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Shall we play the game?

A response to “The BASR and the Impact of Religious Studies”

By Jonathan Tuckett

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Christmas Special 2017 – Scrape My Barrel!

As has now become traditional (how many times must something be repeated to become ‘tradition’? And does this make it ‘religious’?), we are delighted to end 2017 on a more light-hearted note and present our ‘Christmas’ special gameshow, with added video nonsense. This year, the game was “Scrape My Barrel” – which has absolutely no connection to the popular BBC gameshow “Call My Bluff” – and sees two teams of Religious Studies academics pitted against each other in a battle of definitions, pedantry, creativity, deception, performance and ‘wit’. Quite like any typical RS seminar room, then?

 

This year, we recorded at the BASR Annual Conference at the University of Chester back in September 2017, and we were delighted to welcome back Jonathan Tuckett to the role of host after permitting him an ill-advised sojourn to the ‘other’ side of the podium in 2016.  The teams were made up of ‘established’ RS scholars – George Chryssides, Dawn Llewellyn and Paul-François Tremlett – and ‘up-and-coming’ baristas RS scholars – Vivian Asimos, Liam Sutherland and Amy Whitehead. Each brings their own inimitable style to the table, and certainly provided an entertaining evening for conference attendees (who also double as our fabulous studio audience).

If this gets you in the festive mood, you might want to check out our back catalogue of festive specials:

You can download this podcast, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on  donations page?

Thanks to everyone at the University of Chester who facilitated the recording of this episode, to David Robertson for some excellent editing work, to our camera people, to the contestants, the studio audience, and everyone who has contributed to the RSP over the past year. We’ll be back in 2018 – thanks for listening!

A World-Conscious Sociology of Religion?

A Response to James Spickard on “Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes”

by Jonathan Tuckett

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Studying “Non-Ordinary Realities”: A Roundtable Discussion

Bettina Schmidt and David Wilson organised a series of panels at the 2014 BASR Conference in Milton Keynes on the topic of “Studying Non-Ordinary Realities”, as part of the conference’s “Cutting Edge” sub-theme. We managed to make time to get Bettina and David, along with panel participants Fiona Bowie and RSP editor Jonathan Tuckett, to sit down to record a session with David Robertson (here, and part 2 here).

Bettina begins by outlining the aims and scope of the sessions, in which they hoped to bring together anthropologists, ethnographers and Religious Studies scholars with many different methodologies for looking at encounters with the non-ordinary. Fiona Bowie outlines her methodology for these kinds of studies, empathetic engagement, in which issues of ontological truth are set aside, but not ‘explained away’. She argues that such experiences may be at the root of “religious experience”, and are thus vital to the field. Davids Wilson and Robertson discuss whether the transformative nature of these experiences is epistemological at core. Remembering our critical approach, however, Jonathan challenges the emerging consensus that different methodologies require different epistemological postulates to be made sense of. It gets fairly heated.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make, whether it is religious studies related or not. Remember, the holidays are coming…

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.

Religious Education

For those of us in Britain the question of Religious Education has become an ever-increasing issue of concern. Just last October Ofsted, the regulatory board for all education at school level, reported that over half the schools in Britain were failing to provide students with adequate RE. In the wake of this calls were made for clearer standardisation of the subject and a “national benchmark”. The deterioration of RE is perhaps not all that surprising after it was excluded from the English Baccalaureate in 2011. But the call for improvement raises with it a number of questions. First and foremost, just what exactly should RE entail? Should RE be teaching about religion or teaching religion? Who, even, should be RE teachers? PGCE (teacher training) courses in RE accept candidates with degrees in Religious Studies, Theology, Philosophy or indeed any other topic so long as they can, in the words of one program, show “demonstrable knowledge of the study of religion”. But does a theologian or a philosopher have the same skill sets as an RS scholar? To be sure, they may know the facts of a particular religion but are the facts enough for a satisfactory education? Just what is exactly is it we are teaching students to do in RE classrooms?

In this interview, Jonathan Tuckett speaks with Tim Jensen to try to answer some of these questions and more. Not only has Jensen spoken widely on the topic of RE he has recently headed the EASR working group in Religious Education which has studied the status of RE in Denmark, Sweden and Norway highlighting that the question of RE is of particular concern to any secular state.

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

The Problem with Myth

One of the things that has become persistently clear to me throughout my PhD work is that we have to be pedantic about our terminology. The vast majority of our technical terms are used “out there” by people in their everyday lives. But how “they” use a word and how “we” use it can often be markedly different. In fact, how “we” use a word is an overgeneralisation that assumes “we” all use the word in the same way. So as interesting as Paul-François Tremlett’s introduction to the work of Levi-Strauss was, one thing persistently bugged me throughout the interview: what is a myth?

“Myth” is a fairly common occurrence throughout the interview and not once is it defined. Is the meaning of myth so obvious that all the listeners know what it means? Perhaps it might be, perhaps the meaning of myth is self-evident to all who hear the word. But I wonder, while it might be self-evident to many, if pressed on the matter and forced into giving verbal expression would they all say the same thing? Perhaps not:

  • Mircea Eliade:

Every myth shows how a reality came into existence, whether it be the total reality, the cosmos, or only a fragment – an island, a species of plant, a human institution … [it] becomes the paradigmatic model for all human activities’(1957[1987]:97-98).

  • Ninian Smart:

A story which forms the identity of an individual, his/her fellows, and/or the cosmos in which they inhabit (Smart, 1981:26).

  • Alan Dundes:

A myth is a sacred narrative explaining how the world and man came to be in their present form … The critical adjective sacred distinguishes myth from other forms of narrative such as folktales, which are ordinarily secular and fictional (Dundes, 1984:1).

  • David Leeming:

the expression of a social ethos’ or the ‘basic assumptions that define a person, a family, or a culture – with the informing reality that resides at the centre of being (Leeming, 1990:4).

  • William Hansen:

a traditional oral story of alleged historicity (Hansen, 2002:2-5).

  • Joseph Nagy:

a collectively shared story about supernaturally powerful beings whose adventures and interactions are set in some primeval time before the “historical time” of legend (2002:125)

  • Finally, Levi-Strauss:

a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (1955[1993]:229)

This is to mention but a handful of the various definitions of “myth” and what should be obvious is that they do not all cohere. Hansen and Nagy, for example, in speaking of “primeval time” and “alleged historicity” understand myth as something inherently false. A definition which many argue corresponds to myth’s everyday use: e.g. ‘in ordinary English to say ‘It’s a myth” is just a way of saying “It’s false”’ (Smart, 1969:18). Further, Eliade, Dundes and Nagy confine themselves to an understanding of myth that indicates that it can only occur within religions. But for both Eliade and Dundes the extent to which we apply myth is dependent on a definition of religion which in both cases relies on a definition of “sacred” (and its dichotomous “secular”). And as Bascom points out in Dundes’ volume, the distinction between the sacred and the secular is a fairly messy matter (Bascom, 1984:12). Indeed, could we not then include Evolution and Big Bang as myths? Both explain how the world and man came to be in their present form. Such is certainly possible in the case of Smart, Leeming, and Levi-Strauss. The latter in particular put the point quite vividly: ‘the kind of logic in mythical thought is as rigorous as that of modern science, and […] the difference lies, not in the quality of the intellectual process, but in the nature of things to which it is applied’ (Levi-Strauss, 1993:230). All that is perhaps consistent across these definitions and more is that myth is a kind of story.

What is interesting about this latter problem – that myth can be applied to religious and non-religious things alike – is that it nevertheless reduces to the former problem of the implied falsity of a myth. But perhaps more vividly than the former problem it gives us good reason not to use “myth” within our scholarly language. Take the following point from Tremlett’s extremely useful introduction to the work of Levi-Strauss: ‘Levi-Strauss argues that what “we” in “the West” call history is in fact myth by another name’ (Tremlett, 2008:56). Conversely, what we call myth is also history. But if so, what difference is there in calling a story myth or history? If Evolution can be called both history and myth what differs between each usage? It is, I suggest, the fact that when we speak, for example, of the Evolution myth we think of something that is false-prone and when we speak of the Evolution theory (here a synonym for history) we think of it as true-prone. The question of which is used depends on who is speaking. Smart points out that an anthology of mythology is unlikely to include the stories of Jesus’ life, death, and rebirth: ‘This is a leftover from Christian (and Jewish and Muslim, be it said) tendencies to treat their own stories as true and historical and other people’s stories as unhistorical and untrue’ (Smart, 1996:130). While Christian stories may well find themselves included in anthologies these days, the point to be taken from this is that for the Christian these stories are true and not regarded as myth. No one, I hazard, thinks of their own stories as myths.

