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The Gamrie Brethren: At the Heart of Cosmic Struggle and the Fringes of the Imagined Community

In the RSP’s interview with Joe Webster, listeners are treated to rich ethnographic data which reveal how an immediate ‘local’ context is embedded in ‘global’ processes and networks. Webster conducted his fieldwork in the fishing village of Gardenstown or ‘Gamrie’ in Aberdeenshire, in the north-east of Scotland. Its population are notable for the concentration of followers of offshoots of the movement known as the ‘Plymouth Brethren’, or simply ‘Brethren’[1].

Both the local context and the Brethren movement generally are far from my areas of expertise, my own research concerns the contemporary relationship between ‘religious’ (including ‘non-religious’) affiliations and various constructions of ‘Scottish national identity’. In this regard I hope I can at least place Webster’s research in the wider social and historical context, the ‘national level’ alongside the ‘local’ and ‘global’ ones.

If one considers the question of how the Gamrie Brethren ‘fit into’ the wider picture of religion in Scotland, they would not appear to ‘fit’ at all. According to the latest census, conducted in 2011, only 54% of respondents identified as ‘Christian’, 16% identifying as ‘Roman Catholic’[2], and of the majority of this Christian population who could be classified as ‘Protestant’, it is difficult to gauge how many would have much in common with the Brethren – I suspect relatively few. This is novel for a country with an immensely long and complicated Christian history and which was long associated with staunch Protestantism.

While Scotland does possess an official national Church (the Church of Scotland), it could be quite accurately described as for the most part highly secularised. Along with this, religious pluralism has become part of the system of norms inculcated in Scottish civil society, despite the comparatively low numbers of non-Christian religious minorities.

In many ways this image of Scotland as secular and pluralist is that which many contemporary Scots project, a reflection both of their norms and experiences. As Benedict Anderson argued, nations are imagined communities, though the community that is imagined can vary immensely over time and in the present[3].

While much of Scotland’s romantic symbolism may be derived from the Highlands and many areas have contributed to the Scottish imagination, arguably the dominant perspective is that of the ‘central belt’. That is the area of the country dominated by its two biggest cities – Edinburgh and Glasgow; the centres of politics, business, the media, and, to large extent, ‘national’ religious institutions. Notably these cities have high concentrations of ‘non-religious’ people and are more religiously plural, meaning that a city-dweller may be more likely to attend a local Diwali celebration than a Gamrie Brethren service. As Anderson argued, ‘members’ of nations could never hope to personally interact with all who claim or are claimed to be members of the nation, which can help smooth over differences and affect the imaginative process[4].

However this does not mean that the Gamrie Brethren are necessarily representative of ‘traditional’ Scottish religion either. The movement was founded in Plymouth by an Irish medical student and would have to be implanted in this local Scottish soil. I cannot help but share the intuitive reaction of the interviewer (David Robertson) in being struck by the sense in which the movement and its religious practices appear more stereotypically ‘American’ to myself as someone raised in Scotland, than stereotypical of rural Scotland. The calls to emotional testimony of personal experience certainly do not fit the dour Calvinism stereotype of Scottish religion. Alive and well, living in Aberdeenshire and speaking Doric[5] it is though–regardless of how well it fits some preconceived image.

This cautions us against treating rural religion as an unbroken ‘survival’ of a bygone age; at the very least the Brethren could not have come to Gamrie earlier than 1831 when the movement was founded, and I would expect a much later date. Regardless, the Brethren have clearly been able to fundamentally shape life in the village down to the level of everyday interaction, and it is notable that the local branch of the ‘national’ Church has been moulded into the local ‘Brethren’ image.

Nonetheless, their case is not as atypical as it might first appear.  Without intending to essentialise, such cases have a long history in Scotland. Much of northern Scotland, especially, is rugged and rural and perhaps encourages the development of pockets of concentrated difference from the norms disseminated from the centre. When Presbyterian Calvinism was ascendant in the south, much of the north was Episcopalian with pockets of Roman Catholicism. Radical Calvinistic Presbyterianism began to take root in parts of the Highlands and continued to thrive when it began to fall from favour in the south, etc.

Webster related how the Brethren’s religious practices have led many of them to utilise Christian media, much of which is based in the US. Steve Bruce has argued that religious conservatives in Scotland did not develop the kind of alternative networks set up by their US counterparts because they were simply oblivious to the changes going on underneath their feet[6]. Nonetheless, clearly, expanding global communications have allowed the Gamrie Brethren to take advantage of such networks, which, in turn, inform the local context.

