of the issues of how to translate Smith. We talked about that. We talked about Daniel Barbu and Nick Meylan in Geneva in Switzerland have tried to translate Smith into French. I’m not sure to what effect. Part of the project is trying to translate Smith into Italian. And again, I don’t know how you . . . . It came up several times: how you translate Smith for an undergraduate American audience is one thing, but how you translate it for an Italian audience, or a French audience, or a Polish audience, is another thing. And I don’t think that’s easy. But I think Smith should be translated into other languages. Probably maybe not a word-for-word translation, but a more conceptual type of translation. How do we take the playful aspect in English and translate it into Italian? You can’t do it.

AA: You can’t.

AH: You have to be playful in Italian in order to . . . . So it becomes a very difficult process. But all translation is difficult. You can think, do you want a literal translation, or do you want a conceptual translation? And I think it’s the conceptual translation – both at the literal level in other languages and into other fields within Religious Studies – that will be the difficulty moving forward. But I think it can happen. I think it will happen. Most of us here are committed to making that happen.

AA: Yes, I think so. As was mentioned, it doesn’t happen overnight, those changes. But I think that, to me at least, is why having more productive work happening in the classroom early on, and not following the method of just: give information, undo it later. . .

AH: I like to . . . See, because I have to work with Islamic Studies and most people don’t know anything about Islam, I really have to begin by making sure they know the narratives. And ideally know the texts in the languages. Because then, I think, you can learn the theoretical stuff (20:00). I know probably people would disagree with me here, but I’m old fashioned that way. But I think you need the description, I think you need the details and the facts, but later you can say that no facts are facts, they’re simply ideologies going under the guise of whatever. But I think students need that. And then they can play. Because you can’t play unless you know the rules of the game.

AA: That’s true. You have to know the rules. And I think that’s key. But where I think I’m going to push on that, is that most people are not going to play. They’re not going to be here, right? And so, if we’re talking to an undergraduate class of a hundred people, and this is the humanities credit that they get, what then? Because they’re not going to remember the narratives of Islam. They’re not going to remember different facts about any world religions.

AH: Yeah. That’s tough.

AA: And so, is the key, then, that they have all of that data that makes them feel more confident in saying, “Well, I know what true Islam is”, versus being able to weigh those claims of authority and authenticity against one another?

AH: I think you’re right. We always speak out of our own context. And I’m lucky, we don’t have humanities requirements in my university. People are in the class because they want to be in the class. And I think if I’m playful enough in the class then they’ll come into the second and third level classes. So yes. So I’ve never dealt with that. But if I did have to teach a larger class – I teach 18-20 students all of whom want to be there, and who do the reading – so if I had to teach these big . . . . I can’t even imagine doing it. I don’t know what I’d do. I really don’t. I mean I guess you’re right. How do you transmit the information, but in the same way let them know that the information is wafer thin?

AA: It’s contingent.

AH: Yes. So that is . . . That’s a tough question. And I don’t have to think about that too much, which is a cop out! But I know if I taught at a large state university, for sure I’d have to think about that.

AA: And I think that is part of it. The ways in which any discipline is approached varies so drastically across universities.

AH: That’s what Smith said. That’s a great point. Because Smith taught at the type of place that I teach at. So very bright undergraduates – some of the brightest in the country – who probably had some idea of what the religions were. And then he would kind-of work to undermine that. So like where I teach, I teach an Introduction to Jewish History class. And most of the students are Jewish. They’ve come out of, often, Jewish day school in the New York City, Boston area. They know their stuff. They know the data. But I get them in the classroom because they’re very bright, and they think “Well, you know what, maybe my parents . . . maybe it all doesn’t quite make sense.” So at the introductory level I can probably do what people at a large state university can only do at the third or fourth year. And I wonder if Smith probably had something similar to that. Because he must have taught. . . .So I think that every institution is different. And there’s large state universities, there are the colleges and they’re like the elite, private university, Research 1 universities that have these different constituencies. And maybe that would have been a good workshop, translating this myth into the undergraduate classroom? But heck, I don’t think we can translate him . . . . Most people can’t even translate him into their own areas of research. How they translate him into the classroom is not easy. Because I think, to go back to where we began, Smith asks us to do that which is the opposite of what the modern academy encourages us to do. Which is to read quickly read fast, to not have an imagination, and to not take pedagogy seriously (25:00). And I think that all of Smith’s work shows that, no – you have to do those things.

AA: Yes. It absolutely does to me. And I think that’s something that is lost, given the requirements both of grad students and tenure track faculty instructors, of course. There are so many demands on production that there’s not enough time to really investigate something that might not be in your area, or work through how to apply something. And this was a question that I think came up, in terms of applying Smith. Should we be trying to strive for a literal, intentional understanding of Smith as the author, or should we take what we can – whether he’s taught in the classroom explicitly or referenced – and adapt it. And try to apply those ideas in ways that might not be obvious. But, well, if we’re going to talk about “the other”, let’s consider issues of immigration or . . .

AH: Yes.

AA: And that way you can bring it in – even though his e.g.s are not anything that I would use, personally, in a class – or even overlap with the area that I work in – and try to take some sort of nugget or something from his approach, in terms of shaping our own approach. Because, as you mentioned, that’s a key thing for Smith is how he is approaching his own research.

AH: Yes. I think Smith might say, “Forget about me. I’m gone. But take some of the tools that I’ve tried to play with and work with them. You don’t even have to mention my name. You don’t have to say “J.Z Smith said this . . .” Just take the self-reflexivity, take the playful element, take the comparison . . . and, again, when smith says of comparison: “You can’t compare X to Y without having a third term, Z”, like, on the one hand that’s so obvious, but on the other hand it’s so deep. But I think Smith would say “Well, just move forward.” I’d like to think that’s what he would say. “Forget about me. Just keep the creativity, keep the self-reflexivity, realise that the terms you use probably have baggage in them and don’t simply replicate them.” That’s what I’m more interested in. I think for me, one of my main goals is to try and take some of the complicated Smithian and other analysis that we have in Religious Studies – at least in the critical wing of Religious Studies – and translate them into area studies. Which is not easy when you have to do it in a particular way. But I think I’ve done it with a certain amount of success. So I think, like that’s… how you take ninth century Arabic texts and ask certain questions of them – not flatten them by asking certain questions, but how you appreciate the texts on their own terms and at the same time ask questions of them that come out of that which us theory-and-method-people do.

AA: Yes. And I think that is the key. Because when we are at a conference like this, there’s a luxury of working with people who are all sort-of working toward the same goal and are concerned for those issues. But then translating that into our own fields and to others in the academy . . . .

AH: And it’s difficult, as we saw with some of the more technical papers on the second day. I mean some of the . . . I mean there’s a lot of descriptive work where, say, someone working on South Asia or East Asia, in order to bring the rest of us up to speed there has to be a lot of descriptive and informative work, and only then can they get to the questions. And I think, as the papers were so short, that sometimes it was difficult to get to those questions because of all the background work. But that’s good, though. I think that’s good. Because I don’t think Smith would say, “Oh yeah, we should all just give up working in areas or text and just ask these questions.” I think he would say that some of us should do that work.

AA: Yes. I mean we have to engage that. And I think what’s good, too, with the technical papers that we heard, it is hearing from other disciplines and not talking only to your discipline (30:00). That’s exactly what highlights – at least in my way of thinking – Smith’s goal in terms of playing with ideas and asking different questions. Because when you are listening to a paper on East Asia, and I do American religion, then what we have in common is not our area. So if we’re going to talk to each other productively, as I would hope we would, we have to have a way of doing that.

AH: Yes. We have to have common set of questions. I think that’s what Smith really . . . I think that would be his definition of the field, where people who are working with different texts, and different traditions, and different data sets, can learn from one another by asking similar sets of questions. And to me, that’s Religious Studies at its best. But again, for those in area studies like myself, it’s a trade-off being able to do that and at the same time to be able to speak to just those people that work with Arabic texts or other types of Islamic texts. Which isn’t easy. But it can be done.

AA: It can be. And I think the only way to impact area studies in a way that could push it to a more Smithian, potentially Smithian model is to do that, and to bring that work there. And we can’t also just talk to ourselves.

AH: Yes, exactly.

AA: And it’s easy to do – but again, that goes against the whole point. We have to engage across areas and disciplines within Religious Studies.

AH: Yes. And also realise that sometimes area studies have a lot to teach us, too.

AA: Yes.

AH: I think that’s important.

AA: I think so.

AH: And I really think that’ll be Smith’s legacy. I think that that’s . . . . On the one hand, he doesn’t ask too much of us, but on the other hand he asks everything: to rethink ourselves, rethink our own relationship to that which we study – and if it’s found wanting, to transform.

 

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Ideal Types, Semantic Anarchy, and the Study of Atheism (etc.)

By Christopher R. Cotter, in response to an interview with Chris Silver on “Atheism, New Religious Movements, and Cultural Tension”. Listening to Chris Silver’s recent podcast on Atheism, New Religious Movements, and Cultural Tension was a thoroughly pleasant experience. I enjoyed hearing a colleague who I first met in 2011, and who quickly came on board the nascent RSP team (as interviewer, editor, writer, and more), taking his well-earned place on the ‘other’ side of the microphone. Like Chris, I recognize the problems associated with treating atheists, agnostics, ‘nones’, etc., as distinct groups with coherent attitudinal correspondences. I’ve also used grounded theory and social constructionism in my approach to ‘non-religion’ and recognize the issue of one’s work being taken out of context. I welcomed hearing of broad-ranging, quantitative work being carried out within the psychology of religion with an eye to debates in the broader, critical study of religion, and the new developments in his work relating to status loss, New Religious Movements, and more. Despite the many positives of the approach outlined by Silver,  critical problems with it—exemplified in my own work, too—concern the construction of ideal types, and the proliferation of idiosyncratic terminology. In what follows, I’ll discuss each of these issues in turn before proposing a discursive solution.

Ideal Types

Referring to the ‘insubstantial’ secular, Lois Lee pithily observes that ‘it is not possible to organize absence into types’ (2015, 51). However, this isn’t the case with substantive understandings of ‘non-religion’ and in 2011 I set out with similar ambitions to Silver, producing a typology of non-religion in my Masters dissertation (Cotter 2011, 2015). This project was conducted amongst the undergraduate student body of the University of Edinburgh taking a grounded theoretical approach which elicited narratives via electronic questionnaires and qualitative interviews. Two of the key insights suggested were that:    
  • The ways in which students negotiated (non-)religious terminology throughout their narratives allowed the development of five ideal types which were seemingly independent of established religious categories: naturalistic, humanistic, philosophical, familial, and spiritual.
  • Regardless of the salience of the students’ (non-)religious identifications, they appeared to be keenly aware of where they stood when religion or non-religion were perceived to interact with what mattered to them
A significant reason I have felt unease with these insights as they stand is my somewhat lofty and obfuscating attempt to provide an exhaustive ideal-typical account of non-religion. Ideal Types are commonly understood as ‘analytical tools to be used to facilitate comparison’ (Barker 2010, 188 fn. 2), as ‘pragmatic constructs’ which can in no way ‘be regarded as essential categories or ontological realities’ (Cox 2006, 83). Recent relevant examples would be Lois Lee’s five types of ‘existential culture’ (2015, 161–72), John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism (2018)Silver and colleagues’ ‘six types of non-belief’ (Silver et al. 2014), or my own five-fold typology of ‘non-religion’. Even when writing my dissertation, I was clearly uneasy concerning the correlation between these types and my data:

“These narrative-based types cannot be assumed to be constant, and must be understood as firmly rooted in the context in which they were revealed. However, they reflect what individuals actually say, and give priority to individual self-representations, providing a much ‘truer’ representation of what (non)religion means to these individuals than wide-ranging, quantitative, typologies which suffer from the same contextual constraints.” (2011, 76)

Although I, and most others who employ ideal types, have never claimed that classifying individuals is a simple matter, and have emphasized that there is much overlap between types, it is almost invariably the case that their artificial and constructed nature becomes lost in translation (see Silver’s comments about misrepresentations of his work in the media), giving the false impression that individuals can be easily boxed off into discrete types. Whilst such work is valuable for macro-level analysis, it fundamentally breaks down at the level of the individual where heterogeneity and contextuality abound: there is ‘no such thing as a perfect or ideal-typical form’ of difference to ‘religion’ (Lee 2015, 44).  ‘Religious, spiritual, secular, and non-religious identities are not stable, unitary formations’ (Hoesly 2015), but rather what Jean-François Bayart refers to as ‘operational acts of identification’ (2005, 92). However, in relation to the study of ‘Atheism’, Ethan Quillen argues that prevalent ideal-typical generalizations are perhaps ‘nothing more than a product of the current scholarly study of Atheism’s predominant focus on the social-scientific attempt at making sense of “Atheism-in-general,” rather than “Atheism-in-specific”’ (2015a, 30), the ‘attempt at finding an identity in the numerous applications of an ambiguous word’ (Baird 1991, 11).

Semantic Anarchy 

Going further, these problems are clearly connected to issues surrounding terminology. The contemporary situation has been described as verging on ‘a situation of semantic anarchy, in which individual scholars work with idiosyncratic definitions’ (Jong 2015, 19). Indeed, Quillen argues that the whole discourse on ‘types of atheism’, or indeed the very terminology of ‘ir-religion,’ ‘un-belief,’ ‘non-religion’, etc., is ‘not unlike that which complicates the definition of “religion”’ (2015b, 132), and falls foul of much of the critique levelled at the term (see RSP podcasts with Timothy FitzgeraldRussell McCutcheonJames CoxBrent NongbriTeemu Taira and others). In addition, ‘The conceptual balkanisation that results from the proliferation of idiosyncratic definitions makes […] fruitful collaboration more difficult’ between scholars doing empirical work in different contexts (Jong 2015, 19). We need not despair, though. This situation of proliferating ideal types and idiosyncratic terminology can be remedied by scholars being ‘vigilantly specific about the aspect of “nonreligion” that they are interested in’ (Jong 2015, 20), restricting themselves to very particular contexts—historical, textual, ethnographic, etc. Alternatively, my preferred route is to take a discursive approach.

Discursive Approaches

As I’ve previously argued, we can fruitfully 

“conceptualize non-religion as part of a religion-related field comprising ‘all phenomena that are generally (or according to a certain definition of “religion”) considered to be not religious, but stand in a determinable and relevant relationship to the religious field.’ This relationship can take the form of criticism, competition, collaboration, mirroring, functional equivalence, interest, etc. Such an understanding sees […] ‘descriptions, claims, reports, allegations, and assertions’ about non-/religion [as] the topic of the analysis, rather than ‘religion’ or ‘non-religion’ themselves. Thus, we arrive at a critically-engaged, relational concept of ‘non-religion’ which can be operationalized empirically in a non-stipulative manner and which emphasizes that religion need not be a dominant, normative, or positive term in the contexts studied.”

Although discursive questions were not the driver for my Masters project, it can clearly be interpreted as having focused on the way ‘religion is organized, discussed, and discursively materialized’ (von Stuckrad 2010, 166) in a particular context, by individuals who self-described aspects of their individual practice, beliefs, attitudes and/or identity as different from their subjective self-definitions of religion. It can be viewed as discerning a range of discourses, which could be classified as spiritual, familial, philosophical, humanistic and naturalistic, surrounding a variety of negotiated phenomena—identities, practices, attitudes, beliefs—in a field of discourse with boundaries dictated by the logics of the research project, i.e. substantiating the ‘non-religiosity’ of Edinburgh students, in 2010–11, whose self-descriptions were ‘non-religious’, and so on. Returning to the two key insights of the project, this discursive re-reading allows them to be reframed as follows:  
  • In these narratives, these students primarily invoked five types of discourse when they engaged with topics related to religion, non-religion, and related categories. These discourses appeared to operate at a level independent of the specific terminology—the discursive objects—in question. 
  • Regardless of the salience of these discourses in individuals’ lives, they were invoked when the students were confronted with phenomena that were deemed to be related to—i.e. which meaningfully intersected with—the field of discourse on religion, non-religion, and related categories. 
This move from types of atheism/non-religion to types of discourse shifts the focus to ‘the social effects of the way people talk, rather than the apparent meaning of their words’ (Martin 2017, 104). People employ multiple discourses, situationally; they can say things in many different ways, depending on the discursive resources available to them in a particular cultural context.  A shift in focus from the individual to the discourse they employ, from the person to what they say, and how they say it, allows the individual to be incorporated analytically into the wider societal conversation of which they are inherently a part. As Bayart argues, no speech act can be attributed to a single individual, but is a product of the broader complex social situation in which it occurs, as well as its historical context: ‘every utterance is related to earlier utterances’ (2005, 112). There is much more I could say here, and I’m not claiming that discursive study is the only way to study ‘non-religion’ critically. However, it is one way in which we can usefully sidestep some of the issues associated with the construction of typologies in the social sciences. Whether this helps us to avoid the ‘misinterpretation’ of our work when it takes on a life of its own is another matter. One of many Challenges and Responsibilities for the Public Scholar of Religion.

References 

  • Baird, Robert D. 1991. Category Formation and the History of Religions. 2nd ed., with A new pref. Religion and Reason 1. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Barker, Eileen. 2010. “The Church Without and the God Within: Religiosity and/or Spirituality?” In The Centrality of Religion in Social Life: Essays in Honour of James A. Beckford, edited by Eileen Barker, 187–202. Farnham: Ashgate.
  • Bayart, Jean-François. 2005. The Illusion of Cultural Identity. London: C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd.
  • Cotter, Christopher R. 2011. “Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students.” Unpublished MSc by Research Dissertation, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh. http://www.academia.edu/1329691/Toward_a_Typology_of_Nonreligion_A_Qualitative_Analysis_of_Everyday_Narratives_of_Scottish_University_Students.
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Religious cliché and stigma

A Response to “Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés”

by Christopher F. Silver

Read more

Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-Member Narratives

Ex-member testimony can be a difficult to deal with. Such testimony tends to receive privileged treatment in anti-cult literature, while some academics are prone to be sceptical, even suggesting ex-member testimony is worthless due to the danger of adaption and fiction. So a question remains, how should religious studies scholars deal with such testimony. Do we treat it as fact, fiction, faction, or something else altogether? In this interview at the 2017 British Association for the Study of Religion (BASR) Conference, Breann Fallon chats to Dr George Chryssides about ex-member narratives and the use of such primary sources in the work of religious studies scholars. Issues of identity creation, the alteration of narratives, the use of “faction” as evidence, and case studies from ex-member Jehovah’s Witnesses come together in this interview to create a compelling case for a renewed focus on ex-member testimony.

