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Evangelicalism and Civic Space

evangelicalchristianIn this podcast, Anna Strhan talks to Katie Aston about her research among evangelical Christians, exploring their search for coherence in the contemporary city. How do the members of conservative Anglican congregations negotiate their place in a secular multicultural society, and deal with issues of sexuality, parenthood, human rights, etc? The focus of the discussion is on subjectivity – both bodily and among one another. Anna’s work is an interesting example of a multidisciplinary approach to religious studies, bringing in sociology, philosophy and anthropology.

This episode is part of the Sociology of Religion in the UK series, sponsored by Introduction to the Sociology of Religion, and Dawn Llewellyn on “Religion and Feminism“.

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Identity Crisis: the Nones and Habitual Christianity

This podcast coincides with Linda Woodhead’s recent Croall Lectures, aimed at interrogating the question: Is Britain still a Christian country? Drawing on her own qualitative research and recent surveys in the UK, and from the nearly 80 projects funded by the Religion and Society programme, Woodhead is extremely well placed to examine this broad, nicely impossible question. I decided in the end to do two things, first to give a summary of some of the key points and second, to stick with what I know of this topic – drawing on my own research with (secular) humanists, based in the UK.

There has been much debate generated about the Christian status in Britain, not least following the comments of David Cameron in 2014 – who stated that Britain was a Christian country. Cameron had made his comments in a letter published in the Church Times on 16th April 2014[1] and his target audience should be borne in mind. He wrote:

I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives (Cameron, 2014).

Here (as elsewhere) Cameron emphasises that such a confidence in Christianity will help people get out there and do something. He also emphasises that: “Christian values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love are shared by people of every faith and none” (ibid.).

In this podcast, Linda Woodhead takes up this debate from a sociological perspective, drawing on her experience as the overseer of the AHRC/ESRC funded Religion and Society programme which commissioned 75 UK based research projects over a five year period (2007-2012). In response to the question ‘Is Britain a Christian country?’, Woodhead’s response is a qualified ‘yes’. This means, Britain is not Christian in every way; numbers of people attending Church are certainly falling as are the number of people who self-identify as Christian[2]. She also states that Britain will certainly not be Christian forever if current trends continue, and, further, argues that Britain is not straightforwardly secular and a rise in ‘nones’ (those ticking ‘no religion’ on the Census) does not equal a rise in atheist or new atheist discourse. Many people continue to believe in a God (although not necessarily the Trinity) or consider themselves ‘spiritual’. But, in sum she argues that: “the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.”

Secular Humanists

Over the last four years, I have been working on an ethnography of nonreligious[3] groups and individuals in the UK. I was resident archivist and volunteer for the Rationalist Association (publishers of the New Humanist magazine), and through these activities I was able to meet many, many nonreligious individuals. I also interviewed and observed humanist celebrants in action across the UK and met couple’s marrying in humanist ceremonies. Woodhead points out in this interview, the ‘nones’ (those who ticked no religion on the census) are a broad category, who do not easily conform to atheism per se nor should they be understood as self-identifying Christians.

My own research confirms, as Woodhead suggests, that the ‘none’ category is in no way monolithic nor should it be equated with ‘atheism’ per se. I rarely met people who wholeheartedly sympathised with new atheists or who were hardline secularists. In the course of my work it also become clear that many situate their nonreligious identity in relation to a Christian heritage, either as a result of personal experience or of education. This familiarity emerged in a number of ways. One such example is in regards to religious criticism; many of my participants felt that familiarity with Christianity permitted them to be critical in a way that they could not with other religious traditions. In an interview with Peter, a 28 year old writer and doctoral student, we came onto the topic of the Danish Cartoons in which he made the following comments:

‘[W]ell I think it was more, Christianity I [am] up for taking the piss out of, because I always take the perspective that, and I’ve heard comedians point this out, Stewart Lee and Dara Ó Briain, Christianity’s kind of ours to take the piss out of. I went to church, I got dragged to the Church of England every Sunday, so we get, so I could get into the right school, whereas I’ve always felt that something like Islam [for example] is tied into racial minorities [and is thus off limits].’ [London, April, 2013]

I was particularly interested in the explicit reference to the Church of England in relation to “other religions.” This certainly raises a number of questions for me. Does Cameron mean all denominations of Christianity? Or just Anglicanism? Moreover, what does it really mean to state that we are Christian anyhow? Woodhead illuminates some of these points more clearly – that it is in institutions and in a sense of ‘cultural Christianity’.

Certainly, by self-identifying with Christianity, Peter situates himself very clearly inside both nonreligious and Christian groups, at least nominally. Abby Day brings some qualitative description to the category of ‘Christianity’ in her research ‘Believing in Belonging’ (2006). The non-faithful are categorised by Day as ‘nominalist’; that is, ethnic, natal and aspirational. This group are: ‘not merely unchurched and neither are they indifferent to Christianity: it functions to reinforce familial, ethnic and social connections.’ (2006: 126). Day’s work is useful in demonstrating how despite being anti-religious or not-religious, Christianity can continue to provide a reference point. The choice to call oneself ‘Christian’ whilst not ‘practicing’ can be understood as ‘cultural’ Christianity (Demerath, 2000: 127) or a quasi-ethnic category (Voas and Bruce, 2004; Voas and Day, 2007: 3). Yet despite familiarity my own participants do not personally identify as Christian and, as Woodhead points out, there should be caution used in labelling anyone ‘Christian’ who does not do so for themselves. Thus, I am not suggesting that my participants are ‘nominally’ Christian, simply that their attitude to religions was inflected by their experiences of it.

What such examples demonstrate is a negotiation of this term ‘Christianity’. Whilst many of my participants were aware of their own ‘habitual Christianity’, they were also at pains to break the habit[4].

Concluding Thoughts

I would be very interested to hear of other research addressing these issues. My own research – as I state – was within smaller scale populations and other researchers will be able to illuminate these debates at the macro-level, more clearly than I can. What I will state in summary is that central to this question – ‘Is Britain is a Christian country?’ – is a tension between issues of privilege and privatisation. Moreover, the debate rests on that tricky dichotomy between religious institution (and power) and people’s personal religious experiences and identities. As Woodhead stated in her article ‘How Religious Identity has Changed’ [in the UK]: ‘for a majority today, being religious is just a part of life and identity, not what defines them’ (2013). To say that Britain is a Christian country, as per Cameron’s speech, is therefore problematic not so much because the historical and (fragmented) contemporary trends it speaks to are contestable. It is problematic because it is totalising. Further, as Day points out, people who are otherwise ‘not religious’ state that they are Christian and give reasons of upbringing, culture or national identity. On a micro scale, this might resonate, and many, including my own nonreligious, secular participants may share this sense of ‘cultural Christianity’. However, despite any protestations from the PM, when a politician makes such a statement, there is a magnification of natal, national and cultural themes, and it is perhaps understandable that this creates anxieties about the political agenda implied by such bold statements – whether real or otherwise.

References

DAY, A. (2006). Believing in Belonging: a Case Study from Yorkshire. Unpublished PhD

Thesis, Lancaster University.

DAY, A. (2011). Believing in belonging: Belief and social identity in the modern world. Oxford University Press.

ENGELKE, M. (2012) ‘In Spite of Christianity: humanism and its others in contemporary Britain’ Talk given at the NSRN annual conference.

ENGELKE, M. (2014), ‘Christianity and the Anthropology of Secular HumanismCurrent Anthropology, Vol. 55, No. S10, pp. S292-S301

LEE, L. (2011). From ‘Neutrality’ to Dialogue: Constructing the Religious Other In British Non-religious Discourses In Modernities Revisited, Behrensen, M., Lee, L., & Tekelioglu., A. S. Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences 2011Available at www.iwm.at. [accessed 21 August 2012]

LEE, L. (2012). Research Note: Talking About a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 27(1): 129-139.

