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Radical experiences that can change worlds

Radicalisation, Fundamentalism and Terrorism are emotive topics in the 21st Century. All three terms are frequently the subject of distorted, and often highly prejudicial, usage in public discourse. It is precisely because of their contemporary relevance, a relevance that can literally have life-or-death consequences, that they are an important area for academic research. Matthew Francis’ podcast provides an excellent introduction to many of the problems caused by a simplified understanding of religion and radicalisation. As he argues, distinguishing between the three terms is crucial if we want to understand any of them and the processes that they are associated with. Not all radicals are terrorists, and not all terrorists are radicals. A narrow focus on particular forms of radicalism is limiting and dangerous, if we want to understand the processes involved we must view them in a broader context.

Radicalisation, Francis suggests, is almost synonymous with socialisation. It is the process, or processes, by which an individual or group come to hold ideas or beliefs that are deemed to be ‘radical.’ At its core, radicalisation is simply the process of religious or ideological change when that change occurs in a direction that is considered to be radical. The observation that ideas are not inherently radical, but that the term is a relative one that involves comparisons to social norms, is of critical importance. The value judgments that we ascribe to ideas are not innate to them but are instead reflections of our own beliefs. These beliefs and norms vary between societies and over time within society. It was not long ago that, in the United Kingdom, allowing women the right to vote, or homosexuals the right to marry, was considered radical and dangerous by the majority of people. Today, in many parts of the world, both of those ideas are still considered to be radical and dangerous. The ideas have not changed and yet our judgments of them have. The radical has become normal. Similarly, ideas that were once considered normative are now considered by many to be radical. The subjective nature of what is, and is not, considered radical requires researchers to suspend judgment about particular views and focus on the dynamics through which the beliefs and values of individuals change.

A second important insight into radicalisation discussed in the interview is that ‘sacred ideas’ are a core part of any and all ideologies. These are ideas, often implicit, that are considered to be absolutely true and non-negotiable. Secular examples include the belief that people have the right to freedom and self-determination, or that society has an obligation to protect children from abuse.  More controversial examples might be the belief that one’s own race or nation are superior, or that the strong deserve whatever they can take. Recognising that individuals can be radicalised to hold non-religious ideologies is important both to understand the processes of radicalisation but also to understand the growth of other social movements. These ideological movements are diverse and can come from either end of the political spectrum. Marxist ideologies and nationalisms and the emerging alt-right both involve strongly held, radical convictions. However, radicalisation is not always bad. New ideas can be improvements on old ones. Radicalisation, as a process of change, is not inherently good or bad but can be either depending on the particular ideologies involved.

Moving the frame of reference beyond just religious ideologies is an important step in the process of understanding radicalisation but it is also dangerous to go too far in that direction. Individuals who seek to sever the link between religious radicalisation and religion usually have good intentions and yet, as Francis suggests, that step is as misleading as portraying all religion as inherently bad. There are many individuals for whom religious motivations are of central importance and whose actions are driven by religiously radical ideas. For example, the conservative Christian who attacks an abortion clinic in order to prevent the ‘murder’ of the unborn does so out of deep religious conviction and without the belief that abortion is murder it is highly unlikely that they would commit such attacks. It is important to be aware of all the varying, and often conflicting, motivations that drive individuals to commit extreme actions in the name of an ideology but to focus purely on non-religious factors like economics would omit an important piece in the puzzle.

The work of Tanya Luhrmann (1991, 2004, 2012) is of relevance here. Her work has explored how individuals ‘learn’ to have spiritual experiences that reinforce developing worldviews. She describes this process of learning to attribute particular thoughts, feelings and experiences to a divine or otherwise supernatural source as ‘metakinesis’. Metakinesis, she argues, is similar to other learning processes that teach an individual to become an expert in a particular field. As an individual begins to view the world through a particular religious perspective, and interpret events in the way encouraged by the community they are joining, they find value in the traditions and practices. These practices, however, can do more than simply providing an interpretative framework for ambiguous events. The Spiritual Disciplines Project, an experiment that Luhrmann ran at Stanford University, showed that individual who pray or meditates repeatedly actually becomes more attuned to particular sensations and have increased spiritual experiences. These experiences reinforce the worldview that lead to the practice in the first place, frequently leading to increased immersion in it. Luhrmann’s early work with British magic-users and her more recent work with American Evangelicals both support the idea that religious practice can actually alter how individuals perceive and experience the world. This is, of course, a claim that many religious practitioners would agree with – spiritual practices are often intended to cultivate closer relationships with the divine. When studying radicalisation, the impact that spiritual experiences and practices can have on reinforcing ideological positions should not be neglected in favour of more ‘mundane’ influences. As Francis notes, the process of radicalisation is complex and nuanced. The role that spiritual experiences can play in encouraging individuals to adopt beliefs that are considered radical should not be overlooked. People gradually adopt ideologies through their experiences of the world and spiritual experiences can have an impact just like any other event that an individual considers significant.

It is only by appreciating and integrating the many different factors that cause people to adopt and disseminate beliefs that others consider strange or radical that we can fully understand the process of radicalisation. Doing so is important not only to devise strategies to counter the spread of ideas which are deemed dangerous but also to facilitate the spread of radical ideas that are deemed positive. Technological advances mean that ideas can now spread at a rate that was unthinkable mere decades ago. In this context, it is imperative that academics continue to focus their efforts on understanding the psychological and sociological dynamics by which ideas are spread. Equally, it is important that this research is communicated clearly and publically so that dangerous misconceptions are not allowed to flourish.

