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The Science of Prayer: Genealogies and Biopolitics

The methods we use to study religion have consequences, argues Dr. John Lardas Modern in this conversation with David McConeghy. Beginning with the approaches of late 19th century anthropologists like E.B. Tylor, Modern discusses how prayer became an object of study for social scientists. As they tried to find out whether ‘prayer works,’ researchers proposed a constellation of theoretical models and experiments that treated religion as a discrete object. Measuring prayer made it easier to use religion and its practices as tools or instruments available for commodification and capitalization. In this wide ranging episode, Modern sketches a few of the bio-political effects that can be seen from his genealogical approach, and he shares with listeners how the American rock band DEVO merits our attention as a surprising fusion of scientific and religious perspectives.

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The Science of Prayer: Genealogies and Biopolitics

Podcast with John Lardas Modern (22 June 2020).

Interviewed by David McConeghy.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-science-of-prayer-genealogies-and-biopolitics/

David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. My name is David McConeghy. And today I’m joined by Professor John Lardas Modern, who teaches at Franklin and Marshall College, and is the author of several books: The Bop Apocalypse: Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs; Secularism in Antebellum America; and he is the co-editor, with Katie Lofton, of Class 200: New Studies in Religion, an excellent book series that I recommend heartily to all of our Listeners. Professor Modern, thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate having your time today.

John Modern (JM): Well thank you, David. And good morning to you!

DMcC: Good morning, as well! I would invite you to share with us a little bit about your ongoing projects. What are you working on right now? And how can we develop that into an interesting conversation, for our Listeners, about the idea of the scientific study of prayer?

JM: Ah. Well, that’s a good question. So currently, I am sort-of betwixt-and-between different projects. I’m doing some final revisions on a book project that I’ve been working on for about, oh, ten years or so, which deals with the sort-of histories, the genealogies of the cognitive and neuroscientific studies of religion. And so a lot of my interest in measurement and calculability, and the kind-of incursion of certain forms of mathematical formalism into, you know, Humanities and Social Sciences in general, but for our particular purposes the Study of Religion and – even more specifically – the study of prayer, derives from that research. But I’m also very excited by a project that I have on the horizon that I’ve been dabbling in for the last few years. It is connected to the previous project on cognitive science, but it’s taking and thinking about the developments in science – particularly cybernetics in the mid-twentieth century – and trying to think through that problematic by telling a story about the history of Akron, Ohio from the nineteenth century through to the industrialisation in the 1970s.

DMcC: So let’s talk a little bit about that story. Some of what John and I are going to talk about is from the very first inaugural issue of American Religion, in an essay called “Praying Hands“, which really connects some of these issues for us. The scientific study of prayer, as you outline in the beginning of that piece, begins in the late nineteenth century. Can you talk about the origins of the scientific study of prayer?

JM: Yes. I mean, I guess I’d first qualify any sort-of questions about origins or . . . . Discussions about origins are always a little bit fraught because, to paraphrase Don DeLillo, you can never tell where it begins – anything – where it begins. But, for the conceit of the article, I do locate an origin point in sort-of Victorian England amongst natural scientists – particularly, three that I sort-of talk about in the article: EB Tylor – everybody’s favourite Victorian anthropologist of the nineteenth century.

DMcC: (Laughs).

JM: And his two-volume work, Primitive Culture in 1871, and also the following year, 1872 – which in England was the season of the Prayer Gauge Debates, in which prayer, the subject of prayer, became a kind-of talking point among certain kinds of established scientists from the Royal Society. Between John Tyndall and Francis Galton who, in their kind-of reaction to the state calling for a Day of National Prayer for the country – in terms of thinking about some of the issues – they kind-of responded in a way that reminds you, I would say, of almost a New Atheist pose in the present: your kind-of trolling attitude toward religion. So, in the Prayer Gauge Debates, basically, they used it as an opportunity to publish these almost tongue-in-cheek, but also semi-serious articles about what the scientific study of prayer really looked like. And, in doing so, kind-of pointed out what a ridiculous proposition it would be to take prayer seriously as a kind of religious faculty. But it could be taking it seriously by measuring it, and coming up with sophisticated experimental designs by which one would study the prayers of people and how effective they were. And this is combined with EB Tylor, who in a sort-of different setting . . . . EB Tylor is not trolling anybody with Primitive Culture! (5:00) But he is making some very kind-of provocative claims about the history and origins of religion. And he sees prayer as he sees religion, as a kind of necessary evolutionary development within human history; that it does serve an evolutionary purpose of advancing both cognition and social structure. And he sees it primarily as a kind of way – in similar ways in which contemporary cognitive science see it – as something that can, in fact, be measured. And for Tylor, his sort-of standard of measurement in the 1870s was adopting the new science . . . or not the new, but the exciting possibilities that were being unleashed by the science of statistics, and looking at, you know, large data sets of populations, and trying to crunch the numbers in such a way as you could figure something out about not only the population but the individuals that comprise the population. So in Tylor you also see, in a less ironic mode, this desire to proclaim that religion is something that is out there in the world that humans do – which is a founding assumption. But moreover, it’s something that cannot simply be described or compared, but it’s also something that can be measured with precision, and the tightness of numbers, with the underlying assumption that whatever mathematical formalism one brings to the object of prayer, that prayer can be contained within that sort of formal structure: that the idea that whatever accedes in human life in religion is not necessarily, first and foremost, on the minds of people like Tyler and Galton and Tyndall.

DMcC: I’m really amused by some of the examples that you cite. Especially in the research questions that they asked. So the simple question of, “Do sick persons who pray, or are prayed for, recover on average more rapidly than others?” was a kind-of like guiding question for the statistical model. But then, when they went to draw on the data, they crunched numbers from whether clerics had better health outcomes than lawyers, and whether slave ships were more likely to sink than those that were carrying missionaries on them. I mean, these are provocative data sets!

JM: Yes. And so that’s Galton again, kind-of trolling this . . . So, “If prayer really works or is effective, wouldn’t you think that these people who are prayed for more than others would feel the benefits, would feel the effects of those prayers?” And so, simply as a kind-of anecdote of Galton’s, this was kind-of a ridiculous proposition. And I think I also mention in my piece something to the effect of “It’s like, wouldn’t the insurance companies be on this?!” (Laughs) “If this was a viable option, who do you think would be first and foremost on it, in order to make money, and to maximise their capitalist margin?”

DMcC: I can’t imagine that that guy from State Farm would pass up an opportunity like that.

JM: Oh no. And I think in a lot of ways that’s, for me . . . . When I read that piece, actually, about Galton, I thought, “Oh my gosh!” In a lot of ways, as a kind-of genealogist, I sort-of live in the past, in a strange temporality, where I don’t, in a sense, walk around the world making hard and fast distinctions about past present and future. It’s a kind of cultivated temporality. And you see Galton doing this in the nineteenth century, which resonates so much with contemporary sort-of scientific studies of religion and spirituality, prayer, meditation. Where, you know, we at the AAR will see a session on the cognitive science of religion, on the study of meditation, or something. And we’ll go it, and we’ll have arguments, etc. But I think the one thing to keep in mind with research that these scientists are doing is it’s being operationalised far outside the discipline of Religious Studies. It is being operationalised by pharmaceutical companies. It is being operationalised by insurance companies, who . . . . In a lot of ways, in the last 15 years, the kind-of incursion of wellness programmes in every nook and cranny of institutional bureaucratic life, is, I think, a product of this kind-of conception that this is useful data. It’s data about religion that’s not simply about figuring out what religion is, or what the human is. It’s data that can be capitalised on. It’s data that can, in a sense, make your business model, or your drug, more effective or something like that. (10:00) So there are these consequences of this kind-of intellectual history that I’m sort-of putting together, that I think are haunting the piece, or in the background of the piece, in a lot of ways.

DMcC: I appreciate the idea that there’s a moment, perhaps, that you’re putting your finger on. It might not be the first moment, but it’s a very clear moment, where religion is being identified as an instrumental object. It is the thing that can act, it can do, it can be appropriated for certain ends. And we have a moment in the quantification of prayer, when we can trace deliberately the actions of specific persons pursuing those ends. And the ways in which that actually changes not only what religion is about, but maybe religion’s opposites. Can you speak a little bit about how measuring prayer actually changes something about the way that we understand the category of religion and non-religion, and the ways in which questioning, measuring, quantifying really provoke challenges to the categories that we use in the world to describe things like prayer?

JM: Yes. That’s a great question. You know I think the first thing I would say, if one stands in the world, and stands and looks upon the world, and assumes as a matter of course that the thing you are interested in it’s a matter of identifying it, locating it, and measuring it – with the confidence that one can identify, locate and measure with a precision to situate it in the world, to locate it in the world in a very specific way – to kind-of contain it in a lot of ways, it’s going to affect the kinds of questions that you’re going to ask. And so, with my sort-of genealogy of the measurement of prayer in this essay, I’m trying to think a lot about, think through . . . . So in the nineteenth century you had this kind-of science of statistics, this kind-of enthusiasm for the possibilities of measuring different kinds of means across populations, and trying to figure out what is essentially that which defines a population – in terms of religion, or mortality, or whatever it might be – where the study of prayer becomes, “Ok, does prayer work?” The initial questions are, for Tyndall and Galton and some of the people who responded to Tyndall and Galton . . . . You have all these religious folks – people who are practising theologians or sort-of self-identified religious leaders in the Anglican Church, who are kind-of hitting back against this trolling that they feel they have been subject to by saying that prayer does in a sense work: not because it can be measured in terms of better mortality rates of clerics, or something like that. But it works as a kind of moral salve, or a social cohesive energy, or something like that. So in that moment you have both sides sort-of thinking about religion – well, prayer in particular – and both are coming at it as it’s something in the world out there that can be identified and located. And although some of the religious critics are not using statistics they have, in a sense, moved into a space where we begin to see this kind of separation of categories of the religious and the secular. And so you fast forward a little bit, let’s say . . . . In my piece I also jump around a lot in the piece in terms of time periods. But you see in the contemporary moment, where nobody’s studying prayer statistically like that as much anymore. There was a recent study about ten years ago in the Harvard Medical Review or something. It was a Harvard scientist, I forget. But saying “I’m not sure prayer works.” (Laughs). “I’m not sure. We’ve done the data points. It doesn’t work as a model of cause and effect.” But now the question becomes, “Well, how do we measure what’s happening in the brain when somebody prays? Is there something about commonality across different kinds of brains so that we can, with a degree of certainty, claim that we can understand prayer as a particular style of cognition? Or we can reduce prayer to a kind of cognitive system?” And so I sort-of see that your initial question – like, what happens to these categories? – well we’re here where the brain, for example, in the contemporary moment, oddly becomes a kind of site, and location, and place of investment of energies and desires and fears and ambitions; (15:00) that maybe perhaps we would normally understand as something . . . that what we think when religion happens, that’s what happens. And so the brain itself – in a desire for measurement, the desire to calculate, and a kind of righteousness that is often adopted by those who would deign to measure such things as prayer and religion – itself becomes oddly, strangely resonant with precisely the category that they are trying to, in a sense, explain away through their regimes of measurement.

DMcC: This jives a lot . . . I was re-listening to a recent interview that Ben Marcus did about separation of church and state. And in that recent interview, one of the things that the lawyers that he was interviewing suggested was that efforts to expand the category of religious liberty in the contemporary era are a slippery slope that ends up limiting religious freedom later on. You think you want that liberty, but when you get it you find out that you did not get what you bargained for! And in some sense, I think that’s what you’re saying here as well. That by studying prayer, we turn prayer into an object that we can control. We study meditation, we turn it into an object that we can control. By doing that, we try to exert power over that particular exercise of religion, and try to define where and where its power does not rely, right? Whether meditation is valuable for us? Ok, then everybody should do it! Is prayer good for us? Everyone should do it! And if we prove it wrong, then we have reduced, potentially, the set of variables that prayer could act on to only, “Is it good or bad for our health?” and not the range of things that it might have been prior to that moment. So the studying of it actually narrows the focus down so much that it limits the object considerably. Is that something that you’re seeing here?

JM: Yes, and I think that’s a good recitation of that kind-of move of modernity, right? Because, again, we’re dealing with this kind-of objectification of prayer in a moment where biomedical regimes, pharmaceutical regimes, various risk assessment regimes are using this knowledge in a way that is, that is limiting, right? And the idea that one perhaps . . . . I’ll speak for my own institution. I am incentivised economically to do yoga, and to count calories, and to do various things that are going to prove to the health insurance overlords that I am employee who is going to save them money in the long-run. You know, I don’t do this, I don’t do this, I do these four or five things. . . . And so this is something that is troubling. Because, again, it’s not simply a kind of intellectual debate among scholars – although I love participating in those! I think the stakes are much higher in ways that have to do not just simply . . . . I mean, the study of prayer is one example of kind-of larger trajectory that we are moving into and through, kind-of just a continual unfolding of a kind-of biopolitical dynamic that Michel Foucault identified long ago. And so I’m also reminded here, where these larger things . . . . This came to a head when I was at a retreat in Denmark. And it was a retreat for those scientists, cognitive neuro-scientists and scholars who are associated with a project that came out of the University of Aarhus there, called the MINDLab project, which was a five-year sort-of huge thing that was happening, in which the study of cognition and religion sort-of came to the fore. And so this was a retreat. It was a beautiful retreat in this kind of pastoral setting. And the first night I sat down for dinner, the opening dinner, and I sat beside a PhD in Chemistry from Berlin. He wasn’t an academic, but he was somebody who worked for a major pharmaceutical company in Germany, in Berlin. And I was like, “Well what are you doing here? What’s your interest in the cognitive science of religion thing?” And basically, without any irony, it was just like “I’m really fascinated by what they’re showing about the kind-of neuro correlates of mysticism and meditation” for himself as a scientist. He felt that he could begin to take this data and to be able to see how the brain operates when one is mediating, or when one is praying. And to be able to, then, kind-of reverse engineer that process by literally coming up with a drug that would replicate what is happening in your brain – you know, in the light of what they think is going on in your brain when you’re meditating, or something like that (20:00) – which sounds almost like a conceit out of science fiction novel!

DMcC: It does!

JM: But it’s happening, right?

DMcC: There is a Doctor Who episode where the Doctor is . . . I think it’s about Season Three or Four, and they go to this community, and the community has polluted the earth beyond all measure. And everybody gets by on drugs that represent emotion. And so the Doctor and his companion, Martha – at that moment, I believe – are offered, “Do you want Happy?” That’s the drug. The drug is a patch that will give you happy. Or “Forget” is the drug. And those kind of designer drugs, that Sci-Fi future, that does not feel so terribly far off right now.

JM: Oh no. Let’s think of the saturation of different kinds of neuro-enhancers and various ways in which we are using drugs to sort-of change and to cultivate, à la phrenology: the nineteenth century sort-of practice of seeing brain plasticity as the key to actualising one’s freedom or subjectivity. You know, this is this future. And it ties in with . . . ok, the idea where we’re living in a situation where . . . . I mean, I know I’m just feeling the effects. For example, every year at my institution our healthcare gets cut. Because healthcare is just a ballooning expense, right? And you see a future where in order to, in a sense, treat people, or to have insurance, one might be subject to different kinds of strictions, the same way in which, for example, if you smoke you’re not . . . your health insurance, or your life insurance rates are going be higher. So what’s different like, well, if you pray – or more yet – if you don’t pray, do you take this drug that replicates what happens to your brain when you pray? And that’s a really strange world. Because then you can imagine the next step where, if you’re prognosticating, “What does the future of” let’s say, “American religious history look like?” you’ll begin to have different kinds of movements, different kinds of groups, and individuals, and formations that are revolving around the practice, the myths, and rituals of these kinds of conceptions of cognition. Which we already see, for example, in Scientology, which is emerging at a moment in the 1940s and 1950s where the sort-of concept . . . . Our concept of the brain that we have right now, in 2020: it’s basically constituted by a network of neurons that processes information. This kind of paradigm comes together in the 1940s with, you know, the kind-of notion of a “logical calculus” – an essay or an article in 1943 put out by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts. And it gets kind-of integrated with burgeoning theories of information that are coming from Claude Shannon, Norbert Weiner, different kinds of mathematicians. And together, when these are integrated, there’s a paradigm shift in how we understand the brain. And that is, you know, more or less. There are many kinds of ups and downs, and kinds of tangents that happen. But essentially we do assume that the brain is constituted by neurons processing information. And that’s an interesting kind-of thing that Hubbard was way into. He designed an entire religion and cosmology around that conceit. So it’s happened before and it will happen again, I am sure.

DMcC: So if that’s one version of the story, in your article you propose that there might be some alternatives. And one of your sources for your alternatives, is the counter-cultural music band, Devo. (Laughs). Can you explain how Devo fits in to all this? How do we go from EB Tylor, and these folks that were arguing about whether or not prayer is effective, to Devo?

