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The BASR and the Impact of Religious Studies

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

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

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

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

The BASR and the Impact of Religious Studies

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

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Laughter)

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

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

SG: The people in this room!

(Laughter)

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

DR: Good

Audience Voice: As long as they speak English!

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

(Laughter)

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

(Laughter)

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

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

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

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

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

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 14 March 2017

Exciting news!

You may now advertise with the Religious Studies Project!

Platforms include podcasts, web pages, opportunities digest, and social media.

Send an e-mail to editors@religiousstudiesproject.com to learn more!

Of course, you may still send or forward submissions regarding calls for papers, events, jobs, awards, grants, etc. to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com for free advertisement in this (mostly) weekly digest.

Call for papers

Anthology: Race/Gender/Class/Media 4.0: Considering Diversity Across Audiences, Content, and Producers

Deadline: June 1, 2017

More information

Events

Conference: Reading the World: Science and Sacred Texts

April 28–30, 2017

Cambridge, UK

More information

Symposium: Science and Religion: Exploring the Spectrum

April 24, 2017

Birmingham, UK

More information

Jobs

Lecturer/Senior Lecturer in African Christianity and African Indigenous Religions

University of Edinburgh

Deadline: April 5, 2017

More information

Postdoc

Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway

Deadline: March 29, 2017

More information

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.

Playing the Field: the Logistics of Religion and Video Game Studies

The field of religion and video games is still new and forming. In its struggle to find itself, it simultaneously competes with a university’s traditional understanding of both education and culture, often involving Gregory Price Grieve’s comment that video games are perceived as “low brow” culture. The view of video games as, again to quote Grieve, “just above pornography,” is a misconception that the academic study of video games is constantly fighting against.

That being said, hearing about Grieve’s success in bringing the study of video games to his university is promising. Not only was he able to establish courses for the study of religion and video games, but was also able to work with his library and university in order to establish gaming centres for students to play games. Having digital media pushed across disciplines throughout the university, as well as having a Digital Media Centre in their library, helps to establish video games and other forms of digital media as important and worthy of study in the university.

Grieve did have an understanding university, which is something important to keep in mind. While his approach to getting video games in the classroom is a format presented to be copied, not everyone is lucky enough to be present in a university that is so understanding. This is especially the case in universities rooted in academic tradition, built on older standards which seldom factor in elements of popular culture. This is not even considering the cost of this kind of endeavour. Even with a buy-in from the library, Grieve’s project still needed $10,000. And this is only considering the technicalities of this new media, and not the thought process of people who still believe that video games are not an important element of popular culture today, or who don’t seem to really care about the “popular” at all. In that sense, there are bigger problems facing some people at less understanding universities than a lack of technology.

The positive reception Grieve has experienced with his students can hopefully begin to be experienced by researchers and teachers in the study of video games in many universities throughout the world. However, there are many elements that still work against progression in the field. Some of the thoughts and actions impeding the growth of the field are, sadly, still present even among scholars in the field. By studying only video games, we impede ourselves and the progress which can be made; there are many aspects of video games which are affecting other elements of popular culture. An example of this are Let’s Play videos, in which players record themselves playing a video game, with commentary and sometimes even recordings of the player’s face (as the Let’s Player PewDiePie became known for), which are then uploaded on video sharing sites such as YouTube. Unfortunately, the popularity of Let’s Plays have been stereotyped almost as much as video games themselves are, an element that is unfortunately heard even in Grieves interview in which he relegates their popularity and interest almost exclusively to “teenagers”, even though the demographic may not be this concrete, especially for Let’s Players who are older themselves, such as Fun Haus. PewDiePIe has over 41 million subscribers, and it is hard to imagine that all 41 million are only teenagers. Not to mention that the fastest growing demographic for gaming content are women over the age of 25.[1]

What Let’s Plays demonstrate for academics of video games is the creativity enjoyed by Let’s Players. Geoff Ramsey, the founder of the Let’s Play group Achievement Hunter has commented on this creativity: “Any time we can take and use [a game] in a way that it wasn’t necessarily intended by the developers, that’s like the best thing in the world to me.”[2] This out-pouring of creativity allows researchers to have easy access to new narratives being created and the emotions they create and share. These new narratives and emotions are not experienced solely by the Let’s Player, but also by those who watch these videos; these narratives are then shared by the viewer to others, and new narratives are created by the viewer in relation to these new narratives. These videos are then not only relegated to the realm of video games, but also to internet studies and realms of internet discourse, particularly when elements of them become shared as memes.

The field of religion and video games is still emerging, and thus still solidifying its own definition and place. What is most important is for scholars interested in engaging with digital media, like video games, to demonstrate to their students, universities, and themselves that video games are a medium worthy of study.

[1] Gautam Ramdurai, “Think Gaming Content is Niche? Think Again,” Think with Google, December 2014, accessed February 2016, https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/think-gaming-content-is-niche-think-again.html.

[2] Rooster Teeth, Let’s Play Live: The Documentary, Video (2015), ), http://roosterteeth.com/episode/r-t-docs-let-s-play-live-let-s-play-live-the-documentary

Conference Report (and rant): Fandom and Religion, Leicester, 2015

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by our very own Venetia Robertson, RSP Editor and a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.

The University of Leicester hosted the Fandom and Religion conference this July 28-30 in affiliation with the Theology, Religion and Popular Culture network. A reasonably small conference with just over 30 presenters and 50 attendees, organisers Clive Marshall and Isobel Woodcliffe of Leicester’s Lifelong Learning Centre ran the event smoothly with the help of attentive session chairs and the professional staff at the clean and comfortable College Court conference centre. The Court was truly the home of the conference—with all of the sessions, meals, drinks, and most of our accommodation being there (and with little to do in the surrounding area)—one could be excused for experiencing a bit of cabin fever by end of the week. Still, when tomorrow morning’s keynote speaker is ordering another pint at midnight, we’re probably all glad that bed is just a few steps away from the bar. I want to talk about the papers I saw, and those I wish I’d caught, because that’s primarily what a conference review should be, but I’m also going to take this opportunity to give the study of fandom and religion in general some evaluation, as this conference both pointed out to me the breadth and the dearth of this relatively new academic field.

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One of the main draws of this conference for me, and why I was willing to endure the very long plane trip to get there, was the keynote line-up. I heard of this event at last year’s Media, Religion, and Culture Conference, and was excited to see that it would be featuring excellent speakers like Kathryn Lofton (who sadly had to pull out), and scholars whose work my own is intimately connected to, like Chris Partridge and Matt Hills. The way these thinkers combine innovative thinking with the analysis of meaning-making and popular culture highlights, and inspiringly so, the importance of this area of investigation. Partridge and Hill’s plenary papers, ‘Fandom, Pop Devotion, and the Transfiguration of Dead Celebrities’ and ‘Revisiting the “Affective Spaces” of Fan Conventions: Sites of Pilgrimage, Sacredness, and Enchantment… or Non-Places?’ respectively, were both illustrative of the fruitful amalgamation of approaches from media, cultural, and religious studies when examining these developments. I brought together Partridge’s concept of occulture with Hill’s hyperdiegesis in my own paper on how medieval female mystics and modern fangirls use relational narratives with their ‘gods’ to reify sacred subjectivities from within the patriarchal cultures of Christendom and geek culture. On the whole, the conference represented multi- and inter-disciplinary methods, with scholars of anthropology, psychology, music, digital cultures, and literature alongside those of religion. There was, however, in the overall makeup and theme of Fandom and Religion, an unmistakeably strong theological bent—but more on that in a moment.

Though it meant having to miss out on what I heard was a great session on fan experiences in Bob Dylan, indie, and Israeli popular music scenes, and a session on comics and hero narratives that I would have no doubt enjoyed, I felt very satisfied with the methodological offerings from Rhiannon Grant and Emanuelle Burton that dealt with the tensions of canon and fanon, interpretation and creativity, group consensus and personal gnosis, that affect religious and fan communities alike. With a mix of midrashic, pagan, and Quaker approaches to truth and authority, this panel had my mind whirring. Papers on the commercial and the communal aspects of the Hillsong and the role of music in the Pentecostal mega church system provided fascinating insights (and stay tuned for more on this from Tom Wagner). Offerings from Bex Lewis on the Keep Calm and meme on trend and Andrew Crome on My Little Pony fandom, Bronies, and Christianity, proffered some intriguing ways in which viral cultures enable believers to remix media for religious purposes and find the sacred within the secular. Film and television were well represented with talks on American Horror Story, the Alien franchise, small screen vampires, children’s programming, and anime, though I unfortunately could not get to those sessions. Sport, fiction, and celebrity were of course popular topics, with a Harry Potter themed session, and talks on football and faith and evangelism amongst skaters and surfers. Two talks I again missed but would have liked to have caught were the inimitably odd Ian Vincent on tulpas and tulpamancy and François Bauduin’s talk on the Raelians, for what I’m sure would have been a robust discussion of how these esoteric movements translate into the online sphere, and how this affects notions of authenticity and creativity.

11222652_10156115964950413_6985333271960933871_oWhile this program certainly presents a swathe of relevant subjects in the field of fandom and religion, there were several key moments that made me realise that some central issues had gone by the wayside. It struck me that this was a very “white” conference: there were, even for a small number of papers, strikingly none that I could see on non-Western peoples or traditions. A tiny fraction looked at non-Western media and non-Abrahamic religious beliefs. Searching the abstract booklet I found Islam mentioned once, Buddhism only in passing, and no references to countries with historical, pertinent, and I would say seminal engagements with religious fandoms (Japan, India, Vanuatu are just a few examples). When pointed out during the ‘feedback session’ that concluded the conference two responses were offered: one, that there was no one writing on these topics, and two, that it’s a shame that it looks like the conference lacked diversity but that the organizing body does have one Jewish member… In her keynote, Tracy Trothen remarked on the subject of religion and sport that when we say ‘religion’ we usually mean ‘Christianity’, which I had initially interpreted as a reflexive moment on the ‘god problem’ the academy continues to have, that is, the perpetuation of “the myth of Christian uniqueness” despite the reality of pluralism and secularization, but unfortunately it merely signaled the habitual preferential treatment of this one theological outlook. The suggestion that “no one is writing on these topics” is patently false, but is indicative of the core issue I had with this event: it wasn’t just saturated with a Christo-theological focus in material and approach because that’s representative of the academy, but rather it seemed it was primarily interested in representing that viewpoint—and this is something I don’t think was made clear from the outset.

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For example, the website for this conference followed on from the flyer that had first alerted me to the “international, inter-disciplinary conference,” and stated that its purpose was to “explore interactions between religion and popular culture” which sounded great. “What is happening to fans as they express their enthusiasms and allegiances? Has fandom replaced or become a form of religion?”—cool, interesting questions, I thought. Compare with this description from a CFP I, after the fact, found elsewhere: “A Major Conference for Faith Community Practitioners and Academics,” “including a session solely for faith community practitioners.” There were actually several ‘practitioner’ sessions, and it seemed clear after a while that ‘faith community’ meant Christian worship. It became explicit from the first day with our welcome that in part this event was for not just religious people but those active in their Churches to learn not so much about, but from fandoms. I am used to attending academic conferences with a notable number of ‘practitioners’ present, they may even present non-academic papers. I am also used to having to define religious studies as a separate disciplinary enterprise to theology. But what I wasn’t expecting in Leicester, and I don’t think I was alone here, was to be at a conference where religion, theology, and Christianity were so automatically synonymous that it didn’t seem to occur to the organisers that major non-Christian themes in religion and fandom had been overlooked in their selection of papers, or even that such themes were major. I wasn’t expecting to feel like such an outsider, as a religious studies academic at what I had thought was an academic religious studies affair.

To be fair, now that I have delved deeper into the faith-based networks that organised this event (Donald Wiebe). However, this issue goes beyond the academy, and this became obvious when a reporter for a religion-themed program on BBC4 interviewed some of the conference’s speakers. What thankfully doesn’t make it into our few minutes of fame in this radio segment is the interviewer’s clear discomfort with the idea of converging ‘obsessive’ fans and their ‘low brow’ media with ‘devoted’ believers and their ‘respectable’ forms of the divine. “Are they [typical othering language] just crazy?” he asks me of fans, and makes me repeat my answer several times in order to get something “more quippy, less academic”, and, I suppose, more damning to confirm his perception that there are right and wrong forms of meaning-making. Journalists from The Daily Mail also tried (but failed) to get a talking head, so I guess things could have been worse.

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

I certainly don’t mean to detract from the importance of making niche areas like fandom and religion studies visible on an international and interdisciplinary scale, or the much-appreciated effort that went in to the organisation and contribution of this conference and its participants: there was indeed a wealth of interesting, useful, and high-quality papers. Nonetheless, as a reflection on the state of popular culture and its integration into multi­-religious studies (not to mention the relevant spheres of civil/quasi/alternative/implicit religion etc.) I feel these criticisms need timely evaluation. And I have some heartening thoughts to that effect: there is a blossoming field of intersectional work on these topics at the moment if one takes the time to look! The promotional material available at Leicester, interestingly, confirmed this, and I include some pictures of it here. I think it’s telling that Joss Whedon studies has had its own journal, Slayage, for over ten years, but to find more journal articles on a vast panoply of religion and fandom junctures you can try the Journal Of Religion And Popular Culture, the classic Journal Of Popular Culture or the newer Transformative Works And Cultures and the Journal of Fandom Studies, whose book reviews keep on top of the most recent additions to this field. This conference also saw the launch of the comprehensive volume, The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture (which ranges in price between $277 AUD on BookDepository to a whopping $405 at Angus and Robertson), edited by John Lyden and Eric Mazur, as yet another example of the popularity of this topic in contemporary scholarship. I’m also pleased to say that my paper will be a chapter in the forthcoming volume for INFORM/Ashgate, Fiction, Invention, and Hyper-reality: From Popular Culture to Religion (edited by Carole Cusack and Pavol Kosnáč) alongside some brilliant minds exploring the relationship of spirituality to conspiracy theories, Tolkein’s legendarium, Discordianism, with a handful of, yes, practitioner’s accounts, this time from Pagans, Jedis and Dudeists—it’s sure to be a vibrant, diverse, and illuminating contribution to the discussion on fandom and religion.

 

 

Self-immolation as a religious act: The contested martyrdom of Roger Allen LaPorte, Catholic Worker

 

Millions of people, most of them civilians, were killed in the Vietnam War. Almost 58,000 of the war’s victims were American citizens. While most of the physical and technical conflict took place overseas, political and ideological battles were waged within the United States.

Some of these Americans died, as it were, by their own hand. In 1965, Roger Allen LaPorte, a member of the Catholic Worker, self-immolated in front of the United Nations headquarters in New York City. While LaPorte himself described his act of protest as a specifically religious act, the validity of this description would soon be—and remain—contested, finding opposition among the Catholic hierarchy. The attention of U.S. media gave the contestation of martyrdom a public arena.

In this interview, postdoctoral researcher of U.S. Catholicism, Francesca Cadeddu, shares some of her reflections on LaPorte, whose contested martyrdom by self-immolation is the topic of her present postdoctoral project.

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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, pot noodles, very small trains, and more.

Francesca Cadeddu is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Social and Institutional Sciences in Cagliari in Italy. She is also a fellow researcher at the Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna, Italy. She wrote her PhD dissertation on the Jesuit priest and theologian John Courtney Murray, an important figure in U.S. Catholicism who featured prominently in the development of the the Second Vatican Council’s draft of Dignitatis Humanae (which the interviewer learned is pronounced “humaneh” rather than “hoomanay” shortly before the interview, hence the interviewer’s hesitation).

Having researched at two of the most prominent institutions for Catholic Studies in the U.S., Georgetown and Notre Dame, Cadeddu visited Notre Dame by means of a research grant from Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame in the spring of 2015.

 

Religion and Authority in Asia

Given its contextual and perspectival malleability, the notion of ‘authority’, and even more so of ‘religious authority’, is challenging to define and to study. In October 2014, a number of scholars working on both ‘traditional’ and new modes of authority gathered for the Religious Authority in Asia: Problems and Strategies of Recognition workshop, which was funded by the Dr Erica Baffelli who in today’s interview with Paulina Kolata discusses the notion of authority and charismatic leadership in the context of her research on New and ‘New’ New religions in contemporary Japan.

