Posts

Studying Tantra from the Inside and Out

In this interview on ‘Studying Tantra from the Inside and Out’, Douglas R Brooks allows the listener an insight into his own personal and academic development, and an account of how various factors led him to the study of South Indian Shrividya Shakta Tantrism. There are many interesting elements to consider therein, but for me, the interview first and foremost appeals to one of the core debates within Religious Studies: the insider/outsider debate. Due to the interview’s largely autobiographical focus, I find it most useful when viewed as an elaboration on this discussion, and I hope, in this short response, to highlight elements of the ongoing debate. Specifically, I wish to highlight the shifting nature of the categories of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’; emphasise the position of the ‘other’ in judging the status of the researcher; and to consider how the researcher may work to position themselves in this dynamic.

One of the RSP’s earliest interviews with George Chryssides covers the insider/outsider debate, and raises several questions in relation to it – as does Katie Aston’s response, in which she explores the question of whether it is best for the scholar (or more specifically, the anthropologist) of religion to have any belief in order to relate to the individuals that they research.   Most would agree that being an insider or outsider to the group that one studies will always be on some sort of spectrum, with few clear or stable boundaries. The researcher’s position in this spectrum will alter according to various identity markers, including whether or not they are already an accepted member of the community being researched, or indeed if they are a ‘believer’ in any capacity; but also according to markers such as nationality, ethnicity, native language, age, and gender.  Each of the researcher’s identity markers will be perceived differently by the individuals they encounter, and this will define the extent to which one is perceived as an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ by each individual.  This sets a broad background for the interview with Brooks, a scholar renowned for his research on (and deep involvement) in Shakta Tantra in South India.  Several of the aforementioned ideas arise particularly prominently in this interview.

Starting with a more general consideration of being an insider or outsider to a typically Christian, North American background, Brooks discusses his experience of being brought up in a non-religious household, using the somewhat revealing phrase that he ‘didn’t have to undo a great deal’.  By casting his non-religious upbringing as an advantage, Brooks consciously positions himself outside of the sphere of traditional religion in the North American context. Despite appearing to be grateful for this lack of religious influence in his early life, he also describes how this later led to him being somewhat of an outsider on his University course, which assumed that students of comparative religion would come from a Judeao-Christian background, and would have some form of committed belief. Brooks clearly felt that he did not fit this mould.

However, to avoid reiterating previous discussions about the effects of a (non)religious background, I prefer to focus on one theme that emerges particularly strongly in this interview: that of language, and the great effect that it can have on the status of the researcher. Brooks clearly places great value on his own command of Sanskrit and Tamil, and indeed, his knowledge of these languages has afforded him a unique understanding of South Indian Tantric and Goddess traditions that few scholars can match.  The importance placed on language also leads him to refer to a past lecturer on Hinduism and Buddhism as ‘a well-meaning amateur’ due to his lack of first-hand knowledge of Sanskrit, which thus denied him direct access to the literature (here, Brooks perhaps overemphasises the role of texts).  Clearly, Brooks’ skill in this area can afford him increased access to not only the literature of his field, but to individuals and communities in South India today – contributing toward his efforts to become an insider.  On a more practical level, advanced linguistic ability also avoids the complexities of employing a translator in the fieldwork setting – an arrangement which risks a loss of nuance, and reinforces the researcher’s position as an outsider through the translator’s necessary presence and involvement.

As well as aiding in his research in South India, this linguistic ability also gives Brooks social and cultural capital for the groups that he speaks with during his public engagement events: one attendee and blogger writes, ‘It blew my mind when he lead puja on the last day.  He busted out mantras as if he were born a Brahmin. Dude can read Sanskrit!’. Through his use and knowledge of languages, Brooks can thus be perceived by America yoga students as more of an ‘authentic’ insider to those South Indian traditions which he studies.  This in turn can afford him the status of an insider to the yoga community, which places high value on these relatively rare skills.

This also raises the question of Brooks’ status to those involved in the North American yoga community, in which he lectures extensively on Tantric philosophy and appears to be considered a yoga teacher.  However, unlike the vast majority of yoga teachers, he does not teach asana (as far as I can tell).  Thus Brooks straddles the spheres of the academy and the yoga world, finding a place in both but not as a ‘typical’ member.  This straddling echoes that done by Brooks’ own mentor, Dr Sundaramoorthy.  It seems that for Brooks, Sundaramoorthy represented an ideal insider to the both the academic world and the world of South Indian Tantrism, as he studied Shakta Tantrism academically, was skilled in languages, and was born to an orthodox Brahmin family.

Finally, we can take a more removed perspective and consider Brooks’ positioning of himself to the audience, and the language used therein – already touched upon in his comment on not having to ‘undo’ the effects of a religious upbringing.  Although it is important not to hypothesise too imaginatively on the interviewee’s choice of words or topics to cover, we can at least consider the effect they might have on the audience.  For example, Brooks explicitly places himself outside the ‘hippy movement’ of the Beatles’ era, as well as emphasising his removal from the modern postural yoga movement exemplified by figures such as K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S Iyengar, and Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. What does the interviewee convey to the audience by doing so?  To me, Brooks seems to emphasise his commitment to studying South Indian traditions in their more classical or traditional forms. However, by doing so, he could perhaps be casting himself as a more ‘authentic’ researcher and insider of Indian traditions by maintaining some distance between himself and the New Age movement, often subject to accusations of cultural appropriation, a lack of historical understanding, and being more ‘lightweight’.   As well as looking at what is said in this interview, we can also consider what is not said. Brooks’ own involvement in the North American yoga world is downplayed as his ‘weekend job’ of public engagement, which partially obscures the fact that this isn’t done in an entirely academic capacity, but also in the capacity of a devoted teacher of the Rajanaka Yoga philosophy.  The listener wonders whether Brooks’ downplaying of his involvement with the North American yoga world could perhaps be an appeal to greater academic credibility, and to the academy’s preference for highly objective empirical accounts of religious phenomena.

I find autobiographical interviews such as this valuable for the themes that emerge throughout the narrative, such as that of the researcher’s status as an insider or outsider.  I hope that this short response has highlighted the complexity of relationships between Brooks (as the researcher) and the other social actors he encounters including, but not limited to: the individuals and communities he studies; his mentor, Dr Sundaramoorthy; the North American yoga world; the academy; and the listeners of this podcast – all of whom, I suspect, will judge him as an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ to wildly varying degrees.

 

 

 

Pagan Scholarship from a Pagan Perspective

Ethan Doyle White, a PhD student in Anthropology of Religion at University College London, recently discussed his research into his 2015 book Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft. In this interview with the RSP, Doyle White states that he wrote this text ‘[…]to summarise the state of all previous research on Wicca […]’ and to fill an obvious gap in academic scholarship. While I applaud his attempt to write an initial definitive text, and certainly agree with him that there is a crucial lack of scholarship on Wicca and contemporary forms of Paganism, Doyle White posits a number of understandings that, as both a Pagan scholar and Pagan Minister, I must open for further discussion and interpretation.

In his opening response, Doyle White cites that ‘Wicca is the largest religion within contemporary Paganism’ citing unnamed ‘sociological, anthropological and ethnographic’ evidence. Doyle White’s statement reveals two distinct problematic issues. Firstly, Doyle White appears to be confusing the difference between Witchcraft and Wicca often presenting them as one in the same when they are quite different traditions.  Although Doyle White is correct in his historical connection between Jules Michelet, Margaret Murray, and Gerald Gardner in the foundation of Wicca in the early twentieth century, he appears to have missed a vital point. Gardner was the first to write down a dogma for the Wiccan tradition—a literal guide for adherents as to structure, form, ritual, and beliefs. A majority of contemporary Wiccans are Gardnerian Wiccans and follow (and in some cases modify) the templates Gardner constructed. High Priestess Phyllis Curott is a prominent contemporary Wiccan who has worked with the UN, the Parliament of World Religions, and Harvard’s Religious Pluralism Project. However, there are a number of contemporary Witchcraft traditions that pre-date Gardner such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn  (founded in 1888) and the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (who trace their historical roots to 1500 BCE). There are contemporary covens (or loosely-organised groups) of Witches both in the US and in the UK that do not self-identify as Wiccan; these Witches (both male and female) perform rituals and spellcasting either in solitary practice or within a coven or loosely-organised group. None of these traditions should be confused with or categorised with Wicca; they are various forms of Witchcraft.

Another complication with Doyle White’s statement that ‘Wicca is the largest religion within contemporary Paganism’ lies in the classification ‘Wicca’ and the opportunity to use it as a self-identifying label within available contemporary sociological data. Religious identifications that are alternative to the major world religions are relatively new to census questionnaires. However, there is a stark difference between the available options on religious identity in the 2012 US Census than there are in the 2011 UK Census. The US lists only four options: Wiccan, Pagan, Spiritualists, and Other; whereas the UK includes religious affiliations such as Wicca, Druid, Spiritualist, Heathen, Satanism, Witchcraft, New Age, Shamanism, Pagan, Pantheism, and the highly-popular Jedi Knight. What this implies is that the data from the US is skewed if adherents from a wide variety of traditions have only four limiting options to choose from; a practicing Witch can tick either ‘Wicca’ or ‘Pagan’ as a self-identifying religious affiliation. Whereas, in the United Kingdom much more data is available as to specific religious affiliation including a variety of new religious movements. Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States (2003) by Helen Berger, Evan Leach, and Leigh Shaffer, included six ‘Neo-Pagan’ movements, three of which predominated the survey: Wiccans, Pagans, and Goddess-worshippers, but also included Druids, Shamans, and the eclectic Unitarian Universalist Pagans. Ultimately, the US Census forces practitioners to choose between self-identifying as either Wiccan or Pagan obfuscating the data’s accuracy through the limitation of choices. In essence, the Wiccan community is, perhaps, much smaller than Doyle White asserts.

While accurately discussing the range of theological principles found in Wicca (from ditheism and polytheism to feminist monotheism), Doyle White includes atheists and agnostics into this theological array stating that this category includes those working with Jungian archetypes. My own doctoral research into the significance of Jung and post-Jungian theory to the development of the Western Goddess Movement contradicts Doyle White’s assessment. In fact, while the Jungian Goddess archetype can be traced back in the US to the 1920s and M Esther Harding (a devout student of Jung’s), evidence indicates that post-Jungian Jean Shinoda Bolen created a bridge from theory to religious praxis back in 1994 with her rebirth memoir Crossing to Avalon. Jung’s influence on Western faith traditions from the Catholic Charismatic movement to the development and advancement of Bolen’s post-Jungian Goddess Feminism, as a faith tradition which openly espouses a monotheaistic paradigm, stands in direct contradiction to Doyle White’s assertion that all post-Jungians are atheists or agnostics. While some post-Jungians remain purely analytical, a vast majority of contemporary post-Jungian Goddess adherents have crossed the bridge from analytics to praxis and consider themselves perhaps more ‘spiritual’ than ‘religious’.

When speaking of spellcasting, Doyle White states it is often used ‘in a negative sense’ preserving fictional caricatures of Witches dichotomously as evil or good. The perpetuation of these divergent and inaccurate stereotypes can only further hinder critical scholarship in this field. Phyllis Curott attempted to educate and change ‘the world’s prejudice’ in her 1998 memoir, Book of Shadows.

In closing, Doyle White calls for new terminology, preferring the Academic Study of Paganism, and I agree. Pagan Studies is problematic as a label and is often exclusionary, but I disagree with Doyle White when he states that we must stop accepting Pagan definitions from Pagans. Admittedly, definitions from lay adherents are often idealised and problematic, however, some of Doyle White’s statements exemplify the crucial need for viable Pagan scholarship from within the community that is analytically useful to scholars. Advancement of this scholarly pursuit requires the implementation of Academic Study of Paganism departments in which a multidisciplinary approach is beneficial, but must also include practicing Pagans. Ultimately Doyle White makes a good contribution to Pagan scholarship, but he exemplifies the need for Pagan academics and critical Pagan analysis.

References

Berger HA, Leach EA and Shaffer LS (2003) Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo Pagans in the United States. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Bolen, JS (1994) Crossing to Avalon: A Woman’s Midlife Pilgrimage. New York: Harper Collins.

Curott P (1998) Book of Shadows: A Modern Woman’s Journey into the Wisdom of Witchcraft and the Magic of the Goddess. New York: Broadway Books.

Harding ME (1971) Woman’s Mysteries: Ancient and Modern. Introduction by CG Jung. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

‘Iolana P (2016) Jung and Goddess: The Significance of Jungian and post-Jungian Theory to the Development of the Western Goddess Movement. An unpublished Thesis. University of Glasgow.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2004) ‘Focus on Religion’ Available at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/ethnicity/focus-on-religion/index.html

_____. (2012) Religion in England and Wales 2011. Available at:  http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/census/2011-census/key-statistics-for-local-authorities-in-england-and-wales/rpt-religion.html

U.S Census Bureau (2012) Statistical Abstract of the United States, Table 75.  Self-Described Religious Identification of Adult Population: 1990, 2001, and 2008. Available at:  http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0075.pdf

Doyle White E (2012) In Defence of Pagan Studies: A Response to Davidsen’s Critique. In: The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Vol 14, No 1 (5-21).