References

Luhrmann, T. M. (1991). Persuasions of the witch’s craft: Ritual magic in contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Luhrmann, T. M. (2004). Metakinesis: How god becomes intimate in contemporary U.S. Christianity. American Anthropologist, 106(3), 518–528. doi:10.1525/aa.2004.106.3.518

Luhrmann, T. M. (2012). When God talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with god. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

The Shifting Normal        

I am sitting to write a response to Chris Cotter’s interview with Matthew Francis, in the aftermath of the presidential election in the United States of America. The interview occurred before the shock result of this election became known. I listened to the interview both before, and following, the results, and will happily point out that these outside events, away from the ‘ivory tower’ of academia, have had an impact on my thinking. This is probably no bad thing.

Francis’s work on radicalisation, which he describes as understanding the processes by which “people come to hold radical views”, is increasingly relevant today. Throughout the interview he makes clear his opposition to the popular discourse around radicalisation, which draws a direct link between the idea of a ‘radical’, and violent terrorist actions. Radicalisation and terrorism are often used synonymously, and this is something which Francis rallies against. In the popular discourse, and indeed in much academic discussion, this understanding of radicalisation is further connected directly to a specific religious tradition- namely Islam. While we can understand the reasons for this, and empathise with those colleagues whose funding depends on working within these discursive parameters, it is clearly unhelpful. While Francis and Cotter do repeatedly mention Islam in the context of their discussion, I think it is clear that they do so not because they are buying into this dominant discourse, but rather as a reaction to its position as such a dominant discourse. It is a discourse which needs to be addressed.

Francis mentions early on in the interview the fact that although the IRA can clearly be labelled as a terrorist group, one which threatens the United Kingdom directly, we rarely if ever hear about the radicalisation of young Catholics in this context. His discussion of those who may hold to ‘radical’ ideologies, and those who may join a terroristic organisation without actively engaging with the overarching ideology of the organisation, for pragmatic reasons or simply to feel a sense of belonging, is fascinating. It is a discussion which I would like to hear more vocally expressed by academics through the media and into the wider public discourse. The issue of religious literacy, both on the part of those who espouse religiously inspired radical ideologies, and policy makers attempting to deal with these issues, also comes up in the interview. Recently, Belgian lawyer Sven Mary, representing the sole surviving suspect in the November 2015 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, has argued that Abdeslam is being further radicalised in prison. “He’s got a beard, he’s become a true fundamentalist whereas before he was a kid wearing Nike trainers”, Mary has stated.[i] This conflation of outward demonstrations of identity, with radicalisation, and further with terrorism, misses so much of the nuance which these complex issues require if they are to be even vaguely understood.

Given the interesting times in which we now live, the aspect this interview which most caught my attention concerned Francis’s comments regarding what we consider to be radical in the first place. Early in the interview, he briefly mentions the suffragettes as a group who held to a radical worldview, and fought to bring that worldview to reality. What we consider radical necessarily exists in opposition to what are considered as social norms. These norms clearly shift over time. Responding to a direct question from Cotter, Francis outlines how radicalisation can be seen as synonymous with socialisation;

“…. it’s about how (people) are sometimes brought up in, how their peer networks influence them, the kind of ideas that they come into contact with through society, through social media, through the internet, through a variety of other sources, and how this helps them interact with the world around them, helps them interact with other people.” (interview 4:41)

In his 1996 book, Radical Democracy, C. Douglas Lummis takes a similar view on the concept of the radical. For Lummis, the word radical in his conception of ‘radical democracy’ denotes intensification, rather than modification. When we speak about Christian democracy, liberal democracy, social democracy, and so on, we are referring to specific types of this ideal called ‘democracy’. However, when we speak about Radical Democracy, according to Lummis, we are discussing the idea (democracy) intensified.[ii] Similarly, what we may understand from Francis’s comparison of radicalisation and socialisation is that radicalisation is an intensified process of socialisation, with the context and prevailing norms playing a key role in what we categorise as radical.

As of writing,[iii] Donald Trump is the President elect of the United States. Come January, Trump will be POTUS. What does this do to norms? How does this change our understanding of the radical, and by association our understanding of radicalisation? As the first African American President of the United States is replaced by a man who has been endorsed by, and embraces, a variety of white nationalist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, how do we incorporate the new reality into our discussions of radicalisation? I would argue that Francis’s nuanced focus on ideology is of key importance here.