It seems that the most problematic issue in discussions on authority in the Japanese religious context and beyond is the very recognition and identification of its existence and its impact on communities at trans-national, national and local levels. The assertion of authority can be perceived through the prism of the scholarly discourse on religions, relationships between religious specialists and their supporting communities, and the state-religion interface. There are two watershed dates – 1946 and 1995 – and the events associated with them can be considered as crucial in shaping the socio-economic and political conditions of the religious power struggle in Japanese society in post-war Japan. The first date is linked to the promulgation of the new post-war constitution which sanctioned freedom of religious belief, and separated religion and the state.  The second marks the date of an act of domestic terrorism – the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway – perpetrated by members of new religious group Aum Shinrikyō led by a charismatic figure of Asahara Shōkō. Listen to Erica Baffelli talk charisma, leadership and the media in assertion of religious authority in the context of New Religions in Japan.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with Pauline Hope Cheong on Religious Authority and Social Media.

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.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying books, pet food, socks, digital radios, action figures, and more.

Conference Report: International Society for Media, Religion and Culture Conference, 2014

Report by Venetia Robertson, University of Sydney

For four days at the beginning of August, I attended the International Society for Media, Religion and Culture (ISMRC) conference within the beautiful grounds of Canterbury Cathedral in England. Hosted by Professor Gordon Lynch of the University of Kent, this conference brought together scholars of media, religion, and culture (sometimes even all three) to analyse these intersections in daily life, in spiritual practice, and throughout history. In concert with the Centre for Media, Religion and Culture (CMRC), run out of the University of Colorado, Boulder, this conference has been held biennially since the mid-1990s, and many of the foundational members continue to attend the event, as well as remaining central contributors to the scholarship of this field.

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This year’s conference saw a handing over of the presidential reigns from Professor Stewart M. Hoover of Colorado to his once-student and now Associate Professor at the University of Denver, Lynn Schofield Clark, with whom he has co-authored numerous articles and chapters and co-edited volumes such as Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media: Explorations in Media, Religion and Culture (2002). With a board of directors that includes Professor Mia Lövheim (Uppsala University), Dr Ann Hardy (University of Waikato), and Associate Professor Heidi Campbell (Texas A&M University), to name a few, the ISMRC intentionally incorporates the voices of diverse areas of study (sociology/history/study of religion, theology, journalism, media and communications, new media, digital cultures etc.), from different parts of the globe, and, importantly for this reporter, from female academics, into a broader discussion of the ever-developing relationship between media, religion and culture. At Canterbury, the discussion that was had demonstrated the vastness and richness of such an interdisciplinary venture and yet also the reason why such a conversation must happen.

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I heard the following questions more times during the week than the ubiquitous ‘I don’t really have a question… more of a statement’ that haunts every audience response segment: ‘What is religion?’, ‘What is media/mediatisation/mediation?’, and ‘Have you met the other Australian yet?’. In answer to the third question – I did, I believe, meet all the Australian delegates by the end, and there were quite a number I’m proud to say! Down under, represent.

The initial questions about the perplexing categories of religion and media, however, did really seem to need perpetual asking. In a panel on the first day, papers by Ann Hardy on ‘conspirituality’ – the merging of conspiracy theories with New Age beliefs – and by Sofija Drecon, of the University of Arts, Belgrade, on web-based religions like the Church of Google, offered overviews of two exciting studies of religiosity and the Internet, but only had time to prod at the most basic of questions – what does the online conspiracy culture tell us about the internet, and what do online new religious movements tell us about religion? These two papers, I believe, speak to each other in ways that are subtle but have significant broader implications – the internet does foster decidedly ‘alternative’ ways of thinking, from the alt. streams of usenet to some of the darker recesses of reddit or 4chan. The rise of web 2.0 is not solely responsible for communal bonding over fringe responses to epistemological or theological positions; obviously these have been around for as long as we have, mediated or no, but the opportunities for proselystisation and development have hugely increased. This includes not only ‘upgrades’, for example, instead of photocopying 100 fliers advertising conversion to your parody religion or your reptilian conspiracy workshop you can now send 100,000 emails, but also by adapting to those modes of communication, authority, and identity that the internet specialises in and encourages, you are speaking the mother-tongue of the digital natives. In Carole Cusack’s Invented Religions (2010: 132-5) for example, it is noted that movements like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are so supremely suited to cyberspace because they embody those qualities, listed by Knobel and Lankshear (2006: 209) as humour or irony, intertextuality, and anomalous juxtaposition (like God and Pasta), that appeal to the wired generation and participates in their ‘new literacy’. Our cultural context – techno-saturated, postmodern, secular(ish) – needs flagging, obvious as it may seem, in order for these minor case studies to demonstrate their relevance to the discussion at hand. The audible groan from a colleague when the outdated ‘religion online/online religion’ schema was mentioned (‘that is sooo 2000’), that Christopher Helland himself has openly moved on from, is another reminder that we also need to keep abreast of how these trends are being treated, an updated, in the scholarship.

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Photo by Adam Shreve, with permission.

It’s probably obvious at this point that my main interest in this joint area is in digital religion. I particularly enjoyed those papers that were framed around the significant gender, race, and political issues that shape the world we live in, and charted how these identities and identifiers translated into the virtual reality of networked religion. Dr Chris Helland (Dalhousie University) gave an insightful paper on the use of the internet and digital technology by Tibetan Buddhists and how this allows the maintenance of community for a diasporic people. China’s suppression of the Tibetan people extends, unsurprisingly, to technology, recognised as a major tool in effecting a resistance. It is thus a potentially dangerous activity for those living in Tibet to use information technology at all. Nonetheless, while the event of the late Pope Benedict joining Twitter was a source of comedy for many, the Dalai Lama and ex-pat followers have always made an effort to be as connected as possible, and while the internet does provide some spiritual impediment (‘they are worried that the monks are getting too distracted’, Helland comments), it has been deftly incorporated into ritual making, theological learning, and religious identity for Tibetan Buddhists. From Dr Paul Emerson Teusner’s (RMIT) work on audience engagement and pastoral blogs in the Emerging Church, to Associate Professor Alex Boutros’ (Laurier University) study of blogging black identity and religiosity in the Afrosphere, to ritualising postfeminism on Pinterest, as described by Samira Rajabi, there was plenty to keep my mind buzzing! As Stewart Hoover and Nabil Echchaibi, directors of the CMRC and authors of the influential paper ‘The “Third Spaces” of Digital Religion’, were both major contributors to the conference (though Dr Echcaibi was unable to attend), there was a lot of discussion of cyberspace as third space, and as someone who finds this reading of Homi Bhabha’s methodology fruitful for my own studies, I found this to be immensely helpful.

However, so wrapped up am I in my own thesis work that what I failed to anticipate is that ‘media’ is so much more than just new media, and new media is so much more than just the internet. This conference offered the fully gamut of media studies – radio, television, news reports, cinema, magazines, video and computer games, advertising, as well as my favourites: websites, blogs, forums, and memes. As media types diversify it becomes harder to say why we both speaking of them as a whole at all – what does the latest iPrayer app have in common with a ‘healing’ radio broadcast from the 1950s? I have an inkling that there’s something important to be said here about the alleged ‘magic’ of technology and its ongoing role as, quite literally, a mediating force in religious practice. Looking into the eyes of televangelist Pat Robertson as he yells his blessings at you through the screen, one can’t help but wonder how technical he understands this process to be – do prayers travel through the cathode ray tubes of your 1980s set and into your living room? Did their transmission gain clarity and precision with the enhanced qualities of a plasma screen? When Anderson Blanton gave his paper on the wireless preaching of Oral Roberts he emphasised Robert’s wish for listeners to ‘put your hand upon the radio cabinet as a point of contact’, which then dovetailed beautifully with the preceding talk by Larissa Carneiro’s (North Carolina State University) on L. Ron Hubbard’s e-meter, the confluence of haptics, belief, and authenticity was strikingly evident (Blanton is the curator for The Materiality of Prayer Collection, and follows this line of enquiry at Reverberations). Unfortunately, Joonseong Lee’s (California State University) closing presentation for this session on ‘digirituality’, which aimed to elucidate how technology offers a salvific path to the sacred and allows one to deflect the enslaving efforts of commercialism, did not deliver. Maybe, it was the Deleuzian frame of reference that pushed this talk into incomprehensible territory (from the abstract: ‘The term “digirit” is a combination of the words “digital” and “spirit” and is conceptualized from the Deleuzian perspective of Tao. Anus breathing exercise is reinterpreted as a method of practice-oriented spirituality to be digiritual’), or perhaps it was because this paper was written for, though not presented at, a different digital humanities conference in Switzerland (again, evidenced by the unedited pitch in the abstract), either way, I failed to take anything away from this section but those who are curious can follow the hyperlink.

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I too found during my own presentation that the level of audience comprehension was less than I had anticipated. At a basic estimation, more than 50% of the papers at this conference dealt only with Islam or Christianity. This in itself is not problematic, there is much to say about these two major faith groups and their interactions with media, nonetheless religion as found within paganism, the occult, the New Age, implicit circumstances, etc. was very rarely discussed. Though I know my subject area is fairly obscure, it seemed that many of my respondents struggled to parse even the spiritual milieu within which my studies are located. Partially this is because many attendees were, as noted, communications experts, not scholars of religion, but additionally the alternative sphere of spirituality, it seems, is still given only marginal attention by the academy. However, with one minute of question time to be shared between four panellists, there was sadly very little opportunity to gauge audience response or elaborate on my topic further. I greatly enjoy question time and found it so frequently at this conference to be an opportunity for vigorous and inspiring discussion and debate – but with only 10 minutes scheduled per session for this, and rarely were more than 5 minutes really allotted, this was always a rushed effort. With widely varied levels of media and religious literacy present, more dedication to theming panels and audience and presenter interaction would likely ensure more optimal engagement with the material. It certainly couldn’t be said, however, that this was not a well organised conference. The staff of the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge were dutiful and polite, and the conference admin team were exceptionally hard-working, helpful, and facilitated fun opportunities for socialising (pub drinks). The picturesque surrounds of the stunning Cathedral itself, so steeped in history, and yet with effective and comfortable conference facilities (wifi was pretty good), made the event extra enjoyable.

Photo by Adam Shreve, with permission.

Photo by Adam Shreve, with permission.

Plenaries came in the shape keynotes and roundtable discussions, all of which were lively and focused. On the first day Jonathan L. Walton provided an effective wake up call to all of us in the audience who were resting, on our laurels and, y’know, from jetlag. In his address ‘Pentecostal and Prosperous: Empowering (and Editing) Marginalized Protestant Bodies’, Walton took us, in what I imagine is his trademark lecturing and preaching style (being Professor of Religion and Society and the Pusey Minister at Harvard University) on a journey – we giggled at his witty analysis of the kitschy tactics and aesthetics of African-American prosperity preachers like Pastor Carlton Pearson, his brash 90s outfits and manufactured spontaneity, and then teared up as Walton passionately retold the little-known 1921 race riot of Tulsa, Oklahoma during which the prosperous district of Greenwood known as ‘Black Wall Street’ became a site of mass destruction, with disgruntled white folk turning black families and business owners onto the streets, attacking, looting, shooting, even firebombing them from aeroplanes, within 16 hours razing the town to the ground. So under-reported and poorly regulated was the aftermath that we still don’t know if the numbers of dead African-Americans were closer to 30 or 300. Tulsa would go on to be a centre for black Pentecostalism, and importantly so, jettisoning the black church into the profitable market of televangelism of which Pastor Pearson’s once-booming Higher Dimension Family Church and annual televised Azusa conferences, both in Tulsa, are perfect examples. While it’s easy to roll your eyes at the razzle dazzle of mega-church theatrics, Walton’s sobering reminder of the history of the racial politics of wealth and worth in America shed invaluable light on this ongoing tension and its effects for media and religion.

There was some criticism that this conference, particularly in its choice of keynote speakers, was a tad Americo-centric. Professor Kathryn Lofton’s thoroughly entertaining and energetic lecture on the cult of Oprah, for example, apparently went over the heads of those international audience members not as saturated in the celebrity culture of the USA as are, say, we Australians. Perhaps guilty of subconsciously indulging the implicit notion that America = the universal example, my favourite panel was delivered entirely by Americans, three students and a professor from Northwestern University, on explicitly American topics. Myev Rees’ analysis of ‘mommy martyrdom’ in the life and times of mega-mater Michelle Duggar and characters like Bella Swan of Twilight, Stephanie Brehm’s intriguing look at the religiosity of Stephen Colbert on and off camera, Hannah Scheidt’s comparative study of theistic and atheistic billboards and advertising campaigns in the US, and Professor Sarah Macfarland Taylor’s paper on ‘Green hip hop’ and the politics of urban environmentalism, were extremely well put-together, informative, and important offerings, relished by their listeners.

Feedback on the overall experience of the conference and specific areas that needed attention was welcomed by the ISMRC organisers, and on the fourth day a workshop was held in order to gauge participants’ responses. Though I think some of the younger and less experienced delegates would have liked this segment to have included some ‘workshopping’ of methods, techniques, and debates relevant to the practical aspect of being a media and religion scholar, e. g. how to make this avenue enticing to departments and universities, how to appeal to sources of funding for new centres or research projects, how to undertake fieldwork efficiently and effectively, how to extend the relevance of our work beyond the paywall, the institution, the elitism of the academy and bring it to ‘the people’, the media, the government and so forth. Instead the focus was more on how to improve the conference itself, still a noble gesture, and garnered the comments and suggestions one can usually expect – more diversity while at the same time respecting a variety of levels of comprehension, more voices from non-white countries and contexts, more examples from outside the mainstream etc. The next meeting of the ISMRC, to be held in Seoul, will surely provide some redress. While I’ve complained that question time was often too short, moments like this were important reminders that conversation is central and valued for the progression of our work as a body of scholars. Conferences may offer many opportunities, but more than anything it is the fostering of an interdisciplinary, international dialogue that keeps us coming back. I had several people come up to me and say ‘I really enjoyed your questions today’, and maybe I wish they’d said ‘your riveting and original research, may I offer you a job/scholarship/standing ovation’, nonetheless, feeling a part of the conversation is a wonderful reward in itself. Thanks to the ISMRC for having me, and I look forward to doing this again in Korea in 2016!

Religion in a Networked Society

CampbellMedia, religion and culture is an emerging area, with much attention being given to four themes, namely authority, community, identity and ritual. Research has focused on a wide range of topics, including different religions in virtual worlds; religion and video games; online cyber-churches and temples; and an exploration into how religious organisations and individuals are accepting or rejecting digital media. Heidi Campbell is one of the leading scholars in the field of media, religion and culture and has written extensively about this topic; providing us with an insight into the relationship between digital culture and religion. For scholars of religious studies, media studies and other related disciplines, the exploration of religion and the internet provides an insight into the relationship between religion and technology and consequently, the possible impact and challenge to traditional religion.

On a recent visit to Edinburgh, the Religious Studies Project (Louise) met with Heidi Campbell (the interview is set in a restaurant and so on occasion you may hear some background noise). The interview focuses on her recent article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (March 2012), “Understanding the Relationship between Religion Online and Offline in a Networked Society”, which presents five key traits of the concept of “networked religion”. These are: networked community; storied identities; shifting authority; convergent practice; and a multisite reality. Campbell presents an overview of each of these traits and concludes by questioning how digital communications technologies might affect religious authority in the future.

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

Heidi Campbell is Associate Professor of Communication at Texas A&M University where she teaches in Telecommunications and Media Studies. Campbell’s teaching and research explores the social shaping of technology, rhetoric of new media, and themes related to the intersection of media religion and culture, with a special interest in the internet and mobile phones. She has written extensively about media, religion and culture, comprising of a number of journal articles and books, including When Religion Meets New Media (Routledge, 2010) and her recent publication Digital Religion. Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds (Routledge, 2012).

Select Publications:

Campbell, H. (2005). Exploring religious community online: We are one in the network. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Campbell, H. (2010). When religion meets new media. London, UK: Routledge.

Campbell, H & Connelly, L. (2012). Cyber behavior and religious practice on the internet, In Z. Yeng (ed.) Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior, (pp. 434-445). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Campbell, H. (ed.) (2012). Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds. New York: Routledge.

Campbell, H. (2012). Understanding the Relationship between Religion Online and Offline in a Networked Society, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 80 (1), 64-93.

