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Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-Member Narratives

Ex-member testimony can be a difficult to deal with. Such testimony tends to receive privileged treatment in anti-cult literature, while some academics are prone to be sceptical, even suggesting ex-member testimony is worthless due to the danger of adaption and fiction. So a question remains, how should religious studies scholars deal with such testimony. Do we treat it as fact, fiction, faction, or something else altogether? In this interview at the 2017 British Association for the Study of Religion (BASR) Conference, Breann Fallon chats to Dr George Chryssides about ex-member narratives and the use of such primary sources in the work of religious studies scholars. Issues of identity creation, the alteration of narratives, the use of “faction” as evidence, and case studies from ex-member Jehovah’s Witnesses come together in this interview to create a compelling case for a renewed focus on ex-member testimony.

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

Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-member narratives

Podcast with George Chryssides (20 November 2017).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Chryssides- Changing Your Story 1.1

Breann Fallon (BF): Ex-member testimony can be difficult to deal with. Such testimony tends to receive privileged treatment in anti-cult literature, while some academics are prone to be sceptical – even suggesting ex-member testimony is worthless. So how do we deal with such testimonies, especially considering the increasing forms of such testimony that now comes with social media? What role do such accounts play in the creation of identity for ex-members? To discuss this topic today, I have with me Dr George Chryssides. George is a long-term friend of the Religious Studies Project and is Honorary Research Fellow at York St John University and the University of Birmingham, having been head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton from 2001- 2008. He has written extensively on New Religious Movements, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses. Recent publications include the Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements, co-edited with Benjamin E. Zeller; and Jehovah’s Witnesses: Continuity and Change. George is Co-Vice Chair of INFORM, the Information Network Focus on Religious Movements, based at the LSE and was founded by Eileen Barker in 1988. George is also on various Editorial boards and panels and is currently co-editing an anthology entitled The Insider-Outsider Debate together with Stephen Gregg. He’s also editing an anthology for the Routledge Inform Series entitled Minority Religions in Europe and the Middle East. So thank you very much for joining us today, George.

George Chryssides (GC): My pleasure, thanks for inviting me.

BF: So I was wondering if we could just start with a discussion of how different scholars deal with ex-member testimonies, and what your opinion is of different ways of dealing with such testimony.

GC: Well, there are inevitably a handful of scholars who support the anti-cult movement – although they don’t like it being called the anti-cult movement – but there is a body that is somewhat hostile and they tend to privilege the ex-member. They will say that the ex-member has been inside, now he or she is outside. So they’ve seen it from both points of view and are in a better position than someone like myself that has never joined a new religious movement. So that’s one point of view. There are others like James Beckford, who say: well, if you’ve come out of a new religious movement, like the Jehovah’s witnesses, then your testimony is going to be biased. Maybe you’re going to be a bit embarrassed at having been involved in a group that’s not very popular and has an unusual worldview. So, you’d devise some kind of explanation about how and why you joined, and how you got disillusioned, and how you were conned into joining, maybe, and how you were deceived and so on. James Beckford thinks that the ex-member “devises a scenario”, as he puts it, to account for entry and exit. There are other scholars like Lonnie Cliver and Brian Wilson who have said their testimony is totally invalid, we should disregard it totally. It’s worthless. Now I don’t go along with that, either. Because, I think, particularly when you read written ex-members accounts, ok they’re biased, but we’re always taught to evaluate our sources so it’s important to see why they’re saying what they do; what it is that might be true; what sounds plausible. You triangulate your information, what other people have said. Very often, you can get unwitting testimony about conditions within an organisation. There’s a lot of good material you get, particularly from high-ranking ex-members: people that have for example, in one case, been on the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now they don’t publish their minutes or anything like that, so until Raymond Franz’ book came out I don’t think any of us had much of a clue what actually went on, on the governing body: how they voted on things, what sort of topics they discussed. And that’s really interesting. We shouldn’t just say “Well, that’s an ex-member: he got cheesed-off with the movement. We’re not going to listen to it.” Because that way you would lose a lot of very good information.

BF: So there’s sort-of this element of “the fact that’s behind the supposed fiction”, that we can kind-of draw out from testimonies, I guess?

GC: Yes, well, fact and fiction tend to kind-of blend into each other (5:00). Actually, that’s some work I would like to do as a piece of follow up research on JW’s. Because there are a lot of narratives. And it’s a pity I didn’t get my act together on this before this particular conference, which is on narratives. Because you get some narratives that claim to be absolutely factual. You get others that are, on their own account, works of fiction. There are stories invented about Jehovah’s Witnesses. And then, in between, you get pieces of . . . some people call them “faction”: a cross between fact and fiction. They’ll say: well this is based on such and such a congregation, but we’re not telling the reader who it is because of confidentiality. And actually there is a wealth of literature out there about what it means for a Jehovah’s Witness to be out doing house-to-house work, staffing a literature cart and things like that. And, in some cases, how they fudge the statistics that they report back to their elders. I think things like that are really fascinating, because you can’t get that in copies of the Watchtower, for example. So that’s a future project, reading up on the fiction/faction narrative and seeing what one can get out of it.

BF: So how do you think that we should be dealing with ex-member testimonies in your opinion?

GC: Well, what I’m presenting at this conference is the view that ex-member testimony is about one’s identity. Because you can have different identities depending on what your interests are. Ok, so maybe you kind-of dabbled in a hobby for a couple of weeks and got fed up with it? That’s not part of your identity. And there are some people that actually go along to a new religious movement in that kind of role. They’ll maybe go along for a couple of weeks, or maybe just the once, then decide it’s not for them. Or decide they don’t like being out at night, or something like that. And we don’t hear so much of these testimonies, because they’re not very interesting. So, when a religion is not part of one’s identity you don’t need to invent a story about why you came out. I mean, I don’t need to invent a story about why I gave up stamp collecting or something like that.

BF: (laughs)

GC: So, on the other hand, if the religion has been a big part of your identity – maybe it’s been your paid employment even – then you’re going to have problems coming out. You’re going to have to think: how do I shape a new identity? And it can be even practical things that are involved, like: how do I get a job? Where will live? Who are my friends going to be? Because maybe some of them will keep up with you, but probably most of them won’t. So it’s a whole new life that you’re inventing, in that sort of case. So people have to find ways of doing that. In some extreme cases the ex-member has made ex-membership part of his or her own identity, perhaps being a so-called cult counsellor. There are people that have made their professions out of that – not all that many, but you tend to hear about them more than the others, because they’re prominent. They’ve got a lot to say about the movement. And there is a saying: “You can get the member out of the cult, but you can’t get the cult out of the member.”

BF: That’s very interesting.

GC: So that’s true about these people. Actually, they’re very good informants, some of them, if you can get them tamed and talking to you. There are a couple that will send me lots of extremely good information about the Unification Church. So usually, if I want to know something, I will write to them to say, “I’ve heard about so-and-so, what do you know about it?” And then I’ll get back a lot of good information. Kind-of mentally they’re still in the movement, even though – in terms of what they believe and what they practise – they’re out of it.