In his discussion of what make a radical, Francis mentions that while he is interested in religion, it is not his sole interest. Ideologies, ideas held sacred and non-negotiable, are what draw him into this work. Saul Alinsky confronts such ideas, and their limitations, in his 1971 book Rules for Radicals. In a section which is echoed in the later writing of a young Barack Obama, Alinsky addresses the question of his own ideology, the ideology of a community organiser;

“… the free-society organiser is loose, resilient, fluid, and on the move in a society which is itself in constant change. To the extent that he is free from the shackles of dogma, he can respond to the realities of the widely different situations or society presents”.[iv]

Ideologies, held sacred and non-negotiable, are a hindrance to the work of a community organiser as they prevent the organiser from seeing the reality in front of them. They prevent flexibility, and hinder a reflexive view. Obama would later write in the journal Illinois Issues, “(many) community organizations and organizers are hampered by their own dogmas about the style and substance of organizing (… ) Few are thinking of harnessing the internal productive capacities, both in terms of money and people, that already exist in communities.”[v]

Does the President elect of the United States suffer from such debilitating ideology which Obama, and Alinsky, argued against, or is he, in line with Francis’s argument, someone who has not become radicalised but rather has joined with radicals pragmatically? As much of the ‘main-stream media’ comes to terms with the election of Trump, it appears to be the second option which they are trumping for. Trump is a chameleon, the argument goes, willing to say anything to gain power. He doesn’t truly believe the horrific things he has said about homosexuals, people of colour, Mexicans, Muslims, Women, the disabled. He is to be taken seriously, but not literally.[vi]  This misses an important point. Norms shift, and Trump’s pragmatic use of radical, white nationalist, ideology allows space for this ideology to become the norm. Exemplifying this, a story told by Teju Cole, retold as part of his argument against the normalisation of Trump, is worth quoting in full.

“On Aug. 19, 2015, shortly after midnight, the brothers Stephen and Scott Leader assaulted Guillermo Rodriguez. Rodriguez had been sleeping near a train station in Boston. The Leader brothers beat him with a metal pipe, breaking his nose and bruising his ribs, and called him a “wetback.” They urinated on him. “All these illegals need to be deported,” they are said to have declared during the attack. The brothers were fans of the candidate who would go on to win the Republican party’s presidential nomination. Told of the incident at the time, that candidate said: “People who are following me are very passionate. They love this country, and they want this country to be great again.”[vii]

Just as was seen across the UK post-Brexit, overtly racist graffiti and slogans are appearing across the US following Trump’s election.[viii] The norms of society have shifted, and with them our ideas of what is radical must also shift. The dominant discourse, that radicalisation leads to terrorism and is directly linked to Islam, needs to be questioned now more than ever. Matthew Francis’s work in this area, and on translating this nuance for public discourse, is increasingly vital.

Endnotes

[i] http://www.politico.eu/article/lawyer-paris-attack-suspect-more-radical-since-arrest/

[ii] Lummis (1996) pp. 24-25

[iii] It is 2016, anything could happen…

[iv] Alinsky (1971) p.11

[v] http://illinoisissues.uis.edu/archives/2008/09/whyorg.html

[vi] https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2016/10/31/peter-thiels-media-critique-reporters-take-trumps-statements-literally-but-not-seriously/

[vii] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/11/magazine/a-time-for-refusal.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0

[viii] http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-37945386?ocid=socialflow_twitter&ns_mchannel=social&ns_campaign=bbcnews&ns_source=twitter

Speaking about Radicalisation in the Public Sphere

Given the prevalence of stories of terrorism, violence, fundamentalism, extremism, and radicalisation in the press, the need for an academic account of the construction and employment of these terms is clearly needed. The issues raised in this podcast by Matthew Francis really hit the nail on the head, and it does an excellent job of covering many key issues. Therefore, in this response, my aim will be very much to amplify some of the concerns and issues picked up. In particular, I will raise some questions about the role of academics who work in this and related fields, as well as how to get academic discourse into the public square.

Firstly, beyond the contested term radicalisation, I have thrown a whole set of often related terms into the mix: terrorism, violence, extremism, and fundamentalism. Some of these are raised in the podcast, in particular the often-presumed link of what is generally call radicalisation and what we tend to call terrorism. As Francis rightly notes, radicalisation and violence are not necessarily linked: people can be what we call radicalised without becoming violent, while many people are violent without being seen as being radicalised. In the general discourse, particularly in the media, all these terms are often seen as somewhat synonymous, which raises the ever important question about the baggage these terms hold, and what is hidden rather than revealed in using them. Are the terms analytically useful? Or do they have some other utility, perhaps in terms of communicating ideas? I leave that point hanging as different scholars vary on what terms they choose to employ or not employ, and will turn now specifically to radicalisation.

As the podcast notes, radicalisation is in some ways a meaningless word. The point Francis makes is that it is simply socialisation by another name. As such, there is not some magical or special set of things which radicalisers do which makes people into radicals. Relevant to Francis’ argument is Marc Sageman’s work on pathways into terror networks in terms of what is generally termed the “bunch of guys” phenomenon. That is, it is often friendship circles and the desire to be part of the group, or not let others down, which is often a primary factor rather than anything which seems to be commonly imagined as radicalisation. Certainly there often are ideological drivers or discontents but people are rarely, if ever, radicalised online by seeing material there without some form of interaction with peers and friendships playing a role.

Yet, I suggest that viewing radicalisation as a form of socialisation makes it both easier and trickier to mediate the term and engage in public discussion. Easier because it means you don’t need any special tools to study or explain it. It is also easier because people can get a better sense of how it happens – we are all inculcated into particular worldviews. However, it is trickier in several ways.