This religious context may be rural and divergent from the current Scottish norm (in both senses of the word) but this does not make it a product of isolation, and, in fact, appears to be as caught up in wider developments as central belt secularism. However, these global links clearly attain specific local significance. Webster’s informants not only see the power of God and the Devil working in their daily lives but also in the political relationship between the fishing communities of the north-east and the European Union.

Over the course of the interview, the question of how the Gamrie Brethren view themselves in relation to Scottish national identity and modern Scottish society was never broached as such. One would certainly not want to presume that it is significant at all; the local setting and transnational Evangelical networks may be of much greater significance. Webster has indicated that religious decline did not appear to trouble his informants who viewed it as indicative of end times. Scottish secularism may be viewed in similar terms. They may draw comfort and significance from the history of Scottish Protestantism, its leading figures such as John Knox and the Covenanter rebels, as many Scots did and still do. The advantage of a long and untidy history is there are plenty of ‘Scotlands’ to choose from. Clearly dealing with the religious landscape of the country in the present offers up no less diversity.

Bibliography

Anderson, B. Imagined Communities (2006) London: Verso

Bowker, J. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997) Oxford: Oxford University Press

Broun, D., Finlay, R.J. and Lynch, M. (eds.) Image and Identity: The Making of Scotland through the Ages (1998) Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd

Brown, C. Religion and Society in Scotland since 1707 (1997) Edinburgh University Press

Bruce, S. No Pope of Rome: Anti-Catholicism in Modern Scotland (1985) Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing

Devine, T.M. The History of the Scottish Nation 1700-2000 (2000) London: Penguin Books Ltd.

National Records of Scotland 2011 Census: Key results on Population, Ethnicity, Identity, Language, Religion, Health, Housing and Accommodation in Scotland – Release 2A (2013) Crown Copyright 2013

[1] C.f. “Plymouth Brethren” in Bowker, J. (ed). Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997) Oxford: Oxford University Press: p756

[2] National Records of Scotland 2011 Census: Key results on Population, Ethnicity, Identity, Language, Religion, Health, Housing and Accommodation in Scotland – Release 2A (2013) Crown Copyright 2013: p5

[3] Anderson, B Imagined Communities (2006) London: Verso: p5-6

[4] ibid

[5] ‘Doric’ is the name of the highly specific form of Scots or Lallans spoken in the region.

[6] Bruce, S No Pope of Rome: Anti-Catholicism in Modern Scotland (1985) Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing: p216

 

Beyond Maps: Eoin O’Mahony’s Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland

Eoin O’Mahony’s work reflects a growing and consolidating movement in the Geography discipline over the last 15 years, which after a history of stops and starts, has made significant progress in attempting to understand spatiality of religion. This movement has moved away from ontological assumptions of sacred and profane space (Eliade, 1957) and the privileging of the institutional manifestations of religion over informal and often non-representational forms of spirituality (summarised in Park, 1994): Geographies that privileged institutional, regional and national structures of religion at the expense of the local and personal scales. In an assessment of the field, Kong (2001) observed the movement towards understanding the construction and consumption of sacred space (for example Chidester and Linenthal, 1995) and called for a shift in focus to the informal and unofficial geographies of religion, challenging the narratives of global secularisation. This call paralleled a shift in focus within more sociologically orientated studies in religion towards ‘the spiritual revolution’ (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005) and an observed disconnect between forms of institutional belonging and popular beliefs (see Davie, 1994). In the wake of this work, Knott (2005) developed a spatial methodology for the investigation of religion, locating and defining the boundaries between religious and secular discourses within everyday life, practice and representation. Her methodology, drawing on Henri Lefebvre, reveals the religious within secular space through investigating how a space is promoted to users, how it is used by these people and how this space holds together both of these abstract and practical images. And this is where we find O’Mahony’s work.

In the interview, O’Mahony examines how contestation between the religious and the secular in Ireland unfolds ‘in particular places in particular ways’, with this tension manifesting in three case studies: (1) A series of Marion statues dispersed around Dublin; (2) the (annual) pilgrimage to the summit of Croagh Patrick in Country Mayo; (3) and the contestation between State and Church for the provision of primary school education in Ireland. Throughout these sites, religious and secular discourses make claims upon the space yet neither can fully establish themselves over the other. The Marion statues of Dublin are neither owned by the Church nor by local authorities yet they exhibit a concrete presence, informally and unofficially recognised in the landscape design of the parks they often inhabit as well as being reflected in the behaviour of those who used the park. Croagh Patrick is framed as a pilgrimage site to believers and promoted as a site for health, fitness and outdoor recreation to non-religious visitors. Finally, the case of primary schools in Ireland thrusts the issue of contestation between a secularising State power and that of the Church in the public arena with the recent political concern ‘to take religion out of schools’. Throughout these case studies, religious and secular discourses are found to compete, contest and co-habit with each other, providing distinct channels for the making of place through investing meaning and significance into a space.