BF: So, in that sort of way, you’re finding these testimonies really useful. Do you think there’s a difference between different types of testimony? We’ve already talked about fact and fiction, but you know: a biography as opposed to writing to your ex-members that you are familiar with, as opposed to perhaps something on social media (10:00)? Is there a difference between using those different types, do you think? Is there one you prefer?

GC: Absolutely. I think a lot of stuff that’s not terribly worthwhile is the stuff you get on bulletin boards from ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. A lot of it is misinformation. A lot of it is actually very hostile. And even the treatment that they’re getting in Russia, which is quite appalling. I don’t know if you’ve been following that at all? The authorities have closed them down and confiscated all their properties. And on some of these anti-JW sites you’re getting people saying “I wish they had done it sooner.”

BF: Oh, wow!

GC: Yes, there’s no kind-of sympathy for these people, whatever their beliefs might be. So there’s not a lot of point in reading much of that kind of stuff. Except that it tells you more about the person that’s writing than it does about the movement itself. But, on the other hand, there are some very good ex-members that can give you some good information.

BF: Definitely. I think we should delve more into this idea of identity and creating that- I don’t know what you would call it. Do you think they would create an “ex-member persona”?

GC: Some of them do. I can decide, if I’m an ex-member, whether I want to make a feature out of that: whether I want to tell people, “Yes I was a Jehovah’s Witness and this is very much a part of my life having been one.” Now, actually, I do know of one former JW elder who has actually become a Church of Scotland minister. Now, I don’t know much about him, but I can see that somebody could make a feature out of that and say, “ Well, that’s been my past life and now I’ve kind-of seen the light”, or however he wants to put it. I have heard of one other Church of Scotland minister who served a long prison sentence as a murderer and then he repented and made good, and evidently he makes a feature out of that. Because it’s got a good Biblical message about conversion – you know, Paul writing to the Romans: he lists a whole lot of misdeeds that people committed and then he says “and some of such were you”. So it’s all very Biblical, if you want to do it that way and say, “Well, that’s my past life but now it’s all changed thanks to Jesus Christ”, or whatever. That’s one way of creating your new identity. Another way of changing your identity is simply to conceal it and say, “Well I’m not going to talk about this. I’m just going to get on with my new life.” So there are different ways of creating this new identity, but one way or another, if religion has been a major part of your life and you’re coming out, then there is an identity problem and you do need to think, well: Who am I? What do I want to be? And how do I want to shape up his new life that’s lying ahead?

BF: Do you think that as scholars we need to be aware of this identity change when we’re looking at ex-member testimonies: how they’ve come out of whatever movement they were a part of; and how they’ve transitioned into (a new life); whether they’ve been really open about it; whether they’ve concealed it and then been open about it. Is that something we need to take into consideration when looking at these testimonies, which ones we really should be looking at for evidence?

GC: Well absolutely, because evaluating your sources means asking questions like: who is telling me this? What is their motivation? How much knowledge do they have? Sometimes people can pretend to have more knowledge than they really do about the movement that they’re in. A lot of ex-JWs will say “Well, the society has got a history of field prophecy.” Now I don’t think that’s true; that’s a popular myth that is propagated by ex-members. I’m not saying they’ve never ever revised a date or given it a new meaning. But there’s one website that goes through every year from 1877, when I think the society was first getting going, and then giving some kind of prophetic statement they’ve made and how it failed. And that’s not really correct exposition of what they’re saying (15:00). So I think we really do need to ask, what is the degree of knowledge that this person has? Because there can be a view that if you’ve been inside you know all about it. And I think anyone that follows a religion doesn’t know all about it. You can’t know all about your religion, it’s just too big a subject.

BF: Yes. I’m going to throw a bit of a left-field question at you that I didn’t tell you I was going to ask.

GC: Oh dear!

BF: We always get this sort-of image of ex-members coming together, and then forming an ex-member group. Has that come across in your work?

GC: Oh yes, absolutely. There’s a lot of that. And I think that’s part of forming a new identity because you need to have friends. Friends need to have things in common. And the obvious thing in common that you’ve got if you’re an ex-member is being an ex-member. So yes, there are JW groups. I’ve been invited to go to one or two different events, but I feel I’d be gate-crashing!

BF: Yes!

GC: But they get together from time to time. And I’d be interested to know what they talk about, because they often say, “You don’t have to talk about Jehovah’s Witnesses if you come to our meet.” Now, whether they actually talk about JWs or whether they talk about some other interests that they’ve got, I don’t know. But that would be interesting. But yes that’s part of shaping your identity, to get an ex-member group going. Of course I think the ex-member group is more a kind of phenomenon in itself that’s worth noting if you’re a scholar. I suspect that in the ex-member group you get a kind of snowball effect of all the kind of moans that they’ve got about the Watchtower Society. I see some of their stuff on Facebook and that seems to be how it works. Somebody will put something on, maybe about Russia, and then somebody will add a rude comment about it. And it tends to kind-of further a lack of sympathy.

BF: It would be interesting to look at how social media have played a role in creating those new ex-member groups. Because of course, with social media, people from all over the globe can come together and sort of share their stories. Do you think social media has had a big part in ex-member testimony and getting that out there?

GC: Absolutely, yes. There are one or two well-known websites, or are they websites or . . . I never know what the right terminology is about cyber space . . . but I think it’s a Facebook Group about How Well Do You Know Your Moon? And that’s about the Unification Church. That’s actually got a lot of good information there. It’s not just people slagging them off. But, yes, the obvious thing about social media is that we don’t need to have our friends sitting opposite each other the way we’re sitting opposite. You can get them from any part of the globe and you don’t have to meet up with them, physically. But then again, the fact that you’ve got this group enables you to organise these physical meetings, which they do.

BF: It would be interesting to know, with the advent of social media, if that is encouraging more people to go to groups – people who may have, without social media, sort-of concealed it on their own. But that idea that social media can bring so many people together. It would be interesting to know whether there had been more people willing to join an ex-member group because of social media. Because you can kind-of dip your toe in with Facebook, before you go to a meeting. It’s almost the complete reverse of joining the movement in the first place.

GC: Yes, I think that’s probably right. The other question is whether it might actually encourage people to join a group by giving publicity. I remember when I was researching the Unification Church in the early days, there were two kind-of improbable people who had come along to this seminar. In fact, the Unification Church didn’t seem to want these people to join. Because they weren’t very bright, I think they were unemployed, looking for somewhere to live and that’s not what they were after. And I think they may even have been psychologically disturbed. So, a new religion won’t want to get a reputation for attracting the wrong people. But they had come along and I asked them, “What brought you here? (20:00) Weren’t you put off by the bad publicity the Unification Church was getting?” And they said, “Oh no. What we had heard actually made us interested and want to come.” So there can be this kind-of reverse effect. You might think, “Well, I wonder what this is about?”