What is Right With Pagan Studies?

Ethan Doyle White’s interview with the RSP is a fascinating follow-on to Teemu Taira’s. While Taira seeks a new paradigm of religious studies that does not require definition of “religion,” White has repeatedly expressed frustration with the inability of Pagan studies to define “Paganism,” writing that the “problem with Pagan Studies hinges on its inability to coherently explain precisely what ‘contemporary Paganism’ is. The field of Pagan Studies has gone on for two decades, all the while managing to circumnavigate this contentious issue, but I do not believe that it can do so indefinitely, considering the great importance this question has for the very existence of the field” (2012). How is it that the future of religious studies hinges on ceasing to define “religion,” while the future of Pagan studies hangs on starting to define “Paganism?”

It is tempting to say that this curious contradiction has arisen because Pagan studies is disproportionately staffed by practicing Pagans (Davidsen, 194–5) who would benefit tremendously from a definition, since constructing the object of their study—which causes so much anxiety in religious studies—is precisely their objective. This is the concern that prompted Markus Altena Davidsen (2012) to call for stricter efforts to corral Pagan studies back into methodological line with religious studies.

I applauded White’s response to Davidsen for taking what he describes in the interview as a “balanced, mixed view,” recognizing the validity of dual insider/outsider status in anthropological methodology and noting that “there are independent [openly Pagan] scholars … who have written excellent, balanced historical and biographical accounts… To derogatorily label them ‘religionists’ and accuse them of being too favorable to Paganism, as the Davidsen approach would lead us to do, would be doing scholarship a real disservice” (2012). I think White is absolutely right, but stops too short, for when he writes that he “cannot accept … the accusation that those who adhere to a particular religious belief are intrinsically unable to analyse that belief critically,” (ibid.) he, in a certain measure, reinforces Davidsen’s basic claim that the only valid approach to the study of a religion is a detached critical naturalism. In short, his response to Davidsen is to affirm that religious practitioners can be objective, too.

It is this notion of detached, naturalistic criticism that needs to be criticized, however. I would pay good money to see Davidsen walk into a women’s studies department and declare that its work can only be carried out by men, because women bring too many “insider concerns and perspectives,” or inform a queer studies faculty that queer instructors should be replaced by straight ones, because it is academically unseemly to have them “actively promoting the sexual orientations in question.” I would pay an equal sum, however, to see White defend the same departments on the grounds that they can certainly set aside their identities and, as it were, pretend to be straight cis people long enough to do “balanced” scholarship.

If this strikes us as a ridiculous example, that is because no other field in the humanities is held to the same requirements of detached objectivity demanded in religious studies. No one raises an eyebrow when an accomplished painter teaches art history, or even when a former head of state assumes a post in political science. Far from a compromise of objectivity, this is seen as a valuable leveraging of applied expertise. For all our talk of religion being a human endeavor, we are unaccountably unaccustomed to thinking of it as one; we treat it as an abstract phenomenon that can be subjected to a passably “objective” study, like thermodynamics or photosynthesis. Human endeavors, however, are humanistic—to be elaborated as practices rather than dissected as occurrences. The attempt to engage religious studies as a science ends Davidsen up in the absurd position of objecting to appointing recognized experts as teachers—as though being a successful novelist might compromise one’s integrity as an English professor (although we might be equally leery of letting them drone on about their own work).

Recognizing this absurdity, White refuses to see the “religionists” drummed out, but remains sympathetic to Davidsen’s broader concerns about Pagan worldview creeping into academic description. I find this concern misplaced, however, because the purity of observation and description to which an “insider” account is contrasted has only ever been a faux objectivity. Colonialist scholars took as their standard what most educated Europeans believed, and then proceeded to judge “primitive religions” against Christianity. Can we honestly claim to be different when Davidsen, in the very opening of his critique (p. 183) asks “how we might do better in promoting a naturalist and theoretically oriented approach to studying religion?” Once again, our field is simply using the majority belief of educated Europeans, which is now naturalism, as the obvious yardstick of human judgement. If anyone doubts this, let him once watch the faces of a conference audience when a presenter says that his work in religion builds on Gramsci, and then when another says that her work builds on Guénon.

Pagans often, as White notes in the interview, claim continuities with ancient peoples and kinship with indigenous ones. Perhaps the most credible of these claims is to a worldview that rejects the separation of the sacred and the secular. To insist upon that separation by disallowing methodologies and epistemologies rooted in religious belief, either in the very strong terms of Davidsen or in the much softer terms of White, is, in practice, a colonialist imposition, which, when carried out in a key space of Paganism’s own self-definition (as Pagan studies has de facto become), amounts to an erasure of identity. When White says that we “need to stop accepting Pagan ideas of what Paganism actually is, because they are often idealized and not always analytically useful to those of us who are scholars,” I cannot help but hear an echo of the old assertions that we need to stop accepting, say, Indian ideas of what Indian religion is, because we have the true model of religiosity. For all our pretensions otherwise, we still have an orthodoxy made up of educated European beliefs that invalidates its opponents by depriving them of the terms to name themselves or to articulate their own experience.

Maybe Pagan Studies isn’t infiltrated by religionists, like Davidsen alleges, or overburdened with theological elements that need to be “shaken off,” as White suggests, but instead maybe our whole academic enterprise in the study of religion is, as Russell McCutcheon recently suggested, too big a tent, as the domination of our schools of theology by the Abrahamic religions forces a growing non-Abrahamic theological scholarship to seek refuge in secular departments not designed to accommodate it. The peculiarities of Pagan studies, then, might call our attention to the need of a department to house the emerging discipline of trans-religious theology—a department that could perform the functions of a school of theology ecumenically, providing discursive space for a passionate elaboration of religion as a human endeavor, instead of trying to dispassionately dissect it as a social phenomenon. There the “religionists” would be kept at a distance that Davidsen may find acceptable, their work clearly demarcated from that of the naturalistic, social scientific scholarship that he believes to be the only path forward. White, however, would still be able to find just down the hall those “religionist” scholars whose contributions he values for bringing into the academy the experiences of those who have lived what he aims to study (this is the “deep pluralism” called for by Ezzy [2015]). Pagan scholars, for their part, would have discursive space to continue their work of self-representation and theological exploration, which Panin (2015) suggests might be an unavoidable development out of Pagan studies anyway and, in the same stroke, we would open our theological discussion not just to Pagans, but also to Hindus, Buddhists, and many others who have been marginalized in the Abrahamic spaces in which theology has been academically acceptable hitherto, enriching religious studies by deepening and broadening its most important academic partner in dialogue.

Maybe Pagan studies isn’t broken. Maybe it’s a manifesto.

References

Davidsen, Markus Altena. “What is Wrong with Pagan Studies?” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 24 (2012): 183–99.

Ezzy, Douglas. “Pagan Studies: In Defense of Pluralism,” Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 16.2 (2015): 135–49.

Panin, Stanislav. “Discussions on Pagan Theology in the Academia and in the Pagan Community,” Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 6.3 (2015).

White, Ethan Doyle. “In Defence of Pagan Studies: A Response to Davidsen’s Critique,” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 14.1 (2012): 5–21.

 

 

Gurdjieff and the Study of Contemporary Religion

gurdjieffGeorge Ivanovich Gurdjieff was born around 1866 in Russia and came to prominence in the inter-war years in Europe and the US as a “spiritual teacher” or proto-New Age guru. As well as a complex cosmology, Gurdjieff taught that the average human being was literally asleep, and that “waking up” required a great deal of work and “conscious suffering” His work was continued by his pupils following his death in 1949, and a number of books on his teachings remain in print today. To discuss his importance to the study of religion, David Robertson speaks to two remarkable scholars, Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney, and Steven Sutcliffe of the University of Edinburgh.

We discuss Gurdjieff’s image as a “guru”; how deliberate was it, and where did he learn about the Eastern teachers he modelled himself upon? We discuss how much we should treat Gurdjieff as a sui generis “special case”, as Gurdjieffian scholars have tended to, or whether we would be better to treat him as a type, like Blavatksy, Steiner, Crowley and others. This then turns the discussion to the issues of researching figures like Gurdjieff whose legacies (and archives) are tightly controlled by their followers, and who often aren’t seen as worthy of study by the academy and publishers. We conclude with a consideration of Gurdjieff’s importance (or lack thereof) on the later New Age milieu, and popular culture more broadly.

And did Robert Fripp hire Toy Levin for King Crimson because he looks like Gurdjieff?

You may enjoy our previous interviews with Carole Cusack on “Cultural Production” and “Invented Religions”.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying books, yoga mats, plant pots, llama-shaped snacks and more.

Sámi Shamanism – Up Close and Personal

In his RSP interview, David Gordon Wilson tells us why he started studying spiritualism and shamanism, his relation to shamanism now, and general problems one may face while studying these subjects.

Like Dr. Wilson, I believe there are multiple ways of defining shamanism, a task that many have pursued and one that I am not willing to take up here. The term “shaman” will be mentioned; however, due to the space limits of this essay, I will not spend time on definition, nor will I explain why I have chosen one definition opposed to another. Instead I will focus on describing my personal experience with Sámi shamanism at an indigenous festival in the north of Norway with hopes that it will be of interest to the RSP audience.

The Sámi

The Sámi are an indigenous group in Norway, Sweden, Finland and north-western Russia. The history between the Sámi and the Norwegian government has left a stain on the Sámi for generations:

 The Norwegianization policy undertaken by the Norwegian government from the 1850s up until the Second World War resulted in the apparent loss of Sami language and assimilation of the coastal Sami as an ethnically-distinct people into the northern Norwegian population. Together with the rise of an ethno-political movement since the 1970s, however, Sami culture has seen a revitalization of language, cultural activities, and ethnic identity (Brattland 2010:31).

Personal Insight

I grew up in the north of Norway and was taught from a very young age to be cautious of certain objects in nature: specific stones, trees, and areas. For example, certain rituals had to be performed when we travelled past a big rock called “Stallo.” Some would bow their heads three times as they passed “Stallo,” while others laid down coins at his feet. I was told to greet the rock out loud as we passed by his side. My mother always reminded my brother and me of this, and told us why it was important for good luck and a safe journey. She spoke of the rock as if he was alive and had power to do both good and bad. If we didn’t greet him, he could get cross and we could get hurt. Or so she told us.

At the time, I had no idea that this was an old Sámi custom. It was not until I started studying religion at the university that I realised I have Sámi roots. I confronted my mother and she informed me that my grandparents had rejected the Sámi language and culture. The reason for this, she said, was that they were ashamed of their origins and, sadly, they were not the only ones.

Little Storm on the Coast

My story is far from unique in Norway. In fact there is even a festival in the north of Norway that was founded by people with similar stories. The festival is called “Riddu Riđđu” which means “little storm on the coast.” Riddu Riđđu was created by a group of youths who sought answers to why the elders in the community spoke a different language, a language they were not allowed to learn. In other words, the festival started as a rebellion against those who had refused the Sámi society. The festival program has a wide variety of music, cultural performances, and workshops held by indigenous people from Norway and other parts of the world.

Riddu Riddu in the Summer of 2010

Riddu Riddu in the Summer of 2010

Indigenous Performance at Riddu Riddu in 2013

Indigenous Performance at Riddu Riddu in 2013

My Thesis, My Journey

I had barely heard of the festival when I started my master’s degree in religion and society at the University of Oslo in 2009. I had heard that, from its beginning, Riddu Riddu has been important for the Sámi population as a meeting place as well as for people who have lost their connection to the Sámi and wish to learn. I had also heard that there were shamans at the festival, Sámi shamans and others from around the world. Naturally, having just learnt of my Sámi background, I was intrigued, and chose, therefore, Riddu Riddu as my main topic for my master’s thesis, focusing on Sámi religion and identity.

According to one of the founders of Riddu Riđđu, Lene Hansen, the festival is almost like a religious gathering – people meet both spiritually and socially, and experience ethnic bonding and communality[1]. I had my focus on shamanism and found that, like David Gordon Wilson, speaking to individuals was the best approach.

Sámi Shamanism

Dr. Graham Harvey tells us in Shamanism: A Reader (2003) that the word ”shaman” is being used within several languages today. However, he warns us that the use of the terms ”shaman” and ”shamanism” can generalise a number of people as there are numerous local words for shamans (Harvey 2003:1). For example a Sámi shaman can be known as a noaide.