OFFICE OF NATIONAL STATISTICS (2012). Religion in England and Wales 2011. 12 December. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_290510.pdf [accessed 2 December 2014]

VOAS, D. & BRUCE, S (2004) ‘Research note: The 2001 census and Christian identification in Britain’, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 19:1, 23-28

VOAS, D & DAY, A (2007). Secularity in Great Britain. In Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives, edited by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar. Hartford, CA: ISSSC: 95-110.

WOODHEAD, L. (2012) ‘How Religious Identity has Changed’ published on Pandemonium.

 

 

[1] This follows remarks from other conservative MPs, including Baroness Warsi, who argued in 2011 that Britain should become more Christian.

[2] The results of the 2001 Census suggest 15.5 per cent of the population (8.6 million people) considered themselves to have no religion. Whilst 77.2 per cent of the population considered themselves to have some religious belief, with the majority identifying as Christian at 71.8 per cent (41million people). Results of the more recent 2011 Census demonstrate a marked shift in numbers. The number of people now reporting as Christian decreased to 59.3 per cent and there was an increase in those reporting no religion to 25.1 per cent of the population (ONS, 2012)

[3] Non religion is understood as different to the ‘secular’ and defined as defined as: ‘any position, perspective or practice which is primarily defined by, or in relation to, religion, but which is nevertheless considered to be other than religious (Lee, 2011).

[4] In my forthcoming thesis, I discuss the great length humanists and other nonreligious people went to, negotiating the boundaries between what is ‘culturally’ Christian and what was not (see also Engelke, 2014); the equation of moral values and Christianity was a particular sticking point. More space would also have allowed me to comment on the British Humanist Association’s Census campaign and letter to the Prime Minister, both relevant to this topic.

Finding space for nonreligion? Further possibilities for spatial analysis

Finding space for nonreligion? Further possibilities for spatial analysis

By Katie Aston, Goldsmiths, University of London

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 26 September 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Kim Knott on Religion, Space and Locality (24 September 2012).

What exactly is the mode of existence of social relationships? Are they substantial? natural? or formally abstract? The study of space offers an answer according to which the social relations of production have a social existence to the extent that they have a spatial existence; they project themselves into a space, becoming inscribed there, and in the process producing that space itself. Failing this, these relations would remain in the realm of ‘pure’ abstraction — that is to say, in the realm of representations and hence of ideology: the realm of verbalism, verbiage and empty words. (Lefebvre 1991: 129)

In this podcast, Knott (or “Can I call you Kim?”), provides a useful and broad introduction to the spatial approaches to the study of religion. In this response I wish to summarise some of the key areas of  this approach I found interesting and write as to why I found the spatial question helpful in thinking about my own work.  I found two ideas regarding space to be hugely interesting; first the notion that “places  gather  things” and her emphasis on the bodily; that body, place and space are all relational.

The “spatial method” that Knott refers to draws heavily on the work of Lefebvre (quoted above), whose notion of space allowed us to understand ways that “production” in space determines that space and in turn, by imprinting on that space, actions are then inscribed by the space. In the book referred to by Knott and Cotter, The Location of Religion (2005), Knott explores this notion of space and the spatial method, using the left hand as a starting point; hands being in themselves places, having dynamic capacity, being related to each other as a pair and a “space for social relations and communication” (Knott, 2005; 134)

Particularly interesting were first  her discussions on the intersectionality of religion in (secular) space. Drawing on the work of Doreen Massey, “space” is seen as “a moment in the intersection of configured social relations”. The emphasis on the interconnectedness of objects – not only events happening simulataneously, but acting on each other and with each other, the spaces of religion are, in other words, dynamic, and religion in secular space and secular space holding religion should both be regarded as dynamically relational . Second,  and following this, she points out the  need to disregard previous definitions of religion in favour of a field of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ forces (2005: 124). The rationale here is  that both traditional definitions and broad, more inclusive definitions tend to make religion simply bigger or smaller as an object, and are accompanied by the agenda of those defining the term.

Crucially, Knott’s method allows us to maintain an approach to religion which does not rely purely on the notion that religion is “believed” and does not rely only on proposition motivating practice. We can also usefully use the method to investigate the alternative to religion – “non-religion” – or forms of non-religion such as humanism and rationalism,  because  the method allows us to understand how practice, the exclusion of practice, and the ‘sacred’ can be read through “space”, which is first and foremost human and social. Indeed the above approach is helpful for my own work which attempts an ethnography which maps contemporary non-religious practice through participant observation at the offices of a humanist magazine, and through observing humanist wedding ceremonies. Below, I give a few examples of where attending to notions of space can illuminate ideas and practice.

In the next section I would like to outline some very embryonic thoughts , gathering aspects of my data collection in direct and unmediated response to the podcast.  For the sake of this paper I am going to discuss just humanism (and Rationalism) as “non-religious” positions (rather than atheism or a more broad “nonreligious” approach). What I take from the above is the need to attend to the place and the space but also to recognise the dynamics of objects in these spaces and the forces and histories which often make these tense encounters.

Humanist spaces 

What does it mean to have an absence of formalised space? Many of my informants tell me that there are no atheist or humanist “spaces”; but the very notion of a shared membership, be this virtual or ideological, makes this method applicable. Even the notion of secularism or disinterest in religion creates spaces of interest. Of course, I also have reason to believe that there are atheist or humanist spaces in the more formal sense, they may just not function communally, locally or indeed like a church.   Let us start with more formal spaces; Conway Hall, Leicester Secular Hall and of course the offices of the New Humanist where I work as a researcher. Leicester Secular Hall was built and opened in 1881, and according to its website:

“As the home of Leicester Secular Society, the oldest secular society in the world, the Hall rises to national heritage significance: a place where the battle for human rights and equality has been fought, where William Morris, Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and Tony Benn and many other campaigners have spoken.”

Conway Hall’s website states:

“Conway Hall is owned by South Place Ethical Society and was first opened in 1929. The name was chosen in honour of Moncure Daniel Conway (1832 – 1907), anti-slavery advocate, out-spoken supporter of free thought and biographer of Thomas Paine.  The Hall now hosts a wide variety of lectures, classes, performances, community and social events. It is renowned as a hub for free speech and independent thought” 

The New Humanist offices are currently in Southwark; the magazine has been published by the Rationalist Association since  since1885, both magazine and organisation starting life as the Watts Literary Guide and Rational Press Association. These are united not simply in using the space as a background for humanist or other non-religious ideals, but actively implicate these ideals in the space and the way that the space is used.

How can we locate humanism in less formalised ways? All these “spaces” are currently and historically used as humanist or ethical spaces and certainly are non-religious now. They function and exist because of a practice based humanism or they function to put humanism into practice. They are admittedly small in number, but would there be need for more?  I discussed the notion of community with a celebrant who was living outside of London, and she stated that she would welcome a community centre which functioned for humanism. She surmised that her work connects her to people through networks rather than through locality but still finds it a shame not to have a central, physical space. This gives us a starting point to think about ways in which humanist   “practice” can be thought to function across space and time and between individual actors embedded in their own, distant localities, and also the ways in which physicality functions as a marker for ideology. Where Conway Hall and Leicester Secular Hall have maintained their physical space and purpose, the premises of the New Humanist magazine and Rationalist Association have not remained fixed. We then come across the  possibility  that it is the magazine that is the vehicle or the space around which practice is centred- it is created drawing on the ideas of its time and in keeping with contemporary modes of production. It is then, as an object shared with others,   taken into homes or libraries and used, read, mused over, thought about, thrown away, archived, placed next to the toilet even? For me, the magazine then comes to function much like the isolated left hand – an object. It visually guides the eye and interacts  mentally, planting itself in another social space – our thoughts and memories.