JM: Well yes. That . . . I guess once people, perhaps, hear this podcast, they might actually pick up the article! (Laughs) Like, “What on earth is going on here?!” So the essay does move from the nineteenth century, and it kind-of ends with this sort-of mediation on Akron in the 1970s, which, as I mentioned, is my next project that I’m sort-of thinking a lot about. And so, when I was asked to think about an essay to submit to this new journal that Sarah Imhoff and M. Cooper Harriss are editing. You know, I was like “Well, I don’t have anything quite right. But I have this kind-of idea where I can sort-of connect things, and it’s sort-of crazy and weird?” And they were like, “Yes. We want that!” (25:00) And so the invitation to really kind-of think outside of a standard academic essay was quite inviting. And so, in this piece, I put together all of these different kinds of components that on some level are addressing the notion of prayer. And, as you mention, a lot of the essay is about, I guess, maybe the kind of reductions that are happening, or the kinds of enclosures that I see happening in the objectification of religion, and the scientific measurement of prayer. And I do end with a kind-of moment, the conceit of “Praying Hands“, which is an early Devo song. Devo is a conceptual art project that emerged out of Kent State university in the early 1970s, in the aftermath of the May 4th shootings in 1970.You know, just a bunch of kids who had some kind-of nutty ideas, and who were reacting to what they saw was an utter failure of civilisation that contained them. And they started making weird music, wearing weird costumes, doing all kinds of just strange things. And this is one of their early songs that they talk about praying hands. And the line that keeps repeating is that “Praying hands, real praying hands pray to no man. They pray to no man.” And so one of the things that I am projecting upon Devo . . . . I’m not sure whether the leaders of Devo were sort-of reading a lot of negative theology at the time, but they were, you know, kind-of weirdly involved in a lot of weird religious stuff that I talk about there, and elsewhere. But it’s this kind-of notion of: what does it mean to think about a world that, at the end of the day, is resistant to calculation, is resistant to the human standards of measurement that we assume it can be subsumed under? What if, there is a kind of horizon of unknowing in our world? What if these categories of the religion versus the secular, this categorical difference, is simply seen as a kind of artefact of history, as a kind of social construction that has done a tremendous amount of work in this world, but still, at the end of the day, is something that is strangely made up? And so I see something like Devo as . . . given their artistic license to be able to sort-of act, create, think and live in a way that doesn’t first and foremost subscribe to some of the categorical differences and some of the common sense assumptions that people often do. And so in the piece they, over a season in 1979, they had this kind-of thing they would do where they came out as the opening act for their own concerts. They were not a big band at the time, or that big. They only had their first album out. And so people weren’t familiar with what they looked like. So they would come out for a twenty minute set before their main set, playing this band called Dove, D-O-V-E, the band of love. And they would do a twenty minute set of these sort-of cheesy religious songs. They did “A Worried Man”, by the Carter Family, and they did the song, “Praying Hands”. Which they would kind-of do this evangelical performance, a kind-of revivalist ethos, and they would sort-of do this thing before Devo came out. And I’ve always found that to be sort-of sweet, alluring and attractive. And my goal was to sort-of make sense of it in a way that perhaps pointed to an alternative, or an outside, of the fairly dark story that I tell. I tell a lot of dark stories in my work. Most of my stories are pretty dark. And so I’m always sort-of keen to try to find some sort-of spark of hope, or redemption, or light somewhere. Not too much, but just a little bit! (Laughter).

DMcC: I’m fascinated by the idea that a band would be its own opener, and would invert what they were doing. The line in your piece that really caught my attention was that the singer would say, “Oh brothers and sisters, praise Jesus! And now here’s a reborn Devo song. When they play the devil music, now it’s gone! The Praying Hands.”

JM: (Laughs).

DMcC: Which is just this openness to the inversion of who they’re about: “Hey, Crowd! You thought you were here for us weird punk people playing, you know, music, and dancing in weird ways, dressing in weird ways. And, by the way, here’s some Jesus music to start with.”(30:00)

JM: Yes! No, it’s so . . . I love it. And one of the things that I’ve been really lucky and privileged to have done, over the last couple of years, is to be in contact with some of those guys who were in Devo – Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, particularly – and to sort-of talk to them a little bit about what they were thinking, vis-à-vis religion in that moment. And both of them, in a sense, mention the kind-of weird strange influence of this televangelist named Rex Humbard, who’s also in the piece on prayer, where . . . . Something that Jerry told me was that he learned a lot watching Rex Humbard, watching these televangelists. Just as a performer of . . . like, how do you captivate an audience? How do you cultivate a kind of charismatic performance? And so, just at the level of aesthetics I think early Devo, particularly, borrowed much from the sort-of stagecraft of somebody like Rex Humbard, and the kind of evangelical stagecraft which has a very long and rich history in America. And so Devo has this very long, inverted endpoint, where they’re taking that tradition and inverting it, the same way in which they would . . . . You know, the whole point of Devo. They were originally called the De-evolution Band. That was the long version – de-evolution. So their whole point is the Adorno and Horkheimer dialectic of enlightenment point: the idea that all this work, and advertisement, that is going in to substantiate and to progress the enlightenment culture of civilisation is actually, ironically, producing the exact opposite. And it’s producing not evolution but de-evolution. It’s producing decline, not progress. And, you know, that is one of those kinds of what ifs: what if things are not getting better? What if things aren’t getting better? Imagine the kinds of questions you would ask. But also all the sort-of constellation of comments, and assumptions, that you hold to be self-evident. To what degree would they be up-ended, challenged, or at least put in tension in some way?

DMcC: While you were talking I was picturing a moment from the movie, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Have you seen that before?

JM: Yes, I saw that a long time ago. Yup.

DMcC: So there’s a big political scene, and they’re at a rally. And the main characters are on stage and they’re playing their song which the political person is kind-of against. But then he sees how much the crowd is into the music, and he changes his tune instantly, right? He pivots, and he says “Oh the crowd is into this. I guess I need to be into this too.” And he walks up on stage and he celebrates them, and he says, “And now you’re going to lead us all in a rousing chorus of ‘You are my Sunshine’.” This kind-of inversion. I wonder, when you see Devo as kind-of taking its inspiration from the stagecraft of religious persons, whether that’s part of the story that you’re telling with the scientific study of prayer, too?

JM: Absolutely. Which gets us back to the idea where, you know . . . think about a concern with “charisma”, or a concern with “the crowd”. Think about these terms. These terms are central to the development of the academic study of religion, right? When people thought about religion they would go, “Charisma!”, or think about crowd behaviour, “Durkheim or Weber!” or something like that. And so you get to Devo, where my kind-of conceit is that they’re exploding these kinds of categorical differences, where: to what degree is that a religious thing or a secular thing? And so I’m not really interested in saying “Well Devo is a little bit, ‘Is this religion, or is that secular?’” And I have a little fun thing at the end, where, you know, where Mark Mothersbaugh, the lead singer of Devo, mentioned to me – you know, it wasn’t serious, necessarily – but it’s like, you know: “Talking to you, John, we probably should have made Devo a religion!” (Laughs). He was kind-of mocking me, a little bit! And I was just like “Yeah! Yeah!” And I just got excited in a kind-of almost fan-boy sort of way! And it was this moment when . . . . This kind-of encapsulates for me something about our desire, our reliance upon, for example, the distinction between the religious and the secular. Even for somebody like myself, who has spent a lot of time trying to sort-of think through the making of that distinction, and to make kinds-of claims about how that distinction is not some sort-of universal thing that is written into the very fabric of the cosmos, but it is a kind-of human construct. I know that, right? But yet I feel the pull of that binary. (35:00) I feel the pull of kinds of systems of values that are embedded within that binary, that allow me access to the different parts of the world that I live in. Which is a kind-of . . . . For me, Devo – listening to Devo or talking about Devo – at least gives you some sort-of small space by which one could possibly gain a degree of leverage, reflection, and distance from the culture that contains you.

DMcC: I’m so glad that I had the chance to speak with you today. And I think your recommendation is really useful: “Go listen to Devo!”

JM: That’s right! All the time. All day long! Promise me! (Laughs).

DMcC: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you.

JM: Oh. Thank you so much, David. I really, very much enjoyed it.

 

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Near Death Experiences

Accounts of Near Death Experiences will no doubt be very familiar to listeners of the RSP and the broader public. From fictional accounts such as the Wizard of Oz or Flatliners, to self-reports which grew in popularity in the mid-twentieth century, many of us will be know narrative tropes such as the tunnel, the life review, and the out of body experience. Existing research has tended to, on the one hand, focus on the pathological elements of Near Death Narratives – attempting to ‘explain away’ the phenomenon in reductionistic terms – or, on the other hand, view such accounts as substantive proof of a ‘world beyond’. In today’s podcast, we showcase an approach which accepts reports of Near Death Experiences as discourse, and attempts to understand them in their social, cultural, and historical context. Further, we ask what is the relationship between these narratives and contemporary discourse on ‘religion’? Joining Chris Cotter in this podcast is Professor Jens Schlieter, who has admirably addressed these questions and more in his recent book What Is It Like To Be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity, and the Occult (OUP 2018).

In this episode, we discuss definitions of Near Death Experiences, how one might study reports of such experiences from a critical study of religion perspective, how such reports are related to modern societal developments such as ‘secularization’, individualization, and advances in medical science, as well as the impact of ‘religious’ meta-cultures upon these reports and the potential ‘religious’ functions they appear to serve.

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Near-Death Experiences

Podcast with Jens Schlieter (13 April 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/near-death-experiences/

Christopher Cotter (CC): Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, and indeed in society beyond, will be very familiar, I imagine, with the notion of near-death experiences. They’ve become quite a predominant theme in fictional narratives and across the internet. But within academic study there have been two approaches, possibly, to these. One would be to be hyper-medicalised, physiological, psychological – seeing them as phenomena to be explained away. Another approach would be to be seeing them as proof of life beyond, and using them in that sort-of context. But what’s been largely absent, up until now, has been a Critical Religious Studies approach; looking at these narratives in their social and historical context, and what they can tell us about our society and about our lives. Joining me today, to talk about near-death experiences, is Professor Jens Schlieter of the University of Bern. Professor Schlieter studied Philosophy, and Buddhist Studies, and Comparative Religion, in Bonn and Vienna and got his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Bonn. And he has held research positions at the University of Munich and the University of Bonn. He is currently at the University of Bern, where he is Professor for the Systematic Study of Religion and also Co-director for the Institute of Science of Religion. And his publications comprise contributions on methodological and theoretical questions in the study of religion, and Buddhist bioethics, and comparative philosophy. But of particular relevance today is his 2018 book with Oxford University press called, What Is It Like to be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity and the Occult. So first off, Professor Schlieter, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Jens Schlieter (JS): Thank you, Chris, for inviting me here.

CC: It’s wonderful to have you here in Edinburgh on this crisp winter’s day! I could just start off by asking you: what is it like to be dead, Professor Schlieter?! But, although it may be fairly obvious what got you interested – because it is such an inherently tantalising topic – what was it that got you interested in studying and writing about near-death experiences?

JS: The title, of course, is a little bit provocative. But it is, indeed, to be found in the Scriptures on near-death experiences. But I thought of the famous article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel writing an article on “What it is like to be bat?” And he argues that we don’t know, because we usually imagine ourselves hanging in a cave from the top. But we do not know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. And so there is, of course, a very important topic and the whole . . . . People claimed that they were actually dead, but the definition of death . . . usually we would define death as a status of irreversibility. So one cannot come back to life. So there is a paradox there. But on the other hand, these experiences of people very close to death, they must be taken seriously. Because people change their lives. They write large autobiographic narratives in which they define this experience as absolutely life-changing in regard to new spiritual views on themselves, on the soul, on the beyond, etc. So that was my initial interest in the whole. How can people describe something that we usually consider as impossible? Because this standpoint of describing the status after death cannot be taken. But obviously we have these narratives. So what do we do?

CC: Absolutely, and it really comes to the core methodological issue in the study of religion, I suppose, where all we have to go on is discourse, and what people say, and putting indescribable experiences into natural language – in the sense of, whether we’re talking about any experience of the supernatural, it inherently has to be described in language and be articulated in that way. So, yes. It quite nicely captures one of the core issues in the study of religion (5:00). But before we get any further, and you’ve already hinted at it there, but, what is a near-death experience? Just so that we’re all talking from the same page.

JS: Yes. I started by defining the methodological point of view on near-death experiences in the book as, let’s say, historical discourse study. So I looked at who defined near-death experience for the first time. Usually people claim that it was Raymond Moody, an American medical professional, a doctor. And he published a book in 1975, Life after Life, and there he speaks of near-death experiences – near-death experiences in the plural – claiming that he used the category to describe those narratives which he encountered in hospitals by survivors of, for example, heart attack, or nearly-drowned, or something like that. But in my book I can show that the term near-death experience is somewhat earlier used already by John C Lilley, in 1972. And he wrote an autobiography, Centre of the Cyclone. And there he describes, interestingly, a near-death experience on the basis that he himself was close to death, using LSD. And so he had visionary experiences triggered by LSD, but on the other hand he was ill, and administered himself an antibiotics, but obviously something went wrong. And so he was actually really close to death and in an almost comatose-like state And Raymond Moody read the book. But of course, for him, it was rather unsettling that it was an LSD experience. But in the book I can show that the LSD and near-death experiences co-evolved in the 1970s as a discourse. And it is not a new phenomenon. Already in the early nineteenth century people spoke of experiences close to death and what happens there, namely: life-review, out of body experiences – Oh! Here I get back to the question of definition! Sorry . . .

CC: That’s alright!

JS: Near-death experiences usually, in what Raymond Moody first systematised, encompass roundabout 15 different topoi – one may say, from a discourse perspective – namely: to get out of one’s body and to encounter one’s dead body from an elevated perspective, looking down at oneself lying in the bed; then there is the idea expressed that you get into something like a summer land, or paradise; that you encounter heavenly beings, or sometimes they are of help and guide you through the netherworld, sometimes they are frightening; also experiences of encountering other family members and friends who have died already – so after-death experience in the meaning that you enter a space where these are already there; but also a kind-of a barrier; and a heavenly voice – an experience of the presence of God or Jesus. And finally, to get back into the body. So these are elements. And Raymond Moody’s idea was these are usually in a kind-of continuous narrative. So they follow each other because they are a universal experience, mirrored, of course, into the individual backgrounds and so on (10:00). But, in general, he believed they really tell something about the after-death realm, and therefore these are real experiences. For me, of course, this is a metaphysical assumption that I can neither deny nor affirm with my research. And therefore I looked at them only as reports – reports of experiences. So, ok, the word “experience” usually means that you truly encounter something that transforms your point of view, that transforms you, probably totally, if it is a life-changing experience. But one can also say experiences are construed in the aftermath. After surviving the whole thing, people usually will ask themselves, “How did it happen that I personally survived? Why didn’t I die?” And I think these are really questions of meaning, of meaningfulness. And very often, at least in our culture, people tend to think of religion as providing an answer, and therefore looking for an answer why they survived. They had maybe visions – we don’t know because there is no way to figure out if these visions happen the way they say they were. But for them, of course, they are real. And we will never know. But what I can say, at least, in the book . . . . I show with various examples that certain narratives, for example, the one of the life-review – that you remember scenes and things in your early life, in your life unfolding, etc. – and that this life-review actually emerged in the narratives. It is not yet there in medieval reports of near-death experiences – if one can say they are near-death experiences, because usually they are deathbed visions by monks and nuns.

CC: Yes. And indeed you make the point in the book that, until recent decades I suppose, these experiences tended to be narrated by others: people telling of someone else’s experience. Whereas, there was a point at which there was the turn to the individual and the self-narrative. Which I think we’re probably going to get onto fairly shortly. So just before we get there, you’ve already given some hints at your methodology there, and it’s a fairly standard Religious Studies approach in the sense of: regardless of whether there is a reality or not, what we have to go on are people’s accounts of their experiences. And these accounts have impact and social impact. So let’s look at them and treat them at face value and just deal with the content, and the meaning, and etc., etc. Is there anything else that you’d like to sort-of caveat what you’re saying? Like, what was the body of material that you consulted?

JS: Well I thought it would be good to start with personal narratives, not those – as you mentioned – by others, so third-hand evidence. And narratives from a first-person point of view are, of course, very much connected to the emergence of autobiographies, of subjectivity, and usually one of the major figure in this emerging tradition was the French philosopher Montaigne. And he, in his essays, unravels a near-death experience interestingly. And major elements, that were of importance for reporters of near-death experiences that inform Moody, are not yet there. They are simply not there. But then there is Francis Beaufort. He was an admiral with the British navy. And he is the first who really had a classical near-death experience, at the end of the eighteenth century (15:00). He fell into Portsmouth harbour and nearly drowned as a young man. And decades later he reported his experience. And for the first time, we have this life-review phenomenon. So he said, “I could see scenes from my early childhood. Memories that I were not aware of that . . . I had these experiences”. So this is an interesting element in itself. So from the sixteenth century up to 1975, this is what the book covers. I decided not to look at sources from non-European cultures. There is, of course, an extensive discussion about if near-death experiences are purely a Western phenomenon, or if near-death experiences can be seen in Indian, Japanese, Chinese traditions. A very important element that is usually pointed out is the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It has been published by Oxford University Press in 1927, translated by Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz in collaboration with native Tibetan Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup. And they were tremendously successful in popularising these Tibetan thoughts and rituals: what should be done if someone dies? And the idea is to guide them through the netherworld, of course, in the Tibetan context to encounter karmic delusions, and to be very frightened – because the consciousness principle has to navigate through its own complications, and so on. But to give you one example that it is quite important, to look very closely at the reported experiences. People usually say, “Well this is evidence that they are of a universal quality.” If you have Tibetans reporting such experiences in the fourteenth century or so, and modern Western evidence, so it seems to be . . . . But, for example, the idea that there is out-of-body experiences and one looks back at oneself. In the Western tradition it is very much the idea that you face yourself being dead. So the soul, or consciousness, hovering over the body, is interested to look at and to examine the body. Because the body is something foreign. Something that is no longer animated, but still a point of reference in this world etc. Whereas, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, of course, due to the idea of reincarnation etc., the body is of no importance. And we can see that it is much more a social reality in the Tibetan Buddhist account of this moment where the soul, or consciousness – to be more precise, in the Tibetan Buddhist context. So the consciousness principle looks not at its former body, but at the weeping family members, and tries to convince them, “Oh I’m fine. Please, you do not help me if you weep. I can see you, but you obviously can no longer see me. But please, that’s not good for me. Because now I have the task I shall move forward to my next existence.” And best would be, of course, no longer to be reincarnated at all. So at the first sight that seems to be, “Ok, that’s an out of body experience.” But the narrated content is totally different in terms of epistemology, in terms of soteriology, and so on and so forth.

