Posts

Re-Packaging E.B. Tylor

Reflections on “The Legacy of Edward Tylor – Roundtable”

by Liam Sutherland

Read more

A Response by James Cox to Bjørn Ola Tafjord on the Classification ‘Indigenous Religions’

Bjorn Tafjord begins his interview for the Religious Studies Project helpfully by outlining three usages of the term Indigenous Religions: 1) as a class or classification into which certain characteristics fit or they do not fit; 2) as a relational, historically conditioned term; 3) as an ethno-political category that has been used, for example, in land claims by indigenous peoples. He does not see these as contradictory ways of speaking of Indigenous Religions, but in many ways as complementary, although towards the conclusion of his interview, he appears to be advocating for a relational-historical use of the term. He makes it clear that how the category is used depends on the context of those employing it, whether academics, colonial or post-colonial powers or indigenous peoples themselves. In other words, no language use is neutral; it always has implications both for those doing the describing and that which is being described.

Bjorn Tafjord claims that one consequence of the way I have defined Indigenous Religions, first in my book From Primitive to Indigenous and then in my own article in my edited book Critical Reflections on Indigenous Religions,as restricted to communities that are kinship-orientated and identified by location or place, is that I have ‘boxed’ them in, or trapped them in a rigid conceptual framework. Only in one sense is this correct, since my intention was to identify unambiguously the meaning of a term about which so much loose language has been employed that in some cases it is impossible to know what content is being conveyed when it is used. We seldom allow such imprecise language in ordinary speech as we do when we employ the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religion’. I am not referring here just in terms of popular understandings or even how the terms are used in the media, but I am drawing attention to the common practice even among academics where frequently the meaning of these terms is simply taken for granted, or at the very least remains entirely implicit. I have argued that we need to begin by stating what we mean by the language we employ, not as a final or definitive claim to have circumscribed a category, but as a pragmatic way of beginning dialogue by being absolutely explicit about our meanings and intentions. Rather than ‘boxing in’ the category ‘Indigenous Religions’ this opens it up by encouraging scholars to clarify their denotative and connotative uses of terms and thereby make it possible to debate their interpretations analytically and critically.

What I find most confusing about Bjorn’s argument, which he makes towards the conclusion of the interview is when, after complaining that the term Indigenous Religions has been reified, he then calls ‘dangerous’ the assumption that Indigenous Religions are the religions of indigenous peoples. He seems to suggest that we need to dissociate the category ‘Indigenous Religion’ from the people who can fit into this classification. This is like saying ‘Christianity’ is a religion devoid of Christians. This doubly confuses the situation by moving the historical study of religion backward at least a century while at the same time re-enforcing the ‘world religions paradigm’. What I think Bjorn wants to suggest is not that we divorce a religion from its adherents, but that for historical and even political reasons we do not imply that indigenous peoples cannot be indigenous if they adhere to Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or other religions with cosmologies that are non-local and that we do not ignore the dynamic interactions that historically have transformed the global and local interactions when religious adherents meet and mutually influence one another. This is how I understand the meaning of the late Kwame Bediako, a leading African theologian, when he claimed that Christianity is Africa’s new indigenous religion. He meant that Christianity had been so transformed in Africa that it had taken on indigenous roots, but at the same time had transformed traditional indigenous world-views. In this sense, of course, the academic study of Indigenous Religions cannot exclude Christian, Buddhist or other historical and relational contexts, but this is not the same as saying that the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religions’ do not refer to those who practise the traditions under study.

This then brings me back to my own definition, which I have always insisted provides a starting-point for discussion. I am fully aware that the study of Indigenous Religions is not a study of ‘disappearing’ peoples. This idea was held quite firmly by early anthropologists such as Baldwin Spencer in Australia who studied the central desert peoples as living remnants of a ‘Stone Age’ people soon to become extinct. By defining Indigenous Religions as focused primarily on ancestors and as rooted in location, I have restricted the term in a way that then opens up wide permutations of ancestral and localised traditions as they are affected by modernity, globalisation, travel and mass communication, including indigenous people living in diaspora and those who, as in the case of the Yoruba of Nigeria, have transmitted their traditions around the world almost as missionaries by providing a universal source of healing and well-being.

I want to add just one last word on the overall interview (not attributable entirely to Bjorn Tafjord), which, if left unstated, would leave the persistent barrage against belief in religion still unchallenged. The current reaction against the role belief plays in religion is built somewhat naively on the assumption that scholars of religion continue to depict, describe and teach religion as if it were obtained from a textbook on systematic Christian theology. This, of course, could be said to characterise flawed earlier books written about the religions of the world, but this does not mean that the cognitive side of religion should be dismissed as irrelevant or unimportant. For example, it would be impossible for a spirit medium to go into a trance and for the assembled community to speak to the spirit directly if an underlying belief in the power of spirits to influence human circumstances were not present. It simply would not happen. What we believe affects how we experience the world and how we behave in it. Of course, this is not just a one-directional dynamic: experiences influence beliefs and behaviours, just as behaviours have an impact on our experiences and beliefs. Nonetheless, the current tendency to debunk beliefs as a Protestant left-over is too obvious and does not take into account the complex relationships between cognitions, experiences and actions, as is being shown increasingly within the cognitive science of religion and has been evident in cognitive-behavioural psychology for a very long time.

Book Reviews, May, 2014 – Graham Harvey, Morgan Luck, and James Cox

book reviewPublishers just keep asking us to review their books. And who are we to refuse? Free books! So we’ve now decided to make book reviews a regular feature of the RSP. The format is exactly the same as it was previously. We handed out a few books to some of our friends and sat them down (or at least tried in one case) to have a discussion on what they thought.

In this Book Review session we have:

full review here.

full review here.

You can read his full review here.

More sessions to come soon! If you have any suggestions for books that you think we should review, or would like to do a review yourself then send an email to our book review editor –jonathan@religousstudiesproject.com.

After the World Religions Paradigm…?

In this week’s podcast, We discussed some of the problems with the World Religions paradigm, most notably its colonial heritage and Christocentrism. Given its dominance in the public perception of “Religion”, however, can we as teachers get away from it? Is there a pedagogical approach which focusses on issues of power and domination, and challenges, rather than reinforces, outmoded common-sense categorisations? In other words, can “Religion 101” ever be more than a survey of “the World”s Faiths”, and if so, what do we replace it with?

We begin with James Cox, who adds a postscript to his previous interview, suggesting some possibilities for pedagogical approaches to Religious Studies without falling back into the  problematic World Religions paradigm. Mark Jurgensmeyer, Peter Beyer and Craig Martin then outline approaches they have utilised in the US – critical, sociological…. – and reflect on their success. Suzanne Owen, however, points out some of the serious practical issues of teaching based on alternative and indigenous religions. We close with Steve Sutcliffe who, while accepting some challenging issues in the UK situation, nevertheless expresses a need for the field as a whole to work together to move Religious Studies pedagogy forward.

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, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter. And if you want to support the RSP, you can click through to Amazon.co.uk through our affiliates link, and we will earn referral fees from any transactions during your visit.

Jim CoxJames Cox is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies in the University of Edinburgh and an Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh. In 2012 he was de Carle Distinguished Lecturer in the University of Otago in Dunedin, during which time he wrote his forthcoming monograph, ‘Inventions of God in Indigenous Societies’. We have interviewed James twice; on Phenomenology, and The World Religions Paradigm.

Mark Juergensmeyer is a former president of the American Academy of Religion and the current director of the here.

here.

here.

Suzanne Owen lectures at Leeds Trinity University College, UK, and is currently co-chair of the Indigenous Religious Traditions Group for the American Academy of Religion. Her PhD focussed on the sharing of Native American ceremonies and included fieldwork among Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland. Listen to her interview on Druidry and the Definition of Religion here.

Steven Sutcliffe is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh, and the author of Children of the New Age, editor of Religion: Empirical Studies and Beyond the New Age (with Marion Bowman).

The World Religions Paradigm

There can’t be many listeners who haven’t come into contact with the “World Religions” paradigm, either through the podcast or in their own undergraduate studies. The idea that we can classify religious traditions into a hierarchical schema goes back to the earliest days of anthropology and sociology. Although, C. P. Tiele defined “World Religions” as those which had spread outside of their original cultural context, today the term is taken to mean the “Big Five” – Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Frequently this is complimented by Indigenous Religions and New Religious Movements. Yet despite the fact that this approach originated in the Victorian era under the influence of colonialism, it is still the dominant framework in pedagogical approaches to the study of religions.

Yet this categorisation assumes a number of problematic criteria. Most obviously, it favours “traditions”, and especially those which have straddled more than one ethnicity. Secondly, there’s an implicit weighting towards religions with books, temples, founders and other things which can be easily quantised – and perhaps not coincidentally, like Christianity. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it assumes that “religion” is a thing which can be recognised and catalogued, and not a term which is mostly concerned with the exercise of power, as scholars such as Chidester, Asad and McCutcheon have argued. Is the World Religions paradigm, then, as Max Müller argued, simply how “the vast domain of religion must be parcelled out”? Or, as Terry Thomas put it, is it less a case of “know thy enemy” as “know thy trading partner”? To discuss this important issue, we were delighted to invite back Professor James Cox.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

James Cox is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies in the University of Edinburgh and an Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh. In 1999, he was appointed Reader in Religious Studies in the University of Edinburgh and was awarded a Personal Chair in 2006. From 1993 to 1998, he directed the University of Edinburgh’s African Christianity Project which included eight African universities in southern and western Africa. He has held prior academic posts at the University of Zimbabwe, Westminster College, Oxford and Alaska Pacific University. In 2009, he was Visiting Professor of Religion in the University of Sydney. Professor Cox was de Carle Distinguished Lecturer in the University of Otago in Dunedin for 2012. He is completing a book to be published by Equinox in 2013 under the title, ‘Inventions of God in Indigenous Societies’. He has been previously interviewed by the Religious Studies Project in one of our most popular podcasts, discussing the Phenomenology of Religion.

Christmas Special – Only 60 Seconds!