Landscapes – Historical, Spatial, Horizontal and Vertical

What the podcast really made me attend to, as did a recent   training week mentioned below, are the historical roots of space, the layers of action which are embedded and which continue to inform practice. In the examples given above I would certainly think more when analysing the data about how “earlier regimes of space” have been incorporated in the new, and indeed where earlier regimes were drawing from.

I will end here, though there is even more to say about space in my own work which I have not had time to explore for this paper. However, one such avenue could be the emphasis in the humanist wedding on the selling point that “you can have it anywhere”; a democratisation of space, outside the formal rules of marriage law – you can choose your spot for its individual meaning and function. The emphasis is on choice embodying humanism and space then embodying that choice.

I think it worth mention the “Moral Landscape” methods training programme from which I just returned. Throughout the week we discussed notions of the Moral and Sacred (secular umbrella terms under which we were including both religious and nonreligious practice). These terms were understood to become part of a landscape – a historically and culturally shifting dimensional construct which takes care of the spatial and temporal. It may be interesting to those of you who are thinking about the spatial aspects of religion, morality and/or the sacred, to follow the associated website, where video, audio and other outcomes of the sessions are posted. http://www.kent.ac.uk/secl/researchcentres/crcs/moral_landscape.html

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Having completed a BA (hons) in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 2006, Katie 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.

References:

 

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.

Roundtable: Can We Trust the Social Sciences?

We have another ‘treat’ for you this week – we’ll let you decide whether that was an accurate description or not – in the form of another roundtable discussion, with a slightly different group of people. This was recorded late on the 28th of March at the University of Chester during the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL for short)’s conference (although, of course, this is an ‘unofficial’ discussion).

Ethan: “We ask a question on a survey, we get an answer… and then we have to fill in the space…”

The topic of discussion grew out of a presentation delivered by Callum Brown at the University of Edinburgh (at the same time as we recorded our podcast with him) on the topic of “People of no religion: The demographics of secularisation in the English speaking world since 1900”, which presented, amongst other things, some conclusions from large-scale demographic surveys of religious identification. Ethan Quillen disagreed forcefully that conclusions drawn from questionnaires and censuses can be used to draw large-scale conclusions, and tabled the motion, “Can We Trust the Social Sciences?”

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; either way, we are back to normal with Jolyon Mitchell’s interview on Religion, Media and Violence on Monday. For an interesting and more rigorous response essay to this podcast, please see Tim Hutchings’ A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion.

David and Ethan

David and Ethan

Conversation ranges from the strengths and weaknesses of such data, whether there is more to the social sciences than quantitative methods, and the place of the social sciences within a multi-disciplinary Religious Studies field. Can we trust social sciences when we study religion? Is a social scientific approach the future of religious studies? What is an alternative to a social scientific approach?  These questions and more form the basis for what we intend to act as a bridge between our previous roundtable (“What is the Future of Religious Studies?”) and our forthcoming roundtable (“Should scholars of religion be critics or caretakers?”), timetabled for release on 6 June 2012.

Discussion largely focussed upon Quantitative Methods… something which future podcasts with Ariela Keysar and David Voas shall be focusing on more explicitly:

Do social scientists depend upon assumptive reasoning when it comes to filling in the blanks in their data? Does a decline in church attendance mean a decline in conviction, or simply a decline in one’s attendance at church? By providing boxes do we force people into boxes? What does one individual tell us about a category? What is it specifically about religion that makes this such an issue? How do we trust people to answer in a certain way?

Kevin: “Aren’t you better hypothesising by going out and asking people questions than by sitting around and hypothesising?”

Reference is made to the panel session on Religious Conspiracies at which David, Kevin and Ethan had presented earlier in the day. We also refer to Tom Rees’ excellent Epiphenom blog. Ethan plays Devil’s advocate, whilst Chris throws himself on the pyre and asks Ethan what he thought was wrong with his approach in his MSc Thesis.

Mat: “It’s not perfect, and I would love to go out and buy a tailored pair of trousers but… I’m not gonna get it. So I’ll go out and buy a pair that are closest to my size, and that’s the most economic way…”

It was late… two thirds of the panel had been up since 7 am travelling down from Edinburgh.

The conclusion? Should there be a balance between quantitative and qualitative approaches? Well… yes. But individual scholars may have to side with one or the other. We need a holistic approach, and this isn’t generally something one scholar can accomplish by themselves…

Sponsored by Pepsi Max, and pink gin.

Katie clearly found Ethan “hilarious”

The Discussants:

Katie Aston

Having completed a BA (hons) in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 2006, Katie 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.

Christopher R. Cotter

Chris 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 pursue PhD applications, present at conferences, and work on projects such as this. His future research 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.

Matthew Francis

Matthew graduated from Leeds with a joint-honours degree in Philosophy and Theology and Religious Studies. He subsequently undertook a Masters by Research, where he examined the ideas of Georges Bataille in relation to the problem of meaning in death in contemporary society. Matthew is the Postgraduate Officer for the Sociology of Religion study group (SocRel) of the British Sociological Association (BSA). He has taught on undergraduate and postgraduate modules on subjects including the Sociology of Religion and Religion in Modern Britain.

Matthew recently completed an AHRC-funded PhD at Leeds, which investigated the move to violence in the beliefs of groups. He is the editor for RadicalisationResearch.org, an AHRC/ESRC funded website which provides a resource for policy-makers and the media on radicalisation and extremism, and works at Goldsmiths University managing the Religious Literacy Leadership Project.

Ethan Quillen

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

David G. Robertson

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 his MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see his Academia page or personal blog.

Kevin Whitesides

Kevin Whitesides completed his B.A. in Religious Studies at Humboldt State University. He is currently developing 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.

Insider and Outsider: An Anthropological Perspective

 

If an anthropologist holds the same religious beliefs as ‘the natives’ – or even, some might say, any at all – the implicit concern of the discipline is that he or she might be surrendering too much anthropological authority. But as Ewing argues, belief remains an ’embarrassing possibility’ that stems from ‘a refusal to acknowledge that the subjects of one’s research might actually know something about the human condition that is personally valid for the anthropologist’ (1994:571; see also Harding 1987). The problem of belief, then, is the problem of remaining at the proper remove from ‘natives’ inner lives’ (Geertz 1976:236). (Engelke, 2002: 3)

 

Map of Relations between Fields of Knowledge, Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p. 931

At the heart of ethnographers’ method of participant observation, is the paradox of being at once participant and observer; attempting to be both objective and subjective. I want in this short report to flag up some issues of interest and some texts from anthropology which speak both to the insider/outsider problem and to the broader methodological issue in anthropology of subjective and objective data collection. My response to this interview is informed by my own fieldwork with a non-religious organised group and the epistemological issues raised in the process.

This paper is intended to be broad-based; to be read beside, not against the interview. I want to think about the methodological issues which it brought to mind and suggest that – at least within anthropology – being either or both insider and outsider is an inevitable part of the fieldwork setup. The methodological issues raised relate to the balance of access to tacit knowledge vs. the ability to remain objective in the ultimate analysis which seems to present in the insider/outsider problem. It is possible to suggest that while gaining greater access as an insider you forfeit your ability for objective empirical observance.

Acceptance and Accessibility

Two issues which particularly emerge from Chryssides’ interview are those of acceptance and accessibility – and the ability to understand the subject which derives from this. Access, for example, may come more freely if you are not “other” or if you even hold a religious faith yourself, but this is more complicated. To talk only of religion as an isolated phenomena that we can be inside and outside of suggests that we are all doing (or in the case of the atheist ‘not doing’) religion all the time and may even fail to recognise the multiple identities we hold.  Gender or class, for example, may intersect or even interfere with other aspects of insider/outsider status. Being the correct gender may play a more important role in access than religious persuasion in the case of research within a gender segregated religious institution. In attending to the issue of the outsider and insider in the more broadly ethnographic sense, we may gain a reflexive position, attending to our whole positionality, not only that of our religious (or non-religious) position to another.