A main theme underlying O’Mahony’s case studies in this interview is an exploration of the secular project to modify, regulate and moderate locality, including its religious ties, in order to decontextualise and universalise. He astutely criticises a discourse in which a linear progression assumes religious places are those spaces that have not yet been secularised; that secular ideas contest, replace and subordinate the religious within space without resistance. As he argues, religious places are not waiting to be secularised but exist inside and outside of public, secular space. Moreover, the local and contingent daily practices and behaviours of people produce meaning that is integral to the making of place for these inhabitants. As with other confrontations between the local and the global, we should be aware of the delocalising effect of attempts to remove religion from public spaces and the consequences this process has for those who dwell and invest meaning within these spaces.

In addition to this focus on the making of place through daily and recurrent religious practices, I would be keen to see further work on the multi-directional projection of this travel to include the channels in which this secular discourse are also resisted, partially resisted and appropriated by the actors present within a place. Linda Woodhead’s (2012) call for an awareness of both strategic and tactical scales of religion in everyday life, recognising the increasing influence of Michel de Certeau in the study of Religion and Geography is useful here. Everyday tactical practices are those, often unrepresented or non-representable, that enable the actor to manipulate the strategic practices of dominant hegemonies and discourse. The entangled nature of religion and the secular in public space is well illustrated in O’Mahony’s interview and it would be interesting in future research to hear more of the individual voices within these case studies as well as the competing public discourses and claims for these spaces.

With these case studies O’Mahony has neatly illustrated the potential of the geographic approach in drawing out the contestations, tensions and synergies of competing religious and secular voices in public and private spaces. His interview has provided an insight into the complex, multiple layers of space within which religion and the secular co-habit and interact in an Irish context, proving a value to the geographic approach beyond mapping material distributions of religious phenomena.

References:

Chidester, D. and Linenthal, E.T., eds. (1995) American Sacred Space. Bloomington: Indian University Press.

Davie, G. (1994) Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging. Oxford: Blackwell.

Eliade, M. (1957) The Sacred and the Profane. New York; London: Harcourt Books.

Heelas, P. and Woodhead, L. (2005) The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell.

Knott, K. (2005) The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis. London; Oakville: Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Kong, L. (2001) Mapping ‘new’ geographies of religion: politics and poetics in modernity Progress in Human Geography. 25 pp.211-233.

Park, C.C. (1994) Sacred Worlds: An Introduction to Geography and Religion. London: Routledge.

Woodhead, L., ed. (2012) Strategic and Tactical Religion. University of Edinburgh, 10th May 2012. Religion and Society: Sacred Practices of Everyday Life Conference.

Taking Witchcraft and Possessions Seriously with Philip Almond

In this interview with Philip Almond, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Queensland and Deputy Director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses, listeners are treated to a wide-ranging survey of the past decade of Almond’s work on witchcraft and demonic possession in early modern England. Beginning with Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2004), Almond was among those that refocused discussions of this material to de-emphasize narratives and methods that had been located too centrally in the twentieth and not the sixteenth century. Witchcraft and possession were not medical phenomenon in any modern sense. They could not be written off as simple psychological episodes. Nor was it appropriate to bring modern tropes of mental health, rationalism, or religion as a private belief into the discussion of what people in the 16th to 18th centuries experienced.

Perhaps this discourse is largely a boon following Stuart Clark’s seminal Thinking With Demons (Oxford University Press, 1999). This included not just Almond’s Demonic Possession, but also Moshe Sluhovosky’s Believe Not Every Spirit (University of Chicago Press, 2007) and Sarah Ferber’s Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France (Routlege, 2004) among many other fine volumes. As a body of scholarship, these works have increasingly sought to excise the present from its intrusive role in the analysis of the past. Can we discuss our historical subjects without seeing them as moderns who are simply living in the past? If this is familiar, you might be remembering some version of the steady drumbeat of David Lowenthal’s now clichéd dictate that the past is a foreign country.