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, Skyrim for Nintendo Switch, egg nog, and more.

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

Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-member narratives

Podcast with George Chryssides (20 November 2017).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Chryssides- Changing Your Story 1.1

Breann Fallon (BF): Ex-member testimony can be difficult to deal with. Such testimony tends to receive privileged treatment in anti-cult literature, while some academics are prone to be sceptical – even suggesting ex-member testimony is worthless. So how do we deal with such testimonies, especially considering the increasing forms of such testimony that now comes with social media? What role do such accounts play in the creation of identity for ex-members? To discuss this topic today, I have with me Dr George Chryssides. George is a long-term friend of the Religious Studies Project and is Honorary Research Fellow at York St John University and the University of Birmingham, having been head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton from 2001- 2008. He has written extensively on New Religious Movements, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses. Recent publications include the Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements, co-edited with Benjamin E. Zeller; and Jehovah’s Witnesses: Continuity and Change. George is Co-Vice Chair of INFORM, the Information Network Focus on Religious Movements, based at the LSE and was founded by Eileen Barker in 1988. George is also on various Editorial boards and panels and is currently co-editing an anthology entitled The Insider-Outsider Debate together with Stephen Gregg. He’s also editing an anthology for the Routledge Inform Series entitled Minority Religions in Europe and the Middle East. So thank you very much for joining us today, George.

George Chryssides (GC): My pleasure, thanks for inviting me.

BF: So I was wondering if we could just start with a discussion of how different scholars deal with ex-member testimonies, and what your opinion is of different ways of dealing with such testimony.

GC: Well, there are inevitably a handful of scholars who support the anti-cult movement – although they don’t like it being called the anti-cult movement – but there is a body that is somewhat hostile and they tend to privilege the ex-member. They will say that the ex-member has been inside, now he or she is outside. So they’ve seen it from both points of view and are in a better position than someone like myself that has never joined a new religious movement. So that’s one point of view. There are others like James Beckford, who say: well, if you’ve come out of a new religious movement, like the Jehovah’s witnesses, then your testimony is going to be biased. Maybe you’re going to be a bit embarrassed at having been involved in a group that’s not very popular and has an unusual worldview. So, you’d devise some kind of explanation about how and why you joined, and how you got disillusioned, and how you were conned into joining, maybe, and how you were deceived and so on. James Beckford thinks that the ex-member “devises a scenario”, as he puts it, to account for entry and exit. There are other scholars like Lonnie Cliver and Brian Wilson who have said their testimony is totally invalid, we should disregard it totally. It’s worthless. Now I don’t go along with that, either. Because, I think, particularly when you read written ex-members accounts, ok they’re biased, but we’re always taught to evaluate our sources so it’s important to see why they’re saying what they do; what it is that might be true; what sounds plausible. You triangulate your information, what other people have said. Very often, you can get unwitting testimony about conditions within an organisation. There’s a lot of good material you get, particularly from high-ranking ex-members: people that have for example, in one case, been on the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now they don’t publish their minutes or anything like that, so until Raymond Franz’ book came out I don’t think any of us had much of a clue what actually went on, on the governing body: how they voted on things, what sort of topics they discussed. And that’s really interesting. We shouldn’t just say “Well, that’s an ex-member: he got cheesed-off with the movement. We’re not going to listen to it.” Because that way you would lose a lot of very good information.

BF: So there’s sort-of this element of “the fact that’s behind the supposed fiction”, that we can kind-of draw out from testimonies, I guess?

GC: Yes, well, fact and fiction tend to kind-of blend into each other (5:00). Actually, that’s some work I would like to do as a piece of follow up research on JW’s. Because there are a lot of narratives. And it’s a pity I didn’t get my act together on this before this particular conference, which is on narratives. Because you get some narratives that claim to be absolutely factual. You get others that are, on their own account, works of fiction. There are stories invented about Jehovah’s Witnesses. And then, in between, you get pieces of . . . some people call them “faction”: a cross between fact and fiction. They’ll say: well this is based on such and such a congregation, but we’re not telling the reader who it is because of confidentiality. And actually there is a wealth of literature out there about what it means for a Jehovah’s Witness to be out doing house-to-house work, staffing a literature cart and things like that. And, in some cases, how they fudge the statistics that they report back to their elders. I think things like that are really fascinating, because you can’t get that in copies of the Watchtower, for example. So that’s a future project, reading up on the fiction/faction narrative and seeing what one can get out of it.

BF: So how do you think that we should be dealing with ex-member testimonies in your opinion?

GC: Well, what I’m presenting at this conference is the view that ex-member testimony is about one’s identity. Because you can have different identities depending on what your interests are. Ok, so maybe you kind-of dabbled in a hobby for a couple of weeks and got fed up with it? That’s not part of your identity. And there are some people that actually go along to a new religious movement in that kind of role. They’ll maybe go along for a couple of weeks, or maybe just the once, then decide it’s not for them. Or decide they don’t like being out at night, or something like that. And we don’t hear so much of these testimonies, because they’re not very interesting. So, when a religion is not part of one’s identity you don’t need to invent a story about why you came out. I mean, I don’t need to invent a story about why I gave up stamp collecting or something like that.

BF: (laughs)

GC: So, on the other hand, if the religion has been a big part of your identity – maybe it’s been your paid employment even – then you’re going to have problems coming out. You’re going to have to think: how do I shape a new identity? And it can be even practical things that are involved, like: how do I get a job? Where will live? Who are my friends going to be? Because maybe some of them will keep up with you, but probably most of them won’t. So it’s a whole new life that you’re inventing, in that sort of case. So people have to find ways of doing that. In some extreme cases the ex-member has made ex-membership part of his or her own identity, perhaps being a so-called cult counsellor. There are people that have made their professions out of that – not all that many, but you tend to hear about them more than the others, because they’re prominent. They’ve got a lot to say about the movement. And there is a saying: “You can get the member out of the cult, but you can’t get the cult out of the member.”

BF: That’s very interesting.

GC: So that’s true about these people. Actually, they’re very good informants, some of them, if you can get them tamed and talking to you. There are a couple that will send me lots of extremely good information about the Unification Church. So usually, if I want to know something, I will write to them to say, “I’ve heard about so-and-so, what do you know about it?” And then I’ll get back a lot of good information. Kind-of mentally they’re still in the movement, even though – in terms of what they believe and what they practise – they’re out of it.

BF: So, in that sort of way, you’re finding these testimonies really useful. Do you think there’s a difference between different types of testimony? We’ve already talked about fact and fiction, but you know: a biography as opposed to writing to your ex-members that you are familiar with, as opposed to perhaps something on social media (10:00)? Is there a difference between using those different types, do you think? Is there one you prefer?

GC: Absolutely. I think a lot of stuff that’s not terribly worthwhile is the stuff you get on bulletin boards from ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. A lot of it is misinformation. A lot of it is actually very hostile. And even the treatment that they’re getting in Russia, which is quite appalling. I don’t know if you’ve been following that at all? The authorities have closed them down and confiscated all their properties. And on some of these anti-JW sites you’re getting people saying “I wish they had done it sooner.”

BF: Oh, wow!

GC: Yes, there’s no kind-of sympathy for these people, whatever their beliefs might be. So there’s not a lot of point in reading much of that kind of stuff. Except that it tells you more about the person that’s writing than it does about the movement itself. But, on the other hand, there are some very good ex-members that can give you some good information.

BF: Definitely. I think we should delve more into this idea of identity and creating that- I don’t know what you would call it. Do you think they would create an “ex-member persona”?

GC: Some of them do. I can decide, if I’m an ex-member, whether I want to make a feature out of that: whether I want to tell people, “Yes I was a Jehovah’s Witness and this is very much a part of my life having been one.” Now, actually, I do know of one former JW elder who has actually become a Church of Scotland minister. Now, I don’t know much about him, but I can see that somebody could make a feature out of that and say, “ Well, that’s been my past life and now I’ve kind-of seen the light”, or however he wants to put it. I have heard of one other Church of Scotland minister who served a long prison sentence as a murderer and then he repented and made good, and evidently he makes a feature out of that. Because it’s got a good Biblical message about conversion – you know, Paul writing to the Romans: he lists a whole lot of misdeeds that people committed and then he says “and some of such were you”. So it’s all very Biblical, if you want to do it that way and say, “Well, that’s my past life but now it’s all changed thanks to Jesus Christ”, or whatever. That’s one way of creating your new identity. Another way of changing your identity is simply to conceal it and say, “Well I’m not going to talk about this. I’m just going to get on with my new life.” So there are different ways of creating this new identity, but one way or another, if religion has been a major part of your life and you’re coming out, then there is an identity problem and you do need to think, well: Who am I? What do I want to be? And how do I want to shape up his new life that’s lying ahead?

BF: Do you think that as scholars we need to be aware of this identity change when we’re looking at ex-member testimonies: how they’ve come out of whatever movement they were a part of; and how they’ve transitioned into (a new life); whether they’ve been really open about it; whether they’ve concealed it and then been open about it. Is that something we need to take into consideration when looking at these testimonies, which ones we really should be looking at for evidence?

GC: Well absolutely, because evaluating your sources means asking questions like: who is telling me this? What is their motivation? How much knowledge do they have? Sometimes people can pretend to have more knowledge than they really do about the movement that they’re in. A lot of ex-JWs will say “Well, the society has got a history of field prophecy.” Now I don’t think that’s true; that’s a popular myth that is propagated by ex-members. I’m not saying they’ve never ever revised a date or given it a new meaning. But there’s one website that goes through every year from 1877, when I think the society was first getting going, and then giving some kind of prophetic statement they’ve made and how it failed. And that’s not really correct exposition of what they’re saying (15:00). So I think we really do need to ask, what is the degree of knowledge that this person has? Because there can be a view that if you’ve been inside you know all about it. And I think anyone that follows a religion doesn’t know all about it. You can’t know all about your religion, it’s just too big a subject.

BF: Yes. I’m going to throw a bit of a left-field question at you that I didn’t tell you I was going to ask.

GC: Oh dear!

BF: We always get this sort-of image of ex-members coming together, and then forming an ex-member group. Has that come across in your work?

GC: Oh yes, absolutely. There’s a lot of that. And I think that’s part of forming a new identity because you need to have friends. Friends need to have things in common. And the obvious thing in common that you’ve got if you’re an ex-member is being an ex-member. So yes, there are JW groups. I’ve been invited to go to one or two different events, but I feel I’d be gate-crashing!

BF: Yes!

GC: But they get together from time to time. And I’d be interested to know what they talk about, because they often say, “You don’t have to talk about Jehovah’s Witnesses if you come to our meet.” Now, whether they actually talk about JWs or whether they talk about some other interests that they’ve got, I don’t know. But that would be interesting. But yes that’s part of shaping your identity, to get an ex-member group going. Of course I think the ex-member group is more a kind of phenomenon in itself that’s worth noting if you’re a scholar. I suspect that in the ex-member group you get a kind of snowball effect of all the kind of moans that they’ve got about the Watchtower Society. I see some of their stuff on Facebook and that seems to be how it works. Somebody will put something on, maybe about Russia, and then somebody will add a rude comment about it. And it tends to kind-of further a lack of sympathy.

BF: It would be interesting to look at how social media have played a role in creating those new ex-member groups. Because of course, with social media, people from all over the globe can come together and sort of share their stories. Do you think social media has had a big part in ex-member testimony and getting that out there?

GC: Absolutely, yes. There are one or two well-known websites, or are they websites or . . . I never know what the right terminology is about cyber space . . . but I think it’s a Facebook Group about How Well Do You Know Your Moon? And that’s about the Unification Church. That’s actually got a lot of good information there. It’s not just people slagging them off. But, yes, the obvious thing about social media is that we don’t need to have our friends sitting opposite each other the way we’re sitting opposite. You can get them from any part of the globe and you don’t have to meet up with them, physically. But then again, the fact that you’ve got this group enables you to organise these physical meetings, which they do.

BF: It would be interesting to know, with the advent of social media, if that is encouraging more people to go to groups – people who may have, without social media, sort-of concealed it on their own. But that idea that social media can bring so many people together. It would be interesting to know whether there had been more people willing to join an ex-member group because of social media. Because you can kind-of dip your toe in with Facebook, before you go to a meeting. It’s almost the complete reverse of joining the movement in the first place.

GC: Yes, I think that’s probably right. The other question is whether it might actually encourage people to join a group by giving publicity. I remember when I was researching the Unification Church in the early days, there were two kind-of improbable people who had come along to this seminar. In fact, the Unification Church didn’t seem to want these people to join. Because they weren’t very bright, I think they were unemployed, looking for somewhere to live and that’s not what they were after. And I think they may even have been psychologically disturbed. So, a new religion won’t want to get a reputation for attracting the wrong people. But they had come along and I asked them, “What brought you here? (20:00) Weren’t you put off by the bad publicity the Unification Church was getting?” And they said, “Oh no. What we had heard actually made us interested and want to come.” So there can be this kind-of reverse effect. You might think, “Well, I wonder what this is about?”

BF: Yes. I just think social media has taken a completely different road for so much of our study, particularly with testimony and people being able to share their voice and share their opinion. Before we finish up – you’re presenting today at BASR – is there anything from your paper that you’d like to add to the talk, that we haven’t discussed so far?

GC; Well I think we’ve been, how long have we been talking now? It’s been a lot more than 20 minutes and my talk is only 20 minutes, so I think I’ve probably added quite a bit. It’s actually going to be part of a chapter in the Anthology on the Insider and Outsider debate that Stephen Gregg and I are getting together. So there will be a kind-of longer discussion. What I will be saying in the paper also –which we didn’t cover, but it’s a bit more technical – is about the kind of typologies of ex-members. People like David Bromley and Massimo Introvigne distinguish between different types. And they distinguish on the basis of how the person came out of the movement and what sort of conditions made them come out. What I’m suggesting is that these typologies have got their limitations. Sociologists talk about “ideal types” and I think that’s one of the problems about sociology: when have you got an ideal type and when have you just got a model that’s too crude for the purposes that you’re using it? So I think an account of ex-members has got to go beyond distinctions like “the defector”, “the ordinary leave-taker”, “the apostate”. There are all sorts of types of leaver, depending on the identity that they’ve created for themselves within the movement. So whether they’re just an unbaptised publisher as the rank is called in the Jehovah’s witnesses, or whether you’re one of the 144,000 in the governing body, right at the top, these kinds of the distinctions of the type of member you are will affect the way you leave. It will also affect the story you give about leaving and about life in the organisation.

BF: It’s almost sort-of an identity wave. You know: I was this, and then that’s affected how my identity has come out of the movement. I think your talk is going to be so interesting, I’m very excited.

GC: I hope so.

BF: Thank you so much for joining us today. And I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference.

GC: Well, thanks very much. And thanks again for the invitation.

BF: It’s our pleasure.

Citation Info: Chryssides, George and Breann Fallon. 2017. “Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-member Narratives”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 20 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 17 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/changing-your-story-assessing-ex-member-narratives/

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Report: 2015 Joint Conferences of the New Zealand and Australian Associations for the Study of Religion

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Bruno Marshall Shirley and John H. Shaver

The biennial conference of the New Zealand Association for the Study of Religions (NZASR) and the annual conference of the Australian Association for the Study of Religions (AASR) were held together in Queenstown, New Zealand from December 8-10 2015. Interdisciplinary perspectives and theoretical approaches across the humanities and social sciences were evident in the wide-range of papers presented. Islam, and Asian religions more generally, were the most consistent objects of focus, perhaps unsurprising given Australasia’s proximity to Asia and recent increased media attention to the Islamic State.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The conference’s emphasis on Asia and Islam were evident in the keynote lectures. In a talk entitled “Creativity and Ethical Life in India,” Tulasi Srinivas (Emerson College) described religious innovations in Bangalore and the sense of “wonder” that they often inspire. She argued that scholars ought to take emerging religious practices seriously, rather than as anomalies or deviations from established, textually-based understandings of religion. Turning to Japan, Douglas Ezzy (University of Tasmania) argued that Shint­ō is best considered a “religion of practice” in contrast to those traditional conceptions of religion as belief-oriented. He suggested that while a non-Christian can attend mass at a Christian place of worship and not be “doing Christianity,” a tourist at a Shint­ō shrine participating in its various ritual practices might be said to be “doing Shint­ō.” For many Japanese Shint­ō is not associated with doctrinal belief (shūkyō), which allows people to engage with Shint­ō ritual practice while not accepting its cosmology. Some in the audience disagreed with Ezzy’s analysis of Shint­ō and its relationship to shūkyō, but his call for a renewed focus on religious practice was generally appreciated. Sally McAra (University of Auckland), looked at one traditionally Asian religion, Buddhism, in the Australasian context. She discussed the problems facing an anthropologist conducting ethnographic research among their own group, principally a difficulty in carrying out objective analyses, due to a positive bias towards group ideals.

The final keynote lecture, from Gary D. Bouma (Monash University), turned to Islam and to Western discourses about the “threat” that each other poses. Bouma argued that both anti-Western and anti-Muslim narratives shared several key features: both narratives assert that the “other” is incorrect in some way; each is reinforced due to media bias; and both narratives are responsible for the perpetuation of conflict. Bouma’s most significant point was that Religious Studies scholars have a responsibility to discredit these discourses – particularly anti-Muslim narratives in the West, such as those put forth by Trump or Abbot. These narratives, Bouma argued, serve to legitimise attempts to gain power at the expense of civil liberties, and/or to divert attention from their own violence (including structural violence, domestic violence, or even climate change).