The problem can also be addressed in terms of a broader epistemological question of how we can know and, especially, how we can attend to the knowledge of another. I would suggest that looking at this broader set of questions may go some way to addressing the issue of the insider and outsider. Chryssides indeed does discuss this in an early and interesting point relating to truth claims: that the key question is not whether people have access to, and practice the truth, but to demonstrate what people understand to be true and how this manifests. .

There are a number of important anthropological works on the possibilities of knowledge and the limits of accessing tacit knowledge; a favourite of mine is Maurice Bloch’s How We Think They Think. There are a significant number of studies of religions, religion-like and supernatural phenomena (notably almost all from the “outsider” perspective). Yet, a survey essay by Dr Matthew Engelke on the problem of belief in anthropological fieldwork, suggests that prominent anthropologists Victor Turner and Edward Evans-Pritchard ultimately argued that they were not total outsiders, but maintained the ability to access participants due to their own Catholic beliefs. In this work, Engelke addresses Evans-Pritchard’s work with the Azande, in which Evans-Pritchard treats beliefs analytically as social facts: ‘beliefs are for [the social anthropologist] sociological facts, not theological facts, and his sole concern is with their relation to each other and to other social facts. His problems are scientific, not metaphysical or ontological’ (Evans-Pritchard 1965:1). So we return to Chryssides’ point above, regarding the nature of the “truth” you seek to find. Evans-Pritchard also speaks to assumptions regarding the internal or external nature of religious phenomena.

Both Engelke and Evans-Pritchard argue that fieldwork is essential. The method allows for access to practice and “this is how anthropologists can best understand religion as a social fact”. But what is also demonstrated by Engelke, is Evans-Pritchard’s belief that it is better to have some form of religion or religious “inner life” in order to access or understand the inner lives of “others” regardless of the context of that religious “inner life”, than to be an atheist. The argument is that the scientific study is the relation of religious practice to the social world and these are better understood if the relations are shared (even partially) between participants. Engelke then turns to the work of Victor Turner, whose view is perhaps more fatalistic: the study of religion is doomed to fail since ‘religion is not determined by anything other than itself’ (Turner in Engleke, 2002: 8). Regardless of the position of the researcher, is it simply the case that religion cannot be researched at all? In summary of this work, Engelke draws on an important critique that can be drawn more broadly across the insider/outsider issue – that of ‘belief.’ If inner life and insider status is framed in the context of ‘belief’ as the contention around which the possibility of access presides, then we run the risk of always encountering religions from a Christian/Euro-centric perspective.

Is it better to be religious or have no religion at all – the case of non-religion

At the end of this interview, Christopher Cotter asks: instead of considering which religion makes you an insider and outsider (as implied throughout the interview, in which Chryssides frequently refers to his Christian background), what of those researchers who have no religion at all? Chryssides does not seem to follow the logic within this question and in many ways this may be an answer in itself: it perhaps demonstrates an assumption that having a religion would be a necessity. But what of the atheist researcher, in the religious or the non-religious setting?

I would suggest that people wanting to learn more about the position of the non-believer in the religious setting (in this case Pentecostal) look to the work of Ruy Llera Blanes.  In a short discussion of his method, entitled “The Atheist Anthropologist”, Blanes explores his reticence to hide his atheism and the rhetorical shifting which evolved between himself and participants in order to find mutual respect and fend off questions of the possibility of his own conversion. When speaking to one participant outside a church, all seems to go well until the question of his own faith, or lack thereof, arises: he is literally shunned by the participant who turns his back. Following this, Blanes approaches the leader of the church who is more able to accept the outsider to the church. We have here two members of a church, with different statuses and perhaps levels of interest in this research, which is another important point to consider and indeed one made by Chryssides. But Blane’s work also speaks to the multiple intersections discussed above, regarding the general issue of being insider and outsider in the research setting. He is aware of the position of his participants as part of the Gypsy community and the different levels of access and sensitivity that this brings with it, demonstrating that a range of considerations may influence the involvement of a researcher.

My own experience in the field – inside an organisation which describes itself as non-religious – provides different, sometimes contradictory answers to this question. I am myself non-religious, but with a religious family, my Father being a Vicar. This is common knowledge among my research participants, and people’s attitudes towards this fact have ranged from active interest to indifference and even to expressions of pity and mock sympathy. The point here is that the division of insider/outsider is often not particularly clear cut and is certainly not fixed amongst individuals within one group or setting. People in the given group may share, for the convenience of research sampling, one aspect of interest to that researcher, but their biographical and temperamental differences make acceptance a complex issue. In my own research setting, I represent the piggy in the middle, bridging the religious and nonreligious worlds, as I have intimately experienced both in my own life. I have been asked by my own research participants, with genuine interest and sometimes bafflement, about the role of the vicar and how it must be to be part of a religious family, especially when I don’t believe, the usual question being “how do your parents feel about you doing this research?”.

What my own position may speak to is the categorisation of “religion”; when talked of in isolation, “religion” remains something fixed and visible. But in fact it intersects heavily across cultural domains, and having been in this ‘piggy in the middle’ situation, it is interesting to note the Christian heritage which is shared both by my family, myself and my non-religious participants: we are all insiders to a point.   So when we discuss this issue, I would think it important to address what we feel inside or outside of; is this cultural or religious division? Or is it one relating to our world view, morals and values?

By way of a summary, or to tack on some further thoughts for consideration – I should stress on the part of the insider/outsider issue in the anthropological project – the final transformation of data. As discussed by Blanes, ambiguities arise over the insider and the outsider, over the faith or world view of the researcher and the researched within the project. But whatever steps are taken to breach the knowledge gap, Blanes also makes the point that it often remerges in the secular project of analysis and critique. We need then to then assess a third and final role, as the outsider, the anthropology academic, who has almost always written in the secular, empirical tradition.  We also need to pay further attention to the strong critiques of the religious and non-religious categories (McCutcheon, 1997; Fitzgerald, 2000; Masuzawa, 2005), on the basis of their historical construction.  At present I am working within a climate-change in anthropology, which is attempting to critique and address its own historical relationship to the secularisation thesis put forward by the ‘founding fathers’ of the social sciences: Weber, Marx and Durkheim. I am excited and interested to see what unfolds and where this reflexivity takes us in regard to the consideration of religions and the general issue of access to ‘inner life’. As we consider the possibilities offered by these works and their continued critique, will it be possible to draw such a simple line implied by the notion of insider and outsider?

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

Blanes, Ruy Llera (2006), “The Atheist Anthropologist. Believers and Non-Believers in Anthropological Fieldwork”, Social Anthropology 14 (2), pp. 223-234.

Bloch, Maurice (1998) How We Think They Think: Anthropological Approaches to Cognition, Memory, and Literacy Westview Press

Engelke, Matthew (2002) “The problem of belief: Evans-Pritchard and Victor Turner on “the inner life.”. Anthropology today, 18 (6). pp. 3-8. I

Geertz, Clifford (1976). ‘From  the Native’s Point of View’: On the Nature of Anthropological  Understanding.  In K.H.  Basso & H.A. Selby (eds)  Meaning  in anthropology,  pp.231-237. Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico  Press

Masazawa, Tomoko (2005) The Invention of World Religions, or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism University of Chicago Press

McCutcheon , Russell T. (1997) Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia, Oxford University Press

Podcasts

Evangelicalism and Civic Space

evangelicalchristianIn this podcast, Anna Strhan talks to Katie Aston about her research among evangelical Christians, exploring their search for coherence in the contemporary city. How do the members of conservative Anglican congregations negotiate their place in a secular multicultural society, and deal with issues of sexuality, parenthood, human rights, etc? The focus of the discussion is on subjectivity – both bodily and among one another. Anna’s work is an interesting example of a multidisciplinary approach to religious studies, bringing in sociology, philosophy and anthropology.