Among historians (and anthropologists) this over-commitment to context may feel weatherworn, but for those in religious studies today it should be axiomatic. If a physician’s first pledge is to “do no harm,” then the scholar of religion must vow to “take religion seriously.” Almond’s reluctance to reduce witchcraft or possession to mere psychology is not on its face a rejection of reductionism writ large. He suggests early in the interview that he believes the root cause of the rise of possessions is millennialism or apocalypticism. Though we might be inclined to see witchcraft as a religious rebuttal to modernism, Almond appears unconvinced that the phenomenon can be a clear response to our contemporary understanding of this distinctive period of European history. “It’s too big a story,” he says, especially when a more obvious alternative is the specific consequences of the Reformation for individual branches of Christianity. If you’ll forgive the pun, the Devil is most certainly in the details.

What is striking about Almond’s consistent efforts to see the immediate and local contexts for witchcraft is the way it suggests that even our modern debates about the definition of religion are secondary to the challenges of historically-situated scholarship. To those who may have earlier leapt to ask, ‘what is the “religion” that we are taking seriously in the case of Almond’s subjects?’, the response is two-fold.

First, recognize how thoroughly such an inquiry is situated in the present. Such a modern scholarly category imposes an unwarranted discourse on our beleaguered subjects. It cannot possibly matter to long-gone early modern Europeans. Such inquiries benefit only us. If some version of the category advances our understanding of the relevance and significance of our subjects, it does not change the facts of our subjects’ experiences. After all, if we read the cultural guides about our “foreign country,” we haven’t changed the country’s citizens. Indeed, the danger is that in reading such a guide, we will change the citizens to appear to us as our guidebooks say they are. When the past has provided us as many truly excellent documents as early modern Europe has on witchcraft and possessions, what need have we to inject ourselves into their discussions? We have the details we need to compose a full picture of the era, its subjects, and much of the discourse surrounding demonic possession.

Second, Almond explains that it is the disconnects and differences between past and present that fuel his curiosity. Why is the past different? The efforts one must expend to answer such a question are wasted if we rush hurriedly to the present for some payoff about today’s society. While one duty of the scholar is to articulate the value of their work for the community that receives it, the receiving community must do the accompanying work of explaining why the present is different. This is a difference that matters to those of us today. It is also a disjuncture in scholarly products. When we fail to cleanly separate the line between past and present, as some works discussing demonic possession have done, the end result is a work that is likely to say more about how our modern ideas about religion or psychology succeed or fail in being persuasive in telling stories about the past for those in the present. A good story is not necessarily the same thing as excellent scholarship. In the former, readers are entertained and may find new ways to appreciate the differences of the present from the past. Only in the latter, however, are we likely to get a sense of what our subjects thought about witchcraft and possession. And then, if we so choose, we might ask, how central such ideas were to those things we would today describe as religious. I suspect, however, that even this mild extension is largely an exercise in anachronism.

I like to ask myself the following question of historically situated works. Are they tied so tightly to the moment when they were written that in the future they are likelier to be studied as representations of the scholarly moment of their production rather than for what they had to say about their subjects? I would like to think many of us strive to put the history of our subjects forward and not to become mere historiographical bywords for future scholars. I recommend Almond’s recent works as excellent models of being serious about the history of witchcraft and possession so that we might better understand that past on its own terms.

Global Categories; Local Contexts

Carlo Ginzburg is professor emeritus in History of European Cultures in Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy. A distinguished historian with a remarkable career, Ginzburg is known for his microhistorical research approach. His most well-known book The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller follows clues from seemingly small and inconsequential cases and details, in order to illuminate the bigger picture, the richness and complexity of historical phenomena. Other publications include Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches SabbathClues, Myths and the Historical Method, and The Judge and the Historian: Marginal Notes on a late-twentieth century miscarriage of justice.

The Religious Studies Project had the opportunity to interview Ginzburg at the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions in Groningen, the Netherlands. Ginzburg was one of the keynote speakers of the conference, and his lecture “Traveling in Spirit: From Friuli to Siberia” dealt with interpretative categories and their “wandering beyond the original context.” As a case study, Ginzburg reflected on his own research and the realization that his own work on the Friulianbenandanti was profoundly affected by the work of S.M. Shirokogoroff.

After the keynote, Hanna had a chance to meet professor Ginzburg and hear about his career, his work and his advice for students who wish to pursue the microhistorical research.