Fitness-Myths

Stealing some terminology from Smart’s “Interpretation and Mystical Experience” (1965[2009]) and applying them to Schutz’s discussion in “Equality and the Meaning Structure of the World” (1957[1964]) I suggest the following: to call something a “myth” is to engage in a particular way of hetero-interpreting the stories of others. Schutz makes a distinction between subjective and objective interpreting. All subjective interpreting is meaning constituted in terms of “Me” or “Us” and all objective interpreting is meaning constituted in terms of “Him/Her” or “Them” (Schutz, 1964:251-257). I replace “subjective” and “objective” here with Smart’s terminology of auto-interpreting and hetero-interpreting. The reason for this is because Schutz accepts that objective interpreting is nevertheless subjective in that it is performed in the “Here and Now”, an idea expounded earlier in “On Multiple Realities” (1945[1962b]). That is, all subjective interpretations are those interpretations which are framed in terms of the “Here and Now” that I occupy. By auto-interpreting I conceive whatever is being interpreted as within my “Here”. Thus my “Here” may extend to a number of fellows (my in-group) when I speak in terms of “We/Us”. By hetero-interpreting something I conceive it as not within my “Here”. Anything that is not “Here” is “There”. But this “There” of the out-group is understood in terms of my “Here”. Underwritten in any positive definition of “Them” is the implied “I/We are not Them”.

Both the in-group and the out-group have their own stories. When auto-interpreting the stories of our in-group we conceive these stories as history (true-prone) because to do otherwise would be to call into question the “Here and Now” we occupy. When it comes to hetero-interpreting the stories of the out-group we can conceive them as either history or myth. The most common reason for calling these hetero-interpreted stories myths is because they contradict the stories that have been auto-interpreted as history. E.g. if Evolution is part of our history, Creation becomes a myth. If the two stories are contradictory and the former has been accepted then the latter must be denied. Insofar as the stories of the out-group do not contradict the stories of the in-group they may be hetero-interpreted as history. The in-group might be quite happy to accept the out-group’s story of a bloke called Jesus who went around preaching. The example of the “Historical Jesus” also indicates the complexity involved in some hetero-interpretations as while there may be universal agreement that Jesus was baptised by St. John and was crucified by Pontius Pilate, other elements of the story of Jesus may still be regarded as myth. The point to be taken is that hetero-interpreting can conclude that stories are history or myth but the same cannot be said of auto-interpreting. If the in-group auto-interprets a story as myth this begs the question of against what this story is being compared to. What happens in moments of “mythicisation” – when history becomes myth – is not auto-interpreting but rather partitioning whereby the in-group is divided into a new in-group and out-group. Such an example would be the inclusion of Christian stories in anthologies of myth. What occurs here is not that the story is auto-interpreted as myth, but rather the stories are removed from the “Here and Now”. This partitioning is affected by shifting the stories “There” if some members of the group try to retain them as history and/or “Then” if the distinction is one between contemporaries and predecessors.

Based on this sketchy argument the point to be emphasised is that even if we accept Levi-Strauss’ line that what “we” call history is really myth by another name it nevertheless does not escape the fact that to call a story myth is to render it false. The critical issue for scholars of religion is how, then, to use “myth”. Can we call a story a myth if the members of that group who tell it do not regard the story in question a myth? Surely to do so would be to treat them as an out-group and in calling those stories myth imply their falsity, and thereby imply the stupidity of the out-group for taking them to be true. The problem here is not in treating them as an out-group. It would be quite unproblematic to speak in terms of myth if we are studying the out-group’s responses to the stories of another out-group. But this involves objective interpretation: interpreting, that Schutz suggests in “Common-sense and Scientific Interpretation” (1953[1962a]), involves no “Here”. Properly speaking the “Here and Now” is never lost, rather the objective interpreter attempts to reconstruct the “Here and Now” of the out-group. The question is whether as scholars of religion we engage in this objective interpretation, or engage in subjective interpretation establishing our own new “Here and Now”, or continue to uphold the wider “Here and Now” of some in-group. The problem of myth is not the term in itself but rather the sort of “Here and Now” from which it is deployed. The recognition of Levi-Strauss and others that myth is no different from history contains within it a call to further reflexivity about the “Here and Now” of we scholars of religion.

References

  • Bascom, W. (1984); “The Forms of Folklore: The Prose Narrative” in Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth; University of California Press, London; pg.5-29
  • Dundes, A. (ed.) (1984); Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth; University of California Press, London
  • Hansen, W. (2002); The Handbook of Classical Mythology; ABC-CLIO, California
  • Leeming, D. (1990); The World of Mythology; Oxford University Press, Oxford
  • Levi-Strauss (1993); “The Structural Study of Myth” in Structural Anthropology vol.1; trans. by C. Jocobson and B. Schoepf; Penguin, Harmondsworth; pg.206-231
  • Nagy, J. (2002); “Myth and Legendum in Medieval and Modern Ireland” in Myth: a New Symposium; ed. by G. Schrempp & W. Hansen; Indian University Press, Bloomington; pg.124-138
  • Schutz, A. (1962a); “Common-sense and Scientific Interpretation of Human Action” in Collected Papers I: The Problem of Social Reality; ed. by M. Natanson; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg.3-47
  • Schutz, A. (1962b); “On Multiple Realities” in Collected Papers I: The Problem of Social Reality; ed. by M. Natanson; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg. 207-259
  • Schutz, A. (1964); “Equality and the Meaning Structure of the Social World” in Collected Papers II: Studies in Social Theory; ed. by A. Brodersen; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg.226-268
  • Smart, N. (1969); The Religious Experience of Mankind; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (1981); Beyond Ideology; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (1996); Dimensions of the Sacred; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (2009); “Interpretation and Mystical Experience” in Ninian Smart on World Religions vol.1: Religious Experience and Philosophical Analysis; ed. by J. Shepherd; Ashgate, Farnham; pg.53-62
  • Tremlett, P.F. (2008); Levi-Strauss on Religion: The Structuring Mind; Equinox, London

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.

Book Reviews

When we were contacted earlier this year by a couple of publishers asking if we’d be interested in reviewing books, we immediately thought “Yes – but how?” We’re not a journal, and didn’t want to do the traditional journal review, but we do love books, and especially talking about them. So when Chris suggested we could combine several reviews into a roundtable format, we thought we had to give it a try.

For this first try at a new format, we thought it best to invite a few trusty friends. After many attempts, we finally managed to get David Wilson to a recording. He reviewed Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief, edited by Marion Bowman and Ülo Valk (2012: Equinox). He calls it “a valuable contribution to the task of increasing scholarly awareness of the need to attend to the variety of local practices that are accepted as ‘religious’ but which have tended to be overlooked when investigating religion in terms of ‘world’ religions“. It doesn’t offer easy answers, however, and “like many of the dialogues it explores, this collection is courteously, but deliberately, disruptive“. Read his full review here.

Chris reviewed Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present, edited by David Goodhew. The book purports to ‘provide a forceful critique of the notion of secularization’ “by focusing upon the attendance and membership of Christian churches – the very thing which formed the empirical basis of the secularization thesis“. While he has issues with the volume’s theological imperative and uncritical acceptance of the secularisation thesis, Chris pointed out that it demonstrates “the potential for scholarly theories to, in some cases,  become self-fulfilling prophesies when released into the real world“. You can read his full review here.

Jonathan – philosophical as always – asked to review  Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality: Testing Religious Truth-claims by R. Scott Smith (Ashgate 2012). He was less than impressed. As an introduction to naturalism, the philosophical position that there are no non-empirical entities, it is unsatisfactory, because it is “a thinly veiled Christian apologetic dressed in a philosophical discussion about naturalism”. His full review can be read here.

Finally, I reviewed Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox, 2012). It is essentially an introduction to critical theory (a “socio-functional” approach which seeks to expose the assumptions which a given group takes for granted) as applied to the study of religion, and aimed at an undergraduate level. “Religion” is a powerful tool in the naturalisation of socio-epistemological norms, of course, but the book is most interesting pedagogically, in offering “a potential alternative Introduction to Religious Studies course than the “here are the world religions” approach that concerns many of us”You can read my review here.

This has been enjoyable, but a lot of work. Please let us know if you found it useful and/or entertaining. We’re open to hearing about other books you’d like us to review, or if you’d like to take part in a future recording (for example, at the next BASR conference…). And we are enormously grateful to Ashgate and Equinox for providing us with books to review.