This episode is part of the Sociology of Religion in the UK series, sponsored by Introduction to the Sociology of Religion, and Dawn Llewellyn on “Religion and Feminism“.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Nicholas Cage pillow cases, Gordon Lightfoot’s greatest hits, and more.

Identity Crisis: the Nones and Habitual Christianity

This podcast coincides with Linda Woodhead’s recent Croall Lectures, aimed at interrogating the question: Is Britain still a Christian country? Drawing on her own qualitative research and recent surveys in the UK, and from the nearly 80 projects funded by the Religion and Society programme, Woodhead is extremely well placed to examine this broad, nicely impossible question. I decided in the end to do two things, first to give a summary of some of the key points and second, to stick with what I know of this topic – drawing on my own research with (secular) humanists, based in the UK.

There has been much debate generated about the Christian status in Britain, not least following the comments of David Cameron in 2014 – who stated that Britain was a Christian country. Cameron had made his comments in a letter published in the Church Times on 16th April 2014[1] and his target audience should be borne in mind. He wrote:

I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives (Cameron, 2014).

Here (as elsewhere) Cameron emphasises that such a confidence in Christianity will help people get out there and do something. He also emphasises that: “Christian values of responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility, and love are shared by people of every faith and none” (ibid.).

In this podcast, Linda Woodhead takes up this debate from a sociological perspective, drawing on her experience as the overseer of the AHRC/ESRC funded Religion and Society programme which commissioned 75 UK based research projects over a five year period (2007-2012). In response to the question ‘Is Britain a Christian country?’, Woodhead’s response is a qualified ‘yes’. This means, Britain is not Christian in every way; numbers of people attending Church are certainly falling as are the number of people who self-identify as Christian[2]. She also states that Britain will certainly not be Christian forever if current trends continue, and, further, argues that Britain is not straightforwardly secular and a rise in ‘nones’ (those ticking ‘no religion’ on the Census) does not equal a rise in atheist or new atheist discourse. Many people continue to believe in a God (although not necessarily the Trinity) or consider themselves ‘spiritual’. But, in sum she argues that: “the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.”

Secular Humanists

Over the last four years, I have been working on an ethnography of nonreligious[3] groups and individuals in the UK. I was resident archivist and volunteer for the Rationalist Association (publishers of the New Humanist magazine), and through these activities I was able to meet many, many nonreligious individuals. I also interviewed and observed humanist celebrants in action across the UK and met couple’s marrying in humanist ceremonies. Woodhead points out in this interview, the ‘nones’ (those who ticked no religion on the census) are a broad category, who do not easily conform to atheism per se nor should they be understood as self-identifying Christians.

My own research confirms, as Woodhead suggests, that the ‘none’ category is in no way monolithic nor should it be equated with ‘atheism’ per se. I rarely met people who wholeheartedly sympathised with new atheists or who were hardline secularists. In the course of my work it also become clear that many situate their nonreligious identity in relation to a Christian heritage, either as a result of personal experience or of education. This familiarity emerged in a number of ways. One such example is in regards to religious criticism; many of my participants felt that familiarity with Christianity permitted them to be critical in a way that they could not with other religious traditions. In an interview with Peter, a 28 year old writer and doctoral student, we came onto the topic of the Danish Cartoons in which he made the following comments:

‘[W]ell I think it was more, Christianity I [am] up for taking the piss out of, because I always take the perspective that, and I’ve heard comedians point this out, Stewart Lee and Dara Ó Briain, Christianity’s kind of ours to take the piss out of. I went to church, I got dragged to the Church of England every Sunday, so we get, so I could get into the right school, whereas I’ve always felt that something like Islam [for example] is tied into racial minorities [and is thus off limits].’ [London, April, 2013]

I was particularly interested in the explicit reference to the Church of England in relation to “other religions.” This certainly raises a number of questions for me. Does Cameron mean all denominations of Christianity? Or just Anglicanism? Moreover, what does it really mean to state that we are Christian anyhow? Woodhead illuminates some of these points more clearly – that it is in institutions and in a sense of ‘cultural Christianity’.

Certainly, by self-identifying with Christianity, Peter situates himself very clearly inside both nonreligious and Christian groups, at least nominally. Abby Day brings some qualitative description to the category of ‘Christianity’ in her research ‘Believing in Belonging’ (2006). The non-faithful are categorised by Day as ‘nominalist’; that is, ethnic, natal and aspirational. This group are: ‘not merely unchurched and neither are they indifferent to Christianity: it functions to reinforce familial, ethnic and social connections.’ (2006: 126). Day’s work is useful in demonstrating how despite being anti-religious or not-religious, Christianity can continue to provide a reference point. The choice to call oneself ‘Christian’ whilst not ‘practicing’ can be understood as ‘cultural’ Christianity (Demerath, 2000: 127) or a quasi-ethnic category (Voas and Bruce, 2004; Voas and Day, 2007: 3). Yet despite familiarity my own participants do not personally identify as Christian and, as Woodhead points out, there should be caution used in labelling anyone ‘Christian’ who does not do so for themselves. Thus, I am not suggesting that my participants are ‘nominally’ Christian, simply that their attitude to religions was inflected by their experiences of it.

What such examples demonstrate is a negotiation of this term ‘Christianity’. Whilst many of my participants were aware of their own ‘habitual Christianity’, they were also at pains to break the habit[4].

Concluding Thoughts

I would be very interested to hear of other research addressing these issues. My own research – as I state – was within smaller scale populations and other researchers will be able to illuminate these debates at the macro-level, more clearly than I can. What I will state in summary is that central to this question – ‘Is Britain is a Christian country?’ – is a tension between issues of privilege and privatisation. Moreover, the debate rests on that tricky dichotomy between religious institution (and power) and people’s personal religious experiences and identities. As Woodhead stated in her article ‘How Religious Identity has Changed’ [in the UK]: ‘for a majority today, being religious is just a part of life and identity, not what defines them’ (2013). To say that Britain is a Christian country, as per Cameron’s speech, is therefore problematic not so much because the historical and (fragmented) contemporary trends it speaks to are contestable. It is problematic because it is totalising. Further, as Day points out, people who are otherwise ‘not religious’ state that they are Christian and give reasons of upbringing, culture or national identity. On a micro scale, this might resonate, and many, including my own nonreligious, secular participants may share this sense of ‘cultural Christianity’. However, despite any protestations from the PM, when a politician makes such a statement, there is a magnification of natal, national and cultural themes, and it is perhaps understandable that this creates anxieties about the political agenda implied by such bold statements – whether real or otherwise.

References

DAY, A. (2006). Believing in Belonging: a Case Study from Yorkshire. Unpublished PhD

Thesis, Lancaster University.

DAY, A. (2011). Believing in belonging: Belief and social identity in the modern world. Oxford University Press.

ENGELKE, M. (2012) ‘In Spite of Christianity: humanism and its others in contemporary Britain’ Talk given at the NSRN annual conference.

ENGELKE, M. (2014), ‘Christianity and the Anthropology of Secular HumanismCurrent Anthropology, Vol. 55, No. S10, pp. S292-S301

LEE, L. (2011). From ‘Neutrality’ to Dialogue: Constructing the Religious Other In British Non-religious Discourses In Modernities Revisited, Behrensen, M., Lee, L., & Tekelioglu., A. S. Vienna: IWM Junior Visiting Fellows’ Conferences 2011Available at www.iwm.at. [accessed 21 August 2012]

LEE, L. (2012). Research Note: Talking About a Revolution: Terminology for the New Field of Non-religion Studies. Journal of Contemporary Religion, 27(1): 129-139.

