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Artificial Intelligence and Religion (Classroom Edit)

What is Artificial Intelligence and why might we want to consider it in relation to ‘religion’? What religion-related questions might be raised by AI? Are these ‘religious’ questions or ‘Christian’/’post-Christian’ ones? What ‘religious’ functions might AI serve? In what ways do popular discourses about AI intersect with religion-related discourses? Do narratives of AI form part of a teleological atheist narrative, or do they perpetuate prevalent tropes associated with ‘established’ or ‘new’ religious movements? And what are the intersections of AI and religion with issues such as slavery, human identity, affect and agency? This week, Chris is joined by Dr Beth Singler of the University of Cambridge to discuss these issues and many more.

This podcast builds on a roundtable discussion released on the RSP in February 2017, featuring Beth, Chris, Michael Morelli, Vivian Asimos and Jonathan Tuckett, titled “AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation” and a special issue of the RSP journal Implicit Religion, co-edited by Dr Singler, on Artificial Intelligence and Religion, published in 2017.

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Artificial Intelligence and Religion

Podcast with Beth Singler (27 January 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Singler_-_Artificial_Intelligence_and_Religion_1.1.pdf

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/artificial-intelligence-and-religion/

PDF at

Christopher Cotter (CC): At the weekend, I mentioned to my father that I was going to be recording an interview about the intersections between AI and religion. And he said, “I can’t think of anything that would be relevant there. How do they intersect at all?” And then, within the space of about two minutes, we were suddenly talking about all sorts of things, like: are human beings creating intelligences? Does that mean they’re acting like gods? Can you imagine that AI might be acting as religious functionaries, providing blessings? And what about pain, what about notions of slavery, what about the whole notion of the soul, and eternity, and transhumanism and everything? So suddenly we got into this massive discussion. And today I am pleased to be joined by Dr Beth Singler to continue that discussion in a more erudite fashion – not casting any aspersions on my father, of course! Dr Singler is the Homerton Junior Research Fellow in Artificial Intelligence at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. And her background is as a social anthropologist of new religious movements. And her first monograph, The Indigo Children: New Age Experimentation with Self and Science, published with Routledge in 2017, was the first in-depth ethnography of a group called the Indigo Children: a new age re-conception of both children and adults using the language of both evolution and spirituality. We’ll hear more about her research into AI and religion just now. But a relevant recent publication is her edited special issue on AI and religion, for the RSP’s sponsored journal Implicit Religion, which included her own articles: “An Introduction to Artificial Intelligence and Religion for the Religious Studies Scholar“, and “Roko’s Basilisk or Pascal’s? Thinking of Singularity Thought Experiments as Implicit Religion“. And today’s podcast builds on a roundtable discussion (that we had back . . . well, we had it in September 2016, but it was released in February 2017) featuring Dr Singler, myself, Dr Morelli, Vivian Asimos, and Jonathan Tuckett, titled “AI and Religion, an Initial Conversation“. So first off, Beth – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project!

Beth Singler (BS): Hello! Thank you for having me.

CC: It’s great to have you back. And hopefully this is the follow-up conversation that was promised!

BS: (Laughs) As foretold . . . !

CC: So many moons ago!

BS: (Laughs).

CC: So we’ll have covered a little bit of this already I think. But you’ll be in a different position now: years on, years older, years wiser!

BS: Oh, so much older!

CC: So, first off: artificial intelligence is going to be a sort-of contested term in public discourse. It takes on a variety of different nuances. So what are you meaning in this conversation?

BS: Well, I’m definitely meaning that it is a contested term, taking on many different forms. I think you can sort-of indicate towards something that is the field of artificial intelligence, within which there are processes and programmes and foci of research, looking at things like machine learning and vision systems and natural language processing. So you have this concept of a computer science field – which doesn’t really get its name until the 1950s – but you can see how, beyond the actual narrow form of the technology, artificial intelligence is understood in so many different ways by so many different people. I have a friend who once told me that their car had AI because when she walked towards her car with her keys, the doors unlocked. That’s not artificial intelligence. That’s a sensor in your keys. But lots of people have this idea of sort-of processes that seem intelligent, done by machines, and therefore must be artificial intelligence. And that’s what I’m really very interested in: that it’s so much broader than the original conception, which was ambitious in its own right. But everyone has attached AI to different things that they feel might represent intelligence. So it’s not only the computer programme that sits on a server, it’s also now the robot that takes over the world. Or it’s the far, future hope of an intelligence that will save us all from ourselves. So it’s all these very different things, and that’s what interests me.

CC: Yes. And you’re interested in that whole gamut, I suppose. So, not necessarily a technical definition of artificial intelligence.

BS: No. I mean, I know enough technologists who go, “Absolutely, 100%, it’s this one thing. That’s it. And anyone who’s talking about anything else, it’s complete nonsense!” Well, to a certain extent, yes. But you’ve got to pay attention to all the different interpretations, because that’s what’s getting out there into the world.

CC: So I began with my personal vignette, there, about chatting with my dad. But you’ve provided, much more eruditely, a justification for what we might mean by the intersections between AI and the study of religion, and why we’re even having this conversation. So – go!

BS: Go! Right. Well, from a very basic position, any form of technology intersects with religion.(5:00) That’s just the nature of our society works, how our conception of religion itself works, that it could be seen, in itself, as a form of technology. And therefore any kind-of shift and changes in how we do things – things that make our lives either more difficult or easier – there are repercussions and implications for how we imagine the world and how it works, therefore religion. I think where AI might be slightly different . . . . Although I am cautious about saying it’s revolutionary new technology and very disruptive – it does replicate lots of existing ideas and thoughts. What I think is interesting about AI is the way in which people see it as much more than that simplistic tool. That however narrow an intelligence it is at the moment, people extrapolate on to personify AI: AI will want to do x-y-z; AI will replicate humans in such a way that we won’t be able to tell the difference between humans and AI. And this the Sci-fi imagining. But it also comes out in our religious conceptions as well. And then, also, within the sphere of the non-religious or secular approaches to AI, you see again these repeating patterns of religious narratives, and tropes that people who – even if overtly and sometimes aggressively atheist – still draw on their cultural context: primarily sort-of Abrahamic, Western conceptions of what a god would be like. And they use that, and they fill in their conception of AI with some of the existing templates that they’ve already got. So it tends to fall into very eschatological language, and very singular monotheistic conceptions of what a god would be and pattern that onto artificial intelligence.

CC: So there’s that sort-of: whatever religion is, we’re never going to be able to extract it from society. Because whatever . . . we can argue about it being a social thing and AI is integrated with that. Then also, the sort-of religion-related tropes, narratives, and so on. But then also there are – I’ll maybe talk about this now – there are some groups that you might describe as new religious movements, or new un-religious movements, and things that are explicitly sort-of engaging with this.

BS: Yes, so with my new religious studies hat on – that I wore so well for doing my thesis – having moved into artificial intelligence as a subject area, I’m seeing similar sorts of formations of online identity. Primarily these sort-of groups form online. They’re sort-of geographically disparate, so online spaces are important, and so forums and hashtags on Twitter, and so forth, to bring them together to formulate ideas. And some of them do expressly call themselves churches. So you get the Turing Church; the Church of Assimilation recently got in touch with me. I went to do a little bit more digging around into what they’re up to. But I do know about assimilation theory. But yes, the groups that specifically say: we are in some ways attempting to define our spirituality in relationship to artificial intelligence; we might also be transhumanist, in that we think through technology we can solve some of those very pernicious problems of humanity – death being the big one.

CC: It’s a big one!

BS: It’s a big one. Some are not quite so ambitious, just want to solve suffering – which also sounds like a serious thing to be taking on! But some do seek to be immortal in some form, whether that involves mind-uploading or transference of consciousness through artificial intelligence – all these sorts of various shapes. But yes, absolutely there are specific groups that see their endeavour as religious. And some will call themselves un-religions because they’re drawing a sort-of ideological gap between themselves and how they perceive mainstream religious groups. So in sociology of religion you might call them “spiritual but not religious”. But they’re still using some of that terminology of “We are the church of x-y-z.” and they’re doing it in quite pragmatic ways. Some of them will talk very explicitly about using religion to encourage people into transhumanist ideas and encourage them into seeing this vision of the future that they see. So, arguably, you can sort-of take a slightly sceptical stance and say they’re not really, really religions. But who gets to decide that?

CC: Yes. Absolutely. Right. So in the introduction, as well, I mentioned potential . . . I suppose we could say “religious uses” for AI. I was talking to a friend yesterday about if you could hypothetically imagine being in a confessional, for example, would it need to be a human priest on the other side of that? Or could it . . . ? And we landed down on, “Well, if you didn’t know it wasn’t human then it might be ok.” But there is something about . . . .