This interview was based upon the article: http://jaar.oxfordjournals.org/content/80/1/64.abstract

Religion and the News Panel

It goes without saying that ‘religion’ is a topic that frequently finds itself in the media spotlight. Whether we are talking about the recent Boston Marathon bombings, the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, the Arab Spring, or the recent critique of the UK government’s welfare policy levelled by four major British churches, the ways in which the media negotiates, constructs and engages with this complex category has an enormous impact upon public opinion and understanding, and is increasingly relevant to academics, religious practitioners, journalists and the wider public. It was with this in mind that the Religious Studies Project, in collaboration with the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture, presented a panel session at the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference in Durham on 10 April 2013. This panel session brought together Eileen Barker, Tim Hutchings, Christopher Landau and David Wilson, who each have a unique position on this topic by virtue of their positions working with or for the media, to discuss and reflect on a recent edited volume by Jolyon Mitchell and Owen Gower – aptly titled Religion and the News. This podcast presents the edited audio recording of this panel session, and marks a new development for the Religious Studies Project which shall hopefully be employed at future conferences.

You can also download this panel discussion, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc. As a result of this podcast, David Wilson also published a review of the book in the Journal of Religion, Media & Digital Culture.

Religion in the News is an edited volume, published in October 2012 by Ashgate, and edited by Jolyon Mitchell and Owen Gower. Jolyon Mitchell is the Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh, where he is also senior lecturer in Communications, Theology & Ethics, and convenor of the Theology & Ethics subject area. Owen Gower is a Senior Fellow at Cumberland Lodge, an educational charity specializing in cross-sector co-operation and matters affecting the development of society. The book brings together academics, practitioners, and media professionals in a collection of 19 chapters exploring everything form the news coverage of the “Occupy” protests at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, to the representation of Sikhs in the mainstream media, and from the problematic notion of journalistic neutrality, to the problematic definition of religion.

Reflective of this diverse range of perspectives in the book, we brought together four academics who each have a unique position on the contents of the book by virtue of their positions working with or for the media. Their biographies are presented below, in the order in which they speak.

David Gordon Wilson wears many hats. He served as a solicitor, then partner, then managing partner  in Scotland, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Egypt, before returning to university to embark on a Religious Studies degree. His PhD at the University of Edinburgh focused upon spiritualist mediumship as a contemporary form of shamanism, and his monograph has recently been published with Bloomsbury, titled Redefining Shamanisms: Spiritualist Mediums and Other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes. Wearing one of his other hats, David is a practising spiritualist medium and healer, and among his many connected roles, he is currently the President of the Scottish Association of Spiritual Healers.

Christopher Landau studied Theology at Cambridge University before gaining a BBC News traineeship in 2002. He spent eight years at the BBC, working as a radio reporter and television news producer, both in general news journalism and as a specialist covering religion. He was a reporter for Sunday, and then World at One and PM on Radio 4 before being appointed World Service religious affairs correspondent in 2008. In 2010 he left the BBC to begin doctoral studies at Oxford University combined with training for ordination in the Church of England. He is involved with a project to establish a Religion Media Centre, based on the model of the Science Media Centre.

Eileen Barker is Professor Emeritus of Sociology with Special Reference to the Study of Religion at the London School of Economics,University of London. Her main research interests are ‘cults’, ‘sects’ and new religious movements, and changes in the religious situation in post-communist countries. She has over 350 publications (translated into 27 different languages), which include the award-winning The Making of a Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice? and New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction. In the late 1980s, with the support of the British Government and mainstream Churches, she founded INFORM, an educational charity based at the LSE which aims to provide information about minority religions that is as accurate, objective and up-to-date as possible. She is a frequent advisor to governments, other official bodies and law-enforcement agencies throughout the world, has made numerous appearances on television and radio, and has been invited to give guest lectures in over 50 countries.

Tim Hutchings is a sociologist of religion, media and culture, and currently Research Fellow at the Open University. His research interests include digital Christianity, death and media, and the digital humanities. He received his PhD (“Creating Church Online”) from Durham University in 2010 and recently completed a 15-month fellowship at HUMlab digital humanities research laboratory, Umea University, Sweden. His current research focuses on the future of the Bible as a digital text. He is also the editor of the Journal of Religion, Media & Digital Culture.

Bias, Expectations, and the Role of the Media in Reporting on Religion

These kinds of situations can create a confluence of undisclosed interest, a phenomenon that can call into question even further the accuracy of media investigation and reporting.

Bias, Expectations, and the Role of the Media in Reporting on Religion

By Matthew C. Durham, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Teemu Taira on Religion and the Media (8 April 2013).

In their discussion of Religion and the Media, Christopher Cotter and Dr. Teemu Taira touch on some rather deceptively salient points.  Dr. Taira’s comments about the media as a means of establishing a collective identity springs first to mind.  If this is true, and it does not seem controversial to assume such, the responsibility placed upon the media is tremendous.  This is especially so if we also assume that the role of the media is to accurately convey reality as it is.  Perhaps this is too idealized an expectation?  After all, members of the media are just as tied to their own biases, expectations, and subjective viewpoints as any of the rest of us.

But regardless of the sometimes overwhelming complexities in conveying an accurately factual picture of reality, it seems reasonable to expect of the media that it can separate at least some of the proverbial chaff from the wheat.To wit; some ideas, when surreptitiously conflated, present a picture of reality that is about as far from factual as is possible.  Dr. Taira mentions a particular example of this when he discusses the use of the ambiguous “Christian Nation” concept.  His description of its use in the UK seems strongly akin to how it is used here in the USA, in that its meaning varies between something along the lines of “we recognize our cultural Christian heritage” to “our legal system should reflect Christian theology.” This sort of factual versus normative ambiguity can serve multiple purposes, and in cases like these it is important to determine who benefits from it such that we can decide whether perpetuating it does a disservice to our collective epistemic integrity.

In this particular example, Dr. Taira notes that this ambiguity can be very beneficial to liberal Christianity in maintaining its cultural pre-eminence.  While it is not immediately clear why Dr. Taira limited this benefit to only liberal Christianity in the UK (Given the theological ambiguity in the term “Christian,” it would seem to potentially benefit conservative Christianity just as well.), the overall point is well taken.  When the media fails to determine or disclose the intent or interests of a speaker, it can be seen as little more than a mindless megaphone.  This problem is compounded in light of Dr. Taira’s comments about the tendency amongst religion reporters to be more religious (and more friendly to religion) than the surrounding population.  These kinds of situations can create a confluence of undisclosed interest, a phenomenon that can call into question even further the accuracy of media investigation and reporting.

Other important areas of study require (or strongly encourage) that investigators acknowledge their personal interest in certain outcomes.  Investigators in clinical drug trials, for example, must provide disclosure of financial interest prior to their involvement in a study such that their methodology and the integrity of their data can be evaluated with appropriate caveats.  And beyond the personal benefits of cultivating this level of honesty, such disclosure can also benefit us in that it can strongly motivate the development of ever more thorough research methodology.  A researcher who provides potential critics with disclosure of his or her biases, for example, is going to be all the more motivated to preempt any undue influences from those biases – thus preventing critics from dismissing the research on grounds of undue bias.

It might be suggested that, due to the very different contexts in which the two operate, the media should not be held to the same standards as are academic or clinical researchers.  But if we intend that the media be not only a means to establish a collective identity,but that it also function to inform us through an attempt at accurately conveying a factual picture of reality; then there would seem to be some potential benefit in the media looking to academic or clinical research for guidance.

One of these potential benefits may be in counteracting epistemic and moral polarization through the tendency in media consumers to seek out only those media providers that they perceive as confirming or reinforcing their own expectations, biases, or connections to other people or groups with which they share significant commitments.  Dan Kahan’s research on communication of scientific information, for example, suggests that people not only seek out providers of information who appear to reflect their own values, but that they develop a form of “protective cognition” that pre-emptively determines what sort of information is credible.   People whose values are more egalitarian and who are suspicious of industry, for example, might see industrial activities as being more risky and thus more appropriately subject to restriction or regulation.  And they will likely seek out media providers who reflect those values.

Kahan’s research suggests, though, that presenters of scientific information can preclude this tendency and reduce polarization by muddling up expectations.  Kahan tested this by pairing experts whose appearance (besuited and gray-haired versus denim-shirted and bearded) and publication history fit particular cultural expectations.  He then paired these experts with arguments that contradicted those expectations.  The besuited and gray-haired expert, for example, presented arguments in favor of the scientific legitimacy of climate change while the denim-shirted and bearded expert criticized it.  Without these expectations to rely upon, “people shifted their positions and polarization disappeared.”

It seems quite plausible that the results of Kahan’s research could also be applied to more than just the presentation of scientific information.  If part of the media’s purpose is to genuinely inform us rather than to reinforce our existing polarized beliefs, then there may be a lesson to be learned here.  The lesson is not that the media should attempt to push any particular idea for broader cultural acceptance.  Rather, and to again reference Kahan, perhaps the media could confound those expectations in such a way as to create an opportunity for a more honest and open-minded consideration of the best information available?

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

About the author:

In his professional capacity, Matthew Durham has worked in over 150 studies in the field of cancer research as a Regulatory Coordinator for a large physician owned oncology practice.  He spends most days striving to learn and improve upon a variety of industry best practices, as well as devise useful metrics through which the efficacy of those practices can be evaluated.  In his academic life, he is an Undergraduate Philosophy and Religion major at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga whose main areas of focus are religious exegesis, religious epistemology, and philosophy of science.  His current interest is in studying the cognitive processes through which religious experiences are both interpreted and later recalled.  Most importantly, he is the lucky husband of an exceptional woman and the proud father of a precocious toddler.

References

Kahan, D. (2010). Fixing the communications failure. Nature, 296-297.

Religion and the Media

The study of religion in the media is an interdisciplinary field which has been of interest for scholars in media studies, religious studies and sociology among others. In this interview, Christopher Cotter and Teemu Taira discuss the relevance of study of religion in the media from the religious studies point of view as well as the media discourse on religion – the ways in which media covers religion, functions as defining what counts as religion and negotiates its social location. Dr Taira points out the possible contribution of religious studies, addresses some methodological questions in studying religion in the media, examines media’s approaches to religion, and finishes with a look at the potential futures of the area of study.

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

The interview refers to the project ‘Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular Sacred: A Longitudinal Study of British Newspaper and Television Representations and Their Reception’ in which Taira worked at the University of Leeds between 2008 and 2010. It was part of the AHRC/ESRC ‘Religion and Society’ Programme, conducted by Kim Knott, Elizabeth Poole and Teemu Taira. The main output of the project is the forthcoming book Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular (Ashgate), co-authored by Knott, Poole & Taira.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a selection of his English language publications relevant to this interview, see ‘further reading’ (below). For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies.

Teemu has also prepared the following very helpful further reading list:

 

  • Hjarvard, Stig & Lövheim, Mia (eds) 2012. Mediatization and Religion: Nordic perspectives. Gothenburg: Nordicom.
  • Lynch, Gordon & Lövheim, Mia (eds) 2011. Special issue on the mediatization of religion. Culture and Religion 12(2).
  • Mutanen, Annikka 2009. To Do, or Not Do God: Faith in British and Finnish journalism. Reuters Institute Fellowship Paper. http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/fileadmin/documents/Publications/fellows__papers/2008-2009/Mutanen_-_To_do__or_not_do_God.pdf
  • Poole, Elizabeth & Taira, Teemu 2013, forthcoming. Researching religion in British newspapers and television. Linda Woodhead (ed.), How to Research Religion: Handbook of methods in practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Stout, Daniel 2012. Media and Religion: Foundations of an emerging field. London: Routledge.
  • Taira, Teemu 2010. Religion as a discursive technique: The politics of classifying Wicca. Journal of Contemporary Religion 25(3): 379–394.
  • Taira, Teemu 2013. Making space for discursive study in Religious Studies. Religion 43(1): 1–20.
  • Taira, Teemu 2013, forthcoming. Does the old media’s religion coverage matter in time of digital religion? Tore Ahlbäck (ed.), Digital Religion. Åbo: Donner Institute for Religious and Cultural History.
  • Taira, Teemu; Poole, Elizabeth & Knott, Kim 2012. Religion in the British media today. Jolyon Mitchell & Owen Gower (eds), Religion and the News. Farnham: Ashgate, 31–43.
  • Knott, Kim; Poole, Elizabeth & Taira, Teemu 2013, forthcoming. Christianity, secularism and religious diversity in the British media. David Herbert, Marie Gillespie & Anita Greenhill (eds), Social Media, Religion and Spirituality. Berlin: De Gruyter.
  • Knott, Kim; Poole, Elizabeth & Taira, Teemu, forthcoming. Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular. Farnham: Ashgate.

 

Post-Westphalianism Versus Homogenization Theories of Globalization and Religion

Religion is not, in Beyer’s model, something that attempts to respond to this process. Rather it is an integral aspect of globalization.

Post-Westphalianism Versus Homogenization Theories of Globalization and Religion

By Jillian Scott.

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 20 February 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Peter Beyer on Religion and Globalization (18 February 2013).

In a recent podcast interview with The Religious Studies Project’s Chris Cotter, Peter Beyer discussed the relationship between globalization and religion, a topic which is highly relevant to the current state of society. Professor Beyer became a recognized authority on the subject when he published his book Religions in Global Society (2006).  As discussed with Cotter, Beyer’s most current research focuses on adolescents living in diaspora in Canada and explores the new influences of globalization as those in the diaspora community reform their religious faith in a new setting. Many theories of globalization present it as a process of homogenization. Albeit a slightly passé way of discussing the modern world, many scholars do agree that the worldwide tendency has been moving towards a single identity. This of course includes the religious identity in homogenization theory; as the local becomes absorbed by a dominant outside culture. However, Beyer’s new research has made a major empirical discovery: “the way religions are being reconstructed are radically different depending on which religion you are talking about” (2013). This is not a single dominant religious identity as is the case argued by the homogenization theory. Rather, there appears to be multiple identities present and these are dependent upon which religion is discussed. This is extremely relevant and interesting. Yet I find that the premises on which Beyer builds his understanding of globalization, and therefore his theories, to be quite unusual.

Here, Beyer defines globalization as the process of the world becoming a single place with global awareness. Although not a terribly controversial understanding, where Beyer differs from many other scholars is found in how he understands how globalization began. In his theory, globalization, as we understand it today, is a guaranteed product of the progression of human history. His discussion begins in the middle ages when human empires sought to conquer the world and make it a uniform place. Beyer refutes the argument made by scholars under the homogenization theory. They postulate that the mechanisms under the homogenization theory are a new product of humanity generated by modern technology. Beyer differs and argues they have been around for quite a while, perhaps since the dawn of humanity, and how they manifest via empires or the internet is how they differ. Religion, more frequently than not, was a motivating factor for many of these ancient empires (Beyer, 2013). Religion is not, in Beyer’s model, something that attempts to respond to this process. Rather it is an integral aspect of globalization.

In my own research on religion and globalization I have encountered many different definitions and understandings of how globalization emerged. Making a generalization of many different hypotheses, I typically discovered that most academics tend to describe globalization as a modern phenomenon that is a product of mass media and technology. A compelling example is found in modern acts of terrorism. In his article, “A Plane Wreck with Spectators: Terrorism and Media Attention,” Bernhard Debatin argues that “the global media system—the infosphere—created a worldwide synchronization of attention, thus establishing an extraordinary order of time and life” on which the attacks of September 11th, 2001 could be staged (165). For Debatin, people all across the world are all hyper-aware of each other, and immediately knowledgeable of actions in several different nation-states, through the influences of mass media.  Media here is the main homogenizing factor that dominates globally. Globalization cannot occur without the radical upheaval of the information and technology industries. In this, the process of globalization creates a worldwide stage, on which everyone acts.

Challenging these theories, Beyer utilizes a very pragmatic and refreshing view of how globalization and other such terminology has evolved within academia. His framework for globalization is very similar to his understanding of academia. These two seem to be intrinsically linked. He acknowledges that the basic premise of any scholar’s work is an attempt to describe the world as we perceive it around us. As our understanding of the world changes, so do our descriptions. Before “globalization” there was “modernization” and before our current understanding of religious pluralities there was the secularization thesis. And in between these epochs there was “post-modernity” and “post-secularism”.  Very down to earth, Beyer laughingly says that academics assign the prefix “post” to past ideologies when we don’t quite know what we are describing. Ironically he calls his theory post-Westphalianism. The Westphalia treaties resulted from a diplomatic congress ending the Thirty Years War as well as the Eighty Years War. These treaties initiated a different system of political order in Europe. After the treaties nation-states emerged under a single sovereign government. The sovereign governments were independent units and encompassed all aspects of national rule over the personal writ—including the religious. Within the single societies, single religions evolved. Religious ideas became tied to ideas of nationality.  In post-Westphalianism the nation-states begin to dissolve in the face of globalization. Therefore religious identity becomes more fluid and plural.