I spoke to a man, let´s call him “Tor”, at Riddu Riddu who is Sámi and a shaman, but refused to be called a noaide. Tor explained that while the word ”shaman” means ”the one who knows,” the word noaide means ”the one who sees” (directly translated from Norwegian) and refers to the ritual expert in the old Sámi society. According to Tor, the noaide was the most feared and at the same time the most respected person in the old Sámi community. If one happened to be on the bad side of a noaide, he or she could put a curse(gaine) on you. On the other side, Tor told me that the noaide was the person one sought out in crisis, as he or she was the only one who had direct contact with the spirit world and therefore had healing powers.

Enjoy The Drumming

Tor invited me and a few others to participate in a drum journey inside a gamme (see picture below). At the time, we had just learned that a bomb had gone off in Oslo and there were several casualties. Tor suggested that it was a good time to do a drum journey and we all agreed.

A picture I took at Riddu Riđđu in 2013. The one on the right is a gamme. The others are lavvu (traditional Sámi tent).

A picture I took at Riddu Riđđu in 2013. The one on the right is a gamme. The others are lavvu (traditional Sámi tent).

Inside the lavvu, he built a fire and we were asked to lie down on the reindeer pelt. He started drumming in a slow rhythm and after a while he started joiking (traditional Sámi form of song). The experience was calming, in my opinion, and quite enjoyable. Mostly because I was able to focus on enjoying the moment right there and then. This, I was told later, was the shamans’ main purpose for that particular drum journey: to be truly present for a moment. After the drum journey I spoke briefly to Tor about shamanism. He emphasized that shamanism consists of getting in touch with one’s feelings, internal life, and soul. For me, this remark seems to be quite universal when it comes to speaking of shamanism, however I am not trying to compare what Tor told me to what other shamans believe. It is just an observation.

It has taken several years for the Sámi to turn their shame of being Sámi into proudness. I believe Riddu Riđđu has played a role in that turning point by offering a positive place for Sámi and other indigenous people from around the world to meet, compare and differentiate between them.

Like Dr. Wilson, I started with an outsiders’ perspective, but, as the years went by, I ended up as an insider. I find Riddu Riđđu to be a place to learn about shamanism, the Sámi and even about my self.

Myself in a Sámi dress, standing in front of a lavvu (traditional Sámi tent) at Riddu Riđđu in 2013.

Myself in a Sámi dress, standing in front of a lavvu (traditional Sámi tent) at Riddu Riđđu in 2013.

References

Brattland, Camilla 2010: Mapping Rights in Coastal Sami Seascapes, In: Arctic Review on Law and Politics, vol. 1, 1/2010 p. 28–53.

Harvey, Graham 2003: Shamanism: A Reader. New York: Routledge.

Henriksen, Marianne V.2011: “Å bli same”. En religionsvitenskapelig studie av Riddu Riddu Festivala i et rituelt perspektiv. MA thesis, the faculty of theology, University of Oslo. Reprosentralen. http://www.duo.uio.no/

Pedersen, Paul and Viken, Arvid 2009: ”Globalized Reinvention of Indigenuity. The Riddu Riddu Festival as a Tool for Ethnic Negotiation of Place,” In: Nyseth, Torill and Viken, Arild 2009: Place Reinvention: Northern Perspective. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

 

[1] Founder of Riddu Riddu, Lene Hansen quoted in Perdersen and Viken 2009:193

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Work of Carlo Ginzburg as the Researcher and the Reimagined Researched

During the EASR/IAHR/NGG 2014 Conference on Religion and Pluralities of Knowledge at the University of Groningen, I had the privilege of attending Carlo Ginzburg’s presentation, followed by his interview with the Religious Studies Project. I was impressed by his erudite observations, passion for sharing new ideas and research with both academic and non-academic audiences, and his friendly attitude towards the younger generations of scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Throughout the interview Ginzburg shared his critical stance towards postmodern rhetoric regarding historical narratives, displaying an anti-Nietzschean approach to establishing sources and evidence in the analysis of historical data. Furthermore, I was impressed by his bold characterisation of ‘identity’ as “a dreadful word,” especially in relation to cultural and ethnic boundaries.

Having studied some of his major works, both initially as a non-specialist and now as a member of the academic community, I have always admired how Ginzburg allows his archival ethnographic experience to affect his research without succumbing to the excessive indulgence of fruitless self-reflexivity. A further area of his research that inspired me to pursue various ethnographic and hermeneutic paths has been his tendency to provide suppressed minorities with a voice addressing the complexities of the relationship between mythopoesis and microhistory.

Traditionally, historical studies of ‘witchcraft’ have tended to stress the function of the ‘witches’ and their beliefs, neglecting at times broader meanings of such socio-religious phenomena from the perspective of either the accused or the self-designated. During the 1960s, though, a young Carlo Ginzburg discovered in the Archepiscopal Archives of Udine, a town in the Italian province of Friuli, a series of documents relaying the existence of an alleged agrarian fertility cult active during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These findings have been translated and published in his books Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, detailing the events surrounding the trials of the members of this ‘cult’ referred to as the benandanti. These benandanti, through their testimonies of nocturnal flights, metamorphoses into animals, secret gatherings, and night battles against destructive witches and warlocks to protect the fertility of the crops and their communities, fitted easily into the stereotype of witches and their sabbaths, especially as portrayed by the Roman Inquisition during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Inspired by Vladimir Propp’s methodology as outlined in his Morphology of the Folktale, Ginzburg would later come to discover possible connections of polythetic classification[1] regarding the beliefs and practices of the benandanti, echoing the diffusion of an earlier agrarian cult across Europe. Evidence for his thesis was presented through his discovery of cases such as the Livonian werewolf, the Corsican mazzeri, the Peloponnesian kallikantzaroi, and others displaying similarities with spatially distant myths and rites of Siberian shamans.”[2] These similarities can be outlined as:

i. Physical markings at birth indicating occult methods of communication.

ii. Entry into states of trance.

iii. Departure of the spirit from the body in either a human or animal form.

iv. Battles against destructive witches to protect the harvest and the community.

v. Such experiences occurring at special times of the year.[3]

However, the defining aspect of Ginzburg’s historiographical work in my opinion is delineated in Storia notturna: una decifrazione del sabba where he writes:

 We have distinguished two cultural currents, of diverse origin: on the one hand, the theme, elaborated by inquisitors and lay judges, of a conspiracy hatched by a sect or a group hostile to society; on the other, elements of shamanistic origin, now rooted in folk culture, such as magical flight and metamorphoses into animals.[4]

Despite Ginzburg’s academic legacy, some of his historical hypotheses have attracted mixed reviews.[5] In rapport with some criticisms, I still remain in favour of some of his conclusive remarks, and especially his noble endeavours to overcome the ideological antithesis between seemingly rational and irrational categories. In addition, some of his claims regarding the human body, construed through historico-cultural paradigms, yet stemming from the universal nature of our biological make-up as a species, I personally find attractive for further interdisciplinary debate. However, what I will be addressing in this response, which I believe has become an area of concern for both ethnographers and subjects, are the effects that the ‘researcher’ might have in organising and constructing the identity of the ‘researched’ in emic self-representations.

Throughout my ethnographic explorations I have come across various practitioners of what may be referred to as ‘modern Western magic’ self-identifying as ‘Traditional Witchcraft’, ‘Sabbatic Craft Tradition’, and so on.[6] Upon further investigation, I came to realise that despite emic claims of inspiration and insight deriving from direct ritual experience, some of these individuals and groups clearly drew upon the works of Ginzburg and other similar scholars in establishing a sense of structure and identity. Although I am not undermining their self-representations generated through extensive research and disciplined practice, I find it fascinating how we researchers at times tend to neglect how we may be responsible for reimagining and perpetuating synchronic adaptations of historico-religious phenomena, such as the ambiguous category of European witchcraft.

After the interview had ended I confronted Ginzburg whether he was aware of the impact of his research on contemporary areas of modern Western magical praxis. He admitted that at times he would type in “benandanti” on google search and come across such references. However, he was adamant about this not being the intention of his books research and conclusions. Due to the fact the he was pressed for time he refrained from commenting further but remained open to further future discussion. Recognising the effect that Ginzburg has had on various contemporary reimagined constructions of witchcraft, with emphasis on ‘traditional’, I began to wonder to what extent are we as religious scholars and historians responsible for contemporary configurations of ethnographic reconstructed realities stemming from our object of study?

Contemporary accounts of witchcraft and magic, such as those documented in the academic study of Western esotericism have clearly been associated with practitioners’ self-conceptions, indicating that this must be considered explicitly in academic representations. One problematic area of concern, though, is whether and to what extent is our academic research into such areas related to the formations of such identities. For example, various scholars of Western esotericism have emphasised the incompatibility of academic research with an esotericist agenda.[7] However, such a view fails at times to grasp the reality of how academic research into areas of Western esoteric discourse have affected arrangements of self-representation. In other words, research into esotericism fails to act as an autonomous autocrat, due to the fact that the self-realisation of the interrelationship of ‘academic esotericism’ and ‘applied esotericism’ have become a part of the history of esotericism.

A more inclusive approach to the study of legitimation adopted by contemporary witches, magicians, and so on would necessarily embrace a discourse community not identical with only the practitioners, but all who participate in its articulation. This can also apply to the Roman Inquisition’s description and identification of witchcraft that has continued to inspire both popular and theological portrayals stemming from misrepresentations of historical accounts such as the benandanti. If one is to understand categories of modern Western witchcraft and magic as general terms of identification reproduced through scholarly discourse, diachronous and synchronous dimensions of methodological consideration are vital. The synchronous dimension of methodological application would present such ethnographic phenomena as distributed through various discursive networks simultaneously, which the participants may renegotiate alongside corresponding academic objectives. The diachronous criterion however demands that we can only refer to the potential of historical sources, whether articulated directly as primary source materials or interpreted through the lenses of academic analysis, becoming synchronic manifestations by locating the parameters that set the time and place for the entry point of such self-representations.

[1] See Needham, Rodney, ‘Polythetic Classification: Convergence and Consequences’. In Man, 10, 1975, 349-369.

[2] Ginzburg, Carlo, ‘Preface’. In Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, viii. For Mircea Eliade’s also gave his support of Ginzburg see ‘Some Observations on European Witchcraft’. In History of Religions 14, 1975, 153-158.

[3] Regarding a brief analysis of Ginzburg’s contention on the diffusionist shamanistic roots see John, ‘Journeys to the World of the Dead: The work of Carlo Ginzburg’. In Journal of Social History, 25: 3, 1991, 618-619.

[4] Direct quotation taken from Martin, 1991, 616.

[5] Due to the scope and limits of my response to his interview, I will not be addressing them. For a more in depth survey and references to various criticisms see Martin, 1991,620-621.

[6] For example see http://xoanon.co.uk and http://www.threehandspress.com/index.php for references, sources, and contemporary literature.

[7] Hanegraaff, Wouter, J., ‘Beyond the Yates Paradigm: The Study of Western Esotericism between Counterculture and New Complexity’. In Aries 1, 2001, 29-30.

The Insider/Outsider Problem

 

The Insider/Outsider problem is one of the most perennial problems in the academic study of religion. This distinction, relating to where scholars position themselves relating to the subject matter (whatever that may be), permeates not only almost every aspect of academia, but has profound implications for each and every one of us conducts ourselves in relationship with the other people we encounter in our day-to-day lives. Dr George Chryssides joins Chris this week to discuss this fascinating issue.

This interview was recorded in September 2011 at the British Association for the Study of Religions‘ Annual Conference, hosted by Durham University.

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, Wu-Wear, previously enjoyed golf balls, and more.


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


The Insider/Outsider Problem

Podcast with George Chryssides (20th February 2012)

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Catrin Sawford

Audio and transcript available at: Chryssides Insider_Outsider Problem

Christopher Cotter (CC): The insider/outsider distinction is one of the most fundamental distinctions in the study of religions. I’m not going to get into it too much now because here to discuss it with me today is Dr George Chryssides, the honorary research fellow in contemporary religion at the University of Birmingham. He is also the author of, amongst many other things, ‘The Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses’, published in 2008, and the recently published ‘Christians in the 21st Century’. So, welcome Dr Chryssides.

George Chryssides (GC): Thanks, hi.

(CC): So, insider/outsider. To a lay person, what is an insider, and what is an outsider in the study of religions?

(GC): Well, there’s been a lot of debate about what exactly an insider or an outsider is but basically, in theory, the insider is the person that follows the religion, the outsider is the person like me, most of the time. I can’t belong to all the religions I study so I’m looking at it as a non-believer, as a non-practitioner, I’m trying to make sense of it.

(CC): So, you make two important points there, even in that little brief statement. One is, who does the defining? Is it you as an academic defining who is an insider or who is an outsider, or do you go by the tradition that you are studying at that time?