Welcome to the Religious Studies Project Christmas (and 1st Anniversary) Special – Only 60 Seconds!

Can Steve Sutcliffe talk about “habitus” for a full 60 seconds without deviation, hesitation or repetition? How much does David Wilson know about “Postmodernism”? Mr David Robertson is your host (ably assisted by the lovely Samantha Mr Chris Cotter) for this special festive episode of the Religious Studies Pro Recorded live in Edinburgh on December 20th, 2012. Be forewarned of some bad language. All resemblance to BBC panel games, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Non-denominational seasonal greetings to all our listeners, and best wishes for 2013. This has been an incredible first year for the RSP, and Chris, Louise and I extend sincere thanks to everyone who has contributed in any capacity. We have big plans for year 2, and if you have any ideas, we want to hear them! We’ll be back on January 21st, bigger and better than ever. Thanks for listening.

(Thanks to Andrea Quillen for taking photos, and to David Jack for audio assistance.)

Jonathan Tuckett  is currently a PhD student at the University of Stirling. He has an MA in Philosophy and Religious Studies and an MSc in Religious Studies from the University of Edinburgh. His research is on the phenomenological method in the study of religion. Areas of interest include the phenomenology of religion, theory and method in the study of religion, and philosophy of religion. Jonathan is also an Assistant Editor for the Religious Studies Project.

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Steven Sutcliffe is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh where he teaches and researches in the areas of ‘new age religion’ and ‘holistic spirituality’, in the effects of the discourse and practice of ‘religion’ in contemporary culture and society, and on theory and method in the study of religion, including the history of its modern academic study. He is the author of Children of the New Age, editor of Religion: Empirical Studies, and co-editor (with Marion Bowman) of Beyond the New Age.

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.

David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Recent publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2013). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.

David Wilson is a former partner in a City of London law firm, which involved spending ten years living and working in the Middle East. Getting bored with that, David returned to the University of Edinburgh to embark upon a PhD in religious studies, entitled ‘Spiritualist Mediums and other Traditional Shamans: towards an apprenticeship model of shamanic practice’. He is the author of ‘Waking the Entranced: Reassessing Spiritualist Mediumship Through a Comparison of Spiritualist and Shamanic Spirit Possession Practices’ in Schmidt, B. A. and Huskinson, L. (eds.) (2010), and ‘Spirit Possession and Trance: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives’ (2010). His first book, ‘Redefining Shamanism: Spiritualist Mediums and other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes’, will be published in January 2013.

Editors’ Picks 2: The Phenomenology of Religion

The second of our Editors’ Picks “repodcasts”, and this time Jonathan has chosen our interview with James Cox on the Phenomenology of Religion. It was, incidentally, also our very first podcast, originally broadcast on the 14th of January, 2012. Jonathan also wrote the response to this interview, entitled “What is Phenomenology?“.

Phenomenology is an important methodology in the study of religions, but can be inaccessible to the student. In this interview, James Cox outlines the phenomenology of religion to David in a clear, concise way, avoiding jargon and placing the methodology in the broader context of the history of European philosophy and comparative religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted on the page where the podcast was originally posted, along with some further information. All transcriptions 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.

What is the Future of Religious Studies?

This week we decided to do something a bit different. Every time David and Chris have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: “What is the Future of Religious Studies?”

The result is this highly stimulating compilation of differing perspectives and levels of optimism on what has become one of the most hotly debated topics in the academic study of religion at the start of the second decade of the twenty-first century.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

The underlying motivation behind placing this question on the agenda of the Religious Studies Project was one of finances. In the current economic climate – particularly in the UK – and with the increasing commodification of the Higher Education sector. It is no longer acceptable for academics to sit pontificating in their ivory towers, and every discipline (but particularly Religious Studies) is finding itself increasingly in the firing line in terms of funding and resources. This issue is so pressing that the British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR) and the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) – the two professional organisations that together represent the UK’s leading scholars in the study of religion – have joined forces to present a joint panel on ‘Public benefit in the study of religion’ at the BASR annual conference, September 5-7 2012 University of Winchester, UK.

However, this is not the only issue on the table. Topics range from interdisciplinarity and institutional conflict, to innovative new methodologies, directions and foci. Some of these academics have already appeared on the Religious Studies Project, others’ interviews have yet to be released, yet each has their own unique perspective to offer, and we hope that you appreciate this compilation.

Featured in this podcast (with links to their previously released interviews):

We wanted to do something special with this podcast, because it is the tenth edition of the Religious Studies Project. We hope this has been a worthwhile exercise! Later in the week, we will be releasing a ‘unique’ response to this episode, and we hope it will prove similarly worthwhile.

If you stick with us for the next ten episodes, you’ll be treated to interviews with Bettina Schmidt (University of Wales), Markus Davidsen (Aarhus University), Bejamin Beit-Hallahmi (University of Haifa), Linda Woodhead (Lancaster University), Ariela Keysar (Trinity College, Massachusetts), Bron Taylor (University of Florida) and more…

 

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.

What is Phenomenology?

In a recent podcast (2012), Professor James Cox has briefly sketched an outline of the phenomenology of religion. His overview has taken broadly the concept of Husserl’s notions of epoche and the eidetic intuition and carried them through to typologies for the purpose of comparisons. Now, Cox provides us with a rather comprehensive phenomenology which, though briefly explained in the podcast, is expounded upon in greater detail in his book An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion (2010). However, Cox is possibly the great syncretist of phenomenology and draws upon a rich and ultimately varied history in the field. In truth, despite Cox’s presentation, what the phenomenology of religion entails is perhaps not as monolithic as he would suggest.

Quite rightly Cox indicates that the beginnings of the phenomenology of religion can be found in what he calls (2010) the Dutch school of phenomenology. However, in a detailed survey of the history of religious studies in the Dutch context, Arie Molendijk (2000) highlights a problem: it is not entirely clear with whom the phenomenology of religion began. He points to authors such as Sharpe, Waardenburgh and Hirschmann as not only differing in deciding when phenomenology first began, but also when considering who does and does not count as phenomenologists. Thus, to give just a brief deluge of figures we might think of as phenomenologists, Molendijk lists at various points: Chantepie de la Saussaye, Nathan Soderblom, Edward Lehmann, William Kristensen, Gerardus van der Leeuw, C.J. Bleeker, Joachim Wach, Joseph Kitagawa, Mircea Eliade, C.P. Tiele, Friedrich Pfister, Max Scheler, Georg Wobbermin, Robert Winkler, Rudolf Otto, Heinrich Frick, Gustav Mensching (2000:28-29). Nor is there much consensus on the matter, Hischmann who was a student of van der Leeuw does not include Kristensen, van der Leeuw’s teacher, on her list of phenomenologists. This is also a predominantly Dutch and Scandinavian dominated list, to which we might wish to add the further British figures of Edwin W. Smith, Geoffrey Parrinder, Ninian Smart and Wilfred Cantwell Smith.

Nevertheless, it is still a fairly safe comment to say that the phenomenology of religion began with the Dutch. Which scholar was the first phenomenologist, however, is debatable. Molendijk tells us that at the very latest the phenomenology of religion began with Gerardus van der Leeuw. Some might say that Kristensen is the first phenomenologist, and Cox is probably among this group, for his watchword ‘the believers were completely right’ (in 1969:49) has pervaded all phenomenology. Yet Kristensen had a very specific idea of what the phenomenology of religion was, and one which was far stricter than van der Leeuw’s. This general lack of clarity over what is contained in the phrase ‘phenomenology of religion’ and who are phenomenologists has generated considerable misgivings about the field. Indeed, Willard Oxtoby rightly acknowledges that there are ‘as many phenomenologies as there are phenomenolgoists’ (Oxtoby, 1968:598). Even so, we can identify three dominant forms of phenomenology. Though we can see the beginnings of such a distinction in the Kristensen’s work (he was speaking of a science of religion more generally though), it is Bettis and Smart that provide us with the most substantial classifications.

Methodological Phenomenology. In his interview, Cox spoke of how phenomenologists of religion employ Husserl’s notion of bracketing in order to let the ‘phenomena of religion speak for themselves’. The phenomenological method is characterised by the bracketing of scientific and theological theories so as not to bring any presuppositions into the study of religion. We may call this, as Bettis does, ‘psychological descriptions’, for the phenomenological method concerns itself with the activity itself rather than the object of the activity. Our focus is the believers themselves in what they do and think. It would be wrong, though, to think this idea of neutrality that underpins the phenomenological method is solely bound to Husserl’s philosophy (despite Cox’s comments to the contrary). Smart, for instance formulated his idea of methodological agnosticism almost independently of Husserl’s philosophy.

Typological Phenomenology. This type of phenomenology began with Kristensen – indeed he saw the phenomenology of religion as nothing but this – and is as Cox said in the interview, the development of typologies such as sacrifice. For Kristensen this meant a ‘systematic survey of the data’ (in Bettis 1969:36). It is the work of comparison, the consideration of data against one another for the purpose of gaining further insight into them. Kristensen maintained that this data is gathered by the History of Religion, work which later phenomenologists would bring under methodological phenomenology. Bettis refers to this as dialectical descriptions and sees this as the application of the phenomenological method to a spectrum of religious ideas, activities, institutions, customs and symbols. Smart, too, uses the phrase ‘dialectical phenomenology’ which he uses synonymously with typological phenomenology until later favouring the latter.

Speculative Phenomenology. Smart, from whom I coin the term, says of this kind of phenomenology that the data of typological phenomenology are ‘arranged according to a preconceived pattern, itself incapable of being thoroughly insulated from theological (or anti-theological) assumptions’ (2009:194-5). We can see here the work of what Cox referred to as ‘Comparative Religion’ in the interview, where much of the data is organised in gradations of superiority. And even if no gradations are made we still find much of the work of defining religion from non-religion in this area. Here we start to talk of the essence of religion, usually discovered by the eidetic intuition, which allows us to see the core of all phenomena. Bettis calls these ontological descriptions as they focused on the object of religious activity as opposed to psychological descriptions that looked at the activity itself. Good examples of this kind of phenomenology would be Eliade and Otto.