First, and perhaps most importantly – bringing to mind Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” – we are not looking for monsters or monstrous ideologies as the foundation. This is not an answer which some people want to hear. Another reason it is trickier is because if radicalisation is simply another form of socialisation it also raises the question as to why society terms certain things this way. So we have to ask questions about what society thinks is radical. An example used in the podcast is the Suffragette movement, a radical and sometimes violent movement in its contemporary context, but as Francis notes, today we would more likely see somebody who didn’t believe in women’s suffrage as the radical. This raises questions about our normative worldviews: is the question of who is radical simply subjective and culturally and historically determined? If so does it lead scholars to political quiescence? If we see gender prejudice do we ignore it because all values are simply relative? I suspect we would mostly sharply withdraw from such relativism, however, it then means we need to find a way of drawing some boundaries.

Another issue, raised above, by this is the connection, if any, between radicalisation and violent behaviour: why do certain people turn to violent behaviour, typically termed terrorism in these cases?  Within the space of this response it is impossible to follow up the kind of research that has gone into those who turn to violence, but if this is our interest (it is often what the media and politicians means when they use terms like radicalisation or extremism) we therefore need to change the questions asked. It is not (just) about how some people take paths that society sees as radical, but what psychological and social factors allow people to turn to violence to seek to enact their ideology, to defend their buddies, or defend a cause. However, as noted, we can’t pursue that here.

Francis also very usefully deals with the elephant in the room which, in the contemporary context, is Islam. As he points out, something agreed with by I think every impartial expert, Islam per se is simply not a cause of violence or terror. Indeed, he notes that there are millions of Wahhabis (as a particular Saudi form of Salafism is known) in the world but most are not terrorists or even supporters of terrorism. So even with this often-demonised ideology, let alone Islam as a whole, we simply do not see a path from religious belief or ideology to radicalism, violence, and terror. This is not to say that some people may not consider Wahhabi Islam to be a radical ideology – but again we need to ask why they make such judgements. Indeed, discussing Islam in the public sphere brings its own set of challenges.

The question of speaking to the media is one Francis addresses directly. He notes that often journalists just want a sound bite or to frame interviews for the answer they want. However, he asks if he doesn’t do it who will? Maybe some partisan figure who may reinforce negative stereotypes or perceptions he suggests. In this discussion, I also think Francis is absolutely right when he says it is often practitioners rather than policy makers or the media who are ready to listen and want to engage with the evidence – indeed, they are generally far more clued in. A minefield of professional and ethical issues is raised about how academics engage in such areas, and I won’t in the scope of this response pretend to give any answers. However, they are questions that need to be engaged and discussed not just by scholars working in such fields but, I suggest, more generally about how scholarship engages with and relates to the wider public sphere.

 

Researching Radicalisation

Radicalisation, fundamentalism or extremism, are terms which are highly prevalent in media, public, political, and legal discourse these days, and are surrounded by mystification, rhetoric and ideological assumptions that work against clear, objective, non-partisan understandings of the phenomena they denote. Regular listeners to the RSP will be unsurprised that we look askance at such discourses and aim to take a critical approach to this controversial topic. What might the academy mean by the term ‘radicalisation’? How might we study it? What makes it different from ‘socialisation’? Is there a necessary connection between ‘religion’ – or particular forms of ‘religion’ – and radicalisation? And how might we position ourselves in relation to other actors – in politics, the military, or the media – who have a vested interest in our research?

To discuss these and other issues, we are joined this week by Dr Matthew Francis, Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University and Communications Director for the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST). In this interview we discuss what we mean by ‘radicalisation’, and what its connections to socialisation, terrorism, and ‘religion’ might be. We take on the methodological question of how one might go about researching such a contested topic, and look specifically at some of Matthew’s findings relating to the causes of radicalisation, and the neo-Durkheimian ‘sacred’. We also reflect on the position of the researcher when approaching topics entangled such vested political interests, negotiating the media, and future research directions.

Be sure to check out other great podcasts on: Zen Buddhism Terrorism and Holy War with Brian Victoria; Sociotheology and the Cosmic War with Mark Juergensmeyer; Religion, violence and the Media with Jolyon Mitchell; Studying “Cults” with Eileen Barker; The Sacred with Gordon Lynch; and Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond with Ian Reader and Paulina Kolata. This episode is the fifth in a series co-produced with Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality” with Naomi Thompson, ‘Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan, and ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie.

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, this BLACK FRIDAY, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, cough drops, single malt whiskey, and more.

Roundtable: Can We Trust the Social Sciences?

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

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

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

If you are new to the podcast – this is not what we usually do. If you are a regular listener – you might enjoy this, or you might not; either way, we are back to normal with Jolyon Mitchell’s interview on Religion, Media and Violence on Monday. For an interesting and more rigorous response essay to this podcast, please see Tim Hutchings’ A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion.

David and Ethan

David and Ethan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sponsored by Pepsi Max, and pink gin.

Katie clearly found Ethan “hilarious”

The Discussants:

Katie Aston

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

Christopher R. Cotter

Chris recently completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. He is currently taking a year out from study to pursue PhD applications, present at conferences, and work on projects such as this. His future research will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Deputy Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Matthew Francis

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

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

Ethan Quillen

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

David G. Robertson

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

Kevin Whitesides

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

Podcasts

Radical experiences that can change worlds

Radicalisation, Fundamentalism and Terrorism are emotive topics in the 21st Century. All three terms are frequently the subject of distorted, and often highly prejudicial, usage in public discourse. It is precisely because of their contemporary relevance, a relevance that can literally have life-or-death consequences, that they are an important area for academic research. Matthew Francis’ podcast provides an excellent introduction to many of the problems caused by a simplified understanding of religion and radicalisation. As he argues, distinguishing between the three terms is crucial if we want to understand any of them and the processes that they are associated with. Not all radicals are terrorists, and not all terrorists are radicals. A narrow focus on particular forms of radicalism is limiting and dangerous, if we want to understand the processes involved we must view them in a broader context.