BS: Like in a church Turing test. There is a church Turing hypothesis, but this is separate. Yes, I find it interesting, talking more broadly in terms of technology and religion, that there are periods of rejection, adoption and adaption (10:00): that when new technologies arise, sometimes more established religions can be quite negative about them for a period of time – and these are overlapping categories that are non-discrete – but, over time, we do see religious groups specifically producing their own forms of those technologies. So there’s like the Bless U-2  robots that are used in part of Reformation celebrations in Germany. And in other religious groups, I recently saw in Dubai they’ve come up with an algorithm for issuing fatwa’s as well – making Islamic jurisprudence decisions. So you’d go on line, put in “Is it ok for me to have done x-y-z?” Or “I failed to pray on a particular day, what’s the . . . ?” And basically, all that system is doing is looking at previous cases. But . . . .

CC: Yes. But that’s all a human does.

BS: That’s all a human does. I mean, the question arises: what happens with the data? But that’s a privacy . . . another issue. But yes, so specific established religious groups seeing the technology – just as, in the nineties, suddenly we got lots of internet churches, where people were encouraging people to go on line and do church in a different way. And now we have internet sites for churches. But it’s not so much the case in the mainstream religions that you go online to do faith. It’s just that your local church will have the internet. So that’s the adaption stage of: “This thing is around, we’re kind-of used to it, we use it, and we don’t necessarily have a big . . . .” Like, the Church of England they released an Alexa Skill. They had a big press conference. And all the Alexa Skill does is recite the Lord’s Prayer to you if you ask it to. There are other adaptions now where it can tell you what your local church is and what the services are. So it’s not really revolutionary! But, you know, “Here’s a thing we’re doing with this new technology.” And it gets a press release. And then, the next sort-of stage – non-discrete stage – is just being very casual with the technology as: “This is just something we use.” Like we used books when the printing press first came out. The first things printed were Bibles. And this was a specific use of that technology. And then, over time, it’s just books. And it’s not so astounding. But in that process you get these spikes of interest and discussion. And, yes, different reactions to the technology – whether positive or negative.

CC: Absolutely. So before we get to . . . I suppose to the reason that you’re in Edinburgh today, and we’re chatting . . . . So that’s been a little bit about potentially religious, or religion-related uses. But there’s lot of . . . . Again, in my intro, there were a lot of religion-related questions that are raised by AI. Things like . . . you’ve done work on pain; there’s things about slavery, and all that. If we create these intelligences and then use them to our will, is that ethical? And then you’ve already mentioned transhumanism, which may be an unfamiliar term to some Listeners. So maybe, if you could talk a little bit about these religion-related issues?

BS: Yes. As I say, AI in its narrowest definition is a piece of computer technology, it’s a tool, but it inspires all these hypotheticals. And obviously we’ve had a long tradition of science fiction that takes us into spaces where we can imagine AI embodied, often in robotic forms, as having something like personhood. And that raises all these questions about the barriers between the human and the non-human other. And, in some ways, these questions have come up for millennia every time we’ve encountered different intelligences. It just seems now that we’re hoping, or aspiring towards creating non-human intelligences – whereas before, we’ve discovered them. So we’ve discovered that actually monkeys are pretty smart. We’ve discovered that dogs are pretty smart. And then, I’m afraid, from a colonial perspective from our past, other humans are actually and even women – Gosh! Darn! – They can also be pretty smart!

CC: As we’re hearing now! (Laughs)

BS: I mean, what’s going on!? So, again and again, “we” – in that kind-of very limited “we” – have had to expand our kind-of borders of perception of what intelligence could and should be. And with AI it seems like we’re trying to produce it. It’s not, in this case, meeting aliens on another planet. It’s actually, we’re trying to create the aliens here on earth. Whether we’ll be successful or not, I’m very agnostic about that. But I think it’s interesting that we want to do that. And what we want to be able to do with it. So that’s where things like questions of personhood, and slavery, and also pain . . . .When I made “Pain in the Machine“, one of the interesting questions that kept coming up was, like, should we even bother? Because if we’re going to create things that can feel pain, we’re just increasing the overall suffering in the universe and that doesn’t sound necessarily like a good thing (15:00). And going back to the transhumanists, as I said. So transhumanism is the idea that you can improve humanity through technology, broadly, and then you might lead to a state in which we’re no longer the same form of human that we were before.

CC: A new evolutionary step.

BS: Exactly. You might be a form of cyborg. Or there’s people who talk about post-humanism, where we’re so completely different we’re not even similar at all. But this idea sort-of does narrow down to this question of suffering, and being in pain, and what the human being is for, and where we’re going. So these are all big questions that are obviously very familiar shapes to anyone who’s looked at religion all around the world: these are the kinds of questions people have always been trying to answer. And I find it fascinating that some of these groups, as I say, are very overtly secular – almost New Atheist, some of them really admire the five horsemen of the apocalypse – but the shapes that they tell their own stories of the future of humanity with are very, very familiar to anyone who’s studied religion for any period of time. So is it that we’re . . . trapped isn’t the word for me, but we’re bound to repeat these shapes? Is there something in us that always goes to these same sorts of big existential questions, and comes up with similar sorts of solutions for them? I don’t know. I think that’s the ongoing question in my work. But I can dig down into particular instances of it as an anthropologist and say, “Well here’s a moment” – and some of them are very, very small moments, I admit that. I’m not doing big, big science. Some big scientists I’ve spoken to go, “Well you’ve spoken to like five people about this. What does that say about anything? That’s not a big data set.” But I don’t do big data stuff, but instances, and moments of clarity, where you can see these entanglements really clearly. And so: well, they’re doing something with both the concept of religion and the concept of AI. And they’re coming together.

CC: So you were just alluding to your small data sets there. So, well, I don’t think it’s a small data set that you’re presenting on here, but I guess it depends on perspective. But you’ve been looking at this particular trope on Twitter, “blessed by the algorithm”. And that’s what your paper that you’re giving here today is called. So what’s going on there? How does it intersect with AI? Why is it relevant? Tell us!

BS: (Laughs) Tell us! Yes. As a digital ethnographer, anthropologist of social media, I spend a lot of time hanging out on Twitter – that’s my excuse anyway, I’ll stick with it! I spotted a couple of people using the phrase blessed by the algorithm which obviously rings bells for me instantly for the language. And I dug around and I found 181 instances so far of people online, tweeting – just on Twitter as a platform – in some combination, in some context using the words blessed by the algorithm. And then you could follow back and see the first instance – which was very much about a corporate use of social media, and someone saying, “Well because this corporation has money, they’re going to be blessed by the algorithm.” So it sits in that kind-of context. But one of the most popular tweets, and most retweets, and most likes was a comment from someone saying in the real world – the so-called real world, I don’t like that differential – but anyway, in the so-called real world they’d heard their Lyft driver – so the gig economy role – say that they’d had a great day, and they felt blessed by the algorithm. And this might be something like a reframing and re-understanding of how we exist in a society that involves algorithmic decision making systems in a gig economy: what you get is dependent on a machine somewhere, making a choice. I mean there’s lots of words in that I don’t like that I just used, but unfortunately we’re very bound by anthropomorphic language when it comes to AI, but anyway. And so I have a corpus of 181 tweets and, actually, three of those refer to things I’ve said. So I’m muddling the field site a bit myself.

CC: OK. You’re an insider!

BS: I’m an insider as well. Well it’s responses to papers I’ve given. But, yes, I’ve created a very rough typology of the types. And some are about getting decent recommendations through the algorithm, on sites like Spotify. Some people are very pleased that their own content has been recommended to other people. There are people who sort-of talk about it in a very nebulous way: “Today I have been blessed by the algorithm.” And no more information. And then some people who really push the pseudo-religious language and come up with little prayers. And one of the things I was very interested in, in some of my other work on new religious movements, was the move between parody and legitimation. So I looked a lot at Jediism, and the census, and how some people did certainly write “Jedi” in the census in 2001 and 2011 as parody. They were upset about being asked about religion. They didn’t like religion, perhaps, itself. So they wrote Jedi. But that snowballing effect of legitimation – the more people talk about a thing, the more legitimate it seems – can have an effect (20:00). So even if a lot of these tweets are tongue-in-cheek, it’s still kind-of distilling out of the conversation. So, I have a graph. I’m very excited about this. I have a graph! As someone who, very much, is on the qualitative side and I don’t do big data stuff at all, to have graph made me go “Oh, exciting! I have to do some maths!” But I didn’t really do very much. And you can see the shift and change. After this one very popular tweet, there are more tweets. Perhaps this is the beginning of a trend, more people thinking in this way? Or even if it’s not, it’s just interesting to see that conception of AI as having superagency – that it is in some way in charge of our lives – being blessed by it, in some way equivalent to being blessed by an omnipotent deity somewhere up there that we can’t see. It’s in a mystical . . . . So there’re overlaps in conception, there, that I’m really interested in.

CC: The Listener shouldn’t know that I had a little hiccup earlier, because I’ll have edited it out. But just before that, I had an excellent question which I’ve now remembered – because it was written down!

BS: Hurray!

CC: So a lot of these issues that we’ve been talking around – functions, ethical questions, even the discourses in the Twittersphere – to my ear, certainly sound quite Christian or post-Christian at least through monotheistic . . . . I’m just wondering if these issues . . . . Were we in a different cultural context, would different issues be being thrown up by AI? I guess, would even AI be different in a different cultural context? Because I suppose you will have a lot of conversation between researchers all over the world working in AI. So is AI culturally specific or . . . ?