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper "Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult," in the panel "Religion in/and Politics."

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper “Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult,” in the panel “Religion in/and Politics.”

The panel “Contemporary Religions” continued the central foci on Asian religions and Islam. A paper by Douglas Osto (Massey) (based on his forthcoming book, Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America, Columbia UP, 2016) outlined the history of “Psychedelic Buddhism” from the 1950s into the present, and the changing attitudes of American Buddhist practitioners towards mind-altering drugs. Osto described how some practitioners used psychedelic drugs as a “door” to advanced states of mind, before graduating to “pure” meditation practices, while others (notably Joan Halifax) continued to use drugs to supplement their meditative practices. Although psychedelia has been investigated before, Osto’s study represents the first serious examination of psychedelic Buddhism as a non-systemic religious movement, and is sure to lead to further studies of other hybrid Buddhist practices in the West. Buddhism was also the focus of a panel on “Buddhist Tales and Territories,” which featured a paper by Chaisit Suwanvarangkul (University of Otago) on the relevance of dharmakāya and the tathāgatagarbha doctrine to Therāvada Buddhism, as well as to the Mahāyāna. Suwanvarangkul’s paper was partially in response to an earlier paper by Michael Radich (Victoria University of Wellington), presented at the 2007 Australian Association of Buddhist Studies conference, entitled “There is no Dhammakāya in the Pāli Canon.” Suwanvarangkul’s inclusion of the Chinese Āgama as Theravāda was the subject of some controversy, as Osto pointed out that, despite parallels to the Theravāda nikāya, the Chinese āgama contain several key differences from the Theravāda texts. The panel also included papers by Anna Halafoff and Matthew Clarke (both of Deakin University) on the role of Songdhammakalyani monastery (Thailand) in promoting gender equality; Chiew Hui Ho (University of Sydney) on Chinese tales about the Diamond Sutra and their role in encouraging faith; and Phra Akbordin Rattana (University of Otago) on the model of Buddha devotion expressed in the Mārabandha chapter of the Paṭhamasambodhi-kathā.

Papers in the panel “Religion and the State” shared a common theme of distinctions between “religious practice” and “political actions” breaking down, in cases drawn from China, Japan, and Sri Lanka. Melissa Inoue (University of Auckland) discussed China’s True Jesus Church and its “miraculous” discourse. She argued that by directing attention to this-worldly affairs, the discourse indirectly both critiques and affirms contemporary Chinese society and the stewardship of the party-state. Ben Schonthal (University of Otago) turned to Sri Lanka and the (legal) case of a Buddhist monk who was denied an application for a driver’s license on the grounds that it was not appropriate for monks to drive. He argued that this was fundamentally a problem of contested authority over religious practice in Sri Lanka, arising from an ambiguous constitutionalising of religion. Bruno M. Shirley (Victoria University of Wellington) called for a post-secular rethinking of “religious violence” using the case study of Sri Lanka’s Bodu Bala Senā. Shirley suggested that explanations for religious violence, generally and in Sri Lanka specifically, have tended to assume a secularist dichotomy of “religion” and “politics” that is inadequate for dealing with the relationship between Buddhism, politics, and violence in Sri Lanka. Shirley suggested instead that we might reconsider this relationship within a framework of identity politics.

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper "Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion," in the panel "Naming Islamism."

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper “Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion,” in the panel “Naming Islamism.”

The panel “Naming Islamism,” was by far the most controversial of the conference. Will Sweetman (University of Otago), Christopher van der Krogt (Massey University), Douglas Pratt (University of Waikato), William E. Shepard (University of Canterbury), and audience members debated whether or not the Islamic State could be considered an authentic iteration of “Islam.” Van der Krogt argued that such a debate represents a misunderstanding of religion, and Islam in particular, while Sweetman argued that there is no basis for denying the Islamic State’s self-identification as Muslim. Several audience members disagreed with this assertion, instead arguing that Islam did indeed have some core norms and values with which the Islamic State does not conform. This panel also included less controversial papers by Shepard (University of Canterbury), on the development of Sayyid Qutb’s views on gender relations, and Pratt, on the Islamic State’s “theological ideology.”

Not all of the panels at the conference focussed on Asia or on Islam, and of these the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) panel is particularly notable for being the most empirically-oriented of the conference. The first NZAVS talk was delivered by the director of the study, Chris Sibley, a psychologist from the University of Auckland. Sibley described the breadth of the study and some of the many challenges inherent to large-scale longitudinal data collection. Joseph Bulbulia (Victoria University of Wellington) then detailed a few of the more significant findings pertaining to religion that have emerged from the NZAVS, including his work on the distinct “faith signatures” that span and defy traditional denominational categorization. Following these talks, Geoffrey Troughton (Victoria University of Wellington) described the history of the “Christian Not Further Declared (NFD)” designation in the New Zealand census, and then used NZAVS data to describe the demographic characteristics of those individuals that have recently come to identify with this tremendously growing group. The panel concluded with John Shaver (Victoria University of Wellington) describing the complex, but unique, picture of religion and prejudice/ tolerance in New Zealand. Although highly religious New Zealanders are more tolerant of many social groups (including ethnic and religious out-groups) than their secular counterparts, they are also less tolerant of some other groups (e.g., homosexuals). Shaver interpreted this pattern as a result of the differential flexibility of human values. He argued that those values associated with conservatism are necessary for the cultural transmission of religion and are therefore less free to vary across cultures, while those that are less relevant to transmission are subject to greater environmental influence.

Perhaps due to the University of Otago’s excellent choice to host the conference in scenic Queenstown, the conference was relatively well-attended by NZASR standards, and a strong Australian presence was a welcome addition to the conference’s academic and social events. While Asia and Islam were focal, the range of perspectives and disciplinary approaches made for interesting discussions, both in panels and informally. The conference demonstrated that the study of religions in New Zealand and Australia continues to broaden its interdisciplinary focus.

Gender, queer theory and religion

When we think about gender, we often understand it as something that is utlimately socially constructed. As for sex, it is mostly understood as something biological, set by a binary opposition between men and women. But how does this intersect with the study of religion? How do these categories influence the ways in which we look at religion? What is the role of religious institutions in this promotion of the gender binary? What about sexual orientation? What connections can we make between identities, the body and emotions in religious contexts?

In this interview, Dr. Mary Jo Neitz continues the conversation about religion and gender by focusing on theories from LGBT studies and queer studies. Using her work as an ethnographer, as well as the work of American philosopher Judith Butler, Neitz distinguishes the categories of gender and sex by showing how performance and experiences are at the heart of the social construction of gender and sexual identities. Neitz also discusses the role of religious institutions and practices in the agency experienced by some of her informants, as well as the place of the body and essentialist politics in the study of religion.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, Anna Fedele, and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon, Claire Miller Skriletz, and George Ioannides. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, glasses cases, sonic screwdrivers and more!

Religious Demography in the US

In this week’s podcast we focus on religious demography and identification, survey tools used for religious demography in America, differences between religious identities and identifications, Americans’ shifting religious identifications, correlations between religion and social positions such as ethnicity or generational cohort, and correlations with various social and political issues.

Expanding beyond the introduction to quantitative sociology of religion the RSP conducted earlier with David Voas, this conversation with Darren Sherkat covers religious demography in the American context. Unlike in the UK, or elsewhere, the U.S. census does not include questions about religion. U.S. religious demographers rely on privately-funded surveys, such as the General Social Survey (GSS), the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey, Baylor Religion Survey, and Gallup polls, among others, for large-scale nationally representative data on religion. Sherkat evaluates the reliability of various surveys as well as the quality of the data on non-Christian populations in the U.S., given that the vast majority of respondents self-identify as Christians or as “nones.” demography (Ariela Keysar), belief and belonging (Abby Day), and identity and identification (with the Culture on the Edge group). Based on findings explored further in his book, Changing Faith (2014), Sherkat explains how generational cohort, lifecourse position, immigration, ethnicity, and religious switching affect religious identifications in America, as well as correlations between religious identifications and sexuality, among other topics.

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, model airplanes, snow globes and more!

Religion and Planetary Ethics

Whitney Bauman discusses with George Ioannides some of the potential and difficult answers to these questions and more, revealing how the field of religion and ecology can go some way in helping to visualise and constitute a planetary, hybrid, ethical community of ecospiritual, biohistorical, and multispecies subjects.

Speaking of religions as “eco-social constructions across multiple species, over multiple generations, and over multiple histories,” Bauman puts forward an ethics of understanding ourselves and others as planetary creatures, and understanding religion, science, and nature as non-foundational, non-substantive categories.

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, biodegradable refuse sacks, poppy seeds and more!

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Bron Taylor on Religion after Darwin, and Bruno Latour, Gaian Animisms, and the Question of the Anthropocene.

21st Century Irish Paganism

World Religions Paradigm, and if you’re lucky you might just come across a passing reference to ‘Paganism’ buried amongst extensive references to ‘Christianity’, ‘Islam’. ‘Buddhism’ and other ‘World Religions.’ This absence contrasts markedly with the fascination many students show towards ‘Paganism’, and with the prevalence of motifs which might be labelled ‘Pagan’ in (Western) popular culture. Arguably, both the seeming academic disregard and popular fascination with this topic are indicative of a superficial understanding of the broad range of phenomena to which the designation ‘Pagan’ can refer. In this podcast, Chris speaks to Jenny Butler – a scholar whose work has made a significant contribution to fleshing out the category.

in this interview, we discuss Jenny’s work on Paganism in Ireland, the impact of that particular context upon the Paganism/s she has researched – particularly in terms of language, mythology, and the natural landscape – and also some of the issues associated with the academic study of Paganism in general.

links in Jenny’s bio and also our previous interviews with Ronald Hutton, Suzanne Owen, Graham Harvey and Wouter Hanegraaf. 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.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, moisturiser, fruit bowls, and more!

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 September 2015

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest!

We would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has forwarded notifications. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

We thank you for your contribution. And now for this week’s digest:

Calls for papers

Conference: Yoga darśana, yoga sādhana: traditions, transmissions, transformations

May 19–21, 2016

Uniwersytet Jagielloński w Krakowie, Poland

Deadline: December 21, 2015

More information

Conference: Visual Narratives of Faith: Religion, Ritual and Identity

July 10–14, 2016

Vienna, Austria

Deadline: September 30, 2015

More information

Conference: Religion and Non-Religion in Contemporary Societies

April 21–24, 2016

Zadar, Croatia

Deadline: November 15, 2015

More information

Conference: Symposium Peregrinum

June 16–19, 2016

Tarquinio, Italy

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Journal: Women: A Cultural Review

Special issue: Religion and Gender

Deadline: October 31, 2015

More information

Events

Annual meeting: American Academy of Religion

November 21–24, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Annual meeting: American Anthropological Association

November 18–22, 2015

Denver, CO, USA

More information

Annual meeting: North American Association for the Study of Religion

November 20–22, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Research report launch: What should young people leave school knowing about religion and belief?

November 26, 2015, 5–6:30 p.m.

London, UK

More information

Conference: Radicalization & Islamophobia: Roots, Relationships and Implications in Religiously Diverse Societies

November 30–December 1, 2015

Sydney, Australia

More information

Conference: Pluralism and Community: Social Science History Perspectives

November 12–15, 2015

Baltimore, MD, USA

More information

Grants and awards

Miklós Tomka Award

Deadline: January 10, 2016

More information

Jobs

Postdoctoral Fellowship: History of Religion and Religiosity

German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C.

Deadline: December 1, 2015

More information

Two PhD scholarships in Buddhist Studies

LMU München, Germany

Deadline: October 18, 2015

More information

Fully funded PhD studentship

Newman University, UK

Deadline: October 23, 2015

More information

What is ‘Buddhism in the West’?

There appears to be much debate regarding what defines Buddhism in the West. Particularly, when I attend Social Science of Religion conferences, Buddhism is presented as a new or exotic social cultural influential phenomenon. I often see “Buddhism in the West” lumped in with new religious movements (NRMs) or more interestingly as sources of therapeutic influence for new styles of mental health treatment such as those seen in the field of Psychology. The compulsion to lump Buddhism with new religious movements may derive from a variety of influences. For example, the mass exodus of Tibetan Buddhists following the Chinese occupation of 1949 may give scholars the impression of newness due to the large migratory movement of Tibetans to the west. This coupled with the popularity of the Dalai Lama and religious converts such as Richard Gere give credence to Buddhism as a “Western” new religious movement (Cantwell & Kawanami, 2002). Another theory could be the fascination of Buddhism for the late 19th century Transcendentalists. The Transcendentalists saw value in Buddhist philosophy for understanding a suffering western society (McMahan, 2008). Such thinkers and their use of Buddhist philosophy could have led to more individual forms of belief such as “spirituality” and “universalism.” To be considered new, some scholars may see the past 100 years as “recent” where the turn of the century serves as a new chapter in religious pluralism in the West. Better still could be the free love movement of the 1960s or the fascination with alternative states of consciousness. Many people were seeking something beyond the old interpretations of transcendence (Kent, 2001). All of these are examples of competing paradigms in terms of juxtaposing a belief system called “Buddhism” within the geographic and cultural center of the “West”.

The boundaries of what defines the West are also circumspect. Some perceive the West to be North America while other scholars speak to first world cultures (including North America but also Western Europe, and Australia). Such boundaries of what defines the West are unclear but there is proximate agreement related to the cultural center of what we term the “West” (McMahan, 2008). Here, there is proximate agreement as a Euro-American center of learning. In other words, we are speaking of centers of academic discourse and authority known as the university system. One could argue that such exchanges are colonial in nature (indicating a British or American dominance of cultural norms and language) and yet these implicit assumptions reinforce the very system, which assert categorical authority. Further, using terms such as “the West” and its interaction with other traditions are synonymous with speaking from an in-group perspective of privilege.

Given these challenges related to defining Buddhism in the West, Dr. Cox’s approach is refreshing. Rather than attempting to describe Buddhism’s introduction into the West as a socio-historical event, he approaches the exchange of culture from the perspective of a historically reconstructed narrative through the story of Laurence Carroll, an Irish immigrant to Burma by way of the United States. Laurence Carroll led an adventurous life from an immigrant, to a homeless person in the US, to a seaman, and eventually taking vows as a Buddhist monk. Mr. Carroll’s experience resulted in his ordination by becoming Bhikkhu U Dhammaloka. Dr. Cox provides an interesting look by way of Dhammaloka’s narrative, at the layers of national, social, ethnic, and religious identity. For Cox, identities are tied together as one but also relational in terms of the concept of the “other.” Dr. Cox shows that Carroll’s transitions between geographies were continually met with adversity in terms of his identity. For example, the conflict of his Irish identity in Ireland in relation to British colonial influence, then his Irish identity in relation to blacks/African Americans in New York, and eventually his Irish identity in relation to the dominant Asian culture of Burma. His concept of self becomes even more complex when he converts to Buddhism, as he is no longer centered within his Irish or Caucasian identity. Such boundaries of self were not only confusing but also empowering as Dhammaloka could challenge others who attempted to proselytize the local populations in Burma.

According to Cox, Dhammaloka had social influence on the local population to defend Buddhism from what he may have seen as colonial missionary dominance reminiscent his own experience with the British in Ireland. Dr Cox’s podcast leaves me with additional derivative themes of interest. To speak in terms of cultural or social influence is to implicitly infer a social shift in the individual definition of self. As noted by Cox, deconversion was no small transition in self-identification. With one’s exit from their own enculturated tradition to an exotic, lesser-known faith came perceptions of racial as well as moral defection. Scholarly inquiry into Buddhism for the time was surely appropriate but only in as much as these faith traditions were contrasted with Christianity. The Dhammaloka case study serves as an excellent example of where the religious and cultural landscape is moderated within the domain of academic discourse. Only at this time were such intellectual pursuits blatantly colonial in agenda. Furthermore, such lively exchanges with missionaries highlight the overt assumptions of intellectual and cultural dominance but also the subversive influence on Buddhism to compete in a soon to be global spiritual marketplace. I would challenge Dr. Cox to think of Dhammaloka not in terms of his authenticity of being one of the earliest converts to Buddhism, but rather to see him as a mediating influence in what Buddhism would come to be for the West. Dare I say that Dhammaloka’s own cultural baggage and his Western approach to Buddhism might well have helped repackage Buddhist philosophy, making such transitions more salient.

In conclusion, I would like to challenge the overall paradigm of “Buddhism in the West.” The lack of synergy among scholarly inquiry coupled with the assumption of the specialness of Buddhism within the cultural or geographic context of the West lends further need for the application of critical theory. Such theory should be able to describe the specialness of the former and latter without relying on the old colonial tools of academia. While there is value in theories of sociology and religious studies, my concern is that such assumptions assume Buddhism is/was something different or special, dare I say sui generis (McCutcheon, 1997). The West’s fascination with the East goes well beyond a simple proselytizing motive or – it could be argued – colonial influence. Buddhism’s symbols, rituals, and practices seem mystical almost otherworldly from the flowing robes of monks, to the symbolism of the simplistic humble request of a monk with a begging bowl, to the teachings of the dasa pāramiyo or the ten perfections in defining one’s potential for Buddha nature. Yet given the plethora of possibilities in exploring the grand narrative of Western (European and American) Buddhism, such inquiries make some false assumptions about how Buddhism in the West is defined.

References

Cantwell, C. & Kawanami, H. (2002) Buddhism in Elisabeth Arweck’s New religious movements. Religions in the modern world: traditions and transformations, pp. 47-82.

Goldberg, E. (2006). Buddhism in the west In S. C. Berkwitz Berkwitz, S. C. (Ed.). Buddhism in world cultures: comparative perspectives. Abc-clio.

Kent, S. A. (2001). From slogans to mantras: Social protest and religious conversion in the late Vietnam war era. Syracuse University Press.

McCutcheon, R. T. (1997). Manufacturing religion: The discourse on sui generis religion and the politics of nostalgia. Oxford University Press.