CC: Absolutely. So you started to get into the socio-cultural historic contexts within which near-death narratives are occurring. And much of your book, I guess, is looking at Western contexts as you say. And you do an excellent job of charting some of the contextual factors that might have shaped and led, perhaps, to what you might call an explosion of near-death narratives. So if you can, maybe, tell us about some of these modern societal developments that have gone hand-in-hand with near-death narratives? (20:00)

JS: Yes. I think this is a very important aspect. And I think, so far, there was little interest to look at the correlations. What is astonishing is the fact that, in the 1970s, major developments in the Western medical system were going on. For example, to declare people no longer dead with the criterion of heart failure, and other classical criteria that were used for ages to declare people dead if there is no longer brain activity. And there are, of course, measurements from the EEG etc. But that’s led to the situation that people without a functioning brain were declared dead. But their body was still, let’s say, alive, in a way. And of course it was seen as a major advantage also for transplantation of organs. And many of them can only be used in the body is fully intact. And, of course, with artificial respiration and so on. And the phenomena like coma, and locked -in syndrome, they were described at a new level – more scientifically defined, and so on. But in the general society these developments were considered as extremely unsettling. Because there was now an ambivalence: is someone dead or not dead? Only dead if declared to be dead. And shall we trust the physicians, the doctors in the intensive care unit if they say he or she is dead? Then we accept that? And so that was really unsettling. And on the other hand if, of course, due to circumstances that people were able to survive a certain period of very low brain activity and some of them had visionary accounts or visionary experiences, or let’s say, near-death experiences returning from such a state they said, “Well, in your medical perspective maybe we were that close to death that it was only a second that you may have decided to close the artificial attempts of sustaining my life. But I survived – and not only that, I had certain experiences that are absolutely central for my life that I would like to live from now onwards with different values.”

CC: So yes, I’m just pushing through because of time. But yes, we have those medical developments and, you know, people being sustained longer. And you describe how they move from mostly dying out of the hospital context, and moving into hospital contexts. You’ve got, also, all the different forms of medication which might have hallucinogenic properties, legal or illegal. But then there’s also individualisation within religion, beyond religion: the importance of individual narratives of the self. And then also, I guess, that all ties into a secularisation narrative as well. So you’ve got all of this going on, and then “Easter”, in quotation marks, influences coming in. You’ve already described the Tibetan Book of the Dead. So there’s lot going on, in the sixties and seventies, in terms of just rapid social development in these areas – which understandably facilitates the development and, I guess, dissemination of these near-death narratives. But I’m keen to get to the “religion” word, because we need to on the Religious Studies Project! And towards the end of the book you tackle that head on, and talk about how religious meta-cultures might have influenced and shaped the form and content of these near-death narratives (25:00). And then, also, you talk about the potential, I guess you would say, “religious functions” of the narratives. So maybe you should take us through some of that.

JS: Yes. I think usually, books of reporting individuals themselves, they do not very openly quote sources that inspired them. But if you look more closely at the whole near-death reporting genre, one can see that there are many spiritualists, many who are close to Western esotericism, for example: parapsychological accounts are very often combined with near-death accounts. For example, Eben Alexander who published a very, very successful book. So there are people who are usually in a way religious, and at the same time they are distant in regard to dogmas of established churches. So usually there’s something like this: they were brought up in very religious families, and they had a background of, let’s say, intensive socialisation within a religious tradition. And then they moved on, studied, for example, something on the signs of nature and medicine, or whatever – became more critical towards religion and towards establishment in particular. And then this happens. An event that in which they almost died. And I think it is very plausible to look at the phenomenon with this perspective. At this moment they revive their former emotion and that was inspired and formed by a very religious family life. But of course they are already stuffed with critical rationality. They are distant in regard to unfounded claims of traditional religious tradition. So the individual experience is, from my point of view, a very vital element of this late modern religiosity. And therefore one can say near-death experiences are probably prototypical for the development. People no longer believe that there is, let’s say, a life after death in terms of words traditional – especially of course the Catholic Church had to offer, but they have their individual experiences. And they think this is authentic par excellence. Because it is individual. So, in a way, one can say the whole phenomenon mirrors recent developments in Western societies and, on the other hand, I think they offer a certain kind-of a solution for the whole, because people can still continue to believe. And very often, also, one can see that they have a kind-of missionary attitude. That they really speak very freely on their near-death experiences, even though, very often, they note, “OK, I know that you are sceptical, and this is a materialistic society, and no-one will believe me.” But this is part, again, of the whole authenticity that they feel that they are in.

CC: And, I guess, even someone who was notionally “non-religious” – in scare quotes there – they’re part of a context. And the experience, whatever it is, is felt. And their interpretation will be informed by their context within which . . . . And the context will, I suppose, also influence the experience itself in the first place. Because people bring things to an experience. And then, afterwards, interpret it with the resources that are available to them. And especially once there is such an economy of a near-death experiences, then it’s going to take . . . . (30:00).

JS: Absolutely. Although I think it is rather a rare case in which one will have a near-death experience without ever being introduced to religious thought, rituals, and traditions before. Because I think, indeed, one has to have a certain disposition, and a certain expectancy for things to happen, in such experiences. But nevertheless, as I said at the beginning, if you would imagine yourself in the situation, or someone else in the situation – maybe he was not very religious, but survives a very tragic accident. Maybe other companions in the car died. And then you have the question of contingency – what sociologists always say in regard to religion. So the question of the reduction of contingency, namely: “I could have died here. It didn’t happen. So who saved me?” We usually attribute such survival to a force. We are continuously looking for explanations. We cannot live with no explanation, and simply to say that it was by chance, there was no other force involved at all. And so I would say this way of looking at a situation . . . . And, of course, many suffer from, let’s say, the injuries they have. So they are in hospital, they are alone, they are under medication. I don’t want to simply say that’s an outcome of that. I hope that’s clear that I think the whole is meaningful. It’s not simply to be reduced to such factors. But these factors are, or should be, taken into consideration too. So people alone, thinking at, and on, their lives – probably the question of meaning pops up in their lives for the first time ever. And then they, maybe, “Oh yes, there was a certain kind of light. Was there a being behind the light? Did I see a being? Although I do not believe . . . . But probably it was a being. And haven’t I heard some kind of message?” Because the whole thing, for them, is of course complicated too. They have to remember ecstatic experiences. And they cannot say what they experience the moment they experience that. So they have an epistemological problem, too.

CC: Yes. And again we’re right back to that. But putting sort-of non-falsifiable experience into words, after the event. And going back earlier in the interview, you mentioned earlier Montaigne. I have a tattoo of some words by Montaigne: “Fortis imaginatio generat casum”: a strong imagination creates its own reality.

JS: Yes, yes, absolutely

CC: But yes, there’s a sense, after an experience, one is only going to be able to interpret and articulate . . . . And human memory is an awful thing. Memory . . . like these eyewitness reports in criminal cases will say . . . .

JS: Absolutely.

CC: And these experiences – because they’re so intense, and profound, and are current at traumatic circumstances – they are going to be revisited, and rearticulated, and pondered time and time again. So we can’t say too much about the actual experience itself. But what you’re doing is looking at how people are articulating it, and what are the themes, and how that has impacts. We’re pretty much out of time. But I just wanted to sort-of finish with what might be – again, it’s been implicit throughout the interview – but what would be some of your take-home messages for the study of religion? And from your work with near-death experience? And what do you think others can take and apply, perhaps more broadly, in their own studies in this religion thing that we’re all so obsessed with?!

JS: Well, I think one of the general insights that I would consider central is that extraordinary experiences were, for some years, less studied because people thought, “Well it is a discourse, by religious practitioners, to speak about their extraordinary experiences.” (35:00) But I think there is really something in there that may help also to look at recent developments. For example, these books about near-death experiences – they are incredibly successful. Very often you have them in Amazon ranking lists on places five to three – and for weeks. So there is not only the experience, but also a large audience interested in this experience. So to study this as the phenomenon – as a part of the phenomenon of no-longer-institutionalised religion, but never-the-less as a part of a religious discourse where experience matters. And experience that very often has been only psychologised. And there are a lot of neuroscientific theories that simply say, “Well, it’s a dysfunctional brain that produces such delusions and you cannot take it seriously” And I think this simply a very short-sighted view of the whole. Because people change their whole life after the experience. Although, it would be very important to have a closer look at this phenomenon. This has not yet been researched, from my knowledge: an empirical study, that not only considers that the autobiography may be also an oral narrative of what has happened after the experience is considered, but also to look more closely at families, friends and really to corroborate evidence that it was a life-changing matter.

CC: Absolutely. So there’s on that final note, a potential research project for a Listener, or perhaps that’s your next research project, I don’t know? Well thank you so much, Professor Schlieter, for joining us on the Religious Studies Project. I’m looking forward to hearing how it goes down.

JS: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

CC: Good.

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Magic and Modernity

This conversation between Richard Irvine, Theodoros Kyriakides and David G. Robertson concerns magical thinking in the modern world. We may think that such ideas are confined to the fringes in the secular, post-Enlightenment world, but this is not necessarily the case. We talk about Weber’s rationalisation and James Frazer’s evolutionary model of modernity, and how they relate to ideas of belief, and magic. We then look at examples from Orkney and Cyprus to show these ideas in play. This is an interview that will be of interest to all students of secularity, modernity and belief.

This interview was recorded at the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective conference in Feb 2018, and is based on the “Magical thinking in contexts and situations of unbelief” project, part of the Understanding Unbelief programme.

*We apologise for the recent, increasingly frequent disruption to the availability of the RSP website. It has taken a lot of time and energy, but we have now successfully migrated the website to a different hosting provider, and this should resolve the issue. Many thanks for your continued support, and here’s to the rest of 2018!

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

Magic and Modernity

Podcast with Richard Irvine and Theodoros Kyriakides

(26 March 2018).

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Irvine_and_Kyriakides_-_Magic_and_Modernity_1.1

 

David Robertson (DR): I’m joining you again from Milton Keynes, where I’m at the Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective Conference. And today I’m joined by Richard Irvine and Theo Kyriakides who have a project called Magical Thinking in Contexts and Situations of Unbelief, which is part of the bigger Understanding Unbelief project. Today they’re going to be talking about magical thinking in contemporary, “modern” society – with quote marks on it. So, welcome to the Project!

Richard Irvine (RI): Thank you very much.

Theo Kyriakides (TK): Thanks for having us.

DR: So yes, Richard, perhaps you could tell us about the project that you’re working on?

RI: I mean, the basic set of questions we’re asking, it comes out of reflections on the secularisation thesis, the general idea being that: as societies become more apparently rationalised, more secularised – as you see fewer people directly affiliating with religious groups – surely the follow-on from this would be that there’s less space in society for practices that we might term “magic”, for thinking about the world as an enchanted place. But, in actual fact, what we see in our different field sites is that even with people who would define themselves as non-believers, who would see themselves as outside of religious structures and, indeed, rejecting forms of belief, there still seems to be this place in their life for reflecting on what is unknowable and trying to engage with it in different ways. And so, really, what we want to say is that, rather than secularisation squeezing magic out of contemporary life, out of modern life, that in fact secularisation seems to open up new spaces that magic can grow within.

TK: Yes. Just to add that, if you take the notion of modernity, it was Max Weber who kind-of predicted the disenchantment of modernity. It was kind-of a prophecy. When would you say that was, about 1920s?

RI: Yes. He’s speaking, in Science as Vocation, just after the First World War.

TK: Yes. And obviously it’s taken some criticism. But, to an extent I guess, somebody can make the argument that modernity is disenchanted with magic. So, yes. That’s our starting point: to see to what extent disenchantment can allow magical phenomenon to manifest.

RI: Yes. Because I mean, what I was talking about this morning with Science as Vocation, which I mentioned in that lecture, what Weber does is he says . . . . He’s addressing those two students. And obviously, they think they’re very smart. And he’s saying, “You think you’re smart. How much do you actually know? Because, if you think about natives and tribes elsewhere in the world, they have a great store of their knowledge.” So he says, you know, “You board a street car. You don’t know how it propels itself unless you’re a physicist. You buy things without really any notion of why sometimes you can get less or more for the money, whereas in many societies, in fact, people have an understanding of where their food comes from, they have an understanding of . . . .” So he’s saying, in fact, in modern, technologically advanced, specialised societies there’s actually far less of a portion of the total knowledge that we have. So in that, he’s saying, “Yes, we are becoming more rationalised. But does that necessarily mean that we are entering into a state of being more knowing? So, in a sense, the secularisation thesis, as Weber sets it up, allows for this space of enchantment, rather than disenchantment. Because what you have there is that whole space of unknowing about everything that isn’t your very particular job within the division of labour.

DR: But there was another model of modernity, which actually might be slightly earlier, but was certainly in currency around the same time: the whole James Frazer model, in which modernity, you know, building on evolutionary models – Darwinism, social Darwinism, basically – that we moved from superstition and magic, to religion, to science. And so that modernity was, as you said, it was a prediction but it was a prediction, in that model, which does replace magical thinking completely. So Weber’s model of modernity is definitely not the only version of it that’s going around at the same time.

TK: Yes. What’s interesting about Frazer’s work is that it perseveres. He’s taken so much critique for being a cultural evolutionist or primitivist, because he presents this linear trajectory which societies have to be following in order to be legitimised as modern, right? So he’s a kind of . . . I think anthropologists have the knee-jerk reaction of denouncing the evolutionary model. But, at the same time, he’s well-known, you know. People talk about him. People who are not anthropologists know about Frazer’s work. And, in an ironic twist, the trajectory that he kind-of presented as evolutionary –that work, that corpus of work – kind-of substantiates magical belief in modernity as well, in my opinion: the way that magical traditions can become reiterated in modernity through Frazer’s work, anyway.

RI: So, would you say, when people are buying and reading The Golden Bough . . .

TK: Yes.

RI: Because you can still get it in those editions, for £2 or something. So when people buy it, are they looking for magic, rather than . . . ? What is it they’re looking for in there? And is it that disenchanted, I suppose?

TK: Yes, I think the book has a certain allure. I don’t know why people are going to read it, but the fact that you . . . take the back cover: it’s to do with magic,

DR: It’s very readable, it’s very accessible even to non-academics. It does that sweeping grand theory that . . . It boils down to quite simple . . . there’s one central narrative.

RI: And he was a tremendous publicist. Contemporary academics could learn a lot from him about getting their ideas into a mass marketplace!

TK: Absolutely!

DR: Actually, you could make the argument that Frazer’s work is a form of magical thinking in itself, in that he connects all these disparate elements and links them together into a grand narrative. It’s that sort of knowledge that we see in a lot of schools of Occultism, for instance. But when you guys are talking about, you know, magic, magical thinking and all these kind of terms – break that down, how you’re using that for us. You already mentioned ideas of the ineffable, earlier on. I don’t think you used the term ineffable, but you said something similar. But there’s also a kind of practical aspect, as well. So break down how you’re using ideas of magic.

TK: So I think the way we kind-of use the term magical thinking, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with people subscribing to existing magical traditions or practices. It also has to do with the way by which they can develop their own worldviews and philosophies that have the underlying assumption of magical efficacy. So magical efficacy can adopt characteristics of contagious efficacy or automatic efficacy, or what Frazer called sympathetic and contagious magic. So yes, once again, it’s not necessarily people following explicit magical traditions, but also developing their own ways of understanding and dwelling in the world, which can adopt those characteristics that anthropologists associate with magical traditions, in a more implicit manner.

RI: I mean, one of the things we talked about in terms of how we were defining magic in the project – you can shoot this down if you think I’m being too specific about it! But it’s important to think about, especially in what we’re talking about as a modern context, it’s important to think about individual practices that people adopt in order to make sense of the world around them; in order to, in certain ways, gain some kind of mode of control over the world around them. So I think that emphasis – that is classic in most anthropological theory – that what we’re talking about here are certainly social practices that exist within a social space, but which are in the domain of individual actions, rather than necessarily religious ritual which brings social groups together. But I think that that’s quite important in a way, for talking about the modern world because, in fact, as has been repeatedly pointed out, we’re seeing more and more individualisation, more and more fragmentation in how people . . . You know: the whole designation of people talking about themselves a spiritual but not religious, these kinds of things. It’s often about this idea that people are being more idiosyncratic, more personal, in how they engage with the world, and what is potentially unknowable. But something I mentioned this morning which I think is a really interesting case in point, because it’s a contested one: recently Sally Le Page launching an attack on water companies in the UK for, in her terms, practising magic. Because she says she contacted these water companies and they said, “Yes, we’re divining, we’re going out with dowsing rods.” Or, “Some of the people who work for us are going out with divining rods and they’re looking for water. And that’s part of the battery of things that are used.” Now what’s interesting there is, immediately she leaps to this idea that this is magic because it’s something which doesn’t necessarily fit with our hypothetical deduction method of science. So this is a thing which we should have been left behind, once we’d worked out proper scientific ways of finding water. But, in fact, when I talk to people in Orkney – some of whom do rely on divining in order to find where to bore for water – this works. This is practical knowledge that people have of the landscape and where to find water. So, they’re not necessarily – and I think this is an important point – they’re not necessarily thinking of it, or describing it as magic. But, certainly, they would reject the idea that simply because something doesn’t fit with what is tested and known, according to the parameters of science, they’re not going to reject it just because of that. They’re not going to say, “Oh well it doesn’t fit with the peer-reviewed literature. I’m not going to divine for water anymore!” In fact, this is practical knowledge of the landscape and that’s what they go with.

DR: It seems to me that really you’ve got two different kinds of magic in play there, and I think this is common across the board. It’s not meant as a criticism of you, but rather for the listener in terms of how we are using the term discursively. So on the one hand you said, that it was something that wasn’t part of a recognised religious tradition, it wasn’t about religious communities but it was used by the individual. But then we shifted to talking about it as something which wasn’t . . . that was a practice that was thought of as having efficacy, but not through appeals to science.