Radicalisation, Francis suggests, is almost synonymous with socialisation. It is the process, or processes, by which an individual or group come to hold ideas or beliefs that are deemed to be ‘radical.’ At its core, radicalisation is simply the process of religious or ideological change when that change occurs in a direction that is considered to be radical. The observation that ideas are not inherently radical, but that the term is a relative one that involves comparisons to social norms, is of critical importance. The value judgments that we ascribe to ideas are not innate to them but are instead reflections of our own beliefs. These beliefs and norms vary between societies and over time within society. It was not long ago that, in the United Kingdom, allowing women the right to vote, or homosexuals the right to marry, was considered radical and dangerous by the majority of people. Today, in many parts of the world, both of those ideas are still considered to be radical and dangerous. The ideas have not changed and yet our judgments of them have. The radical has become normal. Similarly, ideas that were once considered normative are now considered by many to be radical. The subjective nature of what is, and is not, considered radical requires researchers to suspend judgment about particular views and focus on the dynamics through which the beliefs and values of individuals change.

A second important insight into radicalisation discussed in the interview is that ‘sacred ideas’ are a core part of any and all ideologies. These are ideas, often implicit, that are considered to be absolutely true and non-negotiable. Secular examples include the belief that people have the right to freedom and self-determination, or that society has an obligation to protect children from abuse.  More controversial examples might be the belief that one’s own race or nation are superior, or that the strong deserve whatever they can take. Recognising that individuals can be radicalised to hold non-religious ideologies is important both to understand the processes of radicalisation but also to understand the growth of other social movements. These ideological movements are diverse and can come from either end of the political spectrum. Marxist ideologies and nationalisms and the emerging alt-right both involve strongly held, radical convictions. However, radicalisation is not always bad. New ideas can be improvements on old ones. Radicalisation, as a process of change, is not inherently good or bad but can be either depending on the particular ideologies involved.

Moving the frame of reference beyond just religious ideologies is an important step in the process of understanding radicalisation but it is also dangerous to go too far in that direction. Individuals who seek to sever the link between religious radicalisation and religion usually have good intentions and yet, as Francis suggests, that step is as misleading as portraying all religion as inherently bad. There are many individuals for whom religious motivations are of central importance and whose actions are driven by religiously radical ideas. For example, the conservative Christian who attacks an abortion clinic in order to prevent the ‘murder’ of the unborn does so out of deep religious conviction and without the belief that abortion is murder it is highly unlikely that they would commit such attacks. It is important to be aware of all the varying, and often conflicting, motivations that drive individuals to commit extreme actions in the name of an ideology but to focus purely on non-religious factors like economics would omit an important piece in the puzzle.

The work of Tanya Luhrmann (1991, 2004, 2012) is of relevance here. Her work has explored how individuals ‘learn’ to have spiritual experiences that reinforce developing worldviews. She describes this process of learning to attribute particular thoughts, feelings and experiences to a divine or otherwise supernatural source as ‘metakinesis’. Metakinesis, she argues, is similar to other learning processes that teach an individual to become an expert in a particular field. As an individual begins to view the world through a particular religious perspective, and interpret events in the way encouraged by the community they are joining, they find value in the traditions and practices. These practices, however, can do more than simply providing an interpretative framework for ambiguous events. The Spiritual Disciplines Project, an experiment that Luhrmann ran at Stanford University, showed that individual who pray or meditates repeatedly actually becomes more attuned to particular sensations and have increased spiritual experiences. These experiences reinforce the worldview that lead to the practice in the first place, frequently leading to increased immersion in it. Luhrmann’s early work with British magic-users and her more recent work with American Evangelicals both support the idea that religious practice can actually alter how individuals perceive and experience the world. This is, of course, a claim that many religious practitioners would agree with – spiritual practices are often intended to cultivate closer relationships with the divine. When studying radicalisation, the impact that spiritual experiences and practices can have on reinforcing ideological positions should not be neglected in favour of more ‘mundane’ influences. As Francis notes, the process of radicalisation is complex and nuanced. The role that spiritual experiences can play in encouraging individuals to adopt beliefs that are considered radical should not be overlooked. People gradually adopt ideologies through their experiences of the world and spiritual experiences can have an impact just like any other event that an individual considers significant.

It is only by appreciating and integrating the many different factors that cause people to adopt and disseminate beliefs that others consider strange or radical that we can fully understand the process of radicalisation. Doing so is important not only to devise strategies to counter the spread of ideas which are deemed dangerous but also to facilitate the spread of radical ideas that are deemed positive. Technological advances mean that ideas can now spread at a rate that was unthinkable mere decades ago. In this context, it is imperative that academics continue to focus their efforts on understanding the psychological and sociological dynamics by which ideas are spread. Equally, it is important that this research is communicated clearly and publically so that dangerous misconceptions are not allowed to flourish.