McMahan, D. L. (2008). The making of Buddhist modernism. Oxford University Press.

Podcasts

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Secular Jewish Millennials in Israel/Palestine

In the popular imaginary, Israel/Palestine is – and has always been – a contested territory, associated with sacred sites, the ‘Abrahamic’ religions, religion-related conflicts, and a volatile political climate. However, this unnuanced stereotype takes little account of the lived realities on the ground, particularly among the constituency at focus in today’s podcast, a large group of around 860,000 ‘secular’ millennials, who have come of age during a phase of national conflict when some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, and not just fringe figures, have utilized religio-ethnic symbols to motivate and divide.

In this podcast, Chris Cotter is joined by Dr Stacey Gutkowski to discuss what it means to be a ‘secular Jewish Israeli millennial’. What insights might the study of religion and secularity gain from taking a closer look at this constituency? Does it even make sense to refer to them as a constituency? How do they relate to Judaism, to Israel, and to Palestine? And much more…

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.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


Secular Jewish Millennials in Israel/Palestine

Podcast with Stacey Gutowski (9 December 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/secular-jewish-millennials-in-israel-palestine/

Christopher Cotter (CC): In the popular imaginary Israel/ Palestine is, and has always been, a contested territory associated with secret sites, the Abrahamic religions, religion-related conflicts and a volatile political climate. However, this un-nuanced stereotype takes little account of the lived realities on the ground – particularly among the constituency at focus in today’s podcast: a large group of around 860,000 secular millennials who have come of age during a phase of national conflict where some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, and not just fringe figures, have utilised religio-ethnic symbols and have mobilised religio-ethnic symbols to motivate and divide. Today I am joined, in Edinburgh, by Dr Stacey Gutowski to discuss what it means to be a secular Jewish Israeli millennial. What insights might the study of religion and secularity gain from taking a closer look at this constituency? Does it even make sense to refer to them as a constituency? And how do they relate to Judaism, to Israel, to Palestine and hopefully much more. Dr Gutowski is a senior lecturer in Conflict Studies and a Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Divided Societies at King’s College London. She’s the author of Secular War: Myths of Politics and Violence, published in 2012 and has been co-director of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, where I know her from, since 2008. And today’s interview touches on themes developed in her forthcoming book Being Reasonable? Secular Selfhood and Israel’s’ Post Oslo Generation which will be published with the Manchester University Press in 2020. So first-off, Stacey, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Stacey Gutowski (SG): Thanks, Chris! Really happy to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

CC: Not at all. It’s just wonderful that you’re passing through Edinburgh. I couldn’t not speak to you! So, first-off . . . I know a bit about your research journey. But if you could just tell us about your academic background: your interests, and how you have ended up conducting this study on Secular Jewish Israeli millennials.

SG: Absolutely. Thank you very much. Well, nowadays I describe myself more as a political sociologist. My academic background is in Philosophy, Peace Studies and International Relations. And my main area for research has been broadly in the area of religion, and conflict, and peace building. Specifically, I’ve been interested in the relationship between violence and the secular. My first book, which you introduced, took a Western case study looking at British foreign policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in the book I introduced some theoretical questions that I thought I would then go on to explore over a series of decades. And this was the next step on that journey. And my particular interest in this book is to understand what it’s like to be a person who’s deeply embedded in religious tradition, but someone who distances themselves – or claims to distance themselves from the religious tradition. What is it like to live through violence? And Jewish Israeli- young secular Jewish Israeli millennials were an interesting case, because they have lived through a sort-of intensive series of wars since they’ve become young adults. But also it’s a hard case, because they’re not secular in a Western sense. So it was really to provide myself with a hard case to push the theory further.

CC: Excellent. Yeah. And as Listeners . . . regular listeners to the RSP probably know, in the study of secularity more broadly, everything tends to be quite Western European or North American. So work in the Israel/Palestine context is really excellent. So hopefully this interview will add to that. So you’ve already hinted a little bit about who are these secular Jewish millennials, and why they’re interesting. But maybe if you just tell us . . . . You hinted at some of their life experiences and why they might be interesting, but if you just tell us a bit about their demographics and what makes them a group. I mean “millennials” even might seem an obvious term to some, but if you can just get right down to the basics of what we’re . . . .

SG: Yes. Of course. So I take the Pew definition of millennials: born between 1980 and 1995. And then, in terms of this population – not just millennials but in the Israeli population overall (5:00) – they are about forty percent of the population. And there are fuzzy boundaries in the kinds of Jewish practices they engage in in Israel, between these hiloni secular Jews and masortim, the traditional Jews in Israel. Because Jewish popular culture is pervasive. So unlike someone who identifies as maybe an agnostic, or an atheist, or secular in the UK, these are people who are more deeply embedded in tradition. And, as Yaacov Yadgar has argued, can’t avoid it. As a group they’re largely urban and middle class. Sixty-six percent are descended from European migrants and thirty-two percent approximately are from Jews who are descendants of migrants from the Arab world, and from the Middle East. That is this group. And interestingly, there are continuities between older generations but there are some important distinctions as well.

CC: Which we’ll be hearing about now. This seems to be an appropriate point to throw a perhaps quite a difficult question at you. We opened up the interview to our Listeners and Louis Frankenthaler came in with . . . it’s basically about the whole notion of, I guess, “secular Jew”. I mean, it’s quite a common turn of phrase, yet we don’t really seem to say “secular Christian” so much, or “secular Muslim”, “Secular Buddhist” and so on. So I’ll just sort-of run through a little bit. He says that all too often people ask if you can be Jewish and not believe in a god or God. That is, be an atheist Jew or a secular Jew. And he says that he thinks this is a misdirected question. And wonders what your take on a more substantial query that asks (not) “Can you be Jewish and not believe in deity?”, but “Can you be Jewish and not do Judaism?” That is, God is not the only issue. And many would claim that God does not care if a Jew believes in God, but only that you do what it is that this God supposedly claims that Jews do. So basically, not whether a secular Jew is someone who doesn’t believe in God, but do you still have to practice something to be considered a Jew? Or is there something more inherent in that?

SG: Yes. No it’s a great question, and thank you very much to Louis for asking it. I mean, this is an essential question that’s really pre-occupying Jews in Israel and in the diaspora. I guess as a good social scientist, the first thing I would say is: people can be whatever they want to be, and we take it seriously as analysts. So certainly you see, in Israel and elsewhere, people who reject a strict or even partial observance of Jewish law, the Halakha, who do it, but actually engage in certain practices or something in between. And then you have scenarios, for example in Israel, with people who are migrants from the former Soviet Union, who have become orthodox Jews but who are not considered as Jewish by the orthodox rabbinate in Israel. Because they don’t have a Jewish mother and they haven’t had an orthodox conversion. So it’s a complicated picture. In terms of analytically, in Israel it’s a different place form the diaspora, because it is a context in which Judaism is woven into the fabric of public law and state life. And, as Liebman says, in popular culture. And also in Israel it’s a politicised identity. And Yadgar talks about how the early founders of the state couldn’t find another way to sort-of mark citizenship, Israeli citizenship, other than through Jewish religious identity. And this particular way in which the orthodox rabbinate decides who is Jewish, and who is not. But then it creates, you know . . . . When we think about it practically, in people’s everyday lives, we can say, “Yes, people who are determined to be Jewish by the orthodox rabbinate in Israel are embedded in Jewish popular culture.”  (10:00) But so is everybody else who comes into Israel, and ends up observing or having the Shabbat as a weekend because that’s the weekend in Israel! But I think, maybe, what Louis is asking about more is that it overlooks – not the question itself – but I think it’s easy to overlook that while Judaism is the centre of gravity for people, in public life and private, in Israel, it’s not the only source of existential culture, of ideas about philosophical ideas about life and its meaning. And that there are other things that people borrow from. Some of these are more perhaps well-known, such as Buddhism or New Age practices. But other things, like western philosophy, are I think somewhat overlooked in the literature, as these are all ways in which people make meaning in their lives. And some of those forms of meaning come from Judaism, and some of them come from other things. Now it’s a different case for the diaspora, where Jewish identity in contradistinction to other forms of identity – particularly Arab identity – is not enforced by the context, by the state context. And then again I would say, going back to the social science observations, that it matters what people do and how they identify.

CC: And how they are identified, again, as well.

SG: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And the terminology of secular Jewish in English perhaps raises these analytical questions. But when we look at what people actually do, it’s perhaps more clear.

CC: Absolutely. I know I teed that up with things like “we don’t really say ‘secular Christian’” and that sort of thing. But thinking about Abby Day and her work on not Christian nominalism, and the sort-of ethnic and familial aspects to that. Thinking of my own Northern Irish context, where everything is . . . You know, so I’m from a Protestant background. Even if I converted to Catholicism I would still be considered a Protestant, and that sort of thing. There’s all this. And, yes, being a secular Catholic or a secular Protestant probably does make a lot of sense in a Northern Irish context, in a way in which it mightn’t make discursive sense in other places. OK. So thanks for attempting that potential curve ball there! So just jumping straight into the book . . . and again, you’ve already hinted at some of your research questions. What were you hoping to probe by engaging with this large constituency?

SG: Well, there were two main research questions that animated the book that ended up working together and highlighting new things about each other, and the way the question was set out as I went along. So I would say I had two working research questions which were a starting point. And the first was, I guess, more empirical: as a young “secular” Jew – secular in, I suppose, scare quotes – what has it felt like coming of age during a phase of national conflict, when some Palestinian and Israeli government leaders, not just sort-of fringe figures, have used religio-ethnic symbols divisively? So looking at that phenomenologically. What is it like to be a person coming of age when religion has taken on new forms of mattering, politically? Even though it has been . . . it has mattered politically since before the founding of the state of Israel, and particularly after the 1967 war. So that was one question. And then the second set of questions, or the second question, as I said earlier, was to use Israel as a hard case to think theoretically. And that question was: what do violent political conflicts look and, most importantly, feel like to people who claim to distance themselves from the majority religious tradition in their given context – and yet are fundamentally embedded within it?

CC: And although we don’t want to spend too much time on the methods, we will want to know how you went about it as well (15:00). Unless the methods are really so exciting that you want to spend the rest of the interview talking about them, of course!

SG: No we can go through it quickly. So the project took a phenomenological approach. It’s an interpretivist approach. I did fifty interviews with self-identified hiloni millennials. For people who know the case, the point about self-identified-. . . I also took into account that some people appear to . . . but then began to speak about their religious practices and identities and turned out to be masorti some days and hiloni some days. So some days they’re traditional, some days they’re secular. So I took that into account in the analysis, and tried to take seriously what they say. Then I did . . . I also did twenty interviews with the transitional generation who are just older than them. These are people who were in their early twenties in the 1990s. And then I interviewed millennials who are traditionally Jewish or orthodox and then members of civil society. Some of them are also millennial. There was a survey of over ninety millennials surveyed – an in-depth survey. And then, for triangulation, it was participant observation and field notes, public opinion polls, various public reports, testimonies, media reviews . . . .

CC: So, not much then! (Laughs)

SG: No it was a very, very quick project – as you can tell! (Laughs)

CC: Excellent. So based on that large body of data and what we assume was your thorough analysis . . . . Well, let’s just dive in to some of your . . . . What did you find?

SG: OK.

CC: What’s going on?

SG: Just a few things. (Laughs) I guess, maybe I’ll talk a little bit first about what I found for this generation in terms of hiloni-masorti as a religio-class. Because I think of them not as just a religious sector, but as an elite middle class group – which also has this dimension of religious identity and practice. One of the things that’s interesting about this group is that they came of age during what scholars have called the religionisation of Jewish Israeli society. Now scholars have defined this in different ways. And some talk about this as the religionisation of politics: that orthodox and traditional views of, for example, the land and what the state of Israel should look like as the Jewish state, that these things have become more prominent over a secular socialist version of Zionism. And while that is the case, also thinking in terms of hadata – the sort-of intensification of Jewish practice – that people would begin to maybe just practice little bit more, so a little bit more, marginally, than they relatively would, in terms for example of holiday celebrations with family. So this is something that they have come of age in the middle of. They’ve also come of age in the middle of a sort-of revival of people thinking about what it is to be secular Jew, or secular Jews becoming orthodox, and of different forms of Judaism – conservative Judaism, Reform, revisionist Judaism – becoming marginally more popular with North American migration to Israel. So they come of age in the middle of this. But in terms of identity, there are no sort-of marked differences, as far as I could tell, with the transitional generation. In terms of practice, what’s interesting is that millennials don’t see this as an intensification. Because they’ve come of age in the middle of it. So you don’t see it, because you’re in it. So they think it’s unremarkable. And people who are a bit older, you know, talk about this massive shift in Jewish Israeli public life since the 1980s (20:00). In terms of the class aspect of this, what was quite noteworthy is that the presence of mizrahi middle class millennials who would identify with the term hiloni –and not simply because of this Zionist binary creation between secular and religious Jews. But actually because the term means something to them – either in terms of politics, or economics, or class aspirations. So this class looks somewhat different than it did. Because you have this group, you have new entrants, the migrants from the former Soviet Union, and these have changed what the class looks like.

CC: Obviously – I mean I’m just following your lead here – but this group is a major element in Israel/Palestine. There’s obviously Palestine and Palestinians, and so what about Israeli millennials and their relation to and their constructions of Palestine, and Palestinians, and the whole conflict issue . . . ?

SG: Absolutely. So they’re not politically unique, in that they stand out from the rest of the population. Their political opinions on the Palestinians, and on occupation, have sort-of followed the general trends along with the Jewish Israeli population. But there are two things that, politically, are distinctive in terms of their experience with Palestinians. One is, separation policy – following the end of the second Intifada, with the building of the separation barrier in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. It’s not as though previous generations of this group had necessarily lived in close contact with Palestinians. But scholars have found that this has had an impact, socially and psychologically, on being able to imagine the other. The other thing that’s distinctive about this generation, in terms of the Palestinians, is the sheer number of wars and repeated wars. So for this group – the exceptions being the oldest and the youngest – but we can think of the core of this group as having served in the disengagement, withdrawing Israeli settlements from Gaza, then serving in 2006, 2008, 2011-12 and 2014. Not to mention the 2006 war in Lebanon. So the sort-of level of violent contact is quite distinct. And then a couple of other things that are distinct have been electoral success of centre-right political parties, including religious parties. And then, also, debates between 2011 and 2018 about the basic law, the constitutional arrangements of the State of Israel, and the ethnic framing of the state. So these are things that have . . . . Well, the religious experiences are somewhat different. The political experience is quite different from people who were in their twenties during the Oslo Peace Process. Because this is the constituency that was the backbone of the peace movement, supportive of the Oslo process. So there’s been a gradual shift, politically, to the centre, relatively to the right, among this group. In a recent election we see sort-of potentially, potentially another shift, at least in terms political government leadership. So this is . . . they’re quite different from the transitional generation.

CC: And we’re already at 25 minutes here which is time . . . I mean, we can run on a little bit of course, but we can . . . . One of the main arguments in your book is this concept that you call “neo-romanticism”: this sort-of characterising feature for the hilonis (25:00). What’s going on there? What do you mean by neo-romanticism?

SG: Absolutely. I mean this came out of a grounded approach of needing to look at what was happening across quite a diverse group of people. I interviewed politically diverse – from right, centre, to left – geographically diverse in terms of gender and other characteristics. And when I was looking at the material and trying to draw out: “Ok. What united this group?” There were a couple of things that really united them. And one of them was this emphasis on personal experience. Now certainly in the media, and in public life, there’s a lot of discussion that Jewish Israeli millennials are maybe a bit individualistic, selfish and that this is a product of the shift to a capitalist economy in Israel in the 1980s. And yes, I saw that. But there seemed to be something going on as well about the idea of emotion and personal experience being very important. And that was something that people referred to repeatedly, about using their personal experience to navigate the world. And another feature that came out that was important was there was – yes there was individualism, but then there was also a great deal of sort-of attachment, not to the state per se, as a political entity, but to Jewish people and not . . . . You know, they referenced this sort-of Zionist discourse about the Jewish people, but for them it was specifically the Jewish people they know: their friends, their family. So there’s a kind-of dialectic between individual and collective. And I needed to account for this political diversity. Why was it that the emotional ecology, and the way people talked about themselves, talked about the conflict, the occupation, the Palestinians, politics, life in general – why was there something . . . ? There was a thread that underpinned all of that. Why? And so I started to think a bit more about Talal Asad’s use of Stefan Collini’s idea of romanticism. And what Assad has to say about romanticism as a secular, but also a spiritual, movement. Now of course romanticism was a feature of the European Jewish experience during the Haskalah – (audio unclear) book on this is very interesting – and also nineteenth century romanticism informed political Zionism. I’m not saying that . . . I’m not trying to draw these direct historical connections. I’m more kind-of inspired by Assad’s use of this. And so I talk about . . . that as the hiloni habitus developed from the nineteenth century onwards, that it always had these different strands to it. One romantic and one rationalist. And that this romantic strand is really important. And it’s not obvious, because when you speak to people they will tell you that they’re heavily rationalist. And then you probe further, and they’re heavily emotional. And so I like this idea of romanticism. And I called it neo-romanticism to set it apart, to say that I’m not drawing a clear line with the nineteenth century. To talk about this emphasis on personal experience, Collini says that for the nineteenth century romantics, individual and collective didn’t contradict one another. And he also says that nineteenth century romanticism was neither explicitly politically conservative nor progressive. It made possible different kinds of politics. And this, I thought, was a good way of talking about what’s happening among this group. That lived experience is important, that there is something happening in terms of the role of emotion and also religious and spiritual and philosophical effervescence. These things are in motion in Israel, not just with New Ageism and secular renewal and the impact of Mizrahi renaissance on popular culture. But there is something there. So these narratives about being reasonable and being rational need to be unpicked. And I thought it accounted for this sort-of tension between the individual and the collective. And what I say is neo-romanticism is a kind of neo-republican citizenship. So what’s talked about in the literature, and in the Jewish Israeli media, is that with liberalism and Zionist republicanism, care for the state is somehow juxtaposed (30:00). And like, no – these things are working together. Yes there may be . . . absolutely, there are people who are very, very liberal and individualistic and leave the state, but it would be a mistake to miss the ways in which they are sort-of bound to the state as well.