BF: Yes. I just think social media has taken a completely different road for so much of our study, particularly with testimony and people being able to share their voice and share their opinion. Before we finish up – you’re presenting today at BASR – is there anything from your paper that you’d like to add to the talk, that we haven’t discussed so far?

GC; Well I think we’ve been, how long have we been talking now? It’s been a lot more than 20 minutes and my talk is only 20 minutes, so I think I’ve probably added quite a bit. It’s actually going to be part of a chapter in the Anthology on the Insider and Outsider debate that Stephen Gregg and I are getting together. So there will be a kind-of longer discussion. What I will be saying in the paper also –which we didn’t cover, but it’s a bit more technical – is about the kind of typologies of ex-members. People like David Bromley and Massimo Introvigne distinguish between different types. And they distinguish on the basis of how the person came out of the movement and what sort of conditions made them come out. What I’m suggesting is that these typologies have got their limitations. Sociologists talk about “ideal types” and I think that’s one of the problems about sociology: when have you got an ideal type and when have you just got a model that’s too crude for the purposes that you’re using it? So I think an account of ex-members has got to go beyond distinctions like “the defector”, “the ordinary leave-taker”, “the apostate”. There are all sorts of types of leaver, depending on the identity that they’ve created for themselves within the movement. So whether they’re just an unbaptised publisher as the rank is called in the Jehovah’s witnesses, or whether you’re one of the 144,000 in the governing body, right at the top, these kinds of the distinctions of the type of member you are will affect the way you leave. It will also affect the story you give about leaving and about life in the organisation.

BF: It’s almost sort-of an identity wave. You know: I was this, and then that’s affected how my identity has come out of the movement. I think your talk is going to be so interesting, I’m very excited.

GC: I hope so.

BF: Thank you so much for joining us today. And I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference.

GC: Well, thanks very much. And thanks again for the invitation.

BF: It’s our pleasure.

Citation Info: Chryssides, George and Breann Fallon. 2017. “Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-member Narratives”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 20 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 17 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/changing-your-story-assessing-ex-member-narratives/

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Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion: A Roundtable Discussion (Video and Audio!)

This week we are bringing you the fruits of a recent RSP venture to the University of Chester, UK. In the early afternoon, Chris and David ran a workshop on “Digital Humanities” for the postgraduate community in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Later on, David interviewed Dr Alana Vincent in from of a ‘live studio audience’ on the topic of ‘Religion and Literature‘. Following directly on from this, Chris chaired a roundtable discussion on ‘Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion’ featuring Dr Wendy Dossett, Prof. Elaine Graham, Dr Dawn Llewellyn and Dr Alana Vincent – all staff in TRS at Chester – and the RSP’s own Ethan Quillen, of the University of Edinburgh.

Chester

The idea for this roundtable was that it would follow on directly from the interview on religion and literature, but expand the discussion to cover a variety of points relating to narrative, autobiography and (auto)ethnography in the study of religion. This was also recorded in front of a live audience, and towards the end of the recording we take questions from the floor.

Thanks to the resources available at the University of Chester – specifically, a wonderful chap named Lee – we are able to bring you this roundtable discussion in video form – something a lot of our listeners have been keen on for quite some time. Let us know what you think! We can’t promise to do this very regularly, but if it is useful we will definitely investigate our options for the future.

Of course, for those who prefer to have the podcast in its usual form, it can be listened to and downloaded as usual.

Discussion addressed the following questions, and a lot more…

  • What do we mean when we speak of incorporating narratives into Religious Studies? Why would we want to?
  • What makes a narrative different from a discourse? Is there any difference?
  • Does studying narrative minimize other aspects of ‘religion’ such as ritual, embodiment, symbols etc? Is there anything particularly Western or gendered about privileging narratives?
  • Given that we focused upon ‘religion and literature’, what is the place of fictional narratives? What can they tell us? Are all narratives fictions? Can one infer anything external to a narrative?
  • What is the place of the scholar in all of this? Are we interpreters? Are we co-creators of narratives? Do we remain outside the data we study or must we write ourselves in? What would this do to ‘objectivity’? Is the whole academic enterprise an exercise in creating narratives? Can academic reflexivity go to too far?

This podcast is presented to you as a co-production with the University of Chester, and we are very grateful for their help in making this happen – particularly to Dawn Llewellyn for organizing, and to Lee Bennett for the technical wizardry.

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

There be Spoilers Here: Durkheim, ‘Breaking Bad,’ and the Uncertainty of Religious Theory

Have you been watching ‘Breaking Bad’?

It had been six years since Professor Strenski and I had spoken.  Six years since I sat in the back of his Method and Theory course at UC Riverside, and since I had first read his Thinking about Religion.  I had recently decided to ‘apply myself,’ had returned to ‘academia,’ gotten lost on the way toward a very rewarding degree in Art History, and was, for the first time, learning about the varying methods and theories of religious study.  It was in that class where I first heard of Emile Durkheim.  As I would discover later, Professor Strenski’s style of teaching, the way he explained that particular Frenchman’s social theory, about his unified system of beliefs, his elementary forms, was different from the usual method.  Rather than merely prattle on about relative-to-sacred–this, and set-apart-that, Professor Strenski taught us about the man.  Biography was the key.  Knowing why Durkheim defined religion as he did, rather than just how, would give us a fuller understanding, a clearer focus, on the subtle elements binding his definition to his distinct worldview.  

The question of whether I had been watching ‘Breaking Bad’ had two parts: had I seen the most recent episode; and was I able to watch the show at all while living in Scotland?  My answer was in the affirmative—though I chose not to share with him the ‘quasi-legal’ means of my viewing.  He responded with an excited smile and we talked a moment about the writing, the plot points leading up to the finale, the inevitable demise of Walter White.

When I think back on it, one thing I truly enjoyed about Professor Strenski’s book—as well as his teaching style—was his ability to tangentially veer off topic while not losing complete track of the subject at hand.  Tangents, I have always felt, are the instructor’s greatest tool.  Not only do they assist in keeping the student’s attention, but as metaphor, paint the instruction in different hues than mere black and white.  For instance, when we look at the underlying components of Durkheim’s theory of religion, his idea about ‘God and Society,’ it becomes reducibly contextualized by means of the socially problematic milieu of his academic upbringing.  In his Thinking about Religion, Strenski emphasizes this influence by exploring the political backdrop against which Durkheim spent his “formative years:” a France sunk in national depression; the eastern départements of Alsace and Lorraine lost to the Prussians in the defeat of Napoleon III in 1871; a “national humiliation and desire for revenge;” all of this especially significant to a young secular Jew growing up on France’s eastern border with Imperial Germany.[1]  It is not difficult, then, to follow these sociological actions toward Durkheim’s equal and opposite reaction from “traditional religious loyalties” toward becoming a “truly religious devotee of France.”[2]  We see here the origins, the chemical elements combined to form in Durkheim’s theory a focus toward establishing a “secure and viable social order in modern France.”[3]  Society, social structure, sociability, all necessary components in establishing not just an identity, but a national dignity, a challenging cohesion of social and individual; these things were etched into Durkheim’s psyche as he wrote his notable texts, The Division of Labor in Society (1893), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), Suicide (1897), and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912).  