References

Luhrmann, T. M. (1991). Persuasions of the witch’s craft: Ritual magic in contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Luhrmann, T. M. (2004). Metakinesis: How god becomes intimate in contemporary U.S. Christianity. American Anthropologist, 106(3), 518–528. doi:10.1525/aa.2004.106.3.518

Luhrmann, T. M. (2012). When God talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with god. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

The Shifting Normal        

I am sitting to write a response to Chris Cotter’s interview with Matthew Francis, in the aftermath of the presidential election in the United States of America. The interview occurred before the shock result of this election became known. I listened to the interview both before, and following, the results, and will happily point out that these outside events, away from the ‘ivory tower’ of academia, have had an impact on my thinking. This is probably no bad thing.

Francis’s work on radicalisation, which he describes as understanding the processes by which “people come to hold radical views”, is increasingly relevant today. Throughout the interview he makes clear his opposition to the popular discourse around radicalisation, which draws a direct link between the idea of a ‘radical’, and violent terrorist actions. Radicalisation and terrorism are often used synonymously, and this is something which Francis rallies against. In the popular discourse, and indeed in much academic discussion, this understanding of radicalisation is further connected directly to a specific religious tradition- namely Islam. While we can understand the reasons for this, and empathise with those colleagues whose funding depends on working within these discursive parameters, it is clearly unhelpful. While Francis and Cotter do repeatedly mention Islam in the context of their discussion, I think it is clear that they do so not because they are buying into this dominant discourse, but rather as a reaction to its position as such a dominant discourse. It is a discourse which needs to be addressed.

Francis mentions early on in the interview the fact that although the IRA can clearly be labelled as a terrorist group, one which threatens the United Kingdom directly, we rarely if ever hear about the radicalisation of young Catholics in this context. His discussion of those who may hold to ‘radical’ ideologies, and those who may join a terroristic organisation without actively engaging with the overarching ideology of the organisation, for pragmatic reasons or simply to feel a sense of belonging, is fascinating. It is a discussion which I would like to hear more vocally expressed by academics through the media and into the wider public discourse. The issue of religious literacy, both on the part of those who espouse religiously inspired radical ideologies, and policy makers attempting to deal with these issues, also comes up in the interview. Recently, Belgian lawyer Sven Mary, representing the sole surviving suspect in the November 2015 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, has argued that Abdeslam is being further radicalised in prison. “He’s got a beard, he’s become a true fundamentalist whereas before he was a kid wearing Nike trainers”, Mary has stated.[i] This conflation of outward demonstrations of identity, with radicalisation, and further with terrorism, misses so much of the nuance which these complex issues require if they are to be even vaguely understood.

Given the interesting times in which we now live, the aspect this interview which most caught my attention concerned Francis’s comments regarding what we consider to be radical in the first place. Early in the interview, he briefly mentions the suffragettes as a group who held to a radical worldview, and fought to bring that worldview to reality. What we consider radical necessarily exists in opposition to what are considered as social norms. These norms clearly shift over time. Responding to a direct question from Cotter, Francis outlines how radicalisation can be seen as synonymous with socialisation;

“…. it’s about how (people) are sometimes brought up in, how their peer networks influence them, the kind of ideas that they come into contact with through society, through social media, through the internet, through a variety of other sources, and how this helps them interact with the world around them, helps them interact with other people.” (interview 4:41)

In his 1996 book, Radical Democracy, C. Douglas Lummis takes a similar view on the concept of the radical. For Lummis, the word radical in his conception of ‘radical democracy’ denotes intensification, rather than modification. When we speak about Christian democracy, liberal democracy, social democracy, and so on, we are referring to specific types of this ideal called ‘democracy’. However, when we speak about Radical Democracy, according to Lummis, we are discussing the idea (democracy) intensified.[ii] Similarly, what we may understand from Francis’s comparison of radicalisation and socialisation is that radicalisation is an intensified process of socialisation, with the context and prevailing norms playing a key role in what we categorise as radical.

As of writing,[iii] Donald Trump is the President elect of the United States. Come January, Trump will be POTUS. What does this do to norms? How does this change our understanding of the radical, and by association our understanding of radicalisation? As the first African American President of the United States is replaced by a man who has been endorsed by, and embraces, a variety of white nationalist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, how do we incorporate the new reality into our discussions of radicalisation? I would argue that Francis’s nuanced focus on ideology is of key importance here.

In his discussion of what make a radical, Francis mentions that while he is interested in religion, it is not his sole interest. Ideologies, ideas held sacred and non-negotiable, are what draw him into this work. Saul Alinsky confronts such ideas, and their limitations, in his 1971 book Rules for Radicals. In a section which is echoed in the later writing of a young Barack Obama, Alinsky addresses the question of his own ideology, the ideology of a community organiser;

“… the free-society organiser is loose, resilient, fluid, and on the move in a society which is itself in constant change. To the extent that he is free from the shackles of dogma, he can respond to the realities of the widely different situations or society presents”.[iv]

Ideologies, held sacred and non-negotiable, are a hindrance to the work of a community organiser as they prevent the organiser from seeing the reality in front of them. They prevent flexibility, and hinder a reflexive view. Obama would later write in the journal Illinois Issues, “(many) community organizations and organizers are hampered by their own dogmas about the style and substance of organizing (… ) Few are thinking of harnessing the internal productive capacities, both in terms of money and people, that already exist in communities.”[v]

