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The BASR and the Impact of Religious Studies

A panel on the public impact and engagement of Religious Studies/Study of Religion/s led by committee members of the British Association for the Study of Religions, including Dr Stephen Gregg (Wolverhampton), Dr Christopher Cotter (Edinburgh), Dr Suzanne Owen (Leeds Trinity), Dr David Robertson (The Open University) and Dr Steven Sutcliffe (Edinburgh).

Issues discussed include why RS continues to be a “muted voice” in public discourse; minority religion and the law; podcasting; and new audiences for RS.

This was presented as part of the University of Edinburgh’s Religious Studies seminar series.

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

The BASR and the Impact of Religious Studies

Podcast with Steve Sutcliffe, Stephen Gregg, Christopher Cotter, Suzanne Owen and David Robertson (12 March 2018).

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: The BASR and The Impact of Religious Studies 1.2

Steve Sutcliffe (SS): Ok. Well, thanks for waiting on a bit. Sorry about the delay in getting started. Because impact and knowledge exchange are so much the discourse of the day for academics – whether you’re still a research student, or whether you’ve got a post – we thought it would be useful to have some kind of a brief event where each of us, from the committee of the British Association for the Study of Religions, say a few words about what they thought some of the challenges and issues of that were for the study of religions, and for Religious Studies in particular. So we tried to put together this panel to tie in with a committee meeting of the British Association of the Study of Religions, which we’ve just come hot-foot from in the McIntyre Room. Because, of course, our committee members live all over the country. Stephen, in particular, has come up from Wolverhampton, and has spent most of the day on the train even getting here. And Suzanne, who’ll be familiar to some of you as a former student here, has come up from Leeds. So we thought, “We’ll be all in the one place, so let’s also do some sort of outward facing event.” So we’ve got four brief, informal presentations from each of the folks here: David Robertson, Christopher Cotter, Stephen Gregg and Suzanne Owen. And I thought I’d introduce it first, with just a few words on the perspective of the British Association for the Study of Religions, in so far as it represents Religious Studies scholars and Study of Religion scholars in the UK. And some of this will be familiar to some of you, but it may be less familiar to others. And we’re not giving you a kind of official line. This isn’t a BASR statement, it’s just individual committee members’ views on – what they call in the old clichéd media – the burning issues of our time. So the British Association, just to give you a little bit of history – this is me, by the way! I’m Steven Sutcliffe. And when I’m not teaching here, I’ve also been president of the British Association for the Study of Religion, for the last two and a half years. So the BASR began in 1954. And it was part of an organisation called the International Association for the History of Religions, which was set up in 1950. And then later on BASR, in 1999, helped to launch the European Association for the Study of Religion, which is very much still in business. And we actually hosted the European Association’s first annual conference in Cambridge, that year.* We began, in the mists of time, as a dozen or so members in what seems to have been a fairly clubby style, based around Oxford, Cambridge and London. But we’ve now grown to about 180 fee-paying members. And we’ve been helped very much getting the membership list nice and lean, with all paying members, with our membership treasurer Chris Cotter, here. We publish an electronic Bulletin twice a year, and we publish a journal once a year. We hold archives of the Bulletin and other papers in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and one of our members, Chris Cotter again, is currently completing a small project on the oral and documentary history of the British Association, which we hope to build on in the future, for some more grant funding, to get a larger history for the study of religions in the UK. Past presidents – in which august tradition I’m very proud to stand – have included Ninian Smart, Geoffrey Parrinder, Ursula King, Kim Knott and Marion Bowman. So, I give you this institutional background just to be sure that you realise that we’ve got about 60 years-plus of a learned society, promoting the study of religions in the UK. We define ourselves in this way, which is consonant with the International Association of the History of Religions, and the European Association for the Study of Religions: “The object of BASR is to promote the academic study of religions – understood as the historical, social, theoretical, critical and comparative study of religions – through the interdisciplinary collaboration of all scholars whose research is defined in this way. BASR is not a forum for confessional, apologetic or similar concerns.” Most members of our association have Social Science or Humanities backgrounds and are interested in working across religions in a comparative and theoretically informed way. Looking to analyse wider patterns in behaviours and belief including, importantly, the history and uses of the category “religion”. Our scholarship is not normatively committed to particular traditions or worldviews. And so, while some of our members include the study of theology in their portfolios, we don’t practice – we don’t do Theology per se. (5:00) Coming to this question of impact and engagement, we think in the life-time of the association and, of course, before the association – because the study of religions, in at least the European contexts, goes back to at least the mid-late 19th century – we think we’ve developed an excellent store of knowledge about religions and religion. And we transmit this store of knowledge to our students and we disseminate it in our publications. But, of course, the call for demonstrating impact and engagement out-with classroom and conference has brought us a new set of challenges, like most academic fields. So, well and good. We’re just like other learned societies and disciplinary fields in the modern academy. We’ve got to come to grips, now, with this added level of work in already packed portfolios – this added work about engaging the knowledge we produce, and having a social and public impact with the knowledge we produce. However, the category religion is bound up with an especially complex set of issues and positions that permeates education, politics, church-state relations, media and law to name just a few fields. Now, I’m not arguing that there’s something special about religion, but I am arguing that it’s particularly heavily-freighted and loaded with assumptions and contestations that bring an unusual set of issues for us to deal with in our field. So, that’s happening. At the same time, specific named religious traditions have developed their own associations since 1954- or perhaps they pre-existed 1954, anyway – their own journals and conferences, in an era of increasing specialisation. So that raises the question of what the general theoretical comparative study of religions might be for, in terms of exchanging our knowledge and impacting with our knowledge. That’s really the thing that faces us as an organisation whose raison d’être is to work theoretically with the historical concept of religion, and comparatively across more than one tradition, for example. So that’s a kind-of very brief, potted history of where BASR comes from, what it sees itself as having being doing effectively, and where we are now. The arrival of knowledge exchange, of impact – impact was 20% in the 2014 REF and will be 25% in the 2021 REF – is now a particular challenge for us. So this formal panel is specifically about what impact is Religious Studies making, and what knowledge is it exchanging? So having said that, I want to now open the way to our first contribution on that theme. And it’s Dr Stephen Gregg from the University of Wolverhampton.

Stephen Gregg: Thank you, everybody. And it’s always nice to be in Edinburgh. My first ever BASR conference as a not-so-young post-graduate student was in Edinburgh, I think in 2007. So it’s very nice to be back here. And thank you to Steve and Naomi for organising this. I’ve just got a little ten minute slot and I’m going to try not to be too formal in this. Because what I want to talk to you about is based on some research and thinking that I’ve developed in recent conference papers and also a McGuire – and I’ve made some modest contributions to this debate myself. And this examination of lived or living religion preferences people not texts, practices rather than beliefs. And this cutting edge of the study of religion, I want to argue, is absent when we look at media discourse, political discourse and, crucially, the interdisciplinary discourse when it approaches the study of religion in different contexts. And I want to give you just a couple of examples of this, because I’m very aware that we’re short on time here. One example is political discourse. You may have noticed in the cabinet reshuffle last week, that one of the new faces is Rehman Chishti, who is a Conservative MP of British Asian heritage. And under the old Government of David Cameron he consistently lobbied parliament to use the term Daesh instead of ISIS, when it was talking about the terrorist group in Syria and Iraq. And he did this on the grounds that he didn’t want the word Islam, or anything Islamic, linked with a terrorist organisation. And I totally understand the political expediency for that, to help with community relations. But the problem I have with this – and this isn’t a deep analysis of ISIS, this really isn’t the time or the place for that – but the problem I have with that is the assumption behind it, which is: anyone that commits a violent act, in the name of religion, isn’t a real Muslim; or, if we’re thinking of suicide bombings in Sri Lanka in the Civil War – they’re not real Buddhists; or sexual abuse by clergy isn’t something that a real Christian would do. And this understanding of religion as a benign act, this essentialism and reductionism of what religion is, takes away the everyday experience of people that I hope you disagree with in the name of religion, but they are doing so in the name of religion. And so what we get is a confessional, theological approach to what religion is, essentialising in a benign hermeneutic circle, which I think mutes the voice of people that are understanding the everyday experiences of these religious practitioners – whether we agree with their actions or not. This saturates public discourse within the media, within politics. It’s always faith leaders that are interviewed. It’s never an expert on a particular religion. It’s always an Imam or someone from the British Council of Muslims or someone from the Hindu Council of Britain and so on. And again we’re preferencing this notion of confessionalism. We can see the new initiative of the Religion Media Centre. We can think of religious literacy projects that have run out several universities in recent years. We can think of the Archbishop of Canterbury saying how important it was- just in the last few months he’s said this- that we improve religious literacy. Well I don’t think anyone in this room would disagree with that. But whose understanding of religion are we going to improve the literacy of? The confessional theological understanding of the Archbishop of Canterbury or the academic study of religion in diverse contexts? This filters down through education systems as well. (15:00) You can think of our recent or current – I should say – education policies where the study of religion is not a part of the National Curriculum, but is still a legal requirement to teach in schools. And I have to say, I ‘m not an expert on the Scottish education system but, certainly in England, religion is something to do, not something to study. It is something that is practised and it is confessional from its starting point. And it concerns me that Religious Studies has become a muted voice within this discourse. Just briefly, I wanted to talk about interdisciplinary contexts. If we’re changing what we mean by religion, by looking at everyday practices, by people instead of texts, practices instead of beliefs, if we’re understanding mundane everyday actions as religious actions, then when we talk to an art historian or an archaeologist, or a museum curator or someone in textual analysis and we’re using the same terms but meaning radically different things – how is that working in an interdisciplinary way? I wonder that we’re often having divergent, not convergent conversations. But I don’t want to be completely negative about this. I want to suggest that there are solutions. Talking to Steve about this informally, he’s used a phrase – a couple of times – which has pricked my ears up. Steve Sutcliffe has said, “We need a Ninian Smart moment.” Which is: we need a new revolution as to what the study of religion is, perhaps beyond the Religious Studies of the late 20th century. And I think we need to start by looking at public discourse and focussing specifically on diversity. And I think it’s very simple and we make small simple steps. Because, when you’re trying to explain to a journalist that, actually, this is complicated – that’s not what a journalist wants. They want sound-bites. They want public discourse about our academic disciplines to be simple and to be black and white. Well binaries don’t work anymore, we know that. Look at religious identity, belonging, insider/outsider: it doesn’t work with binaries. So, I want us to make those first small steps by focussing on diversity and particularly hyper-diversity. And if we take those small steps, perhaps – the Religious Studies cutting edge – this new move away from textbook essentialisms of “Christians believe this”, or “Hindus do that”, can filter down into public discourse about lived religious experiences, beyond the textbook boundaries of identities and practices. Thank you.

SS: Thanks very much Stephen, and we’ll move swiftly on, so we’ll have the four presentations and we’ll have plenty of time for discussion about the themes arising. So we’re very pleased to welcome back Dr Suzanne Owen, who studied here for her PhD, and her undergraduate degree, and is now Reader in Religious Studies at the University of Leeds Trinity. I think Suzanne is going to address the question that I mentioned of the category of religion, and how this was an important part of the expertise of our field. And she’s going to be looking at a case study where expertise in how categories are used actually does have some quite important impact.

Suzanne Owen: Yes. Well, hello. So I’m going to talk about the charity registration of a particular case, showing up an area where scholars of religion have had some impact and where they could have even more. And this case, in particular, shows these points. So the charity registration is one means by which a group can claim status as a religion in the UK. As groups must also prove that their religious activities are for public benefit, as a charity, this then domesticates religion by forming groups to conform to, perhaps, liberal Protestant Christian values that religion is a force for good and benign. It is interesting to examine how groups negotiate this criteria for religion, as defined by public bodies, in order to highlight both the problems with defining religion, and how the state marginalises groups that do not fit their criteria by denying them access to certain benefits. Not only is conforming to state definitions of religion a challenge for groups but – according to Matthew Harding and his book on Charity Law and the Liberal State in charity law we find the state marking out certain purposes as charitable according to contested conceptions of what is the good, and then extending legal privileges to those citizens who pursue those purposes. (20:00) So taking a critical religion approach, similar to the work of Timothy Fitzgerald and others, to examine critically the social processes whereby certain groups are counted as religions, as James Beckford also noted, we can really see how the category of religion operated in public discourse and then actually creates a kind of public conception of religion that gives it status and legitimacy. So, in my case, the focus is on how the category of religion operates in charity registration cases, looks at how religion is framed in charity law and is then interpreted by the Commissioners. And these Commissioners are not religion specialists, as you can imagine. They come from Law and Economics, and other areas like that. And so they are using a kind of folk understanding of religion in their conception, that’s been handed down through case law. So the case of the Druid Network was for registering as a charity in England and Wales. Scotland, of course, has got a separate commission for registering charities, and so the Druid Network case was only for England and Wales. But there are groups in Scotland, of course, that have had their own negotiations with the state. So charity registration as a religion – as I said, this kind of folk understanding of religion has been passed down through the generations. It defines religion in a certain way, which is based on their understandings and experience of religion in this country, mainly liberal Protestant Christian. So the criteria is: belief in a Supreme Being or Entity, worship of the Supreme Being or Entity, theological cohesion and ethical framework. So every religion, or group that wants to be registered as a religion, needs to prove this criteria or show evidence of it. And some groups have failed to do this, like Scientology, and the Gnostic Centre, and the Pagan Federation as well. But the Druid Network’s success has made it a significant case in law, because it actually altered the definition of religion in charity law, slightly. And much of their success seems to be due to the influence of scholarship on religions – particularly a statement that was sent in with the application by Graham Harvey at the Open University, in Religious Studies. And this was cited repeatedly in the decision document that you can get on line, where you can get the charity commission decision documents. And they are repeatedly citing his statement as an authority for giving them a reason, a justification, to grant charity registration to the Druid Network as a religion. So the problems for the initial application by the Druid Network was they had problem trying to fulfil the criterion of belief in a Supreme Being or Entity. And the Druid Network wanted to present the concept of Nature as this Supreme Entity. And they failed in their first application but, as I said, in their second application with Graham Harvey’s statement, they gained success and were able to convince the Charity Commissioners that Nature could be conceived of as a Supreme Being or Entity. And thus they’ve – well, in my view, they haven’t actually changed the definition of religion, but they’ve expanded it. And this is definitely an issue, because after their registration it was thought that other pagan groups would have an easier time. And this is not the case, because the pagan federation’s application came after – o r one of their applications – and they still failed. And they failed on theological cohesion. And they contacted me because they knew that I was working on the Druid Network case. And, basically, I think for them they would either have to present themselves as a single religion (which they don’t at the moment – they are an umbrella of different pagan groups) or to challenge the definition of religion in charity law. And, as far as I know, they are not going to do that anymore. And they’ve now decided to apply in a different category, like for education or some other purpose. But still, they need to register as a charity. Groups have to register as something if they’re non-profit, and so forth. So, not for religion for them, it seems. And so I think the next step then is . . . Eileen Barker’s also written lots of witness statements or supporting statements for groups, and she wrote one for the Pagan Federation at one time.(25:00) When they failed she wrote something along the lines, reported by Michael York, that “If they don’t accept the Goddess as a Supreme Being then they’re sexist” or something along those lines that Michael York had reported. So we are already being employed to write statements for groups applying for charity registration as a religion. And I think the more that we are involved in such cases, the more we can influence on trying to erode the popular conceptions of what religion might be. But then, beyond that, there’s also the issue of: why have a separate category of religion at all, for charities? The charity’s work is for public benefit. Why does there need to be distinction between a religious charity and a non-religious charity? And this special sort-of status of religion, I think, does not make a huge sense in religion and just ties them in knots, constantly, when they’re trying to define whether a group is religious or not. But there may be . . . this is an area where we can look more broadly at how the category of religion is operating, and also how it is actually a hindrance and a problem within the state as well. So we’re looking at the discourse and conception of religion, so what that means, of course – the implications of that. Is there something called religion that we can see and define? And my view, of course, of that is that it is a part of discourse; it is a kind of construction. But the state does not see religion that way. It sees it as sui generis: as something that is unique, and something that emerges out of self in distinction to politics, economics and culture and other areas. But by doing that, you marginalise and limit the activity of religions, so that: they are not meant to be political; they are not meant to be making a profit. The problem with Scientology is that, perhaps, they’re seen as a business. And that is the issue. They might not state that, but it might be an underlying bias. And the same thing . . . the way that Government gets angry every time the Archbishop says something political, because religions aren’t meant to be political. So you can see how this sort-of permeates throughout the discourse. And when you study the discourses on religion, you can see these patterns. And also the conception of seeing religion as being inherently good, as well. That plays into that. So, lots of areas where we can actually look at these discourses and how they are defined in law. Thank you.

SS: Ok. So we move onto another kind of case study where this is impact going on, and in Suzanne’s talk, there, it was interesting to see that a key witness to the Charity Commission is a scholar of religions, a senior scholar of religions, in the Religious Studies tradition in the UK. So there’s something going on there – even if it’s room for changing the definition or pushing further at that – that there’s impact from the scholar. This time I’ve got Dr Chris Cotter here, who’s going to talk about another empirical example of impact – this time within the wider scholarly arena of student knowledge, spread around the world, which is one of the criteria of the 2014 REF and will be again in 2021, probably with an expanded remit. In other words, the ability of scholars to effect classroom understanding and pedagogical disseminations of good ideas and cutting-edge theories of research on religion – with a particular focus on postgraduate students. But Chris will tell you about the Religious Studies Project that he co-founded with David, here.