CC: So I’m going to ask you two more questions. One is going to be the “Why does this matter?” So, this scene you’ve just painted there, this sort-of neo-romantic thread that’s uniting this seemingly potentially disparate group. I think, in the book, you draw some of the implications of this politically. And then I’m also interested in why should we care about it in Religious Studies, really. What difference does it make to me? (Laughs).

SG: OK. Two very, very big questions. Let me start with the first one. Why does this matter politically? There are a lot of reasons why the state of the political situation between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis is what it is at the moment, having to do with violence, with the election of particular leaders on both sides, by strategic decisions made not to continue with negotiation after 2014. And what I’m saying is that, in the context of what critical geographers call the “national atmosphere”, that it’s also important to look at what’s happening in terms of lived habitus, and how people think about themselves. And what I found was that people, regardless of where they were on the political spectrum, were united in thinking of themselves as what I’d call “fulcrum citizens”, balancing out extremes – both extremes on the right and extremes on the left – Jewish Israeli extremes, Palestinian extremes. What they see as extremist, internationally, in Europe. That they see themselves as balancing people. And that they see this related to their hiloni needs, their religious class habitus, but that they’re also shaped by their – for this generation – a Jewish-centric experience, after the failure of Oslo. So I say that this is part of the mix in understanding the ongoing conflict and continuing occupation. It’s one of many different factors, but I don’t think it’s yet been particularly brought to the fore. So that’s what I want to say about that.

CC: Excellent. And how about, for someone not in the study of Israel /Palestine, perhaps not even in the study of the secular and that sort of thing. What do you think is the sort-of import . . . ?

SG: The big takeaway for Religious Studies? When I got to the end of the book, and I revisited these questions, the one thing that stood out for me was the importance of studying the individual level and of studying gradations of emotional attachment to religious identities, symbols, spaces. In Brubaker’s work, in 2015, he points to this about the importance of studying the individual level. But I don’t think that we yet, in the field, are particularly good at doing that. And yet we claim to study ethno-religious conflict, or religio-ethnic conflict, and the intersection of the two. And it’s not simply, you know, insert identity and everyone’s going to feel the same way. And we know that. That’s kind-of something we know, practically. But I thought that this was an area that could be further advanced. And I talk about it a bit at the end of the book, about where I think we could go. In particular, thinking about studying political conflict within ethno-religious dimension beyond identity (35:00). So that was one thing I wanted to do in the book was . . . . There’s chapter on space, and there’s a chapter on epistemology, to try to move into new directions.

CC: Begging the forgiveness of Helen, who’ll be transcribing this (Granted) I did say, if we had time, I’d mention another theme like sacred space, and how that came up in the book. So what would you have wanted to say – in, like, thirty seconds – that you haven’t got to say?

SG: That’s ok. It’s attached to the other thing. I mean, again, this is related to the point about how the literature, I think, needs to not presume emotional attachment to sacred space, but needs to drill down into people’s individual feelings about sacred space. Because just because people have an ethno-religious identity, they may not particularly care about place. But at the same time, just because they claim they don’t care, does not mean that they actually do not.

CC: Exactly.

SG: And so it makes ideas around compromising and sharing sacred space complicated. And I looked at the Haram al Sharif, Temple Mountain, and attitudes to that in the book.

CC: So, Listeners, if you want to find out more about that – when in 2020 are we expecting this? Or do we not want to say a month yet?

SG: Hopefully, soon.

CC: Hopefully, soon! So that book is going to be Being Reasonable? Secular Selfhood and Israel’s Post-Oslo generation. Stacey Gutowski, we hope our Listeners will read that book and shout widely about it. But if they don’t, they’ve heard an excellent interview today! Thank you so much.

SG: Thank you so much.

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.

Reflections on “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith”

Following the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” Conference hosted by the Norwegian University for Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, Aaron W. Hughes, the conference’s keynote speaker, joined the Religious Studies project to discuss some of what was discussed during the conference and primarily the legacy of J.Z. Smith’s work for the field of religious studies.

The conference provided great examples of the application of Smith’s work across sub-fields and for religious studies pedagogy. But this wide application of Smith’s work also raised some questions not only about how scholars read and engage with Smith’s work but also about how we adapt and apply Smith’s work moving forward. Hughes reflects on the impact of Smith’s work while also addressing critiques of his approach. Hughes contends that Smith left scholars of religion with a simple but impossible task of critically engaging and reflecting on one’s work while maintaining a playful, comparative approach.

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Reflections on the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. Smith” Conference at NTNU

 

Podcast with Aaron W. Hughes (11 November 2019).

Interviewed by Andie Alexander

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/reflections-on-thinking-with-jonathan-z-smith/

PDF of this transcript available for download here.

Andie Alexander: (AA): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. I’m Andie Alexander, a doctoral student at Emory University. And joining me today is Dr Aaron Hughes of the University of Rochester. We are here in Trondheim, Norway, following the “Thinking with Jonathan Z. SmithConference that is hosted at the Norwegian Institute for Science and Technology. And we’re here to talk about the legacy of Smith and his work, his contribution, and ways in which we can move forward in the field. So, Aaron – Hi! Thanks for joining me.

Aaron Hughes (AH): Hi, Andie. How are you doing?

AA: Great. Are you enjoying Norway?

AH: I am. It’s very beautiful.

AA: It’s nice.

AH: The midnight sun reminds me of my childhood in Edmonton, Alberta.

AA: There you go. As long as I’ve been here it’s only been daylight! So, I don’t know if the sun sets. But it’s been nice.

AH: I think it sets at like one, and then gets up at three.

AA: (Laughs) It’s very nice. Well, let’s talk about Smith. Let’s talk about what we’ve discussed, and see what questions we have.

AH: Sounds great. Let’s do it. I think we should probably begin everything by saying that Smith has probably been the most important theoretician over the past fifty years, half century. I think he’s so important . . . so I’ll talk about the past before I talk about what I think. So I think that probably, he more than anyone, was responsible for smashing the Eliadian phenomenological paradigm. The problem is, even though that paradigm should be long dead and buried, it’s still one that our students gravitate towards and still one that a number of our colleagues gravitate towards. I think, it’s what I tried to say a couple of times, we’re in one of these rarefied environments of people who are more critical, who just think we’re all the same and we preach to the converted. Whereas, when we walk the halls of the AAR and look at some of the papers that are given there, they fall back a lot on that old phenomenological model. So I think that’s Smith’s main importance. So Smith – and I think we all fall in this legacy – refused to see religion as special, sui generis, or as unique in the ontological sense. It might be unique to us, but ontologically it’s not unique. And if it’s not unique, you can’t compare it to anything else. And I think that’s the beauty of him, is that he was able to show the incongruous relationship between the quote-unquote “religious” and the quote-unquote “mundane”. So I think that’s where . . . . I mean, and the other thing, I think, that came up a number of times at the conference was the ludic or the playful dimension of Smith. But I mean the flipside of that is that he was so knowledgeable and so comfortable. Whereas when we get undergraduates who are not comfortable and they don’t have nearly the depth of education that he did . . . so there’s a problem of translation. I think the other thing that’s great about Smith is his broad comparative . . . his broad vision. And I think that’s something that a lot of us don’t share, because again that goes against what we’re taught in graduate school. So it’s funny, I think, when I talk to a number of people about this, a lot of the people here who work with Smith . . . . I think I really only began to appreciate Smith after graduate school. Because then you’re afforded the slowness of reading him, and appreciating him.

AA: I can see that. It’s sort-of different, given that I’ve had to read him as an undergrad, because. . . It’s a different sort of introduction . . .

AH: Right. In Alabama. Yes, definitely!

AA: And so, in the same sense, it’s something that I think is important for people to at least have in their repertoire. But something that I find is often not taught in grad school, or is never much, and it’s always highly contested.

AH: Yes. And I think I said in my lecture that I never encountered Smith until graduate school. We just read people like Eliade and Weber, and maybe there was a reason for that. Maybe the person that taught the course thought, “Well you’ll get Smith later, so let’s . . . .” That was good for me, because I read first all the things that Smith would later be critical of. By the time I came to Smith it was like, “Yes, I can see that.”

AA: I think, too, the distinction that you’re making between seeing religion as “unique for us”, and not ontologically unique, is something that is lost, partly in that religions chapter that he wrote (5:00). I suspect, as I read that, he was being provocative – but he probably meant it. But not in the way that I suspect a lot of people want to contend with. And it’s easier to dismiss. Because as you said, he was pushing back against the whole phenomenological paradigm, I suppose. And while, especially given the group here, we are relatively on the same page and think that this should be obvious that this should be something that everyone is doing . . . and that’s something you mention in your keynote: how is this not something that’s just common knowledge across the academy?

AH: I think a lot people still believe in the sacred, or still believe . . . . I think this is where the problem is. We live in a very chaotic world where “religions” quote-unquote don’t seem to like one another particularly. I think this really comes to the fore after 9/11. So a lot of people in Religious Studies think that Religious Studies can be that which facilitates conversation between religions. That’s always . . . I joke to my students: “I didn’t spend ten years in graduate school to be an interfaith dialogue facilitator.” As important as that work is, though, really. So oftentimes I’ll try to get Jews and Muslims to talk together but not under the auspices of the academic classroom. I think, as I’ve said before, religions get along better when they talk to one another as opposed to when they shout at one another. But I do think a lot of people in the Religious Studies academy think that that’s the goal of Religious Studies: to show the similarities between religions. I disagree, and I think Smith would disagree. But I think that . . . I always worry that Smith was . . . . Smith was on point. Smith was edgy. Smith was critical. Smith really encourages us to do that. But the two things that I worry about, as I said in the keynote, are those people that will just write him off as another dead white guy – which as I said is absolutely stupid, given the fact that he wasn’t even white, he was Jewish. But that’s another matter. And the second thing that I think we’ll see is how the field will “inocculise” Smith. So that he’ll just become like a name or a trope. And people can invoke him but they’ll do it in a way that takes off the edge. And I think we see that. I’ve seen it a lot. So everyone can say, “According to Smith blah, blah, blah . . .” But they’ll never quite follow through in what Smith wanted us to do.

AA: I think you’re right. And I think in some ways what he was working against then, with his work and pushing back against the Eliadian model, we have a different version of it that’s sort-of present in the academy now. It’s maybe not as overt. But I think it’s there. So, to me, I suspect there’s still some push that has to happen. There’s still conversations to be had within the discipline. And how it works. And I think part of my concern in those conversations is the dismissal of Smith. It’s reductive – all of those critiques that get applied to his work. And what I find is that there’s very little engagement with it – if one has even read it.

AH: Well, I think just as Smith goes against our traditional ways of reading and thinking about religion, I think the modern academy goes against Smith. So on the one hand, our students come in woefully ignorant about what religion is. So we can’t engage the type of work that Smith wants until much later. You can’t have redescription without description. So I think we spend a lot of time, at least the classes we teach at the freshman and sophomore level, trying to describe to students. But hopefully if they stay for later classes we can begin to redescribe. The other thing is, I think, with the contemporary academy we’re always encouraged to do community engagement. And so job interviews will ask people, “So how will you interact with the community? What will you do with them?” And I think, in interacting with the community, we have certain expectations that go against what Smith (10:00). . . I don’t think Smith ever interacted with the local Jewish community. I don’t think the local communities are really amenable to the type of conversation that Smith had. So I think we have to fight back. And I think that’s what some of us would do. But the key, in moving forward, is how to keep the edge of a Smithian analysis. How to apply it so it just doesn’t become a bromide – which is what I think a lot of people would like it to become.

AA: Developing what Smith was doing, trying to continue to push it forward – especially given the requirements both of the job market, of service for the school, the department, because that’s shifted over the past 20 years alone. And community engagement is something very big, and there’s a huge focus on doing that sort of work. And I think that it can be very productive. But as a discipline we’re still figuring out how to do that successfully, I think, in ways that we can both learn, but also interpret, and translate, and in service of larger concerns and issues both in the community, the discipline, the nation . . .

AH: Yes. Well I think what you’ll never or rarely see a job in just theory and method in the study of religion. I think in the past twenty years I’ve maybe seen three or four of those. So, one always has to be trained in a tradition. And I’m not sure if Smith was trained in a tradition. I mean his thesis was on . . . his dissertation was on The Golden Bough. So Smith was generalist at a time when Religious Studies was particularist. So the question I think becomes: how can you translate a Smithian-type analysis into the particular fields? And that’s difficult, as we saw with some of the papers here that tried to engage Smith from the level of area studies. There had to be a lot of remedial work that they had to do for us, who aren’t in that tradition, in order to get to a small Smithian point. So I think, as we move forward, how to translate Smith into area studies will not be easy. But maybe that’s the point. That was one of the points that came out several times in the conference, was the playful or ludic dimension of Smith. Maybe that’s the method: to show the playfulness or the ludic dimension of what we work on, or how – quote-unquote – “sacred kingship” in Tibet is no more special than any other type of power hierarchy. So maybe that’s it, it’s the playful dimension. Maybe that’s his method. Did he have a method, other than showing that the religious is not qualitatively different than non-religious?

AA: Yeah. I mean, I think . . .

AH: Reflexivity, maybe?

AA: Yes self-reflexivity is certainly something that is required and this came up in many of our conversations. But maybe coupled with that playfulness.

AH: Yes. I think you’re right. I think that Smith’s message on the one hand is very simple. We need to be self-conscious, self-reflexive scholars who don’t treat religion as somehow special different or special from mundane things. And I think that’s where the playfulness comes through. So the question becomes: how do you translate that into particular religions, which in area studies tend to be a lot more serious and not engaged in play? And how do you translate that into a pedagogical idiom or an idiom working with the communities, which are not accustomed to think about religion in a playful way? Because, “this is what the Bible says you’re supposed to do”. Or, “this is what the Qur’an says”. So I think the classroom is easier to translate that than the community. But it still poses its set of problems. From our conversation yesterday, we said that where Smith tried to translate his more theoretical ideas was in the Dictionary. I’m not sure how successful the Dictionary was. I mean, no-one engaged the dictionary here. We rarely talk about that. We talk about the essays in his main publications. But we never talk about the Dictionary (15:00). I haven’t looked at the Dictionary in ages. So maybe I should go back again and look at it. So it’s hard. But maybe the main translation of that is to get students to be playful with religion. That’s how I try to do it, so they can joke about it. Obviously . . . I think it’s easy in the community, too. As we move forward, and I think I said that in the lecture, I mean, we have to absorb Smith’s critique. We have to absorb his wit. And we have to absorb his edge. But create new edges and new wits as a way to move forward. Because if not, we’ll just make him into a name or slogan that doesn’t have any venom. And I think that maybe the way to go with that is to bring him into the study of particular religions, which isn’t easy. The main thing I really like about Smith is that he encourages us to use our imaginations.

AA And I agree. For Smith he does encourage that. He encourages odd comparisons that might not make sense. And tracing historical etymologies and to have a better conception of how we talk about religion. . .

  1. AH. . . in human activity.

AA: . . . in human activity, yes.

AH: It’s hard, because. . . . I agree, and I think that’s the way it should be. But ultimately if you’re in an area, like in Islamic Studies, my work has to be adjudicated by people in Islamic Studies. It might not . .  . The chances are it might not come out of Religious Studies. So you always have to move back and forth between trying to make theoretical contributions to the field of Religious Studies, but with the realisation that people in Religious Studies might not read it, because it’s in Islamic Studies, or Jewish Studies, or Buddhist Studies, or whatever. At the same time, to write in such a way that those people that would naturally read it – people in those area studies – would be able to understand the argument. So that’s always the trick. I think I’ve been able to do it well. But I don’t think it’s easy. And I think, ideally, I’ve tried to pave a path for young scholars in Islamic studies, to try to do that. Whether that’s successful or not, I don’t know. But that . . . I think that’s the main thing as we move forward… that will be one of the issues of how to translate Smith. We talked about that. We talked about Daniel Barbu and Nick Meylan in Geneva in Switzerland have tried to translate Smith into French. I’m not sure to what effect. Part of the project is trying to translate Smith into Italian. And again, I don’t know how you . . . . It came up several times: how you translate Smith for an undergraduate American audience is one thing, but how you translate it for an Italian audience, or a French audience, or a Polish audience, is another thing. And I don’t think that’s easy. But I think Smith should be translated into other languages. Probably maybe not a word-for-word translation, but a more conceptual type of translation. How do we take the playful aspect in English and translate it into Italian? You can’t do it.

AA: You can’t.

AH: You have to be playful in Italian in order to . . . . So it becomes a very difficult process. But all translation is difficult. You can think, do you want a literal translation, or do you want a conceptual translation? And I think it’s the conceptual translation – both at the literal level in other languages and into other fields within Religious Studies – that will be the difficulty moving forward. But I think it can happen. I think it will happen. Most of us here are committed to making that happen.

AA: Yes, I think so. As was mentioned, it doesn’t happen overnight, those changes. But I think that, to me at least, is why having more productive work happening in the classroom early on, and not following the method of just: give information, undo it later. . .

AH: I like to . . . See, because I have to work with Islamic Studies and most people don’t know anything about Islam, I really have to begin by making sure they know the narratives. And ideally know the texts in the languages. Because then, I think, you can learn the theoretical stuff (20:00). I know probably people would disagree with me here, but I’m old fashioned that way. But I think you need the description, I think you need the details and the facts, but later you can say that no facts are facts, they’re simply ideologies going under the guise of whatever. But I think students need that. And then they can play. Because you can’t play unless you know the rules of the game.

AA: That’s true. You have to know the rules. And I think that’s key. But where I think I’m going to push on that, is that most people are not going to play. They’re not going to be here, right? And so, if we’re talking to an undergraduate class of a hundred people, and this is the humanities credit that they get, what then? Because they’re not going to remember the narratives of Islam. They’re not going to remember different facts about any world religions.