(GC): Well, I think it’s clear most of the time that I’m the outsider, because most of the time I’m trying to understand but initially I’m having problems working out what the religion believes, and why they do it and what it’s based on and what all the various activities are that they follow and what the reasons are for them. So I’m the outsider. It’s sometimes said that the outsider tries to make the strange familiar. For instance, it’s strange to me but it’s my job to make it familiar, first of all to myself, but secondly to the people I’m writing for or lecturing to or whatever. The other side to that is that is that it’s sometimes said that if you’re the insider, studying your own religion, you’re trying to make the familiar strange. In other words the religion that you follow seems very familiar to you but yet you don’t see what’s problematic about it. To give you an example that’s not to do with New Religious Movements, I was brought up as a Protestant Christian and I could never really understand what the big deal about the Reformation was because it seemed obvious to me that the Bible was the book that you followed and read and based your life on and what on earth was it that Martin Luther did. Just telling people that. But then it’s when you try and study a bit more and make it seem a bit more strange to you when you realise that there are Roman Catholics that say it’s not just the Bible, actually the Church was there first, it was the Church that defined the Bible and you’ve actually got two sources of authority then I can understand my own tradition that bit better because of this, kind of, strangeness that I’ve introduced and it’s not quite so familiar, not quite so comforting to me. Do you see what I mean?

(CC): Yes. So you hit on the other key issue, from my perspective anyway, which is what happens if you are an insider trying to be an outsider? And even an outsider is going to bring, implicitly they’re going to have their own community or set of ideas which they are an insider of. How does an academic go about juggling those two roles when they come to write?

(GC): Well, I think there are a lot of difficulties with that. One is that you’re trying to empathize, you’re trying to get, I suppose ideally, into the insider’s mind to see what it means to them, (5:00)what it is they do, why they do it and so forth, there’s that aspect to it. Sometimes people have said to me there’s another aspect, there’s faith maintenance. I used to get comments from the Church I belong to when I was researching Unification Church, they would say to me, ‘I don’t know how you maintain your faith coming into contact with all these religions’. Actually that wasn’t a problem for me because I guess I wasn’t personally attracted to any of them, I didn’t actually think of joining. But again some people might, and maybe that’s okay, maybe it’s not. I think as the researcher you need to decide that.

(CC): One of the more recent, I was going to say ‘founding fathers’ but he’s not a founding father, but one of the more recent canonical figures in the phenomenological study of religion is Ninian Smart and one of the key things he’s remembered for is the idea of methodological agnosticism, where an outsider will come into a community and study and yet attempt to maintain some sort of agnostic stance on the truth or belief claims of that community. How…do you have any reflections on how this works out in practice?

(GC): Yes. I sometimes have said to students, and sometimes they’ve been surprised, I’ve said there’s actually a sense in which we’re not interested in truth. So, if I’m working on, let’s say the Jehovah’s Witnesses, my key question is not “might they be teaching the truth”? What my job is, is to understand them and to get them right and to make sure I’m not misrepresenting them and to raise key questions about them. On the other hand, because the Jehovah’s Witnesses talk about “being in the truth”, that’s often their phrase, for people who have accepted their form of spirituality, they want me to accept the truth. Every so often the city overseer will take me aside and say “You know George, I’ve really got to say this to you but I’m very concerned that you’re still not yet in the truth”. And I always notice the word “yet” in what he says because he’s still hopeful that I will one day study the religion enough to see that really “what else could be true?!”. So we’ve got a different agenda. Here I am with this methodological agnosticism, I’m not supposed to be asking the question “might they be right?” but from their point of view, they’re saying well, “there’s no question about it, we are right, we’ve got the truth and we wish you would accept it”. I think we agree to differ but the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I think with some of the Unification Churches seminars I used to attend, certainly the last one I found that very high pressure, there was no let up. You know, “what did you think of this lecture?”, and “why don’t you agree that it’s true?” and so on, so you can actually encounter that as someone who studies religion.

(CC): Yes, I mean how often are you aware of this, of the fact that perhaps what you’re being presented with by the community that you’re studying is actually what’s going on, or if it’s their attempt to present themselves in a certain way to the academic? Have you ever had any experiences of that dynamic?

(GC): Obviously, any religious organisation will want to show themselves up in the best favourable light. I think one has got to make a point of reading the critics as well as the exponents and to ask whether things are as good as they say. And I think we’re used to that actually in any form of religion, old and new. There’s the ideal and the real, and you will get vicars pushing sermons about how Christians show love to each other and so on, and if you compare that with what goes on in the average church there’s usually a big difference. If you read the media you read a lot about the paedophile priests and so on, but of course that doesn’t get into the textbooks because that’s not the ideal. So you’ve got to match up ideality and reality. As somebody who’s studying (10:00) religion I think I’ve got to reflect on both.

(CC): It was the…another phenomenologist of religion, it was William Brede Kristensen, to paraphrase him, who had the idea that the believer is always right. So that everything you do as a scholar of religion you bring back to the believer and if they can’t accept it, then it isn’t a true representation. This was also, I think it was Cantwell Smith elaborated on that, saying that a depiction of a religion must be true to, if it was Christianity, a Christian, but also to a Muslim, or to someone who didn’t have that believe at all. I’m wondering if you’ve ever had experience of that or any thoughts on that, taking your writing back to the community that has been studied?

(GC): Yes, I will usually do that if it’s at all possible because you often pick up a lot of your own misconceptions or the odd error, or sometimes it’s not even an error, it might be the way that you’ve put something that really just gives it a wrong slant. I don’t think that the believer is always right because that seems to give a kind of an infallibility to the believer, and we all make mistakes. Believers can give you information that is wrong simply because maybe they’ve forgotten or they haven’t checked themselves. I mean, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses were to tell me that their annual memorial is on the 10th of April when in fact when it was on the 17th, that would just be a mistake and hopefully I would sort that out to make a point of going along on the correct night. So I think one has got to allow that there can be mistakes. Sometimes even the believer may not understand their own tradition fully. Sometimes you do get to the point where a follower of a new religious movement will say to you, “gosh, how do you know all that about us, we didn’t know that”. I have had that comment from members of the unification church and sometimes from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised because you wouldn’t expect a Sunday school teacher to know as much as someone who is studying Christianity. I think one has got to bear in mind the phrase “the believer is always right”, meaning that you check things against the believer’s account. If believers do make mistakes of course then the fact that they’ve made a mistake is part of the phenomenon as well. So there is that to bring in. I remember Eileen Barker once saying “everything is data”. She actually said that apropos of Susan Palmer being excluded from an event organised by the Raelians. Evidently Susan was disappointed about this and she had asked Eileen Barker what she should do and how she should respond and Eileen’s comment was “everything is data”. So if you are excluded or I suppose even if you were chucked out of a meeting that ought to be an interesting fact in itself. So yes, the believer is not always right but you should always take the believer very seriously.

(CC): As far as scholars who are insiders and scholars who are outsiders, I’ve certainly been involved in many a heated debate about which is the better position or which is more valid, so I’m going to sort of rhetorically ask, insider or outsider scholar?

(GC): You can’t pick one or the other. I think really you’ve got say there are outsiders that bring to bear certain things that the insider can’t and vice versa. The insider might be over enthusiastic about their own religion and they may privilege their own particular tradition. But at least the insider will know what religion means and that can be a problem if you’re the outsider. There are probably some outsiders that aren’t really very sure of why people follow a religion or what it means to them and so on. On the other hand they’ve got, one hopes, some kind of objectivity. So an outsider studying Christianity might be more likely to take aboard the fact that (15:00) there are three major traditions in Christianity for example whereas someone who is inside may see just Evangelical Protestantism as the only version. So I think one has got to say that different stances have got their own pros and cons. But it’s also not that simple because I think scholars talk about insiders as if there’s only one kind of insider. When you think about it there are different traditions within a religion so, am I an insider to Christianity? Well the answer is, yes, I am, but I’m not an insider to Eastern Orthodoxy or to the Salvation Army or to Roman Catholicism. So there are a whole lot of, well there not even concentric circles here, I might be in some things in my own religion but excluded from others. Or what about the role of women for example, I‘m not sure I can speak totally from a woman’s point of view because I’m not an insider to that and I can’t be. I think we’ve got to watch we don’t make it kind of black and white. Also I think that you’re not just in or out, you can be thinking about joining a religion, so you’re kind of moving in. You can make the decision to come in, to be the enthusiastic new convert, you can get to the next stage where maybe you’re going to get a bit complacent as the insider, but then you can go out the other end. So there’s the ex-member perhaps at the end of that, and they’ve got something to tell as well that is worth taking seriously. I don’t think we’ve done enough study of ex-members either, of all the new religions, because actually they’re very difficult to find, apart from the ones that tell you what a horrible experience it’s been belonging to the religion they’ve just left.

(CC): The ones who feel they’ve got something to say will say it but the ones who maybe don’t feel they’ve got anything to say, don’t… so how on earth do you find them?

(GC): I don’t know whether you want me to say a bit more about that because I can do. I think there are –

(CC): Yes

(GC): -different kinds of ex member that we ought to be interested in. There’s certainly the kind that goes and tells the media how bad it was. That’s certainly one kind, and then the other question is “why do they do that?” I mean, maybe they have had a bad experience, I’m sure some of them have, but equally there may be people who feel “well I’ve come out, I’ve wasted years of my life, how do I justify that?” As Jim Beckford says in one of his books, they devise story, they devise a scenario, to account for the entry and exit. So you get brainwashing stories. But equally you get people like the woman who cut my hair recently, we got on to talking, and it transpired that she had belonged to the Soka Gakkai, and I said “Well, why did you leave?” and she said “well I actually didn’t like being out late at night” which is when they had their meetings. “I thought I was being followed by somebody who was going to rob me so I didn’t go back”. So her reason for not going back was totally nothing to do with the religion but we don’t hear that story and I find that really interesting that there are these stories out there that we haven’t actually taken aboard as students of religion.

(CC): Definitely. Two more things that I’d like to ask and then I think we’re getting near wrapping up.

(GC): Okay.

(CC): One is, how does this understanding of insiders and outsiders, how does that impact upon the media, and when the media get in an expert on a religion, or a religious leader and you know, ask them questions about “what does your religion think about this?” or “What is your religion’s response to this?” What’s going on there? What issues does that bring up?

(GC): I think there would be all sorts of things that go on there. It depends on what they’re after, it depends on who the interviewer is. There is a YouTube clip of Sun Myung Moon being interviewed and all the questions that are asked by that interviewer are designed to embarrass him and show what a hypocrite he is and so on. So it depends on what stance you have. Equally, there have been interviews where the follower or a leader of a new religion has been taken very seriously and it has been a genuine attempt to find out what’s going on. So I think maybe it can have different motives at different times.

(CC): Mmm.

(GC): (20:00) I would hope they would go for the model of finding out what the believer or leader thinks rather than try to have a sensationalist story about the religion in question.

(CC): And the final one is bringing in my own research, which is into non-religion. We’ve been talking about different sorts of insiders and outsiders, but I’ve wonder specifically about the non-religious outsider trying to study a religion and if there’s any dynamic going on there? Is, I guess I’m asking, is a religion of some description necessary to understand another religion?

(GC): So the question is if you’ve got no religion what- why are you studying religion at all, or-?

(CC): how – is it possible for you to understand someone else’s religious experience if you have never had a religious experience to gauge that against?

(GC): Well, I don’t know. My mother was very religious and she brought us up to be very religious and to have this kind of interest in religion as something that was really important, so I’m not sure what it’s like myself, to be in a situation where I just don’t know what religion is about and why people join. Sometimes students have said “I’ve never been in a church in my life” and I really don’t know what that’s like to be honest. So I don’t know how they kind of, get in on religion. I imagine they may find some of it somewhat difficult to understand. So yes, I’ve been an insider to religion and that certainly gives me an advantage in some respects but maybe that makes me, kind of, too prone to see it as something important. Whereas other people have said things like “religion is poison”, I think it was Mao Zedong that said that.

(CC): Mmm.

(GC): So yeah, I don’t know what it’s like to be coming from that point of view. So yes, we all have our starting points. I guess we’ve got to recognise what that starting point is and to realise that there are other people that are outsiders to religion and they themselves, I’m sure, have got a valid perspective to offer that is an interest to all of us.

(CC): Lots of very fascinating issues there, Dr Chryssides, that we could go on about for a lot longer.

(GC): We certainly could, and thanks for talking to me.

(CC): And thanks for talking to us!