Chris Cotter (CC): Indeed! And as our business cards say: “The Religious Studies Project: Podcasts, Opportunities, Debate!” And this – we’re actually recording for the Religious Studies Project now. We’ll not be recording your discussions so feel free to speak freely. So, the RSP began in May 2011 when David and I met in the bar of Teviot Row House, and decided to record a couple of audio interviews that were passing through this very Edinburgh RS Seminar series. And, formally launching in January 2012, it’s become a truly international collaborative enterprise. We’re currently headline sponsored by the BASR, also the North American Association for the Study of Religions and the International Association for the History of Religions. (30:00) In September 2017, we became a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation – so, one of those educational charities that Suzanne was mentioning. By this point we had amassed over 250 podcasts of around 30 minutes each, with leading scholars on cutting-edge theoretical and empirical issues in the study of religion, in combination with regular response essays that reflect on, expand upon, or critique the podcast output. And, by 2017, listeners had downloaded our podcasts over 400,000 times – with new podcasts averaging over 100 downloads in their first week, growing to over 7000 for some of the more established ones. The website receives over 150,000 hits per year and we’re currently followed by over 4700 accounts on Facebook, and 4200 on Twitter. But, why do podcasts at all? So, back in 2012, we could see a number of advantages to the podcast format. We thought about our own consumption of the medium. They provided us with company when engaged in lonely solitary tasks, a feeling of community, personally curated 24/7 radio station on topics of interest, and an accessible Edu-point to a wide variety of topics. But, where was the podcast for our chosen discipline the academic study of religion? So we decided to start recording the podcasts that we wanted to hear. And this format, we think, democratises knowledge and humanises knowledge production, by giving listeners a chance to hear academics talking naturally, and offering an introduction to the topic somewhere between a Wikipedia entry and a full-length journal article or book. A lot of material can be covered in half an hour, yet this can be digested at the listener’s own pace, time and time again, ad infinitum. And, regardless of our position in the field, we all have to focus our reading, and a podcast can help fill those gaps that we don’t have time to read, and help us to keep up with the latest research and current perspectives of older scholars and themes. But also – in an era of departmental streamlining and closure, and with increasing isolation and stress brought on by the marketisation of education, and by limited budgets for conference participation, etc. – regularly listening to a podcast, we hope, can provide a vital connection to the world, outside the confines of one’s own institution, that can be academically stimulating and provide a sense of community and common purpose. And similarly – given the increasing pressure to relate research to public interest and to make sure that our research is accessible for the public and has impact – recording a podcast is a simple and efficient way to disseminate research freely and accessibly to thousands of potentially interested listeners, and in perpetuity. So, when setting up the RSP, we quickly adopted an attitude of “Don’t wait to be given permission.” And this attitude has pervaded our output to this day. The point wasn’t merely to replicate existing academic structures and outputs but to compliment, challenge or expand upon them. And indeed, it’s unclear whether we would have been able to build anything like the resource that we have, had we been bound by a department or an institution, because of the issues in justifying the cost in time and resources for each episode, slow moving checks and balances, and the inbuilt conservatism of institutions. But after we’d built up a reputation, however, it’s been encouraging to see these existing academic structures engaging with RSP outputs in the form of citations, entries into course syllabi and the occasional more creative or innovative engagement. But all of that being said, it’s not been plain sailing, and we’ve been on the receiving end of a number of important criticisms over the years – the most frequent of which has surrounded the quality of our audio, which we’ve been consistently improving over the year, and which I’m not going to dwell on here. But, you know – try producing your own free podcast! But related to this, it was pointed out along the way that our podcasts might be problematic, for example, for listeners for whom English was not their first language, or – how were people with hearing impairments going to be accessing all of this scholarship? So although we do still try to maintain a level of irreverent humour that’s characterised the podcast from the beginning, I think we decided that bit more professionalism on our part would reduce the opportunity for things to be lost in translation. And we’ve also, recently, begun to transcribe our podcasts – which means that now they can be more easily cited and utilised in the classroom, and it’s also softened some of the barriers surrounding spoken English. (35:00) But, of course, that adds a lot in terms of time and cost. You know a half an hour podcast can take two, three for hours to transcribe. On a different note, given our – by “our” I’m referring to David and I – our situatedness as two white, relatively privileged, relatively heterosexual British men, who’ve been closely associated with the RS system at the University of Edinburgh for over a decade, and who have very specific, very niche research interests, it’s hardly surprising that – despite our best intentions – RSP output has not been as wide-ranging, representative or diverse as it arguably should be. A simple lack of resources is partly to blame – including time and money to fund travel etc. – as is the need for a timely and topical content. You know, if we’re faced with a choice between a less than ideally representative collection of scholars or not recording anything at all, we’ve generally opted for the former. A more cynical response to all of this might be to ask: “Well, who made us the police of religious studies?” We started this free podcast, why should we bother? We’ve been producing this resource for over five years, in our “spare time” with very limited resources, so of course there’s going to be omissions. Of course things will slip through the net. And of course we will unintentionally repeat and reinforce some of the inequalities that plague the field globally, and in our UK context. And whilst there is undoubtedly some truth in this cynical response, we are keenly aware, however, that we do have great deal of responsibility. We had this responsibility when we started, even though we may not have realised it. But this is particularly the case now, given our growing position of authority in the field and our recently acquired charitable status, and the fact that we’re sponsored by some of the highest bodies in Religious Studies. It’s not just our reputation that’s on the line, any more. So although we might be irreverent, we hope that we do take things seriously. And we’re trying to become more proactive than reactive. Controversies thus far have been relatively few and far between, and we’d like to think that when something has gone awry, and problems have been pointed out, we’ve been gracious, understanding and attempted to move forward in a manner that will preserve the existing ethos of the RSP whilst incorporating the critique, learning from it, and putting measures in place to ensure that things are different in future. And we can, maybe, talk more about that later. There will, of course, always be more to be done. And I’m onto my final page, now! The name Religious Studies Project – we deliberately chose this to be ambitious. As we’ve heard already, the discipline is at a crossroads: departments are being squeezed because of cuts and the neoliberalisation of the academy. The subject is – as we’ve also heard – being balkanised into departments, being made up of multiple Area Studies scholars who don’t seem to have the time or interest in cross-cultural comparison, or of theoretical issues, necessarily. Religion is a more prominent aspect of public and political discourse than it has been for decades, yet it seems that our analysis is not being sought or heard. Our larger Project then, with a capital P, is to get Religious Studies the voice that it deserves. No-one knows what RS does. We can help to change that. We believe that these topics are intrinsically interesting and we know that a person talking naturally about a subject they’re passionate about is always engaging. However, too few of us know how to actually go about this. And these are not skills that we’re typically trained in, as academics. And, moreover, the current academic climate – we’ll see how this develops – rewards us for work aimed only at our peers and all-but inaccessible to the public, in journals, conferences, committees etc. The RSP, here, has built the platform for scholars to put forward their research for free, and in a way that anyone can understand, which after all should be a central concern for the publicly funded intellectual. Thinking beyond podcasting and RS, what can others take from this? Because there’s an important difference of approach between the RSP and traditional academic platforms. Had we sought perfect audio, an ideal website, and perfectly diverse participants from day one the project would arguably never have happened – and certainly not keeping to a weekly schedule. Like Facebook’s original motto, which was: “Move fast and break things”, we use an iterative model where we try a lot of things, and improve on what’s working as we go along. And, in this way, our publishing model is closer, we think, to journalism or software development than traditional academia. But this may be an approach that academia needs to embrace in future. That one perfect journal article, behind a paywall, that belongs to another age. And it’s only really serving your own ego, or publishing houses. (40:00) If you want the public to listen, they have to be able to hear you. Hmm!

(Laughter)

SS: OK. Thanks very much, Chris. And onto David Robertson now, Dr David Robertson of the Open University is going to ask a very clearly-defined question: Who are we speaking to?

David Robertson (DR): I hope I give a clearly-defined answer.

SG: The people in this room!

(Laughter)

SS: Yes, well today that’s true isn’t it? But we’re recording it for the Religious Studies Project, so it will be a podcast going out to the world.

DR: Good

Audience Voice: As long as they speak English!

CC: Alright! I’ll see you afterwards . . .

(Laughter)

DR: Edit that out please! Yes. OK. To slip into business speak for a little minute: if this has been a SWOT analysis of the field, then the previous panels have been mostly on the strengths and weaknesses, but I want to focus instead on threats and opportunities. So as not to – because I’m last – to end on too pessimistic a note, I’m going to start with the threats.

(Laughter)

DR: But I want to say, before I start, that we honestly and seriously face the issues before us. Because I don’t think you can answer a question before you correctly understand the question. In short, I think that the current muted voice of RS is not the issue per se but is rather a symptom of larger currents of which, I think, RS is particularly vulnerable. The first is de-traditionalisation and anti-elitism. Now I’m sure I don’t need to point out to anybody here that traditional institutions are increasingly challenged. The scholar can no longer expect their word to simply be accepted as authoritative. I think this will ultimately be for the best, but it will certainly require those who are interested in speaking to the public, to realise that our voice is but one voice in a marketplace. This means we need to make the effort to speak directly to that marketplace. We need to speak and write plainly and simply and, importantly, without appeals to intrinsic authority. And we need to sometimes put aside concerns that are of primary interest to specialists. But the bigger issue is not only whether the public can hear us, it’s whether they even want to. For the public to regain trust in academia, like other institutions, we need to demonstrate its value to them. Why is it in the interests of the public to have a non-confessional social scientific study of religion? And who is making that case? Secondly, is marketisation and neoliberalisation of the university: scholarship is expected to show public impact, yet academics also need to produce REF-able work for a closed academic market, as Chris was saying. This leaves us between two stools, and our working hours further squeezed. This is further the case because high fees are driving more and more attention onto the quality of our teaching. Again, another thing – but another factor that’s taking our time away. The economic values of qualifications is increasingly stressed. It’s not an easy case to make, for RS, to a lay audience. And emphasis on citizenship and morality now means that secondary RE now has very little to do with tertiary RS. And the third point I want to raise, is that the growth of identity politics means that public intellectuals are increasingly required to speak from a particular insider perspective – which is something that Stephen mentioned. For public discourse in religion, this favours apologetic scholarship over critical scholarship. For policy makers in such a climate, scholarship is only useful insofar as it eases tensions between identity groups. So to sum up, at present, successful public intellectuals in the field of RS are generally those whose work addresses and usually supports identity politics, citizenship and economic factors. Indeed, why would public institutions want to hear from, or support a project which seeks to destabilise ideas seen as essential to social order and to individual self-identity? We need to address this issue convincingly and seriously, beyond a REF panel or the British Academy. However, to turn to opportunities, now: the question posed by Stephen, “Why are we being ignored?” leads to the question, “Well, who are we speaking to?” And this is important ant because different groups have different needs and different expectations. So we’ve heard from Suzanne, talking about the law; we’ve heard from Chris, talking about the university; but there are other audiences, such as education at secondary level in schools. RE is a requirement in schools in the UK, but has long been under-funded and under-supported. (45:00) Certainly, a legacy of public sector cuts and an outdated assumption that secularisation meant that it would ultimately become unnecessary anyway. The conversation has come back recently, starting with Linda Woodhead and Charles Clarke’s: A New Settlement for Religion in Schools, 2015, which built on the Westminster Debates, but has a rather normative Christian position which troubles many RS scholars – myself included – and an emphasis on themes of citizenship, tradition and morals. It did, however, kick-start a rather long-overdue discussion. And this year’s We Need to Talk about Religious Education: Manifestos for the Future of RE, edited by Mike Castelli and Mark Chater, is a much bolder contribution which offers a number of manifestos for the future of RE. It argues that leaders of the RE community are struggling to make clear and safe positioning between the wreckage of old assumptions and the messy incomplete birth of the new. These changes are in part the responsibility of RS but we’ve been slow to take up the challenge. There’s definitely been some progress, however, and a number of colleagues have been much more involved in teaching and learning issues, particularly Dominic Corrywright of Oxford Brookes, who was until recently a committee member of the BASR and Wendy Dossett of Chester. The BASR’s new Teaching Award was designed to reward and highlight such work. But we still need increased clarity on the function of RE at secondary level and how that relates to the function of RS at Tertiary level. And indeed, should those subjects be necessarily related? A fourth audience is media which Steven talked briefly about, but I would like to add a slightly more positive note. The old media is on its last legs. Newspapers and TV channels, as we know them today, won’t exist in ten years’ time. Long-form media, however, like documentary series and podcasts, are growing year on year. We’re in a unique position to be able to seize the means of production here, but it requires clear ideas, strategies and, above all, action. The traditional media still thinks in terms of sensation and conflict. But at the same time there is a move to long-form documentary work which is allowing for greater subtlety and nuance. Ben Zeller‘s recent involvement with the ten-podcast series on Heaven’s Gate, which just concluded, is a great example. By compromising slightly, he was able to influence the series producers enough that it was by far the fairest and most sympathetic portrait ever in the media, not only of that group, but of an apocalyptic new religion, full stop. I’m at present involved in the early stages of two similar projects, although on a much smaller scale. And in both cases simply setting out some of the historical background to the producers, to show that these ideas do not simply just spring from nowhere, has been enough to influence the direction that the project’s going in. If we consider how much time we spend on journal papers and the return on our investment, this is obviously worth doing. And there’s no real reason why such projects can’t be part of a REF submission – it’s something that other disciplines do all the time. The final one I want to bring up, briefly, is policy-makers including security. Now INFORM has had a great influence here, as Suzanne mentioned already. But recently Kim Knot and Matt Francis of Lancaster have done some great work with the CREST project on security and terrorism. Suzanne Newcombe from INFORM and myself took part in a workshop in London for Whitehall and MI6, recently, that they organised. And, actually, the RS focus papers were among the most responded to of the entire event. Similarly the massive European Union Project on Conspiracy Theories COST also involves a number of RS colleagues who have again had considerable impact, there. Similarly, the Open University has had great interest in a proposal to start a course designed for Home Office Staff on dealing with different religions. The short version of this is that, in fact – although these people are even busier than we are – if we can make our services available, there is a ready demand: they’re keen to hear what we’ve got to say, especially if we can make it practical. So we need to think about more realistic ways in which we can make that possible. So just to sum up, then, I want to ask a couple more questions. One is: do we really want to be public intellectuals? Are we prepared to put in the extra effort and learn to play the rules of that field? And if not, are we prepared to concede that role? And what becomes of Religious Studies in that case? Thank you.

SS: (50:00) OK. Thanks very much, David. So that’s the end of our contributions. And then the floor now will be open to some questions and observations, engaging with one or other of the informal presentations that we’ve heard. Just to remind you, I tried to put it into context by emphasising the history of the British association of the Study of Religions and that widely generic field of Religious Studies. We had Stephen talking about the danger of Religious Studies becoming a muted voice, where it had little effect in public arenas; Suzanne was then giving us an example, as was Chris in a different way, of actual empirical impact: REF-able impact. REF-able is this terrible kind-of adjective which we’re all using now, which means “able to be submitted to the REF panel.” Two very different case studies there. And David’s finished off by asking a series of interesting questions about audiences as well as the threats that proceed those. So the floor is now open for any contributions, clarifications from our speakers, or observations.

* Correction from Steve Sutcliffe: The “EASR was founded in Krakow in 2000 and first conference was jointly hosted with BASR in Cambridge in 2001.”

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing our podcast archive, or know of any sources of funding for the transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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

Christian evangelical organisations in global anti-trafficking networks

Produced by R. Michael Feener

American evangelical Christian organizations comprise a significant contingent of the global anti-trafficking movement, and mobilize considerable financial resources around a moral objection to prostitution and sex trafficking. In this interview, we talk with Elena Shih about her ethnography of missionary vocational training rehabilitation projects that train sex workers in Beijing and Bangkok to make jewelry that is sold in the United States, and what this can show us about transnational dynamics of religious activism and non-governmental organizations enacted through the corollary motives of salvific evangelism and social entrepreneurship.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

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, candy, pocket knives, and more.

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

Christian Evangelical Organisations in Global Anti-trafficking Networks

Podcast with Elena Shih (27 November 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Shih- Christian Evangelical Organisations in Global Anti-Trafficking Networks 1.1

 

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Giuseppe Bolotta

Catherine Scheer (CS): And Catherine Scheer

GB: And this is the fourth installment in our series on religion and NGOs. Since the turn of the twenty-first century there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both policy makers and academics into the effect of religion as an international aid in development. Within this broad field the work of religious NGOs, or faith-based organisations, has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how their engagements result in changes in our understanding of both religion and development.

CS: Since the turn of the twenty-first century, North American Christian NGOs have become increasingly visible actors in the humanitarian sector. One particularly prominent area of attention and interventions for such organisations has been in the global movements against human trafficking. In this interview we talk with Elena Shih about her multi-sited research on US Evangelical NGO’s involvement in the global anti-trafficking movement, and specifically on their projects in Thailand and China. She will explain how her findings contribute to our understanding of the role of US-based Christian actors in this specific field of rights, advocacy and development. Before introducing our guest for today’s interview we would like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation for supporting our research on this topic and the production of this series. So speaking with us today is Dr Elena Shih, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University, also Faculty Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Slavery and Justice. Dr Shih is a Sociologist specialising in gender and sexuality, transnational race and ethnicity, social movements and labour in the Global South. Giuseppe would you like to go ahead with the first question?

GB: For sure. Thank you very much Elena for being here with us. So in your book, Manufacturing Freedom, you shed light on the role played by Protestant NGOs in the Global anti-trafficking movement, looking at long-term fieldwork in the US where the NGO’s are headquartered as well as in China and Thailand where they have projects. So, what led you to specifically focus on these Christian organisations, and how do you position yourself as a researcher in relation to both these organisations and those that you work with in the aid projects?