Does the President elect of the United States suffer from such debilitating ideology which Obama, and Alinsky, argued against, or is he, in line with Francis’s argument, someone who has not become radicalised but rather has joined with radicals pragmatically? As much of the ‘main-stream media’ comes to terms with the election of Trump, it appears to be the second option which they are trumping for. Trump is a chameleon, the argument goes, willing to say anything to gain power. He doesn’t truly believe the horrific things he has said about homosexuals, people of colour, Mexicans, Muslims, Women, the disabled. He is to be taken seriously, but not literally.[vi]  This misses an important point. Norms shift, and Trump’s pragmatic use of radical, white nationalist, ideology allows space for this ideology to become the norm. Exemplifying this, a story told by Teju Cole, retold as part of his argument against the normalisation of Trump, is worth quoting in full.

“On Aug. 19, 2015, shortly after midnight, the brothers Stephen and Scott Leader assaulted Guillermo Rodriguez. Rodriguez had been sleeping near a train station in Boston. The Leader brothers beat him with a metal pipe, breaking his nose and bruising his ribs, and called him a “wetback.” They urinated on him. “All these illegals need to be deported,” they are said to have declared during the attack. The brothers were fans of the candidate who would go on to win the Republican party’s presidential nomination. Told of the incident at the time, that candidate said: “People who are following me are very passionate. They love this country, and they want this country to be great again.”[vii]

Just as was seen across the UK post-Brexit, overtly racist graffiti and slogans are appearing across the US following Trump’s election.[viii] The norms of society have shifted, and with them our ideas of what is radical must also shift. The dominant discourse, that radicalisation leads to terrorism and is directly linked to Islam, needs to be questioned now more than ever. Matthew Francis’s work in this area, and on translating this nuance for public discourse, is increasingly vital.

Endnotes

[i] http://www.politico.eu/article/lawyer-paris-attack-suspect-more-radical-since-arrest/

[ii] Lummis (1996) pp. 24-25

[iii] It is 2016, anything could happen…

[iv] Alinsky (1971) p.11

[v] http://illinoisissues.uis.edu/archives/2008/09/whyorg.html

[vi] https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2016/10/31/peter-thiels-media-critique-reporters-take-trumps-statements-literally-but-not-seriously/

[vii] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/11/magazine/a-time-for-refusal.html?smid=tw-share&_r=0

[viii] http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-37945386?ocid=socialflow_twitter&ns_mchannel=social&ns_campaign=bbcnews&ns_source=twitter

Speaking about Radicalisation in the Public Sphere

Given the prevalence of stories of terrorism, violence, fundamentalism, extremism, and radicalisation in the press, the need for an academic account of the construction and employment of these terms is clearly needed. The issues raised in this podcast by Matthew Francis really hit the nail on the head, and it does an excellent job of covering many key issues. Therefore, in this response, my aim will be very much to amplify some of the concerns and issues picked up. In particular, I will raise some questions about the role of academics who work in this and related fields, as well as how to get academic discourse into the public square.

Firstly, beyond the contested term radicalisation, I have thrown a whole set of often related terms into the mix: terrorism, violence, extremism, and fundamentalism. Some of these are raised in the podcast, in particular the often-presumed link of what is generally call radicalisation and what we tend to call terrorism. As Francis rightly notes, radicalisation and violence are not necessarily linked: people can be what we call radicalised without becoming violent, while many people are violent without being seen as being radicalised. In the general discourse, particularly in the media, all these terms are often seen as somewhat synonymous, which raises the ever important question about the baggage these terms hold, and what is hidden rather than revealed in using them. Are the terms analytically useful? Or do they have some other utility, perhaps in terms of communicating ideas? I leave that point hanging as different scholars vary on what terms they choose to employ or not employ, and will turn now specifically to radicalisation.

As the podcast notes, radicalisation is in some ways a meaningless word. The point Francis makes is that it is simply socialisation by another name. As such, there is not some magical or special set of things which radicalisers do which makes people into radicals. Relevant to Francis’ argument is Marc Sageman’s work on pathways into terror networks in terms of what is generally termed the “bunch of guys” phenomenon. That is, it is often friendship circles and the desire to be part of the group, or not let others down, which is often a primary factor rather than anything which seems to be commonly imagined as radicalisation. Certainly there often are ideological drivers or discontents but people are rarely, if ever, radicalised online by seeing material there without some form of interaction with peers and friendships playing a role.

Yet, I suggest that viewing radicalisation as a form of socialisation makes it both easier and trickier to mediate the term and engage in public discussion. Easier because it means you don’t need any special tools to study or explain it. It is also easier because people can get a better sense of how it happens – we are all inculcated into particular worldviews. However, it is trickier in several ways.

First, and perhaps most importantly – bringing to mind Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” – we are not looking for monsters or monstrous ideologies as the foundation. This is not an answer which some people want to hear. Another reason it is trickier is because if radicalisation is simply another form of socialisation it also raises the question as to why society terms certain things this way. So we have to ask questions about what society thinks is radical. An example used in the podcast is the Suffragette movement, a radical and sometimes violent movement in its contemporary context, but as Francis notes, today we would more likely see somebody who didn’t believe in women’s suffrage as the radical. This raises questions about our normative worldviews: is the question of who is radical simply subjective and culturally and historically determined? If so does it lead scholars to political quiescence? If we see gender prejudice do we ignore it because all values are simply relative? I suspect we would mostly sharply withdraw from such relativism, however, it then means we need to find a way of drawing some boundaries.