OFFICE OF NATIONAL STATISTICS (2012). Religion in England and Wales 2011. 12 December. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_290510.pdf [accessed 2 December 2014]

VOAS, D. & BRUCE, S (2004) ‘Research note: The 2001 census and Christian identification in Britain’, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 19:1, 23-28

VOAS, D & DAY, A (2007). Secularity in Great Britain. In Secularism and Secularity: Contemporary International Perspectives, edited by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar. Hartford, CA: ISSSC: 95-110.

WOODHEAD, L. (2012) ‘How Religious Identity has Changed’ published on Pandemonium.

 

 

[1] This follows remarks from other conservative MPs, including Baroness Warsi, who argued in 2011 that Britain should become more Christian.

[2] The results of the 2001 Census suggest 15.5 per cent of the population (8.6 million people) considered themselves to have no religion. Whilst 77.2 per cent of the population considered themselves to have some religious belief, with the majority identifying as Christian at 71.8 per cent (41million people). Results of the more recent 2011 Census demonstrate a marked shift in numbers. The number of people now reporting as Christian decreased to 59.3 per cent and there was an increase in those reporting no religion to 25.1 per cent of the population (ONS, 2012)

[3] Non religion is understood as different to the ‘secular’ and defined as defined as: ‘any position, perspective or practice which is primarily defined by, or in relation to, religion, but which is nevertheless considered to be other than religious (Lee, 2011).

[4] In my forthcoming thesis, I discuss the great length humanists and other nonreligious people went to, negotiating the boundaries between what is ‘culturally’ Christian and what was not (see also Engelke, 2014); the equation of moral values and Christianity was a particular sticking point. More space would also have allowed me to comment on the British Humanist Association’s Census campaign and letter to the Prime Minister, both relevant to this topic.

Finding space for nonreligion? Further possibilities for spatial analysis

Finding space for nonreligion? Further possibilities for spatial analysis

By Katie Aston, Goldsmiths, University of London

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 26 September 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Kim Knott on Religion, Space and Locality (24 September 2012).

What exactly is the mode of existence of social relationships? Are they substantial? natural? or formally abstract? The study of space offers an answer according to which the social relations of production have a social existence to the extent that they have a spatial existence; they project themselves into a space, becoming inscribed there, and in the process producing that space itself. Failing this, these relations would remain in the realm of ‘pure’ abstraction — that is to say, in the realm of representations and hence of ideology: the realm of verbalism, verbiage and empty words. (Lefebvre 1991: 129)

In this podcast, Knott (or “Can I call you Kim?”), provides a useful and broad introduction to the spatial approaches to the study of religion. In this response I wish to summarise some of the key areas of  this approach I found interesting and write as to why I found the spatial question helpful in thinking about my own work.  I found two ideas regarding space to be hugely interesting; first the notion that “places  gather  things” and her emphasis on the bodily; that body, place and space are all relational.

The “spatial method” that Knott refers to draws heavily on the work of Lefebvre (quoted above), whose notion of space allowed us to understand ways that “production” in space determines that space and in turn, by imprinting on that space, actions are then inscribed by the space. In the book referred to by Knott and Cotter, The Location of Religion (2005), Knott explores this notion of space and the spatial method, using the left hand as a starting point; hands being in themselves places, having dynamic capacity, being related to each other as a pair and a “space for social relations and communication” (Knott, 2005; 134)

Particularly interesting were first  her discussions on the intersectionality of religion in (secular) space. Drawing on the work of Doreen Massey, “space” is seen as “a moment in the intersection of configured social relations”. The emphasis on the interconnectedness of objects – not only events happening simulataneously, but acting on each other and with each other, the spaces of religion are, in other words, dynamic, and religion in secular space and secular space holding religion should both be regarded as dynamically relational . Second,  and following this, she points out the  need to disregard previous definitions of religion in favour of a field of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ forces (2005: 124). The rationale here is  that both traditional definitions and broad, more inclusive definitions tend to make religion simply bigger or smaller as an object, and are accompanied by the agenda of those defining the term.

Crucially, Knott’s method allows us to maintain an approach to religion which does not rely purely on the notion that religion is “believed” and does not rely only on proposition motivating practice. We can also usefully use the method to investigate the alternative to religion – “non-religion” – or forms of non-religion such as humanism and rationalism,  because  the method allows us to understand how practice, the exclusion of practice, and the ‘sacred’ can be read through “space”, which is first and foremost human and social. Indeed the above approach is helpful for my own work which attempts an ethnography which maps contemporary non-religious practice through participant observation at the offices of a humanist magazine, and through observing humanist wedding ceremonies. Below, I give a few examples of where attending to notions of space can illuminate ideas and practice.

In the next section I would like to outline some very embryonic thoughts , gathering aspects of my data collection in direct and unmediated response to the podcast.  For the sake of this paper I am going to discuss just humanism (and Rationalism) as “non-religious” positions (rather than atheism or a more broad “nonreligious” approach). What I take from the above is the need to attend to the place and the space but also to recognise the dynamics of objects in these spaces and the forces and histories which often make these tense encounters.

Humanist spaces 

What does it mean to have an absence of formalised space? Many of my informants tell me that there are no atheist or humanist “spaces”; but the very notion of a shared membership, be this virtual or ideological, makes this method applicable. Even the notion of secularism or disinterest in religion creates spaces of interest. Of course, I also have reason to believe that there are atheist or humanist spaces in the more formal sense, they may just not function communally, locally or indeed like a church.   Let us start with more formal spaces; Conway Hall, Leicester Secular Hall and of course the offices of the New Humanist where I work as a researcher. Leicester Secular Hall was built and opened in 1881, and according to its website:

“As the home of Leicester Secular Society, the oldest secular society in the world, the Hall rises to national heritage significance: a place where the battle for human rights and equality has been fought, where William Morris, Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and Tony Benn and many other campaigners have spoken.”

Conway Hall’s website states:

“Conway Hall is owned by South Place Ethical Society and was first opened in 1929. The name was chosen in honour of Moncure Daniel Conway (1832 – 1907), anti-slavery advocate, out-spoken supporter of free thought and biographer of Thomas Paine.  The Hall now hosts a wide variety of lectures, classes, performances, community and social events. It is renowned as a hub for free speech and independent thought” 

The New Humanist offices are currently in Southwark; the magazine has been published by the Rationalist Association since  since1885, both magazine and organisation starting life as the Watts Literary Guide and Rational Press Association. These are united not simply in using the space as a background for humanist or other non-religious ideals, but actively implicate these ideals in the space and the way that the space is used.

How can we locate humanism in less formalised ways? All these “spaces” are currently and historically used as humanist or ethical spaces and certainly are non-religious now. They function and exist because of a practice based humanism or they function to put humanism into practice. They are admittedly small in number, but would there be need for more?  I discussed the notion of community with a celebrant who was living outside of London, and she stated that she would welcome a community centre which functioned for humanism. She surmised that her work connects her to people through networks rather than through locality but still finds it a shame not to have a central, physical space. This gives us a starting point to think about ways in which humanist   “practice” can be thought to function across space and time and between individual actors embedded in their own, distant localities, and also the ways in which physicality functions as a marker for ideology. Where Conway Hall and Leicester Secular Hall have maintained their physical space and purpose, the premises of the New Humanist magazine and Rationalist Association have not remained fixed. We then come across the  possibility  that it is the magazine that is the vehicle or the space around which practice is centred- it is created drawing on the ideas of its time and in keeping with contemporary modes of production. It is then, as an object shared with others,   taken into homes or libraries and used, read, mused over, thought about, thrown away, archived, placed next to the toilet even? For me, the magazine then comes to function much like the isolated left hand – an object. It visually guides the eye and interacts  mentally, planting itself in another social space – our thoughts and memories.