AH: Yeah. That’s tough.

AA: And so, is the key, then, that they have all of that data that makes them feel more confident in saying, “Well, I know what true Islam is”, versus being able to weigh those claims of authority and authenticity against one another?

AH: I think you’re right. We always speak out of our own context. And I’m lucky, we don’t have humanities requirements in my university. People are in the class because they want to be in the class. And I think if I’m playful enough in the class then they’ll come into the second and third level classes. So yes. So I’ve never dealt with that. But if I did have to teach a larger class – I teach 18-20 students all of whom want to be there, and who do the reading – so if I had to teach these big . . . . I can’t even imagine doing it. I don’t know what I’d do. I really don’t. I mean I guess you’re right. How do you transmit the information, but in the same way let them know that the information is wafer thin?

AA: It’s contingent.

AH: Yes. So that is . . . That’s a tough question. And I don’t have to think about that too much, which is a cop out! But I know if I taught at a large state university, for sure I’d have to think about that.

AA: And I think that is part of it. The ways in which any discipline is approached varies so drastically across universities.

AH: That’s what Smith said. That’s a great point. Because Smith taught at the type of place that I teach at. So very bright undergraduates – some of the brightest in the country – who probably had some idea of what the religions were. And then he would kind-of work to undermine that. So like where I teach, I teach an Introduction to Jewish History class. And most of the students are Jewish. They’ve come out of, often, Jewish day school in the New York City, Boston area. They know their stuff. They know the data. But I get them in the classroom because they’re very bright, and they think “Well, you know what, maybe my parents . . . maybe it all doesn’t quite make sense.” So at the introductory level I can probably do what people at a large state university can only do at the third or fourth year. And I wonder if Smith probably had something similar to that. Because he must have taught. . . .So I think that every institution is different. And there’s large state universities, there are the colleges and they’re like the elite, private university, Research 1 universities that have these different constituencies. And maybe that would have been a good workshop, translating this myth into the undergraduate classroom? But heck, I don’t think we can translate him . . . . Most people can’t even translate him into their own areas of research. How they translate him into the classroom is not easy. Because I think, to go back to where we began, Smith asks us to do that which is the opposite of what the modern academy encourages us to do. Which is to read quickly read fast, to not have an imagination, and to not take pedagogy seriously (25:00). And I think that all of Smith’s work shows that, no – you have to do those things.

AA: Yes. It absolutely does to me. And I think that’s something that is lost, given the requirements both of grad students and tenure track faculty instructors, of course. There are so many demands on production that there’s not enough time to really investigate something that might not be in your area, or work through how to apply something. And this was a question that I think came up, in terms of applying Smith. Should we be trying to strive for a literal, intentional understanding of Smith as the author, or should we take what we can – whether he’s taught in the classroom explicitly or referenced – and adapt it. And try to apply those ideas in ways that might not be obvious. But, well, if we’re going to talk about “the other”, let’s consider issues of immigration or . . .

AH: Yes.

AA: And that way you can bring it in – even though his e.g.s are not anything that I would use, personally, in a class – or even overlap with the area that I work in – and try to take some sort of nugget or something from his approach, in terms of shaping our own approach. Because, as you mentioned, that’s a key thing for Smith is how he is approaching his own research.

AH: Yes. I think Smith might say, “Forget about me. I’m gone. But take some of the tools that I’ve tried to play with and work with them. You don’t even have to mention my name. You don’t have to say “J.Z Smith said this . . .” Just take the self-reflexivity, take the playful element, take the comparison . . . and, again, when smith says of comparison: “You can’t compare X to Y without having a third term, Z”, like, on the one hand that’s so obvious, but on the other hand it’s so deep. But I think Smith would say “Well, just move forward.” I’d like to think that’s what he would say. “Forget about me. Just keep the creativity, keep the self-reflexivity, realise that the terms you use probably have baggage in them and don’t simply replicate them.” That’s what I’m more interested in. I think for me, one of my main goals is to try and take some of the complicated Smithian and other analysis that we have in Religious Studies – at least in the critical wing of Religious Studies – and translate them into area studies. Which is not easy when you have to do it in a particular way. But I think I’ve done it with a certain amount of success. So I think, like that’s… how you take ninth century Arabic texts and ask certain questions of them – not flatten them by asking certain questions, but how you appreciate the texts on their own terms and at the same time ask questions of them that come out of that which us theory-and-method-people do.

AA: Yes. And I think that is the key. Because when we are at a conference like this, there’s a luxury of working with people who are all sort-of working toward the same goal and are concerned for those issues. But then translating that into our own fields and to others in the academy . . . .

AH: And it’s difficult, as we saw with some of the more technical papers on the second day. I mean some of the . . . I mean there’s a lot of descriptive work where, say, someone working on South Asia or East Asia, in order to bring the rest of us up to speed there has to be a lot of descriptive and informative work, and only then can they get to the questions. And I think, as the papers were so short, that sometimes it was difficult to get to those questions because of all the background work. But that’s good, though. I think that’s good. Because I don’t think Smith would say, “Oh yeah, we should all just give up working in areas or text and just ask these questions.” I think he would say that some of us should do that work.

AA: Yes. I mean we have to engage that. And I think what’s good, too, with the technical papers that we heard, it is hearing from other disciplines and not talking only to your discipline (30:00). That’s exactly what highlights – at least in my way of thinking – Smith’s goal in terms of playing with ideas and asking different questions. Because when you are listening to a paper on East Asia, and I do American religion, then what we have in common is not our area. So if we’re going to talk to each other productively, as I would hope we would, we have to have a way of doing that.

AH: Yes. We have to have common set of questions. I think that’s what Smith really . . . I think that would be his definition of the field, where people who are working with different texts, and different traditions, and different data sets, can learn from one another by asking similar sets of questions. And to me, that’s Religious Studies at its best. But again, for those in area studies like myself, it’s a trade-off being able to do that and at the same time to be able to speak to just those people that work with Arabic texts or other types of Islamic texts. Which isn’t easy. But it can be done.

AA: It can be. And I think the only way to impact area studies in a way that could push it to a more Smithian, potentially Smithian model is to do that, and to bring that work there. And we can’t also just talk to ourselves.

AH: Yes, exactly.

AA: And it’s easy to do – but again, that goes against the whole point. We have to engage across areas and disciplines within Religious Studies.

AH: Yes. And also realise that sometimes area studies have a lot to teach us, too.

AA: Yes.

AH: I think that’s important.

AA: I think so.

AH: And I really think that’ll be Smith’s legacy. I think that that’s . . . . On the one hand, he doesn’t ask too much of us, but on the other hand he asks everything: to rethink ourselves, rethink our own relationship to that which we study – and if it’s found wanting, to transform.

 

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Ideal Types, Semantic Anarchy, and the Study of Atheism (etc.)

By Christopher R. Cotter, in response to an interview with Chris Silver on “Atheism, New Religious Movements, and Cultural Tension”. Listening to Chris Silver’s recent podcast on Atheism, New Religious Movements, and Cultural Tension was a thoroughly pleasant experience. I enjoyed hearing a colleague who I first met in 2011, and who quickly came on board the nascent RSP team (as interviewer, editor, writer, and more), taking his well-earned place on the ‘other’ side of the microphone. Like Chris, I recognize the problems associated with treating atheists, agnostics, ‘nones’, etc., as distinct groups with coherent attitudinal correspondences. I’ve also used grounded theory and social constructionism in my approach to ‘non-religion’ and recognize the issue of one’s work being taken out of context. I welcomed hearing of broad-ranging, quantitative work being carried out within the psychology of religion with an eye to debates in the broader, critical study of religion, and the new developments in his work relating to status loss, New Religious Movements, and more. Despite the many positives of the approach outlined by Silver,  critical problems with it—exemplified in my own work, too—concern the construction of ideal types, and the proliferation of idiosyncratic terminology. In what follows, I’ll discuss each of these issues in turn before proposing a discursive solution.

Ideal Types

Referring to the ‘insubstantial’ secular, Lois Lee pithily observes that ‘it is not possible to organize absence into types’ (2015, 51). However, this isn’t the case with substantive understandings of ‘non-religion’ and in 2011 I set out with similar ambitions to Silver, producing a typology of non-religion in my Masters dissertation (Cotter 2011, 2015). This project was conducted amongst the undergraduate student body of the University of Edinburgh taking a grounded theoretical approach which elicited narratives via electronic questionnaires and qualitative interviews. Two of the key insights suggested were that:    
  • The ways in which students negotiated (non-)religious terminology throughout their narratives allowed the development of five ideal types which were seemingly independent of established religious categories: naturalistic, humanistic, philosophical, familial, and spiritual.
  • Regardless of the salience of the students’ (non-)religious identifications, they appeared to be keenly aware of where they stood when religion or non-religion were perceived to interact with what mattered to them
A significant reason I have felt unease with these insights as they stand is my somewhat lofty and obfuscating attempt to provide an exhaustive ideal-typical account of non-religion. Ideal Types are commonly understood as ‘analytical tools to be used to facilitate comparison’ (Barker 2010, 188 fn. 2), as ‘pragmatic constructs’ which can in no way ‘be regarded as essential categories or ontological realities’ (Cox 2006, 83). Recent relevant examples would be Lois Lee’s five types of ‘existential culture’ (2015, 161–72), John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism (2018)Silver and colleagues’ ‘six types of non-belief’ (Silver et al. 2014), or my own five-fold typology of ‘non-religion’. Even when writing my dissertation, I was clearly uneasy concerning the correlation between these types and my data:

“These narrative-based types cannot be assumed to be constant, and must be understood as firmly rooted in the context in which they were revealed. However, they reflect what individuals actually say, and give priority to individual self-representations, providing a much ‘truer’ representation of what (non)religion means to these individuals than wide-ranging, quantitative, typologies which suffer from the same contextual constraints.” (2011, 76)

Although I, and most others who employ ideal types, have never claimed that classifying individuals is a simple matter, and have emphasized that there is much overlap between types, it is almost invariably the case that their artificial and constructed nature becomes lost in translation (see Silver’s comments about misrepresentations of his work in the media), giving the false impression that individuals can be easily boxed off into discrete types. Whilst such work is valuable for macro-level analysis, it fundamentally breaks down at the level of the individual where heterogeneity and contextuality abound: there is ‘no such thing as a perfect or ideal-typical form’ of difference to ‘religion’ (Lee 2015, 44).  ‘Religious, spiritual, secular, and non-religious identities are not stable, unitary formations’ (Hoesly 2015), but rather what Jean-François Bayart refers to as ‘operational acts of identification’ (2005, 92). However, in relation to the study of ‘Atheism’, Ethan Quillen argues that prevalent ideal-typical generalizations are perhaps ‘nothing more than a product of the current scholarly study of Atheism’s predominant focus on the social-scientific attempt at making sense of “Atheism-in-general,” rather than “Atheism-in-specific”’ (2015a, 30), the ‘attempt at finding an identity in the numerous applications of an ambiguous word’ (Baird 1991, 11).

Semantic Anarchy 

Going further, these problems are clearly connected to issues surrounding terminology. The contemporary situation has been described as verging on ‘a situation of semantic anarchy, in which individual scholars work with idiosyncratic definitions’ (Jong 2015, 19). Indeed, Quillen argues that the whole discourse on ‘types of atheism’, or indeed the very terminology of ‘ir-religion,’ ‘un-belief,’ ‘non-religion’, etc., is ‘not unlike that which complicates the definition of “religion”’ (2015b, 132), and falls foul of much of the critique levelled at the term (see RSP podcasts with Timothy FitzgeraldRussell McCutcheonJames CoxBrent NongbriTeemu Taira and others). In addition, ‘The conceptual balkanisation that results from the proliferation of idiosyncratic definitions makes […] fruitful collaboration more difficult’ between scholars doing empirical work in different contexts (Jong 2015, 19). We need not despair, though. This situation of proliferating ideal types and idiosyncratic terminology can be remedied by scholars being ‘vigilantly specific about the aspect of “nonreligion” that they are interested in’ (Jong 2015, 20), restricting themselves to very particular contexts—historical, textual, ethnographic, etc. Alternatively, my preferred route is to take a discursive approach.

Discursive Approaches

As I’ve previously argued, we can fruitfully 

“conceptualize non-religion as part of a religion-related field comprising ‘all phenomena that are generally (or according to a certain definition of “religion”) considered to be not religious, but stand in a determinable and relevant relationship to the religious field.’ This relationship can take the form of criticism, competition, collaboration, mirroring, functional equivalence, interest, etc. Such an understanding sees […] ‘descriptions, claims, reports, allegations, and assertions’ about non-/religion [as] the topic of the analysis, rather than ‘religion’ or ‘non-religion’ themselves. Thus, we arrive at a critically-engaged, relational concept of ‘non-religion’ which can be operationalized empirically in a non-stipulative manner and which emphasizes that religion need not be a dominant, normative, or positive term in the contexts studied.”

Although discursive questions were not the driver for my Masters project, it can clearly be interpreted as having focused on the way ‘religion is organized, discussed, and discursively materialized’ (von Stuckrad 2010, 166) in a particular context, by individuals who self-described aspects of their individual practice, beliefs, attitudes and/or identity as different from their subjective self-definitions of religion. It can be viewed as discerning a range of discourses, which could be classified as spiritual, familial, philosophical, humanistic and naturalistic, surrounding a variety of negotiated phenomena—identities, practices, attitudes, beliefs—in a field of discourse with boundaries dictated by the logics of the research project, i.e. substantiating the ‘non-religiosity’ of Edinburgh students, in 2010–11, whose self-descriptions were ‘non-religious’, and so on. Returning to the two key insights of the project, this discursive re-reading allows them to be reframed as follows:  
  • In these narratives, these students primarily invoked five types of discourse when they engaged with topics related to religion, non-religion, and related categories. These discourses appeared to operate at a level independent of the specific terminology—the discursive objects—in question. 
  • Regardless of the salience of these discourses in individuals’ lives, they were invoked when the students were confronted with phenomena that were deemed to be related to—i.e. which meaningfully intersected with—the field of discourse on religion, non-religion, and related categories. 
This move from types of atheism/non-religion to types of discourse shifts the focus to ‘the social effects of the way people talk, rather than the apparent meaning of their words’ (Martin 2017, 104). People employ multiple discourses, situationally; they can say things in many different ways, depending on the discursive resources available to them in a particular cultural context.  A shift in focus from the individual to the discourse they employ, from the person to what they say, and how they say it, allows the individual to be incorporated analytically into the wider societal conversation of which they are inherently a part. As Bayart argues, no speech act can be attributed to a single individual, but is a product of the broader complex social situation in which it occurs, as well as its historical context: ‘every utterance is related to earlier utterances’ (2005, 112). There is much more I could say here, and I’m not claiming that discursive study is the only way to study ‘non-religion’ critically. However, it is one way in which we can usefully sidestep some of the issues associated with the construction of typologies in the social sciences. Whether this helps us to avoid the ‘misinterpretation’ of our work when it takes on a life of its own is another matter. One of many Challenges and Responsibilities for the Public Scholar of Religion.

References 

  • Baird, Robert D. 1991. Category Formation and the History of Religions. 2nd ed., with A new pref. Religion and Reason 1. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Barker, Eileen. 2010. “The Church Without and the God Within: Religiosity and/or Spirituality?” In The Centrality of Religion in Social Life: Essays in Honour of James A. Beckford, edited by Eileen Barker, 187–202. Farnham: Ashgate.
  • Bayart, Jean-François. 2005. The Illusion of Cultural Identity. London: C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd.
  • Cotter, Christopher R. 2011. “Toward a Typology of ‘Nonreligion’: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students.” Unpublished MSc by Research Dissertation, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh. http://www.academia.edu/1329691/Toward_a_Typology_of_Nonreligion_A_Qualitative_Analysis_of_Everyday_Narratives_of_Scottish_University_Students.
  • ———. 2015. “Without God yet Not Without Nuance: A Qualitative Study of Atheism and Non-Religion among Scottish University Students.” In Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts, edited by Lori G. Beaman and Steven Tomlins, 171–94. Dordrecht: Springer.
  • Cox, James L. 2006. A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion: Key Figures, Formative Influences and Subsequent Debates. London: Continuum.
  • Gray, John. 2018. Seven Types of Atheism. London: Allen Lane.
  • Hoesly, Dusty. 2015. “‘Need a Minister? How About Your Brother?’: The Universal Life Church between Religion and Non-Religion.” Secularism and Nonreligion4 (1). 
  • Jong, Jonathan. 2015. “On (Not) Defining (Non)Religion.” Science, Religion and Culture2 (3): 15–24.
  • Lee, Lois. 2015. Recognizing the Nonreligious: Reimagining the Secular. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Quillen, Ethan G. 2015a. “Discourse Analysis and the Definition of Atheism.” Science, Religion and Culture2 (3): 25–25.
  • ———. 2015b. “Everything Is Fiction: An Experimental Study in the Application of Ethnographic Criticism to Modern Atheist Identity.” Unpublished PhD Thesis, Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh.
  • Silver, Christopher F., Thomas J. Coleman III, Ralph W. Hood Jr., and Jenny M. Holcombe. 2014. “The Six Types of Nonbelief: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Type and Narrative.” Mental Health, Religion & Culture 17 (10): 990–1001.
  • Stuckrad, Kocku von. 2010. “Reflections on the Limits of Reflection: An Invitation to the Discursive Study of Religion.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 22 (2): 156–69.

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Religious cliché and stigma

A Response to “Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés”

by Christopher F. Silver

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Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-Member Narratives

Ex-member testimony can be a difficult to deal with. Such testimony tends to receive privileged treatment in anti-cult literature, while some academics are prone to be sceptical, even suggesting ex-member testimony is worthless due to the danger of adaption and fiction. So a question remains, how should religious studies scholars deal with such testimony. Do we treat it as fact, fiction, faction, or something else altogether? In this interview at the 2017 British Association for the Study of Religion (BASR) Conference, Breann Fallon chats to Dr George Chryssides about ex-member narratives and the use of such primary sources in the work of religious studies scholars. Issues of identity creation, the alteration of narratives, the use of “faction” as evidence, and case studies from ex-member Jehovah’s Witnesses come together in this interview to create a compelling case for a renewed focus on ex-member testimony.