We focused our discussion on the writing, on the elegance and patience demonstrated in Vince Gilligan’s unwillingness to rush the narrative along.  How his use of music, of song lyrics, revealed a sort of meta-narrative.  Ours were isolated voices.  Upon hearing my colleague in the study of all things Atheism, Chris Cotter, would be doing an interview with the Professor who introduced me to Durkheim, Freud, Marx, Weber, et al. at the joint BASR/EASR in Liverpool, I insisted he pass along my regards.  More than that, Mr. Cotter ensured we’d have a few moments to catch up.  Having enjoyed the conference’s gala dinner, the Professor and I withdrew ourselves from the dining hall/college bar for a quiet space to recollect.  Once alone, I noticed our American accents no longer seemed so alien.  In our short discussion, even on ‘Breaking Bad,’ it was pleasurably refreshing to hear a similar accent, an analogous vernacular returned back to me.  We had created, in our brief chat concerning an American drama about a chemistry teacher-turned-meth kingpin, a sort of fusion of consciences: two Americans, in England, at a joint European and British conference on Religion, Migration, and Mutation enjoying a shared and direct experience, an isolated circle of ‘home.’  Our conversation turned to themes in the narrative.  He remarked about the ‘science’ in the show, the metaphor of Walter White referring to himself as Heisenberg, the oft-misunderstood principle about uncertainty.  We returned to whether ‘Heisenberg’ would die in the final episode.  Would all his scheming, his obsession with ‘taking care of his family,’ his murders and mayhem, actually pay off in the end?  Or, more likely, was this all leading to the only possible conclusion: his death, either by the cancer choking his lungs, or through the choices he had made in the last two years of his life?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beM28FLdAzk]

Concerning Durkheim’s social theory of religion, Strenski demarcates two views: a reductionist and a non-reductionist reading.  The former reveals a rather clear reduction of the “object” of religion to society.  As a consequence, Durkheim believed that “religious experiences” were really just “misperceived experiences of social forces.”[4]  Thus, there is “no experience of God”—at least none that we could prove—but rather “shared and direct experiences of society,” the power of which “feels” like an experience of God.[5]  In the context of ‘identity,’ Strenski labels this reading as ‘D1’ for Durkheim no. 1.  ‘God≡Society.’[6]  Concerning causation, this equation concludes that the “underlying reality of religious experience,” and thus the “nature of God,” is society.  In contrast, the non-reductionist reading, a mirrored perspective of the first, flips the equation: ‘Society≡God.’  Durkheim no. 2 expresses “nothing less” than the idea that society has a “religious, or at the very least, spiritual, nature.”[7] 

Our conversation was brief, but cordial.  He was departing the conference early and I had at least two more bottles of wine to ingest.  Yet, all that evening, and into the hangover of the next day, I kept thinking about the implications of the subject of our chat.  Walter White—‘Heisenberg’—argued from the very beginning that chemistry was the study of change, not matter.  It was the study of growth and decay, of transformation, migration, mutation.  Even up to his almost perfectly composed death, Walter White believed he was actively involved in the physical study of change.  Cancer, chemotherapy, cooking, wealth, power, murder, and eventual termination.  These elements formed his social milieu, his split identity, his life’s continuing uncertainty.  If nothing else, I suppose my conversation with Professor Strenski further reminded me that uncertainty is indeed a universal principle.  The more we focus on and attempt to understand a thing (the position), the farther we get from actually making any sense of it (its momentum).  Durkheim witnessed this, and I believe we see it repeated over and over in the context of religious study.  As we think about religion, then think about thinking about religion, then so on and so forth, we engage in a trans-generational discourse, a social discussion that enigmatically matches the very theories we seek to understand.  We become, in that very process, aspects of those theories, especially in the ways we translate them, teach them to each other, engage in tangents.  The more we change, the more they change, the less certain an original meaning ever seems possible.  Perhaps, then, Durkheim was right.  Perhaps my shared and direct experience with Professor Strenski, two Americans abroad, discussing a culturally popular, and truly ‘American’ drama, formed some sort of experience of God.  Perhaps our experience is an ideal example, a tangent, on how one might explain Durkheim’s theory of equating society to God and vice versa. 

I’m not entirely certain.  Perhaps it’s best to think on it a bit more. 

Readings

  • Ivan Strenski, Thinking about Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion.  Malden: Blackwell, 2006.
  • Emile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, John A. Spaulding and George Simpsons, trans.  New york: Free Press, 1979
  • Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Carol Cosman, trans.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Werner Heisenberg. “On the Perceptual Content of Quantum Theoretical Kinematics and Mechanics.” Zeitschrift für Physik, Vol. 43 (1927): 172-198. English Translation by John A. Wheeler and Wojciech Zurek, eds. Quantum Theory and Measurement. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983: 62-84.
  • Vince Gilligan, Creator, Breaking Bad: Seasons 1-5, Produced by AMC.

[1] Ivan Strenski, Thinking about Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion (Malden: Blackwell, 2006), 290.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 295.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Interestingly, the ‘≡’ symbol here denotes in physics, particularly in relation to an identity, a sense of equality.  See also Strenski, Thinking about Religion, 295.

[7] Strenski, Thinking about Religion, 296.

John Wolffe and Ronald Hutton on Historical Approaches

Welcome back! Our inaugural podcast of the new semester brings you two short interviews on the subject of historical approaches to the study of religion, recorded by David Robertson at the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Context conference in Milton Keynes, July 2013.

First up is John Wolffe, who gives us an overview of the approach, its strengths and weaknesses, the impact that the internet has had on historical research and the shift towards “new history” which focusses on the marginalised over the powerful. Professor Wolffe also describes how one of his recent projects was planned and executed,which should prove valuable to those of us planning historical research. He also extols the role of historical research in uncovering “hidden histories” which can undermine constructed and confrontational narratives of historical identity.

In the second half, Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol gives a more in-depth case-study, talking about his book on the emergence of Wicca, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (OUP, 1999), and how it was received by the academy and by the pagan community. Of particular interest here for the interviewer was the fact that, although sections of the book are often given to undergraduate students, they somehow seem to prefer Gerald Gardner’s own fantastical account of initiation into a pre-Christian Moon-goddess cult over Hutton’s more down-to-earth – yet no less fascinating – account.

Thanks to the Open University for supporting these and other recordings.