Citation Info: Chryssides, George, and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “The Insider/Outsider Problem”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27th March 2018. Transcribed by Catrin Sawford. Version 1.1. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-george-chryssides-on-the-insideroutsider-problem/

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

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

Podcasts

Studying Tantra from the Inside and Out

In this interview on ‘Studying Tantra from the Inside and Out’, Douglas R Brooks allows the listener an insight into his own personal and academic development, and an account of how various factors led him to the study of South Indian Shrividya Shakta Tantrism. There are many interesting elements to consider therein, but for me, the interview first and foremost appeals to one of the core debates within Religious Studies: the insider/outsider debate. Due to the interview’s largely autobiographical focus, I find it most useful when viewed as an elaboration on this discussion, and I hope, in this short response, to highlight elements of the ongoing debate. Specifically, I wish to highlight the shifting nature of the categories of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’; emphasise the position of the ‘other’ in judging the status of the researcher; and to consider how the researcher may work to position themselves in this dynamic.

One of the RSP’s earliest interviews with George Chryssides covers the insider/outsider debate, and raises several questions in relation to it – as does Katie Aston’s response, in which she explores the question of whether it is best for the scholar (or more specifically, the anthropologist) of religion to have any belief in order to relate to the individuals that they research.   Most would agree that being an insider or outsider to the group that one studies will always be on some sort of spectrum, with few clear or stable boundaries. The researcher’s position in this spectrum will alter according to various identity markers, including whether or not they are already an accepted member of the community being researched, or indeed if they are a ‘believer’ in any capacity; but also according to markers such as nationality, ethnicity, native language, age, and gender.  Each of the researcher’s identity markers will be perceived differently by the individuals they encounter, and this will define the extent to which one is perceived as an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ by each individual.  This sets a broad background for the interview with Brooks, a scholar renowned for his research on (and deep involvement) in Shakta Tantra in South India.  Several of the aforementioned ideas arise particularly prominently in this interview.

Starting with a more general consideration of being an insider or outsider to a typically Christian, North American background, Brooks discusses his experience of being brought up in a non-religious household, using the somewhat revealing phrase that he ‘didn’t have to undo a great deal’.  By casting his non-religious upbringing as an advantage, Brooks consciously positions himself outside of the sphere of traditional religion in the North American context. Despite appearing to be grateful for this lack of religious influence in his early life, he also describes how this later led to him being somewhat of an outsider on his University course, which assumed that students of comparative religion would come from a Judeao-Christian background, and would have some form of committed belief. Brooks clearly felt that he did not fit this mould.

However, to avoid reiterating previous discussions about the effects of a (non)religious background, I prefer to focus on one theme that emerges particularly strongly in this interview: that of language, and the great effect that it can have on the status of the researcher. Brooks clearly places great value on his own command of Sanskrit and Tamil, and indeed, his knowledge of these languages has afforded him a unique understanding of South Indian Tantric and Goddess traditions that few scholars can match.  The importance placed on language also leads him to refer to a past lecturer on Hinduism and Buddhism as ‘a well-meaning amateur’ due to his lack of first-hand knowledge of Sanskrit, which thus denied him direct access to the literature (here, Brooks perhaps overemphasises the role of texts).  Clearly, Brooks’ skill in this area can afford him increased access to not only the literature of his field, but to individuals and communities in South India today – contributing toward his efforts to become an insider.  On a more practical level, advanced linguistic ability also avoids the complexities of employing a translator in the fieldwork setting – an arrangement which risks a loss of nuance, and reinforces the researcher’s position as an outsider through the translator’s necessary presence and involvement.

As well as aiding in his research in South India, this linguistic ability also gives Brooks social and cultural capital for the groups that he speaks with during his public engagement events: one attendee and blogger writes, ‘It blew my mind when he lead puja on the last day.  He busted out mantras as if he were born a Brahmin. Dude can read Sanskrit!’. Through his use and knowledge of languages, Brooks can thus be perceived by America yoga students as more of an ‘authentic’ insider to those South Indian traditions which he studies.  This in turn can afford him the status of an insider to the yoga community, which places high value on these relatively rare skills.

This also raises the question of Brooks’ status to those involved in the North American yoga community, in which he lectures extensively on Tantric philosophy and appears to be considered a yoga teacher.  However, unlike the vast majority of yoga teachers, he does not teach asana (as far as I can tell).  Thus Brooks straddles the spheres of the academy and the yoga world, finding a place in both but not as a ‘typical’ member.  This straddling echoes that done by Brooks’ own mentor, Dr Sundaramoorthy.  It seems that for Brooks, Sundaramoorthy represented an ideal insider to the both the academic world and the world of South Indian Tantrism, as he studied Shakta Tantrism academically, was skilled in languages, and was born to an orthodox Brahmin family.

Finally, we can take a more removed perspective and consider Brooks’ positioning of himself to the audience, and the language used therein – already touched upon in his comment on not having to ‘undo’ the effects of a religious upbringing.  Although it is important not to hypothesise too imaginatively on the interviewee’s choice of words or topics to cover, we can at least consider the effect they might have on the audience.  For example, Brooks explicitly places himself outside the ‘hippy movement’ of the Beatles’ era, as well as emphasising his removal from the modern postural yoga movement exemplified by figures such as K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S Iyengar, and Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. What does the interviewee convey to the audience by doing so?  To me, Brooks seems to emphasise his commitment to studying South Indian traditions in their more classical or traditional forms. However, by doing so, he could perhaps be casting himself as a more ‘authentic’ researcher and insider of Indian traditions by maintaining some distance between himself and the New Age movement, often subject to accusations of cultural appropriation, a lack of historical understanding, and being more ‘lightweight’.   As well as looking at what is said in this interview, we can also consider what is not said. Brooks’ own involvement in the North American yoga world is downplayed as his ‘weekend job’ of public engagement, which partially obscures the fact that this isn’t done in an entirely academic capacity, but also in the capacity of a devoted teacher of the Rajanaka Yoga philosophy.  The listener wonders whether Brooks’ downplaying of his involvement with the North American yoga world could perhaps be an appeal to greater academic credibility, and to the academy’s preference for highly objective empirical accounts of religious phenomena.

I find autobiographical interviews such as this valuable for the themes that emerge throughout the narrative, such as that of the researcher’s status as an insider or outsider.  I hope that this short response has highlighted the complexity of relationships between Brooks (as the researcher) and the other social actors he encounters including, but not limited to: the individuals and communities he studies; his mentor, Dr Sundaramoorthy; the North American yoga world; the academy; and the listeners of this podcast – all of whom, I suspect, will judge him as an ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ to wildly varying degrees.

 

 

 

Pagan Scholarship from a Pagan Perspective

Ethan Doyle White, a PhD student in Anthropology of Religion at University College London, recently discussed his research into his 2015 book Wicca: History, Belief, and Community in Modern Pagan Witchcraft. In this interview with the RSP, Doyle White states that he wrote this text ‘[…]to summarise the state of all previous research on Wicca […]’ and to fill an obvious gap in academic scholarship. While I applaud his attempt to write an initial definitive text, and certainly agree with him that there is a crucial lack of scholarship on Wicca and contemporary forms of Paganism, Doyle White posits a number of understandings that, as both a Pagan scholar and Pagan Minister, I must open for further discussion and interpretation.

In his opening response, Doyle White cites that ‘Wicca is the largest religion within contemporary Paganism’ citing unnamed ‘sociological, anthropological and ethnographic’ evidence. Doyle White’s statement reveals two distinct problematic issues. Firstly, Doyle White appears to be confusing the difference between Witchcraft and Wicca often presenting them as one in the same when they are quite different traditions.  Although Doyle White is correct in his historical connection between Jules Michelet, Margaret Murray, and Gerald Gardner in the foundation of Wicca in the early twentieth century, he appears to have missed a vital point. Gardner was the first to write down a dogma for the Wiccan tradition—a literal guide for adherents as to structure, form, ritual, and beliefs. A majority of contemporary Wiccans are Gardnerian Wiccans and follow (and in some cases modify) the templates Gardner constructed. High Priestess Phyllis Curott is a prominent contemporary Wiccan who has worked with the UN, the Parliament of World Religions, and Harvard’s Religious Pluralism Project. However, there are a number of contemporary Witchcraft traditions that pre-date Gardner such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn  (founded in 1888) and the Ancient Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (who trace their historical roots to 1500 BCE). There are contemporary covens (or loosely-organised groups) of Witches both in the US and in the UK that do not self-identify as Wiccan; these Witches (both male and female) perform rituals and spellcasting either in solitary practice or within a coven or loosely-organised group. None of these traditions should be confused with or categorised with Wicca; they are various forms of Witchcraft.

Another complication with Doyle White’s statement that ‘Wicca is the largest religion within contemporary Paganism’ lies in the classification ‘Wicca’ and the opportunity to use it as a self-identifying label within available contemporary sociological data. Religious identifications that are alternative to the major world religions are relatively new to census questionnaires. However, there is a stark difference between the available options on religious identity in the 2012 US Census than there are in the 2011 UK Census. The US lists only four options: Wiccan, Pagan, Spiritualists, and Other; whereas the UK includes religious affiliations such as Wicca, Druid, Spiritualist, Heathen, Satanism, Witchcraft, New Age, Shamanism, Pagan, Pantheism, and the highly-popular Jedi Knight. What this implies is that the data from the US is skewed if adherents from a wide variety of traditions have only four limiting options to choose from; a practicing Witch can tick either ‘Wicca’ or ‘Pagan’ as a self-identifying religious affiliation. Whereas, in the United Kingdom much more data is available as to specific religious affiliation including a variety of new religious movements. Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo-Pagans in the United States (2003) by Helen Berger, Evan Leach, and Leigh Shaffer, included six ‘Neo-Pagan’ movements, three of which predominated the survey: Wiccans, Pagans, and Goddess-worshippers, but also included Druids, Shamans, and the eclectic Unitarian Universalist Pagans. Ultimately, the US Census forces practitioners to choose between self-identifying as either Wiccan or Pagan obfuscating the data’s accuracy through the limitation of choices. In essence, the Wiccan community is, perhaps, much smaller than Doyle White asserts.

While accurately discussing the range of theological principles found in Wicca (from ditheism and polytheism to feminist monotheism), Doyle White includes atheists and agnostics into this theological array stating that this category includes those working with Jungian archetypes. My own doctoral research into the significance of Jung and post-Jungian theory to the development of the Western Goddess Movement contradicts Doyle White’s assessment. In fact, while the Jungian Goddess archetype can be traced back in the US to the 1920s and M Esther Harding (a devout student of Jung’s), evidence indicates that post-Jungian Jean Shinoda Bolen created a bridge from theory to religious praxis back in 1994 with her rebirth memoir Crossing to Avalon. Jung’s influence on Western faith traditions from the Catholic Charismatic movement to the development and advancement of Bolen’s post-Jungian Goddess Feminism, as a faith tradition which openly espouses a monotheaistic paradigm, stands in direct contradiction to Doyle White’s assertion that all post-Jungians are atheists or agnostics. While some post-Jungians remain purely analytical, a vast majority of contemporary post-Jungian Goddess adherents have crossed the bridge from analytics to praxis and consider themselves perhaps more ‘spiritual’ than ‘religious’.

When speaking of spellcasting, Doyle White states it is often used ‘in a negative sense’ preserving fictional caricatures of Witches dichotomously as evil or good. The perpetuation of these divergent and inaccurate stereotypes can only further hinder critical scholarship in this field. Phyllis Curott attempted to educate and change ‘the world’s prejudice’ in her 1998 memoir, Book of Shadows.

In closing, Doyle White calls for new terminology, preferring the Academic Study of Paganism, and I agree. Pagan Studies is problematic as a label and is often exclusionary, but I disagree with Doyle White when he states that we must stop accepting Pagan definitions from Pagans. Admittedly, definitions from lay adherents are often idealised and problematic, however, some of Doyle White’s statements exemplify the crucial need for viable Pagan scholarship from within the community that is analytically useful to scholars. Advancement of this scholarly pursuit requires the implementation of Academic Study of Paganism departments in which a multidisciplinary approach is beneficial, but must also include practicing Pagans. Ultimately Doyle White makes a good contribution to Pagan scholarship, but he exemplifies the need for Pagan academics and critical Pagan analysis.

References

Berger HA, Leach EA and Shaffer LS (2003) Voices from the Pagan Census: A National Survey of Witches and Neo Pagans in the United States. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Bolen, JS (1994) Crossing to Avalon: A Woman’s Midlife Pilgrimage. New York: Harper Collins.

Curott P (1998) Book of Shadows: A Modern Woman’s Journey into the Wisdom of Witchcraft and the Magic of the Goddess. New York: Broadway Books.