Elena Shih (ES): Thanks so much for inviting me to be a part of this podcast and for the wonderful introduction and really provocative first question. I actually didn’t begin this project hoping to understand the role of Christian organisations, and I think that understanding the genesis of the methods that led to this project, maybe, sheds light on some of its ultimate findings. So I began this project in 2007, having just begun graduate school in Sociology at UCLA, and having also just returned from three years of living in China; first working with a women’s legal aid organisation in Beijing and subsequently working with ethnic minority youth on the China-Burma border. And at that time I was very concerned with how the growing American interest and investment in trafficking, globally, didn’t really resonate on the ground in China. And so, when I returned back to the United States for graduate school I wanted to understand some of the gaps between the global and the local in manifesting things like the 2000 United Nations Palermo Protocol and 2000 United States Trafficking Victims Protection Act. So I began by attending a series of anti-trafficking conferences and anti-trafficking fairs that were increasingly prevalent in Southern California around 2007. And we saw an enormous response by American civil society, responding to what the United States had called over and over again a “growing scourge” of human trafficking (5:00). And, week after week, I would go to these different fairs and I started to see a pattern of numerous organisations that were working in different parts of the world, but had centred on social enterprise as their way of intervening. And by social enterprise, what I mean is that they were trying to turn to the markets and sell goods – often what they termed “slave-free” goods – as a way of raising funding around human trafficking, but also bringing money and jobs back into the very communities that they claimed people were trafficked from. I happened to get to know two organisations very well – one that was working in Thailand and one that working is China. Both happened to have offices and activist home-bases in Los Angeles. And I began volunteering with them, doing everything from helping them sell jewellery – which was the good that they were selling – to liaising with customers, to processing inventories, and to just generating different kinds of awareness around their cause. And it wasn’t until maybe eight months of volunteering with these organisations – when I travelled to Asia to see their production sites in Beijing and Bangkok – that I began to understand how important Christian faith was for these organisations. What that looked like on the ground is that for sex workers who are recruited to become jewellery makers in this project, across both organisations, Christian worship – an hour of Christian worship or Bible Study – was a mandatory and populated part of their wage, as were different kinds of spiritual and moral rehabilitation. So, I had workers comment to me that they often-times felt like maybe their promotions or salary bonuses were dependent not so much on their labour output making jewellery, or how they were doing on the shop floor, but more in terms of their spiritual growth and how much they had grown to accept Christianity in their lives. So I think, looking back now, in over a decade that I’ve been working on that project, it still is fairly striking to me that, a lot of times, when this jewellery is sold, a consumer or slavery activist doesn’t necessarily know that it’s attached to highly missionary goals. And, for many people, even the fact that it is a Christian organisation or it is a missionary organisation would not be problematic because it is ultimately serving a development goal in the end. Which is that of bringing jobs and economic alternatives to sex workers in Asia.

GB: Right.

CS: Wow. That is a very long-term engagement and it is fascinating to hear how you have really encountered, or kind-of bumped into the religious aspect of these organisations, and how your own experience reflects what the customer sees or doesn’t see in a very interesting way. Now, a question more specifically about these American Evangelical organisations. They comprise a significant contingent of the global anti-trafficking movement and mobilise considerable financial resources around the moral objection to prostitution, as you point out in your research. Can you tell us a bit more about the ways in which these organisations situate themselves within this global movement of anti-trafficking, for instance, in relation to non-faith-based organisations? And also how do they influence the movement’s lines? And how are they influenced by this more general global anti-trafficking movement?

ES: Yes, I think that there’s a really fascinating and particularly American history of the Christian Right, in particular, in the formation of anti-trafficking protocols in the United States and there are definitely scholars who are far better positioned to talk about that than I (10:00). So I would definitely direct listeners to work by two scholars in particular: that of Yvonne Zimmerman, who has a book under the title Other Dreams of Freedom, and then one of my own advisers, Elizabeth Bernstein’s work on what she called the sexual politics of neo-abolition, that documents a really interesting strange-bedfellows-coalition between Evangelical Christian and radical feminists, particularly on the issue of trafficking. But inasmuch as my work is concerned, I think that this actually is a good opportunity to talk about how the work fits into your wonderful volume on religion and the techno-politics of development, because I’ve really seen that religious organisations used the secular politics of rights and development alongside evangelical goals of proselytisation, so that the two are almost mutually interchangeable.

GB: Right

ES: And I think that vocational training has become a really, really popular technical solution for human trafficking, and particularly around something like prostitution, which is framed as a hugely moral problem, and which is framed as an absolute worst choice for a woman in the Global South who has no other options. And so, you see everybody from USAID to these grassroots religious organisations trying to think of ways to retrain people, to provide vocational training, as way of offering other alternatives to sex work. The main problem around it is that when you’re still training people in menial and manual low-wage labour, it still is not much of an alternative. So jewellery is one such menial low wage job, but it’s just one of the numerous commodities that’s now sold as a part of the anti-trafficking movement. You see everything from bedspreads to silk pyjamas being made in India, to traditional Henna craft and silk scarves coming out of Mongolia. And I think these are all part of a concerted attempt among anti-trafficking organisations to, what they call, “leverage the market-place”, to raise funds and awareness around the issue of trafficking. And I think one of the reasons why religious organisations have had to turn to social enterprise is, for the United States as an example, faith-based organisations are often excluded from certain kinds of federal or government funding when religious proselytisation is a core goal of theirs. And also, as religious organisations, they’re able to tap into huge bases of church-goers, parishioners, who see social justice goals as inextricable from Christian theology. And so I think that there’s been a real turn, on the part of churches, to recognise social justice in a reasonably complicated world. And – in a more shrewd, market-based, calculated turn – to find ways for faith-based organisations to fund themselves when they can’t seek other sources of funding.

GB: Right. So we’ve been talking about faith-based organisations, Evangelical movements in the United States, but it’s interesting to see what is happening in the other two field sites you chose which are Thailand and China. And Thailand and China provide two very different legal contexts for the work of Christian NGOs. So, Elena, how do these different juridical and policy frameworks influence the ways in which these NGOs implement their projects on the ground, and how do local perceptions of the articulation between aid and Christianity take shape in these very different contexts?

ES: I think that one of the greatest empirical paradoxes of this project is still that you could have the exact same American Evangelical Christian jewellery project operating in both Thailand and China, which we understand to be vastly different in terms of their political economic regimes. And so, one might classify as Thailand officially as a democratic monarchy, whereas China is more often understood as post-socialist authoritarian (15:00). The way that this plays out is that concretely, on the ground, Thailand offers over three hundred missionary visas to foreigners every year. And that means that foreign missionaries constitute one of the largest sources of tourist income – expat populations – and that their comings and goings are very rarely monitored. But it’s completely legal to be a foreign missionary in Thailand and it’s absolutely prevalent. You know, if you show up to any of the large cities there are public gatherings, churches, Christian churches that foreigners can attend. You contrast that to China which is notoriously restrictive of religious practice and which absolutely would see the presence of American Christians as a threat of imperialism. There are very few places for Chinese Christians to practice. They are almost completely relegated to what are called “home churches”. And as a foreigner, there are like single-designated places where Christian who are foreigners can practise in China. So that’s just the religious atmosphere. Combined with their atmosphere towards foreigners, it’s vastly different from China in Thailand. How this plays out within vocational training organisations for sex workers is, in Thailand sex workers who’ve chosen to work as jewellery makers are able to treat that more as any other kind of job that they might choose. So they’re not required to live on site. They rent an apartment, in Bangkok. A lot of them have part-time jobs, or are actually on full-time jobs working up to forty hours a week because of the pay cut that they have to take from being sex workers to becoming jewellery makers. It just doesn’t provide them with a living wage. And by contrast, in China, because the organisation has to be more careful about the scrutiny of the local police and government censorship, they require all workers to live on site in a mandatory dorm and there’s no way that any of those workers would be able to have a part-time job. And workers definitely feel a bit more stifled in China. And I think one larger difference in how this affects workers’ experience of religion is that in Thailand, given that freedom – or relative freedom – of religion, about 30% of people under rehabilitation have actually converted to Christianity. Whereas in China, where a history of conversion isn’t as prevalent, there are very, very low – it may be one or two people converted in the decade that I’ve studied these organisations.

GB: Right.

CS: Well, thank you very much for these very insightful and precise answers that can give us a grasp of what is going on in those countries. Just, maybe, a last question that is more general: is there anything that you would like to add, as a kind of concluding note, about what we have learned about faith-based activism in this field?

ES: I think the takeaway that I would love listeners to have is hopefully not that faith-based organisations in particular are flawed in their approaches, but that it really is anti-trafficking or human trafficking or sex trafficking as a concept that is flawed and misunderstood, and needs to be interrogated more clearly. Because, ultimately, my work argues that by transforming sexual labour into low wage manual labour these organisations are able to meld Christian ideas around good morals and salvific evangelism within secular development goals around decent work. But these should not be satisfying because we’re living in a world without decent work options (20:00). And I think the last thing that I’ll say about this, or that I’d further caution, is that there’s a growing trend moving away from the Palermo Protocol and definitions of human trafficking, shifting to an increasing number of people wanting to use the term “modern day slavery”. And I think what modern day slavery signals is a gesture towards pinpointing extreme and absolute cases of human suffering. Faith-based organisations and secular rights-based organisations both need to expand their purview of work into maybe taking a little bit of morality out of what we understand is good work, and listening to migrant workers, sex workers around the world who are telling us the different conditions that they’re looking for. So I think what I was saying was that by looking at, and fetishising theses extreme cases of human suffering – the one-off cases in brick kilns or in full sexual slavery – we don’t get to understand the hundreds of people who are seeking to have better lives, working in those areas, where there can be incremental changes for worker health, safety and better access to labour rights and working conditions across the board.

GB: This was really inspiring. Thank you very much, Dr Shih, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project.

CS: Thank you, Elena.

ES: Thank you so much to both of you, and for all of your hard work. And I can’t wait to hear the rest of the series.

GB: Thank you Elena.

Citation Info: Shih, Elena, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Christian Evangelical Organisations in Global Anti-trafficking Networks”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 17 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/christian-evangelical-organisations-in-global-anti-trafficking-networks/

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

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

South American church-state relations

imgPolitics and social institutions are inseparable. Whether we take a look at small-scale or complex societies, we can find that politics is involved with economics, kinship with hierarchy, and of course, religion with the state. The relationship between the last two has been shaped by numerous processes throughout human history; but, if we place our attention in the history of the western world, we can identify a turning point, one that started with the first waves of enlightened thought (eighteenth century), continuing with the posterior massive drop-out of catholic religiosity, and culminating with the total separation of religion and the state. In this podcast, Sidney Castillo interviews professor Marco Huaco Palomino as he addresses the nuances of secularity in several Latin American countries.

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, Richard Dawkins memorabilia, and more.

Gods and Demons, Scholars and Lawyers: Brief Reflections on American Religion and Law

Talking to lawyers is a real skill, and Eric Mazur is very good at it. In the subfield of traditional American church-state studies, legal historians, lawyers, lobbyists, and religion scholars convene for conservation and debate, mostly about First Amendment jurisprudence. As Mazur explains in his RSP interview, that conversation has in recent years lost its place, at least at the American Academy of Religion, and so he has revived it with a Religion and Law discussion group, which has met concurrently with AAR for each of the last two years (full disclosure: I have participated in both meetings). These conversations—at the AAR meetings and in the field more generally—are lively, rigorous, and fascinating, but sometimes frustrating. Unlike many other fields, the range of topics is actually quite small but the variety of approaches is wide. This self-imposed limitation was, according to Mazur, a primary reason for forming the discussion group. This is a group of people who come from very different backgrounds and perspectives—and with different goals—but can talk about the same things, namely, court cases dealing with the First Amendment’s establishment clause and free exercise clause. This is the opposite of many subfield groups, who are organized by a method (ethnography, for example) and use that same method on vastly different data sets. Here, we have a quite small shared data set but diverse methods. Everyone can speak at length, using shorthand, about certain acts, cases, decisions, and dissents, and everyone in the room can follow it. But why these people care, and, more practically, what they’re trying to do, can result in some talking-past each other. Few people are as good as Mazur at bridging these interests and assembling the components for a productive exchange.

The interview includes a number of interesting exchanges, as Mazur describes the state of the field, the advent of the discussion group, and his own career. I was particularly interested in Mazur’s answer to the question about why there is an increasing interest in religion and law. He noted that some religion scholars got into studying the law through studying New Religious Movements (NRMs) or minority religions, as they tend to be treated differently under the law. One of Mazur’s books, here.) This focus does bring out a possible tension between two approaches. Are we studying the law, the Supreme Court decisions, and legal language, etc., or are we studying religious groups and how their practices and beliefs shape and are shaped by law? Of course, it can be both, but the different emphases can evince different goals among scholars. Mazur highlighted the tension between those who have a “normative notion” of religious freedom and those who do not (at least not so explicitly.) On the normative side are not just lawyers, but also theologians, philosophers, lobbyists, and even clergy members. Others take a more descriptive/analytical approach, seeing the law as an institution with effects on American (religious) life and thus worth studying in historical or sociological ways.

In my view, there are two ways that the field of religion and law should expand. First, I think that “law” has been taken to mean primarily the First Amendment’s religion clauses, and there are many other interactions between religious communities and the law worth studying. Mazur mentions this briefly in the interview. Religion scholars would do well to learn about tax law or tort law or intellectual property. Law is not simply religious freedom. And, furthermore, religious freedom means a lot more than First Amendment law. The discourse of freedom, the various states of freedom and un-freedom under which subjects live, and the processes by which freedom is manufactured and protected are all topics that could be taken up by scholars of religion and law. Second, delimiting our area of focus to the United States can miss the international context for American religious law. On one hand, the limited scope makes sense, since American law does apply, for the most part, to America. However, American religious freedom, understood as a human right, is being naturalized and exported. This has tremendous ramifications for foreign policy, religious nationalism, and diplomacy. Constitutional scholars who focus on religion largely have ignored these important developments.

That being said, I think there is a place for the type of “traditional” constitutional conversations Mazur has advocated and facilitated. As I stated above, it is enjoyable and somewhat rare to have a room (or some non-physical space) full of people who speak the same language, who know what Reynolds and Schempp and Boerne v. Flores and RFRA mean. It can lead to productive and detailed conversations. Historians and other scholars contribute to public understanding, but they also can be involved in shaping the law, through an amicus brief or as an expert witness, for example. Many religion scholars (though of course not all) are wary to do anything that smacks of “advocacy.” However, if we are writing about contemporary laws and their impact on religious communities, or about the logic structuring certain laws and cases, our work can have effects even if we do not intend them. So, why not be intentional about it in the first place? Or at least be willing to engage in conversation, if not outright “political” action? If we are going to engage in this type of public work, we need a common language to speak. Working with academics can be an unpleasant experience, and our analytical goals can distract from the winning cases or lobbying for particular causes. But, if lawyers and scholars are going to talk to each other, it has to be at least somewhat on the lawyers’ terms.

References

Gordon, Sarah Barringer. The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Mazur, Eric Michael. The Americanization of Religious Minorities: Confronting the Constitutional Order. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Su, Anna. Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Wenger, Tisa. We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

 

Religion and American Law

In this interview, Professor Eric Mazur discusses a variety of issues relating to religion and law in the USA, such as the evolving state of First Amendment jurisprudence, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, dominant trends in the study of religion and American law, and controversial legislation such as the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. Dr. Mazur also discusses his efforts to help cultivate a space at the American Academy of Religion that is explicitly devoted to the study of religion and American law. This interview provides an introduction and summary of this increasingly important field.

Minority Religions and the Law, and our general introduction to Religion and the Law with Winnifred F. Sullivan. 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, potpourri, vintage cars, and more.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 2 February 2016

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has submitted calls for papers, event notifications, job vacancies, etc. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

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Calls for papers

7th Queering Paradigms Conference

June 11–12, 2016

Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands

Deadline: April 4, 2016

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Undergraduate conference: “Faith and Power”

August 4–7, 2016

Central European University, Hungary

Deadline: April 1, 2016

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Law and Religion Scholars Network

Cardiff University, UK

Deadline: February 29, 2016

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Sacred stuff: Material culture and the geography of religion

August 30–September 2, 2016

London, UK

Deadline: February 8, 2016

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Religion, literature and culture: Lines in sand

September 9–11, 2016

University of Glasgow, UK

Deadline: April 18, 2016

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Historical Re-Enactment, Contemporary Paganism and Fantasy-Based Movements

May 20–21, 2016

Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania

Deadline: March 21, 2016

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Islam and Peaceful Relations

April 5, 2016

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: February 15, 2016

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Postgraduate Conference on Religion and Theology: “Perfection”

March 11–12, 2016

University of Bristol, UK

Deadline: February 19, 2016

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Time and Myth: The Temporal and the Eternal

May 26–28, 2016

Masaryk University, Czech Republic

Deadline: March 15, 2016

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Fetish Boots and Running Shoes: Indecent Theology Today into Tomorrow

July 8, 2016

University of Winchester, UK

Deadline: March 7, 2016

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AAR 2016: Religion and Public Schools: International Perspectives Group

November 19–22, 2016

San Antonio, TX, USA

Deadline: March 1, 2016

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Fieldwork: Doing Ethnographic Research

June 24, 2016

Birmingham City University, UK

Deadline: March 25, 2016

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Events

Inform seminar: New Religious Radicalisms

May 21, 2016

London School of Economics, UK

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Arbeitskreis interdisdisziplinäre Hexenforschung

February 18–20, 2016

Stuttgart-Hohenheim, Germany

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Research Methods in the Study of Religion

University of Kent, UK

Deadline: February 5, 2016

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Jobs

2 PhD positions in sociology project: “Postsecular Conflicts”

University of Innsbruck, Austria

Deadline: February 15, 2016

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3 PhD studentships

Coventry University, UK

Deadline: February 19, 2016

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PhD position: “Multiple Secularities: Beyond the West, Beyond Modernities”

University of Leipzig, Germany

Deadline: February 5, 2016

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PhD studentship: Cognitive Science of Religion

Belfast, UK; Aarhus, Denmark

Deadline: April 29, 2016

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Visiting Fellowship

Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore

Deadline: March 31, 2016

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Associate Professor, Full Professor: Jewish History/Studies

Case Western Research University, OH, United States

Deadline: March 1, 2016

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Postdoctoral fellowship

University of Pennsylvania, USA

Deadline: February 15, 2016

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Instructor: Buddhist Studies

Antioch University, OH, USA

Deadline: April 15, 2016

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Postdoctoral Fellowship: Chinese Buddhism

Columbia University, NY, USA

Deadline: April 20, 2016

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New Religious Movements and Contemporary Discourses About Religion

As I listened to Susan Palmer’s RSP interview and read about her new co-authored book (with Stuart A. Wright) Storming Zion: Government Raids on Religious Communities (2015), I was reminded why NRMs make such useful case studies in the religious studies classroom. From a pedagogical perspective, the study of NRMs offers a valuable resource for creative teaching and theorizing about religion. In my introductory classes, for example, I use Scientology to illustrate how NRMs have negotiated with the state in their quest for legitimacy. There is plenty of great scholarship to assign, and students are often surprised to learn how seemingly unrelated government agencies–the Food and Drug Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation–helped legitimate Scientology’s “religion” status.