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

Podcasts

The Gamrie Brethren: At the Heart of Cosmic Struggle and the Fringes of the Imagined Community

In the RSP’s interview with Joe Webster, listeners are treated to rich ethnographic data which reveal how an immediate ‘local’ context is embedded in ‘global’ processes and networks. Webster conducted his fieldwork in the fishing village of Gardenstown or ‘Gamrie’ in Aberdeenshire, in the north-east of Scotland. Its population are notable for the concentration of followers of offshoots of the movement known as the ‘Plymouth Brethren’, or simply ‘Brethren’[1].

Both the local context and the Brethren movement generally are far from my areas of expertise, my own research concerns the contemporary relationship between ‘religious’ (including ‘non-religious’) affiliations and various constructions of ‘Scottish national identity’. In this regard I hope I can at least place Webster’s research in the wider social and historical context, the ‘national level’ alongside the ‘local’ and ‘global’ ones.

If one considers the question of how the Gamrie Brethren ‘fit into’ the wider picture of religion in Scotland, they would not appear to ‘fit’ at all. According to the latest census, conducted in 2011, only 54% of respondents identified as ‘Christian’, 16% identifying as ‘Roman Catholic’[2], and of the majority of this Christian population who could be classified as ‘Protestant’, it is difficult to gauge how many would have much in common with the Brethren – I suspect relatively few. This is novel for a country with an immensely long and complicated Christian history and which was long associated with staunch Protestantism.

While Scotland does possess an official national Church (the Church of Scotland), it could be quite accurately described as for the most part highly secularised. Along with this, religious pluralism has become part of the system of norms inculcated in Scottish civil society, despite the comparatively low numbers of non-Christian religious minorities.

In many ways this image of Scotland as secular and pluralist is that which many contemporary Scots project, a reflection both of their norms and experiences. As Benedict Anderson argued, nations are imagined communities, though the community that is imagined can vary immensely over time and in the present[3].

While much of Scotland’s romantic symbolism may be derived from the Highlands and many areas have contributed to the Scottish imagination, arguably the dominant perspective is that of the ‘central belt’. That is the area of the country dominated by its two biggest cities – Edinburgh and Glasgow; the centres of politics, business, the media, and, to large extent, ‘national’ religious institutions. Notably these cities have high concentrations of ‘non-religious’ people and are more religiously plural, meaning that a city-dweller may be more likely to attend a local Diwali celebration than a Gamrie Brethren service. As Anderson argued, ‘members’ of nations could never hope to personally interact with all who claim or are claimed to be members of the nation, which can help smooth over differences and affect the imaginative process[4].

However this does not mean that the Gamrie Brethren are necessarily representative of ‘traditional’ Scottish religion either. The movement was founded in Plymouth by an Irish medical student and would have to be implanted in this local Scottish soil. I cannot help but share the intuitive reaction of the interviewer (David Robertson) in being struck by the sense in which the movement and its religious practices appear more stereotypically ‘American’ to myself as someone raised in Scotland, than stereotypical of rural Scotland. The calls to emotional testimony of personal experience certainly do not fit the dour Calvinism stereotype of Scottish religion. Alive and well, living in Aberdeenshire and speaking Doric[5] it is though–regardless of how well it fits some preconceived image.

This cautions us against treating rural religion as an unbroken ‘survival’ of a bygone age; at the very least the Brethren could not have come to Gamrie earlier than 1831 when the movement was founded, and I would expect a much later date. Regardless, the Brethren have clearly been able to fundamentally shape life in the village down to the level of everyday interaction, and it is notable that the local branch of the ‘national’ Church has been moulded into the local ‘Brethren’ image.

Nonetheless, their case is not as atypical as it might first appear.  Without intending to essentialise, such cases have a long history in Scotland. Much of northern Scotland, especially, is rugged and rural and perhaps encourages the development of pockets of concentrated difference from the norms disseminated from the centre. When Presbyterian Calvinism was ascendant in the south, much of the north was Episcopalian with pockets of Roman Catholicism. Radical Calvinistic Presbyterianism began to take root in parts of the Highlands and continued to thrive when it began to fall from favour in the south, etc.

Webster related how the Brethren’s religious practices have led many of them to utilise Christian media, much of which is based in the US. Steve Bruce has argued that religious conservatives in Scotland did not develop the kind of alternative networks set up by their US counterparts because they were simply oblivious to the changes going on underneath their feet[6]. Nonetheless, clearly, expanding global communications have allowed the Gamrie Brethren to take advantage of such networks, which, in turn, inform the local context.