RI: Mmm.

DR: So those are two quite different things, are they not?

TK: Yes. That’s a good question. One of the reasons that the project is interesting to me, as well, is that people have lost touch with what magic is. Because if you go to initial ethnographic studies, like magic is not just a belief in the supernatural, or belief in, you know, Gods or spiritual beings. Magic is also like a system of practices which have actual ways of reproducing societal structures and kinships. And I think, as Richard said, modernity kind-of led to the fragmentation of the individual and, in a way, led to the fragmentation of magic as well. So we can talk about this later as well, that magic has certain polysemy.

DG: Yes.

TK: Like people understand what magic is in different ways. So, to use Richard’s language from this morning, today there is a certain archaeology of magic. The word magic has been hidden under kind-of layers of modernity, layers of science, and so, in a way, we’re kind-of conducting an archaeology of how people relocate these traces of magical thinking in the everyday.

RI: And in terms of whether or not . . . . I mean, this is always going to be kind -of the problem both methodologically and theoretically. Because when you’re talking about something like magic you’re talking about something which has simultaneously been the locus of thousands and thousands of papers or theorisation, and also something which is in the popular imagination. I think Graham Jones, which you’ve read quite a lot, Theo, but Graham Jones in his recent book – what’s the title?

TK: Magic’s Reason

RI: Magic’s Reason. That’s very interesting because Graham Jones did his PhD with – what I suppose a lot of people would associate with magic – he did his PhD on stage magic. But he’s gone through this archaeology, to use the word, he’s gone through this to look at, well: what does this idea of magic and performance say about the longer strands of magic that were available in European and American culture? Rather than this being a different thing. So the basic problem here is that we are talking about something which is everyday language and can’t necessarily be . . .

TK: labelled.

RI: labelled purely from the point of view of sociological or other theories – which is so much the case in Religious Studies.

DR: Yes.

RI: Because we don’t have ownership over these words. And you can’t necessarily say. . . So sometimes that does mean that you’re involved in shifts . . . . So, you know, with the Sally Le Page example, what’s interesting is that she’s using magic in that particular way. She’s using magic in – we would say – the Frazerian way: this is what society should have evolved beyond.

TK: It’s backwards, yes.

RI: Yes. Now when you have people who are simultaneously saying “I’m an unbeliever, I’ve gone beyond, I don’t hold with religion, I don’t hold with people telling me what to believe,” well, from a Frazerian point of view, right, they’ve stepped into the next level: they’re beyond religion. But what’s curious there, from the point of view of these conflicting views of magic is: hang on! They’ve stepped into that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve left it behind. In fact, what it means is they’re rejecting religious authority structures, but they may also reject authority structures which are rationalist authority structures. So you’ve got these conflicts of an idea of magic as a failed form of science, which is one model, coming into contact with a practical way of engaging with a world which is full of unknowable things. And it’s full of unknowable things because of the nature of a society where – to go back to this point – it’s so specialised. We know less and less about the whole store of knowledge, because we only really have proper understanding of the tiny bit of the division of labour that we’ve got – if even that!

TK: Officially, I don’t use the word “magic” when I do fieldwork a lot. So I’m not going to ask people “Do you believe or practise magic?” Because, as Richard said, it kind-of ended up being a signifier of irrationality and backwardness. So I might use the local term in the Cypriot dialect for magic. But what’s interesting is that once something’s labelled as magic, it’s labelled as irrational, kind-of excluded from the normative order of things. But at the same time, to take the case of the dowsing example, it is something that people did without questioning. Like, the fact that they went around . . . . Maybe they were questioning it in their heads, but the fact that this practice was being reproduced is interesting. They were going around divining for water and that this was a practice that had, you know, attributes of magical thinking, but was nevertheless naturalised into the normative order of things.

RI: I mean one interesting conversation we were having earlier, with one of the other participants of the conference, struck me as a great example of magical thinking. We were talking about how there’s lots of debates about how in court, when you make your oath, you know, well, what of an unbeliever? Should an unbeliever be allowed to – and this is contested in many places – should an unbeliever be allowed to not make an oath on the Bible? Well, how do they make an oath? But what’s interesting in a lot of these debates, is not . . . . The focus is on whether the Bible is there or not. But the actual question of the oath isn’t necessarily called into question. That, somehow, that performative act of making an oath has a transformative effect on the truthful quality of the entire thing. Now, it’s quite striking that that’s still something which is at the heart of . . . it’s a part of our legacy. It’s at the heart of our ideas about what constitutes the rule of law. Now, ultimately, these are ideas of magical thinking, which I think in some respects, go unexamined. And our task isn’t . . . well certainly, I don’t see our task as being to, in some way, debunk these, or to suggest . . . But, rather, to give lie to the idea that a modern, secularised, rationalised – you can add in all kinds of words for this – leaves these things behind. I mean I suppose I’ve come right back to killing the Ghost of Frazer, again. But that wasn’t my intention when I started this sentence!

TK: He’s already dead, so . . .

RI: (Laughs)

DR: Just to go back to something Theo was saying, there. I mean, a couple of times recently I’ve been thinking about – and this came up during my fieldwork on conspiracy and UFO communities – is the idea that sometimes these things are in the subjunctive mode. And I think this is particularly pertinent when we talk about things like dowsing, but also alternative therapies. One thing I found was that it was almost always . . . it was very common for people to get into new age, or UFO, or conspiracy communities through alternative health care, essentially because they had chronic illness of one type or another. And so, when the scientific mainstream treatments didn’t work, they were prepared to try anything. They would try them in the subjunctive mode, to see if they work. And then, when one of them works for whatever reason, that then is a confirmation that, “Oh, some of these things do work, even though science says it’s not true.” And this leads them to then embrace a number of other possible things in the subjunctive mode. And I think that dowsing is like that. The council is probably thinking, “Well, I don’t know if it works or not – but it might work!” You know, if it has given us results then, fine. I’m not going to be thinking too much about whether it’s scientific or not. And you find the same thing in acupuncture treatment on the NHS. They’re prepared to pay for acupuncture, or sometimes aromatherapy and things. And they’re like “Well it doesn’t matter if it’s only working because it’s a placebo. If it’s working, it’s working.”

TK: So subjectivity kind-of demands maintaining a certain propensity to the potential of something to be unknowable.

DR: Yes. The rational justification for it is secondary to the practical application, or the function.

TK: Yes. There’s this famous phrase I like from Jeanne Favret-Saada’s work: “I know that magic is a joke, but still . . .” You know, it’s that tension that the unbeliever can oscillate with that magical thinking emerges from. I know that magic is a joke, or it doesn’t exist, but still . . . And she borrows this from psychanalyst Octave Mannoni, who kind-of deals with subjectivity in terms of magical thinking, as well. So that was a phrase that was kind-of foundational in the theoretical foundations that we tackle.

RI: I mean, I think the way that you’ve talked about the “evil eye” is a very good example of that. Because you talk about the way that in certain modes this can be used seriously.

TK: yes. So the evil eye, in Cyprus, on certain occasions can be used as decoration on people’s shoes and T-shirts or things, or houses in general. But, under certain occasions, it is granted much more magical qualities by the people using it, so under occasions of uncertainty or stress. Even the other day, I talked to people and they tell me: “I don’t really believe in the evil eye. I don’t acknowledge that it’s in my house. But sometimes, if I’m having a bad day, or I’m having bad thoughts, I might just think about it. I might look at it.”

RI: It sort of goes back to what you were saying about, “I know this is a joke, but still . . .” I mean that, there’s certain sense of what unbelief would involve, which should end after the first part: “I know it’s a joke,” full stop. But that’s not what we see in the messiness of everyday life. It’s: I know, but that doesn’t mean that there are not – in the subjective mode – there maybe other contexts in which I might want this to . . . . or, at least, I cannot be sure that there is not. So it’s better to do it just in case.

DR: I don’t know if you’re familiar with Martin Stringer’s work.

RI: It came up in the discussion today, yes

DR: But he talks about situational belief, and exactly the same sort of idea where – and this actually relates to the sort of subjunctive example I gave before. If you asked this person, “Do you believe in the chi flowing around the body?” They’d say, “No”. But when it came down to, “If I try this, I might be able to put that aside for long enough that it works!” Or, people don’t tend to believe in prophecy or speaking to dead. But if their husband or loved one has just died, they might have an overwhelming desire to speak to them. In which case, they enter a different mode of expressing belief.

RI: I mean, I was saying this in the discussion earlier. One of the things I find interesting in this work is that you have . . . particularly, this situation that he discusses in relation to the dead and practices, to do with communication with the dead, even among people who would not necessarily see themselves as believers. And that’s very interesting in the context of . . . . And one of the reasons why I chose Orkney to do this fieldwork is that you have a landscape here which is very much archaeologically defined by the presence of these Neolithic tombs. It’s recognised as being a landscape of the dead. And, indeed, the cemeteries – even though the kirks themselves may have been made into private houses or just falling down – the cemeteries retain that kind of space. And that, to me, is something that’s quite interesting. Because, in essence, you can have a personal stance in relation to: “I don’t believe that it is possible to communicate with the dead,” for example. You can have that as a personal stance, but you’re still living in a landscape where reminders of the dead are all around you. And I think one of the issues at stake, here, is how do you simultaneously engage with a personal stance which says, “I know this is all nonsense”, say, and also a recognition that there is an entire world, which is around you, which is built on the idea that there is some continuity of the dead, that there is some possibility . . . that there is a continuing involvement of the dead in social life? And part of what is interesting, then, in terms of the practices that people adopt, is how they might find a way of dealing with that unknowability of the landscape which surrounds them. So, I think – we were talking about this earlier – so the idea that you can adopt a stance in relation to objects which is not purely materialistic, or in relation to a landscape, which is not purely materialistic: it doesn’t seem to be that that is completely incompatible with people nevertheless expressing their personal set of beliefs as materialistic sort of beliefs. So that stance in relation to these things.

DR: One of the things I like – and we’re getting close to time – but one of the things I like most about your project is the two case studies that you’re comparing in Orkney and Cyprus. And at first glance they’re quite different. One of them is familiar to me, one of them is completely alien. Tell me a little bit about how you see these two case studies working together. What are the potential kind of tensions and possible similarities that you see there, that you can tease out in the comparison?

RI: Well they’re both islands. (Laughs)

All: (Laugh)

DR: Let’s start with that!

TK: I think the two things that we’ve identified thus far are – do you want to talk about anti-authoritarianism?

RI: OK.

TK: And I’ll do unknowability.

RI: Yes. I mean, I think that one of the – we weren’t aware of this. This is a part of anthropology and ethnography in general: you don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen until you get into the field. There is a leap of faith in anthropology. And it was only, really, once we started comparing notes that we realised that one of the things that was quite central, in both of these cases, was that people who spoke about themselves as unbelievers were doing so as an anti-authoritarian stance: that this was a way of saying that people shouldn’t be allowed to define what you believe in; that people shouldn’t tell you what to think, as though you don’t ken yourself. And that’s very striking in the Orcadian example that most people spoke about the idea that, in essence, religion was part of a power structure, which was a power structure associated with those who were property owners, etc; that it was something that they didn’t feel they should be subject to – and which has very long lines in histories of dissent in the Church of Scotland, too, which rejects the idea of patronage from the church, by the by. But it was interesting, when I started comparing notes with Theo, that we realised, especially among – correct me if I’m wrong – especially among the young people, who would describe themselves as atheists or non-believers, it was that sense of an anti-clericalism, an anti-authoritarian stance.

TK: Yes, a sort of a knee-jerk reaction against dogmatic depictions of religion in Cyprus. In Cyprus the rise of the republic kind-of parallels the rise of the Cypriot church. Our first President was a clergyman and so on. So the church and state kind of dovetail together. And I think that ended up in this gesture: of kind-of distancing yourself from religious authority.

RI: Yes. But just to segue into you talking about unknowability. One of the crucial things, then, if you’ve identified that when we’re talking about unbelief, we’re not necessarily talking about an idea of rationalism, which says, “The world is now knowable.” It’s saying, “What I’m rejecting is being told what to believe, here.” It still leaves openness to the possibility that there is an unknowability in society . . .

TK: Yes. It’s a good segue. So with your research, as well, I find the question of the conspiratorial subject very interesting. Because it kind-of denotes, you know – UFO cultures are associated with counter-culture in the US.

DR: Yes.

TK: And I think it’s likewise: people who distance themselves from governmental and religious authority, only to try to put the pieces together themselves. So, usually, following a conspiracy theory or formulating a conspiracy is like a practice of connecting the dots, you know. And I think that’s what we’re trying to figure out with unbelievers as well, in both occasions. So once you make that swift dismissal of normative understanding of religion, where do you go from there? And it’s usually people plunging into that grey area of religious beliefs and social norms and kind-of devising their own worldviews and perspectives.

RI: Which I think, in a way, brings us full circle. Because if your starting point in talking about modernity is that, in essence, as individuals there’s so much that we don’t know . . . . We might assume that somebody else knows it, or we hope that somebody knows how to make planes work, or whatever. We hope there’s somebody who understands all these things. But, on an individual level, it’s left to us to piece those things together and to try and work out what those chains of causality are.

TK: Yes. I think there’s a greater point to be made about – an ontological point – to be made about unknowability, about the unknowability of relations. Like, social relations can never be complete. Like, our understanding of the world can never be complete. And I think there’s two or three ethnographies I read on witchcraft, and they start – the ethnographer says, “I’ve never seen a witch.” It’s like, on the first page. Is it Nils‘ book on The Empty Seashell?

RI: Mmm.

TK: That’s the starting line: I’ve never seen a witch. The locals have never seen a witch. But nevertheless, because of this, people’s awareness of their fragmented understanding of the world they can entertain the possibility of the witch.

RI: And I think that’s a core thing and one of our theoretical influences in a way. In Evans-Pritchard’s classic study of witchcraft – in which he debunks the idea that may have been common at the time, that these are people with a primitive mind-set who don’t understand the rules of cause and effect – he says, “No. They think through exactly the same mind-set as us.” If somebody dies whilst sleeping under the granary, then do you ask why that is? Well, if the explanation is witchcraft, that doesn’t mean that they dismiss the fact that termites ate through the legs, and that’s why the granary fell down. There’s a question of, “but why did termites eat through the legs of the granary at that point, when that person was sleeping under it? And he says, “Now this is the same the logic that we operate on. It’s just that we dismiss why questions as legitimate questions.” So we have all kinds of means of explaining these how questions, of explaining physical causality, but the problem of the why is generally dismissed as a legitimate question to ask. But it remains as a problem. And it remains a problem that people grapple with, in their everyday lives. And they do so in ways that sometimes can be referred to as magical.

DR: It does bring us full circle. And we are not immune from answering why questions at the Religious Studies Project. And the why of why we have to stop now, is that we’ve run out of time! I want to thank you both for taking part and, hopefully, we can have you back on another day, to continue the conversation.

TK: Sure.

RI: Hope so. Thank you.

Citation Info: Irvine, Richard, Theodoros Kyriakides and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Magic and Modernity”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 March 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 23 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/magic-and-modernity/

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

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

Descriptions of Religion as Explanations of Religion

In this week’s podcast, Kathryn Lofton and John Modern join Adam Miller for a conversation that hovers around the relationship between description and explanation in the study of religion, and the notion that the way scholars of religion think about their categories of analysis shapes what they say about a given set of data and how they say it. Given the entanglement of description and explanation, Lofton and Modern stress the responsibility scholars of religion have to know their material deeply, to be aware of the history of their field and categories of analysis, and to speak to issues/questions beyond their areas of speciality.

Kathryn Lofton is the Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Yale University. She is the author of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, the soon-to-be-published Consuming Religion, and is currently working on the religious contexts of Bob Dylan. John Modern is the Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Franklin & Marshall College. He is the author of Secularism in Antebellum America and is currently pursuing two book projects—one on machines and cognitive science, and another on Devo and rubber. In addition to their solo-enterprises, they have worked together on a couple of things—Frequencies, a collaborative genealogy of spirituality, for example, and most recently a book series to be published by the University of Chicago Press titled Class 200.

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, camping gear, masquerade masks, and more.

 

Encounters Between Buddhism and the West

previously been interviewed for the RSP.

In this interview, entry to the discussion takes place through the subject of Laurence Carroll, an Irish emigrant to Burma and who was ordained Dhammaloka in Burma. Carroll, like many of his generation, emigrated to the US in the early part of the 20th century. On crossing the US, his trajectory onward to south Asia became entangled more deeply with the politics of empire and colonialism.

Dhammaloka’s story opens up a people’s history of the development of Buddhism in what we might call the West. The crossing of boundaries, which we see in the monk’s biography, points to a number of ideas around the identification of religion with nationalist projects. These are challenges to imperial authorities and is bound up in Dhammaloka’s conversion to, and acceptance by, everyday Buddhism in Burma.

In this story is a continuation of “dissident orientalism”, a conflict inherent within the colonial project wherein communities and personal trajectories become embedded within local religious contexts. A distinction made, both in Ireland and Burma, between native religion and the religion of the coloniser serves only to enhance the connection between nationalist movements and ethno-religious identity. Cox’s ideas focus on the conjunctions between race, religion and imperial power. How Buddhism becomes identified as Asian remains central to that.

**As mentioned in the interview, a slightly longer version of this interview (approx. five minutes) is available to download here**

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Sri Lankan Buddhism and Colonialism, and Immigrant Buddhism in the West, and of course in the website for the Dhammaloka Project.

We hope you enjoy the sound from our new microphone setup. Thanks for listening!