One of the most useful parts of Palmer’s interview, then, is her insistence on paying attention to the words people use to describe NRMs. Winnifred Sullivan, in her recent book, argues that the US government (and the US Supreme Court in particular) increasingly understands “religion” as “being neither particularly threatening nor particularly in need of protection” (17). The trend, as Sullivan and others have noted, is increasingly to see people as religious by default, even (and perhaps especially) those people who do not see themselves as religious. What, then, are we to make of religious groups whose relationship with the state do not fit this mold? How do we explain relationships so contentious that they result in raids and gun battles? At first glance, the events chronicled in Palmer’s Storming Zion seem to be outliers. Yet Palmer and Wright suggest elsewhere that these kinds of raids are more common than one might suspect. Why?

One possible answer is that increased attention to religion by international governments and NGOs has not necessarily resulted in less problematic models of religion being used by these governments and groups. As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has pointed out in her recent book, what scholars understand as “religion” often makes for unwieldy government use. Hurd demonstrates how government classifications of religion are by necessity rigid and slow to respond to change, leading governments to understand and engage religion in a clumsy–and in Palmer’s studies, dangerous–fashion.

Of course, most of the large-scale government efforts directed at cultivating appropriate forms of religion aren’t directed at the kinds of groups Palmer studies. It boils down to size, as Palmer and Robertson both note: smaller groups can be more easily dismissed or ignored by those in power. This is another example of the way in which governments separate religious groups into what might be called “serious” and “unserious” camps, an approach sometimes replicated by the scholars who study them. Both Palmer and Davidson call for more work to be done to change this status quo. They would like to see groups with little political or social capital treated similarly to “big name” religions–the groups that get chapters devoted to them in World Religions textbooks. They would like to see, to paraphrase JZ Smith, how the “exotic” NRMs are just another example of “what we see in Europe everyday.” Smith notes the difference by explaining it as a tension “between religion imagined as an exotic category of human experience and expression, and religion imagined as an ordinary category of human expression and activity.”[1] (1). Thus, as Palmer points out, even the seemingly “exotic” components of NRMs–things like brainwashing and deprogramming–should be both historicized and theorized.[2]

These considerations are timely ones. Though the interview focuses on what religion scholars might expect to hear on work related to NRMs–Raelians, Scientologists, millennial movements of various stripes–I was struck by how much of what was discussed would apply to Islam. Robertson and Palmer note how the media and popular culture tend to portray NRMs in particularly dismissive or fear-inducing ways. As events of recent weeks have again reminded us, what do we make of the fact that Islam is often discussed using similar language? The same kinds of militarized policing tactics directed at NRMs have, in recent weeks, been endorsed by a number of candidates for U.S. president as a means to control Muslims in the United States and around the world.

There’s a relevant history to this “NRM-ization” of Islam, particularly in the United States. Those interested in Palmer’s work, and in her work on government raids on NRMs, should also make time for Sylvester Johnson’s African-American Religions, 1500-2000, specifically his study of the history of the US government’s surveillance of and violence towards African-American Muslims. Johnson’s work highlights many of the tensions Palmer identifies: how classificatory criticism (“authentic” religion versus “cults”) bolstered state action against the political claims of new and emerging religious groups (in this specific case, the Nation of Islam). As a result, Johnson argues, “US officials increasingly resorted to the specific grammar of terrorism to represent political Islam.”[3] While scholars do not usually place global Islam within the category of new religious movements, Johnson shows how this early racialization of Islam within the United States shapes how global Islam is treated by the US government today.

For someone like myself, interested in questions of law and religion, the tension between emerging religious groups and state authorities is one of particular importance. Susan Palmer’s interview is a great example of why new religious movements make such good tools with which scholars can think about the study of religion.

[1] Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University Of Chicago Press, 1982), xii.

[2] For one excellent and recent example, see Matthew Dunne, A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

[3] Sylvester Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 382.

Minority Religions and the Law

cult” and “sect” uncritically. Nevertheless, outside of academia, the language of “cults” continues to be used, and particularly through the law, has an affect on the lives of real people. Susan J. Palmer joins David G. Robertson to discuss the intersection between new or minority religions and the law. Professor Palmer describes how she came to study these minority groups, and to realise that they were often being misrepresented, or at least unduly targeted. Discussion ranges from Scientology in France to the Branch Davidians and the Nuwaubians in the US, with issues of secularity, race and “brainwashing” come to the fore. A fascinating overview for anyone interested in how the discourse on “religion” operates in the contemporary world.

Religion and the Law (Winnifred F. Sullivan), Studying “Cults” (Eileen Barker), and Is Britain still a Christian country? (Linda Woodhead), and feature essays by Daniel SillimanEssi Mäkelä, and Kevin Whitesides. 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, fake fir trees, playing cards, and more!

Religion, Secularism and the Chaplaincy

As Sullivan and other religious studies scholars complicate terms like religion and secularism, reducing these terms to near incoherence, and insist on the constant intermingling of the sacred and the secular, they leave jurists and legislators in a predicament with important practical consequences.

Religion, Secularism, and the Chaplaincy

By Dusty Hoesly, University of California, Santa Barbara

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 24 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Winnifred F. Sullivan on Religion and the Law (22 April 2013)

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Professor and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Indiana University, Bloomington, may be the supreme interpreter of the intersection of law and religion in American society today.  Each of her three books—Paying the Words Extra, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, and Prison Religion—treats individual legal cases both textually and anthropologically, examining their particular cultural and legal contexts as well as their wider import for discourse in American law and society generally.  Her work is attuned equally to debates within the field of religious studies, especially to how scholars of religion constitute the object of their study.

In this interview for The Religious Studies Project, Sullivan focuses on her latest project, which examines chaplaincy in secular settings, as well as on her larger body of work.  Her recent presentation, “Ministries of Presence: Chaplains as Priests of the Secular,” uses chaplaincy as a lens for thinking beyond her previous work in critiquing constitutional and legal protections for religious freedom, and arguing for the instability and incoherence of the category of religion as a basis for legal regulation.  Putting aside her study of the management of religion in constitutional settings, in this project Sullivan examines how religion and law shape each other on the ground.  She concludes that chaplains have come to serve a role of ministering to what is increasingly understood as a universal spiritual need, which she labels a “naturalization of religion.”

For Sullivan, the figure of the chaplain in Western Christendom has always been an ambiguous figure, a minister whose duties lie away from church authority or congregational demands.  In modern secular institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and the military, the chaplain’s role remains ambiguous since, unlike doctors, guards, or soldiers, the chaplain is an explicit broker between the sacred and the secular.  The chaplain is paid by secular institutions and beholden to secular authorities, despite the religious character of the chaplain’s work or the chaplain’s religious allegiance.  Chaplains may find themselves obliged to endorse secular missions, such as nationalism or militarism, that run contrary to the chaplain’s religious mission.

The role of the chaplain and the social perception of chaplaincy in America have both changed significantly since World War II, Sullivan argues.  In the mid-twentieth century, patients, inmates, and soldiers imagined that chaplains had specific ministerial resources that were particular to each denomination, such that Catholic priests, for example, could offer services that no other denomination’s chaplains could.  Today, however, chaplaincy is far more generalized and less identified with any particular tradition.  Contemporary chaplains practice a “ministry of presence,” a stripped-down form of witness (to use a Christian word) that is a “suffering with” those seeking spiritual guidance.  Chaplains are trained to de-emphasize their individual religious identities so that they can provide a non-imposing, non-coercive presence, letting clients instead take the lead in terms of any religious specificity.

In her presentation, Sullivan observes the rise of credentialing as a major shift in chaplaincies during the 20th century.   Credentialing, rather than mere religious training, is now required in order to serve as a chaplain.  Would-be chaplains must earn a Master of Divinity degree, intern with a clinical pastoral education program, and obtain an ecclesiastical endorsement, all of which must be accredited or recognized by the government.  These cooperative efforts between state and religion have resulted in the standardization and professionalization of the chaplaincy.  Anyone can be a chaplain today, Sullivan argues.  It becomes a white collar job, one requiring expensive educational training and a lengthy apprenticeship.  As Randall Collins has argued, the credential becomes symbolic of one’s ability to do the actual work.

For chaplains who must serve a diverse clientele, including Roman Catholics, Wiccans, Southern Baptists, and atheists, specific denominational beliefs and practices, as well as religion itself, become “cultural resources” (to use James Beckford’s term).  Religion loses its claim to be sui generis, instead revealing itself to be socially constructed according to the practical needs of the moment when a client requests the services of a chaplain.  This offering of non-denominational spiritual advice to any and all seekers is illustrative of the secularization and commoditization of the chaplaincy.

But the process is not complete and, therefore, neither is Sullivan’s analysis.  Atheists and secular humanists may be consumers of chaplaincy services, but they are not yet permitted by the government to serve as chaplains in hospitals, prisons, or the military.  Even if the credentialing process in theory is open to any person, from whatever background, as Sullivan claims, this does not mean that anyone can become a chaplain in actual practice.  Groups such as the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers are seeking recognition by the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, but they have been unsuccessful so far.  That said, many prisons now include yoga and meditation groups, blurring the boundary between secular and religious practices and challenging the role of prison chaplains as exclusive brokers between the sacred and the secular.  And some higher education institutions, including Harvard, Rutgers, Stanford, Columbia, and American University, now incorporate humanist chaplaincies, responding to a growing call for guidance that is explicitly secular.

How might these humanist movements complicate Sullivan’s analysis?  Sullivan argues that in contemporary American jurisprudence religion has become a universal human phenomenon, albeit one that takes many forms.  But in the instances noted above, we see people who reject religion and yet who desire counseling and meaningful ritual during difficult times in their lives.  These people feel that they are not being best served by the supposedly secularized chaplains which Sullivan describes.  They want a chaplain with a particularly secular worldview rather than a naturalized non-denominational Protestantism which they perceive as coercive and not representative of their beliefs.  While Sullivan maintains that today’s chaplains are priests of the secular, actual secular people are excluded from the chaplaincy.

As Sullivan and other religious studies scholars complicate terms like religion and secularism, reducing these terms to near incoherence, and insist on the constant intermingling of the sacred and the secular, they leave jurists and legislators in a predicament with important practical consequences.  If religion and secularism are unstable and interpenetrating categories in American law, as Sullivan has argued, how can bureaucratic functionaries or judges justify excluding secular humanists from the chaplaincy?  Despite Sullivan’s claims about the naturalization of religion and the homogenization of the chaplaincy, American law still recognizes distinctions between what is religious and what is secular, and so do the people who consume and seek to provide chaplaincy services.

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

Dusty Hoesly is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in Religions of North America.  His research focuses on religion and irreligion in the American West, specifically the values held by people who self-describe as not religious, how those values developed, how they translate into social or political action, and how irreligious people interpret experiences that stand apart from ordinary life.  Incorporating fieldwork, surveys, and historical and material culture research, this project will help explain the growth of religious “nones” in the U.S. and reexamine the categories of sacred and secular in contemporary society.  Other research interests include religion in the American West, comparative secularisms, liberal evangelicalism, and religion and politics. He has previously published The Last Best Hope of Earth? Bron Taylor and the Limits of Dark Green Religion for the Religious Studies Project.

Bibliography

  • Collins, Randall. The Credential Society: A Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. New York: Academic Press, 1979.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. Paying the Words Extra: Religious Discourse in the Supreme Court of the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton             University Press, 2009.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. “We Are All Religious Now. Again.” Social Research 76.4 (2009): 1181-1198.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Religion and the Law

Within modern American society the meme of a separation of Church and State exists without a doubt; however, there is very little evidence to actually prove that this separation exists, functions as such, or indeed that it ever existed. In the textbooks, popular news outlets and in the political arena religion is supposed to be wholly withheld-expelled in favor of majority rule. However, when we turn our attention to state-managed organizations such as the federal prisons or state forest services or support for military veterans, we find that the lines are blurred.

With an eye to this seemingly ironic phenomenon Winnifred F. Sullivan presented a lecture entitled “Ministries of Presence: Chaplains as Priests of the Secular” at Arizona State University as part of the ASU Center for Religion and Conflict’s lecture series. Excerpted from her upcoming book of the same title, Sullivan considers the oversight, regulation and licensure of religious chaplains within the American Veterans’ Administration, as well several other governmental and on-governmental institutions. In this interview with Chris Duncan (Arizona State University), the discussion centers predominantly on the world in which many chaplains come to find themselves due to a “new kind of religious universalism”; from having to be prepared to minister across the borders of their own religious traditions, as in the case of a Catholic chaplain being required to assist Jewish or otherwise non-Catholic practitioners in a federal prison or a chaplain working with the state of Maine Warden Service. Sullivan asks whether we really have a separation of the Church and the State, how do we insure that everyone’s religious needs are being met within secular institutions like the Veterans’ Administration, and how does the State license and approve of applicants to the chaplaincy- how does, should, could an ostensibly secular federal organization approve or disapprove of religious ministers within its ranks.

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

Sullivan is the Department Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington as well as Affiliate Professor of Law in the Maurer School of Law at the same institution. She holds both a J.D. and a PhD. from the University of Chicago and is the author of  Paying the Words Extra: Religious Discourse in the Supreme Court of the United States (Harvard 1994), The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton 2005), and Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution (Princeton 2009).

Redefinition of the eclectic group-identity

In a way, when registering themselves, non-institutional religious groups take a step toward being more institutional and possibly even hierarchical – even if there is not much of hierarchy within the group to begin with.

Redefinition of the eclectic group-identity

By Essi Mäkelä

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 31 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Suzanne Owen on Druidry and the Definition of Religion (29 October 2012).

In the podcast Suzanne Owen refers to the Druidry’s manifold self-identification situation. It seems to me this is a wide-spread phenomenon where there are conflicting ideas about how ‘religion’ should be defined in practice of less institutional groups and more or less eclectic individuals as opposed to what it seems to be in the traditional and institutional context. When written tradition is forced on non-written tradition, conflicts of definition are bound to happen. Druidry is mostly used as a term for a tribute to the ”ancient Druidic ways” that are believed to have been the practice in Britain. The quality of the details is then dependent on how an indivual – or a group – uses this idea of Druidry. Similarly, in Discordianism – a parody at it’s birth – there is an idea of it being a religion since it has a Goddess, a book and so on, but in practice the ideas of freedom and humour as salvation are more important to an individual than what is written about Eris, the Greek goddess of discord (Cusack, 2010; Mäkelä, 2012).

Like in religious devoutness, there are different levels of commitment in the way an ideology or a tradition is used – be it as a religious practice, philosophy or folklorism or something completely different. In my own studies with Discordians, I have come to learn that the use of Discordianism varies from political to philosophical to religious or plain humorous depending on the individual, the time and the place. The membership of the Archibishop of Canterbury in a Druidic society does not necessarily affect the status of Druidry as a religion in itself. For the Archibishop it might indeed not be an individual religion – or an institutional one that would question the so called authority of the Anglican church. For him, Druidry might be more of a traditional and even political practice – as discussed in the podcast – but for other members the definition might be something else. For Druidry, it seems, this is not a problem since it uses the so called eclectic approval of many pagan traditions: an individual does not have to commit to only one tradition at the expense of other traditions. The Anglican Church might have a different policy, but since Druidry – as other pagan traditions – can be used very differently depending on the needs of the individuals, this does not have to be a conflict of terms.

I agree with Owen that instead of trying to define these mixed groups as religion or not, it is more interesting to ask why and in what situations does a group or an individual define their tradition as a religion or something else. Also, it is an interesting concept how these societies come to register themselves as religious charity or religious communities and by doing so, end up writing a sort of definition of their religion that was never before actually official. A Finnish group, called Karhun kansa (”Bear Tribe”), is trying to register themselves as a religious community in Finland. As I write this, the application is still being handled. As with the Druid Network in Britain, Karhun kansa has now given a written definition of their Finnish folk faith tradition. Should they be registered, I believe this definition could end up being more definitive about the whole faith than what, perhaps, the founders of the group had in mind.

In a way, when registering themselves, non-institutional religious groups take a step toward being more institutional and possibly even hierarchical – even if there is not much of hierarchy within the group to begin with. It might be interesting to study these emerging registered group-identities compared to the non-registered groups that claim to follow the same tradition as the registered one – but with a different agenda. Also the individual idea of ‘religion’ as a definition from outside as opposed to the religious or spiritual needs from within could be a subject for a closer analysis in the future. What are some of the individual definitions of ‘religion’ and how often and how closely do they coincide with the concepts defined within the different national registering systems? This could be a good starting point for possible renewal of these registering systems to better suit the needs of these emerging religious community-trends.

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:

Essi Mäkelä, MA, graduated from the University of Helsinki in the summer of 2012. She did her Thesis on Discordianism within the theoretical framework of “liquid religion”. New religious movements are in her special interests. At the moment, among others, she is working on the Finnish translation of the Discordian book Principia Discordia. She is also the author of the Religious Studies Project Feature, Finding religiosity within a parody.

 

 

 

References:

  • Cusack, Carole 2010: Invented Religions – Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate Publishing Limited, Surrey, England)
  • Mäkelä, Essi 2012: Parodian ja uskonnon risteyksessä : Notkea uskonto suomalaisten diskordianistien puheessa (Unpublished MA Thesis for the University of Helsinki)

Druidry and the Definition of Religion

Contemporary Druidry often presents itself as the native spirituality of the British Isles. However, there is not one form of Druidry and there are also significant numbers of Christian and atheist Druids as well as those that combine Druidry with Wiccan or other perspectives and practices. From international organisations to local ‘groves’, there are diverse types of Druid groups, as well as lone practitioners. Chris and David are joined this week by Dr Suzanne Owen to talk in-depth about this fascinating subject, and its implications for wider understandings of the category ‘religion’.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Redefinition of the eclectic group identity.

The modern roots of Druidry, detailed in Ronald Hutton’s Blood and Mistletoe: the History of the Druids in Britain (Yale UP, 2009), began largely with the seventeenth and eighteenth century antiquarians who formed various societies and fraternities, some of which still exist. Many features of contemporary Druidry originated with Edward Williams (1747-1826), who took the bardic name Iolo Morganwg and founded the Gorsedd (gathering of Bards). It is difficult to determine a common element between the various groups, though many contemporary Druids recognise awen, the ‘inspiration’ of bards and Druids, and have an interest in trees and tree lore. To find out more, have a listen to the podcast and/or check out some of Suzanne’s publications.