Harding ME (1971) Woman’s Mysteries: Ancient and Modern. Introduction by CG Jung. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

‘Iolana P (2016) Jung and Goddess: The Significance of Jungian and post-Jungian Theory to the Development of the Western Goddess Movement. An unpublished Thesis. University of Glasgow.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) (2004) ‘Focus on Religion’ Available at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/ethnicity/focus-on-religion/index.html

_____. (2012) Religion in England and Wales 2011. Available at:  http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/census/2011-census/key-statistics-for-local-authorities-in-england-and-wales/rpt-religion.html

U.S Census Bureau (2012) Statistical Abstract of the United States, Table 75.  Self-Described Religious Identification of Adult Population: 1990, 2001, and 2008. Available at:  http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0075.pdf

Doyle White E (2012) In Defence of Pagan Studies: A Response to Davidsen’s Critique. In: The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Vol 14, No 1 (5-21).

What is Right With Pagan Studies?

Ethan Doyle White’s interview with the RSP is a fascinating follow-on to Teemu Taira’s. While Taira seeks a new paradigm of religious studies that does not require definition of “religion,” White has repeatedly expressed frustration with the inability of Pagan studies to define “Paganism,” writing that the “problem with Pagan Studies hinges on its inability to coherently explain precisely what ‘contemporary Paganism’ is. The field of Pagan Studies has gone on for two decades, all the while managing to circumnavigate this contentious issue, but I do not believe that it can do so indefinitely, considering the great importance this question has for the very existence of the field” (2012). How is it that the future of religious studies hinges on ceasing to define “religion,” while the future of Pagan studies hangs on starting to define “Paganism?”

It is tempting to say that this curious contradiction has arisen because Pagan studies is disproportionately staffed by practicing Pagans (Davidsen, 194–5) who would benefit tremendously from a definition, since constructing the object of their study—which causes so much anxiety in religious studies—is precisely their objective. This is the concern that prompted Markus Altena Davidsen (2012) to call for stricter efforts to corral Pagan studies back into methodological line with religious studies.

I applauded White’s response to Davidsen for taking what he describes in the interview as a “balanced, mixed view,” recognizing the validity of dual insider/outsider status in anthropological methodology and noting that “there are independent [openly Pagan] scholars … who have written excellent, balanced historical and biographical accounts… To derogatorily label them ‘religionists’ and accuse them of being too favorable to Paganism, as the Davidsen approach would lead us to do, would be doing scholarship a real disservice” (2012). I think White is absolutely right, but stops too short, for when he writes that he “cannot accept … the accusation that those who adhere to a particular religious belief are intrinsically unable to analyse that belief critically,” (ibid.) he, in a certain measure, reinforces Davidsen’s basic claim that the only valid approach to the study of a religion is a detached critical naturalism. In short, his response to Davidsen is to affirm that religious practitioners can be objective, too.

It is this notion of detached, naturalistic criticism that needs to be criticized, however. I would pay good money to see Davidsen walk into a women’s studies department and declare that its work can only be carried out by men, because women bring too many “insider concerns and perspectives,” or inform a queer studies faculty that queer instructors should be replaced by straight ones, because it is academically unseemly to have them “actively promoting the sexual orientations in question.” I would pay an equal sum, however, to see White defend the same departments on the grounds that they can certainly set aside their identities and, as it were, pretend to be straight cis people long enough to do “balanced” scholarship.

If this strikes us as a ridiculous example, that is because no other field in the humanities is held to the same requirements of detached objectivity demanded in religious studies. No one raises an eyebrow when an accomplished painter teaches art history, or even when a former head of state assumes a post in political science. Far from a compromise of objectivity, this is seen as a valuable leveraging of applied expertise. For all our talk of religion being a human endeavor, we are unaccountably unaccustomed to thinking of it as one; we treat it as an abstract phenomenon that can be subjected to a passably “objective” study, like thermodynamics or photosynthesis. Human endeavors, however, are humanistic—to be elaborated as practices rather than dissected as occurrences. The attempt to engage religious studies as a science ends Davidsen up in the absurd position of objecting to appointing recognized experts as teachers—as though being a successful novelist might compromise one’s integrity as an English professor (although we might be equally leery of letting them drone on about their own work).

Recognizing this absurdity, White refuses to see the “religionists” drummed out, but remains sympathetic to Davidsen’s broader concerns about Pagan worldview creeping into academic description. I find this concern misplaced, however, because the purity of observation and description to which an “insider” account is contrasted has only ever been a faux objectivity. Colonialist scholars took as their standard what most educated Europeans believed, and then proceeded to judge “primitive religions” against Christianity. Can we honestly claim to be different when Davidsen, in the very opening of his critique (p. 183) asks “how we might do better in promoting a naturalist and theoretically oriented approach to studying religion?” Once again, our field is simply using the majority belief of educated Europeans, which is now naturalism, as the obvious yardstick of human judgement. If anyone doubts this, let him once watch the faces of a conference audience when a presenter says that his work in religion builds on Gramsci, and then when another says that her work builds on Guénon.

Pagans often, as White notes in the interview, claim continuities with ancient peoples and kinship with indigenous ones. Perhaps the most credible of these claims is to a worldview that rejects the separation of the sacred and the secular. To insist upon that separation by disallowing methodologies and epistemologies rooted in religious belief, either in the very strong terms of Davidsen or in the much softer terms of White, is, in practice, a colonialist imposition, which, when carried out in a key space of Paganism’s own self-definition (as Pagan studies has de facto become), amounts to an erasure of identity. When White says that we “need to stop accepting Pagan ideas of what Paganism actually is, because they are often idealized and not always analytically useful to those of us who are scholars,” I cannot help but hear an echo of the old assertions that we need to stop accepting, say, Indian ideas of what Indian religion is, because we have the true model of religiosity. For all our pretensions otherwise, we still have an orthodoxy made up of educated European beliefs that invalidates its opponents by depriving them of the terms to name themselves or to articulate their own experience.

Maybe Pagan Studies isn’t infiltrated by religionists, like Davidsen alleges, or overburdened with theological elements that need to be “shaken off,” as White suggests, but instead maybe our whole academic enterprise in the study of religion is, as Russell McCutcheon recently suggested, too big a tent, as the domination of our schools of theology by the Abrahamic religions forces a growing non-Abrahamic theological scholarship to seek refuge in secular departments not designed to accommodate it. The peculiarities of Pagan studies, then, might call our attention to the need of a department to house the emerging discipline of trans-religious theology—a department that could perform the functions of a school of theology ecumenically, providing discursive space for a passionate elaboration of religion as a human endeavor, instead of trying to dispassionately dissect it as a social phenomenon. There the “religionists” would be kept at a distance that Davidsen may find acceptable, their work clearly demarcated from that of the naturalistic, social scientific scholarship that he believes to be the only path forward. White, however, would still be able to find just down the hall those “religionist” scholars whose contributions he values for bringing into the academy the experiences of those who have lived what he aims to study (this is the “deep pluralism” called for by Ezzy [2015]). Pagan scholars, for their part, would have discursive space to continue their work of self-representation and theological exploration, which Panin (2015) suggests might be an unavoidable development out of Pagan studies anyway and, in the same stroke, we would open our theological discussion not just to Pagans, but also to Hindus, Buddhists, and many others who have been marginalized in the Abrahamic spaces in which theology has been academically acceptable hitherto, enriching religious studies by deepening and broadening its most important academic partner in dialogue.

Maybe Pagan studies isn’t broken. Maybe it’s a manifesto.

References

Davidsen, Markus Altena. “What is Wrong with Pagan Studies?” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 24 (2012): 183–99.

Ezzy, Douglas. “Pagan Studies: In Defense of Pluralism,” Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 16.2 (2015): 135–49.

Panin, Stanislav. “Discussions on Pagan Theology in the Academia and in the Pagan Community,” Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences 6.3 (2015).

White, Ethan Doyle. “In Defence of Pagan Studies: A Response to Davidsen’s Critique,” The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 14.1 (2012): 5–21.

 

 

Gurdjieff and the Study of Contemporary Religion

gurdjieffGeorge Ivanovich Gurdjieff was born around 1866 in Russia and came to prominence in the inter-war years in Europe and the US as a “spiritual teacher” or proto-New Age guru. As well as a complex cosmology, Gurdjieff taught that the average human being was literally asleep, and that “waking up” required a great deal of work and “conscious suffering” His work was continued by his pupils following his death in 1949, and a number of books on his teachings remain in print today. To discuss his importance to the study of religion, David Robertson speaks to two remarkable scholars, Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney, and Steven Sutcliffe of the University of Edinburgh.

We discuss Gurdjieff’s image as a “guru”; how deliberate was it, and where did he learn about the Eastern teachers he modelled himself upon? We discuss how much we should treat Gurdjieff as a sui generis “special case”, as Gurdjieffian scholars have tended to, or whether we would be better to treat him as a type, like Blavatksy, Steiner, Crowley and others. This then turns the discussion to the issues of researching figures like Gurdjieff whose legacies (and archives) are tightly controlled by their followers, and who often aren’t seen as worthy of study by the academy and publishers. We conclude with a consideration of Gurdjieff’s importance (or lack thereof) on the later New Age milieu, and popular culture more broadly.

And did Robert Fripp hire Toy Levin for King Crimson because he looks like Gurdjieff?

You may enjoy our previous interviews with Carole Cusack on “Cultural Production” and “Invented Religions”.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying books, yoga mats, plant pots, llama-shaped snacks and more.

Sámi Shamanism – Up Close and Personal

In his RSP interview, David Gordon Wilson tells us why he started studying spiritualism and shamanism, his relation to shamanism now, and general problems one may face while studying these subjects.

Like Dr. Wilson, I believe there are multiple ways of defining shamanism, a task that many have pursued and one that I am not willing to take up here. The term “shaman” will be mentioned; however, due to the space limits of this essay, I will not spend time on definition, nor will I explain why I have chosen one definition opposed to another. Instead I will focus on describing my personal experience with Sámi shamanism at an indigenous festival in the north of Norway with hopes that it will be of interest to the RSP audience.

The Sámi

The Sámi are an indigenous group in Norway, Sweden, Finland and north-western Russia. The history between the Sámi and the Norwegian government has left a stain on the Sámi for generations:

 The Norwegianization policy undertaken by the Norwegian government from the 1850s up until the Second World War resulted in the apparent loss of Sami language and assimilation of the coastal Sami as an ethnically-distinct people into the northern Norwegian population. Together with the rise of an ethno-political movement since the 1970s, however, Sami culture has seen a revitalization of language, cultural activities, and ethnic identity (Brattland 2010:31).

Personal Insight

I grew up in the north of Norway and was taught from a very young age to be cautious of certain objects in nature: specific stones, trees, and areas. For example, certain rituals had to be performed when we travelled past a big rock called “Stallo.” Some would bow their heads three times as they passed “Stallo,” while others laid down coins at his feet. I was told to greet the rock out loud as we passed by his side. My mother always reminded my brother and me of this, and told us why it was important for good luck and a safe journey. She spoke of the rock as if he was alive and had power to do both good and bad. If we didn’t greet him, he could get cross and we could get hurt. Or so she told us.

At the time, I had no idea that this was an old Sámi custom. It was not until I started studying religion at the university that I realised I have Sámi roots. I confronted my mother and she informed me that my grandparents had rejected the Sámi language and culture. The reason for this, she said, was that they were ashamed of their origins and, sadly, they were not the only ones.

Little Storm on the Coast

My story is far from unique in Norway. In fact there is even a festival in the north of Norway that was founded by people with similar stories. The festival is called “Riddu Riđđu” which means “little storm on the coast.” Riddu Riđđu was created by a group of youths who sought answers to why the elders in the community spoke a different language, a language they were not allowed to learn. In other words, the festival started as a rebellion against those who had refused the Sámi society. The festival program has a wide variety of music, cultural performances, and workshops held by indigenous people from Norway and other parts of the world.

Riddu Riddu in the Summer of 2010

Riddu Riddu in the Summer of 2010

Indigenous Performance at Riddu Riddu in 2013

Indigenous Performance at Riddu Riddu in 2013

My Thesis, My Journey

I had barely heard of the festival when I started my master’s degree in religion and society at the University of Oslo in 2009. I had heard that, from its beginning, Riddu Riddu has been important for the Sámi population as a meeting place as well as for people who have lost their connection to the Sámi and wish to learn. I had also heard that there were shamans at the festival, Sámi shamans and others from around the world. Naturally, having just learnt of my Sámi background, I was intrigued, and chose, therefore, Riddu Riddu as my main topic for my master’s thesis, focusing on Sámi religion and identity.

According to one of the founders of Riddu Riđđu, Lene Hansen, the festival is almost like a religious gathering – people meet both spiritually and socially, and experience ethnic bonding and communality[1]. I had my focus on shamanism and found that, like David Gordon Wilson, speaking to individuals was the best approach.

Sámi Shamanism

Dr. Graham Harvey tells us in Shamanism: A Reader (2003) that the word ”shaman” is being used within several languages today. However, he warns us that the use of the terms ”shaman” and ”shamanism” can generalise a number of people as there are numerous local words for shamans (Harvey 2003:1). For example a Sámi shaman can be known as a noaide.