Despite the difference of opinion as to where or when globalization began, most scholars concur that the majority of people live in a modern world of awareness that causes them to re-evaluate themselves. Not just against their immediate social community, but against any other that can be found anywhere in the world. Within the post-Westphalianism framework, religions and religious beliefs serve as a key demonstration of the breaking down of nation-state walls. In his current research, Beyer seeks to understand how everyday religious identity and action become influenced in a diasporic generation, which is simultaneously heavily reliant on technology. This adolescent religious reconstruction demonstrates that many young people do attempt to align their beliefs with other influences that are found outside of their immediate community. Frequently, these are found in the ‘left-behind’ culture. However, Beyer has also discovered that these same people are reconciling their faith with an abstract construction of what it means to be a “Muslim”, “Christian”, or “Hindu”. This construction is a product of global awareness and it becomes its own presence within the religious communities. Most people are aware of this construction, not as an artificial presence, but as actual influences this comes to affect the way they replant their religion. Since Beyer argues that religion Is a key factor in the globalization machine I would have appreciated hearing more about how this is affecting the way we analyze religious diaspora communities.

Although Cotter did ask very pertinent questions there are a few I would like to add myself. Is there any indication that people not living in diaspora communities have this same understanding of how their religion should be lived? Admitting that this research is extremely specific to Canada; can you make an educated guess as to how things may be evolving in the US? UK? Australia? Finally, how does religion as a part of the process of globalization, as opposed to an aspect of culture responding to this global change, alter our academic understandings?  Despite these few questions, I found the interview quite enlightening and it was really enjoyable to listen to Beyer explain his current research.

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

About the Author:

Jillian Scott recently finished her Master’s degree in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her dissertation was entitled “Ritualized Terrorism: Symbolic Religious Violence and the Secular State in a Globalized World”. Originally from San Francisco, California, Jillian lives in Edinburgh and continues to study the relationships between religion, violence and international relations. She has also written Meeting at the crossroads of public and private: sexuality and religion for the Religious Studies Project.

References:

  • Beyer, Peter. Religions in Global Society. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print
  • Beyer, Peter. “Religion and Globalization.” The Religious Studies Project. The Relgious Studies Project, 18 Feb. 2013. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.
  • Debatin, Bernhard. “A Plane Wreck with Spectators: Terrorism and Media Attention.”Communication and Terrorism: Public and Media Responses to 9/11 (2002): 163-74. Print.

Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia

Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia

By Zoe Alderton, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 9 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Jolyon Mitchell on Religion, Media and Violence (7 May 2012).

Jolyon Mitchell is Professor of Communications, Arts and Religion and Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh. In this latest podcast he discusses the relationship between religions and media, focusing on issues of violence and peace. This material touches on his upcoming book, Promoting Peace, Inciting Violence: The Role of Religion and Media (Routledge: 2012). In this text, Mitchell problematises overly-simplistic readings of the media’s role in discussions of religion, conflicts, and resolutions.

In this response to his podcast, I wish to summarise some of the fascinating points raised by Mitchell. In doing so, I aim to foreground those that may illuminate Australia and its approach to sacralised violence. Living in a country where the national culture is largely secular, it is interesting to consider what the implications for Mitchell’s research are on Australian media and its presentation/proliferation of violence. Mitchell mentions a variety of nations who have undergone relatively recent conflicts and conflict resolutions, which have somehow engaged with religious groups or belief systems. At first it may seem that Australia is totally outside of this paradigm. Since the genocide of our Indigenous population, we have not seen the same kind of civil war as Mozambique. Nor have we defended our borders in a manner comparable to the Iran-Iraq conflict. Religiously motivated terrorism is more of a fear than a reality. In terms of faith, Australia is nominally Christian but has no official state religion. While the importance of this religion in Australian culture should not be underplayed, it is not a tradition that is generally considered to be an agent of national bonding.

Nevertheless, Mitchell’s framing of the media and his comments on violence as a kind of public spectacle provide an effective lens through which to consider Australia’s complicated public engagement with Anzac Day and the Anzac legend. This national holiday, intrinsically connected to violence via its origin in a First World War conflict, has an arguably religious relationship with Australian nationhood. Through various media (including television broadcasts, paintings, movies, and sculptures) the very complex and ambivalent meaning of Anzac Day is negotiated and perpetuated. Mitchell’s arguments in regards to the sensationalism and spectacle of violence will be used to account for the extreme emphasis on sacred martyrdom that permeates our national legend via a pragmatic reading of its dissemination through popular media.

For those of you who wish to read a bit more about Anzac Day, the Anzac legend, and the relationship between Anzac Day and the Media, Zoe has written a longer version of this post which is accessible here.

The spectacle of violence

In Mitchell’s podcast, he describes occasions in which media become the site, source, and inspiration for different forms of violence. The broadcast of religious motifs is a clear part of this process. Mitchell uses the example of Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). In this conflict, posters and mural celebrating martyrdom were produced. These images did not just concern themselves with contemporary sacrifice in the immediate conflict. Rather they wove in foundational martyrdoms such as that of Imam Hussain Ibn Ali, often conveying both narratives at once. This relationship between the media and symbolic culture is a vitally important one. In modern Australia, the troops involved in current or more recent battles are constantly conflated with the original Anzacs, making their modern-day sacrifice part of an ongoing narrative of martyrdom that feels real and compelling in its immediacy.

On a related note, Mitchell claims that news media is drawn to spectacle, and that violence is spectacular. His suggestion that media attention is often unproductive in the peace-making process tends to imply that its utility is often in the realm of proliferating conflict. Thus, it is reasonable to view the news media as a channel that prioritises that which is exciting, colourful, or engaging. Spectacle connects an audience with their television or other news medium. Spectacle helps to proliferate the aforementioned immediacy of the Anzac martyrdom that is useful and desirable if Australia wishes to draw upon its citizens’ essentially positive attitude towards sacrifice in war. The televised aspects of Anzac Day and its associated rituals tend to focus on that which is engagingly monumental and celebratory. The solemn Dawn Service at Gallipoli, including the stirring ‘last post’ by a lone bugler, is necessary viewing for a substantial portion of the nation. It is part of their ritual, and is conveniently televised.

So too is the annual commemorative parade in which veterans of all Australian wars march (or are represented posthumously by their heirs). The televisation of the Anzac Day Parade helps the nation to participate in the imaginative renewal of its mythology. Slade (2003 p.792) calls the Gallipoli story part of the sustenance of Australia. Through television, all can participate in this ceremony of cultural renewal and recitation. Of course, violence need not be advocated by any of these moving, engaging, and spectacular ceremonies or their media portrayal. Indeed, there is little about them that is openly pugnacious. Instead, the media tends to valorise holy martyrdom, implying on occasion that such a sacrifice is still necessary in order to maintain the social order of Australia as we know it today.

Is Anzac Day an example of the ambivalent sacred?

A major part of Mitchell’s podcast is the complex interrelationship of war, peace, and religion. As connected as religions may be to violence, he maintains that they also have a role to play in pacificism. His podcast speaks comprehensively of “the ambivalence of the sacred,” a term coined by R. Scott Appleby. Mitchell employs this phrase to imply “the scared can both incite violence and promote peace.” He feels that religious agents are, and can be, part of the conflict resolution process. Interestingly, Mitchell argues that this role is less publicised as it tends to happen away from cameras. The arduous process of negotiating peace does not lend itself to short broadcasts. Perhaps the potentially peaceful or anti-violent aspects of the Anzac mythology have been ignored in the popular press due to a lack of interest or broadcastability. This does not mean that they are absent, or that the reverence inspired by the Gallipoli campaign and its commemorative sites could not inspire an entirely pacifistic agenda.

Indeed, it is not clear if the Anzac legend is a discourse of war or peace. It appears to be both simultaneously, but also has potential to represent only one side of the dichotomy depending on the cause that employs it. In his discussion of Anzac as sacred and secular simultaneously, Seal (2007 p.143) calls this myth the most powerful “manifestation of an ambivalence that lies at the heart of our sense of national identity.” He compares this tonal equivocality with the confusion over Ned Kelly as hero or villain, or the simultaneous perception of British citizens as our kin and rivals. So too can Australia be seen to negotiate the sombre spaces and ceremonies of Anzac veneration with the iconic larrikin soldier and his playful disrespect for pomposity. The Anzac mythology, in negotiating equivocal and contradictory meanings, opens itself up to possibilities for violence or peacemaking. It can be used as a call to arms for present-day conflicts or a means of expressing the horrors and suffering of war.

In the case of Anzac Day 2012, the news media has shown examples of ambivalence in terms celebrating or denying violence in the name of this mythology. This is exemplified in Charles Waterstreet’s Sydney Morning Herald article Civil War Defies the Anzac Spirit. Here Waterstreet rallies for suburban peace in the wake of violence in the Sydney region. He denounces the current climate in which criminals are fighting petty wars of bluff and false bravado, betraying those who died and tried to keep such conduct from our shores. Turf wars over drug-trafficking rights and injured pride are an embarrassment to this city, to the soldiers who fought in countless wars … Taking up arms in peacetime is to spit in the face of every soldier, sailor and airman who fought.

Ambivalence is certainly present in this division of ‘good violence’ and ‘bad violence’, framed within a discourse of respect for the Anzac tradition and the sacred sacrifice.

Celebrity and violence

Another applicable component of Mitchell’s podcast is the blurring of celebrity and religious leadership. This too may be read in to the impact of spectacle in regards to what is and is not broadcast. Mitchell argues that the popular media (for example, news broadcasters) thrive on the celebrity factor. Celebrities build audiences through a process of viewer identification. Media consumers feel as though they ‘know’ a celebrity or can identify with them. As this relationship is pre-existent, a news snippet need not feel obliged establish empathy or interest in such a figure. Considering the time poverty of televised news broadcasts, the employment of a familiar religious figure with a pre-established narrative and context makes pragmatic sense. Mitchell uses religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama as an example of a familiar face with a familiar agenda. In the case of Anzac ritual and mythology, political figures are the celebrities consulted by the media in this manner.

Of course, the political celebrities themselves are transient. Demerath and Williams (1985 p.160) specify that civil religions do not connect too closely with any specific government lest they become an “idolatrous cloak of transcendental rhetoric tossed over the pursuit of momentary ends.” The proposed ultimacy of the Anzac legend has remained supra-partisan despite its intimacy with the leadership of the day. Unsurprisingly, the figure of the Prime Minister seems to be the main focal point of this engagement. In 2012, Julia Gillard has upheld this mantle, not only in terms of her actual addresses to the nation, but also in regards to the sound bites of her speeches that were disseminated through the television and printed news. For example, in a particularly popular news article, Gillard referred to Anzac Day as all that Australia embodies, more significant in terms of emotions and values than Australia Day, and a meaningful event for migrants (like herself) “who freely embrace the whole of the Australian story as their own.” Putting aside disturbing political undertones, these convenient sound bites are easily broadcast around the nation, presented by a political celebrity who needs no introduction.

Although people with anti-Anzac or anti-war sentiments may have commented on the celebrations in an equally eloquent manner, they cannot compete with one of the most easily recognised faces of Australia in a media landscape that requires abbreviation. The political celebrity Barack Obama also made news (in a story that seems entirely overblown) after sending “best wishes” to Australia and New Zealand on Anzac Day. Although the sensationalist headline would suggest otherwise, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered the message on Obama’s behalf. She also thanked Australia for their ongoing commitment to the war in Afghanistan, a meaningful conflation of past and present sacrifice of lives. Obama is another example of a celebrity who is suitable for a short news story on account of his national renown. His (albeit proxy) endorsement of the Anzac commemoration coupled with an endorsement of current conflicts requires little in the way of contextualisation.

Media and violence in its broadest sense

Mitchell’s broad take on the definition of ‘media’ is a useful one when considering the depth of a culture’s communicative devices. Although media is commonly shorthand for television and newspapers, Mitchell reminds us of the vast array of communicative devices that can fall under this umbrella term. Media need not be seen as the exclusive domain of the literary elect or wealthy broadcasters. Rather, Mitchell employs the term to describe a variety of devices from YouTube videos, to murals, to architecture. It is in the medium of architecture and effigy that Australia expresses some of its most reverential emotions towards the war dead.

The Pool of Reflection, Australian War Memorial, Canberra

The work of Ken Inglis, especially Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape (1998), is vital reading on this complex topic. To briefly summarise, Inglis illuminates war memorials as sacred shrines of Australian civil religion, allowing for the preservation of memory. This sacred architecture helps to reconcile the distance between Australia and Turkey. It is difficult to negotiate sacred turf when your creation narrative takes place in a foreign nation. Slade (2003 p.787) speaks of various features of the Gallipoli battleground that make it a sacred or elevated region. This includes the lack of modern development on the peninsula (keeping it ‘authentic’ to the era of the battle), the burial of the dead where they fell, and the subsequent framing of the entire area as a cemetery. Obviously, Australia itself cannot provide this kind of sacred Anzac space. Instead, war memorials are a way of making a geographically unconnected site equally meaningful.

In Canberra, Australia’s capital city, the Australian War Memorial contains the Hall of Memory, a cathedral-like structure that performs the typical duties of a religious shrine. Seal (2007 p.140) calls the Hall of Memory “spiritual but without religious symbolism.” Although it may not contain traditional religious indicators, it still evokes religious emotion. The Hall is designated as a place of eerie silence and hushed contemplation. It is clearly demarcated as a holy site that demands respect. It is also the tomb of the Unknown Solider, with his body housed like the relics of a saint. Above his remains, viewers may look upwards to a dome reminiscent of Byzantine cathedral architecture. The dome, created in brilliant gold hues, depicts souls migrating from distant battlefields. The Hall of Memory clearly connotes the existence of the extramundane.

The dome ceiling

The museum component of the Australian War Memorial should also be seen as a communicative device in terms of Australia’s relationship to sacred violence. As Chris Healy (1997 pp.73-74) argues, the museum is a medium that trains citizens in their acquisition of social memory. A visitor to the Australian War Memorial is encouraged to have a spiritual, or at least reflective, experience in the Hall of Memory. They may then use the educational, historical museum in order to arrange their feelings of awe, or reverence, or respect into a cultural narrative. This narrative, conveyed through the museum medium, contextualises the violence and horrific loss of the nation into a rhetoric of sacrifice, sacred ‘mateship’, and a patriotism that transcends personal concerns.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Conclusions

Much more could be said on the Anzac legend, its various components, and the reverential lack of critique it receives in the present era. I believe it is valuable to consider what our state mythology and most revered holiday dictates in terms of the national character. Mitchell’s exploration of the sensationalism and spectacle of violence explains much in terms of the news media’s preferences as to which aspects of the legend they choose to show and propagate. So too does Mitchell help to illuminate the value of celebrity in moral debates. Pragmatically speaking, the Anzac narrative is a story that most Australians know and care about. It is a discourse that is easily associated with well-known political and public figures. It is also an exciting and visually stimulating event that transfers well to the broadcasting of its rituals, or the artistic enactment of its sacred narratives and archetypal heroes. At its core, the Anzac mythology may indeed contain the ambivalence that Mitchell sees in the relationship between religion, violence, and peace. Nevertheless, its present incarnation seems to be concerned with the public condoning of martyrdom and the celebration of militaristic duty in deeply spiritualised terms.

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

About the Author:

Zoe Alderton is a PhD candidate in the department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. Her thesis concerns the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon and the nature of his audience reception. Zoe’s main interests are religion in modern art and religious communication via new media. Her recent publications include a discussion of the inheritance of Theosophy in Australian modernism, and an exploration of the contentious politics surrounding the Blake Prize for Religious Art. Upcoming publications concern imaginative pilgrimage in the work of Colin McCahon, and a discussion of the motifs in his beachside theology. Zoe is also a tutor in Sociology for the University of Western Sydney and reviews editor for the journal Literature & Aesthetics.

References:

Bellah, R.N., 1967. ‘Civil Religion in America’, Daedalus, vol. 96, no. 1, pp. 1-21.

Crouter, R., 1990. ‘Beyond Bellah: American Civil Religion and the Australian Experience’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 154-165.

Demerath, N.J., and Williams, R.H., 1985. ‘Civil Religion in an Uncivil Society’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 480, pp. 154-166.

Geertz, C., 1966. ‘Religion as a Cultural System’, in M. Banton (ed.), Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, Tavistock, London.

Healy, C., 1997. From the Ruins of Colonialism: History As Social Memory, Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom.

Inglis, K., 1998. Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Sacket, L. 1985. ‘Marching Into the Past: Anzac Day Celebrations in Adelaide’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 9, iss. 17, pp. 18-30.