Another issue, raised above, by this is the connection, if any, between radicalisation and violent behaviour: why do certain people turn to violent behaviour, typically termed terrorism in these cases?  Within the space of this response it is impossible to follow up the kind of research that has gone into those who turn to violence, but if this is our interest (it is often what the media and politicians means when they use terms like radicalisation or extremism) we therefore need to change the questions asked. It is not (just) about how some people take paths that society sees as radical, but what psychological and social factors allow people to turn to violence to seek to enact their ideology, to defend their buddies, or defend a cause. However, as noted, we can’t pursue that here.

Francis also very usefully deals with the elephant in the room which, in the contemporary context, is Islam. As he points out, something agreed with by I think every impartial expert, Islam per se is simply not a cause of violence or terror. Indeed, he notes that there are millions of Wahhabis (as a particular Saudi form of Salafism is known) in the world but most are not terrorists or even supporters of terrorism. So even with this often-demonised ideology, let alone Islam as a whole, we simply do not see a path from religious belief or ideology to radicalism, violence, and terror. This is not to say that some people may not consider Wahhabi Islam to be a radical ideology – but again we need to ask why they make such judgements. Indeed, discussing Islam in the public sphere brings its own set of challenges.

The question of speaking to the media is one Francis addresses directly. He notes that often journalists just want a sound bite or to frame interviews for the answer they want. However, he asks if he doesn’t do it who will? Maybe some partisan figure who may reinforce negative stereotypes or perceptions he suggests. In this discussion, I also think Francis is absolutely right when he says it is often practitioners rather than policy makers or the media who are ready to listen and want to engage with the evidence – indeed, they are generally far more clued in. A minefield of professional and ethical issues is raised about how academics engage in such areas, and I won’t in the scope of this response pretend to give any answers. However, they are questions that need to be engaged and discussed not just by scholars working in such fields but, I suggest, more generally about how scholarship engages with and relates to the wider public sphere.

 

Researching Radicalisation

Radicalisation, fundamentalism or extremism, are terms which are highly prevalent in media, public, political, and legal discourse these days, and are surrounded by mystification, rhetoric and ideological assumptions that work against clear, objective, non-partisan understandings of the phenomena they denote. Regular listeners to the RSP will be unsurprised that we look askance at such discourses and aim to take a critical approach to this controversial topic. What might the academy mean by the term ‘radicalisation’? How might we study it? What makes it different from ‘socialisation’? Is there a necessary connection between ‘religion’ – or particular forms of ‘religion’ – and radicalisation? And how might we position ourselves in relation to other actors – in politics, the military, or the media – who have a vested interest in our research?

To discuss these and other issues, we are joined this week by Dr Matthew Francis, Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University and Communications Director for the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST). In this interview we discuss what we mean by ‘radicalisation’, and what its connections to socialisation, terrorism, and ‘religion’ might be. We take on the methodological question of how one might go about researching such a contested topic, and look specifically at some of Matthew’s findings relating to the causes of radicalisation, and the neo-Durkheimian ‘sacred’. We also reflect on the position of the researcher when approaching topics entangled such vested political interests, negotiating the media, and future research directions.

Be sure to check out other great podcasts on: Zen Buddhism Terrorism and Holy War with Brian Victoria; Sociotheology and the Cosmic War with Mark Juergensmeyer; Religion, violence and the Media with Jolyon Mitchell; Studying “Cults” with Eileen Barker; The Sacred with Gordon Lynch; and Pilgrimage in Japan and Beyond with Ian Reader and Paulina Kolata. This episode is the fifth in a series co-produced with Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality” with Naomi Thompson, ‘Religion and Feminism‘ with Dawn Llewellyn, ‘Evangelicalism and Civic Space‘ with Anna Strhan, and ‘An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion‘ with Grace Davie.

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, this BLACK FRIDAY, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, cough drops, single malt whiskey, and more.

Roundtable: Can We Trust the Social Sciences?

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

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

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

If you are new to the podcast – this is not what we usually do. If you are a regular listener – you might enjoy this, or you might not; either way, we are back to normal with Jolyon Mitchell’s interview on Religion, Media and Violence on Monday. For an interesting and more rigorous response essay to this podcast, please see Tim Hutchings’ A Response to Callum Brown: Connecting “When” and “Why” in Digital Religion.

David and Ethan

David and Ethan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sponsored by Pepsi Max, and pink gin.

Katie clearly found Ethan “hilarious”

The Discussants:

Katie Aston

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

Christopher R. Cotter

Chris recently completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. He is currently taking a year out from study to pursue PhD applications, present at conferences, and work on projects such as this. His future research will continue to expand the theme of ‘non-religion’ to apply to ‘everyone’ in religiously diverse, socio-economically deprived urban environments, simultaneously deconstructing the religion-nonreligion dichotomy in the process. He is Deputy Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and currently editing the volume ‘Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular’ with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

Matthew Francis

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

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

Ethan Quillen

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

David G. Robertson

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

Kevin Whitesides

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