In An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, Cox has made an impressive attempt to reconcile these three types of phenomenology. But we are left with the question of who are phenomenologists? Historically, not every scholar has employed all three kinds of phenomenology: are those who utilise only one or two kinds of phenomenology phenomenologists? Take Eliade for instance, he proclaimed himself to be a historian of religion and yet we regard him as one of the field’s seminal phenomenologists. And how do we define the phenomenology of religion when it incorporates all three kinds? The general disagreements within each kind of phenomenology mean that Cox’s attempt, impressive though it is, is by no means complete. Therefore, by extension, there is no complete understanding of the phenomenology of religion.

References

Bettis, J. (1969). Phenomenology of Religion; SCM Press, London

Cox, J. (2006). A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion; T&T Clarck International, London

Cox, J. (2010). An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion; Continuum, London

Cox, J. (2012). “The Phenomenology of Religion”, interview with The Religious Studies Project published 16 January 2012 online at https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/

Molendijk, A. (2000). ‘At the Cross-roads: Early Dutch Science of Religion in International Perspective’ in Man, Meaning, and Mystery: 100 yeas of History of Religions in Norway; ed. by S. Hjelde; Brill, Leiden, (pg.19-51)

Oxtoby, W. (1968). ‘Religionswissenchaft Revisited’ in Religion in Antiquity; ed. by J. Neusner; Brill, Leiden (pg.591-608)

Smart, N. (2009). Ninian Smart on World Religions Vol.1: Religious Experience and Philosophical Analysis; ed. by J. Shepherd; Farnham, Ashgate

The Religious Studies Project launches…

The Religious Studies Project, in association with the British Association for the Study of Religions, launches on 16 January 2012!

Every Monday, we’ll be putting out a new podcast featuring an interview with a  leading international scholar, presenting a key idea in  the contemporary socio-scientific study of religion in a concise and accessible way. Our first podcast features Professor Emeritus James Cox (University of Edinburgh) speaking to David about the phenomenology of religion. You can find the podcast and accompanying notes here, or alternatively subscribe on iTunes.

Every Wednesday, we’ll feature a resource to help postgraduate students and aspiring academics. And every Friday, we’ll be publishing a response to the podcast, reflecting on, expanding upon or disagreeing with the Monday podcast. Plus conference reports, opinion, publishing opportunities, book reviews and more when we have them.

In the meantime, please have a look around the site, follow us on Twitter, “Like” us on Facebook, rate us on iTunes, tell all your friends about us… and let us know what you think!

The Phenomenology of Religion

Phenomenology is an important methodology in the study of religions, but can be inaccessible to the student. In this interview, James Cox outlines the phenomenology of religion to David in a clear, concise way, avoiding jargon and placing the methodology in the broader context of the history of European philosophy and comparative religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on What is Phenomenology?

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

Cox’s latest and most complete work on the subject is An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion (2010), published by Continuum. A review which questions his relating phenomenological and cognitive approaches by Paul Tremlett in Culture and Religion 11/4 (2010) is available here. Also recommended is his earlier A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion (2006), also published by Continuum. His 2008 article from DISKUS, the BASR journal, “Community Mastery of the Spirits as an African Form of Shamanism” applies the phenomenological method to certain African practices in order to argue for Shamanism as a universal  categoryIf you are interested in what Professor Cox had to say about the development of Religious Studies more broadly, we heartily recommend From Primitive to Indigenous: The Academic Study of Indigenous Religions (Ashgate, 2007). It is simultaneously an account of colonial contact with indigenous religions, a history of how scholars have conceptualised religion, and an attempt to create a new definition of “religion”.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with James L. Cox  on The Phenomenology of Religion (14 January 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by David G. RobertsonTranscribed by Martin Lepage.

 

David Robertson: The phenomenology of religion has been one of the most influential approaches to studying religion in recent decades. To discuss it, we are joined today by professor emeritus James Cox of the University of Edinburgh, who is the author of An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, a guide aimed at students and the general reader. So Professor Cox, what is the phenomenology of religion?

James Cox: Well, the phenomenology of religion caries a rather philosophical title because it’s rooted in philosophical phenomenology in effect, probably developed out of thinking of the late 19th century and early 20th century, where the study of religions was just beginning to develop in the comparative sense. So, in the late 19th century, for example, when missionaries had gone around to various parts of the world, bringing back tales and stories of other religions than Christianity, it became apparent that scholars and theologians particularly needed to develop some kind of theory about the relationship of Christianity to the other religions. So in the late 19th century, they developed essentially the comparative study of religions and comparison was done fundamentally from a Christian theological perspective; a liberal perspective in the sense that the scholar would begin to compare different aspects of say Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam with Christianity in order to show how Christianity is really the pinnacle of these religions. This developed into a kind of reaction, I should say, by certain scholars as they got into the 20th century, that the study of religion, although very much still rooted in Christian ideas and Christian thoughts, was regarded as something a bit more not just comparative in the sense to show Christianity is superior, but in fact to show how the different religions could be compared according to typologies. So, for example, the typology of sacrifice was a very common idea. Sacrifice seemed to be appearing in all religions of the world : in India, in Africa, in Asia and certainly in Christianity with the Eucharist being essential sacrificial meal. Sacrifice became a typology that was compared and then ideas like certain kinds of rituals, life cycle rituals, for example, seem to be universal in all these religious groups. So as comparative study of religion developed, it developed a sort of typological approach. That’s one aspect that led into what I should call the comparative study of religions from a less theological perspective than was originally developed in the late 19th century. Then, you have the philosophical development, which is really associated with the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. Husserl was, well, the founder, you might say, of philosophical phenomenology. And his problem, that he saw in the intellectual sphere, at the time, was the problem of what he called the natural attitude. That is to say, with the development of science, and what’s called positivism, that is, the naïve idea that what we see is exactly what is. And therefore the study of the world is a sort of compartmentalization, a kind of breaking down of the component parts of the world, putting them into certain kinds of categories so that we can study them in a way that is based on observation, being the fundamental tool for what you might call the… justification or… the validation of knowledge. Husserl said the natural attitude displaces consciousness. That is the role of the consciousness, the intentional active role of the consciousness in apprehending reality. What he wanted to do was to set aside or bracket out, he used the term epoché, which is to bracket out [what are] naïve or unexamined assumptions (5:00) about the world. The fact that we’re sitting in this room, and I assume it is an objective room, you’re an objective person, there are objective photographs or pictures on the wall or window and so on, as if it is just given. But Husserl said no, the consciousness needs to say “okay, let’s put this into brackets” and began to think “What kinds of influences affect my consciousness?” So, of course, I have lived in this room for the past thirteen years, I’ve lived in it, it’s been my office for the last thirteen years. I have lots of memories associated with this. Also I’ve collected loads of books and boxes, which means that the view that I’m having of the room now is different from when I first came here. Or if I look out the window I see entirely different perspective from what you see looking at me, or I looking towards my filing cabinet, for example. Anyway, the whole point was that one should bracket out these assumptions about the world and begin to understand the relationship between the consciousness and the apprehension of the objective world. Anyway, that’s quite a lot of background in terms of how the comparative study of religions came in to play, and then the notion of the philosophical epoché. Now where does this put us then in terms of, say, the early to mid-20th century of the study of religions? Certain scholars, particularly Dutch scholars, for example Gerardus van der Leeuw was one, W. Brede Kristensen who was his teacher, and followed also C. J.  Bleeker who was at Amsterdam. These Dutch scholars began to say “Wait a minute! What are the assumptions that are informing the study of religions?” One, we have the theological assumptions, the superiority of Christianity, which I’ve already talked about. This needs to be bracketed out, we need to set this aside, use Husserl’s notion of the epoché. But we also have the scientific interpretation, and the scientific interpretation was largely that we can assign status or priority or value to religions according to an evolutionary scale. So you have lesser-developed religions, such as the primitive, the primal, the animistic religions. And then you have, developing up, more polytheistic religions, and from polytheistic religions, you then move towards the more monotheistic, ethical monotheistic and Christianity being the pinnacle. And some scientists thought, beyond Christianity, then, is science, the end of the evolutionary scale of humanity. So you move out of religion towards science. Well, the phenomenologists, particularly Kristensen and van der Leeuw, but also Bleeker, argued that what should happen in the study of religions is that these attitudes, these assumptions, should also be bracketed out, they should be put in abeyance, they should be suspended, or employ the epoché. So now you have theological priorities, theological gradations of religions being bracketed. You have scientific gradations or levels of religion being bracketed in order to do what? That the phenomena can speak for themselves, which is Husserl’s word. “Let the phenomena speak for themselves” and the phenomenologists of religion said “Let the phenomena of religion speak for themselves”. And this meant studying, describing, understanding and incorporating the perspectives of believers. So that at the end of the day, the phenomenologists of religion can say “We have entered into the religious phenomena, including believers. We have attempted to suspend our judgments about their truth or value, their relationship, their gradations, their… sort of priorities of ranking of religion and we have allowed the phenomena of religion to speak for themselves.” Then, you could begin to do the classifications; then, you could begin to say “Alright, now we can begin to identify these typologies, now we can say not gradating them or ranking them but say “How does myth, for example, a cosmogonic myth, operate in Hindu tradition, or Buddhist traditions, or African tradition, or Christian or Jewish or whatever tradition. And this was intended to lead ultimately to understanding religions.

DR: So the phenomenology of religion, if I’m understanding, is essentially a method by which… an inherently comparative method that prioritizes the experience of religion… perhaps you could outline for us how (10:00) you would go about applying this method practically?