I spoke to a man, let´s call him “Tor”, at Riddu Riddu who is Sámi and a shaman, but refused to be called a noaide. Tor explained that while the word ”shaman” means ”the one who knows,” the word noaide means ”the one who sees” (directly translated from Norwegian) and refers to the ritual expert in the old Sámi society. According to Tor, the noaide was the most feared and at the same time the most respected person in the old Sámi community. If one happened to be on the bad side of a noaide, he or she could put a curse(gaine) on you. On the other side, Tor told me that the noaide was the person one sought out in crisis, as he or she was the only one who had direct contact with the spirit world and therefore had healing powers.

Enjoy The Drumming

Tor invited me and a few others to participate in a drum journey inside a gamme (see picture below). At the time, we had just learned that a bomb had gone off in Oslo and there were several casualties. Tor suggested that it was a good time to do a drum journey and we all agreed.

A picture I took at Riddu Riđđu in 2013. The one on the right is a gamme. The others are lavvu (traditional Sámi tent).

A picture I took at Riddu Riđđu in 2013. The one on the right is a gamme. The others are lavvu (traditional Sámi tent).

Inside the lavvu, he built a fire and we were asked to lie down on the reindeer pelt. He started drumming in a slow rhythm and after a while he started joiking (traditional Sámi form of song). The experience was calming, in my opinion, and quite enjoyable. Mostly because I was able to focus on enjoying the moment right there and then. This, I was told later, was the shamans’ main purpose for that particular drum journey: to be truly present for a moment. After the drum journey I spoke briefly to Tor about shamanism. He emphasized that shamanism consists of getting in touch with one’s feelings, internal life, and soul. For me, this remark seems to be quite universal when it comes to speaking of shamanism, however I am not trying to compare what Tor told me to what other shamans believe. It is just an observation.

It has taken several years for the Sámi to turn their shame of being Sámi into proudness. I believe Riddu Riđđu has played a role in that turning point by offering a positive place for Sámi and other indigenous people from around the world to meet, compare and differentiate between them.

Like Dr. Wilson, I started with an outsiders’ perspective, but, as the years went by, I ended up as an insider. I find Riddu Riđđu to be a place to learn about shamanism, the Sámi and even about my self.

Myself in a Sámi dress, standing in front of a lavvu (traditional Sámi tent) at Riddu Riđđu in 2013.

Myself in a Sámi dress, standing in front of a lavvu (traditional Sámi tent) at Riddu Riđđu in 2013.

References

Brattland, Camilla 2010: Mapping Rights in Coastal Sami Seascapes, In: Arctic Review on Law and Politics, vol. 1, 1/2010 p. 28–53.

Harvey, Graham 2003: Shamanism: A Reader. New York: Routledge.

Henriksen, Marianne V.2011: “Å bli same”. En religionsvitenskapelig studie av Riddu Riddu Festivala i et rituelt perspektiv. MA thesis, the faculty of theology, University of Oslo. Reprosentralen. http://www.duo.uio.no/

Pedersen, Paul and Viken, Arvid 2009: ”Globalized Reinvention of Indigenuity. The Riddu Riddu Festival as a Tool for Ethnic Negotiation of Place,” In: Nyseth, Torill and Viken, Arild 2009: Place Reinvention: Northern Perspective. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

 

[1] Founder of Riddu Riddu, Lene Hansen quoted in Perdersen and Viken 2009:193

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Work of Carlo Ginzburg as the Researcher and the Reimagined Researched

During the EASR/IAHR/NGG 2014 Conference on Religion and Pluralities of Knowledge at the University of Groningen, I had the privilege of attending Carlo Ginzburg’s presentation, followed by his interview with the Religious Studies Project. I was impressed by his erudite observations, passion for sharing new ideas and research with both academic and non-academic audiences, and his friendly attitude towards the younger generations of scholars in the humanities and social sciences. Throughout the interview Ginzburg shared his critical stance towards postmodern rhetoric regarding historical narratives, displaying an anti-Nietzschean approach to establishing sources and evidence in the analysis of historical data. Furthermore, I was impressed by his bold characterisation of ‘identity’ as “a dreadful word,” especially in relation to cultural and ethnic boundaries.

Having studied some of his major works, both initially as a non-specialist and now as a member of the academic community, I have always admired how Ginzburg allows his archival ethnographic experience to affect his research without succumbing to the excessive indulgence of fruitless self-reflexivity. A further area of his research that inspired me to pursue various ethnographic and hermeneutic paths has been his tendency to provide suppressed minorities with a voice addressing the complexities of the relationship between mythopoesis and microhistory.

Traditionally, historical studies of ‘witchcraft’ have tended to stress the function of the ‘witches’ and their beliefs, neglecting at times broader meanings of such socio-religious phenomena from the perspective of either the accused or the self-designated. During the 1960s, though, a young Carlo Ginzburg discovered in the Archepiscopal Archives of Udine, a town in the Italian province of Friuli, a series of documents relaying the existence of an alleged agrarian fertility cult active during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These findings have been translated and published in his books Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath, detailing the events surrounding the trials of the members of this ‘cult’ referred to as the benandanti. These benandanti, through their testimonies of nocturnal flights, metamorphoses into animals, secret gatherings, and night battles against destructive witches and warlocks to protect the fertility of the crops and their communities, fitted easily into the stereotype of witches and their sabbaths, especially as portrayed by the Roman Inquisition during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Inspired by Vladimir Propp’s methodology as outlined in his Morphology of the Folktale, Ginzburg would later come to discover possible connections of polythetic classification[1] regarding the beliefs and practices of the benandanti, echoing the diffusion of an earlier agrarian cult across Europe. Evidence for his thesis was presented through his discovery of cases such as the Livonian werewolf, the Corsican mazzeri, the Peloponnesian kallikantzaroi, and others displaying similarities with spatially distant myths and rites of Siberian shamans.”[2] These similarities can be outlined as:

i. Physical markings at birth indicating occult methods of communication.

ii. Entry into states of trance.

iii. Departure of the spirit from the body in either a human or animal form.

iv. Battles against destructive witches to protect the harvest and the community.

v. Such experiences occurring at special times of the year.[3]

However, the defining aspect of Ginzburg’s historiographical work in my opinion is delineated in Storia notturna: una decifrazione del sabba where he writes:

 We have distinguished two cultural currents, of diverse origin: on the one hand, the theme, elaborated by inquisitors and lay judges, of a conspiracy hatched by a sect or a group hostile to society; on the other, elements of shamanistic origin, now rooted in folk culture, such as magical flight and metamorphoses into animals.[4]

Despite Ginzburg’s academic legacy, some of his historical hypotheses have attracted mixed reviews.[5] In rapport with some criticisms, I still remain in favour of some of his conclusive remarks, and especially his noble endeavours to overcome the ideological antithesis between seemingly rational and irrational categories. In addition, some of his claims regarding the human body, construed through historico-cultural paradigms, yet stemming from the universal nature of our biological make-up as a species, I personally find attractive for further interdisciplinary debate. However, what I will be addressing in this response, which I believe has become an area of concern for both ethnographers and subjects, are the effects that the ‘researcher’ might have in organising and constructing the identity of the ‘researched’ in emic self-representations.

Throughout my ethnographic explorations I have come across various practitioners of what may be referred to as ‘modern Western magic’ self-identifying as ‘Traditional Witchcraft’, ‘Sabbatic Craft Tradition’, and so on.[6] Upon further investigation, I came to realise that despite emic claims of inspiration and insight deriving from direct ritual experience, some of these individuals and groups clearly drew upon the works of Ginzburg and other similar scholars in establishing a sense of structure and identity. Although I am not undermining their self-representations generated through extensive research and disciplined practice, I find it fascinating how we researchers at times tend to neglect how we may be responsible for reimagining and perpetuating synchronic adaptations of historico-religious phenomena, such as the ambiguous category of European witchcraft.

After the interview had ended I confronted Ginzburg whether he was aware of the impact of his research on contemporary areas of modern Western magical praxis. He admitted that at times he would type in “benandanti” on google search and come across such references. However, he was adamant about this not being the intention of his books research and conclusions. Due to the fact the he was pressed for time he refrained from commenting further but remained open to further future discussion. Recognising the effect that Ginzburg has had on various contemporary reimagined constructions of witchcraft, with emphasis on ‘traditional’, I began to wonder to what extent are we as religious scholars and historians responsible for contemporary configurations of ethnographic reconstructed realities stemming from our object of study?

Contemporary accounts of witchcraft and magic, such as those documented in the academic study of Western esotericism have clearly been associated with practitioners’ self-conceptions, indicating that this must be considered explicitly in academic representations. One problematic area of concern, though, is whether and to what extent is our academic research into such areas related to the formations of such identities. For example, various scholars of Western esotericism have emphasised the incompatibility of academic research with an esotericist agenda.[7] However, such a view fails at times to grasp the reality of how academic research into areas of Western esoteric discourse have affected arrangements of self-representation. In other words, research into esotericism fails to act as an autonomous autocrat, due to the fact that the self-realisation of the interrelationship of ‘academic esotericism’ and ‘applied esotericism’ have become a part of the history of esotericism.

A more inclusive approach to the study of legitimation adopted by contemporary witches, magicians, and so on would necessarily embrace a discourse community not identical with only the practitioners, but all who participate in its articulation. This can also apply to the Roman Inquisition’s description and identification of witchcraft that has continued to inspire both popular and theological portrayals stemming from misrepresentations of historical accounts such as the benandanti. If one is to understand categories of modern Western witchcraft and magic as general terms of identification reproduced through scholarly discourse, diachronous and synchronous dimensions of methodological consideration are vital. The synchronous dimension of methodological application would present such ethnographic phenomena as distributed through various discursive networks simultaneously, which the participants may renegotiate alongside corresponding academic objectives. The diachronous criterion however demands that we can only refer to the potential of historical sources, whether articulated directly as primary source materials or interpreted through the lenses of academic analysis, becoming synchronic manifestations by locating the parameters that set the time and place for the entry point of such self-representations.

[1] See Needham, Rodney, ‘Polythetic Classification: Convergence and Consequences’. In Man, 10, 1975, 349-369.

[2] Ginzburg, Carlo, ‘Preface’. In Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989, viii. For Mircea Eliade’s also gave his support of Ginzburg see ‘Some Observations on European Witchcraft’. In History of Religions 14, 1975, 153-158.

[3] Regarding a brief analysis of Ginzburg’s contention on the diffusionist shamanistic roots see John, ‘Journeys to the World of the Dead: The work of Carlo Ginzburg’. In Journal of Social History, 25: 3, 1991, 618-619.

[4] Direct quotation taken from Martin, 1991, 616.

[5] Due to the scope and limits of my response to his interview, I will not be addressing them. For a more in depth survey and references to various criticisms see Martin, 1991,620-621.

[6] For example see http://xoanon.co.uk and http://www.threehandspress.com/index.php for references, sources, and contemporary literature.

[7] Hanegraaff, Wouter, J., ‘Beyond the Yates Paradigm: The Study of Western Esotericism between Counterculture and New Complexity’. In Aries 1, 2001, 29-30.

The Insider/Outsider Problem

 

The Insider/Outsider problem is one of the most perennial problems in the academic study of religion. This distinction, relating to where scholars position themselves relating to the subject matter (whatever that may be), permeates not only almost every aspect of academia, but has profound implications for each and every one of us conducts ourselves in relationship with the other people we encounter in our day-to-day lives. Dr George Chryssides joins Chris this week to discuss this fascinating issue.

This interview was recorded in September 2011 at the British Association for the Study of Religions‘ Annual Conference, hosted by Durham University.

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, Wu-Wear, previously enjoyed golf balls, and more.


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


The Insider/Outsider Problem

Podcast with George Chryssides (20th February 2012)

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Catrin Sawford

Audio and transcript available at: Chryssides Insider_Outsider Problem

Christopher Cotter (CC): The insider/outsider distinction is one of the most fundamental distinctions in the study of religions. I’m not going to get into it too much now because here to discuss it with me today is Dr George Chryssides, the honorary research fellow in contemporary religion at the University of Birmingham. He is also the author of, amongst many other things, ‘The Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses’, published in 2008, and the recently published ‘Christians in the 21st Century’. So, welcome Dr Chryssides.

George Chryssides (GC): Thanks, hi.

(CC): So, insider/outsider. To a lay person, what is an insider, and what is an outsider in the study of religions?

(GC): Well, there’s been a lot of debate about what exactly an insider or an outsider is but basically, in theory, the insider is the person that follows the religion, the outsider is the person like me, most of the time. I can’t belong to all the religions I study so I’m looking at it as a non-believer, as a non-practitioner, I’m trying to make sense of it.

(CC): So, you make two important points there, even in that little brief statement. One is, who does the defining? Is it you as an academic defining who is an insider or who is an outsider, or do you go by the tradition that you are studying at that time?