Seal, G., 2007. ‘ANZAC: The Sacred in the Secular’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 31, iss. 91, pp. 135-144.

Slade, P., 2003. ‘Gallipoli Thanatourism: The Meaning of ANZAC’, Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 30, no. 4, pp.779-794.

 

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The BASR and the Impact of Religious Studies

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

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

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

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, stuffed rabbits, Ramen, and more.

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

The BASR and the Impact of Religious Studies

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

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Laughter)

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

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

SG: The people in this room!

(Laughter)

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

DR: Good

Audience Voice: As long as they speak English!

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

(Laughter)

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

(Laughter)

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Playing the Field: the Logistics of Religion and Video Game Studies

The field of religion and video games is still new and forming. In its struggle to find itself, it simultaneously competes with a university’s traditional understanding of both education and culture, often involving Gregory Price Grieve’s comment that video games are perceived as “low brow” culture. The view of video games as, again to quote Grieve, “just above pornography,” is a misconception that the academic study of video games is constantly fighting against.

That being said, hearing about Grieve’s success in bringing the study of video games to his university is promising. Not only was he able to establish courses for the study of religion and video games, but was also able to work with his library and university in order to establish gaming centres for students to play games. Having digital media pushed across disciplines throughout the university, as well as having a Digital Media Centre in their library, helps to establish video games and other forms of digital media as important and worthy of study in the university.

Grieve did have an understanding university, which is something important to keep in mind. While his approach to getting video games in the classroom is a format presented to be copied, not everyone is lucky enough to be present in a university that is so understanding. This is especially the case in universities rooted in academic tradition, built on older standards which seldom factor in elements of popular culture. This is not even considering the cost of this kind of endeavour. Even with a buy-in from the library, Grieve’s project still needed $10,000. And this is only considering the technicalities of this new media, and not the thought process of people who still believe that video games are not an important element of popular culture today, or who don’t seem to really care about the “popular” at all. In that sense, there are bigger problems facing some people at less understanding universities than a lack of technology.

The positive reception Grieve has experienced with his students can hopefully begin to be experienced by researchers and teachers in the study of video games in many universities throughout the world. However, there are many elements that still work against progression in the field. Some of the thoughts and actions impeding the growth of the field are, sadly, still present even among scholars in the field. By studying only video games, we impede ourselves and the progress which can be made; there are many aspects of video games which are affecting other elements of popular culture. An example of this are Let’s Play videos, in which players record themselves playing a video game, with commentary and sometimes even recordings of the player’s face (as the Let’s Player PewDiePie became known for), which are then uploaded on video sharing sites such as YouTube. Unfortunately, the popularity of Let’s Plays have been stereotyped almost as much as video games themselves are, an element that is unfortunately heard even in Grieves interview in which he relegates their popularity and interest almost exclusively to “teenagers”, even though the demographic may not be this concrete, especially for Let’s Players who are older themselves, such as Fun Haus. PewDiePIe has over 41 million subscribers, and it is hard to imagine that all 41 million are only teenagers. Not to mention that the fastest growing demographic for gaming content are women over the age of 25.[1]

What Let’s Plays demonstrate for academics of video games is the creativity enjoyed by Let’s Players. Geoff Ramsey, the founder of the Let’s Play group Achievement Hunter has commented on this creativity: “Any time we can take and use [a game] in a way that it wasn’t necessarily intended by the developers, that’s like the best thing in the world to me.”[2] This out-pouring of creativity allows researchers to have easy access to new narratives being created and the emotions they create and share. These new narratives and emotions are not experienced solely by the Let’s Player, but also by those who watch these videos; these narratives are then shared by the viewer to others, and new narratives are created by the viewer in relation to these new narratives. These videos are then not only relegated to the realm of video games, but also to internet studies and realms of internet discourse, particularly when elements of them become shared as memes.

The field of religion and video games is still emerging, and thus still solidifying its own definition and place. What is most important is for scholars interested in engaging with digital media, like video games, to demonstrate to their students, universities, and themselves that video games are a medium worthy of study.

[1] Gautam Ramdurai, “Think Gaming Content is Niche? Think Again,” Think with Google, December 2014, accessed February 2016, https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/articles/think-gaming-content-is-niche-think-again.html.

[2] Rooster Teeth, Let’s Play Live: The Documentary, Video (2015), ), http://roosterteeth.com/episode/r-t-docs-let-s-play-live-let-s-play-live-the-documentary

Conference Report (and rant): Fandom and Religion, Leicester, 2015

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by our very own Venetia Robertson, RSP Editor and a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney.

The University of Leicester hosted the Fandom and Religion conference this July 28-30 in affiliation with the Theology, Religion and Popular Culture network. A reasonably small conference with just over 30 presenters and 50 attendees, organisers Clive Marshall and Isobel Woodcliffe of Leicester’s Lifelong Learning Centre ran the event smoothly with the help of attentive session chairs and the professional staff at the clean and comfortable College Court conference centre. The Court was truly the home of the conference—with all of the sessions, meals, drinks, and most of our accommodation being there (and with little to do in the surrounding area)—one could be excused for experiencing a bit of cabin fever by end of the week. Still, when tomorrow morning’s keynote speaker is ordering another pint at midnight, we’re probably all glad that bed is just a few steps away from the bar. I want to talk about the papers I saw, and those I wish I’d caught, because that’s primarily what a conference review should be, but I’m also going to take this opportunity to give the study of fandom and religion in general some evaluation, as this conference both pointed out to me the breadth and the dearth of this relatively new academic field.

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One of the main draws of this conference for me, and why I was willing to endure the very long plane trip to get there, was the keynote line-up. I heard of this event at last year’s Media, Religion, and Culture Conference, and was excited to see that it would be featuring excellent speakers like Kathryn Lofton (who sadly had to pull out), and scholars whose work my own is intimately connected to, like Chris Partridge and Matt Hills. The way these thinkers combine innovative thinking with the analysis of meaning-making and popular culture highlights, and inspiringly so, the importance of this area of investigation. Partridge and Hill’s plenary papers, ‘Fandom, Pop Devotion, and the Transfiguration of Dead Celebrities’ and ‘Revisiting the “Affective Spaces” of Fan Conventions: Sites of Pilgrimage, Sacredness, and Enchantment… or Non-Places?’ respectively, were both illustrative of the fruitful amalgamation of approaches from media, cultural, and religious studies when examining these developments. I brought together Partridge’s concept of occulture with Hill’s hyperdiegesis in my own paper on how medieval female mystics and modern fangirls use relational narratives with their ‘gods’ to reify sacred subjectivities from within the patriarchal cultures of Christendom and geek culture. On the whole, the conference represented multi- and inter-disciplinary methods, with scholars of anthropology, psychology, music, digital cultures, and literature alongside those of religion. There was, however, in the overall makeup and theme of Fandom and Religion, an unmistakeably strong theological bent—but more on that in a moment.

Though it meant having to miss out on what I heard was a great session on fan experiences in Bob Dylan, indie, and Israeli popular music scenes, and a session on comics and hero narratives that I would have no doubt enjoyed, I felt very satisfied with the methodological offerings from Rhiannon Grant and Emanuelle Burton that dealt with the tensions of canon and fanon, interpretation and creativity, group consensus and personal gnosis, that affect religious and fan communities alike. With a mix of midrashic, pagan, and Quaker approaches to truth and authority, this panel had my mind whirring. Papers on the commercial and the communal aspects of the Hillsong and the role of music in the Pentecostal mega church system provided fascinating insights (and stay tuned for more on this from Tom Wagner). Offerings from Bex Lewis on the Keep Calm and meme on trend and Andrew Crome on My Little Pony fandom, Bronies, and Christianity, proffered some intriguing ways in which viral cultures enable believers to remix media for religious purposes and find the sacred within the secular. Film and television were well represented with talks on American Horror Story, the Alien franchise, small screen vampires, children’s programming, and anime, though I unfortunately could not get to those sessions. Sport, fiction, and celebrity were of course popular topics, with a Harry Potter themed session, and talks on football and faith and evangelism amongst skaters and surfers. Two talks I again missed but would have liked to have caught were the inimitably odd Ian Vincent on tulpas and tulpamancy and François Bauduin’s talk on the Raelians, for what I’m sure would have been a robust discussion of how these esoteric movements translate into the online sphere, and how this affects notions of authenticity and creativity.

11222652_10156115964950413_6985333271960933871_oWhile this program certainly presents a swathe of relevant subjects in the field of fandom and religion, there were several key moments that made me realise that some central issues had gone by the wayside. It struck me that this was a very “white” conference: there were, even for a small number of papers, strikingly none that I could see on non-Western peoples or traditions. A tiny fraction looked at non-Western media and non-Abrahamic religious beliefs. Searching the abstract booklet I found Islam mentioned once, Buddhism only in passing, and no references to countries with historical, pertinent, and I would say seminal engagements with religious fandoms (Japan, India, Vanuatu are just a few examples). When pointed out during the ‘feedback session’ that concluded the conference two responses were offered: one, that there was no one writing on these topics, and two, that it’s a shame that it looks like the conference lacked diversity but that the organizing body does have one Jewish member… In her keynote, Tracy Trothen remarked on the subject of religion and sport that when we say ‘religion’ we usually mean ‘Christianity’, which I had initially interpreted as a reflexive moment on the ‘god problem’ the academy continues to have, that is, the perpetuation of “the myth of Christian uniqueness” despite the reality of pluralism and secularization, but unfortunately it merely signaled the habitual preferential treatment of this one theological outlook. The suggestion that “no one is writing on these topics” is patently false, but is indicative of the core issue I had with this event: it wasn’t just saturated with a Christo-theological focus in material and approach because that’s representative of the academy, but rather it seemed it was primarily interested in representing that viewpoint—and this is something I don’t think was made clear from the outset.

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For example, the website for this conference followed on from the flyer that had first alerted me to the “international, inter-disciplinary conference,” and stated that its purpose was to “explore interactions between religion and popular culture” which sounded great. “What is happening to fans as they express their enthusiasms and allegiances? Has fandom replaced or become a form of religion?”—cool, interesting questions, I thought. Compare with this description from a CFP I, after the fact, found elsewhere: “A Major Conference for Faith Community Practitioners and Academics,” “including a session solely for faith community practitioners.” There were actually several ‘practitioner’ sessions, and it seemed clear after a while that ‘faith community’ meant Christian worship. It became explicit from the first day with our welcome that in part this event was for not just religious people but those active in their Churches to learn not so much about, but from fandoms. I am used to attending academic conferences with a notable number of ‘practitioners’ present, they may even present non-academic papers. I am also used to having to define religious studies as a separate disciplinary enterprise to theology. But what I wasn’t expecting in Leicester, and I don’t think I was alone here, was to be at a conference where religion, theology, and Christianity were so automatically synonymous that it didn’t seem to occur to the organisers that major non-Christian themes in religion and fandom had been overlooked in their selection of papers, or even that such themes were major. I wasn’t expecting to feel like such an outsider, as a religious studies academic at what I had thought was an academic religious studies affair.

To be fair, now that I have delved deeper into the faith-based networks that organised this event (Donald Wiebe). However, this issue goes beyond the academy, and this became obvious when a reporter for a religion-themed program on BBC4 interviewed some of the conference’s speakers. What thankfully doesn’t make it into our few minutes of fame in this radio segment is the interviewer’s clear discomfort with the idea of converging ‘obsessive’ fans and their ‘low brow’ media with ‘devoted’ believers and their ‘respectable’ forms of the divine. “Are they [typical othering language] just crazy?” he asks me of fans, and makes me repeat my answer several times in order to get something “more quippy, less academic”, and, I suppose, more damning to confirm his perception that there are right and wrong forms of meaning-making. Journalists from The Daily Mail also tried (but failed) to get a talking head, so I guess things could have been worse.

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

Venetia Robertson ready for the conference!

I certainly don’t mean to detract from the importance of making niche areas like fandom and religion studies visible on an international and interdisciplinary scale, or the much-appreciated effort that went in to the organisation and contribution of this conference and its participants: there was indeed a wealth of interesting, useful, and high-quality papers. Nonetheless, as a reflection on the state of popular culture and its integration into multi­-religious studies (not to mention the relevant spheres of civil/quasi/alternative/implicit religion etc.) I feel these criticisms need timely evaluation. And I have some heartening thoughts to that effect: there is a blossoming field of intersectional work on these topics at the moment if one takes the time to look! The promotional material available at Leicester, interestingly, confirmed this, and I include some pictures of it here. I think it’s telling that Joss Whedon studies has had its own journal, Slayage, for over ten years, but to find more journal articles on a vast panoply of religion and fandom junctures you can try the Journal Of Religion And Popular Culture, the classic Journal Of Popular Culture or the newer Transformative Works And Cultures and the Journal of Fandom Studies, whose book reviews keep on top of the most recent additions to this field. This conference also saw the launch of the comprehensive volume, The Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture (which ranges in price between $277 AUD on BookDepository to a whopping $405 at Angus and Robertson), edited by John Lyden and Eric Mazur, as yet another example of the popularity of this topic in contemporary scholarship. I’m also pleased to say that my paper will be a chapter in the forthcoming volume for INFORM/Ashgate, Fiction, Invention, and Hyper-reality: From Popular Culture to Religion (edited by Carole Cusack and Pavol Kosnáč) alongside some brilliant minds exploring the relationship of spirituality to conspiracy theories, Tolkein’s legendarium, Discordianism, with a handful of, yes, practitioner’s accounts, this time from Pagans, Jedis and Dudeists—it’s sure to be a vibrant, diverse, and illuminating contribution to the discussion on fandom and religion.

 

 

Self-immolation as a religious act: The contested martyrdom of Roger Allen LaPorte, Catholic Worker

 

Millions of people, most of them civilians, were killed in the Vietnam War. Almost 58,000 of the war’s victims were American citizens. While most of the physical and technical conflict took place overseas, political and ideological battles were waged within the United States.

Some of these Americans died, as it were, by their own hand. In 1965, Roger Allen LaPorte, a member of the Catholic Worker, self-immolated in front of the United Nations headquarters in New York City. While LaPorte himself described his act of protest as a specifically religious act, the validity of this description would soon be—and remain—contested, finding opposition among the Catholic hierarchy. The attention of U.S. media gave the contestation of martyrdom a public arena.

In this interview, postdoctoral researcher of U.S. Catholicism, Francesca Cadeddu, shares some of her reflections on LaPorte, whose contested martyrdom by self-immolation is the topic of her present postdoctoral project.

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.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, pot noodles, very small trains, and more.

Francesca Cadeddu is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Social and Institutional Sciences in Cagliari in Italy. She is also a fellow researcher at the Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna, Italy. She wrote her PhD dissertation on the Jesuit priest and theologian John Courtney Murray, an important figure in U.S. Catholicism who featured prominently in the development of the the Second Vatican Council’s draft of Dignitatis Humanae (which the interviewer learned is pronounced “humaneh” rather than “hoomanay” shortly before the interview, hence the interviewer’s hesitation).

Having researched at two of the most prominent institutions for Catholic Studies in the U.S., Georgetown and Notre Dame, Cadeddu visited Notre Dame by means of a research grant from Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame in the spring of 2015.

 

Religion and Authority in Asia

Given its contextual and perspectival malleability, the notion of ‘authority’, and even more so of ‘religious authority’, is challenging to define and to study. In October 2014, a number of scholars working on both ‘traditional’ and new modes of authority gathered for the Religious Authority in Asia: Problems and Strategies of Recognition workshop, which was funded by the Dr Erica Baffelli who in today’s interview with Paulina Kolata discusses the notion of authority and charismatic leadership in the context of her research on New and ‘New’ New religions in contemporary Japan.

It seems that the most problematic issue in discussions on authority in the Japanese religious context and beyond is the very recognition and identification of its existence and its impact on communities at trans-national, national and local levels. The assertion of authority can be perceived through the prism of the scholarly discourse on religions, relationships between religious specialists and their supporting communities, and the state-religion interface. There are two watershed dates – 1946 and 1995 – and the events associated with them can be considered as crucial in shaping the socio-economic and political conditions of the religious power struggle in Japanese society in post-war Japan. The first date is linked to the promulgation of the new post-war constitution which sanctioned freedom of religious belief, and separated religion and the state.  The second marks the date of an act of domestic terrorism – the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway – perpetrated by members of new religious group Aum Shinrikyō led by a charismatic figure of Asahara Shōkō. Listen to Erica Baffelli talk charisma, leadership and the media in assertion of religious authority in the context of New Religions in Japan.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with Pauline Hope Cheong on Religious Authority and Social Media.