Taking Witchcraft and Possessions Seriously with Philip Almond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Podcasts

The Science of Prayer: Genealogies and Biopolitics

The methods we use to study religion have consequences, argues Dr. John Lardas Modern in this conversation with David McConeghy. Beginning with the approaches of late 19th century anthropologists like E.B. Tylor, Modern discusses how prayer became an object of study for social scientists. As they tried to find out whether ‘prayer works,’ researchers proposed a constellation of theoretical models and experiments that treated religion as a discrete object. Measuring prayer made it easier to use religion and its practices as tools or instruments available for commodification and capitalization. In this wide ranging episode, Modern sketches a few of the bio-political effects that can be seen from his genealogical approach, and he shares with listeners how the American rock band DEVO merits our attention as a surprising fusion of scientific and religious perspectives.

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The Science of Prayer: Genealogies and Biopolitics

Podcast with John Lardas Modern (22 June 2020).

Interviewed by David McConeghy.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-science-of-prayer-genealogies-and-biopolitics/

David McConeghy (DMcC): Welcome. My name is David McConeghy. And today I’m joined by Professor John Lardas Modern, who teaches at Franklin and Marshall College, and is the author of several books: The Bop Apocalypse: Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs; Secularism in Antebellum America; and he is the co-editor, with Katie Lofton, of Class 200: New Studies in Religion, an excellent book series that I recommend heartily to all of our Listeners. Professor Modern, thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate having your time today.

John Modern (JM): Well thank you, David. And good morning to you!

DMcC: Good morning, as well! I would invite you to share with us a little bit about your ongoing projects. What are you working on right now? And how can we develop that into an interesting conversation, for our Listeners, about the idea of the scientific study of prayer?

JM: Ah. Well, that’s a good question. So currently, I am sort-of betwixt-and-between different projects. I’m doing some final revisions on a book project that I’ve been working on for about, oh, ten years or so, which deals with the sort-of histories, the genealogies of the cognitive and neuroscientific studies of religion. And so a lot of my interest in measurement and calculability, and the kind-of incursion of certain forms of mathematical formalism into, you know, Humanities and Social Sciences in general, but for our particular purposes the Study of Religion and – even more specifically – the study of prayer, derives from that research. But I’m also very excited by a project that I have on the horizon that I’ve been dabbling in for the last few years. It is connected to the previous project on cognitive science, but it’s taking and thinking about the developments in science – particularly cybernetics in the mid-twentieth century – and trying to think through that problematic by telling a story about the history of Akron, Ohio from the nineteenth century through to the industrialisation in the 1970s.

DMcC: So let’s talk a little bit about that story. Some of what John and I are going to talk about is from the very first inaugural issue of American Religion, in an essay called “Praying Hands“, which really connects some of these issues for us. The scientific study of prayer, as you outline in the beginning of that piece, begins in the late nineteenth century. Can you talk about the origins of the scientific study of prayer?

JM: Yes. I mean, I guess I’d first qualify any sort-of questions about origins or . . . . Discussions about origins are always a little bit fraught because, to paraphrase Don DeLillo, you can never tell where it begins – anything – where it begins. But, for the conceit of the article, I do locate an origin point in sort-of Victorian England amongst natural scientists – particularly, three that I sort-of talk about in the article: EB Tylor – everybody’s favourite Victorian anthropologist of the nineteenth century.

DMcC: (Laughs).

JM: And his two-volume work, Primitive Culture in 1871, and also the following year, 1872 – which in England was the season of the Prayer Gauge Debates, in which prayer, the subject of prayer, became a kind-of talking point among certain kinds of established scientists from the Royal Society. Between John Tyndall and Francis Galton who, in their kind-of reaction to the state calling for a Day of National Prayer for the country – in terms of thinking about some of the issues – they kind-of responded in a way that reminds you, I would say, of almost a New Atheist pose in the present: your kind-of trolling attitude toward religion. So, in the Prayer Gauge Debates, basically, they used it as an opportunity to publish these almost tongue-in-cheek, but also semi-serious articles about what the scientific study of prayer really looked like. And, in doing so, kind-of pointed out what a ridiculous proposition it would be to take prayer seriously as a kind of religious faculty. But it could be taking it seriously by measuring it, and coming up with sophisticated experimental designs by which one would study the prayers of people and how effective they were. And this is combined with EB Tylor, who in a sort-of different setting . . . . EB Tylor is not trolling anybody with Primitive Culture! (5:00) But he is making some very kind-of provocative claims about the history and origins of religion. And he sees prayer as he sees religion, as a kind of necessary evolutionary development within human history; that it does serve an evolutionary purpose of advancing both cognition and social structure. And he sees it primarily as a kind of way – in similar ways in which contemporary cognitive science see it – as something that can, in fact, be measured. And for Tylor, his sort-of standard of measurement in the 1870s was adopting the new science . . . or not the new, but the exciting possibilities that were being unleashed by the science of statistics, and looking at, you know, large data sets of populations, and trying to crunch the numbers in such a way as you could figure something out about not only the population but the individuals that comprise the population. So in Tylor you also see, in a less ironic mode, this desire to proclaim that religion is something that is out there in the world that humans do – which is a founding assumption. But moreover, it’s something that cannot simply be described or compared, but it’s also something that can be measured with precision, and the tightness of numbers, with the underlying assumption that whatever mathematical formalism one brings to the object of prayer, that prayer can be contained within that sort of formal structure: that the idea that whatever accedes in human life in religion is not necessarily, first and foremost, on the minds of people like Tyler and Galton and Tyndall.

DMcC: I’m really amused by some of the examples that you cite. Especially in the research questions that they asked. So the simple question of, “Do sick persons who pray, or are prayed for, recover on average more rapidly than others?” was a kind-of like guiding question for the statistical model. But then, when they went to draw on the data, they crunched numbers from whether clerics had better health outcomes than lawyers, and whether slave ships were more likely to sink than those that were carrying missionaries on them. I mean, these are provocative data sets!

JM: Yes. And so that’s Galton again, kind-of trolling this . . . So, “If prayer really works or is effective, wouldn’t you think that these people who are prayed for more than others would feel the benefits, would feel the effects of those prayers?” And so, simply as a kind-of anecdote of Galton’s, this was kind-of a ridiculous proposition. And I think I also mention in my piece something to the effect of “It’s like, wouldn’t the insurance companies be on this?!” (Laughs) “If this was a viable option, who do you think would be first and foremost on it, in order to make money, and to maximise their capitalist margin?”

DMcC: I can’t imagine that that guy from State Farm would pass up an opportunity like that.

JM: Oh no. And I think in a lot of ways that’s, for me . . . . When I read that piece, actually, about Galton, I thought, “Oh my gosh!” In a lot of ways, as a kind-of genealogist, I sort-of live in the past, in a strange temporality, where I don’t, in a sense, walk around the world making hard and fast distinctions about past present and future. It’s a kind of cultivated temporality. And you see Galton doing this in the nineteenth century, which resonates so much with contemporary sort-of scientific studies of religion and spirituality, prayer, meditation. Where, you know, we at the AAR will see a session on the cognitive science of religion, on the study of meditation, or something. And we’ll go it, and we’ll have arguments, etc. But I think the one thing to keep in mind with research that these scientists are doing is it’s being operationalised far outside the discipline of Religious Studies. It is being operationalised by pharmaceutical companies. It is being operationalised by insurance companies, who . . . . In a lot of ways, in the last 15 years, the kind-of incursion of wellness programmes in every nook and cranny of institutional bureaucratic life, is, I think, a product of this kind-of conception that this is useful data. It’s data about religion that’s not simply about figuring out what religion is, or what the human is. It’s data that can be capitalised on. It’s data that can, in a sense, make your business model, or your drug, more effective or something like that. (10:00) So there are these consequences of this kind-of intellectual history that I’m sort-of putting together, that I think are haunting the piece, or in the background of the piece, in a lot of ways.

DMcC: I appreciate the idea that there’s a moment, perhaps, that you’re putting your finger on. It might not be the first moment, but it’s a very clear moment, where religion is being identified as an instrumental object. It is the thing that can act, it can do, it can be appropriated for certain ends. And we have a moment in the quantification of prayer, when we can trace deliberately the actions of specific persons pursuing those ends. And the ways in which that actually changes not only what religion is about, but maybe religion’s opposites. Can you speak a little bit about how measuring prayer actually changes something about the way that we understand the category of religion and non-religion, and the ways in which questioning, measuring, quantifying really provoke challenges to the categories that we use in the world to describe things like prayer?

JM: Yes. That’s a great question. You know I think the first thing I would say, if one stands in the world, and stands and looks upon the world, and assumes as a matter of course that the thing you are interested in it’s a matter of identifying it, locating it, and measuring it – with the confidence that one can identify, locate and measure with a precision to situate it in the world, to locate it in the world in a very specific way – to kind-of contain it in a lot of ways, it’s going to affect the kinds of questions that you’re going to ask. And so, with my sort-of genealogy of the measurement of prayer in this essay, I’m trying to think a lot about, think through . . . . So in the nineteenth century you had this kind-of science of statistics, this kind-of enthusiasm for the possibilities of measuring different kinds of means across populations, and trying to figure out what is essentially that which defines a population – in terms of religion, or mortality, or whatever it might be – where the study of prayer becomes, “Ok, does prayer work?” The initial questions are, for Tyndall and Galton and some of the people who responded to Tyndall and Galton . . . . You have all these religious folks – people who are practising theologians or sort-of self-identified religious leaders in the Anglican Church, who are kind-of hitting back against this trolling that they feel they have been subject to by saying that prayer does in a sense work: not because it can be measured in terms of better mortality rates of clerics, or something like that. But it works as a kind of moral salve, or a social cohesive energy, or something like that. So in that moment you have both sides sort-of thinking about religion – well, prayer in particular – and both are coming at it as it’s something in the world out there that can be identified and located. And although some of the religious critics are not using statistics they have, in a sense, moved into a space where we begin to see this kind of separation of categories of the religious and the secular. And so you fast forward a little bit, let’s say . . . . In my piece I also jump around a lot in the piece in terms of time periods. But you see in the contemporary moment, where nobody’s studying prayer statistically like that as much anymore. There was a recent study about ten years ago in the Harvard Medical Review or something. It was a Harvard scientist, I forget. But saying “I’m not sure prayer works.” (Laughs). “I’m not sure. We’ve done the data points. It doesn’t work as a model of cause and effect.” But now the question becomes, “Well, how do we measure what’s happening in the brain when somebody prays? Is there something about commonality across different kinds of brains so that we can, with a degree of certainty, claim that we can understand prayer as a particular style of cognition? Or we can reduce prayer to a kind of cognitive system?” And so I sort-of see that your initial question – like, what happens to these categories? – well we’re here where the brain, for example, in the contemporary moment, oddly becomes a kind of site, and location, and place of investment of energies and desires and fears and ambitions; (15:00) that maybe perhaps we would normally understand as something . . . that what we think when religion happens, that’s what happens. And so the brain itself – in a desire for measurement, the desire to calculate, and a kind of righteousness that is often adopted by those who would deign to measure such things as prayer and religion – itself becomes oddly, strangely resonant with precisely the category that they are trying to, in a sense, explain away through their regimes of measurement.

DMcC: This jives a lot . . . I was re-listening to a recent interview that Ben Marcus did about separation of church and state. And in that recent interview, one of the things that the lawyers that he was interviewing suggested was that efforts to expand the category of religious liberty in the contemporary era are a slippery slope that ends up limiting religious freedom later on. You think you want that liberty, but when you get it you find out that you did not get what you bargained for! And in some sense, I think that’s what you’re saying here as well. That by studying prayer, we turn prayer into an object that we can control. We study meditation, we turn it into an object that we can control. By doing that, we try to exert power over that particular exercise of religion, and try to define where and where its power does not rely, right? Whether meditation is valuable for us? Ok, then everybody should do it! Is prayer good for us? Everyone should do it! And if we prove it wrong, then we have reduced, potentially, the set of variables that prayer could act on to only, “Is it good or bad for our health?” and not the range of things that it might have been prior to that moment. So the studying of it actually narrows the focus down so much that it limits the object considerably. Is that something that you’re seeing here?

JM: Yes, and I think that’s a good recitation of that kind-of move of modernity, right? Because, again, we’re dealing with this kind-of objectification of prayer in a moment where biomedical regimes, pharmaceutical regimes, various risk assessment regimes are using this knowledge in a way that is, that is limiting, right? And the idea that one perhaps . . . . I’ll speak for my own institution. I am incentivised economically to do yoga, and to count calories, and to do various things that are going to prove to the health insurance overlords that I am employee who is going to save them money in the long-run. You know, I don’t do this, I don’t do this, I do these four or five things. . . . And so this is something that is troubling. Because, again, it’s not simply a kind of intellectual debate among scholars – although I love participating in those! I think the stakes are much higher in ways that have to do not just simply . . . . I mean, the study of prayer is one example of kind-of larger trajectory that we are moving into and through, kind-of just a continual unfolding of a kind-of biopolitical dynamic that Michel Foucault identified long ago. And so I’m also reminded here, where these larger things . . . . This came to a head when I was at a retreat in Denmark. And it was a retreat for those scientists, cognitive neuro-scientists and scholars who are associated with a project that came out of the University of Aarhus there, called the MINDLab project, which was a five-year sort-of huge thing that was happening, in which the study of cognition and religion sort-of came to the fore. And so this was a retreat. It was a beautiful retreat in this kind of pastoral setting. And the first night I sat down for dinner, the opening dinner, and I sat beside a PhD in Chemistry from Berlin. He wasn’t an academic, but he was somebody who worked for a major pharmaceutical company in Germany, in Berlin. And I was like, “Well what are you doing here? What’s your interest in the cognitive science of religion thing?” And basically, without any irony, it was just like “I’m really fascinated by what they’re showing about the kind-of neuro correlates of mysticism and meditation” for himself as a scientist. He felt that he could begin to take this data and to be able to see how the brain operates when one is mediating, or when one is praying. And to be able to, then, kind-of reverse engineer that process by literally coming up with a drug that would replicate what is happening in your brain – you know, in the light of what they think is going on in your brain when you’re meditating, or something like that (20:00) – which sounds almost like a conceit out of science fiction novel!

DMcC: It does!

JM: But it’s happening, right?

DMcC: There is a Doctor Who episode where the Doctor is . . . I think it’s about Season Three or Four, and they go to this community, and the community has polluted the earth beyond all measure. And everybody gets by on drugs that represent emotion. And so the Doctor and his companion, Martha – at that moment, I believe – are offered, “Do you want Happy?” That’s the drug. The drug is a patch that will give you happy. Or “Forget” is the drug. And those kind of designer drugs, that Sci-Fi future, that does not feel so terribly far off right now.

JM: Oh no. Let’s think of the saturation of different kinds of neuro-enhancers and various ways in which we are using drugs to sort-of change and to cultivate, à la phrenology: the nineteenth century sort-of practice of seeing brain plasticity as the key to actualising one’s freedom or subjectivity. You know, this is this future. And it ties in with . . . ok, the idea where we’re living in a situation where . . . . I mean, I know I’m just feeling the effects. For example, every year at my institution our healthcare gets cut. Because healthcare is just a ballooning expense, right? And you see a future where in order to, in a sense, treat people, or to have insurance, one might be subject to different kinds of strictions, the same way in which, for example, if you smoke you’re not . . . your health insurance, or your life insurance rates are going be higher. So what’s different like, well, if you pray – or more yet – if you don’t pray, do you take this drug that replicates what happens to your brain when you pray? And that’s a really strange world. Because then you can imagine the next step where, if you’re prognosticating, “What does the future of” let’s say, “American religious history look like?” you’ll begin to have different kinds of movements, different kinds of groups, and individuals, and formations that are revolving around the practice, the myths, and rituals of these kinds of conceptions of cognition. Which we already see, for example, in Scientology, which is emerging at a moment in the 1940s and 1950s where the sort-of concept . . . . Our concept of the brain that we have right now, in 2020: it’s basically constituted by a network of neurons that processes information. This kind of paradigm comes together in the 1940s with, you know, the kind-of notion of a “logical calculus” – an essay or an article in 1943 put out by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts. And it gets kind-of integrated with burgeoning theories of information that are coming from Claude Shannon, Norbert Weiner, different kinds of mathematicians. And together, when these are integrated, there’s a paradigm shift in how we understand the brain. And that is, you know, more or less. There are many kinds of ups and downs, and kinds of tangents that happen. But essentially we do assume that the brain is constituted by neurons processing information. And that’s an interesting kind-of thing that Hubbard was way into. He designed an entire religion and cosmology around that conceit. So it’s happened before and it will happen again, I am sure.

DMcC: So if that’s one version of the story, in your article you propose that there might be some alternatives. And one of your sources for your alternatives, is the counter-cultural music band, Devo. (Laughs). Can you explain how Devo fits in to all this? How do we go from EB Tylor, and these folks that were arguing about whether or not prayer is effective, to Devo?