Landscapes – Historical, Spatial, Horizontal and Vertical

What the podcast really made me attend to, as did a recent   training week mentioned below, are the historical roots of space, the layers of action which are embedded and which continue to inform practice. In the examples given above I would certainly think more when analysing the data about how “earlier regimes of space” have been incorporated in the new, and indeed where earlier regimes were drawing from.

I will end here, though there is even more to say about space in my own work which I have not had time to explore for this paper. However, one such avenue could be the emphasis in the humanist wedding on the selling point that “you can have it anywhere”; a democratisation of space, outside the formal rules of marriage law – you can choose your spot for its individual meaning and function. The emphasis is on choice embodying humanism and space then embodying that choice.

I think it worth mention the “Moral Landscape” methods training programme from which I just returned. Throughout the week we discussed notions of the Moral and Sacred (secular umbrella terms under which we were including both religious and nonreligious practice). These terms were understood to become part of a landscape – a historically and culturally shifting dimensional construct which takes care of the spatial and temporal. It may be interesting to those of you who are thinking about the spatial aspects of religion, morality and/or the sacred, to follow the associated website, where video, audio and other outcomes of the sessions are posted. http://www.kent.ac.uk/secl/researchcentres/crcs/moral_landscape.html

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Having completed a BA (hons) in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 2006, Katie 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.

References:

 

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.

Roundtable: Can We Trust the Social Sciences?

We have another ‘treat’ for you this week – we’ll let you decide whether that was an accurate description or not – in the form of another roundtable discussion, with a slightly different group of people. This was recorded late on the 28th of March at the University of Chester during the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL for short)’s conference (although, of course, this is an ‘unofficial’ discussion).

Ethan: “We ask a question on a survey, we get an answer… and then we have to fill in the space…”

The topic of discussion grew out of a presentation delivered by Callum Brown at the University of Edinburgh (at the same time as we recorded our podcast with him) on the topic of “People of no religion: The demographics of secularisation in the English speaking world since 1900”, which presented, amongst other things, some conclusions from large-scale demographic surveys of religious identification. Ethan Quillen disagreed forcefully that conclusions drawn from questionnaires and censuses can be used to draw large-scale conclusions, and tabled the motion, “Can We Trust the Social Sciences?”

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; either way, we are back to normal with Jolyon Mitchell’s interview on Religion, Media and Violence on Monday. For an interesting and more rigorous response essay to this podcast, please see Tim Hutchings’ A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion.

David and Ethan

David and Ethan

Conversation ranges from the strengths and weaknesses of such data, whether there is more to the social sciences than quantitative methods, and the place of the social sciences within a multi-disciplinary Religious Studies field. Can we trust social sciences when we study religion? Is a social scientific approach the future of religious studies? What is an alternative to a social scientific approach?  These questions and more form the basis for what we intend to act as a bridge between our previous roundtable (“What is the Future of Religious Studies?”) and our forthcoming roundtable (“Should scholars of religion be critics or caretakers?”), timetabled for release on 6 June 2012.

Discussion largely focussed upon Quantitative Methods… something which future podcasts with Ariela Keysar and David Voas shall be focusing on more explicitly:

Do social scientists depend upon assumptive reasoning when it comes to filling in the blanks in their data? Does a decline in church attendance mean a decline in conviction, or simply a decline in one’s attendance at church? By providing boxes do we force people into boxes? What does one individual tell us about a category? What is it specifically about religion that makes this such an issue? How do we trust people to answer in a certain way?

Kevin: “Aren’t you better hypothesising by going out and asking people questions than by sitting around and hypothesising?”

Reference is made to the panel session on Religious Conspiracies at which David, Kevin and Ethan had presented earlier in the day. We also refer to Tom Rees’ excellent Epiphenom blog. Ethan plays Devil’s advocate, whilst Chris throws himself on the pyre and asks Ethan what he thought was wrong with his approach in his MSc Thesis.

Mat: “It’s not perfect, and I would love to go out and buy a tailored pair of trousers but… I’m not gonna get it. So I’ll go out and buy a pair that are closest to my size, and that’s the most economic way…”

It was late… two thirds of the panel had been up since 7 am travelling down from Edinburgh.

The conclusion? Should there be a balance between quantitative and qualitative approaches? Well… yes. But individual scholars may have to side with one or the other. We need a holistic approach, and this isn’t generally something one scholar can accomplish by themselves…

Sponsored by Pepsi Max, and pink gin.

Katie clearly found Ethan “hilarious”

The Discussants:

Katie Aston

Having completed a BA (hons) in Fine Art at Wimbledon School of Art in 2006, Katie 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.

Christopher R. Cotter

Chris 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 pursue PhD applications, present at conferences, and work on projects such as this. His future research 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.

Matthew Francis

Matthew graduated from Leeds with a joint-honours degree in Philosophy and Theology and Religious Studies. He subsequently undertook a Masters by Research, where he examined the ideas of Georges Bataille in relation to the problem of meaning in death in contemporary society. Matthew is the Postgraduate Officer for the Sociology of Religion study group (SocRel) of the British Sociological Association (BSA). He has taught on undergraduate and postgraduate modules on subjects including the Sociology of Religion and Religion in Modern Britain.

Matthew recently completed an AHRC-funded PhD at Leeds, which investigated the move to violence in the beliefs of groups. He is the editor for RadicalisationResearch.org, an AHRC/ESRC funded website which provides a resource for policy-makers and the media on radicalisation and extremism, and works at Goldsmiths University managing the Religious Literacy Leadership Project.

Ethan Quillen

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

David G. Robertson

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 his MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see his Academia page or personal blog.

Kevin Whitesides

Kevin Whitesides completed his B.A. in Religious Studies at Humboldt State University. He is currently developing 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.

Insider and Outsider: An Anthropological Perspective

 

If an anthropologist holds the same religious beliefs as ‘the natives’ – or even, some might say, any at all – the implicit concern of the discipline is that he or she might be surrendering too much anthropological authority. But as Ewing argues, belief remains an ’embarrassing possibility’ that stems from ‘a refusal to acknowledge that the subjects of one’s research might actually know something about the human condition that is personally valid for the anthropologist’ (1994:571; see also Harding 1987). The problem of belief, then, is the problem of remaining at the proper remove from ‘natives’ inner lives’ (Geertz 1976:236). (Engelke, 2002: 3)

 

Map of Relations between Fields of Knowledge, Oxford Companion to Philosophy, p. 931

At the heart of ethnographers’ method of participant observation, is the paradox of being at once participant and observer; attempting to be both objective and subjective. I want in this short report to flag up some issues of interest and some texts from anthropology which speak both to the insider/outsider problem and to the broader methodological issue in anthropology of subjective and objective data collection. My response to this interview is informed by my own fieldwork with a non-religious organised group and the epistemological issues raised in the process.

This paper is intended to be broad-based; to be read beside, not against the interview. I want to think about the methodological issues which it brought to mind and suggest that – at least within anthropology – being either or both insider and outsider is an inevitable part of the fieldwork setup. The methodological issues raised relate to the balance of access to tacit knowledge vs. the ability to remain objective in the ultimate analysis which seems to present in the insider/outsider problem. It is possible to suggest that while gaining greater access as an insider you forfeit your ability for objective empirical observance.