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.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying books, pet food, socks, digital radios, action figures, and more.

Conference Report: International Society for Media, Religion and Culture Conference, 2014

Report by Venetia Robertson, University of Sydney

For four days at the beginning of August, I attended the International Society for Media, Religion and Culture (ISMRC) conference within the beautiful grounds of Canterbury Cathedral in England. Hosted by Professor Gordon Lynch of the University of Kent, this conference brought together scholars of media, religion, and culture (sometimes even all three) to analyse these intersections in daily life, in spiritual practice, and throughout history. In concert with the Centre for Media, Religion and Culture (CMRC), run out of the University of Colorado, Boulder, this conference has been held biennially since the mid-1990s, and many of the foundational members continue to attend the event, as well as remaining central contributors to the scholarship of this field.

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This year’s conference saw a handing over of the presidential reigns from Professor Stewart M. Hoover of Colorado to his once-student and now Associate Professor at the University of Denver, Lynn Schofield Clark, with whom he has co-authored numerous articles and chapters and co-edited volumes such as Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media: Explorations in Media, Religion and Culture (2002). With a board of directors that includes Professor Mia Lövheim (Uppsala University), Dr Ann Hardy (University of Waikato), and Associate Professor Heidi Campbell (Texas A&M University), to name a few, the ISMRC intentionally incorporates the voices of diverse areas of study (sociology/history/study of religion, theology, journalism, media and communications, new media, digital cultures etc.), from different parts of the globe, and, importantly for this reporter, from female academics, into a broader discussion of the ever-developing relationship between media, religion and culture. At Canterbury, the discussion that was had demonstrated the vastness and richness of such an interdisciplinary venture and yet also the reason why such a conversation must happen.

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I heard the following questions more times during the week than the ubiquitous ‘I don’t really have a question… more of a statement’ that haunts every audience response segment: ‘What is religion?’, ‘What is media/mediatisation/mediation?’, and ‘Have you met the other Australian yet?’. In answer to the third question – I did, I believe, meet all the Australian delegates by the end, and there were quite a number I’m proud to say! Down under, represent.

The initial questions about the perplexing categories of religion and media, however, did really seem to need perpetual asking. In a panel on the first day, papers by Ann Hardy on ‘conspirituality’ – the merging of conspiracy theories with New Age beliefs – and by Sofija Drecon, of the University of Arts, Belgrade, on web-based religions like the Church of Google, offered overviews of two exciting studies of religiosity and the Internet, but only had time to prod at the most basic of questions – what does the online conspiracy culture tell us about the internet, and what do online new religious movements tell us about religion? These two papers, I believe, speak to each other in ways that are subtle but have significant broader implications – the internet does foster decidedly ‘alternative’ ways of thinking, from the alt. streams of usenet to some of the darker recesses of reddit or 4chan. The rise of web 2.0 is not solely responsible for communal bonding over fringe responses to epistemological or theological positions; obviously these have been around for as long as we have, mediated or no, but the opportunities for proselystisation and development have hugely increased. This includes not only ‘upgrades’, for example, instead of photocopying 100 fliers advertising conversion to your parody religion or your reptilian conspiracy workshop you can now send 100,000 emails, but also by adapting to those modes of communication, authority, and identity that the internet specialises in and encourages, you are speaking the mother-tongue of the digital natives. In Carole Cusack’s Invented Religions (2010: 132-5) for example, it is noted that movements like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster are so supremely suited to cyberspace because they embody those qualities, listed by Knobel and Lankshear (2006: 209) as humour or irony, intertextuality, and anomalous juxtaposition (like God and Pasta), that appeal to the wired generation and participates in their ‘new literacy’. Our cultural context – techno-saturated, postmodern, secular(ish) – needs flagging, obvious as it may seem, in order for these minor case studies to demonstrate their relevance to the discussion at hand. The audible groan from a colleague when the outdated ‘religion online/online religion’ schema was mentioned (‘that is sooo 2000’), that Christopher Helland himself has openly moved on from, is another reminder that we also need to keep abreast of how these trends are being treated, an updated, in the scholarship.

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Photo by Adam Shreve, with permission.

It’s probably obvious at this point that my main interest in this joint area is in digital religion. I particularly enjoyed those papers that were framed around the significant gender, race, and political issues that shape the world we live in, and charted how these identities and identifiers translated into the virtual reality of networked religion. Dr Chris Helland (Dalhousie University) gave an insightful paper on the use of the internet and digital technology by Tibetan Buddhists and how this allows the maintenance of community for a diasporic people. China’s suppression of the Tibetan people extends, unsurprisingly, to technology, recognised as a major tool in effecting a resistance. It is thus a potentially dangerous activity for those living in Tibet to use information technology at all. Nonetheless, while the event of the late Pope Benedict joining Twitter was a source of comedy for many, the Dalai Lama and ex-pat followers have always made an effort to be as connected as possible, and while the internet does provide some spiritual impediment (‘they are worried that the monks are getting too distracted’, Helland comments), it has been deftly incorporated into ritual making, theological learning, and religious identity for Tibetan Buddhists. From Dr Paul Emerson Teusner’s (RMIT) work on audience engagement and pastoral blogs in the Emerging Church, to Associate Professor Alex Boutros’ (Laurier University) study of blogging black identity and religiosity in the Afrosphere, to ritualising postfeminism on Pinterest, as described by Samira Rajabi, there was plenty to keep my mind buzzing! As Stewart Hoover and Nabil Echchaibi, directors of the CMRC and authors of the influential paper ‘The “Third Spaces” of Digital Religion’, were both major contributors to the conference (though Dr Echcaibi was unable to attend), there was a lot of discussion of cyberspace as third space, and as someone who finds this reading of Homi Bhabha’s methodology fruitful for my own studies, I found this to be immensely helpful.

However, so wrapped up am I in my own thesis work that what I failed to anticipate is that ‘media’ is so much more than just new media, and new media is so much more than just the internet. This conference offered the fully gamut of media studies – radio, television, news reports, cinema, magazines, video and computer games, advertising, as well as my favourites: websites, blogs, forums, and memes. As media types diversify it becomes harder to say why we both speaking of them as a whole at all – what does the latest iPrayer app have in common with a ‘healing’ radio broadcast from the 1950s? I have an inkling that there’s something important to be said here about the alleged ‘magic’ of technology and its ongoing role as, quite literally, a mediating force in religious practice. Looking into the eyes of televangelist Pat Robertson as he yells his blessings at you through the screen, one can’t help but wonder how technical he understands this process to be – do prayers travel through the cathode ray tubes of your 1980s set and into your living room? Did their transmission gain clarity and precision with the enhanced qualities of a plasma screen? When Anderson Blanton gave his paper on the wireless preaching of Oral Roberts he emphasised Robert’s wish for listeners to ‘put your hand upon the radio cabinet as a point of contact’, which then dovetailed beautifully with the preceding talk by Larissa Carneiro’s (North Carolina State University) on L. Ron Hubbard’s e-meter, the confluence of haptics, belief, and authenticity was strikingly evident (Blanton is the curator for The Materiality of Prayer Collection, and follows this line of enquiry at Reverberations). Unfortunately, Joonseong Lee’s (California State University) closing presentation for this session on ‘digirituality’, which aimed to elucidate how technology offers a salvific path to the sacred and allows one to deflect the enslaving efforts of commercialism, did not deliver. Maybe, it was the Deleuzian frame of reference that pushed this talk into incomprehensible territory (from the abstract: ‘The term “digirit” is a combination of the words “digital” and “spirit” and is conceptualized from the Deleuzian perspective of Tao. Anus breathing exercise is reinterpreted as a method of practice-oriented spirituality to be digiritual’), or perhaps it was because this paper was written for, though not presented at, a different digital humanities conference in Switzerland (again, evidenced by the unedited pitch in the abstract), either way, I failed to take anything away from this section but those who are curious can follow the hyperlink.

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I too found during my own presentation that the level of audience comprehension was less than I had anticipated. At a basic estimation, more than 50% of the papers at this conference dealt only with Islam or Christianity. This in itself is not problematic, there is much to say about these two major faith groups and their interactions with media, nonetheless religion as found within paganism, the occult, the New Age, implicit circumstances, etc. was very rarely discussed. Though I know my subject area is fairly obscure, it seemed that many of my respondents struggled to parse even the spiritual milieu within which my studies are located. Partially this is because many attendees were, as noted, communications experts, not scholars of religion, but additionally the alternative sphere of spirituality, it seems, is still given only marginal attention by the academy. However, with one minute of question time to be shared between four panellists, there was sadly very little opportunity to gauge audience response or elaborate on my topic further. I greatly enjoy question time and found it so frequently at this conference to be an opportunity for vigorous and inspiring discussion and debate – but with only 10 minutes scheduled per session for this, and rarely were more than 5 minutes really allotted, this was always a rushed effort. With widely varied levels of media and religious literacy present, more dedication to theming panels and audience and presenter interaction would likely ensure more optimal engagement with the material. It certainly couldn’t be said, however, that this was not a well organised conference. The staff of the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge were dutiful and polite, and the conference admin team were exceptionally hard-working, helpful, and facilitated fun opportunities for socialising (pub drinks). The picturesque surrounds of the stunning Cathedral itself, so steeped in history, and yet with effective and comfortable conference facilities (wifi was pretty good), made the event extra enjoyable.

Photo by Adam Shreve, with permission.

Photo by Adam Shreve, with permission.

Plenaries came in the shape keynotes and roundtable discussions, all of which were lively and focused. On the first day Jonathan L. Walton provided an effective wake up call to all of us in the audience who were resting, on our laurels and, y’know, from jetlag. In his address ‘Pentecostal and Prosperous: Empowering (and Editing) Marginalized Protestant Bodies’, Walton took us, in what I imagine is his trademark lecturing and preaching style (being Professor of Religion and Society and the Pusey Minister at Harvard University) on a journey – we giggled at his witty analysis of the kitschy tactics and aesthetics of African-American prosperity preachers like Pastor Carlton Pearson, his brash 90s outfits and manufactured spontaneity, and then teared up as Walton passionately retold the little-known 1921 race riot of Tulsa, Oklahoma during which the prosperous district of Greenwood known as ‘Black Wall Street’ became a site of mass destruction, with disgruntled white folk turning black families and business owners onto the streets, attacking, looting, shooting, even firebombing them from aeroplanes, within 16 hours razing the town to the ground. So under-reported and poorly regulated was the aftermath that we still don’t know if the numbers of dead African-Americans were closer to 30 or 300. Tulsa would go on to be a centre for black Pentecostalism, and importantly so, jettisoning the black church into the profitable market of televangelism of which Pastor Pearson’s once-booming Higher Dimension Family Church and annual televised Azusa conferences, both in Tulsa, are perfect examples. While it’s easy to roll your eyes at the razzle dazzle of mega-church theatrics, Walton’s sobering reminder of the history of the racial politics of wealth and worth in America shed invaluable light on this ongoing tension and its effects for media and religion.

There was some criticism that this conference, particularly in its choice of keynote speakers, was a tad Americo-centric. Professor Kathryn Lofton’s thoroughly entertaining and energetic lecture on the cult of Oprah, for example, apparently went over the heads of those international audience members not as saturated in the celebrity culture of the USA as are, say, we Australians. Perhaps guilty of subconsciously indulging the implicit notion that America = the universal example, my favourite panel was delivered entirely by Americans, three students and a professor from Northwestern University, on explicitly American topics. Myev Rees’ analysis of ‘mommy martyrdom’ in the life and times of mega-mater Michelle Duggar and characters like Bella Swan of Twilight, Stephanie Brehm’s intriguing look at the religiosity of Stephen Colbert on and off camera, Hannah Scheidt’s comparative study of theistic and atheistic billboards and advertising campaigns in the US, and Professor Sarah Macfarland Taylor’s paper on ‘Green hip hop’ and the politics of urban environmentalism, were extremely well put-together, informative, and important offerings, relished by their listeners.

Feedback on the overall experience of the conference and specific areas that needed attention was welcomed by the ISMRC organisers, and on the fourth day a workshop was held in order to gauge participants’ responses. Though I think some of the younger and less experienced delegates would have liked this segment to have included some ‘workshopping’ of methods, techniques, and debates relevant to the practical aspect of being a media and religion scholar, e. g. how to make this avenue enticing to departments and universities, how to appeal to sources of funding for new centres or research projects, how to undertake fieldwork efficiently and effectively, how to extend the relevance of our work beyond the paywall, the institution, the elitism of the academy and bring it to ‘the people’, the media, the government and so forth. Instead the focus was more on how to improve the conference itself, still a noble gesture, and garnered the comments and suggestions one can usually expect – more diversity while at the same time respecting a variety of levels of comprehension, more voices from non-white countries and contexts, more examples from outside the mainstream etc. The next meeting of the ISMRC, to be held in Seoul, will surely provide some redress. While I’ve complained that question time was often too short, moments like this were important reminders that conversation is central and valued for the progression of our work as a body of scholars. Conferences may offer many opportunities, but more than anything it is the fostering of an interdisciplinary, international dialogue that keeps us coming back. I had several people come up to me and say ‘I really enjoyed your questions today’, and maybe I wish they’d said ‘your riveting and original research, may I offer you a job/scholarship/standing ovation’, nonetheless, feeling a part of the conversation is a wonderful reward in itself. Thanks to the ISMRC for having me, and I look forward to doing this again in Korea in 2016!

Religion in a Networked Society

CampbellMedia, religion and culture is an emerging area, with much attention being given to four themes, namely authority, community, identity and ritual. Research has focused on a wide range of topics, including different religions in virtual worlds; religion and video games; online cyber-churches and temples; and an exploration into how religious organisations and individuals are accepting or rejecting digital media. Heidi Campbell is one of the leading scholars in the field of media, religion and culture and has written extensively about this topic; providing us with an insight into the relationship between digital culture and religion. For scholars of religious studies, media studies and other related disciplines, the exploration of religion and the internet provides an insight into the relationship between religion and technology and consequently, the possible impact and challenge to traditional religion.

On a recent visit to Edinburgh, the Religious Studies Project (Louise) met with Heidi Campbell (the interview is set in a restaurant and so on occasion you may hear some background noise). The interview focuses on her recent article in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (March 2012), “Understanding the Relationship between Religion Online and Offline in a Networked Society”, which presents five key traits of the concept of “networked religion”. These are: networked community; storied identities; shifting authority; convergent practice; and a multisite reality. Campbell presents an overview of each of these traits and concludes by questioning how digital communications technologies might affect religious authority in the future.

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

Heidi Campbell is Associate Professor of Communication at Texas A&M University where she teaches in Telecommunications and Media Studies. Campbell’s teaching and research explores the social shaping of technology, rhetoric of new media, and themes related to the intersection of media religion and culture, with a special interest in the internet and mobile phones. She has written extensively about media, religion and culture, comprising of a number of journal articles and books, including When Religion Meets New Media (Routledge, 2010) and her recent publication Digital Religion. Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds (Routledge, 2012).

Select Publications:

Campbell, H. (2005). Exploring religious community online: We are one in the network. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Campbell, H. (2010). When religion meets new media. London, UK: Routledge.

Campbell, H & Connelly, L. (2012). Cyber behavior and religious practice on the internet, In Z. Yeng (ed.) Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior, (pp. 434-445). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Campbell, H. (ed.) (2012). Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds. New York: Routledge.

Campbell, H. (2012). Understanding the Relationship between Religion Online and Offline in a Networked Society, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 80 (1), 64-93.

This interview was based upon the article: http://jaar.oxfordjournals.org/content/80/1/64.abstract

Religion and the News Panel

It goes without saying that ‘religion’ is a topic that frequently finds itself in the media spotlight. Whether we are talking about the recent Boston Marathon bombings, the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, the Arab Spring, or the recent critique of the UK government’s welfare policy levelled by four major British churches, the ways in which the media negotiates, constructs and engages with this complex category has an enormous impact upon public opinion and understanding, and is increasingly relevant to academics, religious practitioners, journalists and the wider public. It was with this in mind that the Religious Studies Project, in collaboration with the Journal of Religion, Media and Digital Culture, presented a panel session at the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference in Durham on 10 April 2013. This panel session brought together Eileen Barker, Tim Hutchings, Christopher Landau and David Wilson, who each have a unique position on this topic by virtue of their positions working with or for the media, to discuss and reflect on a recent edited volume by Jolyon Mitchell and Owen Gower – aptly titled Religion and the News. This podcast presents the edited audio recording of this panel session, and marks a new development for the Religious Studies Project which shall hopefully be employed at future conferences.