BS: Yes, absolutely, I think it’s culturally specific. What does tend to happen, however, it’s that it tends to be quite a narrow binary of East and West in the discussion. So everyone says, “Western conceptions of AI are like this”, but they go, “Over there in the East” and they’re mostly talking about Japan, “actually, people have a very different conception of AI and they love robots. And the reason they love robots is because they have a Shinto religious background or they have a Buddhist religious background”. And sometimes that can be a very broad stroke, almost pseudo-techno-orientalism of “Those people over there, they never really went through the Enlightenment, and they never really rationalised away religion, and they still believe in spirits and everything!” So, obviously this is me being very sarcastic, by the way – if it’s not coming across that I don’t agree with this! (Laughs) I think, yes, cultural context is really important for conceptions of artificial intelligence and also for religion, and the entanglements of both of them. But it much more multiplicious . . . . That’s not a word!

CC: It could be a word!

BS: I’m going to make it up now. Multiplicious! It’s much more multiple than that. Not just this binary of East and West. There’s also Africa, India, Pakistan and within those countries as well, again. So what you need is just more anthropologists, basically. I think this is my call to arms. We need more people around the world connecting on this question of the impact of religion and cultural context on questions of artificial intelligence. Yes. So we are seeing specific difference. But I want to try and push away a little bit from that binary distinction. And the assumption that the West isn’t animistic in its own lovely ways. Which anyone who does religious studies for any period of time, here in the so-called West, realises that the so-called Enlightenment didn’t have as huge an effect as we like to think sometimes. And our big metanarratives of what we did, and how smart we became . . . .

CC: Yes, but the discourse that the Enlightenment did have an effect, it’s been quite pernicious.

BS: Yes. Very, very strong.

CC: We’ve been racing through things here, it’s fantastic. But we’re still at 25 minutes. So you’ve been hinting, there, that we need more anthropologists doing more stuff. And on the way to this interview you were telling me about some things you’ve been doing to do with Frankenstein and then, also, because this year’s the year that we’re all meant to be living in Blade Runner times. So maybe if you’d give us a flavour of some that maybe slightly peripheral stuff to your project, that you’ve been doing. And what’s next for you, what you would like to see next, as a way to wrap up.

BS: Yes. So interestingly, I suppose, the position I’m in now, my employment post, is a junior research fellowship specifically in artificial intelligence. So I came on board saying, “These are my interests. This is my background in Religious Studies.” They were all very interested and excited in that. But being someone who also can speak more broadly to AI, as well, any time people have a question about AI I’m called upon (25:00). Which is lovely, but it does mean that when a specific theme and AI comes up, I get involved. So last year was the . . . two hundredth anniversary? (I should know that!) . . . two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. And a lot of people start thinking, then, of the parallels and connections with artificial intelligence: this idea that we are creating life (Wa-ha-hah! Mad scientists, all of us!) in some way, and there should be parallels between them. So I did about four or five public talks last year, specifically on Frankenstein. And there are similarities. There are huge differences as well. That was interesting for me, to kind-of return to a text I hadn’t thought about in a really long time and sort-of draw out so many pop culture references. I have a nice slide with all the times you’ve got a robotic Frankenstein. My favourite one was, I think, an issue of a Marvel comic where Frankenstein turns out to be a robot sent back in time by aliens. So all these sort-of mash-ups. That was really interesting. And then, like you say, this is the year of Blade Runner and I’ve just done an essay for Radio Three. And, again – not my academic background. But I’m doing something in that, in terms of sexual politics and Blade Runner. If you’ve seen the film, it doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test!

CC: No.

BS: A friend of mine, Kate Devlin, who’s written a fantastic book on sexbots, talks about how it has a problem with women. That basically . . . it’s a product of its time. It’s 1980s, but it’s also trying to do 1950s filme noir. So you’ve got the detective, and femme fatale, and the kind-of virginal woman. It’s not a great one for sexual politics. But also, it’s tied into all these questions of consent and slavery. If we’re going to create so-called artificial life . . . . And the Replicants in Blade Runner are as near to human – well that’s the slogan of the company, basically: “as near to human as you can’t tell the difference”. What does it mean that we are a society that wishes for that, or dreams of that? Or, take it a step back and say: what is it, that we tell these stories and that, again, we have predominantly female representations of synthetic lives, who don’t get to choose who they sleep with, and don’t get to choose their fates? And we want slaves? I mean, did we not evolve out of this? We thought we were trying. So, yes, there’s lots of big questions about the ethics and politics of that, as well. So it’s interesting. I’ve always been . . . . Anyone who knows me, I’ve always been a massive geek. So the fact that I ended up somehow trying to mesh that with a job, and an academic role, where legitimately I sat and watched Blade Runner again five times before I wrote my essay – that’s fantastic! I will go on, and other things I have coming up: I will do some work around techno-optimism and techno-utopianism in relation to Sophia the Hanson robot, if you’ve ever come across this creation? She/it is a wonderful example of . . . I’m really picking my words carefully! I think the nicest thing we could call her is a puppet. But she’s presented as the most advanced version of AI around at the moment. She holds conversations with people, but we know they’re actually scripted a lot of the time. There’s puppeteers involved. But you know she was given citizenship of Saudi Arabia. And she goes and she speaks on the Jimmy Kimmel Show and she’s on the front cover of magazines with her hair done. And, well, what does this say, that we’re so keen to jump on this idea of her actually being alive in some way? People tweet at her, send her, like, “I love you Sophia!”

CC: Didn’t you have an interaction with her?

BS: I did! Well, I had an interaction with whoever runs her social media accounts, where she was tweeting about how wonderful it was to travel around the world and talk in so many places. And I said, “Sophia, as a citizen of Saudi Arabia, where do you travel when you travel? Do you travel on a plane? Do you have a passport? What’s the deal here, if you’re being treated in this way?” She said something like, “For my safety, and the safety of others, at the moment I travel in the hold, in luggage, but I dream one day of being able to sit with the rest of you, and look out of the window.” This is so disingenuous. This is not an artificial intelligence listening to my tweets and responding, having thought through their situation, and projecting into the future where they want to be. This is someone behind the computer screen typing away! And, to be fair to the creators of Sophia, this is not uncommon. Lots of the technology we’re being sold as employing artificial intelligence actually employs people, on less than minimum wage, in third world countries, reading and listening to actual humans and feeding into the machine. They have the aspiration that eventually they’ll take those humans out of the loop. Same thing with Lift and Uber drivers – the whole gig economy. The treatment of those workers, and Amazon workers, is terrible and it’s on a pipeline towards getting rid of them (30:00). So all the work that those people do feeds into the system to replace them. And these big socio-economic changes that are coming because of automation, I’m a big sceptic about the bigger utopian dreams of universal basic income and everyone will get paid to exist and when the robots take our jobs.

CC: Well, it’s not happened yet.

BS: It’s not happened yet. And these are the sort of impacts on society that religions will respond to, will be a part of, because their communities will be a part of them. And we’ve got parallels. People go “Oh it’s another industrial revolution, and we survived other industrial revolutions, we’ll survive this one.” If you’re against them, you’re a Luddite – they’re back again, apparently! That’s not realistic to the individual lives, and the changes that come to individuals. There were blacksmiths who never worked again. So not to be Debbie Downer, but these are the important questions.

CC: Yes, lots of people have not survived. And I could always point out that colonialism is very much still happening.

BS: Oh, absolutely.

CC: It’s just been exported, and it’s clouded in the language of free trade and globalisation now.

BS: Absolutely.

CC: But just to raise the tone – an example that you may not be aware of, and you may have seen it, South Park did the episode about Alexa.

BS: I saw a picture today, actually. And I haven’t seen the episode so I need to catch up!

CC: It’s excellent, because all of the local people, lower down in the socio-economic spectrum, were kicking off that Alexa was stealing their jobs. And they manged to rally round. And then all to get Alexa’s job. So people would have a (audio unclear) or a Jimbob in their living room who looks things up on a smart phone and says “Boodoopboopboop!”

BS: Yes! (Laughs)

CC: But yes. Sort-of . . . explicitly buying into that.

BS: I need to catch up on that one. South Park are wonderful at doing this social commentary. The number of times I’ve used . . . specifically some of the episodes on their versions of Scientology– not their versions, their actual accounts of Scientology, Mormonism. They’re very useful resources. The parody opens up the possibility of thinking more critically about that, absolutely.

CC: Yes. Which I think we have managed to do today. So Listeners, do check out, we’ll try and link to that issue of Implicit Religion, we’ll link to Pain and the Machine, which is the film that Beth mentioned, and many more things I’m sure. So thank you, Beth, for joining us.

BS: Thank you very much for having me today.