This religious context may be rural and divergent from the current Scottish norm (in both senses of the word) but this does not make it a product of isolation, and, in fact, appears to be as caught up in wider developments as central belt secularism. However, these global links clearly attain specific local significance. Webster’s informants not only see the power of God and the Devil working in their daily lives but also in the political relationship between the fishing communities of the north-east and the European Union.

Over the course of the interview, the question of how the Gamrie Brethren view themselves in relation to Scottish national identity and modern Scottish society was never broached as such. One would certainly not want to presume that it is significant at all; the local setting and transnational Evangelical networks may be of much greater significance. Webster has indicated that religious decline did not appear to trouble his informants who viewed it as indicative of end times. Scottish secularism may be viewed in similar terms. They may draw comfort and significance from the history of Scottish Protestantism, its leading figures such as John Knox and the Covenanter rebels, as many Scots did and still do. The advantage of a long and untidy history is there are plenty of ‘Scotlands’ to choose from. Clearly dealing with the religious landscape of the country in the present offers up no less diversity.

Bibliography

Anderson, B. Imagined Communities (2006) London: Verso

Bowker, J. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997) Oxford: Oxford University Press

Broun, D., Finlay, R.J. and Lynch, M. (eds.) Image and Identity: The Making of Scotland through the Ages (1998) Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd

Brown, C. Religion and Society in Scotland since 1707 (1997) Edinburgh University Press

Bruce, S. No Pope of Rome: Anti-Catholicism in Modern Scotland (1985) Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing

Devine, T.M. The History of the Scottish Nation 1700-2000 (2000) London: Penguin Books Ltd.

National Records of Scotland 2011 Census: Key results on Population, Ethnicity, Identity, Language, Religion, Health, Housing and Accommodation in Scotland – Release 2A (2013) Crown Copyright 2013

[1] C.f. “Plymouth Brethren” in Bowker, J. (ed). Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997) Oxford: Oxford University Press: p756

[2] National Records of Scotland 2011 Census: Key results on Population, Ethnicity, Identity, Language, Religion, Health, Housing and Accommodation in Scotland – Release 2A (2013) Crown Copyright 2013: p5

[3] Anderson, B Imagined Communities (2006) London: Verso: p5-6

[4] ibid

[5] ‘Doric’ is the name of the highly specific form of Scots or Lallans spoken in the region.

[6] Bruce, S No Pope of Rome: Anti-Catholicism in Modern Scotland (1985) Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing: p216

 

Beyond Maps: Eoin O’Mahony’s Geographies of Religion and the Secular in Ireland

Eoin O’Mahony’s work reflects a growing and consolidating movement in the Geography discipline over the last 15 years, which after a history of stops and starts, has made significant progress in attempting to understand spatiality of religion. This movement has moved away from ontological assumptions of sacred and profane space (Eliade, 1957) and the privileging of the institutional manifestations of religion over informal and often non-representational forms of spirituality (summarised in Park, 1994): Geographies that privileged institutional, regional and national structures of religion at the expense of the local and personal scales. In an assessment of the field, Kong (2001) observed the movement towards understanding the construction and consumption of sacred space (for example Chidester and Linenthal, 1995) and called for a shift in focus to the informal and unofficial geographies of religion, challenging the narratives of global secularisation. This call paralleled a shift in focus within more sociologically orientated studies in religion towards ‘the spiritual revolution’ (Heelas and Woodhead, 2005) and an observed disconnect between forms of institutional belonging and popular beliefs (see Davie, 1994). In the wake of this work, Knott (2005) developed a spatial methodology for the investigation of religion, locating and defining the boundaries between religious and secular discourses within everyday life, practice and representation. Her methodology, drawing on Henri Lefebvre, reveals the religious within secular space through investigating how a space is promoted to users, how it is used by these people and how this space holds together both of these abstract and practical images. And this is where we find O’Mahony’s work.

In the interview, O’Mahony examines how contestation between the religious and the secular in Ireland unfolds ‘in particular places in particular ways’, with this tension manifesting in three case studies: (1) A series of Marion statues dispersed around Dublin; (2) the (annual) pilgrimage to the summit of Croagh Patrick in Country Mayo; (3) and the contestation between State and Church for the provision of primary school education in Ireland. Throughout these sites, religious and secular discourses make claims upon the space yet neither can fully establish themselves over the other. The Marion statues of Dublin are neither owned by the Church nor by local authorities yet they exhibit a concrete presence, informally and unofficially recognised in the landscape design of the parks they often inhabit as well as being reflected in the behaviour of those who used the park. Croagh Patrick is framed as a pilgrimage site to believers and promoted as a site for health, fitness and outdoor recreation to non-religious visitors. Finally, the case of primary schools in Ireland thrusts the issue of contestation between a secularising State power and that of the Church in the public arena with the recent political concern ‘to take religion out of schools’. Throughout these case studies, religious and secular discourses are found to compete, contest and co-habit with each other, providing distinct channels for the making of place through investing meaning and significance into a space.