Suzanne Owen lectures at Leeds Trinity University College, UK,  in all aspects of Religious Studies (especially method and theory and south Asian traditions) and researches indigeneity and contemporary indigenous traditions, particularly in North America. She is currently co-chair of the Indigenous Religious Traditions Group for the American Academy of Religion. Her PhD from the University of Edinburgh focussed on the sharing of Native American ceremonies and included fieldwork among Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland. More recently, she has been researching Druidry and has given papers on this topic in relation to indigeneity or religion at several international conferences, and written the following piece for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, which listeners should be interested in: Religion / Not Religion – A Discourse Analysis.

This interview was recorded at the University of Edinburgh in April 2012, and we are very grateful for Suzanne’s help in compiling this post and, of course, for a great interview.

Suzanne and David at the 2012 BASR Conference in Winchester

Podcasts

The BASR and the Impact of Religious Studies

A panel on the public impact and engagement of Religious Studies/Study of Religion/s led by committee members of the British Association for the Study of Religions, including Dr Stephen Gregg (Wolverhampton), Dr Christopher Cotter (Edinburgh), Dr Suzanne Owen (Leeds Trinity), Dr David Robertson (The Open University) and Dr Steven Sutcliffe (Edinburgh).

Issues discussed include why RS continues to be a “muted voice” in public discourse; minority religion and the law; podcasting; and new audiences for RS.

This was presented as part of the University of Edinburgh’s Religious Studies seminar series.

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, stuffed rabbits, Ramen, and more.

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

The BASR and the Impact of Religious Studies

Podcast with Steve Sutcliffe, Stephen Gregg, Christopher Cotter, Suzanne Owen and David Robertson (12 March 2018).

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: The BASR and The Impact of Religious Studies 1.2

Steve Sutcliffe (SS): Ok. Well, thanks for waiting on a bit. Sorry about the delay in getting started. Because impact and knowledge exchange are so much the discourse of the day for academics – whether you’re still a research student, or whether you’ve got a post – we thought it would be useful to have some kind of a brief event where each of us, from the committee of the British Association for the Study of Religions, say a few words about what they thought some of the challenges and issues of that were for the study of religions, and for Religious Studies in particular. So we tried to put together this panel to tie in with a committee meeting of the British Association of the Study of Religions, which we’ve just come hot-foot from in the McIntyre Room. Because, of course, our committee members live all over the country. Stephen, in particular, has come up from Wolverhampton, and has spent most of the day on the train even getting here. And Suzanne, who’ll be familiar to some of you as a former student here, has come up from Leeds. So we thought, “We’ll be all in the one place, so let’s also do some sort of outward facing event.” So we’ve got four brief, informal presentations from each of the folks here: David Robertson, Christopher Cotter, Stephen Gregg and Suzanne Owen. And I thought I’d introduce it first, with just a few words on the perspective of the British Association for the Study of Religions, in so far as it represents Religious Studies scholars and Study of Religion scholars in the UK. And some of this will be familiar to some of you, but it may be less familiar to others. And we’re not giving you a kind of official line. This isn’t a BASR statement, it’s just individual committee members’ views on – what they call in the old clichéd media – the burning issues of our time. So the British Association, just to give you a little bit of history – this is me, by the way! I’m Steven Sutcliffe. And when I’m not teaching here, I’ve also been president of the British Association for the Study of Religion, for the last two and a half years. So the BASR began in 1954. And it was part of an organisation called the International Association for the History of Religions, which was set up in 1950. And then later on BASR, in 1999, helped to launch the European Association for the Study of Religion, which is very much still in business. And we actually hosted the European Association’s first annual conference in Cambridge, that year.* We began, in the mists of time, as a dozen or so members in what seems to have been a fairly clubby style, based around Oxford, Cambridge and London. But we’ve now grown to about 180 fee-paying members. And we’ve been helped very much getting the membership list nice and lean, with all paying members, with our membership treasurer Chris Cotter, here. We publish an electronic Bulletin twice a year, and we publish a journal once a year. We hold archives of the Bulletin and other papers in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and one of our members, Chris Cotter again, is currently completing a small project on the oral and documentary history of the British Association, which we hope to build on in the future, for some more grant funding, to get a larger history for the study of religions in the UK. Past presidents – in which august tradition I’m very proud to stand – have included Ninian Smart, Geoffrey Parrinder, Ursula King, Kim Knott and Marion Bowman. So, I give you this institutional background just to be sure that you realise that we’ve got about 60 years-plus of a learned society, promoting the study of religions in the UK. We define ourselves in this way, which is consonant with the International Association of the History of Religions, and the European Association for the Study of Religions: “The object of BASR is to promote the academic study of religions – understood as the historical, social, theoretical, critical and comparative study of religions – through the interdisciplinary collaboration of all scholars whose research is defined in this way. BASR is not a forum for confessional, apologetic or similar concerns.” Most members of our association have Social Science or Humanities backgrounds and are interested in working across religions in a comparative and theoretically informed way. Looking to analyse wider patterns in behaviours and belief including, importantly, the history and uses of the category “religion”. Our scholarship is not normatively committed to particular traditions or worldviews. And so, while some of our members include the study of theology in their portfolios, we don’t practice – we don’t do Theology per se. (5:00) Coming to this question of impact and engagement, we think in the life-time of the association and, of course, before the association – because the study of religions, in at least the European contexts, goes back to at least the mid-late 19th century – we think we’ve developed an excellent store of knowledge about religions and religion. And we transmit this store of knowledge to our students and we disseminate it in our publications. But, of course, the call for demonstrating impact and engagement out-with classroom and conference has brought us a new set of challenges, like most academic fields. So, well and good. We’re just like other learned societies and disciplinary fields in the modern academy. We’ve got to come to grips, now, with this added level of work in already packed portfolios – this added work about engaging the knowledge we produce, and having a social and public impact with the knowledge we produce. However, the category religion is bound up with an especially complex set of issues and positions that permeates education, politics, church-state relations, media and law to name just a few fields. Now, I’m not arguing that there’s something special about religion, but I am arguing that it’s particularly heavily-freighted and loaded with assumptions and contestations that bring an unusual set of issues for us to deal with in our field. So, that’s happening. At the same time, specific named religious traditions have developed their own associations since 1954- or perhaps they pre-existed 1954, anyway – their own journals and conferences, in an era of increasing specialisation. So that raises the question of what the general theoretical comparative study of religions might be for, in terms of exchanging our knowledge and impacting with our knowledge. That’s really the thing that faces us as an organisation whose raison d’être is to work theoretically with the historical concept of religion, and comparatively across more than one tradition, for example. So that’s a kind-of very brief, potted history of where BASR comes from, what it sees itself as having being doing effectively, and where we are now. The arrival of knowledge exchange, of impact – impact was 20% in the 2014 REF and will be 25% in the 2021 REF – is now a particular challenge for us. So this formal panel is specifically about what impact is Religious Studies making, and what knowledge is it exchanging? So having said that, I want to now open the way to our first contribution on that theme. And it’s Dr Stephen Gregg from the University of Wolverhampton.

Stephen Gregg: Thank you, everybody. And it’s always nice to be in Edinburgh. My first ever BASR conference as a not-so-young post-graduate student was in Edinburgh, I think in 2007. So it’s very nice to be back here. And thank you to Steve and Naomi for organising this. I’ve just got a little ten minute slot and I’m going to try not to be too formal in this. Because what I want to talk to you about is based on some research and thinking that I’ve developed in recent conference papers and also a McGuire – and I’ve made some modest contributions to this debate myself. And this examination of lived or living religion preferences people not texts, practices rather than beliefs. And this cutting edge of the study of religion, I want to argue, is absent when we look at media discourse, political discourse and, crucially, the interdisciplinary discourse when it approaches the study of religion in different contexts. And I want to give you just a couple of examples of this, because I’m very aware that we’re short on time here. One example is political discourse. You may have noticed in the cabinet reshuffle last week, that one of the new faces is Rehman Chishti, who is a Conservative MP of British Asian heritage. And under the old Government of David Cameron he consistently lobbied parliament to use the term Daesh instead of ISIS, when it was talking about the terrorist group in Syria and Iraq. And he did this on the grounds that he didn’t want the word Islam, or anything Islamic, linked with a terrorist organisation. And I totally understand the political expediency for that, to help with community relations. But the problem I have with this – and this isn’t a deep analysis of ISIS, this really isn’t the time or the place for that – but the problem I have with that is the assumption behind it, which is: anyone that commits a violent act, in the name of religion, isn’t a real Muslim; or, if we’re thinking of suicide bombings in Sri Lanka in the Civil War – they’re not real Buddhists; or sexual abuse by clergy isn’t something that a real Christian would do. And this understanding of religion as a benign act, this essentialism and reductionism of what religion is, takes away the everyday experience of people that I hope you disagree with in the name of religion, but they are doing so in the name of religion. And so what we get is a confessional, theological approach to what religion is, essentialising in a benign hermeneutic circle, which I think mutes the voice of people that are understanding the everyday experiences of these religious practitioners – whether we agree with their actions or not. This saturates public discourse within the media, within politics. It’s always faith leaders that are interviewed. It’s never an expert on a particular religion. It’s always an Imam or someone from the British Council of Muslims or someone from the Hindu Council of Britain and so on. And again we’re preferencing this notion of confessionalism. We can see the new initiative of the Religion Media Centre. We can think of religious literacy projects that have run out several universities in recent years. We can think of the Archbishop of Canterbury saying how important it was- just in the last few months he’s said this- that we improve religious literacy. Well I don’t think anyone in this room would disagree with that. But whose understanding of religion are we going to improve the literacy of? The confessional theological understanding of the Archbishop of Canterbury or the academic study of religion in diverse contexts? This filters down through education systems as well. (15:00) You can think of our recent or current – I should say – education policies where the study of religion is not a part of the National Curriculum, but is still a legal requirement to teach in schools. And I have to say, I ‘m not an expert on the Scottish education system but, certainly in England, religion is something to do, not something to study. It is something that is practised and it is confessional from its starting point. And it concerns me that Religious Studies has become a muted voice within this discourse. Just briefly, I wanted to talk about interdisciplinary contexts. If we’re changing what we mean by religion, by looking at everyday practices, by people instead of texts, practices instead of beliefs, if we’re understanding mundane everyday actions as religious actions, then when we talk to an art historian or an archaeologist, or a museum curator or someone in textual analysis and we’re using the same terms but meaning radically different things – how is that working in an interdisciplinary way? I wonder that we’re often having divergent, not convergent conversations. But I don’t want to be completely negative about this. I want to suggest that there are solutions. Talking to Steve about this informally, he’s used a phrase – a couple of times – which has pricked my ears up. Steve Sutcliffe has said, “We need a Ninian Smart moment.” Which is: we need a new revolution as to what the study of religion is, perhaps beyond the Religious Studies of the late 20th century. And I think we need to start by looking at public discourse and focussing specifically on diversity. And I think it’s very simple and we make small simple steps. Because, when you’re trying to explain to a journalist that, actually, this is complicated – that’s not what a journalist wants. They want sound-bites. They want public discourse about our academic disciplines to be simple and to be black and white. Well binaries don’t work anymore, we know that. Look at religious identity, belonging, insider/outsider: it doesn’t work with binaries. So, I want us to make those first small steps by focussing on diversity and particularly hyper-diversity. And if we take those small steps, perhaps – the Religious Studies cutting edge – this new move away from textbook essentialisms of “Christians believe this”, or “Hindus do that”, can filter down into public discourse about lived religious experiences, beyond the textbook boundaries of identities and practices. Thank you.

SS: Thanks very much Stephen, and we’ll move swiftly on, so we’ll have the four presentations and we’ll have plenty of time for discussion about the themes arising. So we’re very pleased to welcome back Dr Suzanne Owen, who studied here for her PhD, and her undergraduate degree, and is now Reader in Religious Studies at the University of Leeds Trinity. I think Suzanne is going to address the question that I mentioned of the category of religion, and how this was an important part of the expertise of our field. And she’s going to be looking at a case study where expertise in how categories are used actually does have some quite important impact.

Suzanne Owen: Yes. Well, hello. So I’m going to talk about the charity registration of a particular case, showing up an area where scholars of religion have had some impact and where they could have even more. And this case, in particular, shows these points. So the charity registration is one means by which a group can claim status as a religion in the UK. As groups must also prove that their religious activities are for public benefit, as a charity, this then domesticates religion by forming groups to conform to, perhaps, liberal Protestant Christian values that religion is a force for good and benign. It is interesting to examine how groups negotiate this criteria for religion, as defined by public bodies, in order to highlight both the problems with defining religion, and how the state marginalises groups that do not fit their criteria by denying them access to certain benefits. Not only is conforming to state definitions of religion a challenge for groups but – according to Matthew Harding and his book on Charity Law and the Liberal State in charity law we find the state marking out certain purposes as charitable according to contested conceptions of what is the good, and then extending legal privileges to those citizens who pursue those purposes. (20:00) So taking a critical religion approach, similar to the work of Timothy Fitzgerald and others, to examine critically the social processes whereby certain groups are counted as religions, as James Beckford also noted, we can really see how the category of religion operated in public discourse and then actually creates a kind of public conception of religion that gives it status and legitimacy. So, in my case, the focus is on how the category of religion operates in charity registration cases, looks at how religion is framed in charity law and is then interpreted by the Commissioners. And these Commissioners are not religion specialists, as you can imagine. They come from Law and Economics, and other areas like that. And so they are using a kind of folk understanding of religion in their conception, that’s been handed down through case law. So the case of the Druid Network was for registering as a charity in England and Wales. Scotland, of course, has got a separate commission for registering charities, and so the Druid Network case was only for England and Wales. But there are groups in Scotland, of course, that have had their own negotiations with the state. So charity registration as a religion – as I said, this kind of folk understanding of religion has been passed down through the generations. It defines religion in a certain way, which is based on their understandings and experience of religion in this country, mainly liberal Protestant Christian. So the criteria is: belief in a Supreme Being or Entity, worship of the Supreme Being or Entity, theological cohesion and ethical framework. So every religion, or group that wants to be registered as a religion, needs to prove this criteria or show evidence of it. And some groups have failed to do this, like Scientology, and the Gnostic Centre, and the Pagan Federation as well. But the Druid Network’s success has made it a significant case in law, because it actually altered the definition of religion in charity law, slightly. And much of their success seems to be due to the influence of scholarship on religions – particularly a statement that was sent in with the application by Graham Harvey at the Open University, in Religious Studies. And this was cited repeatedly in the decision document that you can get on line, where you can get the charity commission decision documents. And they are repeatedly citing his statement as an authority for giving them a reason, a justification, to grant charity registration to the Druid Network as a religion. So the problems for the initial application by the Druid Network was they had problem trying to fulfil the criterion of belief in a Supreme Being or Entity. And the Druid Network wanted to present the concept of Nature as this Supreme Entity. And they failed in their first application but, as I said, in their second application with Graham Harvey’s statement, they gained success and were able to convince the Charity Commissioners that Nature could be conceived of as a Supreme Being or Entity. And thus they’ve – well, in my view, they haven’t actually changed the definition of religion, but they’ve expanded it. And this is definitely an issue, because after their registration it was thought that other pagan groups would have an easier time. And this is not the case, because the pagan federation’s application came after – o r one of their applications – and they still failed. And they failed on theological cohesion. And they contacted me because they knew that I was working on the Druid Network case. And, basically, I think for them they would either have to present themselves as a single religion (which they don’t at the moment – they are an umbrella of different pagan groups) or to challenge the definition of religion in charity law. And, as far as I know, they are not going to do that anymore. And they’ve now decided to apply in a different category, like for education or some other purpose. But still, they need to register as a charity. Groups have to register as something if they’re non-profit, and so forth. So, not for religion for them, it seems. And so I think the next step then is . . . Eileen Barker’s also written lots of witness statements or supporting statements for groups, and she wrote one for the Pagan Federation at one time.(25:00) When they failed she wrote something along the lines, reported by Michael York, that “If they don’t accept the Goddess as a Supreme Being then they’re sexist” or something along those lines that Michael York had reported. So we are already being employed to write statements for groups applying for charity registration as a religion. And I think the more that we are involved in such cases, the more we can influence on trying to erode the popular conceptions of what religion might be. But then, beyond that, there’s also the issue of: why have a separate category of religion at all, for charities? The charity’s work is for public benefit. Why does there need to be distinction between a religious charity and a non-religious charity? And this special sort-of status of religion, I think, does not make a huge sense in religion and just ties them in knots, constantly, when they’re trying to define whether a group is religious or not. But there may be . . . this is an area where we can look more broadly at how the category of religion is operating, and also how it is actually a hindrance and a problem within the state as well. So we’re looking at the discourse and conception of religion, so what that means, of course – the implications of that. Is there something called religion that we can see and define? And my view, of course, of that is that it is a part of discourse; it is a kind of construction. But the state does not see religion that way. It sees it as sui generis: as something that is unique, and something that emerges out of self in distinction to politics, economics and culture and other areas. But by doing that, you marginalise and limit the activity of religions, so that: they are not meant to be political; they are not meant to be making a profit. The problem with Scientology is that, perhaps, they’re seen as a business. And that is the issue. They might not state that, but it might be an underlying bias. And the same thing . . . the way that Government gets angry every time the Archbishop says something political, because religions aren’t meant to be political. So you can see how this sort-of permeates throughout the discourse. And when you study the discourses on religion, you can see these patterns. And also the conception of seeing religion as being inherently good, as well. That plays into that. So, lots of areas where we can actually look at these discourses and how they are defined in law. Thank you.

SS: Ok. So we move onto another kind of case study where this is impact going on, and in Suzanne’s talk, there, it was interesting to see that a key witness to the Charity Commission is a scholar of religions, a senior scholar of religions, in the Religious Studies tradition in the UK. So there’s something going on there – even if it’s room for changing the definition or pushing further at that – that there’s impact from the scholar. This time I’ve got Dr Chris Cotter here, who’s going to talk about another empirical example of impact – this time within the wider scholarly arena of student knowledge, spread around the world, which is one of the criteria of the 2014 REF and will be again in 2021, probably with an expanded remit. In other words, the ability of scholars to effect classroom understanding and pedagogical disseminations of good ideas and cutting-edge theories of research on religion – with a particular focus on postgraduate students. But Chris will tell you about the Religious Studies Project that he co-founded with David, here.