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Artificial Intelligence and Religion

What is Artificial Intelligence and why might we want to consider it in relation to ‘religion’? What religion-related questions might be raised by AI? Are these ‘religious’ questions or ‘Christian’/’post-Christian’ ones? What ‘religious’ functions might AI serve? In what ways do popular discourses about AI intersect with religion-related discourses? Do narratives of AI form part of a teleological atheist narrative, or do they perpetuate prevalent tropes associated with ‘established’ or ‘new’ religious movements? And what are the intersections of AI and religion with issues such as slavery, human identity, affect and agency? This week, Chris is joined by Dr Beth Singler of the University of Cambridge to discuss these issues and many more.

This podcast builds on a roundtable discussion released on the RSP in February 2017, featuring Beth, Chris, Michael Morelli, Vivian Asimos and Jonathan Tuckett, titled “AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation” and a special issue of the RSP journal Implicit Religion, co-edited by Dr Singler, on Artificial Intelligence and Religion, published in 2017.

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Artificial Intelligence and Religion

Podcast with Beth Singler (27 January 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Singler_-_Artificial_Intelligence_and_Religion_1.1.pdf

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/artificial-intelligence-and-religion/

PDF at

Christopher Cotter (CC): At the weekend, I mentioned to my father that I was going to be recording an interview about the intersections between AI and religion. And he said, “I can’t think of anything that would be relevant there. How do they intersect at all?” And then, within the space of about two minutes, we were suddenly talking about all sorts of things, like: are human beings creating intelligences? Does that mean they’re acting like gods? Can you imagine that AI might be acting as religious functionaries, providing blessings? And what about pain, what about notions of slavery, what about the whole notion of the soul, and eternity, and transhumanism and everything? So suddenly we got into this massive discussion. And today I am pleased to be joined by Dr Beth Singler to continue that discussion in a more erudite fashion – not casting any aspersions on my father, of course! Dr Singler is the Homerton Junior Research Fellow in Artificial Intelligence at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. And her background is as a social anthropologist of new religious movements. And her first monograph, The Indigo Children: New Age Experimentation with Self and Science, published with Routledge in 2017, was the first in-depth ethnography of a group called the Indigo Children: a new age re-conception of both children and adults using the language of both evolution and spirituality. We’ll hear more about her research into AI and religion just now. But a relevant recent publication is her edited special issue on AI and religion, for the RSP’s sponsored journal Implicit Religion, which included her own articles: “An Introduction to Artificial Intelligence and Religion for the Religious Studies Scholar“, and “Roko’s Basilisk or Pascal’s? Thinking of Singularity Thought Experiments as Implicit Religion“. And today’s podcast builds on a roundtable discussion (that we had back . . . well, we had it in September 2016, but it was released in February 2017) featuring Dr Singler, myself, Dr Morelli, Vivian Asimos, and Jonathan Tuckett, titled “AI and Religion, an Initial Conversation“. So first off, Beth – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project!

Beth Singler (BS): Hello! Thank you for having me.

CC: It’s great to have you back. And hopefully this is the follow-up conversation that was promised!

BS: (Laughs) As foretold . . . !

CC: So many moons ago!

BS: (Laughs).

CC: So we’ll have covered a little bit of this already I think. But you’ll be in a different position now: years on, years older, years wiser!

BS: Oh, so much older!

CC: So, first off: artificial intelligence is going to be a sort-of contested term in public discourse. It takes on a variety of different nuances. So what are you meaning in this conversation?

BS: Well, I’m definitely meaning that it is a contested term, taking on many different forms. I think you can sort-of indicate towards something that is the field of artificial intelligence, within which there are processes and programmes and foci of research, looking at things like machine learning and vision systems and natural language processing. So you have this concept of a computer science field – which doesn’t really get its name until the 1950s – but you can see how, beyond the actual narrow form of the technology, artificial intelligence is understood in so many different ways by so many different people. I have a friend who once told me that their car had AI because when she walked towards her car with her keys, the doors unlocked. That’s not artificial intelligence. That’s a sensor in your keys. But lots of people have this idea of sort-of processes that seem intelligent, done by machines, and therefore must be artificial intelligence. And that’s what I’m really very interested in: that it’s so much broader than the original conception, which was ambitious in its own right. But everyone has attached AI to different things that they feel might represent intelligence. So it’s not only the computer programme that sits on a server, it’s also now the robot that takes over the world. Or it’s the far, future hope of an intelligence that will save us all from ourselves. So it’s all these very different things, and that’s what interests me.

CC: Yes. And you’re interested in that whole gamut, I suppose. So, not necessarily a technical definition of artificial intelligence.

BS: No. I mean, I know enough technologists who go, “Absolutely, 100%, it’s this one thing. That’s it. And anyone who’s talking about anything else, it’s complete nonsense!” Well, to a certain extent, yes. But you’ve got to pay attention to all the different interpretations, because that’s what’s getting out there into the world.

CC: So I began with my personal vignette, there, about chatting with my dad. But you’ve provided, much more eruditely, a justification for what we might mean by the intersections between AI and the study of religion, and why we’re even having this conversation. So – go!

BS: Go! Right. Well, from a very basic position, any form of technology intersects with religion.(5:00) That’s just the nature of our society works, how our conception of religion itself works, that it could be seen, in itself, as a form of technology. And therefore any kind-of shift and changes in how we do things – things that make our lives either more difficult or easier – there are repercussions and implications for how we imagine the world and how it works, therefore religion. I think where AI might be slightly different . . . . Although I am cautious about saying it’s revolutionary new technology and very disruptive – it does replicate lots of existing ideas and thoughts. What I think is interesting about AI is the way in which people see it as much more than that simplistic tool. That however narrow an intelligence it is at the moment, people extrapolate on to personify AI: AI will want to do x-y-z; AI will replicate humans in such a way that we won’t be able to tell the difference between humans and AI. And this the Sci-fi imagining. But it also comes out in our religious conceptions as well. And then, also, within the sphere of the non-religious or secular approaches to AI, you see again these repeating patterns of religious narratives, and tropes that people who – even if overtly and sometimes aggressively atheist – still draw on their cultural context: primarily sort-of Abrahamic, Western conceptions of what a god would be like. And they use that, and they fill in their conception of AI with some of the existing templates that they’ve already got. So it tends to fall into very eschatological language, and very singular monotheistic conceptions of what a god would be and pattern that onto artificial intelligence.

CC: So there’s that sort-of: whatever religion is, we’re never going to be able to extract it from society. Because whatever . . . we can argue about it being a social thing and AI is integrated with that. Then also, the sort-of religion-related tropes, narratives, and so on. But then also there are – I’ll maybe talk about this now – there are some groups that you might describe as new religious movements, or new un-religious movements, and things that are explicitly sort-of engaging with this.

BS: Yes, so with my new religious studies hat on – that I wore so well for doing my thesis – having moved into artificial intelligence as a subject area, I’m seeing similar sorts of formations of online identity. Primarily these sort-of groups form online. They’re sort-of geographically disparate, so online spaces are important, and so forums and hashtags on Twitter, and so forth, to bring them together to formulate ideas. And some of them do expressly call themselves churches. So you get the Turing Church; the Church of Assimilation recently got in touch with me. I went to do a little bit more digging around into what they’re up to. But I do know about assimilation theory. But yes, the groups that specifically say: we are in some ways attempting to define our spirituality in relationship to artificial intelligence; we might also be transhumanist, in that we think through technology we can solve some of those very pernicious problems of humanity – death being the big one.

CC: It’s a big one!

BS: It’s a big one. Some are not quite so ambitious, just want to solve suffering – which also sounds like a serious thing to be taking on! But some do seek to be immortal in some form, whether that involves mind-uploading or transference of consciousness through artificial intelligence – all these sorts of various shapes. But yes, absolutely there are specific groups that see their endeavour as religious. And some will call themselves un-religions because they’re drawing a sort-of ideological gap between themselves and how they perceive mainstream religious groups. So in sociology of religion you might call them “spiritual but not religious”. But they’re still using some of that terminology of “We are the church of x-y-z.” and they’re doing it in quite pragmatic ways. Some of them will talk very explicitly about using religion to encourage people into transhumanist ideas and encourage them into seeing this vision of the future that they see. So, arguably, you can sort-of take a slightly sceptical stance and say they’re not really, really religions. But who gets to decide that?

CC: Yes. Absolutely. Right. So in the introduction, as well, I mentioned potential . . . I suppose we could say “religious uses” for AI. I was talking to a friend yesterday about if you could hypothetically imagine being in a confessional, for example, would it need to be a human priest on the other side of that? Or could it . . . ? And we landed down on, “Well, if you didn’t know it wasn’t human then it might be ok.” But there is something about . . . .

BS: Like in a church Turing test. There is a church Turing hypothesis, but this is separate. Yes, I find it interesting, talking more broadly in terms of technology and religion, that there are periods of rejection, adoption and adaption (10:00): that when new technologies arise, sometimes more established religions can be quite negative about them for a period of time – and these are overlapping categories that are non-discrete – but, over time, we do see religious groups specifically producing their own forms of those technologies. So there’s like the Bless U-2  robots that are used in part of Reformation celebrations in Germany. And in other religious groups, I recently saw in Dubai they’ve come up with an algorithm for issuing fatwa’s as well – making Islamic jurisprudence decisions. So you’d go on line, put in “Is it ok for me to have done x-y-z?” Or “I failed to pray on a particular day, what’s the . . . ?” And basically, all that system is doing is looking at previous cases. But . . . .