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

Podcasts

Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-Member Narratives

Ex-member testimony can be a difficult to deal with. Such testimony tends to receive privileged treatment in anti-cult literature, while some academics are prone to be sceptical, even suggesting ex-member testimony is worthless due to the danger of adaption and fiction. So a question remains, how should religious studies scholars deal with such testimony. Do we treat it as fact, fiction, faction, or something else altogether? In this interview at the 2017 British Association for the Study of Religion (BASR) Conference, Breann Fallon chats to Dr George Chryssides about ex-member narratives and the use of such primary sources in the work of religious studies scholars. Issues of identity creation, the alteration of narratives, the use of “faction” as evidence, and case studies from ex-member Jehovah’s Witnesses come together in this interview to create a compelling case for a renewed focus on ex-member testimony.

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, Skyrim for Nintendo Switch, egg nog, and more.

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

Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-member narratives

Podcast with George Chryssides (20 November 2017).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Chryssides- Changing Your Story 1.1

Breann Fallon (BF): Ex-member testimony can be difficult to deal with. Such testimony tends to receive privileged treatment in anti-cult literature, while some academics are prone to be sceptical – even suggesting ex-member testimony is worthless. So how do we deal with such testimonies, especially considering the increasing forms of such testimony that now comes with social media? What role do such accounts play in the creation of identity for ex-members? To discuss this topic today, I have with me Dr George Chryssides. George is a long-term friend of the Religious Studies Project and is Honorary Research Fellow at York St John University and the University of Birmingham, having been head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton from 2001- 2008. He has written extensively on New Religious Movements, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses. Recent publications include the Historical Dictionary of Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements, co-edited with Benjamin E. Zeller; and Jehovah’s Witnesses: Continuity and Change. George is Co-Vice Chair of INFORM, the Information Network Focus on Religious Movements, based at the LSE and was founded by Eileen Barker in 1988. George is also on various Editorial boards and panels and is currently co-editing an anthology entitled The Insider-Outsider Debate together with Stephen Gregg. He’s also editing an anthology for the Routledge Inform Series entitled Minority Religions in Europe and the Middle East. So thank you very much for joining us today, George.

George Chryssides (GC): My pleasure, thanks for inviting me.

BF: So I was wondering if we could just start with a discussion of how different scholars deal with ex-member testimonies, and what your opinion is of different ways of dealing with such testimony.

GC: Well, there are inevitably a handful of scholars who support the anti-cult movement – although they don’t like it being called the anti-cult movement – but there is a body that is somewhat hostile and they tend to privilege the ex-member. They will say that the ex-member has been inside, now he or she is outside. So they’ve seen it from both points of view and are in a better position than someone like myself that has never joined a new religious movement. So that’s one point of view. There are others like James Beckford, who say: well, if you’ve come out of a new religious movement, like the Jehovah’s witnesses, then your testimony is going to be biased. Maybe you’re going to be a bit embarrassed at having been involved in a group that’s not very popular and has an unusual worldview. So, you’d devise some kind of explanation about how and why you joined, and how you got disillusioned, and how you were conned into joining, maybe, and how you were deceived and so on. James Beckford thinks that the ex-member “devises a scenario”, as he puts it, to account for entry and exit. There are other scholars like Lonnie Cliver and Brian Wilson who have said their testimony is totally invalid, we should disregard it totally. It’s worthless. Now I don’t go along with that, either. Because, I think, particularly when you read written ex-members accounts, ok they’re biased, but we’re always taught to evaluate our sources so it’s important to see why they’re saying what they do; what it is that might be true; what sounds plausible. You triangulate your information, what other people have said. Very often, you can get unwitting testimony about conditions within an organisation. There’s a lot of good material you get, particularly from high-ranking ex-members: people that have for example, in one case, been on the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now they don’t publish their minutes or anything like that, so until Raymond Franz’ book came out I don’t think any of us had much of a clue what actually went on, on the governing body: how they voted on things, what sort of topics they discussed. And that’s really interesting. We shouldn’t just say “Well, that’s an ex-member: he got cheesed-off with the movement. We’re not going to listen to it.” Because that way you would lose a lot of very good information.

BF: So there’s sort-of this element of “the fact that’s behind the supposed fiction”, that we can kind-of draw out from testimonies, I guess?

GC: Yes, well, fact and fiction tend to kind-of blend into each other (5:00). Actually, that’s some work I would like to do as a piece of follow up research on JW’s. Because there are a lot of narratives. And it’s a pity I didn’t get my act together on this before this particular conference, which is on narratives. Because you get some narratives that claim to be absolutely factual. You get others that are, on their own account, works of fiction. There are stories invented about Jehovah’s Witnesses. And then, in between, you get pieces of . . . some people call them “faction”: a cross between fact and fiction. They’ll say: well this is based on such and such a congregation, but we’re not telling the reader who it is because of confidentiality. And actually there is a wealth of literature out there about what it means for a Jehovah’s Witness to be out doing house-to-house work, staffing a literature cart and things like that. And, in some cases, how they fudge the statistics that they report back to their elders. I think things like that are really fascinating, because you can’t get that in copies of the Watchtower, for example. So that’s a future project, reading up on the fiction/faction narrative and seeing what one can get out of it.

BF: So how do you think that we should be dealing with ex-member testimonies in your opinion?

GC: Well, what I’m presenting at this conference is the view that ex-member testimony is about one’s identity. Because you can have different identities depending on what your interests are. Ok, so maybe you kind-of dabbled in a hobby for a couple of weeks and got fed up with it? That’s not part of your identity. And there are some people that actually go along to a new religious movement in that kind of role. They’ll maybe go along for a couple of weeks, or maybe just the once, then decide it’s not for them. Or decide they don’t like being out at night, or something like that. And we don’t hear so much of these testimonies, because they’re not very interesting. So, when a religion is not part of one’s identity you don’t need to invent a story about why you came out. I mean, I don’t need to invent a story about why I gave up stamp collecting or something like that.

BF: (laughs)

GC: So, on the other hand, if the religion has been a big part of your identity – maybe it’s been your paid employment even – then you’re going to have problems coming out. You’re going to have to think: how do I shape a new identity? And it can be even practical things that are involved, like: how do I get a job? Where will live? Who are my friends going to be? Because maybe some of them will keep up with you, but probably most of them won’t. So it’s a whole new life that you’re inventing, in that sort of case. So people have to find ways of doing that. In some extreme cases the ex-member has made ex-membership part of his or her own identity, perhaps being a so-called cult counsellor. There are people that have made their professions out of that – not all that many, but you tend to hear about them more than the others, because they’re prominent. They’ve got a lot to say about the movement. And there is a saying: “You can get the member out of the cult, but you can’t get the cult out of the member.”

BF: That’s very interesting.

GC: So that’s true about these people. Actually, they’re very good informants, some of them, if you can get them tamed and talking to you. There are a couple that will send me lots of extremely good information about the Unification Church. So usually, if I want to know something, I will write to them to say, “I’ve heard about so-and-so, what do you know about it?” And then I’ll get back a lot of good information. Kind-of mentally they’re still in the movement, even though – in terms of what they believe and what they practise – they’re out of it.