Chris Cotter (CC): Indeed! And as our business cards say: “The Religious Studies Project: Podcasts, Opportunities, Debate!” And this – we’re actually recording for the Religious Studies Project now. We’ll not be recording your discussions so feel free to speak freely. So, the RSP began in May 2011 when David and I met in the bar of Teviot Row House, and decided to record a couple of audio interviews that were passing through this very Edinburgh RS Seminar series. And, formally launching in January 2012, it’s become a truly international collaborative enterprise. We’re currently headline sponsored by the BASR, also the North American Association for the Study of Religions and the International Association for the History of Religions. (30:00) In September 2017, we became a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation – so, one of those educational charities that Suzanne was mentioning. By this point we had amassed over 250 podcasts of around 30 minutes each, with leading scholars on cutting-edge theoretical and empirical issues in the study of religion, in combination with regular response essays that reflect on, expand upon, or critique the podcast output. And, by 2017, listeners had downloaded our podcasts over 400,000 times – with new podcasts averaging over 100 downloads in their first week, growing to over 7000 for some of the more established ones. The website receives over 150,000 hits per year and we’re currently followed by over 4700 accounts on Facebook, and 4200 on Twitter. But, why do podcasts at all? So, back in 2012, we could see a number of advantages to the podcast format. We thought about our own consumption of the medium. They provided us with company when engaged in lonely solitary tasks, a feeling of community, personally curated 24/7 radio station on topics of interest, and an accessible Edu-point to a wide variety of topics. But, where was the podcast for our chosen discipline the academic study of religion? So we decided to start recording the podcasts that we wanted to hear. And this format, we think, democratises knowledge and humanises knowledge production, by giving listeners a chance to hear academics talking naturally, and offering an introduction to the topic somewhere between a Wikipedia entry and a full-length journal article or book. A lot of material can be covered in half an hour, yet this can be digested at the listener’s own pace, time and time again, ad infinitum. And, regardless of our position in the field, we all have to focus our reading, and a podcast can help fill those gaps that we don’t have time to read, and help us to keep up with the latest research and current perspectives of older scholars and themes. But also – in an era of departmental streamlining and closure, and with increasing isolation and stress brought on by the marketisation of education, and by limited budgets for conference participation, etc. – regularly listening to a podcast, we hope, can provide a vital connection to the world, outside the confines of one’s own institution, that can be academically stimulating and provide a sense of community and common purpose. And similarly – given the increasing pressure to relate research to public interest and to make sure that our research is accessible for the public and has impact – recording a podcast is a simple and efficient way to disseminate research freely and accessibly to thousands of potentially interested listeners, and in perpetuity. So, when setting up the RSP, we quickly adopted an attitude of “Don’t wait to be given permission.” And this attitude has pervaded our output to this day. The point wasn’t merely to replicate existing academic structures and outputs but to compliment, challenge or expand upon them. And indeed, it’s unclear whether we would have been able to build anything like the resource that we have, had we been bound by a department or an institution, because of the issues in justifying the cost in time and resources for each episode, slow moving checks and balances, and the inbuilt conservatism of institutions. But after we’d built up a reputation, however, it’s been encouraging to see these existing academic structures engaging with RSP outputs in the form of citations, entries into course syllabi and the occasional more creative or innovative engagement. But all of that being said, it’s not been plain sailing, and we’ve been on the receiving end of a number of important criticisms over the years – the most frequent of which has surrounded the quality of our audio, which we’ve been consistently improving over the year, and which I’m not going to dwell on here. But, you know – try producing your own free podcast! But related to this, it was pointed out along the way that our podcasts might be problematic, for example, for listeners for whom English was not their first language, or – how were people with hearing impairments going to be accessing all of this scholarship? So although we do still try to maintain a level of irreverent humour that’s characterised the podcast from the beginning, I think we decided that bit more professionalism on our part would reduce the opportunity for things to be lost in translation. And we’ve also, recently, begun to transcribe our podcasts – which means that now they can be more easily cited and utilised in the classroom, and it’s also softened some of the barriers surrounding spoken English. (35:00) But, of course, that adds a lot in terms of time and cost. You know a half an hour podcast can take two, three for hours to transcribe. On a different note, given our – by “our” I’m referring to David and I – our situatedness as two white, relatively privileged, relatively heterosexual British men, who’ve been closely associated with the RS system at the University of Edinburgh for over a decade, and who have very specific, very niche research interests, it’s hardly surprising that – despite our best intentions – RSP output has not been as wide-ranging, representative or diverse as it arguably should be. A simple lack of resources is partly to blame – including time and money to fund travel etc. – as is the need for a timely and topical content. You know, if we’re faced with a choice between a less than ideally representative collection of scholars or not recording anything at all, we’ve generally opted for the former. A more cynical response to all of this might be to ask: “Well, who made us the police of religious studies?” We started this free podcast, why should we bother? We’ve been producing this resource for over five years, in our “spare time” with very limited resources, so of course there’s going to be omissions. Of course things will slip through the net. And of course we will unintentionally repeat and reinforce some of the inequalities that plague the field globally, and in our UK context. And whilst there is undoubtedly some truth in this cynical response, we are keenly aware, however, that we do have great deal of responsibility. We had this responsibility when we started, even though we may not have realised it. But this is particularly the case now, given our growing position of authority in the field and our recently acquired charitable status, and the fact that we’re sponsored by some of the highest bodies in Religious Studies. It’s not just our reputation that’s on the line, any more. So although we might be irreverent, we hope that we do take things seriously. And we’re trying to become more proactive than reactive. Controversies thus far have been relatively few and far between, and we’d like to think that when something has gone awry, and problems have been pointed out, we’ve been gracious, understanding and attempted to move forward in a manner that will preserve the existing ethos of the RSP whilst incorporating the critique, learning from it, and putting measures in place to ensure that things are different in future. And we can, maybe, talk more about that later. There will, of course, always be more to be done. And I’m onto my final page, now! The name Religious Studies Project – we deliberately chose this to be ambitious. As we’ve heard already, the discipline is at a crossroads: departments are being squeezed because of cuts and the neoliberalisation of the academy. The subject is – as we’ve also heard – being balkanised into departments, being made up of multiple Area Studies scholars who don’t seem to have the time or interest in cross-cultural comparison, or of theoretical issues, necessarily. Religion is a more prominent aspect of public and political discourse than it has been for decades, yet it seems that our analysis is not being sought or heard. Our larger Project then, with a capital P, is to get Religious Studies the voice that it deserves. No-one knows what RS does. We can help to change that. We believe that these topics are intrinsically interesting and we know that a person talking naturally about a subject they’re passionate about is always engaging. However, too few of us know how to actually go about this. And these are not skills that we’re typically trained in, as academics. And, moreover, the current academic climate – we’ll see how this develops – rewards us for work aimed only at our peers and all-but inaccessible to the public, in journals, conferences, committees etc. The RSP, here, has built the platform for scholars to put forward their research for free, and in a way that anyone can understand, which after all should be a central concern for the publicly funded intellectual. Thinking beyond podcasting and RS, what can others take from this? Because there’s an important difference of approach between the RSP and traditional academic platforms. Had we sought perfect audio, an ideal website, and perfectly diverse participants from day one the project would arguably never have happened – and certainly not keeping to a weekly schedule. Like Facebook’s original motto, which was: “Move fast and break things”, we use an iterative model where we try a lot of things, and improve on what’s working as we go along. And, in this way, our publishing model is closer, we think, to journalism or software development than traditional academia. But this may be an approach that academia needs to embrace in future. That one perfect journal article, behind a paywall, that belongs to another age. And it’s only really serving your own ego, or publishing houses. (40:00) If you want the public to listen, they have to be able to hear you. Hmm!

(Laughter)

SS: OK. Thanks very much, Chris. And onto David Robertson now, Dr David Robertson of the Open University is going to ask a very clearly-defined question: Who are we speaking to?

David Robertson (DR): I hope I give a clearly-defined answer.

SG: The people in this room!

(Laughter)

SS: Yes, well today that’s true isn’t it? But we’re recording it for the Religious Studies Project, so it will be a podcast going out to the world.

DR: Good

Audience Voice: As long as they speak English!

CC: Alright! I’ll see you afterwards . . .

(Laughter)

DR: Edit that out please! Yes. OK. To slip into business speak for a little minute: if this has been a SWOT analysis of the field, then the previous panels have been mostly on the strengths and weaknesses, but I want to focus instead on threats and opportunities. So as not to – because I’m last – to end on too pessimistic a note, I’m going to start with the threats.

(Laughter)

DR: But I want to say, before I start, that we honestly and seriously face the issues before us. Because I don’t think you can answer a question before you correctly understand the question. In short, I think that the current muted voice of RS is not the issue per se but is rather a symptom of larger currents of which, I think, RS is particularly vulnerable. The first is de-traditionalisation and anti-elitism. Now I’m sure I don’t need to point out to anybody here that traditional institutions are increasingly challenged. The scholar can no longer expect their word to simply be accepted as authoritative. I think this will ultimately be for the best, but it will certainly require those who are interested in speaking to the public, to realise that our voice is but one voice in a marketplace. This means we need to make the effort to speak directly to that marketplace. We need to speak and write plainly and simply and, importantly, without appeals to intrinsic authority. And we need to sometimes put aside concerns that are of primary interest to specialists. But the bigger issue is not only whether the public can hear us, it’s whether they even want to. For the public to regain trust in academia, like other institutions, we need to demonstrate its value to them. Why is it in the interests of the public to have a non-confessional social scientific study of religion? And who is making that case? Secondly, is marketisation and neoliberalisation of the university: scholarship is expected to show public impact, yet academics also need to produce REF-able work for a closed academic market, as Chris was saying. This leaves us between two stools, and our working hours further squeezed. This is further the case because high fees are driving more and more attention onto the quality of our teaching. Again, another thing – but another factor that’s taking our time away. The economic values of qualifications is increasingly stressed. It’s not an easy case to make, for RS, to a lay audience. And emphasis on citizenship and morality now means that secondary RE now has very little to do with tertiary RS. And the third point I want to raise, is that the growth of identity politics means that public intellectuals are increasingly required to speak from a particular insider perspective – which is something that Stephen mentioned. For public discourse in religion, this favours apologetic scholarship over critical scholarship. For policy makers in such a climate, scholarship is only useful insofar as it eases tensions between identity groups. So to sum up, at present, successful public intellectuals in the field of RS are generally those whose work addresses and usually supports identity politics, citizenship and economic factors. Indeed, why would public institutions want to hear from, or support a project which seeks to destabilise ideas seen as essential to social order and to individual self-identity? We need to address this issue convincingly and seriously, beyond a REF panel or the British Academy. However, to turn to opportunities, now: the question posed by Stephen, “Why are we being ignored?” leads to the question, “Well, who are we speaking to?” And this is important ant because different groups have different needs and different expectations. So we’ve heard from Suzanne, talking about the law; we’ve heard from Chris, talking about the university; but there are other audiences, such as education at secondary level in schools. RE is a requirement in schools in the UK, but has long been under-funded and under-supported. (45:00) Certainly, a legacy of public sector cuts and an outdated assumption that secularisation meant that it would ultimately become unnecessary anyway. The conversation has come back recently, starting with Linda Woodhead and Charles Clarke’s: A New Settlement for Religion in Schools, 2015, which built on the Westminster Debates, but has a rather normative Christian position which troubles many RS scholars – myself included – and an emphasis on themes of citizenship, tradition and morals. It did, however, kick-start a rather long-overdue discussion. And this year’s We Need to Talk about Religious Education: Manifestos for the Future of RE, edited by Mike Castelli and Mark Chater, is a much bolder contribution which offers a number of manifestos for the future of RE. It argues that leaders of the RE community are struggling to make clear and safe positioning between the wreckage of old assumptions and the messy incomplete birth of the new. These changes are in part the responsibility of RS but we’ve been slow to take up the challenge. There’s definitely been some progress, however, and a number of colleagues have been much more involved in teaching and learning issues, particularly Dominic Corrywright of Oxford Brookes, who was until recently a committee member of the BASR and Wendy Dossett of Chester. The BASR’s new Teaching Award was designed to reward and highlight such work. But we still need increased clarity on the function of RE at secondary level and how that relates to the function of RS at Tertiary level. And indeed, should those subjects be necessarily related? A fourth audience is media which Steven talked briefly about, but I would like to add a slightly more positive note. The old media is on its last legs. Newspapers and TV channels, as we know them today, won’t exist in ten years’ time. Long-form media, however, like documentary series and podcasts, are growing year on year. We’re in a unique position to be able to seize the means of production here, but it requires clear ideas, strategies and, above all, action. The traditional media still thinks in terms of sensation and conflict. But at the same time there is a move to long-form documentary work which is allowing for greater subtlety and nuance. Ben Zeller‘s recent involvement with the ten-podcast series on Heaven’s Gate, which just concluded, is a great example. By compromising slightly, he was able to influence the series producers enough that it was by far the fairest and most sympathetic portrait ever in the media, not only of that group, but of an apocalyptic new religion, full stop. I’m at present involved in the early stages of two similar projects, although on a much smaller scale. And in both cases simply setting out some of the historical background to the producers, to show that these ideas do not simply just spring from nowhere, has been enough to influence the direction that the project’s going in. If we consider how much time we spend on journal papers and the return on our investment, this is obviously worth doing. And there’s no real reason why such projects can’t be part of a REF submission – it’s something that other disciplines do all the time. The final one I want to bring up, briefly, is policy-makers including security. Now INFORM has had a great influence here, as Suzanne mentioned already. But recently Kim Knot and Matt Francis of Lancaster have done some great work with the CREST project on security and terrorism. Suzanne Newcombe from INFORM and myself took part in a workshop in London for Whitehall and MI6, recently, that they organised. And, actually, the RS focus papers were among the most responded to of the entire event. Similarly the massive European Union Project on Conspiracy Theories COST also involves a number of RS colleagues who have again had considerable impact, there. Similarly, the Open University has had great interest in a proposal to start a course designed for Home Office Staff on dealing with different religions. The short version of this is that, in fact – although these people are even busier than we are – if we can make our services available, there is a ready demand: they’re keen to hear what we’ve got to say, especially if we can make it practical. So we need to think about more realistic ways in which we can make that possible. So just to sum up, then, I want to ask a couple more questions. One is: do we really want to be public intellectuals? Are we prepared to put in the extra effort and learn to play the rules of that field? And if not, are we prepared to concede that role? And what becomes of Religious Studies in that case? Thank you.

SS: (50:00) OK. Thanks very much, David. So that’s the end of our contributions. And then the floor now will be open to some questions and observations, engaging with one or other of the informal presentations that we’ve heard. Just to remind you, I tried to put it into context by emphasising the history of the British association of the Study of Religions and that widely generic field of Religious Studies. We had Stephen talking about the danger of Religious Studies becoming a muted voice, where it had little effect in public arenas; Suzanne was then giving us an example, as was Chris in a different way, of actual empirical impact: REF-able impact. REF-able is this terrible kind-of adjective which we’re all using now, which means “able to be submitted to the REF panel.” Two very different case studies there. And David’s finished off by asking a series of interesting questions about audiences as well as the threats that proceed those. So the floor is now open for any contributions, clarifications from our speakers, or observations.

* Correction from Steve Sutcliffe: The “EASR was founded in Krakow in 2000 and first conference was jointly hosted with BASR in Cambridge in 2001.”

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing our podcast archive, or know of any sources of funding for the transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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

Christian evangelical organisations in global anti-trafficking networks

Produced by R. Michael Feener

American evangelical Christian organizations comprise a significant contingent of the global anti-trafficking movement, and mobilize considerable financial resources around a moral objection to prostitution and sex trafficking. In this interview, we talk with Elena Shih about her ethnography of missionary vocational training rehabilitation projects that train sex workers in Beijing and Bangkok to make jewelry that is sold in the United States, and what this can show us about transnational dynamics of religious activism and non-governmental organizations enacted through the corollary motives of salvific evangelism and social entrepreneurship.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

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, candy, pocket knives, and more.

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

Christian Evangelical Organisations in Global Anti-trafficking Networks

Podcast with Elena Shih (27 November 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Shih- Christian Evangelical Organisations in Global Anti-Trafficking Networks 1.1

 

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Giuseppe Bolotta

Catherine Scheer (CS): And Catherine Scheer

GB: And this is the fourth installment in our series on religion and NGOs. Since the turn of the twenty-first century there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both policy makers and academics into the effect of religion as an international aid in development. Within this broad field the work of religious NGOs, or faith-based organisations, has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how their engagements result in changes in our understanding of both religion and development.

CS: Since the turn of the twenty-first century, North American Christian NGOs have become increasingly visible actors in the humanitarian sector. One particularly prominent area of attention and interventions for such organisations has been in the global movements against human trafficking. In this interview we talk with Elena Shih about her multi-sited research on US Evangelical NGO’s involvement in the global anti-trafficking movement, and specifically on their projects in Thailand and China. She will explain how her findings contribute to our understanding of the role of US-based Christian actors in this specific field of rights, advocacy and development. Before introducing our guest for today’s interview we would like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation for supporting our research on this topic and the production of this series. So speaking with us today is Dr Elena Shih, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University, also Faculty Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Slavery and Justice. Dr Shih is a Sociologist specialising in gender and sexuality, transnational race and ethnicity, social movements and labour in the Global South. Giuseppe would you like to go ahead with the first question?

GB: For sure. Thank you very much Elena for being here with us. So in your book, Manufacturing Freedom, you shed light on the role played by Protestant NGOs in the Global anti-trafficking movement, looking at long-term fieldwork in the US where the NGO’s are headquartered as well as in China and Thailand where they have projects. So, what led you to specifically focus on these Christian organisations, and how do you position yourself as a researcher in relation to both these organisations and those that you work with in the aid projects?