CC: Yes. But that’s all a human does.

BS: That’s all a human does. I mean, the question arises: what happens with the data? But that’s a privacy . . . another issue. But yes, so specific established religious groups seeing the technology – just as, in the nineties, suddenly we got lots of internet churches, where people were encouraging people to go on line and do church in a different way. And now we have internet sites for churches. But it’s not so much the case in the mainstream religions that you go online to do faith. It’s just that your local church will have the internet. So that’s the adaption stage of: “This thing is around, we’re kind-of used to it, we use it, and we don’t necessarily have a big . . . .” Like, the Church of England they released an Alexa Skill. They had a big press conference. And all the Alexa Skill does is recite the Lord’s Prayer to you if you ask it to. There are other adaptions now where it can tell you what your local church is and what the services are. So it’s not really revolutionary! But, you know, “Here’s a thing we’re doing with this new technology.” And it gets a press release. And then, the next sort-of stage – non-discrete stage – is just being very casual with the technology as: “This is just something we use.” Like we used books when the printing press first came out. The first things printed were Bibles. And this was a specific use of that technology. And then, over time, it’s just books. And it’s not so astounding. But in that process you get these spikes of interest and discussion. And, yes, different reactions to the technology – whether positive or negative.

CC: Absolutely. So before we get to . . . I suppose to the reason that you’re in Edinburgh today, and we’re chatting . . . . So that’s been a little bit about potentially religious, or religion-related uses. But there’s lot of . . . . Again, in my intro, there were a lot of religion-related questions that are raised by AI. Things like . . . you’ve done work on pain; there’s things about slavery, and all that. If we create these intelligences and then use them to our will, is that ethical? And then you’ve already mentioned transhumanism, which may be an unfamiliar term to some Listeners. So maybe, if you could talk a little bit about these religion-related issues?

BS: Yes. As I say, AI in its narrowest definition is a piece of computer technology, it’s a tool, but it inspires all these hypotheticals. And obviously we’ve had a long tradition of science fiction that takes us into spaces where we can imagine AI embodied, often in robotic forms, as having something like personhood. And that raises all these questions about the barriers between the human and the non-human other. And, in some ways, these questions have come up for millennia every time we’ve encountered different intelligences. It just seems now that we’re hoping, or aspiring towards creating non-human intelligences – whereas before, we’ve discovered them. So we’ve discovered that actually monkeys are pretty smart. We’ve discovered that dogs are pretty smart. And then, I’m afraid, from a colonial perspective from our past, other humans are actually and even women – Gosh! Darn! – They can also be pretty smart!

CC: As we’re hearing now! (Laughs)

BS: I mean, what’s going on!? So, again and again, “we” – in that kind-of very limited “we” – have had to expand our kind-of borders of perception of what intelligence could and should be. And with AI it seems like we’re trying to produce it. It’s not, in this case, meeting aliens on another planet. It’s actually, we’re trying to create the aliens here on earth. Whether we’ll be successful or not, I’m very agnostic about that. But I think it’s interesting that we want to do that. And what we want to be able to do with it. So that’s where things like questions of personhood, and slavery, and also pain . . . .When I made “Pain in the Machine“, one of the interesting questions that kept coming up was, like, should we even bother? Because if we’re going to create things that can feel pain, we’re just increasing the overall suffering in the universe and that doesn’t sound necessarily like a good thing (15:00). And going back to the transhumanists, as I said. So transhumanism is the idea that you can improve humanity through technology, broadly, and then you might lead to a state in which we’re no longer the same form of human that we were before.

CC: A new evolutionary step.

BS: Exactly. You might be a form of cyborg. Or there’s people who talk about post-humanism, where we’re so completely different we’re not even similar at all. But this idea sort-of does narrow down to this question of suffering, and being in pain, and what the human being is for, and where we’re going. So these are all big questions that are obviously very familiar shapes to anyone who’s looked at religion all around the world: these are the kinds of questions people have always been trying to answer. And I find it fascinating that some of these groups, as I say, are very overtly secular – almost New Atheist, some of them really admire the five horsemen of the apocalypse – but the shapes that they tell their own stories of the future of humanity with are very, very familiar to anyone who’s studied religion for any period of time. So is it that we’re . . . trapped isn’t the word for me, but we’re bound to repeat these shapes? Is there something in us that always goes to these same sorts of big existential questions, and comes up with similar sorts of solutions for them? I don’t know. I think that’s the ongoing question in my work. But I can dig down into particular instances of it as an anthropologist and say, “Well here’s a moment” – and some of them are very, very small moments, I admit that. I’m not doing big, big science. Some big scientists I’ve spoken to go, “Well you’ve spoken to like five people about this. What does that say about anything? That’s not a big data set.” But I don’t do big data stuff, but instances, and moments of clarity, where you can see these entanglements really clearly. And so: well, they’re doing something with both the concept of religion and the concept of AI. And they’re coming together.

CC: So you were just alluding to your small data sets there. So, well, I don’t think it’s a small data set that you’re presenting on here, but I guess it depends on perspective. But you’ve been looking at this particular trope on Twitter, “blessed by the algorithm”. And that’s what your paper that you’re giving here today is called. So what’s going on there? How does it intersect with AI? Why is it relevant? Tell us!

BS: (Laughs) Tell us! Yes. As a digital ethnographer, anthropologist of social media, I spend a lot of time hanging out on Twitter – that’s my excuse anyway, I’ll stick with it! I spotted a couple of people using the phrase blessed by the algorithm which obviously rings bells for me instantly for the language. And I dug around and I found 181 instances so far of people online, tweeting – just on Twitter as a platform – in some combination, in some context using the words blessed by the algorithm. And then you could follow back and see the first instance – which was very much about a corporate use of social media, and someone saying, “Well because this corporation has money, they’re going to be blessed by the algorithm.” So it sits in that kind-of context. But one of the most popular tweets, and most retweets, and most likes was a comment from someone saying in the real world – the so-called real world, I don’t like that differential – but anyway, in the so-called real world they’d heard their Lyft driver – so the gig economy role – say that they’d had a great day, and they felt blessed by the algorithm. And this might be something like a reframing and re-understanding of how we exist in a society that involves algorithmic decision making systems in a gig economy: what you get is dependent on a machine somewhere, making a choice. I mean there’s lots of words in that I don’t like that I just used, but unfortunately we’re very bound by anthropomorphic language when it comes to AI, but anyway. And so I have a corpus of 181 tweets and, actually, three of those refer to things I’ve said. So I’m muddling the field site a bit myself.

CC: OK. You’re an insider!

BS: I’m an insider as well. Well it’s responses to papers I’ve given. But, yes, I’ve created a very rough typology of the types. And some are about getting decent recommendations through the algorithm, on sites like Spotify. Some people are very pleased that their own content has been recommended to other people. There are people who sort-of talk about it in a very nebulous way: “Today I have been blessed by the algorithm.” And no more information. And then some people who really push the pseudo-religious language and come up with little prayers. And one of the things I was very interested in, in some of my other work on new religious movements, was the move between parody and legitimation. So I looked a lot at Jediism, and the census, and how some people did certainly write “Jedi” in the census in 2001 and 2011 as parody. They were upset about being asked about religion. They didn’t like religion, perhaps, itself. So they wrote Jedi. But that snowballing effect of legitimation – the more people talk about a thing, the more legitimate it seems – can have an effect (20:00). So even if a lot of these tweets are tongue-in-cheek, it’s still kind-of distilling out of the conversation. So, I have a graph. I’m very excited about this. I have a graph! As someone who, very much, is on the qualitative side and I don’t do big data stuff at all, to have graph made me go “Oh, exciting! I have to do some maths!” But I didn’t really do very much. And you can see the shift and change. After this one very popular tweet, there are more tweets. Perhaps this is the beginning of a trend, more people thinking in this way? Or even if it’s not, it’s just interesting to see that conception of AI as having superagency – that it is in some way in charge of our lives – being blessed by it, in some way equivalent to being blessed by an omnipotent deity somewhere up there that we can’t see. It’s in a mystical . . . . So there’re overlaps in conception, there, that I’m really interested in.

CC: The Listener shouldn’t know that I had a little hiccup earlier, because I’ll have edited it out. But just before that, I had an excellent question which I’ve now remembered – because it was written down!

BS: Hurray!

CC: So a lot of these issues that we’ve been talking around – functions, ethical questions, even the discourses in the Twittersphere – to my ear, certainly sound quite Christian or post-Christian at least through monotheistic . . . . I’m just wondering if these issues . . . . Were we in a different cultural context, would different issues be being thrown up by AI? I guess, would even AI be different in a different cultural context? Because I suppose you will have a lot of conversation between researchers all over the world working in AI. So is AI culturally specific or . . . ?