JC: Well, yes, okay, I can tell you how I did it when I was doing fieldwork in Zimbabwe. I’ll take one example of a ritual that I observed, which was a rain ritual in a chief’s region. I went to the ritual, I didn’t have a lot of background preparation, because when I went out to the area, I was with the chief’s son. He said “We’re going to go to attend various rituals which were in the area. But there is an important ritual taking place which was for rain ritual.  Now the gist of the ritual was this, that the ancestors, according to the Shona traditions of Zimbabwe, are responsible for providing rain for the community and the larger community in a sense, because it covered quite a wide area. In that year, which was 1992, there was a drought, a terrible drought. This ritual took place at the end of the rainy season, which was unusual. Now, in the ritual, they took some time, about ten or twelve hours, this ritual taking place. But the center of the ritual was the possession of a spirit medium by the chief’s ancestor spirit. During this event, the medium became possessed, she became the man, the doumda (11:23) spirit, she dressed in traditional attire, with a eagle feather hat and an animal skin skirt, a walking stick, she was a man, she was the ancestor, the man spirit of the chief. At one point in the ritual, I, who was an observer, of course I know I wasn’t unaffected or not affecting the ritual, she called the chief’s family down, underneath the tree and she began talking with them. And she called me down as well at one point, and she said something to me in Shona. I didn’t understand precisely what she said, but I clapped my hands in the traditional way, shook her hand, and, in a sense, I was involved in the ritual, not equally with the community that I was there… so what I had to do then, in my own view is that, I think, personally, that rain does not, could not be caused by ancestors. Rain could not be caused by God either. Rain is an atmospheric condition, and in that area, when the what they call the inter-tropical convergence on works that is the warm air from the north and the south meet then rains occur. When they don’t converge, rains don’t happen. What I had to say, if I was to really understand the ritual in the phenomenological method is to say “Okay, these scientific assumptions I have about how rain is produced need to be bracketed, suspended, put into abeyance, not given up, because I believe that rain occurs according to scientific explanations. But in order to understand what was going on, I needed to put that in brackets and enter into. And in my descriptions, when I wrote about this, I tried to be as descriptive, as impartial as possible, explaining what happened. And then, after describing it, I then tried to interpret it, to try to find certain kinds of connections and meanings to it. And in the end I interpreted it, not so much, you might say, religiously, if you might used that term, but I interpreted it politically and sociologically, to do with the status of the chief and his relationship to the Zanu-PF, Mugabwe’s government, and so on. But in other words, I gave an interpretation of it, but only after I had suspended my judgments, described and tried to understand what was going on.

DR: One of the most interesting aspects for me of the phenomenological method as you describe it in your book is the final stage of eidetic intuition. Perhaps you could describe…

JC: Yeah that’s the most controversial part of the whole method, I think, and this is largely where phenomenology has gone, I think, out of date, and isn’t really accepted so much in the sense that the eidetic intuition was intended to be that the scholar of comparative religions… I mean, I’ve given an example of one Zimbabwean ritual. So now I get this ritual, compare this ritual, I look at other Zimbabwean rituals, then I begin to say “Okay certain patterns develop in these rituals, we can see certain things occurring… beer poured as libations to ancestors, and so on; the centrality of ancestors, the idea that ancestors carry messages to higher ancestors, and so on. And you build up this sort of idea of what the sort of Shona religious experience is about. (15:00) Then, you say “Okay, now, how does this compare to rituals, which are rituals, in this case, a crisis ritual, that might occur in an other society?” A crisis ritual, for example, of illness, when somebody is ill, in a Christian sense, and a priest is called, prayers are made to try to effect a cure or a healing within this person. And you say “Okay, now we have two different types of crisis ritual.” Then you build up all the rituals, the myths, the categories, the typologies, the classifications and you begin to say “Well, we can talk about the meaning of cosmogonic myth, in various societies, or crisis rituals or calendrical rituals, or the role of religious practitioners and various, and you begin to say “Well, we can find some general meaning for myth, ritual, practitioner… morality, art, and so on, all these classifications. Then you ask the question “Is it possible, that out of all this comparative study, we can see into the fundamental meaning of religion itself? What is religion about? What do all these comparative studies of religion tell us about the human religious understanding? And here you have different theorists that have developed ideas about that, in the tradition. So, you have Mircea Eliade who’s a famous so-called historian of religions, but is indeed a phenomenologist of religion who develops the whole theory about the sacred making itself known or manifesting itself though what he calls hierophanies. These are mundane, worldly kinds of objects or ideas, it could be a stone, it could be a pool, it could be a person, it could be a book, like Muhammad receives the messages from Allah and produces the Quran, this is a hierophany, the Quran. In other words, Eliade says you can develop a whole theory of religion based on the idea of the dialectic of the sacred. And that’s what I’ve called his eidetic intuition, his essence, his meaning of religion in general, based on his comparative studies. And that’s what the eidetic intuition tries to do. The problem with it is that the further one gets away from contextualized studies, from social, cultural, specific kinds of activities, the generalisations become almost impossible to test. And this becomes a problem… and it becomes the kind of idea that there is an essential characteristic of religion which sits some place in the heavens and makes itself known and manifested in all sorts of ways.

DR: That leads perfectly into what was going to be my next question, then. Phenomenology of religion is an essentialist methodology with a lot of connections to people like Eliade and many other really quite unfashionable scholars and approaches and… so phenomenology of religion is a somewhat unfashionable approach. Do you think that that reputation is deserved and what do you think the present and future of phenomenology of religion within religious studies is?

JC: In the sense that Eliade follows, and other people even like Bleeker who said that the central idea of religion or the key-word of religion is the divine… you know, so… you have all these people… for van der Leeuw, it was power. So you find these sort of essential categories that apply everywhere and one gives it kind of a generalized interpretation of what religion is. I think that this has been largely dismissed today, and phenomenologists… there are still persistent phenomenologists… they don’t do it in that sense. They don’t try to find some universal category into which all religions can then be placed or fitted. That has to be given up. The other problem with phenomenology of religion is privileging the insider’s point of view, which has been heavily criticised, for example, Robert Segal from the University of Aberdeen has criticized it heavily saying that if you privilege the insider’s point of view, if you say that you are not going to be critical of it, but simply present it as fairly as possible, then you cut off the scientific ability to actually test or explain events in ways that might contradict the believer’s point of view. In other words, for Segal, if you refuse to criticize (20:00)  the believer’s perspective, you’re endorsing it. In that sense there’s no difference between that and being a theologian, you might as well be a theologian. Those are the two main criticisms: philosophical essentialism, which cannot be tested and is rooted in some sort of almost platonic ideal; and the other idea that by privileging the insider’s, W. Brede Kristensen is famous for saying “The believers were always right. They have to be right.” Or Cantwell Smith, who was another phenomenologist of religion, a Canadian scholar, argued that the faith is the core of religion, that faith is the… personal faith, which we can never penetrate, and in order to understand religion, one, the scholar, must acknowledge that this personal faith is the core element of religion. And this idea, then, that the believers have the final authority over the interpretation of religion is another problem with the phenomenology of religion. Now, I think that these can be resolved, that there are certain aspects of phenomenology of religion that are still helpful and still quite contemporary. For example, if you say “What is the epoché?”. The epoché can be understood as the scholar, in this case me, becoming aware of my most, well, obvious or… apparent kinds of presuppositions about any religion I’m trying to study. There are lots of assumptions that I make that may not be transparent to my consciousness, like my western… ideas about the way knowledge is constructed and so on. I mean, I could bring these to consciousness as well, in so far as I can. But the point is, it has to do very much with the contemporary idea of self-reflexivity. Where is my starting point? Where am I coming from? What are those presuppositions which inform my perspective? As I just gave the example, I don’t think rain comes from ancestors or from God, [but] comes from atmospheric conditions, that is a presupposition. That is a potentially distorting presupposition from a believer’s point of view. In that sense, by bringing these into consciousness, then knowing that you don’t sit back as some superior, some kind of objective observer who isn’t at all influenced or involved in the whole enterprise of knowledge, then, I think the epoché helps to fit into this. Suspending judgements does not mean that I wipe my mind blank, it doesn’t mean that I’m a blank slate. What it means is that I try to become aware of those presuppositions and potentially distorting assumptions that would influence [my] ability to enter into and to understand what I’m trying to study. So, I think in one sense, self-reflexivity is that. And, secondly, the idea that we’re not producing objective knowledge, that we’re not producing a study of a human community as if that community were capable of being fitted into a scientific laboratory. So, in that sense, I think phenomenology has certain things still to offer. And the other thing is that if you look at the new wave of cognitive scientists of religion. The cognitive scientists of religion, like Harvey Whitehouse, who’s at Oxford, has created categories, universal categories of religious behaviour and action, which he says is rooted in the way humans think. Of course, he recognizes cultural specificity, but nevertheless, his sort of distinction between doctrinal and experiential kinds of religious behaviours is very typological, very similar to phenomenological typologies and categories. And I’ve argued in my book An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, that the cognitive science of religion has many parallel ways of approaching the study of religion as phenomenology, particularly by trying to understand the way humans think, the way humans behave and putting these into sorts of categories and classifications. One assumption of phenomenology of religion has always been that there’s nothing alien to one human to another. In other words, there’s nothing human that we cannot understand, because we’re all human beings. Even though we may express it in different ways, we may have cultural symbols, which are different. Nonetheless, we can understand something which is human. This is based on the old idea, that… again derived from Husserl, that we can employ an empathy. We’re capable of empathizing because we’re all human beings. (25:00) And the cognitive science of religion, perhaps in some different ways, but nonetheless is based on the idea that humans all basically think the same, counter-intuitively, when they come to the notion of certain kinds of expressions or certain kinds of experiences of the world.

DR: As always, I could listen to you talk all day, but I think that’s a perfect place to end the interview. So I’m going to say thank you very much Professor Cox.

JC: Thank you.