BF: So, in that sort of way, you’re finding these testimonies really useful. Do you think there’s a difference between different types of testimony? We’ve already talked about fact and fiction, but you know: a biography as opposed to writing to your ex-members that you are familiar with, as opposed to perhaps something on social media (10:00)? Is there a difference between using those different types, do you think? Is there one you prefer?

GC: Absolutely. I think a lot of stuff that’s not terribly worthwhile is the stuff you get on bulletin boards from ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. A lot of it is misinformation. A lot of it is actually very hostile. And even the treatment that they’re getting in Russia, which is quite appalling. I don’t know if you’ve been following that at all? The authorities have closed them down and confiscated all their properties. And on some of these anti-JW sites you’re getting people saying “I wish they had done it sooner.”

BF: Oh, wow!

GC: Yes, there’s no kind-of sympathy for these people, whatever their beliefs might be. So there’s not a lot of point in reading much of that kind of stuff. Except that it tells you more about the person that’s writing than it does about the movement itself. But, on the other hand, there are some very good ex-members that can give you some good information.

BF: Definitely. I think we should delve more into this idea of identity and creating that- I don’t know what you would call it. Do you think they would create an “ex-member persona”?

GC: Some of them do. I can decide, if I’m an ex-member, whether I want to make a feature out of that: whether I want to tell people, “Yes I was a Jehovah’s Witness and this is very much a part of my life having been one.” Now, actually, I do know of one former JW elder who has actually become a Church of Scotland minister. Now, I don’t know much about him, but I can see that somebody could make a feature out of that and say, “ Well, that’s been my past life and now I’ve kind-of seen the light”, or however he wants to put it. I have heard of one other Church of Scotland minister who served a long prison sentence as a murderer and then he repented and made good, and evidently he makes a feature out of that. Because it’s got a good Biblical message about conversion – you know, Paul writing to the Romans: he lists a whole lot of misdeeds that people committed and then he says “and some of such were you”. So it’s all very Biblical, if you want to do it that way and say, “Well, that’s my past life but now it’s all changed thanks to Jesus Christ”, or whatever. That’s one way of creating your new identity. Another way of changing your identity is simply to conceal it and say, “Well I’m not going to talk about this. I’m just going to get on with my new life.” So there are different ways of creating this new identity, but one way or another, if religion has been a major part of your life and you’re coming out, then there is an identity problem and you do need to think, well: Who am I? What do I want to be? And how do I want to shape up his new life that’s lying ahead?

BF: Do you think that as scholars we need to be aware of this identity change when we’re looking at ex-member testimonies: how they’ve come out of whatever movement they were a part of; and how they’ve transitioned into (a new life); whether they’ve been really open about it; whether they’ve concealed it and then been open about it. Is that something we need to take into consideration when looking at these testimonies, which ones we really should be looking at for evidence?

GC: Well absolutely, because evaluating your sources means asking questions like: who is telling me this? What is their motivation? How much knowledge do they have? Sometimes people can pretend to have more knowledge than they really do about the movement that they’re in. A lot of ex-JWs will say “Well, the society has got a history of field prophecy.” Now I don’t think that’s true; that’s a popular myth that is propagated by ex-members. I’m not saying they’ve never ever revised a date or given it a new meaning. But there’s one website that goes through every year from 1877, when I think the society was first getting going, and then giving some kind of prophetic statement they’ve made and how it failed. And that’s not really correct exposition of what they’re saying (15:00). So I think we really do need to ask, what is the degree of knowledge that this person has? Because there can be a view that if you’ve been inside you know all about it. And I think anyone that follows a religion doesn’t know all about it. You can’t know all about your religion, it’s just too big a subject.

BF: Yes. I’m going to throw a bit of a left-field question at you that I didn’t tell you I was going to ask.

GC: Oh dear!

BF: We always get this sort-of image of ex-members coming together, and then forming an ex-member group. Has that come across in your work?

GC: Oh yes, absolutely. There’s a lot of that. And I think that’s part of forming a new identity because you need to have friends. Friends need to have things in common. And the obvious thing in common that you’ve got if you’re an ex-member is being an ex-member. So yes, there are JW groups. I’ve been invited to go to one or two different events, but I feel I’d be gate-crashing!

BF: Yes!

GC: But they get together from time to time. And I’d be interested to know what they talk about, because they often say, “You don’t have to talk about Jehovah’s Witnesses if you come to our meet.” Now, whether they actually talk about JWs or whether they talk about some other interests that they’ve got, I don’t know. But that would be interesting. But yes that’s part of shaping your identity, to get an ex-member group going. Of course I think the ex-member group is more a kind of phenomenon in itself that’s worth noting if you’re a scholar. I suspect that in the ex-member group you get a kind of snowball effect of all the kind of moans that they’ve got about the Watchtower Society. I see some of their stuff on Facebook and that seems to be how it works. Somebody will put something on, maybe about Russia, and then somebody will add a rude comment about it. And it tends to kind-of further a lack of sympathy.

BF: It would be interesting to look at how social media have played a role in creating those new ex-member groups. Because of course, with social media, people from all over the globe can come together and sort of share their stories. Do you think social media has had a big part in ex-member testimony and getting that out there?

GC: Absolutely, yes. There are one or two well-known websites, or are they websites or . . . I never know what the right terminology is about cyber space . . . but I think it’s a Facebook Group about How Well Do You Know Your Moon? And that’s about the Unification Church. That’s actually got a lot of good information there. It’s not just people slagging them off. But, yes, the obvious thing about social media is that we don’t need to have our friends sitting opposite each other the way we’re sitting opposite. You can get them from any part of the globe and you don’t have to meet up with them, physically. But then again, the fact that you’ve got this group enables you to organise these physical meetings, which they do.

BF: It would be interesting to know, with the advent of social media, if that is encouraging more people to go to groups – people who may have, without social media, sort-of concealed it on their own. But that idea that social media can bring so many people together. It would be interesting to know whether there had been more people willing to join an ex-member group because of social media. Because you can kind-of dip your toe in with Facebook, before you go to a meeting. It’s almost the complete reverse of joining the movement in the first place.

GC: Yes, I think that’s probably right. The other question is whether it might actually encourage people to join a group by giving publicity. I remember when I was researching the Unification Church in the early days, there were two kind-of improbable people who had come along to this seminar. In fact, the Unification Church didn’t seem to want these people to join. Because they weren’t very bright, I think they were unemployed, looking for somewhere to live and that’s not what they were after. And I think they may even have been psychologically disturbed. So, a new religion won’t want to get a reputation for attracting the wrong people. But they had come along and I asked them, “What brought you here? (20:00) Weren’t you put off by the bad publicity the Unification Church was getting?” And they said, “Oh no. What we had heard actually made us interested and want to come.” So there can be this kind-of reverse effect. You might think, “Well, I wonder what this is about?”