A main theme underlying O’Mahony’s case studies in this interview is an exploration of the secular project to modify, regulate and moderate locality, including its religious ties, in order to decontextualise and universalise. He astutely criticises a discourse in which a linear progression assumes religious places are those spaces that have not yet been secularised; that secular ideas contest, replace and subordinate the religious within space without resistance. As he argues, religious places are not waiting to be secularised but exist inside and outside of public, secular space. Moreover, the local and contingent daily practices and behaviours of people produce meaning that is integral to the making of place for these inhabitants. As with other confrontations between the local and the global, we should be aware of the delocalising effect of attempts to remove religion from public spaces and the consequences this process has for those who dwell and invest meaning within these spaces.

In addition to this focus on the making of place through daily and recurrent religious practices, I would be keen to see further work on the multi-directional projection of this travel to include the channels in which this secular discourse are also resisted, partially resisted and appropriated by the actors present within a place. Linda Woodhead’s (2012) call for an awareness of both strategic and tactical scales of religion in everyday life, recognising the increasing influence of Michel de Certeau in the study of Religion and Geography is useful here. Everyday tactical practices are those, often unrepresented or non-representable, that enable the actor to manipulate the strategic practices of dominant hegemonies and discourse. The entangled nature of religion and the secular in public space is well illustrated in O’Mahony’s interview and it would be interesting in future research to hear more of the individual voices within these case studies as well as the competing public discourses and claims for these spaces.

With these case studies O’Mahony has neatly illustrated the potential of the geographic approach in drawing out the contestations, tensions and synergies of competing religious and secular voices in public and private spaces. His interview has provided an insight into the complex, multiple layers of space within which religion and the secular co-habit and interact in an Irish context, proving a value to the geographic approach beyond mapping material distributions of religious phenomena.

References:

Chidester, D. and Linenthal, E.T., eds. (1995) American Sacred Space. Bloomington: Indian University Press.

Davie, G. (1994) Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging. Oxford: Blackwell.

Eliade, M. (1957) The Sacred and the Profane. New York; London: Harcourt Books.

Heelas, P. and Woodhead, L. (2005) The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell.

Knott, K. (2005) The Location of Religion: A Spatial Analysis. London; Oakville: Equinox Publishing Ltd.

Kong, L. (2001) Mapping ‘new’ geographies of religion: politics and poetics in modernity Progress in Human Geography. 25 pp.211-233.

Park, C.C. (1994) Sacred Worlds: An Introduction to Geography and Religion. London: Routledge.

Woodhead, L., ed. (2012) Strategic and Tactical Religion. University of Edinburgh, 10th May 2012. Religion and Society: Sacred Practices of Everyday Life Conference.

Taking Witchcraft and Possessions Seriously with Philip Almond

In this interview with Philip Almond, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Queensland and Deputy Director of the Centre for the History of European Discourses, listeners are treated to a wide-ranging survey of the past decade of Almond’s work on witchcraft and demonic possession in early modern England. Beginning with Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2004), Almond was among those that refocused discussions of this material to de-emphasize narratives and methods that had been located too centrally in the twentieth and not the sixteenth century. Witchcraft and possession were not medical phenomenon in any modern sense. They could not be written off as simple psychological episodes. Nor was it appropriate to bring modern tropes of mental health, rationalism, or religion as a private belief into the discussion of what people in the 16th to 18th centuries experienced.

Perhaps this discourse is largely a boon following Stuart Clark’s seminal Thinking With Demons (Oxford University Press, 1999). This included not just Almond’s Demonic Possession, but also Moshe Sluhovosky’s Believe Not Every Spirit (University of Chicago Press, 2007) and Sarah Ferber’s Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern France (Routlege, 2004) among many other fine volumes. As a body of scholarship, these works have increasingly sought to excise the present from its intrusive role in the analysis of the past. Can we discuss our historical subjects without seeing them as moderns who are simply living in the past? If this is familiar, you might be remembering some version of the steady drumbeat of David Lowenthal’s now clichéd dictate that the past is a foreign country.