Elena Shih (ES): Thanks so much for inviting me to be a part of this podcast and for the wonderful introduction and really provocative first question. I actually didn’t begin this project hoping to understand the role of Christian organisations, and I think that understanding the genesis of the methods that led to this project, maybe, sheds light on some of its ultimate findings. So I began this project in 2007, having just begun graduate school in Sociology at UCLA, and having also just returned from three years of living in China; first working with a women’s legal aid organisation in Beijing and subsequently working with ethnic minority youth on the China-Burma border. And at that time I was very concerned with how the growing American interest and investment in trafficking, globally, didn’t really resonate on the ground in China. And so, when I returned back to the United States for graduate school I wanted to understand some of the gaps between the global and the local in manifesting things like the 2000 United Nations Palermo Protocol and 2000 United States Trafficking Victims Protection Act. So I began by attending a series of anti-trafficking conferences and anti-trafficking fairs that were increasingly prevalent in Southern California around 2007. And we saw an enormous response by American civil society, responding to what the United States had called over and over again a “growing scourge” of human trafficking (5:00). And, week after week, I would go to these different fairs and I started to see a pattern of numerous organisations that were working in different parts of the world, but had centred on social enterprise as their way of intervening. And by social enterprise, what I mean is that they were trying to turn to the markets and sell goods – often what they termed “slave-free” goods – as a way of raising funding around human trafficking, but also bringing money and jobs back into the very communities that they claimed people were trafficked from. I happened to get to know two organisations very well – one that was working in Thailand and one that working is China. Both happened to have offices and activist home-bases in Los Angeles. And I began volunteering with them, doing everything from helping them sell jewellery – which was the good that they were selling – to liaising with customers, to processing inventories, and to just generating different kinds of awareness around their cause. And it wasn’t until maybe eight months of volunteering with these organisations – when I travelled to Asia to see their production sites in Beijing and Bangkok – that I began to understand how important Christian faith was for these organisations. What that looked like on the ground is that for sex workers who are recruited to become jewellery makers in this project, across both organisations, Christian worship – an hour of Christian worship or Bible Study – was a mandatory and populated part of their wage, as were different kinds of spiritual and moral rehabilitation. So, I had workers comment to me that they often-times felt like maybe their promotions or salary bonuses were dependent not so much on their labour output making jewellery, or how they were doing on the shop floor, but more in terms of their spiritual growth and how much they had grown to accept Christianity in their lives. So I think, looking back now, in over a decade that I’ve been working on that project, it still is fairly striking to me that, a lot of times, when this jewellery is sold, a consumer or slavery activist doesn’t necessarily know that it’s attached to highly missionary goals. And, for many people, even the fact that it is a Christian organisation or it is a missionary organisation would not be problematic because it is ultimately serving a development goal in the end. Which is that of bringing jobs and economic alternatives to sex workers in Asia.

GB: Right.

CS: Wow. That is a very long-term engagement and it is fascinating to hear how you have really encountered, or kind-of bumped into the religious aspect of these organisations, and how your own experience reflects what the customer sees or doesn’t see in a very interesting way. Now, a question more specifically about these American Evangelical organisations. They comprise a significant contingent of the global anti-trafficking movement and mobilise considerable financial resources around the moral objection to prostitution, as you point out in your research. Can you tell us a bit more about the ways in which these organisations situate themselves within this global movement of anti-trafficking, for instance, in relation to non-faith-based organisations? And also how do they influence the movement’s lines? And how are they influenced by this more general global anti-trafficking movement?

ES: Yes, I think that there’s a really fascinating and particularly American history of the Christian Right, in particular, in the formation of anti-trafficking protocols in the United States and there are definitely scholars who are far better positioned to talk about that than I (10:00). So I would definitely direct listeners to work by two scholars in particular: that of Yvonne Zimmerman, who has a book under the title Other Dreams of Freedom, and then one of my own advisers, Elizabeth Bernstein’s work on what she called the sexual politics of neo-abolition, that documents a really interesting strange-bedfellows-coalition between Evangelical Christian and radical feminists, particularly on the issue of trafficking. But inasmuch as my work is concerned, I think that this actually is a good opportunity to talk about how the work fits into your wonderful volume on religion and the techno-politics of development, because I’ve really seen that religious organisations used the secular politics of rights and development alongside evangelical goals of proselytisation, so that the two are almost mutually interchangeable.

GB: Right

ES: And I think that vocational training has become a really, really popular technical solution for human trafficking, and particularly around something like prostitution, which is framed as a hugely moral problem, and which is framed as an absolute worst choice for a woman in the Global South who has no other options. And so, you see everybody from USAID to these grassroots religious organisations trying to think of ways to retrain people, to provide vocational training, as way of offering other alternatives to sex work. The main problem around it is that when you’re still training people in menial and manual low-wage labour, it still is not much of an alternative. So jewellery is one such menial low wage job, but it’s just one of the numerous commodities that’s now sold as a part of the anti-trafficking movement. You see everything from bedspreads to silk pyjamas being made in India, to traditional Henna craft and silk scarves coming out of Mongolia. And I think these are all part of a concerted attempt among anti-trafficking organisations to, what they call, “leverage the market-place”, to raise funds and awareness around the issue of trafficking. And I think one of the reasons why religious organisations have had to turn to social enterprise is, for the United States as an example, faith-based organisations are often excluded from certain kinds of federal or government funding when religious proselytisation is a core goal of theirs. And also, as religious organisations, they’re able to tap into huge bases of church-goers, parishioners, who see social justice goals as inextricable from Christian theology. And so I think that there’s been a real turn, on the part of churches, to recognise social justice in a reasonably complicated world. And – in a more shrewd, market-based, calculated turn – to find ways for faith-based organisations to fund themselves when they can’t seek other sources of funding.

GB: Right. So we’ve been talking about faith-based organisations, Evangelical movements in the United States, but it’s interesting to see what is happening in the other two field sites you chose which are Thailand and China. And Thailand and China provide two very different legal contexts for the work of Christian NGOs. So, Elena, how do these different juridical and policy frameworks influence the ways in which these NGOs implement their projects on the ground, and how do local perceptions of the articulation between aid and Christianity take shape in these very different contexts?

ES: I think that one of the greatest empirical paradoxes of this project is still that you could have the exact same American Evangelical Christian jewellery project operating in both Thailand and China, which we understand to be vastly different in terms of their political economic regimes. And so, one might classify as Thailand officially as a democratic monarchy, whereas China is more often understood as post-socialist authoritarian (15:00). The way that this plays out is that concretely, on the ground, Thailand offers over three hundred missionary visas to foreigners every year. And that means that foreign missionaries constitute one of the largest sources of tourist income – expat populations – and that their comings and goings are very rarely monitored. But it’s completely legal to be a foreign missionary in Thailand and it’s absolutely prevalent. You know, if you show up to any of the large cities there are public gatherings, churches, Christian churches that foreigners can attend. You contrast that to China which is notoriously restrictive of religious practice and which absolutely would see the presence of American Christians as a threat of imperialism. There are very few places for Chinese Christians to practice. They are almost completely relegated to what are called “home churches”. And as a foreigner, there are like single-designated places where Christian who are foreigners can practise in China. So that’s just the religious atmosphere. Combined with their atmosphere towards foreigners, it’s vastly different from China in Thailand. How this plays out within vocational training organisations for sex workers is, in Thailand sex workers who’ve chosen to work as jewellery makers are able to treat that more as any other kind of job that they might choose. So they’re not required to live on site. They rent an apartment, in Bangkok. A lot of them have part-time jobs, or are actually on full-time jobs working up to forty hours a week because of the pay cut that they have to take from being sex workers to becoming jewellery makers. It just doesn’t provide them with a living wage. And by contrast, in China, because the organisation has to be more careful about the scrutiny of the local police and government censorship, they require all workers to live on site in a mandatory dorm and there’s no way that any of those workers would be able to have a part-time job. And workers definitely feel a bit more stifled in China. And I think one larger difference in how this affects workers’ experience of religion is that in Thailand, given that freedom – or relative freedom – of religion, about 30% of people under rehabilitation have actually converted to Christianity. Whereas in China, where a history of conversion isn’t as prevalent, there are very, very low – it may be one or two people converted in the decade that I’ve studied these organisations.

GB: Right.

CS: Well, thank you very much for these very insightful and precise answers that can give us a grasp of what is going on in those countries. Just, maybe, a last question that is more general: is there anything that you would like to add, as a kind of concluding note, about what we have learned about faith-based activism in this field?

ES: I think the takeaway that I would love listeners to have is hopefully not that faith-based organisations in particular are flawed in their approaches, but that it really is anti-trafficking or human trafficking or sex trafficking as a concept that is flawed and misunderstood, and needs to be interrogated more clearly. Because, ultimately, my work argues that by transforming sexual labour into low wage manual labour these organisations are able to meld Christian ideas around good morals and salvific evangelism within secular development goals around decent work. But these should not be satisfying because we’re living in a world without decent work options (20:00). And I think the last thing that I’ll say about this, or that I’d further caution, is that there’s a growing trend moving away from the Palermo Protocol and definitions of human trafficking, shifting to an increasing number of people wanting to use the term “modern day slavery”. And I think what modern day slavery signals is a gesture towards pinpointing extreme and absolute cases of human suffering. Faith-based organisations and secular rights-based organisations both need to expand their purview of work into maybe taking a little bit of morality out of what we understand is good work, and listening to migrant workers, sex workers around the world who are telling us the different conditions that they’re looking for. So I think what I was saying was that by looking at, and fetishising theses extreme cases of human suffering – the one-off cases in brick kilns or in full sexual slavery – we don’t get to understand the hundreds of people who are seeking to have better lives, working in those areas, where there can be incremental changes for worker health, safety and better access to labour rights and working conditions across the board.

GB: This was really inspiring. Thank you very much, Dr Shih, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project.

CS: Thank you, Elena.

ES: Thank you so much to both of you, and for all of your hard work. And I can’t wait to hear the rest of the series.

GB: Thank you Elena.

Citation Info: Shih, Elena, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Christian Evangelical Organisations in Global Anti-trafficking Networks”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 17 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/christian-evangelical-organisations-in-global-anti-trafficking-networks/

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

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

South American church-state relations

imgPolitics and social institutions are inseparable. Whether we take a look at small-scale or complex societies, we can find that politics is involved with economics, kinship with hierarchy, and of course, religion with the state. The relationship between the last two has been shaped by numerous processes throughout human history; but, if we place our attention in the history of the western world, we can identify a turning point, one that started with the first waves of enlightened thought (eighteenth century), continuing with the posterior massive drop-out of catholic religiosity, and culminating with the total separation of religion and the state. In this podcast, Sidney Castillo interviews professor Marco Huaco Palomino as he addresses the nuances of secularity in several Latin American countries.

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, Richard Dawkins memorabilia, and more.

Gods and Demons, Scholars and Lawyers: Brief Reflections on American Religion and Law

Talking to lawyers is a real skill, and Eric Mazur is very good at it. In the subfield of traditional American church-state studies, legal historians, lawyers, lobbyists, and religion scholars convene for conservation and debate, mostly about First Amendment jurisprudence. As Mazur explains in his RSP interview, that conversation has in recent years lost its place, at least at the American Academy of Religion, and so he has revived it with a Religion and Law discussion group, which has met concurrently with AAR for each of the last two years (full disclosure: I have participated in both meetings). These conversations—at the AAR meetings and in the field more generally—are lively, rigorous, and fascinating, but sometimes frustrating. Unlike many other fields, the range of topics is actually quite small but the variety of approaches is wide. This self-imposed limitation was, according to Mazur, a primary reason for forming the discussion group. This is a group of people who come from very different backgrounds and perspectives—and with different goals—but can talk about the same things, namely, court cases dealing with the First Amendment’s establishment clause and free exercise clause. This is the opposite of many subfield groups, who are organized by a method (ethnography, for example) and use that same method on vastly different data sets. Here, we have a quite small shared data set but diverse methods. Everyone can speak at length, using shorthand, about certain acts, cases, decisions, and dissents, and everyone in the room can follow it. But why these people care, and, more practically, what they’re trying to do, can result in some talking-past each other. Few people are as good as Mazur at bridging these interests and assembling the components for a productive exchange.

The interview includes a number of interesting exchanges, as Mazur describes the state of the field, the advent of the discussion group, and his own career. I was particularly interested in Mazur’s answer to the question about why there is an increasing interest in religion and law. He noted that some religion scholars got into studying the law through studying New Religious Movements (NRMs) or minority religions, as they tend to be treated differently under the law. One of Mazur’s books, here.) This focus does bring out a possible tension between two approaches. Are we studying the law, the Supreme Court decisions, and legal language, etc., or are we studying religious groups and how their practices and beliefs shape and are shaped by law? Of course, it can be both, but the different emphases can evince different goals among scholars. Mazur highlighted the tension between those who have a “normative notion” of religious freedom and those who do not (at least not so explicitly.) On the normative side are not just lawyers, but also theologians, philosophers, lobbyists, and even clergy members. Others take a more descriptive/analytical approach, seeing the law as an institution with effects on American (religious) life and thus worth studying in historical or sociological ways.

In my view, there are two ways that the field of religion and law should expand. First, I think that “law” has been taken to mean primarily the First Amendment’s religion clauses, and there are many other interactions between religious communities and the law worth studying. Mazur mentions this briefly in the interview. Religion scholars would do well to learn about tax law or tort law or intellectual property. Law is not simply religious freedom. And, furthermore, religious freedom means a lot more than First Amendment law. The discourse of freedom, the various states of freedom and un-freedom under which subjects live, and the processes by which freedom is manufactured and protected are all topics that could be taken up by scholars of religion and law. Second, delimiting our area of focus to the United States can miss the international context for American religious law. On one hand, the limited scope makes sense, since American law does apply, for the most part, to America. However, American religious freedom, understood as a human right, is being naturalized and exported. This has tremendous ramifications for foreign policy, religious nationalism, and diplomacy. Constitutional scholars who focus on religion largely have ignored these important developments.

That being said, I think there is a place for the type of “traditional” constitutional conversations Mazur has advocated and facilitated. As I stated above, it is enjoyable and somewhat rare to have a room (or some non-physical space) full of people who speak the same language, who know what Reynolds and Schempp and Boerne v. Flores and RFRA mean. It can lead to productive and detailed conversations. Historians and other scholars contribute to public understanding, but they also can be involved in shaping the law, through an amicus brief or as an expert witness, for example. Many religion scholars (though of course not all) are wary to do anything that smacks of “advocacy.” However, if we are writing about contemporary laws and their impact on religious communities, or about the logic structuring certain laws and cases, our work can have effects even if we do not intend them. So, why not be intentional about it in the first place? Or at least be willing to engage in conversation, if not outright “political” action? If we are going to engage in this type of public work, we need a common language to speak. Working with academics can be an unpleasant experience, and our analytical goals can distract from the winning cases or lobbying for particular causes. But, if lawyers and scholars are going to talk to each other, it has to be at least somewhat on the lawyers’ terms.

References

Gordon, Sarah Barringer. The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Mazur, Eric Michael. The Americanization of Religious Minorities: Confronting the Constitutional Order. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Su, Anna. Exporting Freedom: Religious Liberty and American Power. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Wenger, Tisa. We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

 

Religion and American Law

In this interview, Professor Eric Mazur discusses a variety of issues relating to religion and law in the USA, such as the evolving state of First Amendment jurisprudence, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, dominant trends in the study of religion and American law, and controversial legislation such as the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. Dr. Mazur also discusses his efforts to help cultivate a space at the American Academy of Religion that is explicitly devoted to the study of religion and American law. This interview provides an introduction and summary of this increasingly important field.

Minority Religions and the Law, and our general introduction to Religion and the Law with Winnifred F. Sullivan. 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, potpourri, vintage cars, and more.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 2 February 2016

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We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has submitted calls for papers, event notifications, job vacancies, etc. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

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

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Arbeitskreis interdisdisziplinäre Hexenforschung

February 18–20, 2016

Stuttgart-Hohenheim, Germany

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Research Methods in the Study of Religion

University of Kent, UK

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2 PhD positions in sociology project: “Postsecular Conflicts”

University of Innsbruck, Austria

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Coventry University, UK

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University of Leipzig, Germany

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Belfast, UK; Aarhus, Denmark

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Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore

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New Religious Movements and Contemporary Discourses About Religion

As I listened to Susan Palmer’s RSP interview and read about her new co-authored book (with Stuart A. Wright) Storming Zion: Government Raids on Religious Communities (2015), I was reminded why NRMs make such useful case studies in the religious studies classroom. From a pedagogical perspective, the study of NRMs offers a valuable resource for creative teaching and theorizing about religion. In my introductory classes, for example, I use Scientology to illustrate how NRMs have negotiated with the state in their quest for legitimacy. There is plenty of great scholarship to assign, and students are often surprised to learn how seemingly unrelated government agencies–the Food and Drug Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation–helped legitimate Scientology’s “religion” status.

One of the most useful parts of Palmer’s interview, then, is her insistence on paying attention to the words people use to describe NRMs. Winnifred Sullivan, in her recent book, argues that the US government (and the US Supreme Court in particular) increasingly understands “religion” as “being neither particularly threatening nor particularly in need of protection” (17). The trend, as Sullivan and others have noted, is increasingly to see people as religious by default, even (and perhaps especially) those people who do not see themselves as religious. What, then, are we to make of religious groups whose relationship with the state do not fit this mold? How do we explain relationships so contentious that they result in raids and gun battles? At first glance, the events chronicled in Palmer’s Storming Zion seem to be outliers. Yet Palmer and Wright suggest elsewhere that these kinds of raids are more common than one might suspect. Why?

One possible answer is that increased attention to religion by international governments and NGOs has not necessarily resulted in less problematic models of religion being used by these governments and groups. As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has pointed out in her recent book, what scholars understand as “religion” often makes for unwieldy government use. Hurd demonstrates how government classifications of religion are by necessity rigid and slow to respond to change, leading governments to understand and engage religion in a clumsy–and in Palmer’s studies, dangerous–fashion.