Citation Info: Cox, James L. and David G. Robertson. 2012. “The Phenomenology of Religion.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 14 January 2012. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.1, 13 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-james-cox-on-the-phenomenology-of-religion/

Podcasts

Re-Packaging E.B. Tylor

Reflections on “The Legacy of Edward Tylor – Roundtable”

by Liam Sutherland

Read more

A Response by James Cox to Bjørn Ola Tafjord on the Classification ‘Indigenous Religions’

Bjorn Tafjord begins his interview for the Religious Studies Project helpfully by outlining three usages of the term Indigenous Religions: 1) as a class or classification into which certain characteristics fit or they do not fit; 2) as a relational, historically conditioned term; 3) as an ethno-political category that has been used, for example, in land claims by indigenous peoples. He does not see these as contradictory ways of speaking of Indigenous Religions, but in many ways as complementary, although towards the conclusion of his interview, he appears to be advocating for a relational-historical use of the term. He makes it clear that how the category is used depends on the context of those employing it, whether academics, colonial or post-colonial powers or indigenous peoples themselves. In other words, no language use is neutral; it always has implications both for those doing the describing and that which is being described.

Bjorn Tafjord claims that one consequence of the way I have defined Indigenous Religions, first in my book From Primitive to Indigenous and then in my own article in my edited book Critical Reflections on Indigenous Religions,as restricted to communities that are kinship-orientated and identified by location or place, is that I have ‘boxed’ them in, or trapped them in a rigid conceptual framework. Only in one sense is this correct, since my intention was to identify unambiguously the meaning of a term about which so much loose language has been employed that in some cases it is impossible to know what content is being conveyed when it is used. We seldom allow such imprecise language in ordinary speech as we do when we employ the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religion’. I am not referring here just in terms of popular understandings or even how the terms are used in the media, but I am drawing attention to the common practice even among academics where frequently the meaning of these terms is simply taken for granted, or at the very least remains entirely implicit. I have argued that we need to begin by stating what we mean by the language we employ, not as a final or definitive claim to have circumscribed a category, but as a pragmatic way of beginning dialogue by being absolutely explicit about our meanings and intentions. Rather than ‘boxing in’ the category ‘Indigenous Religions’ this opens it up by encouraging scholars to clarify their denotative and connotative uses of terms and thereby make it possible to debate their interpretations analytically and critically.

What I find most confusing about Bjorn’s argument, which he makes towards the conclusion of the interview is when, after complaining that the term Indigenous Religions has been reified, he then calls ‘dangerous’ the assumption that Indigenous Religions are the religions of indigenous peoples. He seems to suggest that we need to dissociate the category ‘Indigenous Religion’ from the people who can fit into this classification. This is like saying ‘Christianity’ is a religion devoid of Christians. This doubly confuses the situation by moving the historical study of religion backward at least a century while at the same time re-enforcing the ‘world religions paradigm’. What I think Bjorn wants to suggest is not that we divorce a religion from its adherents, but that for historical and even political reasons we do not imply that indigenous peoples cannot be indigenous if they adhere to Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism or other religions with cosmologies that are non-local and that we do not ignore the dynamic interactions that historically have transformed the global and local interactions when religious adherents meet and mutually influence one another. This is how I understand the meaning of the late Kwame Bediako, a leading African theologian, when he claimed that Christianity is Africa’s new indigenous religion. He meant that Christianity had been so transformed in Africa that it had taken on indigenous roots, but at the same time had transformed traditional indigenous world-views. In this sense, of course, the academic study of Indigenous Religions cannot exclude Christian, Buddhist or other historical and relational contexts, but this is not the same as saying that the categories ‘indigenous’ and ‘religions’ do not refer to those who practise the traditions under study.

This then brings me back to my own definition, which I have always insisted provides a starting-point for discussion. I am fully aware that the study of Indigenous Religions is not a study of ‘disappearing’ peoples. This idea was held quite firmly by early anthropologists such as Baldwin Spencer in Australia who studied the central desert peoples as living remnants of a ‘Stone Age’ people soon to become extinct. By defining Indigenous Religions as focused primarily on ancestors and as rooted in location, I have restricted the term in a way that then opens up wide permutations of ancestral and localised traditions as they are affected by modernity, globalisation, travel and mass communication, including indigenous people living in diaspora and those who, as in the case of the Yoruba of Nigeria, have transmitted their traditions around the world almost as missionaries by providing a universal source of healing and well-being.

I want to add just one last word on the overall interview (not attributable entirely to Bjorn Tafjord), which, if left unstated, would leave the persistent barrage against belief in religion still unchallenged. The current reaction against the role belief plays in religion is built somewhat naively on the assumption that scholars of religion continue to depict, describe and teach religion as if it were obtained from a textbook on systematic Christian theology. This, of course, could be said to characterise flawed earlier books written about the religions of the world, but this does not mean that the cognitive side of religion should be dismissed as irrelevant or unimportant. For example, it would be impossible for a spirit medium to go into a trance and for the assembled community to speak to the spirit directly if an underlying belief in the power of spirits to influence human circumstances were not present. It simply would not happen. What we believe affects how we experience the world and how we behave in it. Of course, this is not just a one-directional dynamic: experiences influence beliefs and behaviours, just as behaviours have an impact on our experiences and beliefs. Nonetheless, the current tendency to debunk beliefs as a Protestant left-over is too obvious and does not take into account the complex relationships between cognitions, experiences and actions, as is being shown increasingly within the cognitive science of religion and has been evident in cognitive-behavioural psychology for a very long time.

Book Reviews, May, 2014 – Graham Harvey, Morgan Luck, and James Cox

book reviewPublishers just keep asking us to review their books. And who are we to refuse? Free books! So we’ve now decided to make book reviews a regular feature of the RSP. The format is exactly the same as it was previously. We handed out a few books to some of our friends and sat them down (or at least tried in one case) to have a discussion on what they thought.

In this Book Review session we have:

full review here.

full review here.

You can read his full review here.

More sessions to come soon! If you have any suggestions for books that you think we should review, or would like to do a review yourself then send an email to our book review editor –jonathan@religousstudiesproject.com.

After the World Religions Paradigm…?

In this week’s podcast, We discussed some of the problems with the World Religions paradigm, most notably its colonial heritage and Christocentrism. Given its dominance in the public perception of “Religion”, however, can we as teachers get away from it? Is there a pedagogical approach which focusses on issues of power and domination, and challenges, rather than reinforces, outmoded common-sense categorisations? In other words, can “Religion 101” ever be more than a survey of “the World”s Faiths”, and if so, what do we replace it with?

We begin with James Cox, who adds a postscript to his previous interview, suggesting some possibilities for pedagogical approaches to Religious Studies without falling back into the  problematic World Religions paradigm. Mark Jurgensmeyer, Peter Beyer and Craig Martin then outline approaches they have utilised in the US – critical, sociological…. – and reflect on their success. Suzanne Owen, however, points out some of the serious practical issues of teaching based on alternative and indigenous religions. We close with Steve Sutcliffe who, while accepting some challenging issues in the UK situation, nevertheless expresses a need for the field as a whole to work together to move Religious Studies pedagogy forward.

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, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter. And if you want to support the RSP, you can click through to Amazon.co.uk through our affiliates link, and we will earn referral fees from any transactions during your visit.

Jim CoxJames Cox is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies in the University of Edinburgh and an Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh. In 2012 he was de Carle Distinguished Lecturer in the University of Otago in Dunedin, during which time he wrote his forthcoming monograph, ‘Inventions of God in Indigenous Societies’. We have interviewed James twice; on Phenomenology, and The World Religions Paradigm.

Mark Juergensmeyer is a former president of the American Academy of Religion and the current director of the here.

here.

here.

Suzanne Owen lectures at Leeds Trinity University College, UK, and is currently co-chair of the Indigenous Religious Traditions Group for the American Academy of Religion. Her PhD focussed on the sharing of Native American ceremonies and included fieldwork among Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland. Listen to her interview on Druidry and the Definition of Religion here.

Steven Sutcliffe is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh, and the author of Children of the New Age, editor of Religion: Empirical Studies and Beyond the New Age (with Marion Bowman).

The World Religions Paradigm

There can’t be many listeners who haven’t come into contact with the “World Religions” paradigm, either through the podcast or in their own undergraduate studies. The idea that we can classify religious traditions into a hierarchical schema goes back to the earliest days of anthropology and sociology. Although, C. P. Tiele defined “World Religions” as those which had spread outside of their original cultural context, today the term is taken to mean the “Big Five” – Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Frequently this is complimented by Indigenous Religions and New Religious Movements. Yet despite the fact that this approach originated in the Victorian era under the influence of colonialism, it is still the dominant framework in pedagogical approaches to the study of religions.

Yet this categorisation assumes a number of problematic criteria. Most obviously, it favours “traditions”, and especially those which have straddled more than one ethnicity. Secondly, there’s an implicit weighting towards religions with books, temples, founders and other things which can be easily quantised – and perhaps not coincidentally, like Christianity. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it assumes that “religion” is a thing which can be recognised and catalogued, and not a term which is mostly concerned with the exercise of power, as scholars such as Chidester, Asad and McCutcheon have argued. Is the World Religions paradigm, then, as Max Müller argued, simply how “the vast domain of religion must be parcelled out”? Or, as Terry Thomas put it, is it less a case of “know thy enemy” as “know thy trading partner”? To discuss this important issue, we were delighted to invite back Professor James Cox.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk link to support us when buying your important books etc.

James Cox is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies in the University of Edinburgh and an Honorary Professorial Fellow in the School of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh. In 1999, he was appointed Reader in Religious Studies in the University of Edinburgh and was awarded a Personal Chair in 2006. From 1993 to 1998, he directed the University of Edinburgh’s African Christianity Project which included eight African universities in southern and western Africa. He has held prior academic posts at the University of Zimbabwe, Westminster College, Oxford and Alaska Pacific University. In 2009, he was Visiting Professor of Religion in the University of Sydney. Professor Cox was de Carle Distinguished Lecturer in the University of Otago in Dunedin for 2012. He is completing a book to be published by Equinox in 2013 under the title, ‘Inventions of God in Indigenous Societies’. He has been previously interviewed by the Religious Studies Project in one of our most popular podcasts, discussing the Phenomenology of Religion.

Christmas Special – Only 60 Seconds!

Welcome to the Religious Studies Project Christmas (and 1st Anniversary) Special – Only 60 Seconds!