BF: Yes. I just think social media has taken a completely different road for so much of our study, particularly with testimony and people being able to share their voice and share their opinion. Before we finish up – you’re presenting today at BASR – is there anything from your paper that you’d like to add to the talk, that we haven’t discussed so far?

GC; Well I think we’ve been, how long have we been talking now? It’s been a lot more than 20 minutes and my talk is only 20 minutes, so I think I’ve probably added quite a bit. It’s actually going to be part of a chapter in the Anthology on the Insider and Outsider debate that Stephen Gregg and I are getting together. So there will be a kind-of longer discussion. What I will be saying in the paper also –which we didn’t cover, but it’s a bit more technical – is about the kind of typologies of ex-members. People like David Bromley and Massimo Introvigne distinguish between different types. And they distinguish on the basis of how the person came out of the movement and what sort of conditions made them come out. What I’m suggesting is that these typologies have got their limitations. Sociologists talk about “ideal types” and I think that’s one of the problems about sociology: when have you got an ideal type and when have you just got a model that’s too crude for the purposes that you’re using it? So I think an account of ex-members has got to go beyond distinctions like “the defector”, “the ordinary leave-taker”, “the apostate”. There are all sorts of types of leaver, depending on the identity that they’ve created for themselves within the movement. So whether they’re just an unbaptised publisher as the rank is called in the Jehovah’s witnesses, or whether you’re one of the 144,000 in the governing body, right at the top, these kinds of the distinctions of the type of member you are will affect the way you leave. It will also affect the story you give about leaving and about life in the organisation.

BF: It’s almost sort-of an identity wave. You know: I was this, and then that’s affected how my identity has come out of the movement. I think your talk is going to be so interesting, I’m very excited.

GC: I hope so.

BF: Thank you so much for joining us today. And I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference.

GC: Well, thanks very much. And thanks again for the invitation.

BF: It’s our pleasure.

Citation Info: Chryssides, George and Breann Fallon. 2017. “Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-member Narratives”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 20 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 17 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/changing-your-story-assessing-ex-member-narratives/

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Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion: A Roundtable Discussion (Video and Audio!)

This week we are bringing you the fruits of a recent RSP venture to the University of Chester, UK. In the early afternoon, Chris and David ran a workshop on “Digital Humanities” for the postgraduate community in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies. Later on, David interviewed Dr Alana Vincent in from of a ‘live studio audience’ on the topic of ‘Religion and Literature‘. Following directly on from this, Chris chaired a roundtable discussion on ‘Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study of Religion’ featuring Dr Wendy Dossett, Prof. Elaine Graham, Dr Dawn Llewellyn and Dr Alana Vincent – all staff in TRS at Chester – and the RSP’s own Ethan Quillen, of the University of Edinburgh.

Chester

The idea for this roundtable was that it would follow on directly from the interview on religion and literature, but expand the discussion to cover a variety of points relating to narrative, autobiography and (auto)ethnography in the study of religion. This was also recorded in front of a live audience, and towards the end of the recording we take questions from the floor.

Thanks to the resources available at the University of Chester – specifically, a wonderful chap named Lee – we are able to bring you this roundtable discussion in video form – something a lot of our listeners have been keen on for quite some time. Let us know what you think! We can’t promise to do this very regularly, but if it is useful we will definitely investigate our options for the future.

Of course, for those who prefer to have the podcast in its usual form, it can be listened to and downloaded as usual.

Discussion addressed the following questions, and a lot more…

  • What do we mean when we speak of incorporating narratives into Religious Studies? Why would we want to?
  • What makes a narrative different from a discourse? Is there any difference?
  • Does studying narrative minimize other aspects of ‘religion’ such as ritual, embodiment, symbols etc? Is there anything particularly Western or gendered about privileging narratives?
  • Given that we focused upon ‘religion and literature’, what is the place of fictional narratives? What can they tell us? Are all narratives fictions? Can one infer anything external to a narrative?
  • What is the place of the scholar in all of this? Are we interpreters? Are we co-creators of narratives? Do we remain outside the data we study or must we write ourselves in? What would this do to ‘objectivity’? Is the whole academic enterprise an exercise in creating narratives? Can academic reflexivity go to too far?

This podcast is presented to you as a co-production with the University of Chester, and we are very grateful for their help in making this happen – particularly to Dawn Llewellyn for organizing, and to Lee Bennett for the technical wizardry.

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

There be Spoilers Here: Durkheim, ‘Breaking Bad,’ and the Uncertainty of Religious Theory

Have you been watching ‘Breaking Bad’?

It had been six years since Professor Strenski and I had spoken.  Six years since I sat in the back of his Method and Theory course at UC Riverside, and since I had first read his Thinking about Religion.  I had recently decided to ‘apply myself,’ had returned to ‘academia,’ gotten lost on the way toward a very rewarding degree in Art History, and was, for the first time, learning about the varying methods and theories of religious study.  It was in that class where I first heard of Emile Durkheim.  As I would discover later, Professor Strenski’s style of teaching, the way he explained that particular Frenchman’s social theory, about his unified system of beliefs, his elementary forms, was different from the usual method.  Rather than merely prattle on about relative-to-sacred–this, and set-apart-that, Professor Strenski taught us about the man.  Biography was the key.  Knowing why Durkheim defined religion as he did, rather than just how, would give us a fuller understanding, a clearer focus, on the subtle elements binding his definition to his distinct worldview.  

The question of whether I had been watching ‘Breaking Bad’ had two parts: had I seen the most recent episode; and was I able to watch the show at all while living in Scotland?  My answer was in the affirmative—though I chose not to share with him the ‘quasi-legal’ means of my viewing.  He responded with an excited smile and we talked a moment about the writing, the plot points leading up to the finale, the inevitable demise of Walter White.

When I think back on it, one thing I truly enjoyed about Professor Strenski’s book—as well as his teaching style—was his ability to tangentially veer off topic while not losing complete track of the subject at hand.  Tangents, I have always felt, are the instructor’s greatest tool.  Not only do they assist in keeping the student’s attention, but as metaphor, paint the instruction in different hues than mere black and white.  For instance, when we look at the underlying components of Durkheim’s theory of religion, his idea about ‘God and Society,’ it becomes reducibly contextualized by means of the socially problematic milieu of his academic upbringing.  In his Thinking about Religion, Strenski emphasizes this influence by exploring the political backdrop against which Durkheim spent his “formative years:” a France sunk in national depression; the eastern départements of Alsace and Lorraine lost to the Prussians in the defeat of Napoleon III in 1871; a “national humiliation and desire for revenge;” all of this especially significant to a young secular Jew growing up on France’s eastern border with Imperial Germany.[1]  It is not difficult, then, to follow these sociological actions toward Durkheim’s equal and opposite reaction from “traditional religious loyalties” toward becoming a “truly religious devotee of France.”[2]  We see here the origins, the chemical elements combined to form in Durkheim’s theory a focus toward establishing a “secure and viable social order in modern France.”[3]  Society, social structure, sociability, all necessary components in establishing not just an identity, but a national dignity, a challenging cohesion of social and individual; these things were etched into Durkheim’s psyche as he wrote his notable texts, The Division of Labor in Society (1893), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), Suicide (1897), and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912).  