You can also download this panel discussion, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, or use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com link to support us when buying your important books etc. As a result of this podcast, David Wilson also published a review of the book in the Journal of Religion, Media & Digital Culture.

Religion in the News is an edited volume, published in October 2012 by Ashgate, and edited by Jolyon Mitchell and Owen Gower. Jolyon Mitchell is the Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh, where he is also senior lecturer in Communications, Theology & Ethics, and convenor of the Theology & Ethics subject area. Owen Gower is a Senior Fellow at Cumberland Lodge, an educational charity specializing in cross-sector co-operation and matters affecting the development of society. The book brings together academics, practitioners, and media professionals in a collection of 19 chapters exploring everything form the news coverage of the “Occupy” protests at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, to the representation of Sikhs in the mainstream media, and from the problematic notion of journalistic neutrality, to the problematic definition of religion.

Reflective of this diverse range of perspectives in the book, we brought together four academics who each have a unique position on the contents of the book by virtue of their positions working with or for the media. Their biographies are presented below, in the order in which they speak.

David Gordon Wilson wears many hats. He served as a solicitor, then partner, then managing partner  in Scotland, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Egypt, before returning to university to embark on a Religious Studies degree. His PhD at the University of Edinburgh focused upon spiritualist mediumship as a contemporary form of shamanism, and his monograph has recently been published with Bloomsbury, titled Redefining Shamanisms: Spiritualist Mediums and Other Traditional Shamans as Apprenticeship Outcomes. Wearing one of his other hats, David is a practising spiritualist medium and healer, and among his many connected roles, he is currently the President of the Scottish Association of Spiritual Healers.

Christopher Landau studied Theology at Cambridge University before gaining a BBC News traineeship in 2002. He spent eight years at the BBC, working as a radio reporter and television news producer, both in general news journalism and as a specialist covering religion. He was a reporter for Sunday, and then World at One and PM on Radio 4 before being appointed World Service religious affairs correspondent in 2008. In 2010 he left the BBC to begin doctoral studies at Oxford University combined with training for ordination in the Church of England. He is involved with a project to establish a Religion Media Centre, based on the model of the Science Media Centre.

Eileen Barker is Professor Emeritus of Sociology with Special Reference to the Study of Religion at the London School of Economics,University of London. Her main research interests are ‘cults’, ‘sects’ and new religious movements, and changes in the religious situation in post-communist countries. She has over 350 publications (translated into 27 different languages), which include the award-winning The Making of a Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice? and New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction. In the late 1980s, with the support of the British Government and mainstream Churches, she founded INFORM, an educational charity based at the LSE which aims to provide information about minority religions that is as accurate, objective and up-to-date as possible. She is a frequent advisor to governments, other official bodies and law-enforcement agencies throughout the world, has made numerous appearances on television and radio, and has been invited to give guest lectures in over 50 countries.

Tim Hutchings is a sociologist of religion, media and culture, and currently Research Fellow at the Open University. His research interests include digital Christianity, death and media, and the digital humanities. He received his PhD (“Creating Church Online”) from Durham University in 2010 and recently completed a 15-month fellowship at HUMlab digital humanities research laboratory, Umea University, Sweden. His current research focuses on the future of the Bible as a digital text. He is also the editor of the Journal of Religion, Media & Digital Culture.

Bias, Expectations, and the Role of the Media in Reporting on Religion

These kinds of situations can create a confluence of undisclosed interest, a phenomenon that can call into question even further the accuracy of media investigation and reporting.

Bias, Expectations, and the Role of the Media in Reporting on Religion

By Matthew C. Durham, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 April 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Teemu Taira on Religion and the Media (8 April 2013).

In their discussion of Religion and the Media, Christopher Cotter and Dr. Teemu Taira touch on some rather deceptively salient points.  Dr. Taira’s comments about the media as a means of establishing a collective identity springs first to mind.  If this is true, and it does not seem controversial to assume such, the responsibility placed upon the media is tremendous.  This is especially so if we also assume that the role of the media is to accurately convey reality as it is.  Perhaps this is too idealized an expectation?  After all, members of the media are just as tied to their own biases, expectations, and subjective viewpoints as any of the rest of us.

But regardless of the sometimes overwhelming complexities in conveying an accurately factual picture of reality, it seems reasonable to expect of the media that it can separate at least some of the proverbial chaff from the wheat.To wit; some ideas, when surreptitiously conflated, present a picture of reality that is about as far from factual as is possible.  Dr. Taira mentions a particular example of this when he discusses the use of the ambiguous “Christian Nation” concept.  His description of its use in the UK seems strongly akin to how it is used here in the USA, in that its meaning varies between something along the lines of “we recognize our cultural Christian heritage” to “our legal system should reflect Christian theology.” This sort of factual versus normative ambiguity can serve multiple purposes, and in cases like these it is important to determine who benefits from it such that we can decide whether perpetuating it does a disservice to our collective epistemic integrity.

In this particular example, Dr. Taira notes that this ambiguity can be very beneficial to liberal Christianity in maintaining its cultural pre-eminence.  While it is not immediately clear why Dr. Taira limited this benefit to only liberal Christianity in the UK (Given the theological ambiguity in the term “Christian,” it would seem to potentially benefit conservative Christianity just as well.), the overall point is well taken.  When the media fails to determine or disclose the intent or interests of a speaker, it can be seen as little more than a mindless megaphone.  This problem is compounded in light of Dr. Taira’s comments about the tendency amongst religion reporters to be more religious (and more friendly to religion) than the surrounding population.  These kinds of situations can create a confluence of undisclosed interest, a phenomenon that can call into question even further the accuracy of media investigation and reporting.

Other important areas of study require (or strongly encourage) that investigators acknowledge their personal interest in certain outcomes.  Investigators in clinical drug trials, for example, must provide disclosure of financial interest prior to their involvement in a study such that their methodology and the integrity of their data can be evaluated with appropriate caveats.  And beyond the personal benefits of cultivating this level of honesty, such disclosure can also benefit us in that it can strongly motivate the development of ever more thorough research methodology.  A researcher who provides potential critics with disclosure of his or her biases, for example, is going to be all the more motivated to preempt any undue influences from those biases – thus preventing critics from dismissing the research on grounds of undue bias.

It might be suggested that, due to the very different contexts in which the two operate, the media should not be held to the same standards as are academic or clinical researchers.  But if we intend that the media be not only a means to establish a collective identity,but that it also function to inform us through an attempt at accurately conveying a factual picture of reality; then there would seem to be some potential benefit in the media looking to academic or clinical research for guidance.

One of these potential benefits may be in counteracting epistemic and moral polarization through the tendency in media consumers to seek out only those media providers that they perceive as confirming or reinforcing their own expectations, biases, or connections to other people or groups with which they share significant commitments.  Dan Kahan’s research on communication of scientific information, for example, suggests that people not only seek out providers of information who appear to reflect their own values, but that they develop a form of “protective cognition” that pre-emptively determines what sort of information is credible.   People whose values are more egalitarian and who are suspicious of industry, for example, might see industrial activities as being more risky and thus more appropriately subject to restriction or regulation.  And they will likely seek out media providers who reflect those values.

Kahan’s research suggests, though, that presenters of scientific information can preclude this tendency and reduce polarization by muddling up expectations.  Kahan tested this by pairing experts whose appearance (besuited and gray-haired versus denim-shirted and bearded) and publication history fit particular cultural expectations.  He then paired these experts with arguments that contradicted those expectations.  The besuited and gray-haired expert, for example, presented arguments in favor of the scientific legitimacy of climate change while the denim-shirted and bearded expert criticized it.  Without these expectations to rely upon, “people shifted their positions and polarization disappeared.”

It seems quite plausible that the results of Kahan’s research could also be applied to more than just the presentation of scientific information.  If part of the media’s purpose is to genuinely inform us rather than to reinforce our existing polarized beliefs, then there may be a lesson to be learned here.  The lesson is not that the media should attempt to push any particular idea for broader cultural acceptance.  Rather, and to again reference Kahan, perhaps the media could confound those expectations in such a way as to create an opportunity for a more honest and open-minded consideration of the best information available?

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

About the author:

In his professional capacity, Matthew Durham has worked in over 150 studies in the field of cancer research as a Regulatory Coordinator for a large physician owned oncology practice.  He spends most days striving to learn and improve upon a variety of industry best practices, as well as devise useful metrics through which the efficacy of those practices can be evaluated.  In his academic life, he is an Undergraduate Philosophy and Religion major at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga whose main areas of focus are religious exegesis, religious epistemology, and philosophy of science.  His current interest is in studying the cognitive processes through which religious experiences are both interpreted and later recalled.  Most importantly, he is the lucky husband of an exceptional woman and the proud father of a precocious toddler.

References

Kahan, D. (2010). Fixing the communications failure. Nature, 296-297.

Religion and the Media

The study of religion in the media is an interdisciplinary field which has been of interest for scholars in media studies, religious studies and sociology among others. In this interview, Christopher Cotter and Teemu Taira discuss the relevance of study of religion in the media from the religious studies point of view as well as the media discourse on religion – the ways in which media covers religion, functions as defining what counts as religion and negotiates its social location. Dr Taira points out the possible contribution of religious studies, addresses some methodological questions in studying religion in the media, examines media’s approaches to religion, and finishes with a look at the potential futures of the area of study.

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

The interview refers to the project ‘Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular Sacred: A Longitudinal Study of British Newspaper and Television Representations and Their Reception’ in which Taira worked at the University of Leeds between 2008 and 2010. It was part of the AHRC/ESRC ‘Religion and Society’ Programme, conducted by Kim Knott, Elizabeth Poole and Teemu Taira. The main output of the project is the forthcoming book Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular (Ashgate), co-authored by Knott, Poole & Taira.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a selection of his English language publications relevant to this interview, see ‘further reading’ (below). For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see Studying Nonreligion within Religious Studies.

Teemu has also prepared the following very helpful further reading list:

 

  • Hjarvard, Stig & Lövheim, Mia (eds) 2012. Mediatization and Religion: Nordic perspectives. Gothenburg: Nordicom.
  • Lynch, Gordon & Lövheim, Mia (eds) 2011. Special issue on the mediatization of religion. Culture and Religion 12(2).
  • Mutanen, Annikka 2009. To Do, or Not Do God: Faith in British and Finnish journalism. Reuters Institute Fellowship Paper. http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/fileadmin/documents/Publications/fellows__papers/2008-2009/Mutanen_-_To_do__or_not_do_God.pdf
  • Poole, Elizabeth & Taira, Teemu 2013, forthcoming. Researching religion in British newspapers and television. Linda Woodhead (ed.), How to Research Religion: Handbook of methods in practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Stout, Daniel 2012. Media and Religion: Foundations of an emerging field. London: Routledge.
  • Taira, Teemu 2010. Religion as a discursive technique: The politics of classifying Wicca. Journal of Contemporary Religion 25(3): 379–394.
  • Taira, Teemu 2013. Making space for discursive study in Religious Studies. Religion 43(1): 1–20.
  • Taira, Teemu 2013, forthcoming. Does the old media’s religion coverage matter in time of digital religion? Tore Ahlbäck (ed.), Digital Religion. Åbo: Donner Institute for Religious and Cultural History.
  • Taira, Teemu; Poole, Elizabeth & Knott, Kim 2012. Religion in the British media today. Jolyon Mitchell & Owen Gower (eds), Religion and the News. Farnham: Ashgate, 31–43.
  • Knott, Kim; Poole, Elizabeth & Taira, Teemu 2013, forthcoming. Christianity, secularism and religious diversity in the British media. David Herbert, Marie Gillespie & Anita Greenhill (eds), Social Media, Religion and Spirituality. Berlin: De Gruyter.
  • Knott, Kim; Poole, Elizabeth & Taira, Teemu, forthcoming. Media Portrayals of Religion and the Secular. Farnham: Ashgate.

 

Post-Westphalianism Versus Homogenization Theories of Globalization and Religion

Religion is not, in Beyer’s model, something that attempts to respond to this process. Rather it is an integral aspect of globalization.

Post-Westphalianism Versus Homogenization Theories of Globalization and Religion

By Jillian Scott.

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 20 February 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Peter Beyer on Religion and Globalization (18 February 2013).

In a recent podcast interview with The Religious Studies Project’s Chris Cotter, Peter Beyer discussed the relationship between globalization and religion, a topic which is highly relevant to the current state of society. Professor Beyer became a recognized authority on the subject when he published his book Religions in Global Society (2006).  As discussed with Cotter, Beyer’s most current research focuses on adolescents living in diaspora in Canada and explores the new influences of globalization as those in the diaspora community reform their religious faith in a new setting. Many theories of globalization present it as a process of homogenization. Albeit a slightly passé way of discussing the modern world, many scholars do agree that the worldwide tendency has been moving towards a single identity. This of course includes the religious identity in homogenization theory; as the local becomes absorbed by a dominant outside culture. However, Beyer’s new research has made a major empirical discovery: “the way religions are being reconstructed are radically different depending on which religion you are talking about” (2013). This is not a single dominant religious identity as is the case argued by the homogenization theory. Rather, there appears to be multiple identities present and these are dependent upon which religion is discussed. This is extremely relevant and interesting. Yet I find that the premises on which Beyer builds his understanding of globalization, and therefore his theories, to be quite unusual.

Here, Beyer defines globalization as the process of the world becoming a single place with global awareness. Although not a terribly controversial understanding, where Beyer differs from many other scholars is found in how he understands how globalization began. In his theory, globalization, as we understand it today, is a guaranteed product of the progression of human history. His discussion begins in the middle ages when human empires sought to conquer the world and make it a uniform place. Beyer refutes the argument made by scholars under the homogenization theory. They postulate that the mechanisms under the homogenization theory are a new product of humanity generated by modern technology. Beyer differs and argues they have been around for quite a while, perhaps since the dawn of humanity, and how they manifest via empires or the internet is how they differ. Religion, more frequently than not, was a motivating factor for many of these ancient empires (Beyer, 2013). Religion is not, in Beyer’s model, something that attempts to respond to this process. Rather it is an integral aspect of globalization.

In my own research on religion and globalization I have encountered many different definitions and understandings of how globalization emerged. Making a generalization of many different hypotheses, I typically discovered that most academics tend to describe globalization as a modern phenomenon that is a product of mass media and technology. A compelling example is found in modern acts of terrorism. In his article, “A Plane Wreck with Spectators: Terrorism and Media Attention,” Bernhard Debatin argues that “the global media system—the infosphere—created a worldwide synchronization of attention, thus establishing an extraordinary order of time and life” on which the attacks of September 11th, 2001 could be staged (165). For Debatin, people all across the world are all hyper-aware of each other, and immediately knowledgeable of actions in several different nation-states, through the influences of mass media.  Media here is the main homogenizing factor that dominates globally. Globalization cannot occur without the radical upheaval of the information and technology industries. In this, the process of globalization creates a worldwide stage, on which everyone acts.

Challenging these theories, Beyer utilizes a very pragmatic and refreshing view of how globalization and other such terminology has evolved within academia. His framework for globalization is very similar to his understanding of academia. These two seem to be intrinsically linked. He acknowledges that the basic premise of any scholar’s work is an attempt to describe the world as we perceive it around us. As our understanding of the world changes, so do our descriptions. Before “globalization” there was “modernization” and before our current understanding of religious pluralities there was the secularization thesis. And in between these epochs there was “post-modernity” and “post-secularism”.  Very down to earth, Beyer laughingly says that academics assign the prefix “post” to past ideologies when we don’t quite know what we are describing. Ironically he calls his theory post-Westphalianism. The Westphalia treaties resulted from a diplomatic congress ending the Thirty Years War as well as the Eighty Years War. These treaties initiated a different system of political order in Europe. After the treaties nation-states emerged under a single sovereign government. The sovereign governments were independent units and encompassed all aspects of national rule over the personal writ—including the religious. Within the single societies, single religions evolved. Religious ideas became tied to ideas of nationality.  In post-Westphalianism the nation-states begin to dissolve in the face of globalization. Therefore religious identity becomes more fluid and plural.