Rudolf Otto

Rudolf Otto was a highly influential figure in the history of Religious Studies, but whether that influence was for good or not is a debatable issue. His ideas about the sui generis nature of the religious experience and of an irreductible numinous or sacred foreshadow the work of scholars such as Eliade, but proved highly divisive for scholars and practitioners alike.

In this interview with Jonathan, Robert Orsi talks us through who Otto was, and why his ideas proved controversial. They then discuss whether scholars should still be paying attention to Otto – do his ideas still matter today?

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

Robert Orsi is the first holder of the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies. Before coming to Northwestern, he taught at Fordham University at Lincoln Center from 1981 to 1988; Indiana University from 1988 to 2001; and Harvard Divinity School and Harvard University from 2001 to 2007, where he was Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (2003-2007). In 2002-2003, he was president of the American Academy of Religion. Professor Orsi studies America religious history and contemporary practice; American Catholicism in both historical and ethnographic perspective; and he is widely recognized also for his work on theory and method for the study of religion.

In 2004 Robert Orsi published Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them which received an Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion from the American Academy of Religion and was one of Choice’s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2005. More recently he published The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies.

The Sacred

Religion and the Sacred, the Sacred and religion. Two words that seemingly go together like hand in glove but just how accurate is that? When we talk about religion it’s very hard not to talk about the Sacred but when we talk about the Sacred does this mean we have to talk about religion? What does the Sacred even mean? This introduction began with “Sacred” but it may well be more appropriate to write “sacred”. Whether capitalised or not, the sacred is a predominant topic in many forms of discourse and not all these are necessarily religious in nature.

This week we discuss the sacred and all its connotations with Gordon Lynch. The sacred is not, it seems, just a religion-only category and many aspects of modern secular societies are pervaded with such a notion. But if the sacred isn’t a religion only category where does that leave religion? Should there be departments of Religious Studies at all, or should we be replacing them with Sacred Studies? We discuss the potentially far reaching implications that a shift in focus from Religion to the Sacred can have on academia.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on Secular Sacreds and the Sacred Secular.

Gordon Lynch is the Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent where he teaches on the sacred in modern Western Society. Professor Lynch has published a number of works including an edited volume with Jolyon Mitchell and has recently published two books on the sacred, The Sacred in the Modern World and On the Sacred. If you’d like to know more about Professor Lynch’s work on the sacred you can find out more information on his blog as well as access some of his own learning resources.

 

Digital Religion

Second Life, World of Warcraft, over the past few years the internet has seen an explosion of activity in virtual realms. People have taken to creating digital avatars whether its to join in epic fantasy battles or simply to meet other people. And where you find people meeting you’re bound to find religion in the mix. Unlike chatrooms and blog posts where people simply write out their ideas and discuss their beliefs these digital worlds offer a whole new way in which to act out and practice religious beliefs. From meditation sessions, church congregations, to memorial services the range of activities not only matches what can be found in the real world but can exceed it also. The Digital realm opens up a whole new range of possibilities for a person to be religious.

For many of us in the study of religions this may seem like a daunting task. The digital realm is a dark continent in which the standard practices of methodology and theory find themselves tested by a whole new landscape. To introduce us to the vast array of topics Tim Hutchings provides us with an introductory discussion into the world of digital religion. We discuss the ways in which religion is finding itself in the digital realm and how this new format of expression differs from its real world iterations. The digital realm poses a number of interesting challenges to the questions of religious authority and orthodoxy in ways not visible/possible in the real world. Finally we tackle some of the issues that we as researchers must face when we try and study digital religion like the methods of data collection and ethics involved in studying digital avatars.

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

Tim Hutchings recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the HUMlab digital humanities centre in Umeå, Sweden and has now returned to the UK to join the CODEC research initiative at St John’s College, Durham. Tim is currently working with CODEC to develop a series of digital art exhibitions and installations in response to the Lindisfarne Gospels. His PhD thesis (Durham University, 2010) was an ethnographic study of five online Christian churches, focusing on the relationship between online and offline religion. Research interests include e-vangelism, online Christian storytelling, the future of the Bible as a digital sacred text and the role of new media in death and mourning. Tim has also written for us before responding to Callum Brown, you can find his article which also discusses Digital Religion here.

Roundtable: Building an Academic Career

Jonathan, Chris, Kevin, Carole and the back of Louise’s head…

David was taking the photos this time

During her recent trip to the UK, the Religious Studies Project managed (with the promise of copious Pink Gin) to persuade Professor Carole Cusack to take part in a roundtable discussion. She suggested that we discuss how to build an academic career – advice which she has been generous with to many people in the past. That having been agreed, we rounded up a few of our regular discussants – and, for the first time, Louise Connelly, our hitherto silent third partner – in the imposing setting of the University of Edinburgh’s Rainy Hall. We think we managed to produce something which should be of at least some use to any aspiring academic in the social sciences… we’d love to hear if you think so too!

David: “Don’t wait to be given permission… if it is interesting, it will work!”

In these financially hard times, the role of the academic is changing; the reasons for people going to university are changing; and universities are constantly changing the configuration of their departments. Topics covered in this discussion include:

  • the importance of publication, and the relative merits of different publications;
  • getting teaching experience;
  • services to the discipline and the community
  • conferences and networking (Chris Cotter, of course)
  • what to put in your CV
  • how to keep up-to-date with your field
  • and much more…

It is worth mentioning, of course, that this is all just advice and should be taken as such. The experience of others may be entirely different and we cannot, of course, be held responsible for any unforeseen consequences of following the advice contained herein.

Carole: “One of the tragedies of academic work is that it sees no audience […] if [theses] only see an audience of two or three examiners they are essentially exercises in waste.”

Links mentioned in the podcast (likely not comprehensive):

Carole: “You can’t double-dip: [if] you put something into research [on your CV], it doesn’t go somewhere else”

 

Participants:

“Roundtable Regular” Kevin Whitesides completed his B.A. in Religious Studies at Humboldt State University. He has recently completed an MSc dissertation at the University of Edinburgh on ’2012′ millennialism as part of a broader emphasis on countercultural transmission. Kevin has contributed articles to ‘Archaeoastronomy’ and ‘Zeitschrift fur Anomalistik’, has contributed chapters for two anthologies on apocalypse and prophecy, and has presented widely on the ’2012′ milieu at academic conferences and universities.


What is Phenomenology? 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. Forthcoming 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 (2012). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.


Carole M. Cusack (Associate Professor in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney) trained as a medievalist and her doctorate was published as Conversion Among the Germanic Peoples (Cassell, 1998). Since the late 1990s she has taught in contemporary religious trends, publishing on pilgrimage and tourism, modern Pagan religions, new religious movements, the interface between religion and politics, and religion and popular culture. She is the author of The Essence of Buddhism (Lansdowne, 2001), Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, 2010), and The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), 2011. She has published in a number of edited volumes, and is the editor (with Christopher Hartney) of Religion and Retributive Logic: Essays in Honour of Garry W. Trompf (Brill, 2010). With Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney) she is editor of the Journal of Religious History (Wiley) and with Liselotte Frisk (Dalarna University) she is editor of the International Journal for the Study of New Religions (Equinox). She serves on the Editorial Boards of the journal Literature & Aesthetics, and of the Sophia Monograph Series (Springer).


Christopher R. Cotter recently 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’. He is currently taking a year out from study to present at conferences, complete various writing projects, and work on projects such as this. His PhD research at Lancaster University (commencing October 2012) will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.


L Connelly ImageLouise Connelly, Ph.D., currently works as an Online Learning Advisor for the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh. She also teaches short-courses in Hinduism and Buddhism through the Office of Lifelong Learning at the University of Edinburgh. Her Ph.D. thesis is titled “Aspects of the Self: An analysis of self reflection, self presentation and the experiential self within selected Buddhist blogs” (University of Edinburgh). Her research interests include early Buddhism, visual culture, the use of social media, and Buddhist ritual and identity in the online world of Second Life. Her recent publications include ‘Virtual Buddhism: An analysis of aesthetics in relation to religious practice within Second Life’, Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet (2010); ‘Virtual Buddhism: Buddhist ritual in Second Life’ in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, Campbell (ed.) (2012); and Campbell and Connelly, ‘Religion and the Internet’ in the Encylopedia of Cyber Behavior,  Zang (ed.) (2012). See her personal blog or website for a full CV.


“Thanks for Listening”

It was somewhat fitting that this roundtable ends with these sage words from Mr Whitesides. We were very privileged to enjoy Kevin’s company during his eventful year in Edinburgh, and look forward to welcoming him back to the Religious Studies Project in the future. We hope you shall join us in wishing him the best for the coming months back at his home in California.