We focused our discussion on the writing, on the elegance and patience demonstrated in Vince Gilligan’s unwillingness to rush the narrative along.  How his use of music, of song lyrics, revealed a sort of meta-narrative.  Ours were isolated voices.  Upon hearing my colleague in the study of all things Atheism, Chris Cotter, would be doing an interview with the Professor who introduced me to Durkheim, Freud, Marx, Weber, et al. at the joint BASR/EASR in Liverpool, I insisted he pass along my regards.  More than that, Mr. Cotter ensured we’d have a few moments to catch up.  Having enjoyed the conference’s gala dinner, the Professor and I withdrew ourselves from the dining hall/college bar for a quiet space to recollect.  Once alone, I noticed our American accents no longer seemed so alien.  In our short discussion, even on ‘Breaking Bad,’ it was pleasurably refreshing to hear a similar accent, an analogous vernacular returned back to me.  We had created, in our brief chat concerning an American drama about a chemistry teacher-turned-meth kingpin, a sort of fusion of consciences: two Americans, in England, at a joint European and British conference on Religion, Migration, and Mutation enjoying a shared and direct experience, an isolated circle of ‘home.’  Our conversation turned to themes in the narrative.  He remarked about the ‘science’ in the show, the metaphor of Walter White referring to himself as Heisenberg, the oft-misunderstood principle about uncertainty.  We returned to whether ‘Heisenberg’ would die in the final episode.  Would all his scheming, his obsession with ‘taking care of his family,’ his murders and mayhem, actually pay off in the end?  Or, more likely, was this all leading to the only possible conclusion: his death, either by the cancer choking his lungs, or through the choices he had made in the last two years of his life?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=beM28FLdAzk]

Concerning Durkheim’s social theory of religion, Strenski demarcates two views: a reductionist and a non-reductionist reading.  The former reveals a rather clear reduction of the “object” of religion to society.  As a consequence, Durkheim believed that “religious experiences” were really just “misperceived experiences of social forces.”[4]  Thus, there is “no experience of God”—at least none that we could prove—but rather “shared and direct experiences of society,” the power of which “feels” like an experience of God.[5]  In the context of ‘identity,’ Strenski labels this reading as ‘D1’ for Durkheim no. 1.  ‘God≡Society.’[6]  Concerning causation, this equation concludes that the “underlying reality of religious experience,” and thus the “nature of God,” is society.  In contrast, the non-reductionist reading, a mirrored perspective of the first, flips the equation: ‘Society≡God.’  Durkheim no. 2 expresses “nothing less” than the idea that society has a “religious, or at the very least, spiritual, nature.”[7] 

Our conversation was brief, but cordial.  He was departing the conference early and I had at least two more bottles of wine to ingest.  Yet, all that evening, and into the hangover of the next day, I kept thinking about the implications of the subject of our chat.  Walter White—‘Heisenberg’—argued from the very beginning that chemistry was the study of change, not matter.  It was the study of growth and decay, of transformation, migration, mutation.  Even up to his almost perfectly composed death, Walter White believed he was actively involved in the physical study of change.  Cancer, chemotherapy, cooking, wealth, power, murder, and eventual termination.  These elements formed his social milieu, his split identity, his life’s continuing uncertainty.  If nothing else, I suppose my conversation with Professor Strenski further reminded me that uncertainty is indeed a universal principle.  The more we focus on and attempt to understand a thing (the position), the farther we get from actually making any sense of it (its momentum).  Durkheim witnessed this, and I believe we see it repeated over and over in the context of religious study.  As we think about religion, then think about thinking about religion, then so on and so forth, we engage in a trans-generational discourse, a social discussion that enigmatically matches the very theories we seek to understand.  We become, in that very process, aspects of those theories, especially in the ways we translate them, teach them to each other, engage in tangents.  The more we change, the more they change, the less certain an original meaning ever seems possible.  Perhaps, then, Durkheim was right.  Perhaps my shared and direct experience with Professor Strenski, two Americans abroad, discussing a culturally popular, and truly ‘American’ drama, formed some sort of experience of God.  Perhaps our experience is an ideal example, a tangent, on how one might explain Durkheim’s theory of equating society to God and vice versa. 

I’m not entirely certain.  Perhaps it’s best to think on it a bit more. 

Readings

  • Ivan Strenski, Thinking about Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion.  Malden: Blackwell, 2006.
  • Emile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, John A. Spaulding and George Simpsons, trans.  New york: Free Press, 1979
  • Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Carol Cosman, trans.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Werner Heisenberg. “On the Perceptual Content of Quantum Theoretical Kinematics and Mechanics.” Zeitschrift für Physik, Vol. 43 (1927): 172-198. English Translation by John A. Wheeler and Wojciech Zurek, eds. Quantum Theory and Measurement. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983: 62-84.
  • Vince Gilligan, Creator, Breaking Bad: Seasons 1-5, Produced by AMC.

[1] Ivan Strenski, Thinking about Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion (Malden: Blackwell, 2006), 290.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 295.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Interestingly, the ‘≡’ symbol here denotes in physics, particularly in relation to an identity, a sense of equality.  See also Strenski, Thinking about Religion, 295.

[7] Strenski, Thinking about Religion, 296.

John Wolffe and Ronald Hutton on Historical Approaches

Welcome back! Our inaugural podcast of the new semester brings you two short interviews on the subject of historical approaches to the study of religion, recorded by David Robertson at the Open University’s Contemporary Religion in Historical Context conference in Milton Keynes, July 2013.

First up is John Wolffe, who gives us an overview of the approach, its strengths and weaknesses, the impact that the internet has had on historical research and the shift towards “new history” which focusses on the marginalised over the powerful. Professor Wolffe also describes how one of his recent projects was planned and executed,which should prove valuable to those of us planning historical research. He also extols the role of historical research in uncovering “hidden histories” which can undermine constructed and confrontational narratives of historical identity.

In the second half, Professor Ronald Hutton of the University of Bristol gives a more in-depth case-study, talking about his book on the emergence of Wicca, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (OUP, 1999), and how it was received by the academy and by the pagan community. Of particular interest here for the interviewer was the fact that, although sections of the book are often given to undergraduate students, they somehow seem to prefer Gerald Gardner’s own fantastical account of initiation into a pre-Christian Moon-goddess cult over Hutton’s more down-to-earth – yet no less fascinating – account.

Thanks to the Open University for supporting these and other recordings.

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