JM: Well yes. That . . . I guess once people, perhaps, hear this podcast, they might actually pick up the article! (Laughs) Like, “What on earth is going on here?!” So the essay does move from the nineteenth century, and it kind-of ends with this sort-of mediation on Akron in the 1970s, which, as I mentioned, is my next project that I’m sort-of thinking a lot about. And so, when I was asked to think about an essay to submit to this new journal that Sarah Imhoff and M. Cooper Harriss are editing. You know, I was like “Well, I don’t have anything quite right. But I have this kind-of idea where I can sort-of connect things, and it’s sort-of crazy and weird?” And they were like, “Yes. We want that!” (25:00) And so the invitation to really kind-of think outside of a standard academic essay was quite inviting. And so, in this piece, I put together all of these different kinds of components that on some level are addressing the notion of prayer. And, as you mention, a lot of the essay is about, I guess, maybe the kind of reductions that are happening, or the kinds of enclosures that I see happening in the objectification of religion, and the scientific measurement of prayer. And I do end with a kind-of moment, the conceit of “Praying Hands“, which is an early Devo song. Devo is a conceptual art project that emerged out of Kent State university in the early 1970s, in the aftermath of the May 4th shootings in 1970.You know, just a bunch of kids who had some kind-of nutty ideas, and who were reacting to what they saw was an utter failure of civilisation that contained them. And they started making weird music, wearing weird costumes, doing all kinds of just strange things. And this is one of their early songs that they talk about praying hands. And the line that keeps repeating is that “Praying hands, real praying hands pray to no man. They pray to no man.” And so one of the things that I am projecting upon Devo . . . . I’m not sure whether the leaders of Devo were sort-of reading a lot of negative theology at the time, but they were, you know, kind-of weirdly involved in a lot of weird religious stuff that I talk about there, and elsewhere. But it’s this kind-of notion of: what does it mean to think about a world that, at the end of the day, is resistant to calculation, is resistant to the human standards of measurement that we assume it can be subsumed under? What if, there is a kind of horizon of unknowing in our world? What if these categories of the religion versus the secular, this categorical difference, is simply seen as a kind of artefact of history, as a kind of social construction that has done a tremendous amount of work in this world, but still, at the end of the day, is something that is strangely made up? And so I see something like Devo as . . . given their artistic license to be able to sort-of act, create, think and live in a way that doesn’t first and foremost subscribe to some of the categorical differences and some of the common sense assumptions that people often do. And so in the piece they, over a season in 1979, they had this kind-of thing they would do where they came out as the opening act for their own concerts. They were not a big band at the time, or that big. They only had their first album out. And so people weren’t familiar with what they looked like. So they would come out for a twenty minute set before their main set, playing this band called Dove, D-O-V-E, the band of love. And they would do a twenty minute set of these sort-of cheesy religious songs. They did “A Worried Man”, by the Carter Family, and they did the song, “Praying Hands”. Which they would kind-of do this evangelical performance, a kind-of revivalist ethos, and they would sort-of do this thing before Devo came out. And I’ve always found that to be sort-of sweet, alluring and attractive. And my goal was to sort-of make sense of it in a way that perhaps pointed to an alternative, or an outside, of the fairly dark story that I tell. I tell a lot of dark stories in my work. Most of my stories are pretty dark. And so I’m always sort-of keen to try to find some sort-of spark of hope, or redemption, or light somewhere. Not too much, but just a little bit! (Laughter).

DMcC: I’m fascinated by the idea that a band would be its own opener, and would invert what they were doing. The line in your piece that really caught my attention was that the singer would say, “Oh brothers and sisters, praise Jesus! And now here’s a reborn Devo song. When they play the devil music, now it’s gone! The Praying Hands.”

JM: (Laughs).

DMcC: Which is just this openness to the inversion of who they’re about: “Hey, Crowd! You thought you were here for us weird punk people playing, you know, music, and dancing in weird ways, dressing in weird ways. And, by the way, here’s some Jesus music to start with.”(30:00)

JM: Yes! No, it’s so . . . I love it. And one of the things that I’ve been really lucky and privileged to have done, over the last couple of years, is to be in contact with some of those guys who were in Devo – Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, particularly – and to sort-of talk to them a little bit about what they were thinking, vis-à-vis religion in that moment. And both of them, in a sense, mention the kind-of weird strange influence of this televangelist named Rex Humbard, who’s also in the piece on prayer, where . . . . Something that Jerry told me was that he learned a lot watching Rex Humbard, watching these televangelists. Just as a performer of . . . like, how do you captivate an audience? How do you cultivate a kind of charismatic performance? And so, just at the level of aesthetics I think early Devo, particularly, borrowed much from the sort-of stagecraft of somebody like Rex Humbard, and the kind of evangelical stagecraft which has a very long and rich history in America. And so Devo has this very long, inverted endpoint, where they’re taking that tradition and inverting it, the same way in which they would . . . . You know, the whole point of Devo. They were originally called the De-evolution Band. That was the long version – de-evolution. So their whole point is the Adorno and Horkheimer dialectic of enlightenment point: the idea that all this work, and advertisement, that is going in to substantiate and to progress the enlightenment culture of civilisation is actually, ironically, producing the exact opposite. And it’s producing not evolution but de-evolution. It’s producing decline, not progress. And, you know, that is one of those kinds of what ifs: what if things are not getting better? What if things aren’t getting better? Imagine the kinds of questions you would ask. But also all the sort-of constellation of comments, and assumptions, that you hold to be self-evident. To what degree would they be up-ended, challenged, or at least put in tension in some way?

DMcC: While you were talking I was picturing a moment from the movie, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? Have you seen that before?

JM: Yes, I saw that a long time ago. Yup.

DMcC: So there’s a big political scene, and they’re at a rally. And the main characters are on stage and they’re playing their song which the political person is kind-of against. But then he sees how much the crowd is into the music, and he changes his tune instantly, right? He pivots, and he says “Oh the crowd is into this. I guess I need to be into this too.” And he walks up on stage and he celebrates them, and he says, “And now you’re going to lead us all in a rousing chorus of ‘You are my Sunshine’.” This kind-of inversion. I wonder, when you see Devo as kind-of taking its inspiration from the stagecraft of religious persons, whether that’s part of the story that you’re telling with the scientific study of prayer, too?

JM: Absolutely. Which gets us back to the idea where, you know . . . think about a concern with “charisma”, or a concern with “the crowd”. Think about these terms. These terms are central to the development of the academic study of religion, right? When people thought about religion they would go, “Charisma!”, or think about crowd behaviour, “Durkheim or Weber!” or something like that. And so you get to Devo, where my kind-of conceit is that they’re exploding these kinds of categorical differences, where: to what degree is that a religious thing or a secular thing? And so I’m not really interested in saying “Well Devo is a little bit, ‘Is this religion, or is that secular?’” And I have a little fun thing at the end, where, you know, where Mark Mothersbaugh, the lead singer of Devo, mentioned to me – you know, it wasn’t serious, necessarily – but it’s like, you know: “Talking to you, John, we probably should have made Devo a religion!” (Laughs). He was kind-of mocking me, a little bit! And I was just like “Yeah! Yeah!” And I just got excited in a kind-of almost fan-boy sort of way! And it was this moment when . . . . This kind-of encapsulates for me something about our desire, our reliance upon, for example, the distinction between the religious and the secular. Even for somebody like myself, who has spent a lot of time trying to sort-of think through the making of that distinction, and to make kinds-of claims about how that distinction is not some sort-of universal thing that is written into the very fabric of the cosmos, but it is a kind-of human construct. I know that, right? But yet I feel the pull of that binary. (35:00) I feel the pull of kinds of systems of values that are embedded within that binary, that allow me access to the different parts of the world that I live in. Which is a kind-of . . . . For me, Devo – listening to Devo or talking about Devo – at least gives you some sort-of small space by which one could possibly gain a degree of leverage, reflection, and distance from the culture that contains you.

DMcC: I’m so glad that I had the chance to speak with you today. And I think your recommendation is really useful: “Go listen to Devo!”

JM: That’s right! All the time. All day long! Promise me! (Laughs).

DMcC: Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you.

JM: Oh. Thank you so much, David. I really, very much enjoyed it.

 

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Near Death Experiences

Accounts of Near Death Experiences will no doubt be very familiar to listeners of the RSP and the broader public. From fictional accounts such as the Wizard of Oz or Flatliners, to self-reports which grew in popularity in the mid-twentieth century, many of us will be know narrative tropes such as the tunnel, the life review, and the out of body experience. Existing research has tended to, on the one hand, focus on the pathological elements of Near Death Narratives – attempting to ‘explain away’ the phenomenon in reductionistic terms – or, on the other hand, view such accounts as substantive proof of a ‘world beyond’. In today’s podcast, we showcase an approach which accepts reports of Near Death Experiences as discourse, and attempts to understand them in their social, cultural, and historical context. Further, we ask what is the relationship between these narratives and contemporary discourse on ‘religion’? Joining Chris Cotter in this podcast is Professor Jens Schlieter, who has admirably addressed these questions and more in his recent book What Is It Like To Be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity, and the Occult (OUP 2018).

In this episode, we discuss definitions of Near Death Experiences, how one might study reports of such experiences from a critical study of religion perspective, how such reports are related to modern societal developments such as ‘secularization’, individualization, and advances in medical science, as well as the impact of ‘religious’ meta-cultures upon these reports and the potential ‘religious’ functions they appear to serve.

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Near-Death Experiences

Podcast with Jens Schlieter (13 April 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/near-death-experiences/

Christopher Cotter (CC): Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, and indeed in society beyond, will be very familiar, I imagine, with the notion of near-death experiences. They’ve become quite a predominant theme in fictional narratives and across the internet. But within academic study there have been two approaches, possibly, to these. One would be to be hyper-medicalised, physiological, psychological – seeing them as phenomena to be explained away. Another approach would be to be seeing them as proof of life beyond, and using them in that sort-of context. But what’s been largely absent, up until now, has been a Critical Religious Studies approach; looking at these narratives in their social and historical context, and what they can tell us about our society and about our lives. Joining me today, to talk about near-death experiences, is Professor Jens Schlieter of the University of Bern. Professor Schlieter studied Philosophy, and Buddhist Studies, and Comparative Religion, in Bonn and Vienna and got his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Bonn. And he has held research positions at the University of Munich and the University of Bonn. He is currently at the University of Bern, where he is Professor for the Systematic Study of Religion and also Co-director for the Institute of Science of Religion. And his publications comprise contributions on methodological and theoretical questions in the study of religion, and Buddhist bioethics, and comparative philosophy. But of particular relevance today is his 2018 book with Oxford University press called, What Is It Like to be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity and the Occult. So first off, Professor Schlieter, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Jens Schlieter (JS): Thank you, Chris, for inviting me here.

CC: It’s wonderful to have you here in Edinburgh on this crisp winter’s day! I could just start off by asking you: what is it like to be dead, Professor Schlieter?! But, although it may be fairly obvious what got you interested – because it is such an inherently tantalising topic – what was it that got you interested in studying and writing about near-death experiences?

JS: The title, of course, is a little bit provocative. But it is, indeed, to be found in the Scriptures on near-death experiences. But I thought of the famous article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel writing an article on “What it is like to be bat?” And he argues that we don’t know, because we usually imagine ourselves hanging in a cave from the top. But we do not know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. And so there is, of course, a very important topic and the whole . . . . People claimed that they were actually dead, but the definition of death . . . usually we would define death as a status of irreversibility. So one cannot come back to life. So there is a paradox there. But on the other hand, these experiences of people very close to death, they must be taken seriously. Because people change their lives. They write large autobiographic narratives in which they define this experience as absolutely life-changing in regard to new spiritual views on themselves, on the soul, on the beyond, etc. So that was my initial interest in the whole. How can people describe something that we usually consider as impossible? Because this standpoint of describing the status after death cannot be taken. But obviously we have these narratives. So what do we do?

CC: Absolutely, and it really comes to the core methodological issue in the study of religion, I suppose, where all we have to go on is discourse, and what people say, and putting indescribable experiences into natural language – in the sense of, whether we’re talking about any experience of the supernatural, it inherently has to be described in language and be articulated in that way. So, yes. It quite nicely captures one of the core issues in the study of religion (5:00). But before we get any further, and you’ve already hinted at it there, but, what is a near-death experience? Just so that we’re all talking from the same page.

JS: Yes. I started by defining the methodological point of view on near-death experiences in the book as, let’s say, historical discourse study. So I looked at who defined near-death experience for the first time. Usually people claim that it was Raymond Moody, an American medical professional, a doctor. And he published a book in 1975, Life after Life, and there he speaks of near-death experiences – near-death experiences in the plural – claiming that he used the category to describe those narratives which he encountered in hospitals by survivors of, for example, heart attack, or nearly-drowned, or something like that. But in my book I can show that the term near-death experience is somewhat earlier used already by John C Lilley, in 1972. And he wrote an autobiography, Centre of the Cyclone. And there he describes, interestingly, a near-death experience on the basis that he himself was close to death, using LSD. And so he had visionary experiences triggered by LSD, but on the other hand he was ill, and administered himself an antibiotics, but obviously something went wrong. And so he was actually really close to death and in an almost comatose-like state And Raymond Moody read the book. But of course, for him, it was rather unsettling that it was an LSD experience. But in the book I can show that the LSD and near-death experiences co-evolved in the 1970s as a discourse. And it is not a new phenomenon. Already in the early nineteenth century people spoke of experiences close to death and what happens there, namely: life-review, out of body experiences – Oh! Here I get back to the question of definition! Sorry . . .

CC: That’s alright!

JS: Near-death experiences usually, in what Raymond Moody first systematised, encompass roundabout 15 different topoi – one may say, from a discourse perspective – namely: to get out of one’s body and to encounter one’s dead body from an elevated perspective, looking down at oneself lying in the bed; then there is the idea expressed that you get into something like a summer land, or paradise; that you encounter heavenly beings, or sometimes they are of help and guide you through the netherworld, sometimes they are frightening; also experiences of encountering other family members and friends who have died already – so after-death experience in the meaning that you enter a space where these are already there; but also a kind-of a barrier; and a heavenly voice – an experience of the presence of God or Jesus. And finally, to get back into the body. So these are elements. And Raymond Moody’s idea was these are usually in a kind-of continuous narrative. So they follow each other because they are a universal experience, mirrored, of course, into the individual backgrounds and so on (10:00). But, in general, he believed they really tell something about the after-death realm, and therefore these are real experiences. For me, of course, this is a metaphysical assumption that I can neither deny nor affirm with my research. And therefore I looked at them only as reports – reports of experiences. So, ok, the word “experience” usually means that you truly encounter something that transforms your point of view, that transforms you, probably totally, if it is a life-changing experience. But one can also say experiences are construed in the aftermath. After surviving the whole thing, people usually will ask themselves, “How did it happen that I personally survived? Why didn’t I die?” And I think these are really questions of meaning, of meaningfulness. And very often, at least in our culture, people tend to think of religion as providing an answer, and therefore looking for an answer why they survived. They had maybe visions – we don’t know because there is no way to figure out if these visions happen the way they say they were. But for them, of course, they are real. And we will never know. But what I can say, at least, in the book . . . . I show with various examples that certain narratives, for example, the one of the life-review – that you remember scenes and things in your early life, in your life unfolding, etc. – and that this life-review actually emerged in the narratives. It is not yet there in medieval reports of near-death experiences – if one can say they are near-death experiences, because usually they are deathbed visions by monks and nuns.

CC: Yes. And indeed you make the point in the book that, until recent decades I suppose, these experiences tended to be narrated by others: people telling of someone else’s experience. Whereas, there was a point at which there was the turn to the individual and the self-narrative. Which I think we’re probably going to get onto fairly shortly. So just before we get there, you’ve already given some hints at your methodology there, and it’s a fairly standard Religious Studies approach in the sense of: regardless of whether there is a reality or not, what we have to go on are people’s accounts of their experiences. And these accounts have impact and social impact. So let’s look at them and treat them at face value and just deal with the content, and the meaning, and etc., etc. Is there anything else that you’d like to sort-of caveat what you’re saying? Like, what was the body of material that you consulted?

JS: Well I thought it would be good to start with personal narratives, not those – as you mentioned – by others, so third-hand evidence. And narratives from a first-person point of view are, of course, very much connected to the emergence of autobiographies, of subjectivity, and usually one of the major figure in this emerging tradition was the French philosopher Montaigne. And he, in his essays, unravels a near-death experience interestingly. And major elements, that were of importance for reporters of near-death experiences that inform Moody, are not yet there. They are simply not there. But then there is Francis Beaufort. He was an admiral with the British navy. And he is the first who really had a classical near-death experience, at the end of the eighteenth century (15:00). He fell into Portsmouth harbour and nearly drowned as a young man. And decades later he reported his experience. And for the first time, we have this life-review phenomenon. So he said, “I could see scenes from my early childhood. Memories that I were not aware of that . . . I had these experiences”. So this is an interesting element in itself. So from the sixteenth century up to 1975, this is what the book covers. I decided not to look at sources from non-European cultures. There is, of course, an extensive discussion about if near-death experiences are purely a Western phenomenon, or if near-death experiences can be seen in Indian, Japanese, Chinese traditions. A very important element that is usually pointed out is the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It has been published by Oxford University Press in 1927, translated by Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz in collaboration with native Tibetan Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup. And they were tremendously successful in popularising these Tibetan thoughts and rituals: what should be done if someone dies? And the idea is to guide them through the netherworld, of course, in the Tibetan context to encounter karmic delusions, and to be very frightened – because the consciousness principle has to navigate through its own complications, and so on. But to give you one example that it is quite important, to look very closely at the reported experiences. People usually say, “Well this is evidence that they are of a universal quality.” If you have Tibetans reporting such experiences in the fourteenth century or so, and modern Western evidence, so it seems to be . . . . But, for example, the idea that there is out-of-body experiences and one looks back at oneself. In the Western tradition it is very much the idea that you face yourself being dead. So the soul, or consciousness, hovering over the body, is interested to look at and to examine the body. Because the body is something foreign. Something that is no longer animated, but still a point of reference in this world etc. Whereas, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, of course, due to the idea of reincarnation etc., the body is of no importance. And we can see that it is much more a social reality in the Tibetan Buddhist account of this moment where the soul, or consciousness – to be more precise, in the Tibetan Buddhist context. So the consciousness principle looks not at its former body, but at the weeping family members, and tries to convince them, “Oh I’m fine. Please, you do not help me if you weep. I can see you, but you obviously can no longer see me. But please, that’s not good for me. Because now I have the task I shall move forward to my next existence.” And best would be, of course, no longer to be reincarnated at all. So at the first sight that seems to be, “Ok, that’s an out of body experience.” But the narrated content is totally different in terms of epistemology, in terms of soteriology, and so on and so forth.