Of course, most of the large-scale government efforts directed at cultivating appropriate forms of religion aren’t directed at the kinds of groups Palmer studies. It boils down to size, as Palmer and Robertson both note: smaller groups can be more easily dismissed or ignored by those in power. This is another example of the way in which governments separate religious groups into what might be called “serious” and “unserious” camps, an approach sometimes replicated by the scholars who study them. Both Palmer and Davidson call for more work to be done to change this status quo. They would like to see groups with little political or social capital treated similarly to “big name” religions–the groups that get chapters devoted to them in World Religions textbooks. They would like to see, to paraphrase JZ Smith, how the “exotic” NRMs are just another example of “what we see in Europe everyday.” Smith notes the difference by explaining it as a tension “between religion imagined as an exotic category of human experience and expression, and religion imagined as an ordinary category of human expression and activity.”[1] (1). Thus, as Palmer points out, even the seemingly “exotic” components of NRMs–things like brainwashing and deprogramming–should be both historicized and theorized.[2]

These considerations are timely ones. Though the interview focuses on what religion scholars might expect to hear on work related to NRMs–Raelians, Scientologists, millennial movements of various stripes–I was struck by how much of what was discussed would apply to Islam. Robertson and Palmer note how the media and popular culture tend to portray NRMs in particularly dismissive or fear-inducing ways. As events of recent weeks have again reminded us, what do we make of the fact that Islam is often discussed using similar language? The same kinds of militarized policing tactics directed at NRMs have, in recent weeks, been endorsed by a number of candidates for U.S. president as a means to control Muslims in the United States and around the world.

There’s a relevant history to this “NRM-ization” of Islam, particularly in the United States. Those interested in Palmer’s work, and in her work on government raids on NRMs, should also make time for Sylvester Johnson’s African-American Religions, 1500-2000, specifically his study of the history of the US government’s surveillance of and violence towards African-American Muslims. Johnson’s work highlights many of the tensions Palmer identifies: how classificatory criticism (“authentic” religion versus “cults”) bolstered state action against the political claims of new and emerging religious groups (in this specific case, the Nation of Islam). As a result, Johnson argues, “US officials increasingly resorted to the specific grammar of terrorism to represent political Islam.”[3] While scholars do not usually place global Islam within the category of new religious movements, Johnson shows how this early racialization of Islam within the United States shapes how global Islam is treated by the US government today.

For someone like myself, interested in questions of law and religion, the tension between emerging religious groups and state authorities is one of particular importance. Susan Palmer’s interview is a great example of why new religious movements make such good tools with which scholars can think about the study of religion.

[1] Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University Of Chicago Press, 1982), xii.

[2] For one excellent and recent example, see Matthew Dunne, A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

[3] Sylvester Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 382.

Minority Religions and the Law

cult” and “sect” uncritically. Nevertheless, outside of academia, the language of “cults” continues to be used, and particularly through the law, has an affect on the lives of real people. Susan J. Palmer joins David G. Robertson to discuss the intersection between new or minority religions and the law. Professor Palmer describes how she came to study these minority groups, and to realise that they were often being misrepresented, or at least unduly targeted. Discussion ranges from Scientology in France to the Branch Davidians and the Nuwaubians in the US, with issues of secularity, race and “brainwashing” come to the fore. A fascinating overview for anyone interested in how the discourse on “religion” operates in the contemporary world.

Religion and the Law (Winnifred F. Sullivan), Studying “Cults” (Eileen Barker), and Is Britain still a Christian country? (Linda Woodhead), and feature essays by Daniel SillimanEssi Mäkelä, and Kevin Whitesides. 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, fake fir trees, playing cards, and more!

Religion, Secularism and the Chaplaincy

As Sullivan and other religious studies scholars complicate terms like religion and secularism, reducing these terms to near incoherence, and insist on the constant intermingling of the sacred and the secular, they leave jurists and legislators in a predicament with important practical consequences.

Religion, Secularism, and the Chaplaincy

By Dusty Hoesly, University of California, Santa Barbara

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 24 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Winnifred F. Sullivan on Religion and the Law (22 April 2013)

Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Professor and Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Indiana University, Bloomington, may be the supreme interpreter of the intersection of law and religion in American society today.  Each of her three books—Paying the Words Extra, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, and Prison Religion—treats individual legal cases both textually and anthropologically, examining their particular cultural and legal contexts as well as their wider import for discourse in American law and society generally.  Her work is attuned equally to debates within the field of religious studies, especially to how scholars of religion constitute the object of their study.

In this interview for The Religious Studies Project, Sullivan focuses on her latest project, which examines chaplaincy in secular settings, as well as on her larger body of work.  Her recent presentation, “Ministries of Presence: Chaplains as Priests of the Secular,” uses chaplaincy as a lens for thinking beyond her previous work in critiquing constitutional and legal protections for religious freedom, and arguing for the instability and incoherence of the category of religion as a basis for legal regulation.  Putting aside her study of the management of religion in constitutional settings, in this project Sullivan examines how religion and law shape each other on the ground.  She concludes that chaplains have come to serve a role of ministering to what is increasingly understood as a universal spiritual need, which she labels a “naturalization of religion.”

For Sullivan, the figure of the chaplain in Western Christendom has always been an ambiguous figure, a minister whose duties lie away from church authority or congregational demands.  In modern secular institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and the military, the chaplain’s role remains ambiguous since, unlike doctors, guards, or soldiers, the chaplain is an explicit broker between the sacred and the secular.  The chaplain is paid by secular institutions and beholden to secular authorities, despite the religious character of the chaplain’s work or the chaplain’s religious allegiance.  Chaplains may find themselves obliged to endorse secular missions, such as nationalism or militarism, that run contrary to the chaplain’s religious mission.

The role of the chaplain and the social perception of chaplaincy in America have both changed significantly since World War II, Sullivan argues.  In the mid-twentieth century, patients, inmates, and soldiers imagined that chaplains had specific ministerial resources that were particular to each denomination, such that Catholic priests, for example, could offer services that no other denomination’s chaplains could.  Today, however, chaplaincy is far more generalized and less identified with any particular tradition.  Contemporary chaplains practice a “ministry of presence,” a stripped-down form of witness (to use a Christian word) that is a “suffering with” those seeking spiritual guidance.  Chaplains are trained to de-emphasize their individual religious identities so that they can provide a non-imposing, non-coercive presence, letting clients instead take the lead in terms of any religious specificity.

In her presentation, Sullivan observes the rise of credentialing as a major shift in chaplaincies during the 20th century.   Credentialing, rather than mere religious training, is now required in order to serve as a chaplain.  Would-be chaplains must earn a Master of Divinity degree, intern with a clinical pastoral education program, and obtain an ecclesiastical endorsement, all of which must be accredited or recognized by the government.  These cooperative efforts between state and religion have resulted in the standardization and professionalization of the chaplaincy.  Anyone can be a chaplain today, Sullivan argues.  It becomes a white collar job, one requiring expensive educational training and a lengthy apprenticeship.  As Randall Collins has argued, the credential becomes symbolic of one’s ability to do the actual work.

For chaplains who must serve a diverse clientele, including Roman Catholics, Wiccans, Southern Baptists, and atheists, specific denominational beliefs and practices, as well as religion itself, become “cultural resources” (to use James Beckford’s term).  Religion loses its claim to be sui generis, instead revealing itself to be socially constructed according to the practical needs of the moment when a client requests the services of a chaplain.  This offering of non-denominational spiritual advice to any and all seekers is illustrative of the secularization and commoditization of the chaplaincy.

But the process is not complete and, therefore, neither is Sullivan’s analysis.  Atheists and secular humanists may be consumers of chaplaincy services, but they are not yet permitted by the government to serve as chaplains in hospitals, prisons, or the military.  Even if the credentialing process in theory is open to any person, from whatever background, as Sullivan claims, this does not mean that anyone can become a chaplain in actual practice.  Groups such as the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers are seeking recognition by the Armed Forces Chaplains Board, but they have been unsuccessful so far.  That said, many prisons now include yoga and meditation groups, blurring the boundary between secular and religious practices and challenging the role of prison chaplains as exclusive brokers between the sacred and the secular.  And some higher education institutions, including Harvard, Rutgers, Stanford, Columbia, and American University, now incorporate humanist chaplaincies, responding to a growing call for guidance that is explicitly secular.

How might these humanist movements complicate Sullivan’s analysis?  Sullivan argues that in contemporary American jurisprudence religion has become a universal human phenomenon, albeit one that takes many forms.  But in the instances noted above, we see people who reject religion and yet who desire counseling and meaningful ritual during difficult times in their lives.  These people feel that they are not being best served by the supposedly secularized chaplains which Sullivan describes.  They want a chaplain with a particularly secular worldview rather than a naturalized non-denominational Protestantism which they perceive as coercive and not representative of their beliefs.  While Sullivan maintains that today’s chaplains are priests of the secular, actual secular people are excluded from the chaplaincy.

As Sullivan and other religious studies scholars complicate terms like religion and secularism, reducing these terms to near incoherence, and insist on the constant intermingling of the sacred and the secular, they leave jurists and legislators in a predicament with important practical consequences.  If religion and secularism are unstable and interpenetrating categories in American law, as Sullivan has argued, how can bureaucratic functionaries or judges justify excluding secular humanists from the chaplaincy?  Despite Sullivan’s claims about the naturalization of religion and the homogenization of the chaplaincy, American law still recognizes distinctions between what is religious and what is secular, and so do the people who consume and seek to provide chaplaincy services.

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

Dusty Hoesly is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in Religions of North America.  His research focuses on religion and irreligion in the American West, specifically the values held by people who self-describe as not religious, how those values developed, how they translate into social or political action, and how irreligious people interpret experiences that stand apart from ordinary life.  Incorporating fieldwork, surveys, and historical and material culture research, this project will help explain the growth of religious “nones” in the U.S. and reexamine the categories of sacred and secular in contemporary society.  Other research interests include religion in the American West, comparative secularisms, liberal evangelicalism, and religion and politics. He has previously published The Last Best Hope of Earth? Bron Taylor and the Limits of Dark Green Religion for the Religious Studies Project.

Bibliography

  • Collins, Randall. The Credential Society: A Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification. New York: Academic Press, 1979.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. Paying the Words Extra: Religious Discourse in the Supreme Court of the United States. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. The Impossibility of Religious Freedom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton             University Press, 2009.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. “We Are All Religious Now. Again.” Social Research 76.4 (2009): 1181-1198.
  • Sullivan, Winnifred Fallers. Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Religion and the Law

Within modern American society the meme of a separation of Church and State exists without a doubt; however, there is very little evidence to actually prove that this separation exists, functions as such, or indeed that it ever existed. In the textbooks, popular news outlets and in the political arena religion is supposed to be wholly withheld-expelled in favor of majority rule. However, when we turn our attention to state-managed organizations such as the federal prisons or state forest services or support for military veterans, we find that the lines are blurred.

With an eye to this seemingly ironic phenomenon Winnifred F. Sullivan presented a lecture entitled “Ministries of Presence: Chaplains as Priests of the Secular” at Arizona State University as part of the ASU Center for Religion and Conflict’s lecture series. Excerpted from her upcoming book of the same title, Sullivan considers the oversight, regulation and licensure of religious chaplains within the American Veterans’ Administration, as well several other governmental and on-governmental institutions. In this interview with Chris Duncan (Arizona State University), the discussion centers predominantly on the world in which many chaplains come to find themselves due to a “new kind of religious universalism”; from having to be prepared to minister across the borders of their own religious traditions, as in the case of a Catholic chaplain being required to assist Jewish or otherwise non-Catholic practitioners in a federal prison or a chaplain working with the state of Maine Warden Service. Sullivan asks whether we really have a separation of the Church and the State, how do we insure that everyone’s religious needs are being met within secular institutions like the Veterans’ Administration, and how does the State license and approve of applicants to the chaplaincy- how does, should, could an ostensibly secular federal organization approve or disapprove of religious ministers within its ranks.

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

Sullivan is the Department Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington as well as Affiliate Professor of Law in the Maurer School of Law at the same institution. She holds both a J.D. and a PhD. from the University of Chicago and is the author of  Paying the Words Extra: Religious Discourse in the Supreme Court of the United States (Harvard 1994), The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton 2005), and Prison Religion: Faith-Based Reform and the Constitution (Princeton 2009).

Redefinition of the eclectic group-identity

In a way, when registering themselves, non-institutional religious groups take a step toward being more institutional and possibly even hierarchical – even if there is not much of hierarchy within the group to begin with.

Redefinition of the eclectic group-identity

By Essi Mäkelä

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 31 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Suzanne Owen on Druidry and the Definition of Religion (29 October 2012).

In the podcast Suzanne Owen refers to the Druidry’s manifold self-identification situation. It seems to me this is a wide-spread phenomenon where there are conflicting ideas about how ‘religion’ should be defined in practice of less institutional groups and more or less eclectic individuals as opposed to what it seems to be in the traditional and institutional context. When written tradition is forced on non-written tradition, conflicts of definition are bound to happen. Druidry is mostly used as a term for a tribute to the ”ancient Druidic ways” that are believed to have been the practice in Britain. The quality of the details is then dependent on how an indivual – or a group – uses this idea of Druidry. Similarly, in Discordianism – a parody at it’s birth – there is an idea of it being a religion since it has a Goddess, a book and so on, but in practice the ideas of freedom and humour as salvation are more important to an individual than what is written about Eris, the Greek goddess of discord (Cusack, 2010; Mäkelä, 2012).

Like in religious devoutness, there are different levels of commitment in the way an ideology or a tradition is used – be it as a religious practice, philosophy or folklorism or something completely different. In my own studies with Discordians, I have come to learn that the use of Discordianism varies from political to philosophical to religious or plain humorous depending on the individual, the time and the place. The membership of the Archibishop of Canterbury in a Druidic society does not necessarily affect the status of Druidry as a religion in itself. For the Archibishop it might indeed not be an individual religion – or an institutional one that would question the so called authority of the Anglican church. For him, Druidry might be more of a traditional and even political practice – as discussed in the podcast – but for other members the definition might be something else. For Druidry, it seems, this is not a problem since it uses the so called eclectic approval of many pagan traditions: an individual does not have to commit to only one tradition at the expense of other traditions. The Anglican Church might have a different policy, but since Druidry – as other pagan traditions – can be used very differently depending on the needs of the individuals, this does not have to be a conflict of terms.

I agree with Owen that instead of trying to define these mixed groups as religion or not, it is more interesting to ask why and in what situations does a group or an individual define their tradition as a religion or something else. Also, it is an interesting concept how these societies come to register themselves as religious charity or religious communities and by doing so, end up writing a sort of definition of their religion that was never before actually official. A Finnish group, called Karhun kansa (”Bear Tribe”), is trying to register themselves as a religious community in Finland. As I write this, the application is still being handled. As with the Druid Network in Britain, Karhun kansa has now given a written definition of their Finnish folk faith tradition. Should they be registered, I believe this definition could end up being more definitive about the whole faith than what, perhaps, the founders of the group had in mind.

In a way, when registering themselves, non-institutional religious groups take a step toward being more institutional and possibly even hierarchical – even if there is not much of hierarchy within the group to begin with. It might be interesting to study these emerging registered group-identities compared to the non-registered groups that claim to follow the same tradition as the registered one – but with a different agenda. Also the individual idea of ‘religion’ as a definition from outside as opposed to the religious or spiritual needs from within could be a subject for a closer analysis in the future. What are some of the individual definitions of ‘religion’ and how often and how closely do they coincide with the concepts defined within the different national registering systems? This could be a good starting point for possible renewal of these registering systems to better suit the needs of these emerging religious community-trends.

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:

Essi Mäkelä, MA, graduated from the University of Helsinki in the summer of 2012. She did her Thesis on Discordianism within the theoretical framework of “liquid religion”. New religious movements are in her special interests. At the moment, among others, she is working on the Finnish translation of the Discordian book Principia Discordia. She is also the author of the Religious Studies Project Feature, Finding religiosity within a parody.

 

 

 

References:

  • Cusack, Carole 2010: Invented Religions – Imagination, Fiction and Faith (Ashgate Publishing Limited, Surrey, England)
  • Mäkelä, Essi 2012: Parodian ja uskonnon risteyksessä : Notkea uskonto suomalaisten diskordianistien puheessa (Unpublished MA Thesis for the University of Helsinki)

Druidry and the Definition of Religion

Contemporary Druidry often presents itself as the native spirituality of the British Isles. However, there is not one form of Druidry and there are also significant numbers of Christian and atheist Druids as well as those that combine Druidry with Wiccan or other perspectives and practices. From international organisations to local ‘groves’, there are diverse types of Druid groups, as well as lone practitioners. Chris and David are joined this week by Dr Suzanne Owen to talk in-depth about this fascinating subject, and its implications for wider understandings of the category ‘religion’.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Redefinition of the eclectic group identity.

The modern roots of Druidry, detailed in Ronald Hutton’s Blood and Mistletoe: the History of the Druids in Britain (Yale UP, 2009), began largely with the seventeenth and eighteenth century antiquarians who formed various societies and fraternities, some of which still exist. Many features of contemporary Druidry originated with Edward Williams (1747-1826), who took the bardic name Iolo Morganwg and founded the Gorsedd (gathering of Bards). It is difficult to determine a common element between the various groups, though many contemporary Druids recognise awen, the ‘inspiration’ of bards and Druids, and have an interest in trees and tree lore. To find out more, have a listen to the podcast and/or check out some of Suzanne’s publications.

Suzanne Owen lectures at Leeds Trinity University College, UK,  in all aspects of Religious Studies (especially method and theory and south Asian traditions) and researches indigeneity and contemporary indigenous traditions, particularly in North America. She is currently co-chair of the Indigenous Religious Traditions Group for the American Academy of Religion. Her PhD from the University of Edinburgh focussed on the sharing of Native American ceremonies and included fieldwork among Mi’kmaq in Newfoundland. More recently, she has been researching Druidry and has given papers on this topic in relation to indigeneity or religion at several international conferences, and written the following piece for the Bulletin for the Study of Religion, which listeners should be interested in: Religion / Not Religion – A Discourse Analysis.

This interview was recorded at the University of Edinburgh in April 2012, and we are very grateful for Suzanne’s help in compiling this post and, of course, for a great interview.

Suzanne and David at the 2012 BASR Conference in Winchester