Among historians (and anthropologists) this over-commitment to context may feel weatherworn, but for those in religious studies today it should be axiomatic. If a physician’s first pledge is to “do no harm,” then the scholar of religion must vow to “take religion seriously.” Almond’s reluctance to reduce witchcraft or possession to mere psychology is not on its face a rejection of reductionism writ large. He suggests early in the interview that he believes the root cause of the rise of possessions is millennialism or apocalypticism. Though we might be inclined to see witchcraft as a religious rebuttal to modernism, Almond appears unconvinced that the phenomenon can be a clear response to our contemporary understanding of this distinctive period of European history. “It’s too big a story,” he says, especially when a more obvious alternative is the specific consequences of the Reformation for individual branches of Christianity. If you’ll forgive the pun, the Devil is most certainly in the details.

What is striking about Almond’s consistent efforts to see the immediate and local contexts for witchcraft is the way it suggests that even our modern debates about the definition of religion are secondary to the challenges of historically-situated scholarship. To those who may have earlier leapt to ask, ‘what is the “religion” that we are taking seriously in the case of Almond’s subjects?’, the response is two-fold.

First, recognize how thoroughly such an inquiry is situated in the present. Such a modern scholarly category imposes an unwarranted discourse on our beleaguered subjects. It cannot possibly matter to long-gone early modern Europeans. Such inquiries benefit only us. If some version of the category advances our understanding of the relevance and significance of our subjects, it does not change the facts of our subjects’ experiences. After all, if we read the cultural guides about our “foreign country,” we haven’t changed the country’s citizens. Indeed, the danger is that in reading such a guide, we will change the citizens to appear to us as our guidebooks say they are. When the past has provided us as many truly excellent documents as early modern Europe has on witchcraft and possessions, what need have we to inject ourselves into their discussions? We have the details we need to compose a full picture of the era, its subjects, and much of the discourse surrounding demonic possession.

Second, Almond explains that it is the disconnects and differences between past and present that fuel his curiosity. Why is the past different? The efforts one must expend to answer such a question are wasted if we rush hurriedly to the present for some payoff about today’s society. While one duty of the scholar is to articulate the value of their work for the community that receives it, the receiving community must do the accompanying work of explaining why the present is different. This is a difference that matters to those of us today. It is also a disjuncture in scholarly products. When we fail to cleanly separate the line between past and present, as some works discussing demonic possession have done, the end result is a work that is likely to say more about how our modern ideas about religion or psychology succeed or fail in being persuasive in telling stories about the past for those in the present. A good story is not necessarily the same thing as excellent scholarship. In the former, readers are entertained and may find new ways to appreciate the differences of the present from the past. Only in the latter, however, are we likely to get a sense of what our subjects thought about witchcraft and possession. And then, if we so choose, we might ask, how central such ideas were to those things we would today describe as religious. I suspect, however, that even this mild extension is largely an exercise in anachronism.

I like to ask myself the following question of historically situated works. Are they tied so tightly to the moment when they were written that in the future they are likelier to be studied as representations of the scholarly moment of their production rather than for what they had to say about their subjects? I would like to think many of us strive to put the history of our subjects forward and not to become mere historiographical bywords for future scholars. I recommend Almond’s recent works as excellent models of being serious about the history of witchcraft and possession so that we might better understand that past on its own terms.

Global Categories; Local Contexts

Carlo Ginzburg is professor emeritus in History of European Cultures in Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy. A distinguished historian with a remarkable career, Ginzburg is known for his microhistorical research approach. His most well-known book The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller follows clues from seemingly small and inconsequential cases and details, in order to illuminate the bigger picture, the richness and complexity of historical phenomena. Other publications include Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches SabbathClues, Myths and the Historical Method, and The Judge and the Historian: Marginal Notes on a late-twentieth century miscarriage of justice.

The Religious Studies Project had the opportunity to interview Ginzburg at the annual conference of the European Association for the Study of Religions in Groningen, the Netherlands. Ginzburg was one of the keynote speakers of the conference, and his lecture “Traveling in Spirit: From Friuli to Siberia” dealt with interpretative categories and their “wandering beyond the original context.” As a case study, Ginzburg reflected on his own research and the realization that his own work on the Friulianbenandanti was profoundly affected by the work of S.M. Shirokogoroff.

After the keynote, Hanna had a chance to meet professor Ginzburg and hear about his career, his work and his advice for students who wish to pursue the microhistorical research.

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