Can Steve Sutcliffe talk about “habitus” for a full 60 seconds without deviation, hesitation or repetition? How much does David Wilson know about “Postmodernism”? Mr David Robertson is your host (ably assisted by the lovely Samantha Mr Chris Cotter) for this special festive episode of the Religious Studies Pro Recorded live in Edinburgh on December 20th, 2012. Be forewarned of some bad language. All resemblance to BBC panel games, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Non-denominational seasonal greetings to all our listeners, and best wishes for 2013. This has been an incredible first year for the RSP, and Chris, Louise and I extend sincere thanks to everyone who has contributed in any capacity. We have big plans for year 2, and if you have any ideas, we want to hear them! We’ll be back on January 21st, bigger and better than ever. Thanks for listening.

(Thanks to Andrea Quillen for taking photos, and to David Jack for audio assistance.)

Jonathan Tuckett  is currently a PhD student at the University of Stirling. He has an MA in Philosophy and Religious Studies and an MSc in Religious Studies from the University of Edinburgh. His research is on the phenomenological method in the study of religion. Areas of interest include the phenomenology of religion, theory and method in the study of religion, and philosophy of religion. Jonathan is also an Assistant Editor for the Religious Studies Project.

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Steven Sutcliffe is Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh where he teaches and researches in the areas of ‘new age religion’ and ‘holistic spirituality’, in the effects of the discourse and practice of ‘religion’ in contemporary culture and society, and on theory and method in the study of religion, including the history of its modern academic study. He is the author of Children of the New Age, editor of Religion: Empirical Studies, and co-editor (with Marion Bowman) of Beyond the New Age.

Circular Academia: Navigating the Dangerous Waters of Term Re-Assignment for the Religious Studies Project.

David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Recent publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2013). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.

David Wilson is a former partner in a City of London law firm, which involved spending ten years living and working in the Middle East. Getting bored with that, David returned to the University of Edinburgh to embark upon a PhD in religious studies, entitled ‘Spiritualist Mediums and other Traditional Shamans: towards an apprenticeship model of shamanic practice’. He is the author of ‘Waking the Entranced: Reassessing Spiritualist Mediumship Through a Comparison of Spiritualist and Shamanic Spirit Possession Practices’ in Schmidt, B. A. and Huskinson, L. (eds.) (2010), and ‘Spirit Possession and Trance: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives’ (2010). His first book, ‘Redefining Shamanism: Spiritualist Mediums and other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes’, will be published in January 2013.

Editors’ Picks 2: The Phenomenology of Religion

The second of our Editors’ Picks “repodcasts”, and this time Jonathan has chosen our interview with James Cox on the Phenomenology of Religion. It was, incidentally, also our very first podcast, originally broadcast on the 14th of January, 2012. Jonathan also wrote the response to this interview, entitled “What is Phenomenology?“.

Phenomenology is an important methodology in the study of religions, but can be inaccessible to the student. In this interview, James Cox outlines the phenomenology of religion to David in a clear, concise way, avoiding jargon and placing the methodology in the broader context of the history of European philosophy and comparative religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

A transcription of this interview is also available as a PDF, and has been pasted on the page where the podcast was originally posted, along with some further information. All transcriptions 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.

What is the Future of Religious Studies?

This week we decided to do something a bit different. Every time David and Chris have conducted an interview, they have been asking the interviewees an additional question: “What is the Future of Religious Studies?”

The result is this highly stimulating compilation of differing perspectives and levels of optimism on what has become one of the most hotly debated topics in the academic study of religion at the start of the second decade of the twenty-first century.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

The underlying motivation behind placing this question on the agenda of the Religious Studies Project was one of finances. In the current economic climate – particularly in the UK – and with the increasing commodification of the Higher Education sector. It is no longer acceptable for academics to sit pontificating in their ivory towers, and every discipline (but particularly Religious Studies) is finding itself increasingly in the firing line in terms of funding and resources. This issue is so pressing that the British Association for the Study of Religions (BASR) and the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) – the two professional organisations that together represent the UK’s leading scholars in the study of religion – have joined forces to present a joint panel on ‘Public benefit in the study of religion’ at the BASR annual conference, September 5-7 2012 University of Winchester, UK.

However, this is not the only issue on the table. Topics range from interdisciplinarity and institutional conflict, to innovative new methodologies, directions and foci. Some of these academics have already appeared on the Religious Studies Project, others’ interviews have yet to be released, yet each has their own unique perspective to offer, and we hope that you appreciate this compilation.

Featured in this podcast (with links to their previously released interviews):

We wanted to do something special with this podcast, because it is the tenth edition of the Religious Studies Project. We hope this has been a worthwhile exercise! Later in the week, we will be releasing a ‘unique’ response to this episode, and we hope it will prove similarly worthwhile.

If you stick with us for the next ten episodes, you’ll be treated to interviews with Bettina Schmidt (University of Wales), Markus Davidsen (Aarhus University), Bejamin Beit-Hallahmi (University of Haifa), Linda Woodhead (Lancaster University), Ariela Keysar (Trinity College, Massachusetts), Bron Taylor (University of Florida) and more…

 

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.

What is Phenomenology?

In a recent podcast (2012), Professor James Cox has briefly sketched an outline of the phenomenology of religion. His overview has taken broadly the concept of Husserl’s notions of epoche and the eidetic intuition and carried them through to typologies for the purpose of comparisons. Now, Cox provides us with a rather comprehensive phenomenology which, though briefly explained in the podcast, is expounded upon in greater detail in his book An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion (2010). However, Cox is possibly the great syncretist of phenomenology and draws upon a rich and ultimately varied history in the field. In truth, despite Cox’s presentation, what the phenomenology of religion entails is perhaps not as monolithic as he would suggest.

Quite rightly Cox indicates that the beginnings of the phenomenology of religion can be found in what he calls (2010) the Dutch school of phenomenology. However, in a detailed survey of the history of religious studies in the Dutch context, Arie Molendijk (2000) highlights a problem: it is not entirely clear with whom the phenomenology of religion began. He points to authors such as Sharpe, Waardenburgh and Hirschmann as not only differing in deciding when phenomenology first began, but also when considering who does and does not count as phenomenologists. Thus, to give just a brief deluge of figures we might think of as phenomenologists, Molendijk lists at various points: Chantepie de la Saussaye, Nathan Soderblom, Edward Lehmann, William Kristensen, Gerardus van der Leeuw, C.J. Bleeker, Joachim Wach, Joseph Kitagawa, Mircea Eliade, C.P. Tiele, Friedrich Pfister, Max Scheler, Georg Wobbermin, Robert Winkler, Rudolf Otto, Heinrich Frick, Gustav Mensching (2000:28-29). Nor is there much consensus on the matter, Hischmann who was a student of van der Leeuw does not include Kristensen, van der Leeuw’s teacher, on her list of phenomenologists. This is also a predominantly Dutch and Scandinavian dominated list, to which we might wish to add the further British figures of Edwin W. Smith, Geoffrey Parrinder, Ninian Smart and Wilfred Cantwell Smith.

Nevertheless, it is still a fairly safe comment to say that the phenomenology of religion began with the Dutch. Which scholar was the first phenomenologist, however, is debatable. Molendijk tells us that at the very latest the phenomenology of religion began with Gerardus van der Leeuw. Some might say that Kristensen is the first phenomenologist, and Cox is probably among this group, for his watchword ‘the believers were completely right’ (in 1969:49) has pervaded all phenomenology. Yet Kristensen had a very specific idea of what the phenomenology of religion was, and one which was far stricter than van der Leeuw’s. This general lack of clarity over what is contained in the phrase ‘phenomenology of religion’ and who are phenomenologists has generated considerable misgivings about the field. Indeed, Willard Oxtoby rightly acknowledges that there are ‘as many phenomenologies as there are phenomenolgoists’ (Oxtoby, 1968:598). Even so, we can identify three dominant forms of phenomenology. Though we can see the beginnings of such a distinction in the Kristensen’s work (he was speaking of a science of religion more generally though), it is Bettis and Smart that provide us with the most substantial classifications.

Methodological Phenomenology. In his interview, Cox spoke of how phenomenologists of religion employ Husserl’s notion of bracketing in order to let the ‘phenomena of religion speak for themselves’. The phenomenological method is characterised by the bracketing of scientific and theological theories so as not to bring any presuppositions into the study of religion. We may call this, as Bettis does, ‘psychological descriptions’, for the phenomenological method concerns itself with the activity itself rather than the object of the activity. Our focus is the believers themselves in what they do and think. It would be wrong, though, to think this idea of neutrality that underpins the phenomenological method is solely bound to Husserl’s philosophy (despite Cox’s comments to the contrary). Smart, for instance formulated his idea of methodological agnosticism almost independently of Husserl’s philosophy.

Typological Phenomenology. This type of phenomenology began with Kristensen – indeed he saw the phenomenology of religion as nothing but this – and is as Cox said in the interview, the development of typologies such as sacrifice. For Kristensen this meant a ‘systematic survey of the data’ (in Bettis 1969:36). It is the work of comparison, the consideration of data against one another for the purpose of gaining further insight into them. Kristensen maintained that this data is gathered by the History of Religion, work which later phenomenologists would bring under methodological phenomenology. Bettis refers to this as dialectical descriptions and sees this as the application of the phenomenological method to a spectrum of religious ideas, activities, institutions, customs and symbols. Smart, too, uses the phrase ‘dialectical phenomenology’ which he uses synonymously with typological phenomenology until later favouring the latter.

Speculative Phenomenology. Smart, from whom I coin the term, says of this kind of phenomenology that the data of typological phenomenology are ‘arranged according to a preconceived pattern, itself incapable of being thoroughly insulated from theological (or anti-theological) assumptions’ (2009:194-5). We can see here the work of what Cox referred to as ‘Comparative Religion’ in the interview, where much of the data is organised in gradations of superiority. And even if no gradations are made we still find much of the work of defining religion from non-religion in this area. Here we start to talk of the essence of religion, usually discovered by the eidetic intuition, which allows us to see the core of all phenomena. Bettis calls these ontological descriptions as they focused on the object of religious activity as opposed to psychological descriptions that looked at the activity itself. Good examples of this kind of phenomenology would be Eliade and Otto.