In the picture below, Dr Steven Sutcliffe, Dr Arkotong Longkumer, David Robertson and Kevin himself made some music at a recent University of Edinburgh event. We won’t embarrass them by putting up the video though…

Roundtable: Critics or Caretakers?

Anna, Ting, and the bear…

Here we are with yet another roundtable for you, following on from our epic compilation episode where world-famous academics answered the question, ‘Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?’ This discussion brings together a number of aspiring academics to reflect on some of the issues brought up in that podcast in a friendly and hilarious manner. The question cuts to the core of what academics who study religion are doing… are they taking care of religion? Are they antagonising it? What should they be doing? And judging by the various long tangents through which discussion meanders, the question certainly sparked our interest.

The participants were Katie Aston, Anna Clot i Garrell, Christopher Cotter, Ting Guo, Ethan Quillen, David Robertson and Jonathan Tuckett (biographical statements below). All of us had listened to the bulk of the podcast mentioned above… BUT none of us had yet heard Russell McCutcheon’s response to it (so, apologies that we probably fall afoul of his excellent critique).

If you are new to the podcast – this is not what we usually do. If you are a regular listener – you might enjoy this, or you might not. We hope you pick the former…

Jonathan: “…every action is going to be illegal to some state, it’s just a case of which state you’re pandering to at that point”

Discussion flows through what an academic ‘caretaker’ would look like, to whether we are being caretakers of the academic discipline of Religious Studies simply by perpetuating the discussion of religion. We discuss the nature of the ‘sacred’, the idea of ‘critical religion’, and get in to talking about ‘cultural Christians’, the ‘spiritual but not religious’ and the age-old problem of defining religion… and the newer but semantically parasitic problem of defining ‘nonreligion’.

We debate and attempt to answer such questions as:

  • If our research uncovers material which is relevant to the real world… make sure that people know? Should we be public intellectuals?
  • Should we just tell the truth no matter what the consequence?
  • Does this discussion depend on which definition of ‘religion’ we work with?
  • Where would we draw the line between being a scientific academic, and taking action against the conduct of a group we are studying?
  • Are ‘we’ in a position to judge? Would we be judging from intellectual grounds or ethical grounds?
  • Anna: What is the nature of academic criticism, as opposed to criticism in the common parlance?
  • Should we be methodologically atheist? Methodologically agnostic? Are these the same thing?

David and Anna showcase some hooded sweatshirts.

We should warn you that this is a little rough around the edges. The idea was not to present anyone with a sophisticated discussion, but to give you an idea of the vast amount of issues which a simple question can raise, and encourage others to have such discussions themselves and maybe come to different conclusions. It’s uncensored… it’s fun… we had a good time. Please don’t take anything too seriously… but try to enjoy it, to engage with us, to disagree with us, to criticise us. That’s what we’re here for. There is also a lot of discussion of paedophilia… this came up early on as a hypothetically abhorrent practice which some ‘religious’ group might engage in. As it is pretty difficult to trump this in terms of abhorrence we returned to the issue somewhat more regularly than it warranted. Suffice to say, this was most definitely a hypothetical example.

This podcast was recorded in Chris’ place of gainful employment – the University of Edinburgh Visitor Centre – and we are very grateful to them for providing the space. The participants were also all brought together by the Religion & Society Programme’s ‘Sacred Practice of Everyday Life’ conference, and we were very grateful to Linda Woodhead and the other organisers for allowing the Religious Studies Project to attend and record a number of podcasts with participants (to be released from September 2012).

Ethan: “When you define religion as a scholar, you’re essentially putting the last nail in your own coffin.”

Some choice quotations:

Ethan: “so, essentially what you’re promoting is that we all need to be defence attorneys?”

Chris: “Are we as scholars of religion by the very fact that we are scholars of religion… being caretakers?”

Katie: “Can I just clarify that I’m not a scholar of religion? Coz I’m not…”

Ethan: “That’s like saying it’s raining outside, this umbrella isn’t working, so I’ll open this canopy instead.”

And just so that we have a ‘proper’ academic involved, here is the quotation from Donald Wiebe which Chris cites in the recording as an example of the ‘critic’ side of the dichotomy:

 “Just as the knowledge produced in the humanities and by social scientists may bear on human problems and public concerns, so also the knowledge produced by students of religion may bear the same relationship to such issues. In this regard, however, it is important to note: first, that the “linkage” between the knowledge produced and the problems resolved is “external,” that is, it is of the same order, so to speak, as that between the natural sciences and engineering; second, that even though religious studies research may be relevant in that fashion, working out the policy/resolution implications of that knowledge is not the task of the student of religion. To take on that assignment is the task of policy makers, politicians, therapists, conflict managers, and other “public intellectuals.” And it is important, I think, that the scientific character of the study of religion not be compromised in any way by bringing such tasks in to the purview of Religious Studies”

Wiebe, Donald 2008. ‘The Scientific Study of Religion and Its Cultured Despisers’ in Willi Braun and Russell McCutcheon (eds.), Introducing Religion: Essays in Honor of Jonathan Z. Smith. London: Equinox, p. 477.

The Participants:


Having completed a BA (hons) in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 2006, Katie Aston went on to complete her Masters in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths University, with a dissertation investigating gender performance within contemporary Stand Up comedy in London. Building on a pilot study of the Atheist Bus Campaign,  she is currently undertaking an ethnographic study of non-religious value construction and material cultures. She is looking specifically at rationalism and the role Christian heritage within non-religious individuals and organisation, taking a historical perspective from the freethought archives of Bishopsgate Institute. Katie is an Assistant Editor at NSRN Online, the web presence of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network.


Anna Clot i Garrell is currently a PhD candidate in the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). She received her degree in Sociology from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in 2010. In 2009, she became part of the research group ISOR (Investigations in Sociology of Religion) directed by Dr. Joan Estruch, collaborating in the research project Evangelical Churches in Barcelona: doctrinal heterogeneity, immigration and evangelization strategies directed by Dra Maria del Mar Griera. In 2011, she completed a Master of Arts in Religious Studies at Lancaster University and was awarded with the Ninian Smart prize for the best dissertation in Religious Studies for the dissertation Exploring New Religious Expressions in Catalunya supervised by Dr. Andrew Dawson. She is interested in the transformations of religion and the emergence of novel expressions of religiosity in the secular sphere and traditional religious contexts.


Christopher R. Cotter recently 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’. He is currently taking a year out from study to present at conferences, complete various writing projects, and work on projects such as this. His PhD research at Lancaster University (commencing October 2012) will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Deputy Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.


Ting Guo is a PhD candidate in religious studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her thesis is on the philosophy of artificial intelligence and how that might contribute to understanding the meaning of spirituality and who and what we are in the Information Age. She is also interested in the religious landscape in East and Southeast Asia, in particular the phenomenon of “underground church” in China, the notion of neo-colonialism, and Chinese diaspora in Britain.


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. Forthcoming 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 (2012). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.


What is Phenomenology? for the Religious Studies Project, as well as recording a number of interviews.

Religion as Vestigial States

We’ve been talking about Religion for some time now but perhaps the one question we haven’t begun to get to grips with is, what is religion? Recently we interviewed Tim Fitzgerald who already set us on the road to deconstructing the term religion. This week we speak to another member of the Critical Religions group, Naomi Goldenberg, who presents the first of our theories on what religion is. In this interview Professor Goldenberg takes us through the idea that religions might be vestigial states. She argues that religions are formed in distinction to governmental ‘States’ and represent the last vestiges of the previous order. At the same time this is a maneuver on the part of those States to delineate spheres of power. A vestigial state is both a once and future state, that which has gone and that which hopes to be. The idea of vestigial states throws into question our normal understanding of the term religion and Professor Goldenberg draws on such notable examples as the Islamic State, the Dalai Lama, Jewish history and even present day Wicca to illustrate the point. If you would like to know more about religions as vestigial states, Professor Goldenberg has also written on the topic on the Critical Religions website.

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

Naomi Goldenberg is professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her specialisms include Psychoanalysis, Women and Religion, and Cultural Studies. Her publications include Resurrecting the Body (Crossroad Publishing, 1993), The End of God (University of Ottawa Press, 1981), and Changing the Gods (Beacon Press, 1979).

 

Podcasts

Shall we play the game?

A response to “The BASR and the Impact of Religious Studies”

By Jonathan Tuckett

Read more

Christmas Special 2017 – Scrape My Barrel!