CC: Absolutely. So you started to get into the socio-cultural historic contexts within which near-death narratives are occurring. And much of your book, I guess, is looking at Western contexts as you say. And you do an excellent job of charting some of the contextual factors that might have shaped and led, perhaps, to what you might call an explosion of near-death narratives. So if you can, maybe, tell us about some of these modern societal developments that have gone hand-in-hand with near-death narratives? (20:00)

JS: Yes. I think this is a very important aspect. And I think, so far, there was little interest to look at the correlations. What is astonishing is the fact that, in the 1970s, major developments in the Western medical system were going on. For example, to declare people no longer dead with the criterion of heart failure, and other classical criteria that were used for ages to declare people dead if there is no longer brain activity. And there are, of course, measurements from the EEG etc. But that’s led to the situation that people without a functioning brain were declared dead. But their body was still, let’s say, alive, in a way. And of course it was seen as a major advantage also for transplantation of organs. And many of them can only be used in the body is fully intact. And, of course, with artificial respiration and so on. And the phenomena like coma, and locked -in syndrome, they were described at a new level – more scientifically defined, and so on. But in the general society these developments were considered as extremely unsettling. Because there was now an ambivalence: is someone dead or not dead? Only dead if declared to be dead. And shall we trust the physicians, the doctors in the intensive care unit if they say he or she is dead? Then we accept that? And so that was really unsettling. And on the other hand if, of course, due to circumstances that people were able to survive a certain period of very low brain activity and some of them had visionary accounts or visionary experiences, or let’s say, near-death experiences returning from such a state they said, “Well, in your medical perspective maybe we were that close to death that it was only a second that you may have decided to close the artificial attempts of sustaining my life. But I survived – and not only that, I had certain experiences that are absolutely central for my life that I would like to live from now onwards with different values.”

CC: So yes, I’m just pushing through because of time. But yes, we have those medical developments and, you know, people being sustained longer. And you describe how they move from mostly dying out of the hospital context, and moving into hospital contexts. You’ve got, also, all the different forms of medication which might have hallucinogenic properties, legal or illegal. But then there’s also individualisation within religion, beyond religion: the importance of individual narratives of the self. And then also, I guess, that all ties into a secularisation narrative as well. So you’ve got all of this going on, and then “Easter”, in quotation marks, influences coming in. You’ve already described the Tibetan Book of the Dead. So there’s lot going on, in the sixties and seventies, in terms of just rapid social development in these areas – which understandably facilitates the development and, I guess, dissemination of these near-death narratives. But I’m keen to get to the “religion” word, because we need to on the Religious Studies Project! And towards the end of the book you tackle that head on, and talk about how religious meta-cultures might have influenced and shaped the form and content of these near-death narratives (25:00). And then, also, you talk about the potential, I guess you would say, “religious functions” of the narratives. So maybe you should take us through some of that.

JS: Yes. I think usually, books of reporting individuals themselves, they do not very openly quote sources that inspired them. But if you look more closely at the whole near-death reporting genre, one can see that there are many spiritualists, many who are close to Western esotericism, for example: parapsychological accounts are very often combined with near-death accounts. For example, Eben Alexander who published a very, very successful book. So there are people who are usually in a way religious, and at the same time they are distant in regard to dogmas of established churches. So usually there’s something like this: they were brought up in very religious families, and they had a background of, let’s say, intensive socialisation within a religious tradition. And then they moved on, studied, for example, something on the signs of nature and medicine, or whatever – became more critical towards religion and towards establishment in particular. And then this happens. An event that in which they almost died. And I think it is very plausible to look at the phenomenon with this perspective. At this moment they revive their former emotion and that was inspired and formed by a very religious family life. But of course they are already stuffed with critical rationality. They are distant in regard to unfounded claims of traditional religious tradition. So the individual experience is, from my point of view, a very vital element of this late modern religiosity. And therefore one can say near-death experiences are probably prototypical for the development. People no longer believe that there is, let’s say, a life after death in terms of words traditional – especially of course the Catholic Church had to offer, but they have their individual experiences. And they think this is authentic par excellence. Because it is individual. So, in a way, one can say the whole phenomenon mirrors recent developments in Western societies and, on the other hand, I think they offer a certain kind-of a solution for the whole, because people can still continue to believe. And very often, also, one can see that they have a kind-of missionary attitude. That they really speak very freely on their near-death experiences, even though, very often, they note, “OK, I know that you are sceptical, and this is a materialistic society, and no-one will believe me.” But this is part, again, of the whole authenticity that they feel that they are in.

CC: And, I guess, even someone who was notionally “non-religious” – in scare quotes there – they’re part of a context. And the experience, whatever it is, is felt. And their interpretation will be informed by their context within which . . . . And the context will, I suppose, also influence the experience itself in the first place. Because people bring things to an experience. And then, afterwards, interpret it with the resources that are available to them. And especially once there is such an economy of a near-death experiences, then it’s going to take . . . . (30:00).

JS: Absolutely. Although I think it is rather a rare case in which one will have a near-death experience without ever being introduced to religious thought, rituals, and traditions before. Because I think, indeed, one has to have a certain disposition, and a certain expectancy for things to happen, in such experiences. But nevertheless, as I said at the beginning, if you would imagine yourself in the situation, or someone else in the situation – maybe he was not very religious, but survives a very tragic accident. Maybe other companions in the car died. And then you have the question of contingency – what sociologists always say in regard to religion. So the question of the reduction of contingency, namely: “I could have died here. It didn’t happen. So who saved me?” We usually attribute such survival to a force. We are continuously looking for explanations. We cannot live with no explanation, and simply to say that it was by chance, there was no other force involved at all. And so I would say this way of looking at a situation . . . . And, of course, many suffer from, let’s say, the injuries they have. So they are in hospital, they are alone, they are under medication. I don’t want to simply say that’s an outcome of that. I hope that’s clear that I think the whole is meaningful. It’s not simply to be reduced to such factors. But these factors are, or should be, taken into consideration too. So people alone, thinking at, and on, their lives – probably the question of meaning pops up in their lives for the first time ever. And then they, maybe, “Oh yes, there was a certain kind of light. Was there a being behind the light? Did I see a being? Although I do not believe . . . . But probably it was a being. And haven’t I heard some kind of message?” Because the whole thing, for them, is of course complicated too. They have to remember ecstatic experiences. And they cannot say what they experience the moment they experience that. So they have an epistemological problem, too.

CC: Yes. And again we’re right back to that. But putting sort-of non-falsifiable experience into words, after the event. And going back earlier in the interview, you mentioned earlier Montaigne. I have a tattoo of some words by Montaigne: “Fortis imaginatio generat casum”: a strong imagination creates its own reality.

JS: Yes, yes, absolutely

CC: But yes, there’s a sense, after an experience, one is only going to be able to interpret and articulate . . . . And human memory is an awful thing. Memory . . . like these eyewitness reports in criminal cases will say . . . .

JS: Absolutely.

CC: And these experiences – because they’re so intense, and profound, and are current at traumatic circumstances – they are going to be revisited, and rearticulated, and pondered time and time again. So we can’t say too much about the actual experience itself. But what you’re doing is looking at how people are articulating it, and what are the themes, and how that has impacts. We’re pretty much out of time. But I just wanted to sort-of finish with what might be – again, it’s been implicit throughout the interview – but what would be some of your take-home messages for the study of religion? And from your work with near-death experience? And what do you think others can take and apply, perhaps more broadly, in their own studies in this religion thing that we’re all so obsessed with?!

JS: Well, I think one of the general insights that I would consider central is that extraordinary experiences were, for some years, less studied because people thought, “Well it is a discourse, by religious practitioners, to speak about their extraordinary experiences.” (35:00) But I think there is really something in there that may help also to look at recent developments. For example, these books about near-death experiences – they are incredibly successful. Very often you have them in Amazon ranking lists on places five to three – and for weeks. So there is not only the experience, but also a large audience interested in this experience. So to study this as the phenomenon – as a part of the phenomenon of no-longer-institutionalised religion, but never-the-less as a part of a religious discourse where experience matters. And experience that very often has been only psychologised. And there are a lot of neuroscientific theories that simply say, “Well, it’s a dysfunctional brain that produces such delusions and you cannot take it seriously” And I think this simply a very short-sighted view of the whole. Because people change their whole life after the experience. Although, it would be very important to have a closer look at this phenomenon. This has not yet been researched, from my knowledge: an empirical study, that not only considers that the autobiography may be also an oral narrative of what has happened after the experience is considered, but also to look more closely at families, friends and really to corroborate evidence that it was a life-changing matter.

CC: Absolutely. So there’s on that final note, a potential research project for a Listener, or perhaps that’s your next research project, I don’t know? Well thank you so much, Professor Schlieter, for joining us on the Religious Studies Project. I’m looking forward to hearing how it goes down.

JS: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

CC: Good.

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Magic and Modernity

This conversation between Richard Irvine, Theodoros Kyriakides and David G. Robertson concerns magical thinking in the modern world. We may think that such ideas are confined to the fringes in the secular, post-Enlightenment world, but this is not necessarily the case. We talk about Weber’s rationalisation and James Frazer’s evolutionary model of modernity, and how they relate to ideas of belief, and magic. We then look at examples from Orkney and Cyprus to show these ideas in play. This is an interview that will be of interest to all students of secularity, modernity and belief.

This interview was recorded at the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective conference in Feb 2018, and is based on the “Magical thinking in contexts and situations of unbelief” project, part of the Understanding Unbelief programme.

*We apologise for the recent, increasingly frequent disruption to the availability of the RSP website. It has taken a lot of time and energy, but we have now successfully migrated the website to a different hosting provider, and this should resolve the issue. Many thanks for your continued support, and here’s to the rest of 2018!

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

Magic and Modernity

Podcast with Richard Irvine and Theodoros Kyriakides

(26 March 2018).

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Irvine_and_Kyriakides_-_Magic_and_Modernity_1.1

 

David Robertson (DR): I’m joining you again from Milton Keynes, where I’m at the Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective Conference. And today I’m joined by Richard Irvine and Theo Kyriakides who have a project called Magical Thinking in Contexts and Situations of Unbelief, which is part of the bigger Understanding Unbelief project. Today they’re going to be talking about magical thinking in contemporary, “modern” society – with quote marks on it. So, welcome to the Project!

Richard Irvine (RI): Thank you very much.

Theo Kyriakides (TK): Thanks for having us.

DR: So yes, Richard, perhaps you could tell us about the project that you’re working on?

RI: I mean, the basic set of questions we’re asking, it comes out of reflections on the secularisation thesis, the general idea being that: as societies become more apparently rationalised, more secularised – as you see fewer people directly affiliating with religious groups – surely the follow-on from this would be that there’s less space in society for practices that we might term “magic”, for thinking about the world as an enchanted place. But, in actual fact, what we see in our different field sites is that even with people who would define themselves as non-believers, who would see themselves as outside of religious structures and, indeed, rejecting forms of belief, there still seems to be this place in their life for reflecting on what is unknowable and trying to engage with it in different ways. And so, really, what we want to say is that, rather than secularisation squeezing magic out of contemporary life, out of modern life, that in fact secularisation seems to open up new spaces that magic can grow within.

TK: Yes. Just to add that, if you take the notion of modernity, it was Max Weber who kind-of predicted the disenchantment of modernity. It was kind-of a prophecy. When would you say that was, about 1920s?

RI: Yes. He’s speaking, in Science as Vocation, just after the First World War.

TK: Yes. And obviously it’s taken some criticism. But, to an extent I guess, somebody can make the argument that modernity is disenchanted with magic. So, yes. That’s our starting point: to see to what extent disenchantment can allow magical phenomenon to manifest.

RI: Yes. Because I mean, what I was talking about this morning with Science as Vocation, which I mentioned in that lecture, what Weber does is he says . . . . He’s addressing those two students. And obviously, they think they’re very smart. And he’s saying, “You think you’re smart. How much do you actually know? Because, if you think about natives and tribes elsewhere in the world, they have a great store of their knowledge.” So he says, you know, “You board a street car. You don’t know how it propels itself unless you’re a physicist. You buy things without really any notion of why sometimes you can get less or more for the money, whereas in many societies, in fact, people have an understanding of where their food comes from, they have an understanding of . . . .” So he’s saying, in fact, in modern, technologically advanced, specialised societies there’s actually far less of a portion of the total knowledge that we have. So in that, he’s saying, “Yes, we are becoming more rationalised. But does that necessarily mean that we are entering into a state of being more knowing? So, in a sense, the secularisation thesis, as Weber sets it up, allows for this space of enchantment, rather than disenchantment. Because what you have there is that whole space of unknowing about everything that isn’t your very particular job within the division of labour.

DR: But there was another model of modernity, which actually might be slightly earlier, but was certainly in currency around the same time: the whole James Frazer model, in which modernity, you know, building on evolutionary models – Darwinism, social Darwinism, basically – that we moved from superstition and magic, to religion, to science. And so that modernity was, as you said, it was a prediction but it was a prediction, in that model, which does replace magical thinking completely. So Weber’s model of modernity is definitely not the only version of it that’s going around at the same time.

TK: Yes. What’s interesting about Frazer’s work is that it perseveres. He’s taken so much critique for being a cultural evolutionist or primitivist, because he presents this linear trajectory which societies have to be following in order to be legitimised as modern, right? So he’s a kind of . . . I think anthropologists have the knee-jerk reaction of denouncing the evolutionary model. But, at the same time, he’s well-known, you know. People talk about him. People who are not anthropologists know about Frazer’s work. And, in an ironic twist, the trajectory that he kind-of presented as evolutionary –that work, that corpus of work – kind-of substantiates magical belief in modernity as well, in my opinion: the way that magical traditions can become reiterated in modernity through Frazer’s work, anyway.

RI: So, would you say, when people are buying and reading The Golden Bough . . .

TK: Yes.

RI: Because you can still get it in those editions, for £2 or something. So when people buy it, are they looking for magic, rather than . . . ? What is it they’re looking for in there? And is it that disenchanted, I suppose?

TK: Yes, I think the book has a certain allure. I don’t know why people are going to read it, but the fact that you . . . take the back cover: it’s to do with magic,

DR: It’s very readable, it’s very accessible even to non-academics. It does that sweeping grand theory that . . . It boils down to quite simple . . . there’s one central narrative.

RI: And he was a tremendous publicist. Contemporary academics could learn a lot from him about getting their ideas into a mass marketplace!

TK: Absolutely!

DR: Actually, you could make the argument that Frazer’s work is a form of magical thinking in itself, in that he connects all these disparate elements and links them together into a grand narrative. It’s that sort of knowledge that we see in a lot of schools of Occultism, for instance. But when you guys are talking about, you know, magic, magical thinking and all these kind of terms – break that down, how you’re using that for us. You already mentioned ideas of the ineffable, earlier on. I don’t think you used the term ineffable, but you said something similar. But there’s also a kind of practical aspect, as well. So break down how you’re using ideas of magic.

TK: So I think the way we kind-of use the term magical thinking, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with people subscribing to existing magical traditions or practices. It also has to do with the way by which they can develop their own worldviews and philosophies that have the underlying assumption of magical efficacy. So magical efficacy can adopt characteristics of contagious efficacy or automatic efficacy, or what Frazer called sympathetic and contagious magic. So yes, once again, it’s not necessarily people following explicit magical traditions, but also developing their own ways of understanding and dwelling in the world, which can adopt those characteristics that anthropologists associate with magical traditions, in a more implicit manner.

RI: I mean, one of the things we talked about in terms of how we were defining magic in the project – you can shoot this down if you think I’m being too specific about it! But it’s important to think about, especially in what we’re talking about as a modern context, it’s important to think about individual practices that people adopt in order to make sense of the world around them; in order to, in certain ways, gain some kind of mode of control over the world around them. So I think that emphasis – that is classic in most anthropological theory – that what we’re talking about here are certainly social practices that exist within a social space, but which are in the domain of individual actions, rather than necessarily religious ritual which brings social groups together. But I think that that’s quite important in a way, for talking about the modern world because, in fact, as has been repeatedly pointed out, we’re seeing more and more individualisation, more and more fragmentation in how people . . . You know: the whole designation of people talking about themselves a spiritual but not religious, these kinds of things. It’s often about this idea that people are being more idiosyncratic, more personal, in how they engage with the world, and what is potentially unknowable. But something I mentioned this morning which I think is a really interesting case in point, because it’s a contested one: recently Sally Le Page launching an attack on water companies in the UK for, in her terms, practising magic. Because she says she contacted these water companies and they said, “Yes, we’re divining, we’re going out with dowsing rods.” Or, “Some of the people who work for us are going out with divining rods and they’re looking for water. And that’s part of the battery of things that are used.” Now what’s interesting there is, immediately she leaps to this idea that this is magic because it’s something which doesn’t necessarily fit with our hypothetical deduction method of science. So this is a thing which we should have been left behind, once we’d worked out proper scientific ways of finding water. But, in fact, when I talk to people in Orkney – some of whom do rely on divining in order to find where to bore for water – this works. This is practical knowledge that people have of the landscape and where to find water. So, they’re not necessarily – and I think this is an important point – they’re not necessarily thinking of it, or describing it as magic. But, certainly, they would reject the idea that simply because something doesn’t fit with what is tested and known, according to the parameters of science, they’re not going to reject it just because of that. They’re not going to say, “Oh well it doesn’t fit with the peer-reviewed literature. I’m not going to divine for water anymore!” In fact, this is practical knowledge of the landscape and that’s what they go with.

DR: It seems to me that really you’ve got two different kinds of magic in play there, and I think this is common across the board. It’s not meant as a criticism of you, but rather for the listener in terms of how we are using the term discursively. So on the one hand you said, that it was something that wasn’t part of a recognised religious tradition, it wasn’t about religious communities but it was used by the individual. But then we shifted to talking about it as something which wasn’t . . . that was a practice that was thought of as having efficacy, but not through appeals to science.