In An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, Cox has made an impressive attempt to reconcile these three types of phenomenology. But we are left with the question of who are phenomenologists? Historically, not every scholar has employed all three kinds of phenomenology: are those who utilise only one or two kinds of phenomenology phenomenologists? Take Eliade for instance, he proclaimed himself to be a historian of religion and yet we regard him as one of the field’s seminal phenomenologists. And how do we define the phenomenology of religion when it incorporates all three kinds? The general disagreements within each kind of phenomenology mean that Cox’s attempt, impressive though it is, is by no means complete. Therefore, by extension, there is no complete understanding of the phenomenology of religion.

References

Bettis, J. (1969). Phenomenology of Religion; SCM Press, London

Cox, J. (2006). A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion; T&T Clarck International, London

Cox, J. (2010). An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion; Continuum, London

Cox, J. (2012). “The Phenomenology of Religion”, interview with The Religious Studies Project published 16 January 2012 online at https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/

Molendijk, A. (2000). ‘At the Cross-roads: Early Dutch Science of Religion in International Perspective’ in Man, Meaning, and Mystery: 100 yeas of History of Religions in Norway; ed. by S. Hjelde; Brill, Leiden, (pg.19-51)

Oxtoby, W. (1968). ‘Religionswissenchaft Revisited’ in Religion in Antiquity; ed. by J. Neusner; Brill, Leiden (pg.591-608)

Smart, N. (2009). Ninian Smart on World Religions Vol.1: Religious Experience and Philosophical Analysis; ed. by J. Shepherd; Farnham, Ashgate

The Religious Studies Project launches…

The Religious Studies Project, in association with the British Association for the Study of Religions, launches on 16 January 2012!

Every Monday, we’ll be putting out a new podcast featuring an interview with a  leading international scholar, presenting a key idea in  the contemporary socio-scientific study of religion in a concise and accessible way. Our first podcast features Professor Emeritus James Cox (University of Edinburgh) speaking to David about the phenomenology of religion. You can find the podcast and accompanying notes here, or alternatively subscribe on iTunes.

Every Wednesday, we’ll feature a resource to help postgraduate students and aspiring academics. And every Friday, we’ll be publishing a response to the podcast, reflecting on, expanding upon or disagreeing with the Monday podcast. Plus conference reports, opinion, publishing opportunities, book reviews and more when we have them.

In the meantime, please have a look around the site, follow us on Twitter, “Like” us on Facebook, rate us on iTunes, tell all your friends about us… and let us know what you think!

The Phenomenology of Religion

Phenomenology is an important methodology in the study of religions, but can be inaccessible to the student. In this interview, James Cox outlines the phenomenology of religion to David in a clear, concise way, avoiding jargon and placing the methodology in the broader context of the history of European philosophy and comparative religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on What is Phenomenology?

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

Cox’s latest and most complete work on the subject is An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion (2010), published by Continuum. A review which questions his relating phenomenological and cognitive approaches by Paul Tremlett in Culture and Religion 11/4 (2010) is available here. Also recommended is his earlier A Guide to the Phenomenology of Religion (2006), also published by Continuum. His 2008 article from DISKUS, the BASR journal, “Community Mastery of the Spirits as an African Form of Shamanism” applies the phenomenological method to certain African practices in order to argue for Shamanism as a universal  categoryIf you are interested in what Professor Cox had to say about the development of Religious Studies more broadly, we heartily recommend From Primitive to Indigenous: The Academic Study of Indigenous Religions (Ashgate, 2007). It is simultaneously an account of colonial contact with indigenous religions, a history of how scholars have conceptualised religion, and an attempt to create a new definition of “religion”.

Podcast Transcript

Podcast with James L. Cox  on The Phenomenology of Religion (14 January 2012). PDF.

Interviewed by David G. RobertsonTranscribed by Martin Lepage.

 

David Robertson: The phenomenology of religion has been one of the most influential approaches to studying religion in recent decades. To discuss it, we are joined today by professor emeritus James Cox of the University of Edinburgh, who is the author of An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, a guide aimed at students and the general reader. So Professor Cox, what is the phenomenology of religion?

James Cox: Well, the phenomenology of religion caries a rather philosophical title because it’s rooted in philosophical phenomenology in effect, probably developed out of thinking of the late 19th century and early 20th century, where the study of religions was just beginning to develop in the comparative sense. So, in the late 19th century, for example, when missionaries had gone around to various parts of the world, bringing back tales and stories of other religions than Christianity, it became apparent that scholars and theologians particularly needed to develop some kind of theory about the relationship of Christianity to the other religions. So in the late 19th century, they developed essentially the comparative study of religions and comparison was done fundamentally from a Christian theological perspective; a liberal perspective in the sense that the scholar would begin to compare different aspects of say Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam with Christianity in order to show how Christianity is really the pinnacle of these religions. This developed into a kind of reaction, I should say, by certain scholars as they got into the 20th century, that the study of religion, although very much still rooted in Christian ideas and Christian thoughts, was regarded as something a bit more not just comparative in the sense to show Christianity is superior, but in fact to show how the different religions could be compared according to typologies. So, for example, the typology of sacrifice was a very common idea. Sacrifice seemed to be appearing in all religions of the world : in India, in Africa, in Asia and certainly in Christianity with the Eucharist being essential sacrificial meal. Sacrifice became a typology that was compared and then ideas like certain kinds of rituals, life cycle rituals, for example, seem to be universal in all these religious groups. So as comparative study of religion developed, it developed a sort of typological approach. That’s one aspect that led into what I should call the comparative study of religions from a less theological perspective than was originally developed in the late 19th century. Then, you have the philosophical development, which is really associated with the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. Husserl was, well, the founder, you might say, of philosophical phenomenology. And his problem, that he saw in the intellectual sphere, at the time, was the problem of what he called the natural attitude. That is to say, with the development of science, and what’s called positivism, that is, the naïve idea that what we see is exactly what is. And therefore the study of the world is a sort of compartmentalization, a kind of breaking down of the component parts of the world, putting them into certain kinds of categories so that we can study them in a way that is based on observation, being the fundamental tool for what you might call the… justification or… the validation of knowledge. Husserl said the natural attitude displaces consciousness. That is the role of the consciousness, the intentional active role of the consciousness in apprehending reality. What he wanted to do was to set aside or bracket out, he used the term epoché, which is to bracket out [what are] naïve or unexamined assumptions (5:00) about the world. The fact that we’re sitting in this room, and I assume it is an objective room, you’re an objective person, there are objective photographs or pictures on the wall or window and so on, as if it is just given. But Husserl said no, the consciousness needs to say “okay, let’s put this into brackets” and began to think “What kinds of influences affect my consciousness?” So, of course, I have lived in this room for the past thirteen years, I’ve lived in it, it’s been my office for the last thirteen years. I have lots of memories associated with this. Also I’ve collected loads of books and boxes, which means that the view that I’m having of the room now is different from when I first came here. Or if I look out the window I see entirely different perspective from what you see looking at me, or I looking towards my filing cabinet, for example. Anyway, the whole point was that one should bracket out these assumptions about the world and begin to understand the relationship between the consciousness and the apprehension of the objective world. Anyway, that’s quite a lot of background in terms of how the comparative study of religions came in to play, and then the notion of the philosophical epoché. Now where does this put us then in terms of, say, the early to mid-20th century of the study of religions? Certain scholars, particularly Dutch scholars, for example Gerardus van der Leeuw was one, W. Brede Kristensen who was his teacher, and followed also C. J.  Bleeker who was at Amsterdam. These Dutch scholars began to say “Wait a minute! What are the assumptions that are informing the study of religions?” One, we have the theological assumptions, the superiority of Christianity, which I’ve already talked about. This needs to be bracketed out, we need to set this aside, use Husserl’s notion of the epoché. But we also have the scientific interpretation, and the scientific interpretation was largely that we can assign status or priority or value to religions according to an evolutionary scale. So you have lesser-developed religions, such as the primitive, the primal, the animistic religions. And then you have, developing up, more polytheistic religions, and from polytheistic religions, you then move towards the more monotheistic, ethical monotheistic and Christianity being the pinnacle. And some scientists thought, beyond Christianity, then, is science, the end of the evolutionary scale of humanity. So you move out of religion towards science. Well, the phenomenologists, particularly Kristensen and van der Leeuw, but also Bleeker, argued that what should happen in the study of religions is that these attitudes, these assumptions, should also be bracketed out, they should be put in abeyance, they should be suspended, or employ the epoché. So now you have theological priorities, theological gradations of religions being bracketed. You have scientific gradations or levels of religion being bracketed in order to do what? That the phenomena can speak for themselves, which is Husserl’s word. “Let the phenomena speak for themselves” and the phenomenologists of religion said “Let the phenomena of religion speak for themselves”. And this meant studying, describing, understanding and incorporating the perspectives of believers. So that at the end of the day, the phenomenologists of religion can say “We have entered into the religious phenomena, including believers. We have attempted to suspend our judgments about their truth or value, their relationship, their gradations, their… sort of priorities of ranking of religion and we have allowed the phenomena of religion to speak for themselves.” Then, you could begin to do the classifications; then, you could begin to say “Alright, now we can begin to identify these typologies, now we can say not gradating them or ranking them but say “How does myth, for example, a cosmogonic myth, operate in Hindu tradition, or Buddhist traditions, or African tradition, or Christian or Jewish or whatever tradition. And this was intended to lead ultimately to understanding religions.

DR: So the phenomenology of religion, if I’m understanding, is essentially a method by which… an inherently comparative method that prioritizes the experience of religion… perhaps you could outline for us how (10:00) you would go about applying this method practically?