As has now become traditional (how many times must something be repeated to become ‘tradition’? And does this make it ‘religious’?), we are delighted to end 2017 on a more light-hearted note and present our ‘Christmas’ special gameshow, with added video nonsense. This year, the game was “Scrape My Barrel” – which has absolutely no connection to the popular BBC gameshow “Call My Bluff” – and sees two teams of Religious Studies academics pitted against each other in a battle of definitions, pedantry, creativity, deception, performance and ‘wit’. Quite like any typical RS seminar room, then?

 

This year, we recorded at the BASR Annual Conference at the University of Chester back in September 2017, and we were delighted to welcome back Jonathan Tuckett to the role of host after permitting him an ill-advised sojourn to the ‘other’ side of the podium in 2016.  The teams were made up of ‘established’ RS scholars – George Chryssides, Dawn Llewellyn and Paul-François Tremlett – and ‘up-and-coming’ baristas RS scholars – Vivian Asimos, Liam Sutherland and Amy Whitehead. Each brings their own inimitable style to the table, and certainly provided an entertaining evening for conference attendees (who also double as our fabulous studio audience).

If this gets you in the festive mood, you might want to check out our back catalogue of festive specials:

You can download this podcast, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on  donations page?

Thanks to everyone at the University of Chester who facilitated the recording of this episode, to David Robertson for some excellent editing work, to our camera people, to the contestants, the studio audience, and everyone who has contributed to the RSP over the past year. We’ll be back in 2018 – thanks for listening!

A World-Conscious Sociology of Religion?

A Response to James Spickard on “Alternative Sociologies of Religion: Through Non-Western Eyes”

by Jonathan Tuckett

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Studying “Non-Ordinary Realities”: A Roundtable Discussion

Bettina Schmidt and David Wilson organised a series of panels at the 2014 BASR Conference in Milton Keynes on the topic of “Studying Non-Ordinary Realities”, as part of the conference’s “Cutting Edge” sub-theme. We managed to make time to get Bettina and David, along with panel participants Fiona Bowie and RSP editor Jonathan Tuckett, to sit down to record a session with David Robertson (here, and part 2 here).

Bettina begins by outlining the aims and scope of the sessions, in which they hoped to bring together anthropologists, ethnographers and Religious Studies scholars with many different methodologies for looking at encounters with the non-ordinary. Fiona Bowie outlines her methodology for these kinds of studies, empathetic engagement, in which issues of ontological truth are set aside, but not ‘explained away’. She argues that such experiences may be at the root of “religious experience”, and are thus vital to the field. Davids Wilson and Robertson discuss whether the transformative nature of these experiences is epistemological at core. Remembering our critical approach, however, Jonathan challenges the emerging consensus that different methodologies require different epistemological postulates to be made sense of. It gets fairly heated.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make, whether it is religious studies related or not. Remember, the holidays are coming…

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.

Religious Education

For those of us in Britain the question of Religious Education has become an ever-increasing issue of concern. Just last October Ofsted, the regulatory board for all education at school level, reported that over half the schools in Britain were failing to provide students with adequate RE. In the wake of this calls were made for clearer standardisation of the subject and a “national benchmark”. The deterioration of RE is perhaps not all that surprising after it was excluded from the English Baccalaureate in 2011. But the call for improvement raises with it a number of questions. First and foremost, just what exactly should RE entail? Should RE be teaching about religion or teaching religion? Who, even, should be RE teachers? PGCE (teacher training) courses in RE accept candidates with degrees in Religious Studies, Theology, Philosophy or indeed any other topic so long as they can, in the words of one program, show “demonstrable knowledge of the study of religion”. But does a theologian or a philosopher have the same skill sets as an RS scholar? To be sure, they may know the facts of a particular religion but are the facts enough for a satisfactory education? Just what is exactly is it we are teaching students to do in RE classrooms?

In this interview, Jonathan Tuckett speaks with Tim Jensen to try to answer some of these questions and more. Not only has Jensen spoken widely on the topic of RE he has recently headed the EASR working group in Religious Education which has studied the status of RE in Denmark, Sweden and Norway highlighting that the question of RE is of particular concern to any secular state.

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

The Problem with Myth

One of the things that has become persistently clear to me throughout my PhD work is that we have to be pedantic about our terminology. The vast majority of our technical terms are used “out there” by people in their everyday lives. But how “they” use a word and how “we” use it can often be markedly different. In fact, how “we” use a word is an overgeneralisation that assumes “we” all use the word in the same way. So as interesting as Paul-François Tremlett’s introduction to the work of Levi-Strauss was, one thing persistently bugged me throughout the interview: what is a myth?

“Myth” is a fairly common occurrence throughout the interview and not once is it defined. Is the meaning of myth so obvious that all the listeners know what it means? Perhaps it might be, perhaps the meaning of myth is self-evident to all who hear the word. But I wonder, while it might be self-evident to many, if pressed on the matter and forced into giving verbal expression would they all say the same thing? Perhaps not:

  • Mircea Eliade:

Every myth shows how a reality came into existence, whether it be the total reality, the cosmos, or only a fragment – an island, a species of plant, a human institution … [it] becomes the paradigmatic model for all human activities’(1957[1987]:97-98).

  • Ninian Smart:

A story which forms the identity of an individual, his/her fellows, and/or the cosmos in which they inhabit (Smart, 1981:26).

  • Alan Dundes:

A myth is a sacred narrative explaining how the world and man came to be in their present form … The critical adjective sacred distinguishes myth from other forms of narrative such as folktales, which are ordinarily secular and fictional (Dundes, 1984:1).

  • David Leeming:

the expression of a social ethos’ or the ‘basic assumptions that define a person, a family, or a culture – with the informing reality that resides at the centre of being (Leeming, 1990:4).

  • William Hansen:

a traditional oral story of alleged historicity (Hansen, 2002:2-5).

  • Joseph Nagy:

a collectively shared story about supernaturally powerful beings whose adventures and interactions are set in some primeval time before the “historical time” of legend (2002:125)

  • Finally, Levi-Strauss:

a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (1955[1993]:229)

This is to mention but a handful of the various definitions of “myth” and what should be obvious is that they do not all cohere. Hansen and Nagy, for example, in speaking of “primeval time” and “alleged historicity” understand myth as something inherently false. A definition which many argue corresponds to myth’s everyday use: e.g. ‘in ordinary English to say ‘It’s a myth” is just a way of saying “It’s false”’ (Smart, 1969:18). Further, Eliade, Dundes and Nagy confine themselves to an understanding of myth that indicates that it can only occur within religions. But for both Eliade and Dundes the extent to which we apply myth is dependent on a definition of religion which in both cases relies on a definition of “sacred” (and its dichotomous “secular”). And as Bascom points out in Dundes’ volume, the distinction between the sacred and the secular is a fairly messy matter (Bascom, 1984:12). Indeed, could we not then include Evolution and Big Bang as myths? Both explain how the world and man came to be in their present form. Such is certainly possible in the case of Smart, Leeming, and Levi-Strauss. The latter in particular put the point quite vividly: ‘the kind of logic in mythical thought is as rigorous as that of modern science, and […] the difference lies, not in the quality of the intellectual process, but in the nature of things to which it is applied’ (Levi-Strauss, 1993:230). All that is perhaps consistent across these definitions and more is that myth is a kind of story.

What is interesting about this latter problem – that myth can be applied to religious and non-religious things alike – is that it nevertheless reduces to the former problem of the implied falsity of a myth. But perhaps more vividly than the former problem it gives us good reason not to use “myth” within our scholarly language. Take the following point from Tremlett’s extremely useful introduction to the work of Levi-Strauss: ‘Levi-Strauss argues that what “we” in “the West” call history is in fact myth by another name’ (Tremlett, 2008:56). Conversely, what we call myth is also history. But if so, what difference is there in calling a story myth or history? If Evolution can be called both history and myth what differs between each usage? It is, I suggest, the fact that when we speak, for example, of the Evolution myth we think of something that is false-prone and when we speak of the Evolution theory (here a synonym for history) we think of it as true-prone. The question of which is used depends on who is speaking. Smart points out that an anthology of mythology is unlikely to include the stories of Jesus’ life, death, and rebirth: ‘This is a leftover from Christian (and Jewish and Muslim, be it said) tendencies to treat their own stories as true and historical and other people’s stories as unhistorical and untrue’ (Smart, 1996:130). While Christian stories may well find themselves included in anthologies these days, the point to be taken from this is that for the Christian these stories are true and not regarded as myth. No one, I hazard, thinks of their own stories as myths.