(GC): Well, I think it’s clear most of the time that I’m the outsider, because most of the time I’m trying to understand but initially I’m having problems working out what the religion believes, and why they do it and what it’s based on and what all the various activities are that they follow and what the reasons are for them. So I’m the outsider. It’s sometimes said that the outsider tries to make the strange familiar. For instance, it’s strange to me but it’s my job to make it familiar, first of all to myself, but secondly to the people I’m writing for or lecturing to or whatever. The other side to that is that is that it’s sometimes said that if you’re the insider, studying your own religion, you’re trying to make the familiar strange. In other words the religion that you follow seems very familiar to you but yet you don’t see what’s problematic about it. To give you an example that’s not to do with New Religious Movements, I was brought up as a Protestant Christian and I could never really understand what the big deal about the Reformation was because it seemed obvious to me that the Bible was the book that you followed and read and based your life on and what on earth was it that Martin Luther did. Just telling people that. But then it’s when you try and study a bit more and make it seem a bit more strange to you when you realise that there are Roman Catholics that say it’s not just the Bible, actually the Church was there first, it was the Church that defined the Bible and you’ve actually got two sources of authority then I can understand my own tradition that bit better because of this, kind of, strangeness that I’ve introduced and it’s not quite so familiar, not quite so comforting to me. Do you see what I mean?

(CC): Yes. So you hit on the other key issue, from my perspective anyway, which is what happens if you are an insider trying to be an outsider? And even an outsider is going to bring, implicitly they’re going to have their own community or set of ideas which they are an insider of. How does an academic go about juggling those two roles when they come to write?

(GC): Well, I think there are a lot of difficulties with that. One is that you’re trying to empathize, you’re trying to get, I suppose ideally, into the insider’s mind to see what it means to them, (5:00)what it is they do, why they do it and so forth, there’s that aspect to it. Sometimes people have said to me there’s another aspect, there’s faith maintenance. I used to get comments from the Church I belong to when I was researching Unification Church, they would say to me, ‘I don’t know how you maintain your faith coming into contact with all these religions’. Actually that wasn’t a problem for me because I guess I wasn’t personally attracted to any of them, I didn’t actually think of joining. But again some people might, and maybe that’s okay, maybe it’s not. I think as the researcher you need to decide that.

(CC): One of the more recent, I was going to say ‘founding fathers’ but he’s not a founding father, but one of the more recent canonical figures in the phenomenological study of religion is Ninian Smart and one of the key things he’s remembered for is the idea of methodological agnosticism, where an outsider will come into a community and study and yet attempt to maintain some sort of agnostic stance on the truth or belief claims of that community. How…do you have any reflections on how this works out in practice?

(GC): Yes. I sometimes have said to students, and sometimes they’ve been surprised, I’ve said there’s actually a sense in which we’re not interested in truth. So, if I’m working on, let’s say the Jehovah’s Witnesses, my key question is not “might they be teaching the truth”? What my job is, is to understand them and to get them right and to make sure I’m not misrepresenting them and to raise key questions about them. On the other hand, because the Jehovah’s Witnesses talk about “being in the truth”, that’s often their phrase, for people who have accepted their form of spirituality, they want me to accept the truth. Every so often the city overseer will take me aside and say “You know George, I’ve really got to say this to you but I’m very concerned that you’re still not yet in the truth”. And I always notice the word “yet” in what he says because he’s still hopeful that I will one day study the religion enough to see that really “what else could be true?!”. So we’ve got a different agenda. Here I am with this methodological agnosticism, I’m not supposed to be asking the question “might they be right?” but from their point of view, they’re saying well, “there’s no question about it, we are right, we’ve got the truth and we wish you would accept it”. I think we agree to differ but the Jehovah’s Witnesses, I think with some of the Unification Churches seminars I used to attend, certainly the last one I found that very high pressure, there was no let up. You know, “what did you think of this lecture?”, and “why don’t you agree that it’s true?” and so on, so you can actually encounter that as someone who studies religion.

(CC): Yes, I mean how often are you aware of this, of the fact that perhaps what you’re being presented with by the community that you’re studying is actually what’s going on, or if it’s their attempt to present themselves in a certain way to the academic? Have you ever had any experiences of that dynamic?

(GC): Obviously, any religious organisation will want to show themselves up in the best favourable light. I think one has got to make a point of reading the critics as well as the exponents and to ask whether things are as good as they say. And I think we’re used to that actually in any form of religion, old and new. There’s the ideal and the real, and you will get vicars pushing sermons about how Christians show love to each other and so on, and if you compare that with what goes on in the average church there’s usually a big difference. If you read the media you read a lot about the paedophile priests and so on, but of course that doesn’t get into the textbooks because that’s not the ideal. So you’ve got to match up ideality and reality. As somebody who’s studying (10:00) religion I think I’ve got to reflect on both.

(CC): It was the…another phenomenologist of religion, it was William Brede Kristensen, to paraphrase him, who had the idea that the believer is always right. So that everything you do as a scholar of religion you bring back to the believer and if they can’t accept it, then it isn’t a true representation. This was also, I think it was Cantwell Smith elaborated on that, saying that a depiction of a religion must be true to, if it was Christianity, a Christian, but also to a Muslim, or to someone who didn’t have that believe at all. I’m wondering if you’ve ever had experience of that or any thoughts on that, taking your writing back to the community that has been studied?

(GC): Yes, I will usually do that if it’s at all possible because you often pick up a lot of your own misconceptions or the odd error, or sometimes it’s not even an error, it might be the way that you’ve put something that really just gives it a wrong slant. I don’t think that the believer is always right because that seems to give a kind of an infallibility to the believer, and we all make mistakes. Believers can give you information that is wrong simply because maybe they’ve forgotten or they haven’t checked themselves. I mean, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses were to tell me that their annual memorial is on the 10th of April when in fact when it was on the 17th, that would just be a mistake and hopefully I would sort that out to make a point of going along on the correct night. So I think one has got to allow that there can be mistakes. Sometimes even the believer may not understand their own tradition fully. Sometimes you do get to the point where a follower of a new religious movement will say to you, “gosh, how do you know all that about us, we didn’t know that”. I have had that comment from members of the unification church and sometimes from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised because you wouldn’t expect a Sunday school teacher to know as much as someone who is studying Christianity. I think one has got to bear in mind the phrase “the believer is always right”, meaning that you check things against the believer’s account. If believers do make mistakes of course then the fact that they’ve made a mistake is part of the phenomenon as well. So there is that to bring in. I remember Eileen Barker once saying “everything is data”. She actually said that apropos of Susan Palmer being excluded from an event organised by the Raelians. Evidently Susan was disappointed about this and she had asked Eileen Barker what she should do and how she should respond and Eileen’s comment was “everything is data”. So if you are excluded or I suppose even if you were chucked out of a meeting that ought to be an interesting fact in itself. So yes, the believer is not always right but you should always take the believer very seriously.

(CC): As far as scholars who are insiders and scholars who are outsiders, I’ve certainly been involved in many a heated debate about which is the better position or which is more valid, so I’m going to sort of rhetorically ask, insider or outsider scholar?

(GC): You can’t pick one or the other. I think really you’ve got say there are outsiders that bring to bear certain things that the insider can’t and vice versa. The insider might be over enthusiastic about their own religion and they may privilege their own particular tradition. But at least the insider will know what religion means and that can be a problem if you’re the outsider. There are probably some outsiders that aren’t really very sure of why people follow a religion or what it means to them and so on. On the other hand they’ve got, one hopes, some kind of objectivity. So an outsider studying Christianity might be more likely to take aboard the fact that (15:00) there are three major traditions in Christianity for example whereas someone who is inside may see just Evangelical Protestantism as the only version. So I think one has got to say that different stances have got their own pros and cons. But it’s also not that simple because I think scholars talk about insiders as if there’s only one kind of insider. When you think about it there are different traditions within a religion so, am I an insider to Christianity? Well the answer is, yes, I am, but I’m not an insider to Eastern Orthodoxy or to the Salvation Army or to Roman Catholicism. So there are a whole lot of, well there not even concentric circles here, I might be in some things in my own religion but excluded from others. Or what about the role of women for example, I‘m not sure I can speak totally from a woman’s point of view because I’m not an insider to that and I can’t be. I think we’ve got to watch we don’t make it kind of black and white. Also I think that you’re not just in or out, you can be thinking about joining a religion, so you’re kind of moving in. You can make the decision to come in, to be the enthusiastic new convert, you can get to the next stage where maybe you’re going to get a bit complacent as the insider, but then you can go out the other end. So there’s the ex-member perhaps at the end of that, and they’ve got something to tell as well that is worth taking seriously. I don’t think we’ve done enough study of ex-members either, of all the new religions, because actually they’re very difficult to find, apart from the ones that tell you what a horrible experience it’s been belonging to the religion they’ve just left.

(CC): The ones who feel they’ve got something to say will say it but the ones who maybe don’t feel they’ve got anything to say, don’t… so how on earth do you find them?

(GC): I don’t know whether you want me to say a bit more about that because I can do. I think there are –

(CC): Yes

(GC): -different kinds of ex member that we ought to be interested in. There’s certainly the kind that goes and tells the media how bad it was. That’s certainly one kind, and then the other question is “why do they do that?” I mean, maybe they have had a bad experience, I’m sure some of them have, but equally there may be people who feel “well I’ve come out, I’ve wasted years of my life, how do I justify that?” As Jim Beckford says in one of his books, they devise story, they devise a scenario, to account for the entry and exit. So you get brainwashing stories. But equally you get people like the woman who cut my hair recently, we got on to talking, and it transpired that she had belonged to the Soka Gakkai, and I said “Well, why did you leave?” and she said “well I actually didn’t like being out late at night” which is when they had their meetings. “I thought I was being followed by somebody who was going to rob me so I didn’t go back”. So her reason for not going back was totally nothing to do with the religion but we don’t hear that story and I find that really interesting that there are these stories out there that we haven’t actually taken aboard as students of religion.

(CC): Definitely. Two more things that I’d like to ask and then I think we’re getting near wrapping up.

(GC): Okay.

(CC): One is, how does this understanding of insiders and outsiders, how does that impact upon the media, and when the media get in an expert on a religion, or a religious leader and you know, ask them questions about “what does your religion think about this?” or “What is your religion’s response to this?” What’s going on there? What issues does that bring up?

(GC): I think there would be all sorts of things that go on there. It depends on what they’re after, it depends on who the interviewer is. There is a YouTube clip of Sun Myung Moon being interviewed and all the questions that are asked by that interviewer are designed to embarrass him and show what a hypocrite he is and so on. So it depends on what stance you have. Equally, there have been interviews where the follower or a leader of a new religion has been taken very seriously and it has been a genuine attempt to find out what’s going on. So I think maybe it can have different motives at different times.

(CC): Mmm.

(GC): (20:00) I would hope they would go for the model of finding out what the believer or leader thinks rather than try to have a sensationalist story about the religion in question.

(CC): And the final one is bringing in my own research, which is into non-religion. We’ve been talking about different sorts of insiders and outsiders, but I’ve wonder specifically about the non-religious outsider trying to study a religion and if there’s any dynamic going on there? Is, I guess I’m asking, is a religion of some description necessary to understand another religion?

(GC): So the question is if you’ve got no religion what- why are you studying religion at all, or-?

(CC): how – is it possible for you to understand someone else’s religious experience if you have never had a religious experience to gauge that against?

(GC): Well, I don’t know. My mother was very religious and she brought us up to be very religious and to have this kind of interest in religion as something that was really important, so I’m not sure what it’s like myself, to be in a situation where I just don’t know what religion is about and why people join. Sometimes students have said “I’ve never been in a church in my life” and I really don’t know what that’s like to be honest. So I don’t know how they kind of, get in on religion. I imagine they may find some of it somewhat difficult to understand. So yes, I’ve been an insider to religion and that certainly gives me an advantage in some respects but maybe that makes me, kind of, too prone to see it as something important. Whereas other people have said things like “religion is poison”, I think it was Mao Zedong that said that.

(CC): Mmm.

(GC): So yeah, I don’t know what it’s like to be coming from that point of view. So yes, we all have our starting points. I guess we’ve got to recognise what that starting point is and to realise that there are other people that are outsiders to religion and they themselves, I’m sure, have got a valid perspective to offer that is an interest to all of us.

(CC): Lots of very fascinating issues there, Dr Chryssides, that we could go on about for a lot longer.

(GC): We certainly could, and thanks for talking to me.

(CC): And thanks for talking to us!


Citation Info: Chryssides, George, and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “The Insider/Outsider Problem”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27th March 2018. Transcribed by Catrin Sawford. Version 1.1. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-george-chryssides-on-the-insideroutsider-problem/

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

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