BS: Yes, absolutely, I think it’s culturally specific. What does tend to happen, however, it’s that it tends to be quite a narrow binary of East and West in the discussion. So everyone says, “Western conceptions of AI are like this”, but they go, “Over there in the East” and they’re mostly talking about Japan, “actually, people have a very different conception of AI and they love robots. And the reason they love robots is because they have a Shinto religious background or they have a Buddhist religious background”. And sometimes that can be a very broad stroke, almost pseudo-techno-orientalism of “Those people over there, they never really went through the Enlightenment, and they never really rationalised away religion, and they still believe in spirits and everything!” So, obviously this is me being very sarcastic, by the way – if it’s not coming across that I don’t agree with this! (Laughs) I think, yes, cultural context is really important for conceptions of artificial intelligence and also for religion, and the entanglements of both of them. But it much more multiplicious . . . . That’s not a word!

CC: It could be a word!

BS: I’m going to make it up now. Multiplicious! It’s much more multiple than that. Not just this binary of East and West. There’s also Africa, India, Pakistan and within those countries as well, again. So what you need is just more anthropologists, basically. I think this is my call to arms. We need more people around the world connecting on this question of the impact of religion and cultural context on questions of artificial intelligence. Yes. So we are seeing specific difference. But I want to try and push away a little bit from that binary distinction. And the assumption that the West isn’t animistic in its own lovely ways. Which anyone who does religious studies for any period of time, here in the so-called West, realises that the so-called Enlightenment didn’t have as huge an effect as we like to think sometimes. And our big metanarratives of what we did, and how smart we became . . . .

CC: Yes, but the discourse that the Enlightenment did have an effect, it’s been quite pernicious.

BS: Yes. Very, very strong.

CC: We’ve been racing through things here, it’s fantastic. But we’re still at 25 minutes. So you’ve been hinting, there, that we need more anthropologists doing more stuff. And on the way to this interview you were telling me about some things you’ve been doing to do with Frankenstein and then, also, because this year’s the year that we’re all meant to be living in Blade Runner times. So maybe if you’d give us a flavour of some that maybe slightly peripheral stuff to your project, that you’ve been doing. And what’s next for you, what you would like to see next, as a way to wrap up.

BS: Yes. So interestingly, I suppose, the position I’m in now, my employment post, is a junior research fellowship specifically in artificial intelligence. So I came on board saying, “These are my interests. This is my background in Religious Studies.” They were all very interested and excited in that. But being someone who also can speak more broadly to AI, as well, any time people have a question about AI I’m called upon (25:00). Which is lovely, but it does mean that when a specific theme and AI comes up, I get involved. So last year was the . . . two hundredth anniversary? (I should know that!) . . . two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. And a lot of people start thinking, then, of the parallels and connections with artificial intelligence: this idea that we are creating life (Wa-ha-hah! Mad scientists, all of us!) in some way, and there should be parallels between them. So I did about four or five public talks last year, specifically on Frankenstein. And there are similarities. There are huge differences as well. That was interesting for me, to kind-of return to a text I hadn’t thought about in a really long time and sort-of draw out so many pop culture references. I have a nice slide with all the times you’ve got a robotic Frankenstein. My favourite one was, I think, an issue of a Marvel comic where Frankenstein turns out to be a robot sent back in time by aliens. So all these sort-of mash-ups. That was really interesting. And then, like you say, this is the year of Blade Runner and I’ve just done an essay for Radio Three. And, again – not my academic background. But I’m doing something in that, in terms of sexual politics and Blade Runner. If you’ve seen the film, it doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test!

CC: No.

BS: A friend of mine, Kate Devlin, who’s written a fantastic book on sexbots, talks about how it has a problem with women. That basically . . . it’s a product of its time. It’s 1980s, but it’s also trying to do 1950s filme noir. So you’ve got the detective, and femme fatale, and the kind-of virginal woman. It’s not a great one for sexual politics. But also, it’s tied into all these questions of consent and slavery. If we’re going to create so-called artificial life . . . . And the Replicants in Blade Runner are as near to human – well that’s the slogan of the company, basically: “as near to human as you can’t tell the difference”. What does it mean that we are a society that wishes for that, or dreams of that? Or, take it a step back and say: what is it, that we tell these stories and that, again, we have predominantly female representations of synthetic lives, who don’t get to choose who they sleep with, and don’t get to choose their fates? And we want slaves? I mean, did we not evolve out of this? We thought we were trying. So, yes, there’s lots of big questions about the ethics and politics of that, as well. So it’s interesting. I’ve always been . . . . Anyone who knows me, I’ve always been a massive geek. So the fact that I ended up somehow trying to mesh that with a job, and an academic role, where legitimately I sat and watched Blade Runner again five times before I wrote my essay – that’s fantastic! I will go on, and other things I have coming up: I will do some work around techno-optimism and techno-utopianism in relation to Sophia the Hanson robot, if you’ve ever come across this creation? She/it is a wonderful example of . . . I’m really picking my words carefully! I think the nicest thing we could call her is a puppet. But she’s presented as the most advanced version of AI around at the moment. She holds conversations with people, but we know they’re actually scripted a lot of the time. There’s puppeteers involved. But you know she was given citizenship of Saudi Arabia. And she goes and she speaks on the Jimmy Kimmel Show and she’s on the front cover of magazines with her hair done. And, well, what does this say, that we’re so keen to jump on this idea of her actually being alive in some way? People tweet at her, send her, like, “I love you Sophia!”

CC: Didn’t you have an interaction with her?

BS: I did! Well, I had an interaction with whoever runs her social media accounts, where she was tweeting about how wonderful it was to travel around the world and talk in so many places. And I said, “Sophia, as a citizen of Saudi Arabia, where do you travel when you travel? Do you travel on a plane? Do you have a passport? What’s the deal here, if you’re being treated in this way?” She said something like, “For my safety, and the safety of others, at the moment I travel in the hold, in luggage, but I dream one day of being able to sit with the rest of you, and look out of the window.” This is so disingenuous. This is not an artificial intelligence listening to my tweets and responding, having thought through their situation, and projecting into the future where they want to be. This is someone behind the computer screen typing away! And, to be fair to the creators of Sophia, this is not uncommon. Lots of the technology we’re being sold as employing artificial intelligence actually employs people, on less than minimum wage, in third world countries, reading and listening to actual humans and feeding into the machine. They have the aspiration that eventually they’ll take those humans out of the loop. Same thing with Lift and Uber drivers – the whole gig economy. The treatment of those workers, and Amazon workers, is terrible and it’s on a pipeline towards getting rid of them (30:00). So all the work that those people do feeds into the system to replace them. And these big socio-economic changes that are coming because of automation, I’m a big sceptic about the bigger utopian dreams of universal basic income and everyone will get paid to exist and when the robots take our jobs.

CC: Well, it’s not happened yet.

BS: It’s not happened yet. And these are the sort of impacts on society that religions will respond to, will be a part of, because their communities will be a part of them. And we’ve got parallels. People go “Oh it’s another industrial revolution, and we survived other industrial revolutions, we’ll survive this one.” If you’re against them, you’re a Luddite – they’re back again, apparently! That’s not realistic to the individual lives, and the changes that come to individuals. There were blacksmiths who never worked again. So not to be Debbie Downer, but these are the important questions.

CC: Yes, lots of people have not survived. And I could always point out that colonialism is very much still happening.

BS: Oh, absolutely.

CC: It’s just been exported, and it’s clouded in the language of free trade and globalisation now.

BS: Absolutely.

CC: But just to raise the tone – an example that you may not be aware of, and you may have seen it, South Park did the episode about Alexa.

BS: I saw a picture today, actually. And I haven’t seen the episode so I need to catch up!

CC: It’s excellent, because all of the local people, lower down in the socio-economic spectrum, were kicking off that Alexa was stealing their jobs. And they manged to rally round. And then all to get Alexa’s job. So people would have a (audio unclear) or a Jimbob in their living room who looks things up on a smart phone and says “Boodoopboopboop!”

BS: Yes! (Laughs)

CC: But yes. Sort-of . . . explicitly buying into that.

BS: I need to catch up on that one. South Park are wonderful at doing this social commentary. The number of times I’ve used . . . specifically some of the episodes on their versions of Scientology– not their versions, their actual accounts of Scientology, Mormonism. They’re very useful resources. The parody opens up the possibility of thinking more critically about that, absolutely.

CC: Yes. Which I think we have managed to do today. So Listeners, do check out, we’ll try and link to that issue of Implicit Religion, we’ll link to Pain and the Machine, which is the film that Beth mentioned, and many more things I’m sure. So thank you, Beth, for joining us.

BS: Thank you very much for having me today.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, 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.

The Essential and Complex Relationship of Religion and Media

A monument to Johannes Gutenberg, whose press allowed for the mass distribution of the Christian Bible and every book since, in Strasbourg, Germany. Photo by Glenn J. Mason from London, Britain CC BY

Listening to Chris Cotter and his panelists – Suzanne Owen, Vivian Asimos, and Tim Hutchings – bring up some compelling issues relating to religion and media, I was struck at how integral media is to the message of religion and worthy of academic study.  My own faith, Christian Science, would not exist if the founder, Mary Baker Eddy, hadn’t found a medium through which to share her insights. In spite of the difficulties facing a woman writing on religious matters in the late nineteenth century she wrote and published her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, to crystalise her teachings.