Fitness-Myths

Stealing some terminology from Smart’s “Interpretation and Mystical Experience” (1965[2009]) and applying them to Schutz’s discussion in “Equality and the Meaning Structure of the World” (1957[1964]) I suggest the following: to call something a “myth” is to engage in a particular way of hetero-interpreting the stories of others. Schutz makes a distinction between subjective and objective interpreting. All subjective interpreting is meaning constituted in terms of “Me” or “Us” and all objective interpreting is meaning constituted in terms of “Him/Her” or “Them” (Schutz, 1964:251-257). I replace “subjective” and “objective” here with Smart’s terminology of auto-interpreting and hetero-interpreting. The reason for this is because Schutz accepts that objective interpreting is nevertheless subjective in that it is performed in the “Here and Now”, an idea expounded earlier in “On Multiple Realities” (1945[1962b]). That is, all subjective interpretations are those interpretations which are framed in terms of the “Here and Now” that I occupy. By auto-interpreting I conceive whatever is being interpreted as within my “Here”. Thus my “Here” may extend to a number of fellows (my in-group) when I speak in terms of “We/Us”. By hetero-interpreting something I conceive it as not within my “Here”. Anything that is not “Here” is “There”. But this “There” of the out-group is understood in terms of my “Here”. Underwritten in any positive definition of “Them” is the implied “I/We are not Them”.

Both the in-group and the out-group have their own stories. When auto-interpreting the stories of our in-group we conceive these stories as history (true-prone) because to do otherwise would be to call into question the “Here and Now” we occupy. When it comes to hetero-interpreting the stories of the out-group we can conceive them as either history or myth. The most common reason for calling these hetero-interpreted stories myths is because they contradict the stories that have been auto-interpreted as history. E.g. if Evolution is part of our history, Creation becomes a myth. If the two stories are contradictory and the former has been accepted then the latter must be denied. Insofar as the stories of the out-group do not contradict the stories of the in-group they may be hetero-interpreted as history. The in-group might be quite happy to accept the out-group’s story of a bloke called Jesus who went around preaching. The example of the “Historical Jesus” also indicates the complexity involved in some hetero-interpretations as while there may be universal agreement that Jesus was baptised by St. John and was crucified by Pontius Pilate, other elements of the story of Jesus may still be regarded as myth. The point to be taken is that hetero-interpreting can conclude that stories are history or myth but the same cannot be said of auto-interpreting. If the in-group auto-interprets a story as myth this begs the question of against what this story is being compared to. What happens in moments of “mythicisation” – when history becomes myth – is not auto-interpreting but rather partitioning whereby the in-group is divided into a new in-group and out-group. Such an example would be the inclusion of Christian stories in anthologies of myth. What occurs here is not that the story is auto-interpreted as myth, but rather the stories are removed from the “Here and Now”. This partitioning is affected by shifting the stories “There” if some members of the group try to retain them as history and/or “Then” if the distinction is one between contemporaries and predecessors.

Based on this sketchy argument the point to be emphasised is that even if we accept Levi-Strauss’ line that what “we” call history is really myth by another name it nevertheless does not escape the fact that to call a story myth is to render it false. The critical issue for scholars of religion is how, then, to use “myth”. Can we call a story a myth if the members of that group who tell it do not regard the story in question a myth? Surely to do so would be to treat them as an out-group and in calling those stories myth imply their falsity, and thereby imply the stupidity of the out-group for taking them to be true. The problem here is not in treating them as an out-group. It would be quite unproblematic to speak in terms of myth if we are studying the out-group’s responses to the stories of another out-group. But this involves objective interpretation: interpreting, that Schutz suggests in “Common-sense and Scientific Interpretation” (1953[1962a]), involves no “Here”. Properly speaking the “Here and Now” is never lost, rather the objective interpreter attempts to reconstruct the “Here and Now” of the out-group. The question is whether as scholars of religion we engage in this objective interpretation, or engage in subjective interpretation establishing our own new “Here and Now”, or continue to uphold the wider “Here and Now” of some in-group. The problem of myth is not the term in itself but rather the sort of “Here and Now” from which it is deployed. The recognition of Levi-Strauss and others that myth is no different from history contains within it a call to further reflexivity about the “Here and Now” of we scholars of religion.

References

  • Bascom, W. (1984); “The Forms of Folklore: The Prose Narrative” in Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth; University of California Press, London; pg.5-29
  • Dundes, A. (ed.) (1984); Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth; University of California Press, London
  • Hansen, W. (2002); The Handbook of Classical Mythology; ABC-CLIO, California
  • Leeming, D. (1990); The World of Mythology; Oxford University Press, Oxford
  • Levi-Strauss (1993); “The Structural Study of Myth” in Structural Anthropology vol.1; trans. by C. Jocobson and B. Schoepf; Penguin, Harmondsworth; pg.206-231
  • Nagy, J. (2002); “Myth and Legendum in Medieval and Modern Ireland” in Myth: a New Symposium; ed. by G. Schrempp & W. Hansen; Indian University Press, Bloomington; pg.124-138
  • Schutz, A. (1962a); “Common-sense and Scientific Interpretation of Human Action” in Collected Papers I: The Problem of Social Reality; ed. by M. Natanson; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg.3-47
  • Schutz, A. (1962b); “On Multiple Realities” in Collected Papers I: The Problem of Social Reality; ed. by M. Natanson; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg. 207-259
  • Schutz, A. (1964); “Equality and the Meaning Structure of the Social World” in Collected Papers II: Studies in Social Theory; ed. by A. Brodersen; Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague; pg.226-268
  • Smart, N. (1969); The Religious Experience of Mankind; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (1981); Beyond Ideology; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (1996); Dimensions of the Sacred; Collins, London
  • Smart, N. (2009); “Interpretation and Mystical Experience” in Ninian Smart on World Religions vol.1: Religious Experience and Philosophical Analysis; ed. by J. Shepherd; Ashgate, Farnham; pg.53-62
  • Tremlett, P.F. (2008); Levi-Strauss on Religion: The Structuring Mind; Equinox, London

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.

Book Reviews

When we were contacted earlier this year by a couple of publishers asking if we’d be interested in reviewing books, we immediately thought “Yes – but how?” We’re not a journal, and didn’t want to do the traditional journal review, but we do love books, and especially talking about them. So when Chris suggested we could combine several reviews into a roundtable format, we thought we had to give it a try.

For this first try at a new format, we thought it best to invite a few trusty friends. After many attempts, we finally managed to get David Wilson to a recording. He reviewed Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief, edited by Marion Bowman and Ülo Valk (2012: Equinox). He calls it “a valuable contribution to the task of increasing scholarly awareness of the need to attend to the variety of local practices that are accepted as ‘religious’ but which have tended to be overlooked when investigating religion in terms of ‘world’ religions“. It doesn’t offer easy answers, however, and “like many of the dialogues it explores, this collection is courteously, but deliberately, disruptive“. Read his full review here.

Chris reviewed Church Growth in Britain: 1980 to the Present, edited by David Goodhew. The book purports to ‘provide a forceful critique of the notion of secularization’ “by focusing upon the attendance and membership of Christian churches – the very thing which formed the empirical basis of the secularization thesis“. While he has issues with the volume’s theological imperative and uncritical acceptance of the secularisation thesis, Chris pointed out that it demonstrates “the potential for scholarly theories to, in some cases,  become self-fulfilling prophesies when released into the real world“. You can read his full review here.

Jonathan – philosophical as always – asked to review  Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality: Testing Religious Truth-claims by R. Scott Smith (Ashgate 2012). He was less than impressed. As an introduction to naturalism, the philosophical position that there are no non-empirical entities, it is unsatisfactory, because it is “a thinly veiled Christian apologetic dressed in a philosophical discussion about naturalism”. His full review can be read here.

Finally, I reviewed Craig Martin’s A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion (Equinox, 2012). It is essentially an introduction to critical theory (a “socio-functional” approach which seeks to expose the assumptions which a given group takes for granted) as applied to the study of religion, and aimed at an undergraduate level. “Religion” is a powerful tool in the naturalisation of socio-epistemological norms, of course, but the book is most interesting pedagogically, in offering “a potential alternative Introduction to Religious Studies course than the “here are the world religions” approach that concerns many of us”You can read my review here.

This has been enjoyable, but a lot of work. Please let us know if you found it useful and/or entertaining. We’re open to hearing about other books you’d like us to review, or if you’d like to take part in a future recording (for example, at the next BASR conference…). And we are enormously grateful to Ashgate and Equinox for providing us with books to review.