JC: Well, yes, okay, I can tell you how I did it when I was doing fieldwork in Zimbabwe. I’ll take one example of a ritual that I observed, which was a rain ritual in a chief’s region. I went to the ritual, I didn’t have a lot of background preparation, because when I went out to the area, I was with the chief’s son. He said “We’re going to go to attend various rituals which were in the area. But there is an important ritual taking place which was for rain ritual.  Now the gist of the ritual was this, that the ancestors, according to the Shona traditions of Zimbabwe, are responsible for providing rain for the community and the larger community in a sense, because it covered quite a wide area. In that year, which was 1992, there was a drought, a terrible drought. This ritual took place at the end of the rainy season, which was unusual. Now, in the ritual, they took some time, about ten or twelve hours, this ritual taking place. But the center of the ritual was the possession of a spirit medium by the chief’s ancestor spirit. During this event, the medium became possessed, she became the man, the doumda (11:23) spirit, she dressed in traditional attire, with a eagle feather hat and an animal skin skirt, a walking stick, she was a man, she was the ancestor, the man spirit of the chief. At one point in the ritual, I, who was an observer, of course I know I wasn’t unaffected or not affecting the ritual, she called the chief’s family down, underneath the tree and she began talking with them. And she called me down as well at one point, and she said something to me in Shona. I didn’t understand precisely what she said, but I clapped my hands in the traditional way, shook her hand, and, in a sense, I was involved in the ritual, not equally with the community that I was there… so what I had to do then, in my own view is that, I think, personally, that rain does not, could not be caused by ancestors. Rain could not be caused by God either. Rain is an atmospheric condition, and in that area, when the what they call the inter-tropical convergence on works that is the warm air from the north and the south meet then rains occur. When they don’t converge, rains don’t happen. What I had to say, if I was to really understand the ritual in the phenomenological method is to say “Okay, these scientific assumptions I have about how rain is produced need to be bracketed, suspended, put into abeyance, not given up, because I believe that rain occurs according to scientific explanations. But in order to understand what was going on, I needed to put that in brackets and enter into. And in my descriptions, when I wrote about this, I tried to be as descriptive, as impartial as possible, explaining what happened. And then, after describing it, I then tried to interpret it, to try to find certain kinds of connections and meanings to it. And in the end I interpreted it, not so much, you might say, religiously, if you might used that term, but I interpreted it politically and sociologically, to do with the status of the chief and his relationship to the Zanu-PF, Mugabwe’s government, and so on. But in other words, I gave an interpretation of it, but only after I had suspended my judgments, described and tried to understand what was going on.

DR: One of the most interesting aspects for me of the phenomenological method as you describe it in your book is the final stage of eidetic intuition. Perhaps you could describe…

JC: Yeah that’s the most controversial part of the whole method, I think, and this is largely where phenomenology has gone, I think, out of date, and isn’t really accepted so much in the sense that the eidetic intuition was intended to be that the scholar of comparative religions… I mean, I’ve given an example of one Zimbabwean ritual. So now I get this ritual, compare this ritual, I look at other Zimbabwean rituals, then I begin to say “Okay certain patterns develop in these rituals, we can see certain things occurring… beer poured as libations to ancestors, and so on; the centrality of ancestors, the idea that ancestors carry messages to higher ancestors, and so on. And you build up this sort of idea of what the sort of Shona religious experience is about. (15:00) Then, you say “Okay, now, how does this compare to rituals, which are rituals, in this case, a crisis ritual, that might occur in an other society?” A crisis ritual, for example, of illness, when somebody is ill, in a Christian sense, and a priest is called, prayers are made to try to effect a cure or a healing within this person. And you say “Okay, now we have two different types of crisis ritual.” Then you build up all the rituals, the myths, the categories, the typologies, the classifications and you begin to say “Well, we can talk about the meaning of cosmogonic myth, in various societies, or crisis rituals or calendrical rituals, or the role of religious practitioners and various, and you begin to say “Well, we can find some general meaning for myth, ritual, practitioner… morality, art, and so on, all these classifications. Then you ask the question “Is it possible, that out of all this comparative study, we can see into the fundamental meaning of religion itself? What is religion about? What do all these comparative studies of religion tell us about the human religious understanding? And here you have different theorists that have developed ideas about that, in the tradition. So, you have Mircea Eliade who’s a famous so-called historian of religions, but is indeed a phenomenologist of religion who develops the whole theory about the sacred making itself known or manifesting itself though what he calls hierophanies. These are mundane, worldly kinds of objects or ideas, it could be a stone, it could be a pool, it could be a person, it could be a book, like Muhammad receives the messages from Allah and produces the Quran, this is a hierophany, the Quran. In other words, Eliade says you can develop a whole theory of religion based on the idea of the dialectic of the sacred. And that’s what I’ve called his eidetic intuition, his essence, his meaning of religion in general, based on his comparative studies. And that’s what the eidetic intuition tries to do. The problem with it is that the further one gets away from contextualized studies, from social, cultural, specific kinds of activities, the generalisations become almost impossible to test. And this becomes a problem… and it becomes the kind of idea that there is an essential characteristic of religion which sits some place in the heavens and makes itself known and manifested in all sorts of ways.

DR: That leads perfectly into what was going to be my next question, then. Phenomenology of religion is an essentialist methodology with a lot of connections to people like Eliade and many other really quite unfashionable scholars and approaches and… so phenomenology of religion is a somewhat unfashionable approach. Do you think that that reputation is deserved and what do you think the present and future of phenomenology of religion within religious studies is?

JC: In the sense that Eliade follows, and other people even like Bleeker who said that the central idea of religion or the key-word of religion is the divine… you know, so… you have all these people… for van der Leeuw, it was power. So you find these sort of essential categories that apply everywhere and one gives it kind of a generalized interpretation of what religion is. I think that this has been largely dismissed today, and phenomenologists… there are still persistent phenomenologists… they don’t do it in that sense. They don’t try to find some universal category into which all religions can then be placed or fitted. That has to be given up. The other problem with phenomenology of religion is privileging the insider’s point of view, which has been heavily criticised, for example, Robert Segal from the University of Aberdeen has criticized it heavily saying that if you privilege the insider’s point of view, if you say that you are not going to be critical of it, but simply present it as fairly as possible, then you cut off the scientific ability to actually test or explain events in ways that might contradict the believer’s point of view. In other words, for Segal, if you refuse to criticize (20:00)  the believer’s perspective, you’re endorsing it. In that sense there’s no difference between that and being a theologian, you might as well be a theologian. Those are the two main criticisms: philosophical essentialism, which cannot be tested and is rooted in some sort of almost platonic ideal; and the other idea that by privileging the insider’s, W. Brede Kristensen is famous for saying “The believers were always right. They have to be right.” Or Cantwell Smith, who was another phenomenologist of religion, a Canadian scholar, argued that the faith is the core of religion, that faith is the… personal faith, which we can never penetrate, and in order to understand religion, one, the scholar, must acknowledge that this personal faith is the core element of religion. And this idea, then, that the believers have the final authority over the interpretation of religion is another problem with the phenomenology of religion. Now, I think that these can be resolved, that there are certain aspects of phenomenology of religion that are still helpful and still quite contemporary. For example, if you say “What is the epoché?”. The epoché can be understood as the scholar, in this case me, becoming aware of my most, well, obvious or… apparent kinds of presuppositions about any religion I’m trying to study. There are lots of assumptions that I make that may not be transparent to my consciousness, like my western… ideas about the way knowledge is constructed and so on. I mean, I could bring these to consciousness as well, in so far as I can. But the point is, it has to do very much with the contemporary idea of self-reflexivity. Where is my starting point? Where am I coming from? What are those presuppositions which inform my perspective? As I just gave the example, I don’t think rain comes from ancestors or from God, [but] comes from atmospheric conditions, that is a presupposition. That is a potentially distorting presupposition from a believer’s point of view. In that sense, by bringing these into consciousness, then knowing that you don’t sit back as some superior, some kind of objective observer who isn’t at all influenced or involved in the whole enterprise of knowledge, then, I think the epoché helps to fit into this. Suspending judgements does not mean that I wipe my mind blank, it doesn’t mean that I’m a blank slate. What it means is that I try to become aware of those presuppositions and potentially distorting assumptions that would influence [my] ability to enter into and to understand what I’m trying to study. So, I think in one sense, self-reflexivity is that. And, secondly, the idea that we’re not producing objective knowledge, that we’re not producing a study of a human community as if that community were capable of being fitted into a scientific laboratory. So, in that sense, I think phenomenology has certain things still to offer. And the other thing is that if you look at the new wave of cognitive scientists of religion. The cognitive scientists of religion, like Harvey Whitehouse, who’s at Oxford, has created categories, universal categories of religious behaviour and action, which he says is rooted in the way humans think. Of course, he recognizes cultural specificity, but nevertheless, his sort of distinction between doctrinal and experiential kinds of religious behaviours is very typological, very similar to phenomenological typologies and categories. And I’ve argued in my book An Introduction to the Phenomenology of Religion, that the cognitive science of religion has many parallel ways of approaching the study of religion as phenomenology, particularly by trying to understand the way humans think, the way humans behave and putting these into sorts of categories and classifications. One assumption of phenomenology of religion has always been that there’s nothing alien to one human to another. In other words, there’s nothing human that we cannot understand, because we’re all human beings. Even though we may express it in different ways, we may have cultural symbols, which are different. Nonetheless, we can understand something which is human. This is based on the old idea, that… again derived from Husserl, that we can employ an empathy. We’re capable of empathizing because we’re all human beings. (25:00) And the cognitive science of religion, perhaps in some different ways, but nonetheless is based on the idea that humans all basically think the same, counter-intuitively, when they come to the notion of certain kinds of expressions or certain kinds of experiences of the world.

DR: As always, I could listen to you talk all day, but I think that’s a perfect place to end the interview. So I’m going to say thank you very much Professor Cox.

JC: Thank you.

Citation Info: Cox, James L. and David G. Robertson. 2012. “The Phenomenology of Religion.” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 14 January 2012. Transcribed by Martin Lepage. Version 1.1, 13 September 2015. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/podcast-james-cox-on-the-phenomenology-of-religion/