Acceptance and Accessibility

Two issues which particularly emerge from Chryssides’ interview are those of acceptance and accessibility – and the ability to understand the subject which derives from this. Access, for example, may come more freely if you are not “other” or if you even hold a religious faith yourself, but this is more complicated. To talk only of religion as an isolated phenomena that we can be inside and outside of suggests that we are all doing (or in the case of the atheist ‘not doing’) religion all the time and may even fail to recognise the multiple identities we hold.  Gender or class, for example, may intersect or even interfere with other aspects of insider/outsider status. Being the correct gender may play a more important role in access than religious persuasion in the case of research within a gender segregated religious institution. In attending to the issue of the outsider and insider in the more broadly ethnographic sense, we may gain a reflexive position, attending to our whole positionality, not only that of our religious (or non-religious) position to another.

The problem can also be addressed in terms of a broader epistemological question of how we can know and, especially, how we can attend to the knowledge of another. I would suggest that looking at this broader set of questions may go some way to addressing the issue of the insider and outsider. Chryssides indeed does discuss this in an early and interesting point relating to truth claims: that the key question is not whether people have access to, and practice the truth, but to demonstrate what people understand to be true and how this manifests. .

There are a number of important anthropological works on the possibilities of knowledge and the limits of accessing tacit knowledge; a favourite of mine is Maurice Bloch’s How We Think They Think. There are a significant number of studies of religions, religion-like and supernatural phenomena (notably almost all from the “outsider” perspective). Yet, a survey essay by Dr Matthew Engelke on the problem of belief in anthropological fieldwork, suggests that prominent anthropologists Victor Turner and Edward Evans-Pritchard ultimately argued that they were not total outsiders, but maintained the ability to access participants due to their own Catholic beliefs. In this work, Engelke addresses Evans-Pritchard’s work with the Azande, in which Evans-Pritchard treats beliefs analytically as social facts: ‘beliefs are for [the social anthropologist] sociological facts, not theological facts, and his sole concern is with their relation to each other and to other social facts. His problems are scientific, not metaphysical or ontological’ (Evans-Pritchard 1965:1). So we return to Chryssides’ point above, regarding the nature of the “truth” you seek to find. Evans-Pritchard also speaks to assumptions regarding the internal or external nature of religious phenomena.

Both Engelke and Evans-Pritchard argue that fieldwork is essential. The method allows for access to practice and “this is how anthropologists can best understand religion as a social fact”. But what is also demonstrated by Engelke, is Evans-Pritchard’s belief that it is better to have some form of religion or religious “inner life” in order to access or understand the inner lives of “others” regardless of the context of that religious “inner life”, than to be an atheist. The argument is that the scientific study is the relation of religious practice to the social world and these are better understood if the relations are shared (even partially) between participants. Engelke then turns to the work of Victor Turner, whose view is perhaps more fatalistic: the study of religion is doomed to fail since ‘religion is not determined by anything other than itself’ (Turner in Engleke, 2002: 8). Regardless of the position of the researcher, is it simply the case that religion cannot be researched at all? In summary of this work, Engelke draws on an important critique that can be drawn more broadly across the insider/outsider issue – that of ‘belief.’ If inner life and insider status is framed in the context of ‘belief’ as the contention around which the possibility of access presides, then we run the risk of always encountering religions from a Christian/Euro-centric perspective.

Is it better to be religious or have no religion at all – the case of non-religion

At the end of this interview, Christopher Cotter asks: instead of considering which religion makes you an insider and outsider (as implied throughout the interview, in which Chryssides frequently refers to his Christian background), what of those researchers who have no religion at all? Chryssides does not seem to follow the logic within this question and in many ways this may be an answer in itself: it perhaps demonstrates an assumption that having a religion would be a necessity. But what of the atheist researcher, in the religious or the non-religious setting?

I would suggest that people wanting to learn more about the position of the non-believer in the religious setting (in this case Pentecostal) look to the work of Ruy Llera Blanes.  In a short discussion of his method, entitled “The Atheist Anthropologist”, Blanes explores his reticence to hide his atheism and the rhetorical shifting which evolved between himself and participants in order to find mutual respect and fend off questions of the possibility of his own conversion. When speaking to one participant outside a church, all seems to go well until the question of his own faith, or lack thereof, arises: he is literally shunned by the participant who turns his back. Following this, Blanes approaches the leader of the church who is more able to accept the outsider to the church. We have here two members of a church, with different statuses and perhaps levels of interest in this research, which is another important point to consider and indeed one made by Chryssides. But Blane’s work also speaks to the multiple intersections discussed above, regarding the general issue of being insider and outsider in the research setting. He is aware of the position of his participants as part of the Gypsy community and the different levels of access and sensitivity that this brings with it, demonstrating that a range of considerations may influence the involvement of a researcher.

My own experience in the field – inside an organisation which describes itself as non-religious – provides different, sometimes contradictory answers to this question. I am myself non-religious, but with a religious family, my Father being a Vicar. This is common knowledge among my research participants, and people’s attitudes towards this fact have ranged from active interest to indifference and even to expressions of pity and mock sympathy. The point here is that the division of insider/outsider is often not particularly clear cut and is certainly not fixed amongst individuals within one group or setting. People in the given group may share, for the convenience of research sampling, one aspect of interest to that researcher, but their biographical and temperamental differences make acceptance a complex issue. In my own research setting, I represent the piggy in the middle, bridging the religious and nonreligious worlds, as I have intimately experienced both in my own life. I have been asked by my own research participants, with genuine interest and sometimes bafflement, about the role of the vicar and how it must be to be part of a religious family, especially when I don’t believe, the usual question being “how do your parents feel about you doing this research?”.

What my own position may speak to is the categorisation of “religion”; when talked of in isolation, “religion” remains something fixed and visible. But in fact it intersects heavily across cultural domains, and having been in this ‘piggy in the middle’ situation, it is interesting to note the Christian heritage which is shared both by my family, myself and my non-religious participants: we are all insiders to a point.   So when we discuss this issue, I would think it important to address what we feel inside or outside of; is this cultural or religious division? Or is it one relating to our world view, morals and values?

By way of a summary, or to tack on some further thoughts for consideration – I should stress on the part of the insider/outsider issue in the anthropological project – the final transformation of data. As discussed by Blanes, ambiguities arise over the insider and the outsider, over the faith or world view of the researcher and the researched within the project. But whatever steps are taken to breach the knowledge gap, Blanes also makes the point that it often remerges in the secular project of analysis and critique. We need then to then assess a third and final role, as the outsider, the anthropology academic, who has almost always written in the secular, empirical tradition.  We also need to pay further attention to the strong critiques of the religious and non-religious categories (McCutcheon, 1997; Fitzgerald, 2000; Masuzawa, 2005), on the basis of their historical construction.  At present I am working within a climate-change in anthropology, which is attempting to critique and address its own historical relationship to the secularisation thesis put forward by the ‘founding fathers’ of the social sciences: Weber, Marx and Durkheim. I am excited and interested to see what unfolds and where this reflexivity takes us in regard to the consideration of religions and the general issue of access to ‘inner life’. As we consider the possibilities offered by these works and their continued critique, will it be possible to draw such a simple line implied by the notion of insider and outsider?

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

Blanes, Ruy Llera (2006), “The Atheist Anthropologist. Believers and Non-Believers in Anthropological Fieldwork”, Social Anthropology 14 (2), pp. 223-234.

Bloch, Maurice (1998) How We Think They Think: Anthropological Approaches to Cognition, Memory, and Literacy Westview Press

Engelke, Matthew (2002) “The problem of belief: Evans-Pritchard and Victor Turner on “the inner life.”. Anthropology today, 18 (6). pp. 3-8. I

Geertz, Clifford (1976). ‘From  the Native’s Point of View’: On the Nature of Anthropological  Understanding.  In K.H.  Basso & H.A. Selby (eds)  Meaning  in anthropology,  pp.231-237. Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico  Press

Masazawa, Tomoko (2005) The Invention of World Religions, or, How European Universalism was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism University of Chicago Press

McCutcheon , Russell T. (1997) Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia, Oxford University Press