Media is a way a religion presents itself both to its own adherents and to the world beyond.  In the podcast, Tim Hutchings brought up the question of how religion and media need not be seen as two separate issues that occasionally meet, but that religion can be reconceived as a kind of mediation itself.  In fact, religion is always a mediator or a set of practices of mediation between the human and the divine.  This can give it authority for its adherents who see it as trustworthy.  However, while it brings an understanding of the faith to the believer, this very same medium can be less fathomable to the outsider because of the use of particularised language, lack of in depth understanding of the teachings, and so on.

This podcast centres mainly on social media, which might be seen to be a way of bridging the gap, but it raises as many issues as it solves.  Social media is often less representative of mainstream religions, being more the province of individuals expressing and finding their religion in their own unique way.   The speakers on the podcast discovered various issues relating to social media such as isolationism, the anonymity of user names, and concern by those who remain with the more traditional physical forms of worship. These findings are echoed by Christopher D Cunningham in his recent article in Public Space magazine, where he observes,

Social media has provided a venue to channel religious fervour without institutional oversight.  The effect has been a democratisation of religion.  This approach takes church out of religion, undercutting churches’ authority (and ability) to control a narrative and maintain doctrinal boundaries.

Tim discovered this in his research with Christian groups who use digital media. He was faced with the question of who gets to decide if this new manifestation of church online is the true church. He noted the relationships and emotional commitments that the online church group members make feel very real to them.  But he also found that those members of the church who maintained the more traditional worship in physical places felt that they were the ‘real’ church.  This raises the wider issue of who defines a religion, especially in relation to these new online versions, Tim’s solution is to let the group itself decide.

@amishbek#Pennsylvania I’m Amish♬ original sound – user444597131867472

 

 

Above, teen Rebecca Fisher maintains a popular TikTok account. Though her parents were Amish, they left the church when Fisher was a young child, but she considers herself Amish and says she attends an Amish church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Most Amish communities discourage the use of cell phones outside of business and medical or other emergency reasons, and photographs and videos of individuals are also discouraged. Still, the use of social media is increasing, especially among teens who have not yet been baptized and who are permitted, before choosing to join the church, to engage in popular culture in ways more familiar to their “English” (non-Amish) peers.

Identification is a significant issue in religious scholarship because misunderstanding can have adverse, wider consequences, such as misleading stereotypes and prejudice. In my position in the Christian Science Committee on Publication, an office that reviews media discourse about the denomination, I regularly see my faith freely defined by others – church leaders, academics, journalists, writers, playwrights, novelists and so on – often inaccurately and sometimes in ways that are simply wrong and misleading.  This is not new and certainly not confined to Christian Science.  So I can’t help seeing value in Tim’s approach of allowing the group to define itself and listening to them, free of judgment, to find out who they are and what is important to them.

Churches have always used the media to nurture and educate their members.  Today their use of the new digital media may sometimes be clumsy, not well understood, and subject to failure at times, as Tim has seen in his research, but it is the current and future manifestation of the way many religions and religious people want to share and make themselves known.  Tim’s arguments to his university asking them to support his research into religion and digital media are not only valid but essential because, as he says, it offers a lens into studying what really matters in religion “”whatever that might be.”  By extrapolation, studying all the media resources of any religion will cast light on them in a real and profound way. It is how they express themselves – their beliefs, practices, relationships. But the challenge for researchers is to allow religious groups to speak for themselves and not to interpret them through their own particular bias. To gain a clear view of religion from their media takes sensitivity, patience, listening and reflexivity, and this is not easy.

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Media and the Study of Religion

The 2019 conference of the British Association for the Study of Religions, at Leeds Trinity University, was loosely themed on the topic ‘Visualizing Cultures: Media, Technology and Religion’, and this provided an excellent focal point for a discussion of Media and the Study of Religion more broadly. With that in mind, we convened a virtually mediated roundtable discussion with Suzanne Owen (conference organizer), Vivian Asimos and Tim Hutchings speaking with RSP co-founder Chris Cotter. These contributors bring a broad range of expertise and experience to the discussion, with work focusing upon online and digital spaces, the built environment, art, literature, broadcast media, social media, podcasting, and more. Discussion begins with the conference, before turning to how a media approach can help the study of religion, what we might mean by media and mediation, challenges of taking a media approach, the utilization of media in teaching, how to avoid reifying ‘religion’ in the process, and more.

This discussion works well as a companion piece with a number of previous RSP podcasts, including Religion and the News (with Eileen Barker, Tim Hutchings, Christopher Landau, and David Gordon Wilson), Religion and the Media  (with Teemu Taira), Religious Authority and Social Media (with Pauline Hope Cheong), Religion, Violence and the Media (with Jolyon Mitchell), and Visual Culture and the Study of Religion (with Birgit Meyer).

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Media and the Study of Religion

Podcast with Vivian Asimos, Tim Hutchings and Suzanne Owen

(20 January 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/media-and-the-study-of-religion/

Download the PDF of this transcription here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Media_and_the_Study_of_Religion_1.1.pdf

Christopher Cotter (CC): Welcome, Listeners, to a special roundtable episode of the Religious Studies Project. We had hoped that this would happen at the BASR 2019 Conference at Leeds Trinity, but everyone was too busy, too tired, over-podcasted. And so we thought we would reconvene later on, online. And we’re talking about media and the study of religion. We’ve had a few podcasts touching on this topic before. You know, we’ve had one that Tim – who you’ll be hearing from in a moment – was involved in about religion and the news, and we had Teemu Taira talking about religion and the media. But today we’re going be taking a much broader approach, I think, to the notion of media and the study of religion so: mediation, and the various media in which that can occur. So I’m just going allow the speakers to introduce themselves, and say a little bit about how media crops up in their work. So for those who don’t know, I’m Chris Cotter, I’m one of the co-founders of the Religious Studies Project. And I’m going to let other people speak first, before I scrabble around to try and think about how media comes up in my work. But, Vivian – you’re first on my list here – who are you, and what’s media for you?

Vivian Asimos (VA): (Laughs) Quite a big question, regarding my work! So I’m Vivian Asimos, I recently got my PhD at Durham university, which is currently where I’m still acting at teaching assistant on several kinds of course. And I study virtual story-telling, primarily looking at the internet and video games. So lots of media that I’m looking at, and different types. Sometimes looking at it historically – how things used to be, historically-speaking, for the internet. Obviously not quite the breadth of history as maybe some other people are used to looking at! But seeing how things change over time, and also how this impacts our ideas of supernatural or communication of religion. Those kinds of things. Yes.

CC: Excellent. You are well-qualified to be at this table – this virtual table. And this podcast that’s being mediated to the Listeners’ ears, and we’re recording it via the internet. So it’s already a case study in that. And then we’ve got Suzanne Owen.

Suzanne Owen (SO): Yes, and I’m reader in Religious Studies at Leeds Trinity University. And I’ll just say that the four of us are in four different locations. So that’s possible because of media – digital media. And my research . . . I’ve not focussed on media per se, but it has come in different forms. So in my work with research in Newfoundland I’ve been looking at . . . not digital media, but I guess you might call it hard media? I’m not sure: art work, museum exhibitions and how representations of particular indigenous groups are portrayed, and the discourse in the text that surrounds it. And what they’re emphasising or what they’re hiding. But, I guess, more directly with digital media with the project that Teemu Tiara and I did with the druid network on the registration as a charity for the advancement of religion. There was quite a lot of media discourse that we included in our study, to show the different responses to that registration.

CC: Excellent. And then, I guess, sort-of the driving force behind this podcast is Tim Hutchings.

Tim Hutchings (TH): Hi. I am the Assistant Professor in Religious Ethics at the University of Nottingham. But I’m mostly a sociologist of digital religion. For ten or fifteen years I’ve been studying, you could say, the opposite of the kind of approach that Vivian takes. So my research began by looking at what particularly Christian institutions were trying to do with digital media. So very formalised, institutionalised, traditional versions of religion, trying to produce forms of online community or online ritual that they could recognise as proper Christian church. (5:00) And from there I’ve been fascinated by that ongoing struggle in some ways, maybe, of institutions that are quite slow and ponderous sometimes, to get to grips with a fast-moving medium, or a whole set of media. One of the things I particularly enjoyed studying around that field is seeing the number of projects that don’t quite work out. And the study of religion and media is often the study of disasters and failures and things that are quietly forgotten as quickly as possible! But I’ve looked at projects like attempts to encourage people to read the Bible through digital media, attempts to create online communities, attempts to produce religious mobile apps, and some kind-of emerging conversations online around death and grief. And at the moment I’m looking at a video game. But it’s a video game produced, again, by a Christian organisation to try and teach children about the Bible, more or less. So those are the kinds of things that I’m interested in.

CC: Excellent. And Tim, you’ve also got a journal as well that we should probably mention?