Rudolf Otto

Rudolf Otto was a highly influential figure in the history of Religious Studies, but whether that influence was for good or not is a debatable issue. His ideas about the sui generis nature of the religious experience and of an irreductible numinous or sacred foreshadow the work of scholars such as Eliade, but proved highly divisive for scholars and practitioners alike.

In this interview with Jonathan, Robert Orsi talks us through who Otto was, and why his ideas proved controversial. They then discuss whether scholars should still be paying attention to Otto – do his ideas still matter today?

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

Robert Orsi is the first holder of the Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies. Before coming to Northwestern, he taught at Fordham University at Lincoln Center from 1981 to 1988; Indiana University from 1988 to 2001; and Harvard Divinity School and Harvard University from 2001 to 2007, where he was Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (2003-2007). In 2002-2003, he was president of the American Academy of Religion. Professor Orsi studies America religious history and contemporary practice; American Catholicism in both historical and ethnographic perspective; and he is widely recognized also for his work on theory and method for the study of religion.

In 2004 Robert Orsi published Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them which received an Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion from the American Academy of Religion and was one of Choice’s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2005. More recently he published The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies.

The Sacred

Religion and the Sacred, the Sacred and religion. Two words that seemingly go together like hand in glove but just how accurate is that? When we talk about religion it’s very hard not to talk about the Sacred but when we talk about the Sacred does this mean we have to talk about religion? What does the Sacred even mean? This introduction began with “Sacred” but it may well be more appropriate to write “sacred”. Whether capitalised or not, the sacred is a predominant topic in many forms of discourse and not all these are necessarily religious in nature.

This week we discuss the sacred and all its connotations with Gordon Lynch. The sacred is not, it seems, just a religion-only category and many aspects of modern secular societies are pervaded with such a notion. But if the sacred isn’t a religion only category where does that leave religion? Should there be departments of Religious Studies at all, or should we be replacing them with Sacred Studies? We discuss the potentially far reaching implications that a shift in focus from Religion to the Sacred can have on academia.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on Secular Sacreds and the Sacred Secular.

Gordon Lynch is the Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent where he teaches on the sacred in modern Western Society. Professor Lynch has published a number of works including an edited volume with Jolyon Mitchell and has recently published two books on the sacred, The Sacred in the Modern World and On the Sacred. If you’d like to know more about Professor Lynch’s work on the sacred you can find out more information on his blog as well as access some of his own learning resources.

 

Digital Religion

Second Life, World of Warcraft, over the past few years the internet has seen an explosion of activity in virtual realms. People have taken to creating digital avatars whether its to join in epic fantasy battles or simply to meet other people. And where you find people meeting you’re bound to find religion in the mix. Unlike chatrooms and blog posts where people simply write out their ideas and discuss their beliefs these digital worlds offer a whole new way in which to act out and practice religious beliefs. From meditation sessions, church congregations, to memorial services the range of activities not only matches what can be found in the real world but can exceed it also. The Digital realm opens up a whole new range of possibilities for a person to be religious.

For many of us in the study of religions this may seem like a daunting task. The digital realm is a dark continent in which the standard practices of methodology and theory find themselves tested by a whole new landscape. To introduce us to the vast array of topics Tim Hutchings provides us with an introductory discussion into the world of digital religion. We discuss the ways in which religion is finding itself in the digital realm and how this new format of expression differs from its real world iterations. The digital realm poses a number of interesting challenges to the questions of religious authority and orthodoxy in ways not visible/possible in the real world. Finally we tackle some of the issues that we as researchers must face when we try and study digital religion like the methods of data collection and ethics involved in studying digital avatars.

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

Tim Hutchings recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the HUMlab digital humanities centre in Umeå, Sweden and has now returned to the UK to join the CODEC research initiative at St John’s College, Durham. Tim is currently working with CODEC to develop a series of digital art exhibitions and installations in response to the Lindisfarne Gospels. His PhD thesis (Durham University, 2010) was an ethnographic study of five online Christian churches, focusing on the relationship between online and offline religion. Research interests include e-vangelism, online Christian storytelling, the future of the Bible as a digital sacred text and the role of new media in death and mourning. Tim has also written for us before responding to Callum Brown, you can find his article which also discusses Digital Religion here.

Roundtable: Building an Academic Career

Jonathan, Chris, Kevin, Carole and the back of Louise’s head…

David was taking the photos this time

During her recent trip to the UK, the Religious Studies Project managed (with the promise of copious Pink Gin) to persuade Professor Carole Cusack to take part in a roundtable discussion. She suggested that we discuss how to build an academic career – advice which she has been generous with to many people in the past. That having been agreed, we rounded up a few of our regular discussants – and, for the first time, Louise Connelly, our hitherto silent third partner – in the imposing setting of the University of Edinburgh’s Rainy Hall. We think we managed to produce something which should be of at least some use to any aspiring academic in the social sciences… we’d love to hear if you think so too!

David: “Don’t wait to be given permission… if it is interesting, it will work!”

In these financially hard times, the role of the academic is changing; the reasons for people going to university are changing; and universities are constantly changing the configuration of their departments. Topics covered in this discussion include:

  • the importance of publication, and the relative merits of different publications;
  • getting teaching experience;
  • services to the discipline and the community
  • conferences and networking (Chris Cotter, of course)
  • what to put in your CV
  • how to keep up-to-date with your field
  • and much more…

It is worth mentioning, of course, that this is all just advice and should be taken as such. The experience of others may be entirely different and we cannot, of course, be held responsible for any unforeseen consequences of following the advice contained herein.

Carole: “One of the tragedies of academic work is that it sees no audience […] if [theses] only see an audience of two or three examiners they are essentially exercises in waste.”

Links mentioned in the podcast (likely not comprehensive):

Carole: “You can’t double-dip: [if] you put something into research [on your CV], it doesn’t go somewhere else”

 

Participants:

“Roundtable Regular” Kevin Whitesides completed his B.A. in Religious Studies at Humboldt State University. He has recently completed an MSc dissertation at the University of Edinburgh on ’2012′ millennialism as part of a broader emphasis on countercultural transmission. Kevin has contributed articles to ‘Archaeoastronomy’ and ‘Zeitschrift fur Anomalistik’, has contributed chapters for two anthologies on apocalypse and prophecy, and has presented widely on the ’2012′ milieu at academic conferences and universities.


What is Phenomenology? 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. Forthcoming 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 (2012). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.


Carole M. Cusack (Associate Professor in Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney) trained as a medievalist and her doctorate was published as Conversion Among the Germanic Peoples (Cassell, 1998). Since the late 1990s she has taught in contemporary religious trends, publishing on pilgrimage and tourism, modern Pagan religions, new religious movements, the interface between religion and politics, and religion and popular culture. She is the author of The Essence of Buddhism (Lansdowne, 2001), Invented Religions: Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate, 2010), and The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations (Cambridge Scholars Publishing), 2011. She has published in a number of edited volumes, and is the editor (with Christopher Hartney) of Religion and Retributive Logic: Essays in Honour of Garry W. Trompf (Brill, 2010). With Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney) she is editor of the Journal of Religious History (Wiley) and with Liselotte Frisk (Dalarna University) she is editor of the International Journal for the Study of New Religions (Equinox). She serves on the Editorial Boards of the journal Literature & Aesthetics, and of the Sophia Monograph Series (Springer).


Christopher R. Cotter recently 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’. He is currently taking a year out from study to present at conferences, complete various writing projects, and work on projects such as this. His PhD research at Lancaster University (commencing October 2012) will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.


L Connelly ImageLouise Connelly, Ph.D., currently works as an Online Learning Advisor for the Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh. She also teaches short-courses in Hinduism and Buddhism through the Office of Lifelong Learning at the University of Edinburgh. Her Ph.D. thesis is titled “Aspects of the Self: An analysis of self reflection, self presentation and the experiential self within selected Buddhist blogs” (University of Edinburgh). Her research interests include early Buddhism, visual culture, the use of social media, and Buddhist ritual and identity in the online world of Second Life. Her recent publications include ‘Virtual Buddhism: An analysis of aesthetics in relation to religious practice within Second Life’, Heidelberg Journal of Religions on the Internet (2010); ‘Virtual Buddhism: Buddhist ritual in Second Life’ in Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds, Campbell (ed.) (2012); and Campbell and Connelly, ‘Religion and the Internet’ in the Encylopedia of Cyber Behavior,  Zang (ed.) (2012). See her personal blog or website for a full CV.