RI: Mmm.

DR: So those are two quite different things, are they not?

TK: Yes. That’s a good question. One of the reasons that the project is interesting to me, as well, is that people have lost touch with what magic is. Because if you go to initial ethnographic studies, like magic is not just a belief in the supernatural, or belief in, you know, Gods or spiritual beings. Magic is also like a system of practices which have actual ways of reproducing societal structures and kinships. And I think, as Richard said, modernity kind-of led to the fragmentation of the individual and, in a way, led to the fragmentation of magic as well. So we can talk about this later as well, that magic has certain polysemy.

DG: Yes.

TK: Like people understand what magic is in different ways. So, to use Richard’s language from this morning, today there is a certain archaeology of magic. The word magic has been hidden under kind-of layers of modernity, layers of science, and so, in a way, we’re kind-of conducting an archaeology of how people relocate these traces of magical thinking in the everyday.

RI: And in terms of whether or not . . . . I mean, this is always going to be kind -of the problem both methodologically and theoretically. Because when you’re talking about something like magic you’re talking about something which has simultaneously been the locus of thousands and thousands of papers or theorisation, and also something which is in the popular imagination. I think Graham Jones, which you’ve read quite a lot, Theo, but Graham Jones in his recent book – what’s the title?

TK: Magic’s Reason

RI: Magic’s Reason. That’s very interesting because Graham Jones did his PhD with – what I suppose a lot of people would associate with magic – he did his PhD on stage magic. But he’s gone through this archaeology, to use the word, he’s gone through this to look at, well: what does this idea of magic and performance say about the longer strands of magic that were available in European and American culture? Rather than this being a different thing. So the basic problem here is that we are talking about something which is everyday language and can’t necessarily be . . .

TK: labelled.

RI: labelled purely from the point of view of sociological or other theories – which is so much the case in Religious Studies.

DR: Yes.

RI: Because we don’t have ownership over these words. And you can’t necessarily say. . . So sometimes that does mean that you’re involved in shifts . . . . So, you know, with the Sally Le Page example, what’s interesting is that she’s using magic in that particular way. She’s using magic in – we would say – the Frazerian way: this is what society should have evolved beyond.

TK: It’s backwards, yes.

RI: Yes. Now when you have people who are simultaneously saying “I’m an unbeliever, I’ve gone beyond, I don’t hold with religion, I don’t hold with people telling me what to believe,” well, from a Frazerian point of view, right, they’ve stepped into the next level: they’re beyond religion. But what’s curious there, from the point of view of these conflicting views of magic is: hang on! They’ve stepped into that, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve left it behind. In fact, what it means is they’re rejecting religious authority structures, but they may also reject authority structures which are rationalist authority structures. So you’ve got these conflicts of an idea of magic as a failed form of science, which is one model, coming into contact with a practical way of engaging with a world which is full of unknowable things. And it’s full of unknowable things because of the nature of a society where – to go back to this point – it’s so specialised. We know less and less about the whole store of knowledge, because we only really have proper understanding of the tiny bit of the division of labour that we’ve got – if even that!

TK: Officially, I don’t use the word “magic” when I do fieldwork a lot. So I’m not going to ask people “Do you believe or practise magic?” Because, as Richard said, it kind-of ended up being a signifier of irrationality and backwardness. So I might use the local term in the Cypriot dialect for magic. But what’s interesting is that once something’s labelled as magic, it’s labelled as irrational, kind-of excluded from the normative order of things. But at the same time, to take the case of the dowsing example, it is something that people did without questioning. Like, the fact that they went around . . . . Maybe they were questioning it in their heads, but the fact that this practice was being reproduced is interesting. They were going around divining for water and that this was a practice that had, you know, attributes of magical thinking, but was nevertheless naturalised into the normative order of things.

RI: I mean one interesting conversation we were having earlier, with one of the other participants of the conference, struck me as a great example of magical thinking. We were talking about how there’s lots of debates about how in court, when you make your oath, you know, well, what of an unbeliever? Should an unbeliever be allowed to – and this is contested in many places – should an unbeliever be allowed to not make an oath on the Bible? Well, how do they make an oath? But what’s interesting in a lot of these debates, is not . . . . The focus is on whether the Bible is there or not. But the actual question of the oath isn’t necessarily called into question. That, somehow, that performative act of making an oath has a transformative effect on the truthful quality of the entire thing. Now, it’s quite striking that that’s still something which is at the heart of . . . it’s a part of our legacy. It’s at the heart of our ideas about what constitutes the rule of law. Now, ultimately, these are ideas of magical thinking, which I think in some respects, go unexamined. And our task isn’t . . . well certainly, I don’t see our task as being to, in some way, debunk these, or to suggest . . . But, rather, to give lie to the idea that a modern, secularised, rationalised – you can add in all kinds of words for this – leaves these things behind. I mean I suppose I’ve come right back to killing the Ghost of Frazer, again. But that wasn’t my intention when I started this sentence!

TK: He’s already dead, so . . .

RI: (Laughs)

DR: Just to go back to something Theo was saying, there. I mean, a couple of times recently I’ve been thinking about – and this came up during my fieldwork on conspiracy and UFO communities – is the idea that sometimes these things are in the subjunctive mode. And I think this is particularly pertinent when we talk about things like dowsing, but also alternative therapies. One thing I found was that it was almost always . . . it was very common for people to get into new age, or UFO, or conspiracy communities through alternative health care, essentially because they had chronic illness of one type or another. And so, when the scientific mainstream treatments didn’t work, they were prepared to try anything. They would try them in the subjunctive mode, to see if they work. And then, when one of them works for whatever reason, that then is a confirmation that, “Oh, some of these things do work, even though science says it’s not true.” And this leads them to then embrace a number of other possible things in the subjunctive mode. And I think that dowsing is like that. The council is probably thinking, “Well, I don’t know if it works or not – but it might work!” You know, if it has given us results then, fine. I’m not going to be thinking too much about whether it’s scientific or not. And you find the same thing in acupuncture treatment on the NHS. They’re prepared to pay for acupuncture, or sometimes aromatherapy and things. And they’re like “Well it doesn’t matter if it’s only working because it’s a placebo. If it’s working, it’s working.”

TK: So subjectivity kind-of demands maintaining a certain propensity to the potential of something to be unknowable.

DR: Yes. The rational justification for it is secondary to the practical application, or the function.

TK: Yes. There’s this famous phrase I like from Jeanne Favret-Saada’s work: “I know that magic is a joke, but still . . .” You know, it’s that tension that the unbeliever can oscillate with that magical thinking emerges from. I know that magic is a joke, or it doesn’t exist, but still . . . And she borrows this from psychanalyst Octave Mannoni, who kind-of deals with subjectivity in terms of magical thinking, as well. So that was a phrase that was kind-of foundational in the theoretical foundations that we tackle.

RI: I mean, I think the way that you’ve talked about the “evil eye” is a very good example of that. Because you talk about the way that in certain modes this can be used seriously.

TK: yes. So the evil eye, in Cyprus, on certain occasions can be used as decoration on people’s shoes and T-shirts or things, or houses in general. But, under certain occasions, it is granted much more magical qualities by the people using it, so under occasions of uncertainty or stress. Even the other day, I talked to people and they tell me: “I don’t really believe in the evil eye. I don’t acknowledge that it’s in my house. But sometimes, if I’m having a bad day, or I’m having bad thoughts, I might just think about it. I might look at it.”

RI: It sort of goes back to what you were saying about, “I know this is a joke, but still . . .” I mean that, there’s certain sense of what unbelief would involve, which should end after the first part: “I know it’s a joke,” full stop. But that’s not what we see in the messiness of everyday life. It’s: I know, but that doesn’t mean that there are not – in the subjective mode – there maybe other contexts in which I might want this to . . . . or, at least, I cannot be sure that there is not. So it’s better to do it just in case.

DR: I don’t know if you’re familiar with Martin Stringer’s work.

RI: It came up in the discussion today, yes

DR: But he talks about situational belief, and exactly the same sort of idea where – and this actually relates to the sort of subjunctive example I gave before. If you asked this person, “Do you believe in the chi flowing around the body?” They’d say, “No”. But when it came down to, “If I try this, I might be able to put that aside for long enough that it works!” Or, people don’t tend to believe in prophecy or speaking to dead. But if their husband or loved one has just died, they might have an overwhelming desire to speak to them. In which case, they enter a different mode of expressing belief.

RI: I mean, I was saying this in the discussion earlier. One of the things I find interesting in this work is that you have . . . particularly, this situation that he discusses in relation to the dead and practices, to do with communication with the dead, even among people who would not necessarily see themselves as believers. And that’s very interesting in the context of . . . . And one of the reasons why I chose Orkney to do this fieldwork is that you have a landscape here which is very much archaeologically defined by the presence of these Neolithic tombs. It’s recognised as being a landscape of the dead. And, indeed, the cemeteries – even though the kirks themselves may have been made into private houses or just falling down – the cemeteries retain that kind of space. And that, to me, is something that’s quite interesting. Because, in essence, you can have a personal stance in relation to: “I don’t believe that it is possible to communicate with the dead,” for example. You can have that as a personal stance, but you’re still living in a landscape where reminders of the dead are all around you. And I think one of the issues at stake, here, is how do you simultaneously engage with a personal stance which says, “I know this is all nonsense”, say, and also a recognition that there is an entire world, which is around you, which is built on the idea that there is some continuity of the dead, that there is some possibility . . . that there is a continuing involvement of the dead in social life? And part of what is interesting, then, in terms of the practices that people adopt, is how they might find a way of dealing with that unknowability of the landscape which surrounds them. So, I think – we were talking about this earlier – so the idea that you can adopt a stance in relation to objects which is not purely materialistic, or in relation to a landscape, which is not purely materialistic: it doesn’t seem to be that that is completely incompatible with people nevertheless expressing their personal set of beliefs as materialistic sort of beliefs. So that stance in relation to these things.

DR: One of the things I like – and we’re getting close to time – but one of the things I like most about your project is the two case studies that you’re comparing in Orkney and Cyprus. And at first glance they’re quite different. One of them is familiar to me, one of them is completely alien. Tell me a little bit about how you see these two case studies working together. What are the potential kind of tensions and possible similarities that you see there, that you can tease out in the comparison?

RI: Well they’re both islands. (Laughs)

All: (Laugh)

DR: Let’s start with that!

TK: I think the two things that we’ve identified thus far are – do you want to talk about anti-authoritarianism?

RI: OK.

TK: And I’ll do unknowability.

RI: Yes. I mean, I think that one of the – we weren’t aware of this. This is a part of anthropology and ethnography in general: you don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen until you get into the field. There is a leap of faith in anthropology. And it was only, really, once we started comparing notes that we realised that one of the things that was quite central, in both of these cases, was that people who spoke about themselves as unbelievers were doing so as an anti-authoritarian stance: that this was a way of saying that people shouldn’t be allowed to define what you believe in; that people shouldn’t tell you what to think, as though you don’t ken yourself. And that’s very striking in the Orcadian example that most people spoke about the idea that, in essence, religion was part of a power structure, which was a power structure associated with those who were property owners, etc; that it was something that they didn’t feel they should be subject to – and which has very long lines in histories of dissent in the Church of Scotland, too, which rejects the idea of patronage from the church, by the by. But it was interesting, when I started comparing notes with Theo, that we realised, especially among – correct me if I’m wrong – especially among the young people, who would describe themselves as atheists or non-believers, it was that sense of an anti-clericalism, an anti-authoritarian stance.

TK: Yes, a sort of a knee-jerk reaction against dogmatic depictions of religion in Cyprus. In Cyprus the rise of the republic kind-of parallels the rise of the Cypriot church. Our first President was a clergyman and so on. So the church and state kind of dovetail together. And I think that ended up in this gesture: of kind-of distancing yourself from religious authority.

RI: Yes. But just to segue into you talking about unknowability. One of the crucial things, then, if you’ve identified that when we’re talking about unbelief, we’re not necessarily talking about an idea of rationalism, which says, “The world is now knowable.” It’s saying, “What I’m rejecting is being told what to believe, here.” It still leaves openness to the possibility that there is an unknowability in society . . .

TK: Yes. It’s a good segue. So with your research, as well, I find the question of the conspiratorial subject very interesting. Because it kind-of denotes, you know – UFO cultures are associated with counter-culture in the US.

DR: Yes.

TK: And I think it’s likewise: people who distance themselves from governmental and religious authority, only to try to put the pieces together themselves. So, usually, following a conspiracy theory or formulating a conspiracy is like a practice of connecting the dots, you know. And I think that’s what we’re trying to figure out with unbelievers as well, in both occasions. So once you make that swift dismissal of normative understanding of religion, where do you go from there? And it’s usually people plunging into that grey area of religious beliefs and social norms and kind-of devising their own worldviews and perspectives.

RI: Which I think, in a way, brings us full circle. Because if your starting point in talking about modernity is that, in essence, as individuals there’s so much that we don’t know . . . . We might assume that somebody else knows it, or we hope that somebody knows how to make planes work, or whatever. We hope there’s somebody who understands all these things. But, on an individual level, it’s left to us to piece those things together and to try and work out what those chains of causality are.

TK: Yes. I think there’s a greater point to be made about – an ontological point – to be made about unknowability, about the unknowability of relations. Like, social relations can never be complete. Like, our understanding of the world can never be complete. And I think there’s two or three ethnographies I read on witchcraft, and they start – the ethnographer says, “I’ve never seen a witch.” It’s like, on the first page. Is it Nils‘ book on The Empty Seashell?

RI: Mmm.

TK: That’s the starting line: I’ve never seen a witch. The locals have never seen a witch. But nevertheless, because of this, people’s awareness of their fragmented understanding of the world they can entertain the possibility of the witch.

RI: And I think that’s a core thing and one of our theoretical influences in a way. In Evans-Pritchard’s classic study of witchcraft – in which he debunks the idea that may have been common at the time, that these are people with a primitive mind-set who don’t understand the rules of cause and effect – he says, “No. They think through exactly the same mind-set as us.” If somebody dies whilst sleeping under the granary, then do you ask why that is? Well, if the explanation is witchcraft, that doesn’t mean that they dismiss the fact that termites ate through the legs, and that’s why the granary fell down. There’s a question of, “but why did termites eat through the legs of the granary at that point, when that person was sleeping under it? And he says, “Now this is the same the logic that we operate on. It’s just that we dismiss why questions as legitimate questions.” So we have all kinds of means of explaining these how questions, of explaining physical causality, but the problem of the why is generally dismissed as a legitimate question to ask. But it remains as a problem. And it remains a problem that people grapple with, in their everyday lives. And they do so in ways that sometimes can be referred to as magical.

DR: It does bring us full circle. And we are not immune from answering why questions at the Religious Studies Project. And the why of why we have to stop now, is that we’ve run out of time! I want to thank you both for taking part and, hopefully, we can have you back on another day, to continue the conversation.

TK: Sure.

RI: Hope so. Thank you.

Citation Info: Irvine, Richard, Theodoros Kyriakides and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Magic and Modernity”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 March 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 23 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/magic-and-modernity/

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

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

Descriptions of Religion as Explanations of Religion

In this week’s podcast, Kathryn Lofton and John Modern join Adam Miller for a conversation that hovers around the relationship between description and explanation in the study of religion, and the notion that the way scholars of religion think about their categories of analysis shapes what they say about a given set of data and how they say it. Given the entanglement of description and explanation, Lofton and Modern stress the responsibility scholars of religion have to know their material deeply, to be aware of the history of their field and categories of analysis, and to speak to issues/questions beyond their areas of speciality.

Kathryn Lofton is the Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Yale University. She is the author of Oprah: The Gospel of an Icon, the soon-to-be-published Consuming Religion, and is currently working on the religious contexts of Bob Dylan. John Modern is the Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Franklin & Marshall College. He is the author of Secularism in Antebellum America and is currently pursuing two book projects—one on machines and cognitive science, and another on Devo and rubber. In addition to their solo-enterprises, they have worked together on a couple of things—Frequencies, a collaborative genealogy of spirituality, for example, and most recently a book series to be published by the University of Chicago Press titled Class 200.

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, camping gear, masquerade masks, and more.

 

Encounters Between Buddhism and the West

previously been interviewed for the RSP.

In this interview, entry to the discussion takes place through the subject of Laurence Carroll, an Irish emigrant to Burma and who was ordained Dhammaloka in Burma. Carroll, like many of his generation, emigrated to the US in the early part of the 20th century. On crossing the US, his trajectory onward to south Asia became entangled more deeply with the politics of empire and colonialism.

Dhammaloka’s story opens up a people’s history of the development of Buddhism in what we might call the West. The crossing of boundaries, which we see in the monk’s biography, points to a number of ideas around the identification of religion with nationalist projects. These are challenges to imperial authorities and is bound up in Dhammaloka’s conversion to, and acceptance by, everyday Buddhism in Burma.

In this story is a continuation of “dissident orientalism”, a conflict inherent within the colonial project wherein communities and personal trajectories become embedded within local religious contexts. A distinction made, both in Ireland and Burma, between native religion and the religion of the coloniser serves only to enhance the connection between nationalist movements and ethno-religious identity. Cox’s ideas focus on the conjunctions between race, religion and imperial power. How Buddhism becomes identified as Asian remains central to that.

**As mentioned in the interview, a slightly longer version of this interview (approx. five minutes) is available to download here**

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on Sri Lankan Buddhism and Colonialism, and Immigrant Buddhism in the West, and of course in the website for the Dhammaloka Project.

We hope you enjoy the sound from our new microphone setup. Thanks for listening!

Taking Witchcraft and Possessions Seriously with Philip Almond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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