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

Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-member narratives

Podcast with George Chryssides (20 November 2017).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Chryssides- Changing Your Story 1.1

Breann Fallon (BF): Ex-member testimony can be difficult to deal with. Such testimony tends to receive privileged treatment in anti-cult literature, while some academics are prone to be sceptical – even suggesting ex-member testimony is worthless. So how do we deal with such testimonies, especially considering the increasing forms of such testimony that now comes with social media? What role do such accounts play in the creation of identity for ex-members? To discuss this topic today, I have with me Dr George Chryssides. George is a long-term friend of the Religious Studies Project and is Honorary Research Fellow at York St John University and the University of Birmingham, having been head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton from 2001- 2008. He has written extensively on New Religious Movements, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses. Recent publications include the Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements, co-edited with Benjamin E. Zeller; and Jehovah’s Witnesses: Continuity and Change. George is Co-Vice Chair of INFORM, the Information Network Focus on Religious Movements, based at the LSE and was founded by Eileen Barker in 1988. George is also on various Editorial boards and panels and is currently co-editing an anthology entitled The Insider-Outsider Debate together with Stephen Gregg. He’s also editing an anthology for the Routledge Inform Series entitled Minority Religions in Europe and the Middle East. So thank you very much for joining us today, George.

George Chryssides (GC): My pleasure, thanks for inviting me.

BF: So I was wondering if we could just start with a discussion of how different scholars deal with ex-member testimonies, and what your opinion is of different ways of dealing with such testimony.

GC: Well, there are inevitably a handful of scholars who support the anti-cult movement – although they don’t like it being called the anti-cult movement – but there is a body that is somewhat hostile and they tend to privilege the ex-member. They will say that the ex-member has been inside, now he or she is outside. So they’ve seen it from both points of view and are in a better position than someone like myself that has never joined a new religious movement. So that’s one point of view. There are others like James Beckford, who say: well, if you’ve come out of a new religious movement, like the Jehovah’s witnesses, then your testimony is going to be biased. Maybe you’re going to be a bit embarrassed at having been involved in a group that’s not very popular and has an unusual worldview. So, you’d devise some kind of explanation about how and why you joined, and how you got disillusioned, and how you were conned into joining, maybe, and how you were deceived and so on. James Beckford thinks that the ex-member “devises a scenario”, as he puts it, to account for entry and exit. There are other scholars like Lonnie Cliver and Brian Wilson who have said their testimony is totally invalid, we should disregard it totally. It’s worthless. Now I don’t go along with that, either. Because, I think, particularly when you read written ex-members accounts, ok they’re biased, but we’re always taught to evaluate our sources so it’s important to see why they’re saying what they do; what it is that might be true; what sounds plausible. You triangulate your information, what other people have said. Very often, you can get unwitting testimony about conditions within an organisation. There’s a lot of good material you get, particularly from high-ranking ex-members: people that have for example, in one case, been on the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now they don’t publish their minutes or anything like that, so until Raymond Franz’ book came out I don’t think any of us had much of a clue what actually went on, on the governing body: how they voted on things, what sort of topics they discussed. And that’s really interesting. We shouldn’t just say “Well, that’s an ex-member: he got cheesed-off with the movement. We’re not going to listen to it.” Because that way you would lose a lot of very good information.

BF: So there’s sort-of this element of “the fact that’s behind the supposed fiction”, that we can kind-of draw out from testimonies, I guess?

GC: Yes, well, fact and fiction tend to kind-of blend into each other (5:00). Actually, that’s some work I would like to do as a piece of follow up research on JW’s. Because there are a lot of narratives. And it’s a pity I didn’t get my act together on this before this particular conference, which is on narratives. Because you get some narratives that claim to be absolutely factual. You get others that are, on their own account, works of fiction. There are stories invented about Jehovah’s Witnesses. And then, in between, you get pieces of . . . some people call them “faction”: a cross between fact and fiction. They’ll say: well this is based on such and such a congregation, but we’re not telling the reader who it is because of confidentiality. And actually there is a wealth of literature out there about what it means for a Jehovah’s Witness to be out doing house-to-house work, staffing a literature cart and things like that. And, in some cases, how they fudge the statistics that they report back to their elders. I think things like that are really fascinating, because you can’t get that in copies of the Watchtower, for example. So that’s a future project, reading up on the fiction/faction narrative and seeing what one can get out of it.

BF: So how do you think that we should be dealing with ex-member testimonies in your opinion?

GC: Well, what I’m presenting at this conference is the view that ex-member testimony is about one’s identity. Because you can have different identities depending on what your interests are. Ok, so maybe you kind-of dabbled in a hobby for a couple of weeks and got fed up with it? That’s not part of your identity. And there are some people that actually go along to a new religious movement in that kind of role. They’ll maybe go along for a couple of weeks, or maybe just the once, then decide it’s not for them. Or decide they don’t like being out at night, or something like that. And we don’t hear so much of these testimonies, because they’re not very interesting. So, when a religion is not part of one’s identity you don’t need to invent a story about why you came out. I mean, I don’t need to invent a story about why I gave up stamp collecting or something like that.

BF: (laughs)

GC: So, on the other hand, if the religion has been a big part of your identity – maybe it’s been your paid employment even – then you’re going to have problems coming out. You’re going to have to think: how do I shape a new identity? And it can be even practical things that are involved, like: how do I get a job? Where will live? Who are my friends going to be? Because maybe some of them will keep up with you, but probably most of them won’t. So it’s a whole new life that you’re inventing, in that sort of case. So people have to find ways of doing that. In some extreme cases the ex-member has made ex-membership part of his or her own identity, perhaps being a so-called cult counsellor. There are people that have made their professions out of that – not all that many, but you tend to hear about them more than the others, because they’re prominent. They’ve got a lot to say about the movement. And there is a saying: “You can get the member out of the cult, but you can’t get the cult out of the member.”

BF: That’s very interesting.

GC: So that’s true about these people. Actually, they’re very good informants, some of them, if you can get them tamed and talking to you. There are a couple that will send me lots of extremely good information about the Unification Church. So usually, if I want to know something, I will write to them to say, “I’ve heard about so-and-so, what do you know about it?” And then I’ll get back a lot of good information. Kind-of mentally they’re still in the movement, even though – in terms of what they believe and what they practise – they’re out of it.

BF: So, in that sort of way, you’re finding these testimonies really useful. Do you think there’s a difference between different types of testimony? We’ve already talked about fact and fiction, but you know: a biography as opposed to writing to your ex-members that you are familiar with, as opposed to perhaps something on social media (10:00)? Is there a difference between using those different types, do you think? Is there one you prefer?

GC: Absolutely. I think a lot of stuff that’s not terribly worthwhile is the stuff you get on bulletin boards from ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. A lot of it is misinformation. A lot of it is actually very hostile. And even the treatment that they’re getting in Russia, which is quite appalling. I don’t know if you’ve been following that at all? The authorities have closed them down and confiscated all their properties. And on some of these anti-JW sites you’re getting people saying “I wish they had done it sooner.”

BF: Oh, wow!

GC: Yes, there’s no kind-of sympathy for these people, whatever their beliefs might be. So there’s not a lot of point in reading much of that kind of stuff. Except that it tells you more about the person that’s writing than it does about the movement itself. But, on the other hand, there are some very good ex-members that can give you some good information.

BF: Definitely. I think we should delve more into this idea of identity and creating that- I don’t know what you would call it. Do you think they would create an “ex-member persona”?

GC: Some of them do. I can decide, if I’m an ex-member, whether I want to make a feature out of that: whether I want to tell people, “Yes I was a Jehovah’s Witness and this is very much a part of my life having been one.” Now, actually, I do know of one former JW elder who has actually become a Church of Scotland minister. Now, I don’t know much about him, but I can see that somebody could make a feature out of that and say, “ Well, that’s been my past life and now I’ve kind-of seen the light”, or however he wants to put it. I have heard of one other Church of Scotland minister who served a long prison sentence as a murderer and then he repented and made good, and evidently he makes a feature out of that. Because it’s got a good Biblical message about conversion – you know, Paul writing to the Romans: he lists a whole lot of misdeeds that people committed and then he says “and some of such were you”. So it’s all very Biblical, if you want to do it that way and say, “Well, that’s my past life but now it’s all changed thanks to Jesus Christ”, or whatever. That’s one way of creating your new identity. Another way of changing your identity is simply to conceal it and say, “Well I’m not going to talk about this. I’m just going to get on with my new life.” So there are different ways of creating this new identity, but one way or another, if religion has been a major part of your life and you’re coming out, then there is an identity problem and you do need to think, well: Who am I? What do I want to be? And how do I want to shape up his new life that’s lying ahead?

BF: Do you think that as scholars we need to be aware of this identity change when we’re looking at ex-member testimonies: how they’ve come out of whatever movement they were a part of; and how they’ve transitioned into (a new life); whether they’ve been really open about it; whether they’ve concealed it and then been open about it. Is that something we need to take into consideration when looking at these testimonies, which ones we really should be looking at for evidence?

GC: Well absolutely, because evaluating your sources means asking questions like: who is telling me this? What is their motivation? How much knowledge do they have? Sometimes people can pretend to have more knowledge than they really do about the movement that they’re in. A lot of ex-JWs will say “Well, the society has got a history of field prophecy.” Now I don’t think that’s true; that’s a popular myth that is propagated by ex-members. I’m not saying they’ve never ever revised a date or given it a new meaning. But there’s one website that goes through every year from 1877, when I think the society was first getting going, and then giving some kind of prophetic statement they’ve made and how it failed. And that’s not really correct exposition of what they’re saying (15:00). So I think we really do need to ask, what is the degree of knowledge that this person has? Because there can be a view that if you’ve been inside you know all about it. And I think anyone that follows a religion doesn’t know all about it. You can’t know all about your religion, it’s just too big a subject.

BF: Yes. I’m going to throw a bit of a left-field question at you that I didn’t tell you I was going to ask.

GC: Oh dear!

BF: We always get this sort-of image of ex-members coming together, and then forming an ex-member group. Has that come across in your work?

GC: Oh yes, absolutely. There’s a lot of that. And I think that’s part of forming a new identity because you need to have friends. Friends need to have things in common. And the obvious thing in common that you’ve got if you’re an ex-member is being an ex-member. So yes, there are JW groups. I’ve been invited to go to one or two different events, but I feel I’d be gate-crashing!

BF: Yes!

GC: But they get together from time to time. And I’d be interested to know what they talk about, because they often say, “You don’t have to talk about Jehovah’s Witnesses if you come to our meet.” Now, whether they actually talk about JWs or whether they talk about some other interests that they’ve got, I don’t know. But that would be interesting. But yes that’s part of shaping your identity, to get an ex-member group going. Of course I think the ex-member group is more a kind of phenomenon in itself that’s worth noting if you’re a scholar. I suspect that in the ex-member group you get a kind of snowball effect of all the kind of moans that they’ve got about the Watchtower Society. I see some of their stuff on Facebook and that seems to be how it works. Somebody will put something on, maybe about Russia, and then somebody will add a rude comment about it. And it tends to kind-of further a lack of sympathy.

BF: It would be interesting to look at how social media have played a role in creating those new ex-member groups. Because of course, with social media, people from all over the globe can come together and sort of share their stories. Do you think social media has had a big part in ex-member testimony and getting that out there?

GC: Absolutely, yes. There are one or two well-known websites, or are they websites or . . . I never know what the right terminology is about cyber space . . . but I think it’s a Facebook Group about How Well Do You Know Your Moon? And that’s about the Unification Church. That’s actually got a lot of good information there. It’s not just people slagging them off. But, yes, the obvious thing about social media is that we don’t need to have our friends sitting opposite each other the way we’re sitting opposite. You can get them from any part of the globe and you don’t have to meet up with them, physically. But then again, the fact that you’ve got this group enables you to organise these physical meetings, which they do.

BF: It would be interesting to know, with the advent of social media, if that is encouraging more people to go to groups – people who may have, without social media, sort-of concealed it on their own. But that idea that social media can bring so many people together. It would be interesting to know whether there had been more people willing to join an ex-member group because of social media. Because you can kind-of dip your toe in with Facebook, before you go to a meeting. It’s almost the complete reverse of joining the movement in the first place.

GC: Yes, I think that’s probably right. The other question is whether it might actually encourage people to join a group by giving publicity. I remember when I was researching the Unification Church in the early days, there were two kind-of improbable people who had come along to this seminar. In fact, the Unification Church didn’t seem to want these people to join. Because they weren’t very bright, I think they were unemployed, looking for somewhere to live and that’s not what they were after. And I think they may even have been psychologically disturbed. So, a new religion won’t want to get a reputation for attracting the wrong people. But they had come along and I asked them, “What brought you here? (20:00) Weren’t you put off by the bad publicity the Unification Church was getting?” And they said, “Oh no. What we had heard actually made us interested and want to come.” So there can be this kind-of reverse effect. You might think, “Well, I wonder what this is about?”

BF: Yes. I just think social media has taken a completely different road for so much of our study, particularly with testimony and people being able to share their voice and share their opinion. Before we finish up – you’re presenting today at BASR – is there anything from your paper that you’d like to add to the talk, that we haven’t discussed so far?

GC; Well I think we’ve been, how long have we been talking now? It’s been a lot more than 20 minutes and my talk is only 20 minutes, so I think I’ve probably added quite a bit. It’s actually going to be part of a chapter in the Anthology on the Insider and Outsider debate that Stephen Gregg and I are getting together. So there will be a kind-of longer discussion. What I will be saying in the paper also –which we didn’t cover, but it’s a bit more technical – is about the kind of typologies of ex-members. People like David Bromley and Massimo Introvigne distinguish between different types. And they distinguish on the basis of how the person came out of the movement and what sort of conditions made them come out. What I’m suggesting is that these typologies have got their limitations. Sociologists talk about “ideal types” and I think that’s one of the problems about sociology: when have you got an ideal type and when have you just got a model that’s too crude for the purposes that you’re using it? So I think an account of ex-members has got to go beyond distinctions like “the defector”, “the ordinary leave-taker”, “the apostate”. There are all sorts of types of leaver, depending on the identity that they’ve created for themselves within the movement. So whether they’re just an unbaptised publisher as the rank is called in the Jehovah’s witnesses, or whether you’re one of the 144,000 in the governing body, right at the top, these kinds of the distinctions of the type of member you are will affect the way you leave. It will also affect the story you give about leaving and about life in the organisation.

BF: It’s almost sort-of an identity wave. You know: I was this, and then that’s affected how my identity has come out of the movement. I think your talk is going to be so interesting, I’m very excited.

GC: I hope so.

BF: Thank you so much for joining us today. And I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference.

GC: Well, thanks very much. And thanks again for the invitation.

BF: It’s our pleasure.

Citation Info: Chryssides, George and Breann Fallon. 2017. “Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-member Narratives”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 20 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 17 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/changing-your-story-assessing-ex-member-narratives/

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Report: 2015 Joint Conferences of the New Zealand and Australian Associations for the Study of Religion

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Bruno Marshall Shirley and John H. Shaver

The biennial conference of the New Zealand Association for the Study of Religions (NZASR) and the annual conference of the Australian Association for the Study of Religions (AASR) were held together in Queenstown, New Zealand from December 8-10 2015. Interdisciplinary perspectives and theoretical approaches across the humanities and social sciences were evident in the wide-range of papers presented. Islam, and Asian religions more generally, were the most consistent objects of focus, perhaps unsurprising given Australasia’s proximity to Asia and recent increased media attention to the Islamic State.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The conference’s emphasis on Asia and Islam were evident in the keynote lectures. In a talk entitled “Creativity and Ethical Life in India,” Tulasi Srinivas (Emerson College) described religious innovations in Bangalore and the sense of “wonder” that they often inspire. She argued that scholars ought to take emerging religious practices seriously, rather than as anomalies or deviations from established, textually-based understandings of religion. Turning to Japan, Douglas Ezzy (University of Tasmania) argued that Shint­ō is best considered a “religion of practice” in contrast to those traditional conceptions of religion as belief-oriented. He suggested that while a non-Christian can attend mass at a Christian place of worship and not be “doing Christianity,” a tourist at a Shint­ō shrine participating in its various ritual practices might be said to be “doing Shint­ō.” For many Japanese Shint­ō is not associated with doctrinal belief (shūkyō), which allows people to engage with Shint­ō ritual practice while not accepting its cosmology. Some in the audience disagreed with Ezzy’s analysis of Shint­ō and its relationship to shūkyō, but his call for a renewed focus on religious practice was generally appreciated. Sally McAra (University of Auckland), looked at one traditionally Asian religion, Buddhism, in the Australasian context. She discussed the problems facing an anthropologist conducting ethnographic research among their own group, principally a difficulty in carrying out objective analyses, due to a positive bias towards group ideals.

The final keynote lecture, from Gary D. Bouma (Monash University), turned to Islam and to Western discourses about the “threat” that each other poses. Bouma argued that both anti-Western and anti-Muslim narratives shared several key features: both narratives assert that the “other” is incorrect in some way; each is reinforced due to media bias; and both narratives are responsible for the perpetuation of conflict. Bouma’s most significant point was that Religious Studies scholars have a responsibility to discredit these discourses – particularly anti-Muslim narratives in the West, such as those put forth by Trump or Abbot. These narratives, Bouma argued, serve to legitimise attempts to gain power at the expense of civil liberties, and/or to divert attention from their own violence (including structural violence, domestic violence, or even climate change).

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper "Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult," in the panel "Religion in/and Politics."

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper “Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult,” in the panel “Religion in/and Politics.”