“Thanks for Listening”

It was somewhat fitting that this roundtable ends with these sage words from Mr Whitesides. We were very privileged to enjoy Kevin’s company during his eventful year in Edinburgh, and look forward to welcoming him back to the Religious Studies Project in the future. We hope you shall join us in wishing him the best for the coming months back at his home in California.

In the picture below, Dr Steven Sutcliffe, Dr Arkotong Longkumer, David Robertson and Kevin himself made some music at a recent University of Edinburgh event. We won’t embarrass them by putting up the video though…

Roundtable: Critics or Caretakers?

Anna, Ting, and the bear…

Here we are with yet another roundtable for you, following on from our epic compilation episode where world-famous academics answered the question, ‘Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?’ This discussion brings together a number of aspiring academics to reflect on some of the issues brought up in that podcast in a friendly and hilarious manner. The question cuts to the core of what academics who study religion are doing… are they taking care of religion? Are they antagonising it? What should they be doing? And judging by the various long tangents through which discussion meanders, the question certainly sparked our interest.

The participants were Katie Aston, Anna Clot i Garrell, Christopher Cotter, Ting Guo, Ethan Quillen, David Robertson and Jonathan Tuckett (biographical statements below). All of us had listened to the bulk of the podcast mentioned above… BUT none of us had yet heard Russell McCutcheon’s response to it (so, apologies that we probably fall afoul of his excellent critique).

If you are new to the podcast – this is not what we usually do. If you are a regular listener – you might enjoy this, or you might not. We hope you pick the former…

Jonathan: “…every action is going to be illegal to some state, it’s just a case of which state you’re pandering to at that point”

Discussion flows through what an academic ‘caretaker’ would look like, to whether we are being caretakers of the academic discipline of Religious Studies simply by perpetuating the discussion of religion. We discuss the nature of the ‘sacred’, the idea of ‘critical religion’, and get in to talking about ‘cultural Christians’, the ‘spiritual but not religious’ and the age-old problem of defining religion… and the newer but semantically parasitic problem of defining ‘nonreligion’.

We debate and attempt to answer such questions as:

  • If our research uncovers material which is relevant to the real world… make sure that people know? Should we be public intellectuals?
  • Should we just tell the truth no matter what the consequence?
  • Does this discussion depend on which definition of ‘religion’ we work with?
  • Where would we draw the line between being a scientific academic, and taking action against the conduct of a group we are studying?
  • Are ‘we’ in a position to judge? Would we be judging from intellectual grounds or ethical grounds?
  • Anna: What is the nature of academic criticism, as opposed to criticism in the common parlance?
  • Should we be methodologically atheist? Methodologically agnostic? Are these the same thing?

David and Anna showcase some hooded sweatshirts.

We should warn you that this is a little rough around the edges. The idea was not to present anyone with a sophisticated discussion, but to give you an idea of the vast amount of issues which a simple question can raise, and encourage others to have such discussions themselves and maybe come to different conclusions. It’s uncensored… it’s fun… we had a good time. Please don’t take anything too seriously… but try to enjoy it, to engage with us, to disagree with us, to criticise us. That’s what we’re here for. There is also a lot of discussion of paedophilia… this came up early on as a hypothetically abhorrent practice which some ‘religious’ group might engage in. As it is pretty difficult to trump this in terms of abhorrence we returned to the issue somewhat more regularly than it warranted. Suffice to say, this was most definitely a hypothetical example.

This podcast was recorded in Chris’ place of gainful employment – the University of Edinburgh Visitor Centre – and we are very grateful to them for providing the space. The participants were also all brought together by the Religion & Society Programme’s ‘Sacred Practice of Everyday Life’ conference, and we were very grateful to Linda Woodhead and the other organisers for allowing the Religious Studies Project to attend and record a number of podcasts with participants (to be released from September 2012).

Ethan: “When you define religion as a scholar, you’re essentially putting the last nail in your own coffin.”

Some choice quotations:

Ethan: “so, essentially what you’re promoting is that we all need to be defence attorneys?”

Chris: “Are we as scholars of religion by the very fact that we are scholars of religion… being caretakers?”

Katie: “Can I just clarify that I’m not a scholar of religion? Coz I’m not…”

Ethan: “That’s like saying it’s raining outside, this umbrella isn’t working, so I’ll open this canopy instead.”

And just so that we have a ‘proper’ academic involved, here is the quotation from Donald Wiebe which Chris cites in the recording as an example of the ‘critic’ side of the dichotomy:

 “Just as the knowledge produced in the humanities and by social scientists may bear on human problems and public concerns, so also the knowledge produced by students of religion may bear the same relationship to such issues. In this regard, however, it is important to note: first, that the “linkage” between the knowledge produced and the problems resolved is “external,” that is, it is of the same order, so to speak, as that between the natural sciences and engineering; second, that even though religious studies research may be relevant in that fashion, working out the policy/resolution implications of that knowledge is not the task of the student of religion. To take on that assignment is the task of policy makers, politicians, therapists, conflict managers, and other “public intellectuals.” And it is important, I think, that the scientific character of the study of religion not be compromised in any way by bringing such tasks in to the purview of Religious Studies”

Wiebe, Donald 2008. ‘The Scientific Study of Religion and Its Cultured Despisers’ in Willi Braun and Russell McCutcheon (eds.), Introducing Religion: Essays in Honor of Jonathan Z. Smith. London: Equinox, p. 477.

The Participants:


Having completed a BA (hons) in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 2006, Katie Aston went on to complete her Masters in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths University, with a dissertation investigating gender performance within contemporary Stand Up comedy in London. Building on a pilot study of the Atheist Bus Campaign,  she is currently undertaking an ethnographic study of non-religious value construction and material cultures. She is looking specifically at rationalism and the role Christian heritage within non-religious individuals and organisation, taking a historical perspective from the freethought archives of Bishopsgate Institute. Katie is an Assistant Editor at NSRN Online, the web presence of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network.


Anna Clot i Garrell is currently a PhD candidate in the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). She received her degree in Sociology from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in 2010. In 2009, she became part of the research group ISOR (Investigations in Sociology of Religion) directed by Dr. Joan Estruch, collaborating in the research project Evangelical Churches in Barcelona: doctrinal heterogeneity, immigration and evangelization strategies directed by Dra Maria del Mar Griera. In 2011, she completed a Master of Arts in Religious Studies at Lancaster University and was awarded with the Ninian Smart prize for the best dissertation in Religious Studies for the dissertation Exploring New Religious Expressions in Catalunya supervised by Dr. Andrew Dawson. She is interested in the transformations of religion and the emergence of novel expressions of religiosity in the secular sphere and traditional religious contexts.


Christopher R. Cotter recently 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’. He is currently taking a year out from study to present at conferences, complete various writing projects, and work on projects such as this. His PhD research at Lancaster University (commencing October 2012) will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Deputy Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.


Ting Guo is a PhD candidate in religious studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her thesis is on the philosophy of artificial intelligence and how that might contribute to understanding the meaning of spirituality and who and what we are in the Information Age. She is also interested in the religious landscape in East and Southeast Asia, in particular the phenomenon of “underground church” in China, the notion of neo-colonialism, and Chinese diaspora in Britain.


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. Forthcoming 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 (2012). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.


What is Phenomenology? for the Religious Studies Project, as well as recording a number of interviews.

Religion as Vestigial States

We’ve been talking about Religion for some time now but perhaps the one question we haven’t begun to get to grips with is, what is religion? Recently we interviewed Tim Fitzgerald who already set us on the road to deconstructing the term religion. This week we speak to another member of the Critical Religions group, Naomi Goldenberg, who presents the first of our theories on what religion is. In this interview Professor Goldenberg takes us through the idea that religions might be vestigial states. She argues that religions are formed in distinction to governmental ‘States’ and represent the last vestiges of the previous order. At the same time this is a maneuver on the part of those States to delineate spheres of power. A vestigial state is both a once and future state, that which has gone and that which hopes to be. The idea of vestigial states throws into question our normal understanding of the term religion and Professor Goldenberg draws on such notable examples as the Islamic State, the Dalai Lama, Jewish history and even present day Wicca to illustrate the point. If you would like to know more about religions as vestigial states, Professor Goldenberg has also written on the topic on the Critical Religions website.

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

Naomi Goldenberg is professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her specialisms include Psychoanalysis, Women and Religion, and Cultural Studies. Her publications include Resurrecting the Body (Crossroad Publishing, 1993), The End of God (University of Ottawa Press, 1981), and Changing the Gods (Beacon Press, 1979).