Despite the difference of opinion as to where or when globalization began, most scholars concur that the majority of people live in a modern world of awareness that causes them to re-evaluate themselves. Not just against their immediate social community, but against any other that can be found anywhere in the world. Within the post-Westphalianism framework, religions and religious beliefs serve as a key demonstration of the breaking down of nation-state walls. In his current research, Beyer seeks to understand how everyday religious identity and action become influenced in a diasporic generation, which is simultaneously heavily reliant on technology. This adolescent religious reconstruction demonstrates that many young people do attempt to align their beliefs with other influences that are found outside of their immediate community. Frequently, these are found in the ‘left-behind’ culture. However, Beyer has also discovered that these same people are reconciling their faith with an abstract construction of what it means to be a “Muslim”, “Christian”, or “Hindu”. This construction is a product of global awareness and it becomes its own presence within the religious communities. Most people are aware of this construction, not as an artificial presence, but as actual influences this comes to affect the way they replant their religion. Since Beyer argues that religion Is a key factor in the globalization machine I would have appreciated hearing more about how this is affecting the way we analyze religious diaspora communities.

Although Cotter did ask very pertinent questions there are a few I would like to add myself. Is there any indication that people not living in diaspora communities have this same understanding of how their religion should be lived? Admitting that this research is extremely specific to Canada; can you make an educated guess as to how things may be evolving in the US? UK? Australia? Finally, how does religion as a part of the process of globalization, as opposed to an aspect of culture responding to this global change, alter our academic understandings?  Despite these few questions, I found the interview quite enlightening and it was really enjoyable to listen to Beyer explain his current research.

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

About the Author:

Jillian Scott recently finished her Master’s degree in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her dissertation was entitled “Ritualized Terrorism: Symbolic Religious Violence and the Secular State in a Globalized World”. Originally from San Francisco, California, Jillian lives in Edinburgh and continues to study the relationships between religion, violence and international relations. She has also written Meeting at the crossroads of public and private: sexuality and religion for the Religious Studies Project.

References:

  • Beyer, Peter. Religions in Global Society. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print
  • Beyer, Peter. “Religion and Globalization.” The Religious Studies Project. The Relgious Studies Project, 18 Feb. 2013. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.
  • Debatin, Bernhard. “A Plane Wreck with Spectators: Terrorism and Media Attention.”Communication and Terrorism: Public and Media Responses to 9/11 (2002): 163-74. Print.

Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia

Anzac and Awe: Religion, Violence, and the Media in Australia

By Zoe Alderton, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 9 May 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Jolyon Mitchell on Religion, Media and Violence (7 May 2012).

Jolyon Mitchell is Professor of Communications, Arts and Religion and Director of the Centre for Theology and Public Issues at the University of Edinburgh. In this latest podcast he discusses the relationship between religions and media, focusing on issues of violence and peace. This material touches on his upcoming book, Promoting Peace, Inciting Violence: The Role of Religion and Media (Routledge: 2012). In this text, Mitchell problematises overly-simplistic readings of the media’s role in discussions of religion, conflicts, and resolutions.

In this response to his podcast, I wish to summarise some of the fascinating points raised by Mitchell. In doing so, I aim to foreground those that may illuminate Australia and its approach to sacralised violence. Living in a country where the national culture is largely secular, it is interesting to consider what the implications for Mitchell’s research are on Australian media and its presentation/proliferation of violence. Mitchell mentions a variety of nations who have undergone relatively recent conflicts and conflict resolutions, which have somehow engaged with religious groups or belief systems. At first it may seem that Australia is totally outside of this paradigm. Since the genocide of our Indigenous population, we have not seen the same kind of civil war as Mozambique. Nor have we defended our borders in a manner comparable to the Iran-Iraq conflict. Religiously motivated terrorism is more of a fear than a reality. In terms of faith, Australia is nominally Christian but has no official state religion. While the importance of this religion in Australian culture should not be underplayed, it is not a tradition that is generally considered to be an agent of national bonding.

Nevertheless, Mitchell’s framing of the media and his comments on violence as a kind of public spectacle provide an effective lens through which to consider Australia’s complicated public engagement with Anzac Day and the Anzac legend. This national holiday, intrinsically connected to violence via its origin in a First World War conflict, has an arguably religious relationship with Australian nationhood. Through various media (including television broadcasts, paintings, movies, and sculptures) the very complex and ambivalent meaning of Anzac Day is negotiated and perpetuated. Mitchell’s arguments in regards to the sensationalism and spectacle of violence will be used to account for the extreme emphasis on sacred martyrdom that permeates our national legend via a pragmatic reading of its dissemination through popular media.

For those of you who wish to read a bit more about Anzac Day, the Anzac legend, and the relationship between Anzac Day and the Media, Zoe has written a longer version of this post which is accessible here.

The spectacle of violence

In Mitchell’s podcast, he describes occasions in which media become the site, source, and inspiration for different forms of violence. The broadcast of religious motifs is a clear part of this process. Mitchell uses the example of Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). In this conflict, posters and mural celebrating martyrdom were produced. These images did not just concern themselves with contemporary sacrifice in the immediate conflict. Rather they wove in foundational martyrdoms such as that of Imam Hussain Ibn Ali, often conveying both narratives at once. This relationship between the media and symbolic culture is a vitally important one. In modern Australia, the troops involved in current or more recent battles are constantly conflated with the original Anzacs, making their modern-day sacrifice part of an ongoing narrative of martyrdom that feels real and compelling in its immediacy.

On a related note, Mitchell claims that news media is drawn to spectacle, and that violence is spectacular. His suggestion that media attention is often unproductive in the peace-making process tends to imply that its utility is often in the realm of proliferating conflict. Thus, it is reasonable to view the news media as a channel that prioritises that which is exciting, colourful, or engaging. Spectacle connects an audience with their television or other news medium. Spectacle helps to proliferate the aforementioned immediacy of the Anzac martyrdom that is useful and desirable if Australia wishes to draw upon its citizens’ essentially positive attitude towards sacrifice in war. The televised aspects of Anzac Day and its associated rituals tend to focus on that which is engagingly monumental and celebratory. The solemn Dawn Service at Gallipoli, including the stirring ‘last post’ by a lone bugler, is necessary viewing for a substantial portion of the nation. It is part of their ritual, and is conveniently televised.

So too is the annual commemorative parade in which veterans of all Australian wars march (or are represented posthumously by their heirs). The televisation of the Anzac Day Parade helps the nation to participate in the imaginative renewal of its mythology. Slade (2003 p.792) calls the Gallipoli story part of the sustenance of Australia. Through television, all can participate in this ceremony of cultural renewal and recitation. Of course, violence need not be advocated by any of these moving, engaging, and spectacular ceremonies or their media portrayal. Indeed, there is little about them that is openly pugnacious. Instead, the media tends to valorise holy martyrdom, implying on occasion that such a sacrifice is still necessary in order to maintain the social order of Australia as we know it today.

Is Anzac Day an example of the ambivalent sacred?

A major part of Mitchell’s podcast is the complex interrelationship of war, peace, and religion. As connected as religions may be to violence, he maintains that they also have a role to play in pacificism. His podcast speaks comprehensively of “the ambivalence of the sacred,” a term coined by R. Scott Appleby. Mitchell employs this phrase to imply “the scared can both incite violence and promote peace.” He feels that religious agents are, and can be, part of the conflict resolution process. Interestingly, Mitchell argues that this role is less publicised as it tends to happen away from cameras. The arduous process of negotiating peace does not lend itself to short broadcasts. Perhaps the potentially peaceful or anti-violent aspects of the Anzac mythology have been ignored in the popular press due to a lack of interest or broadcastability. This does not mean that they are absent, or that the reverence inspired by the Gallipoli campaign and its commemorative sites could not inspire an entirely pacifistic agenda.

Indeed, it is not clear if the Anzac legend is a discourse of war or peace. It appears to be both simultaneously, but also has potential to represent only one side of the dichotomy depending on the cause that employs it. In his discussion of Anzac as sacred and secular simultaneously, Seal (2007 p.143) calls this myth the most powerful “manifestation of an ambivalence that lies at the heart of our sense of national identity.” He compares this tonal equivocality with the confusion over Ned Kelly as hero or villain, or the simultaneous perception of British citizens as our kin and rivals. So too can Australia be seen to negotiate the sombre spaces and ceremonies of Anzac veneration with the iconic larrikin soldier and his playful disrespect for pomposity. The Anzac mythology, in negotiating equivocal and contradictory meanings, opens itself up to possibilities for violence or peacemaking. It can be used as a call to arms for present-day conflicts or a means of expressing the horrors and suffering of war.

In the case of Anzac Day 2012, the news media has shown examples of ambivalence in terms celebrating or denying violence in the name of this mythology. This is exemplified in Charles Waterstreet’s Sydney Morning Herald article Civil War Defies the Anzac Spirit. Here Waterstreet rallies for suburban peace in the wake of violence in the Sydney region. He denounces the current climate in which criminals are fighting petty wars of bluff and false bravado, betraying those who died and tried to keep such conduct from our shores. Turf wars over drug-trafficking rights and injured pride are an embarrassment to this city, to the soldiers who fought in countless wars … Taking up arms in peacetime is to spit in the face of every soldier, sailor and airman who fought.

Ambivalence is certainly present in this division of ‘good violence’ and ‘bad violence’, framed within a discourse of respect for the Anzac tradition and the sacred sacrifice.

Celebrity and violence

Another applicable component of Mitchell’s podcast is the blurring of celebrity and religious leadership. This too may be read in to the impact of spectacle in regards to what is and is not broadcast. Mitchell argues that the popular media (for example, news broadcasters) thrive on the celebrity factor. Celebrities build audiences through a process of viewer identification. Media consumers feel as though they ‘know’ a celebrity or can identify with them. As this relationship is pre-existent, a news snippet need not feel obliged establish empathy or interest in such a figure. Considering the time poverty of televised news broadcasts, the employment of a familiar religious figure with a pre-established narrative and context makes pragmatic sense. Mitchell uses religious leaders such as the Dalai Lama as an example of a familiar face with a familiar agenda. In the case of Anzac ritual and mythology, political figures are the celebrities consulted by the media in this manner.

Of course, the political celebrities themselves are transient. Demerath and Williams (1985 p.160) specify that civil religions do not connect too closely with any specific government lest they become an “idolatrous cloak of transcendental rhetoric tossed over the pursuit of momentary ends.” The proposed ultimacy of the Anzac legend has remained supra-partisan despite its intimacy with the leadership of the day. Unsurprisingly, the figure of the Prime Minister seems to be the main focal point of this engagement. In 2012, Julia Gillard has upheld this mantle, not only in terms of her actual addresses to the nation, but also in regards to the sound bites of her speeches that were disseminated through the television and printed news. For example, in a particularly popular news article, Gillard referred to Anzac Day as all that Australia embodies, more significant in terms of emotions and values than Australia Day, and a meaningful event for migrants (like herself) “who freely embrace the whole of the Australian story as their own.” Putting aside disturbing political undertones, these convenient sound bites are easily broadcast around the nation, presented by a political celebrity who needs no introduction.

Although people with anti-Anzac or anti-war sentiments may have commented on the celebrations in an equally eloquent manner, they cannot compete with one of the most easily recognised faces of Australia in a media landscape that requires abbreviation. The political celebrity Barack Obama also made news (in a story that seems entirely overblown) after sending “best wishes” to Australia and New Zealand on Anzac Day. Although the sensationalist headline would suggest otherwise, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered the message on Obama’s behalf. She also thanked Australia for their ongoing commitment to the war in Afghanistan, a meaningful conflation of past and present sacrifice of lives. Obama is another example of a celebrity who is suitable for a short news story on account of his national renown. His (albeit proxy) endorsement of the Anzac commemoration coupled with an endorsement of current conflicts requires little in the way of contextualisation.

Media and violence in its broadest sense

Mitchell’s broad take on the definition of ‘media’ is a useful one when considering the depth of a culture’s communicative devices. Although media is commonly shorthand for television and newspapers, Mitchell reminds us of the vast array of communicative devices that can fall under this umbrella term. Media need not be seen as the exclusive domain of the literary elect or wealthy broadcasters. Rather, Mitchell employs the term to describe a variety of devices from YouTube videos, to murals, to architecture. It is in the medium of architecture and effigy that Australia expresses some of its most reverential emotions towards the war dead.

The Pool of Reflection, Australian War Memorial, Canberra

The work of Ken Inglis, especially Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape (1998), is vital reading on this complex topic. To briefly summarise, Inglis illuminates war memorials as sacred shrines of Australian civil religion, allowing for the preservation of memory. This sacred architecture helps to reconcile the distance between Australia and Turkey. It is difficult to negotiate sacred turf when your creation narrative takes place in a foreign nation. Slade (2003 p.787) speaks of various features of the Gallipoli battleground that make it a sacred or elevated region. This includes the lack of modern development on the peninsula (keeping it ‘authentic’ to the era of the battle), the burial of the dead where they fell, and the subsequent framing of the entire area as a cemetery. Obviously, Australia itself cannot provide this kind of sacred Anzac space. Instead, war memorials are a way of making a geographically unconnected site equally meaningful.

In Canberra, Australia’s capital city, the Australian War Memorial contains the Hall of Memory, a cathedral-like structure that performs the typical duties of a religious shrine. Seal (2007 p.140) calls the Hall of Memory “spiritual but without religious symbolism.” Although it may not contain traditional religious indicators, it still evokes religious emotion. The Hall is designated as a place of eerie silence and hushed contemplation. It is clearly demarcated as a holy site that demands respect. It is also the tomb of the Unknown Solider, with his body housed like the relics of a saint. Above his remains, viewers may look upwards to a dome reminiscent of Byzantine cathedral architecture. The dome, created in brilliant gold hues, depicts souls migrating from distant battlefields. The Hall of Memory clearly connotes the existence of the extramundane.

The dome ceiling

The museum component of the Australian War Memorial should also be seen as a communicative device in terms of Australia’s relationship to sacred violence. As Chris Healy (1997 pp.73-74) argues, the museum is a medium that trains citizens in their acquisition of social memory. A visitor to the Australian War Memorial is encouraged to have a spiritual, or at least reflective, experience in the Hall of Memory. They may then use the educational, historical museum in order to arrange their feelings of awe, or reverence, or respect into a cultural narrative. This narrative, conveyed through the museum medium, contextualises the violence and horrific loss of the nation into a rhetoric of sacrifice, sacred ‘mateship’, and a patriotism that transcends personal concerns.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Conclusions

Much more could be said on the Anzac legend, its various components, and the reverential lack of critique it receives in the present era. I believe it is valuable to consider what our state mythology and most revered holiday dictates in terms of the national character. Mitchell’s exploration of the sensationalism and spectacle of violence explains much in terms of the news media’s preferences as to which aspects of the legend they choose to show and propagate. So too does Mitchell help to illuminate the value of celebrity in moral debates. Pragmatically speaking, the Anzac narrative is a story that most Australians know and care about. It is a discourse that is easily associated with well-known political and public figures. It is also an exciting and visually stimulating event that transfers well to the broadcasting of its rituals, or the artistic enactment of its sacred narratives and archetypal heroes. At its core, the Anzac mythology may indeed contain the ambivalence that Mitchell sees in the relationship between religion, violence, and peace. Nevertheless, its present incarnation seems to be concerned with the public condoning of martyrdom and the celebration of militaristic duty in deeply spiritualised terms.

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

About the Author:

Zoe Alderton is a PhD candidate in the department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney. Her thesis concerns the New Zealand artist Colin McCahon and the nature of his audience reception. Zoe’s main interests are religion in modern art and religious communication via new media. Her recent publications include a discussion of the inheritance of Theosophy in Australian modernism, and an exploration of the contentious politics surrounding the Blake Prize for Religious Art. Upcoming publications concern imaginative pilgrimage in the work of Colin McCahon, and a discussion of the motifs in his beachside theology. Zoe is also a tutor in Sociology for the University of Western Sydney and reviews editor for the journal Literature & Aesthetics.

References:

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Crouter, R., 1990. ‘Beyond Bellah: American Civil Religion and the Australian Experience’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 154-165.

Demerath, N.J., and Williams, R.H., 1985. ‘Civil Religion in an Uncivil Society’, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 480, pp. 154-166.

Geertz, C., 1966. ‘Religion as a Cultural System’, in M. Banton (ed.), Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, Tavistock, London.

Healy, C., 1997. From the Ruins of Colonialism: History As Social Memory, Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom.

Inglis, K., 1998. Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Sacket, L. 1985. ‘Marching Into the Past: Anzac Day Celebrations in Adelaide’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 9, iss. 17, pp. 18-30.

Seal, G., 2007. ‘ANZAC: The Sacred in the Secular’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 31, iss. 91, pp. 135-144.

Slade, P., 2003. ‘Gallipoli Thanatourism: The Meaning of ANZAC’, Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 30, no. 4, pp.779-794.