The panel “Contemporary Religions” continued the central foci on Asian religions and Islam. A paper by Douglas Osto (Massey) (based on his forthcoming book, Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America, Columbia UP, 2016) outlined the history of “Psychedelic Buddhism” from the 1950s into the present, and the changing attitudes of American Buddhist practitioners towards mind-altering drugs. Osto described how some practitioners used psychedelic drugs as a “door” to advanced states of mind, before graduating to “pure” meditation practices, while others (notably Joan Halifax) continued to use drugs to supplement their meditative practices. Although psychedelia has been investigated before, Osto’s study represents the first serious examination of psychedelic Buddhism as a non-systemic religious movement, and is sure to lead to further studies of other hybrid Buddhist practices in the West. Buddhism was also the focus of a panel on “Buddhist Tales and Territories,” which featured a paper by Chaisit Suwanvarangkul (University of Otago) on the relevance of dharmakāya and the tathāgatagarbha doctrine to Therāvada Buddhism, as well as to the Mahāyāna. Suwanvarangkul’s paper was partially in response to an earlier paper by Michael Radich (Victoria University of Wellington), presented at the 2007 Australian Association of Buddhist Studies conference, entitled “There is no Dhammakāya in the Pāli Canon.” Suwanvarangkul’s inclusion of the Chinese Āgama as Theravāda was the subject of some controversy, as Osto pointed out that, despite parallels to the Theravāda nikāya, the Chinese āgama contain several key differences from the Theravāda texts. The panel also included papers by Anna Halafoff and Matthew Clarke (both of Deakin University) on the role of Songdhammakalyani monastery (Thailand) in promoting gender equality; Chiew Hui Ho (University of Sydney) on Chinese tales about the Diamond Sutra and their role in encouraging faith; and Phra Akbordin Rattana (University of Otago) on the model of Buddha devotion expressed in the Mārabandha chapter of the Paṭhamasambodhi-kathā.

Papers in the panel “Religion and the State” shared a common theme of distinctions between “religious practice” and “political actions” breaking down, in cases drawn from China, Japan, and Sri Lanka. Melissa Inoue (University of Auckland) discussed China’s True Jesus Church and its “miraculous” discourse. She argued that by directing attention to this-worldly affairs, the discourse indirectly both critiques and affirms contemporary Chinese society and the stewardship of the party-state. Ben Schonthal (University of Otago) turned to Sri Lanka and the (legal) case of a Buddhist monk who was denied an application for a driver’s license on the grounds that it was not appropriate for monks to drive. He argued that this was fundamentally a problem of contested authority over religious practice in Sri Lanka, arising from an ambiguous constitutionalising of religion. Bruno M. Shirley (Victoria University of Wellington) called for a post-secular rethinking of “religious violence” using the case study of Sri Lanka’s Bodu Bala Senā. Shirley suggested that explanations for religious violence, generally and in Sri Lanka specifically, have tended to assume a secularist dichotomy of “religion” and “politics” that is inadequate for dealing with the relationship between Buddhism, politics, and violence in Sri Lanka. Shirley suggested instead that we might reconsider this relationship within a framework of identity politics.

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper "Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion," in the panel "Naming Islamism."

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper “Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion,” in the panel “Naming Islamism.”

The panel “Naming Islamism,” was by far the most controversial of the conference. Will Sweetman (University of Otago), Christopher van der Krogt (Massey University), Douglas Pratt (University of Waikato), William E. Shepard (University of Canterbury), and audience members debated whether or not the Islamic State could be considered an authentic iteration of “Islam.” Van der Krogt argued that such a debate represents a misunderstanding of religion, and Islam in particular, while Sweetman argued that there is no basis for denying the Islamic State’s self-identification as Muslim. Several audience members disagreed with this assertion, instead arguing that Islam did indeed have some core norms and values with which the Islamic State does not conform. This panel also included less controversial papers by Shepard (University of Canterbury), on the development of Sayyid Qutb’s views on gender relations, and Pratt, on the Islamic State’s “theological ideology.”

Not all of the panels at the conference focussed on Asia or on Islam, and of these the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) panel is particularly notable for being the most empirically-oriented of the conference. The first NZAVS talk was delivered by the director of the study, Chris Sibley, a psychologist from the University of Auckland. Sibley described the breadth of the study and some of the many challenges inherent to large-scale longitudinal data collection. Joseph Bulbulia (Victoria University of Wellington) then detailed a few of the more significant findings pertaining to religion that have emerged from the NZAVS, including his work on the distinct “faith signatures” that span and defy traditional denominational categorization. Following these talks, Geoffrey Troughton (Victoria University of Wellington) described the history of the “Christian Not Further Declared (NFD)” designation in the New Zealand census, and then used NZAVS data to describe the demographic characteristics of those individuals that have recently come to identify with this tremendously growing group. The panel concluded with John Shaver (Victoria University of Wellington) describing the complex, but unique, picture of religion and prejudice/ tolerance in New Zealand. Although highly religious New Zealanders are more tolerant of many social groups (including ethnic and religious out-groups) than their secular counterparts, they are also less tolerant of some other groups (e.g., homosexuals). Shaver interpreted this pattern as a result of the differential flexibility of human values. He argued that those values associated with conservatism are necessary for the cultural transmission of religion and are therefore less free to vary across cultures, while those that are less relevant to transmission are subject to greater environmental influence.

Perhaps due to the University of Otago’s excellent choice to host the conference in scenic Queenstown, the conference was relatively well-attended by NZASR standards, and a strong Australian presence was a welcome addition to the conference’s academic and social events. While Asia and Islam were focal, the range of perspectives and disciplinary approaches made for interesting discussions, both in panels and informally. The conference demonstrated that the study of religions in New Zealand and Australia continues to broaden its interdisciplinary focus.

Gender, queer theory and religion

When we think about gender, we often understand it as something that is utlimately socially constructed. As for sex, it is mostly understood as something biological, set by a binary opposition between men and women. But how does this intersect with the study of religion? How do these categories influence the ways in which we look at religion? What is the role of religious institutions in this promotion of the gender binary? What about sexual orientation? What connections can we make between identities, the body and emotions in religious contexts?

In this interview, Dr. Mary Jo Neitz continues the conversation about religion and gender by focusing on theories from LGBT studies and queer studies. Using her work as an ethnographer, as well as the work of American philosopher Judith Butler, Neitz distinguishes the categories of gender and sex by showing how performance and experiences are at the heart of the social construction of gender and sexual identities. Neitz also discusses the role of religious institutions and practices in the agency experienced by some of her informants, as well as the place of the body and essentialist politics in the study of religion.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interviews with Meredith McGuire, Marta Trzebiatowska, Anna Fedele, and Lizbeth Mikaelsson, and feature essays by Erika Salomon, Claire Miller Skriletz, and George Ioannides. You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, glasses cases, sonic screwdrivers and more!

Religious Demography in the US

In this week’s podcast we focus on religious demography and identification, survey tools used for religious demography in America, differences between religious identities and identifications, Americans’ shifting religious identifications, correlations between religion and social positions such as ethnicity or generational cohort, and correlations with various social and political issues.

Expanding beyond the introduction to quantitative sociology of religion the RSP conducted earlier with David Voas, this conversation with Darren Sherkat covers religious demography in the American context. Unlike in the UK, or elsewhere, the U.S. census does not include questions about religion. U.S. religious demographers rely on privately-funded surveys, such as the General Social Survey (GSS), the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), Pew’s Religious Landscape Survey, Baylor Religion Survey, and Gallup polls, among others, for large-scale nationally representative data on religion. Sherkat evaluates the reliability of various surveys as well as the quality of the data on non-Christian populations in the U.S., given that the vast majority of respondents self-identify as Christians or as “nones.” demography (Ariela Keysar), belief and belonging (Abby Day), and identity and identification (with the Culture on the Edge group). Based on findings explored further in his book, Changing Faith (2014), Sherkat explains how generational cohort, lifecourse position, immigration, ethnicity, and religious switching affect religious identifications in America, as well as correlations between religious identifications and sexuality, among other topics.

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, model airplanes, snow globes and more!

Religion and Planetary Ethics

Whitney Bauman discusses with George Ioannides some of the potential and difficult answers to these questions and more, revealing how the field of religion and ecology can go some way in helping to visualise and constitute a planetary, hybrid, ethical community of ecospiritual, biohistorical, and multispecies subjects.

Speaking of religions as “eco-social constructions across multiple species, over multiple generations, and over multiple histories,” Bauman puts forward an ethics of understanding ourselves and others as planetary creatures, and understanding religion, science, and nature as non-foundational, non-substantive categories.

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, biodegradable refuse sacks, poppy seeds and more!

Listeners may also be interested in our previous podcasts with Bron Taylor on Religion after Darwin, and Bruno Latour, Gaian Animisms, and the Question of the Anthropocene.

21st Century Irish Paganism

World Religions Paradigm, and if you’re lucky you might just come across a passing reference to ‘Paganism’ buried amongst extensive references to ‘Christianity’, ‘Islam’. ‘Buddhism’ and other ‘World Religions.’ This absence contrasts markedly with the fascination many students show towards ‘Paganism’, and with the prevalence of motifs which might be labelled ‘Pagan’ in (Western) popular culture. Arguably, both the seeming academic disregard and popular fascination with this topic are indicative of a superficial understanding of the broad range of phenomena to which the designation ‘Pagan’ can refer. In this podcast, Chris speaks to Jenny Butler – a scholar whose work has made a significant contribution to fleshing out the category.

in this interview, we discuss Jenny’s work on Paganism in Ireland, the impact of that particular context upon the Paganism/s she has researched – particularly in terms of language, mythology, and the natural landscape – and also some of the issues associated with the academic study of Paganism in general.

links in Jenny’s bio and also our previous interviews with Ronald Hutton, Suzanne Owen, Graham Harvey and Wouter Hanegraaf. 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.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, moisturiser, fruit bowls, and more!

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 September 2015

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest!

We would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has forwarded notifications. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

We thank you for your contribution. And now for this week’s digest:

Calls for papers

Conference: Yoga darśana, yoga sādhana: traditions, transmissions, transformations

May 19–21, 2016

Uniwersytet Jagielloński w Krakowie, Poland

Deadline: December 21, 2015

More information

Conference: Visual Narratives of Faith: Religion, Ritual and Identity

July 10–14, 2016

Vienna, Austria

Deadline: September 30, 2015

More information

Conference: Religion and Non-Religion in Contemporary Societies

April 21–24, 2016

Zadar, Croatia

Deadline: November 15, 2015

More information

Conference: Symposium Peregrinum

June 16–19, 2016

Tarquinio, Italy

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Journal: Women: A Cultural Review

Special issue: Religion and Gender

Deadline: October 31, 2015

More information

Events

Annual meeting: American Academy of Religion

November 21–24, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Annual meeting: American Anthropological Association

November 18–22, 2015

Denver, CO, USA

More information

Annual meeting: North American Association for the Study of Religion

November 20–22, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Research report launch: What should young people leave school knowing about religion and belief?

November 26, 2015, 5–6:30 p.m.

London, UK

More information

Conference: Radicalization & Islamophobia: Roots, Relationships and Implications in Religiously Diverse Societies

November 30–December 1, 2015

Sydney, Australia

More information

Conference: Pluralism and Community: Social Science History Perspectives

November 12–15, 2015

Baltimore, MD, USA

More information

Grants and awards

Miklós Tomka Award

Deadline: January 10, 2016

More information

Jobs

Postdoctoral Fellowship: History of Religion and Religiosity

German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C.

Deadline: December 1, 2015

More information

Two PhD scholarships in Buddhist Studies

LMU München, Germany

Deadline: October 18, 2015

More information

Fully funded PhD studentship

Newman University, UK

Deadline: October 23, 2015

More information

What is ‘Buddhism in the West’?

There appears to be much debate regarding what defines Buddhism in the West. Particularly, when I attend Social Science of Religion conferences, Buddhism is presented as a new or exotic social cultural influential phenomenon. I often see “Buddhism in the West” lumped in with new religious movements (NRMs) or more interestingly as sources of therapeutic influence for new styles of mental health treatment such as those seen in the field of Psychology. The compulsion to lump Buddhism with new religious movements may derive from a variety of influences. For example, the mass exodus of Tibetan Buddhists following the Chinese occupation of 1949 may give scholars the impression of newness due to the large migratory movement of Tibetans to the west. This coupled with the popularity of the Dalai Lama and religious converts such as Richard Gere give credence to Buddhism as a “Western” new religious movement (Cantwell & Kawanami, 2002). Another theory could be the fascination of Buddhism for the late 19th century Transcendentalists. The Transcendentalists saw value in Buddhist philosophy for understanding a suffering western society (McMahan, 2008). Such thinkers and their use of Buddhist philosophy could have led to more individual forms of belief such as “spirituality” and “universalism.” To be considered new, some scholars may see the past 100 years as “recent” where the turn of the century serves as a new chapter in religious pluralism in the West. Better still could be the free love movement of the 1960s or the fascination with alternative states of consciousness. Many people were seeking something beyond the old interpretations of transcendence (Kent, 2001). All of these are examples of competing paradigms in terms of juxtaposing a belief system called “Buddhism” within the geographic and cultural center of the “West”.

The boundaries of what defines the West are also circumspect. Some perceive the West to be North America while other scholars speak to first world cultures (including North America but also Western Europe, and Australia). Such boundaries of what defines the West are unclear but there is proximate agreement related to the cultural center of what we term the “West” (McMahan, 2008). Here, there is proximate agreement as a Euro-American center of learning. In other words, we are speaking of centers of academic discourse and authority known as the university system. One could argue that such exchanges are colonial in nature (indicating a British or American dominance of cultural norms and language) and yet these implicit assumptions reinforce the very system, which assert categorical authority. Further, using terms such as “the West” and its interaction with other traditions are synonymous with speaking from an in-group perspective of privilege.

Given these challenges related to defining Buddhism in the West, Dr. Cox’s approach is refreshing. Rather than attempting to describe Buddhism’s introduction into the West as a socio-historical event, he approaches the exchange of culture from the perspective of a historically reconstructed narrative through the story of Laurence Carroll, an Irish immigrant to Burma by way of the United States. Laurence Carroll led an adventurous life from an immigrant, to a homeless person in the US, to a seaman, and eventually taking vows as a Buddhist monk. Mr. Carroll’s experience resulted in his ordination by becoming Bhikkhu U Dhammaloka. Dr. Cox provides an interesting look by way of Dhammaloka’s narrative, at the layers of national, social, ethnic, and religious identity. For Cox, identities are tied together as one but also relational in terms of the concept of the “other.” Dr. Cox shows that Carroll’s transitions between geographies were continually met with adversity in terms of his identity. For example, the conflict of his Irish identity in Ireland in relation to British colonial influence, then his Irish identity in relation to blacks/African Americans in New York, and eventually his Irish identity in relation to the dominant Asian culture of Burma. His concept of self becomes even more complex when he converts to Buddhism, as he is no longer centered within his Irish or Caucasian identity. Such boundaries of self were not only confusing but also empowering as Dhammaloka could challenge others who attempted to proselytize the local populations in Burma.

According to Cox, Dhammaloka had social influence on the local population to defend Buddhism from what he may have seen as colonial missionary dominance reminiscent his own experience with the British in Ireland. Dr Cox’s podcast leaves me with additional derivative themes of interest. To speak in terms of cultural or social influence is to implicitly infer a social shift in the individual definition of self. As noted by Cox, deconversion was no small transition in self-identification. With one’s exit from their own enculturated tradition to an exotic, lesser-known faith came perceptions of racial as well as moral defection. Scholarly inquiry into Buddhism for the time was surely appropriate but only in as much as these faith traditions were contrasted with Christianity. The Dhammaloka case study serves as an excellent example of where the religious and cultural landscape is moderated within the domain of academic discourse. Only at this time were such intellectual pursuits blatantly colonial in agenda. Furthermore, such lively exchanges with missionaries highlight the overt assumptions of intellectual and cultural dominance but also the subversive influence on Buddhism to compete in a soon to be global spiritual marketplace. I would challenge Dr. Cox to think of Dhammaloka not in terms of his authenticity of being one of the earliest converts to Buddhism, but rather to see him as a mediating influence in what Buddhism would come to be for the West. Dare I say that Dhammaloka’s own cultural baggage and his Western approach to Buddhism might well have helped repackage Buddhist philosophy, making such transitions more salient.

In conclusion, I would like to challenge the overall paradigm of “Buddhism in the West.” The lack of synergy among scholarly inquiry coupled with the assumption of the specialness of Buddhism within the cultural or geographic context of the West lends further need for the application of critical theory. Such theory should be able to describe the specialness of the former and latter without relying on the old colonial tools of academia. While there is value in theories of sociology and religious studies, my concern is that such assumptions assume Buddhism is/was something different or special, dare I say sui generis (McCutcheon, 1997). The West’s fascination with the East goes well beyond a simple proselytizing motive or – it could be argued – colonial influence. Buddhism’s symbols, rituals, and practices seem mystical almost otherworldly from the flowing robes of monks, to the symbolism of the simplistic humble request of a monk with a begging bowl, to the teachings of the dasa pāramiyo or the ten perfections in defining one’s potential for Buddha nature. Yet given the plethora of possibilities in exploring the grand narrative of Western (European and American) Buddhism, such inquiries make some false assumptions about how Buddhism in the West is defined.

References

Cantwell, C. & Kawanami, H. (2002) Buddhism in Elisabeth Arweck’s New religious movements. Religions in the modern world: traditions and transformations, pp. 47-82.

Goldberg, E. (2006). Buddhism in the west In S. C. Berkwitz Berkwitz, S. C. (Ed.). Buddhism in world cultures: comparative perspectives. Abc-clio.

Kent, S. A. (2001). From slogans to mantras: Social protest and religious conversion in the late Vietnam war era. Syracuse University Press.

McCutcheon, R. T. (1997). Manufacturing religion: The discourse on sui generis religion and the politics of nostalgia. Oxford University Press.

McMahan, D. L. (2008). The making of Buddhist modernism. Oxford University Press.