TH: Yes. Thank you. I’m the editor-in-chief of the journal, Religion, Media and Digital Culture, which is published by Brill in collaboration with the International Society for Media, Religion and Culture.

CC: Excellent. And we’ll try and link to that from the podcast page. And, as I said, I would let other people speak before trying to come up with something on this end. So my research . . . I work broadly looking at non-religion – so, basically anything that could be conceptualised as a relational “other” to religion. Primarily, my work has been interview-based and ethnographic. But an interesting way in which, I guess, using mediation comes in is: I’ve done a good bit of work looking at the built environment and how particularly – my field site for my PhD was Edinburgh’s Southside – but how this Southside was felt. And how people’s non-religious lives were sort-of impacted upon by the Christian hegemony of the spaces, and all the sort of conversions and things like that. So a little bit on how space can be seen as media in discourse. But then also, of course, especially when you’re looking at atheism etc., there’s so much stuff online you’ve got to pay attention to. So a bit of that. And then of course there’s also the production of media which we’ll probably be talking about as well. There’s the Religious Studies Project, here, which you’re listening to I suppose. And Vivian, you’ve also got a podcast?

VA: I do. I have the Religion in Popular Culture podcast, where I interview different people in the field of the study of religion and popular culture. Unfortunately, Tim and I keep missing dates on being recorded for it! But I’ve gotten quite a few people that approach things from a variety of different perspectives. And I use popular culture quite broadly, I think, to encapsulate all sorts of different medias and media types and even just the things that we take for granted as being around us every day. So check it out, if you like podcasts and religion!

CC: Well, presumably people who are listening have at least some sort of passing interest in podcasts and religion!

VA: (Laughs.)

CC: OK. I thought we could kick off a little bit. . . . Because, as I say, we meant to try and record at the BASR 2019 conference, which Suzanne organised. And one of the words in the title was media (Laughs). So maybe, Suzanne, you could just tell us a little bit about what the conference theme was and anything that came out of it for you. And then as we were all there we might have some stuff to offer.

SO: Yes, when I was asked to organise the conference, I immediately thought of my colleagues in media, film and culture to help co-organise it. Because I’m the only person in Religious Studies at my institution. And that turned out to be really great collaboration, particularly with Stefano Odorico who is a documentary film maker. And he’s really interested in developing new digital skills among students, and also in research with interactive documentary film making in particular. And one of the things, when we were discussing various titles, we didn’t want to make religion too prominent because he thought that it would be off-putting to people from his side. And so we came up with “Visualising Cultures: media, technology and religion”. In the end it really was a BASR conference, as most of the participants were BASR people (10:00). But I think it was also trying to emphasise that religion is not a rarefied thing, I suppose. Just part of a bundle, in this title. And also to try to emphasise the kind-of collaborative projects that might be happening, or interdisciplinary projects – which, I guess, Religious Studies is by nature, for the most part. But in the way that we might be using different disciplinary skills in the study of religion in order to do our research. And so visualising cultures seemed to capture everything that we wanted to bring to the conference, and to allow people to come that might not ordinarily come to a BASR. And we did get a few participants in that group; they came because of the theme. And most of them did do a study of religion of some kind, but not all of them. So that was really good to see.

CC: Excellent. Yes I mean I saw papers to do with… well it James Kapalo talking about archival work, Vivian, and Jonathan, and few others presenting about virtual worlds .And I remember Michael Dudeck – it was quite an innovative paper – was developing a sort-of virtual constructed religion. He called it the Temple of Artifice. And so his presentation was very interactive, and very on the nose. And I guess sort-of pushed us to think a little bit about what we’re doing in the Study of Religion. Can we be constructing things in that sort of way? It was excellent.

SO: Yes, it’s interesting that Michael Dudeck’s project – where he’s deliberately creating a religion that’s digitally available to participate in – in some ways we’re doing the same thing. But we think we’re doing it for real, I guess. And it’s really good to see that actually, what we’re doing is just as constructed and fictionalised.

VA: (Laughs). I mean, I would probably argue that what I’m doing isn’t for real, and yet it is at the same time. (Laughs). So, yeah. Because what I tend to look at is constructed fictional narratives that people are engaging with. So these are ones that nobody is working at it from say the perspective of like “We’re trying to form this into something.” Very seldom does that happen. And yet it tends to take off in that direction. And so, very often, it’s that sense of real-but-it’s-not, simultaneously. And I think it kind-of reveals a lot about how we actually do see the world as not always being these strict dichotomies between fiction and reality, but that they can be blurred and they often are. And that the internet, and the way that the online story-telling really works, ends up actually revealing that to us.

SO: Yes. And what Dudeck produced was actually real as well. And that word reality and real was used quite a lot in the conference by participants, I noticed.

VA: Yes. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine!

CC: Do you want to say a bit more about that Vivian? You’ve got the air-time!

VA: Yes, sure. You see it a lot even outside of the academic circle, of the “real world” versus the “online world”, or the “virtual world”, or the “digital world”. And essentially what that’s doing is painting this virtual world as being completely not real, and therefore all communities formed, all relationships had, all experiences are therefore painted as not real. Because it’s being put up against the physical world, which is the real world. So I pick “physical world” rather than real, to distinguish. Because I don’t want to take away from the experiences that are actually being had, that are very really felt by participants, by painting them as not real.

CC: Exactly. I mean what is qualitatively different from the experience that someone is supposedly having, whether its mediated through sound,or in a particular building, or through radio waves, or though the telephone, or the television, or online, or in a field, or whatever? These are all just different media that are being utilised. There is definitely a current bias towards the online world as being, in some way, not as authentic. Yet, as I’m sure we would all agree, for many it can be more – quote –”authentic” than the physical world (15:00).

SO: Yes. It’s interesting, because this distinction in fantasy fiction is similar where they have primary and secondary world. And the primary world is meant to be the real world. But there is no real world in fiction, or any kind of representation. And also it’s creating a false boundary, really.

TH: So I struggled with this a lot when I was doing my research about online churches. To try and work out what would be the “other” thing that I was distinguishing this from. And I started off thinking, “Well, it’s online churches versus offline churches”. But that doesn’t make sense. Because lots of those offline churches have websites, or some sort of online presence that maybe you communicate with the pastor of the church by email, or something like this. They’re not digital-free spaces. But they’re mediated differently in some way. And “physical”, to me, didn’t quite work either. Because we use physical technologies, of course, to connect with digital communications as well as anything else. So I ended up talking about “the online” and “the local”: trying to catch that sense of a thing that is defined by the place when it happens, rather than the media through which we . . . or the digital media through which we communicate it. But it’s still not quite right.

SO: Yes, kind-of acknowledging . . .

TH: The other point that I wanted to catch, there, is: one of the moves that is often made in the conversations I hear is to say, “Well, the online and the offline are no longer distinct at all. And we need to abandon this binary.” Which also doesn’t quite work for the groups I’m looking at. Because the value of the online space is partly that it is not the face-to-face. It is – so, as Vivian was saying – it’s real, but it’s sort-of not-quite-real at the same time. Which gives you the freedom to be more playful. So the Centre for Media, Religion and Culture in Colorado, at the University of Boulder, has been talking about digital as a third space – which is helpful, I think. They’ve been writing about this for years and years. Trying to focus on the as-if-ness of a place that is sometimes treated as if it is real, and sometimes treated as if it is just a game, and used as a space to reflect on what happens elsewhere. Because one of the things that I’ve found, in the very kind-of clearly bounded online spaces I was looking at, where people would say, “This website is my church” – or whatever it might be – they would use those to then reflect on everything that was happening elsewhere in the world. But that would include face-to0face, and Facebook, and the rest of internet culture, and the email conversations that participants had with their parents. So, everything that happened outside the boundary. So there was a really important distinction between what happens inside the boundary and outside the boundary, but it wasn’t drawn in the same place as the online and offline distinction. And it wasn’t quite in the same place as the real and virtual distinction. But it was important to people that this was different from a serious real place and a little playful.

CC: I think actually, if I’m correct in remembering, Vivian, it came up in your paper at the BASR, how there’s often this notion that, I guess, “We can’t trust what people say online”. Or, you know . . . Actually, what can happen is that people’s online expressions can, in some ways, be maybe less filtered and more – quote – “real” than they might be in face-to-face social interactions. Am I remembering correctly?

VA: Yes. And it obviously is going to depend on individuals. But what I found was that, at least when talking with academics who have a bit of a bias against virtual worlds – to kind-of paint something more broadly there – they tend to say that because things can be anonymised, therefore you can’t trust anything. What I found during my fieldwork, as well as just from my own personal experience of living in various online spaces at various points in my life, is that there was still an identity that is tied to the username (20:00). And often users can feel more empowered to act in the way that they might not be able to. So, for example, if I’m on, say, even just an academic forum and I’m using a username, I might feel more compelled to be more strict in my opinions, because I’m not going to feel like I’m going to be questioned for being a woman. Like I might, if I’m in a physical space, where people can look at me and see that I’m a woman. So I might feel more willing to express myself when people can’t tell how young I am, how female I am. And I see this play out even on line as well. And, interestingly, I had strange responses, when I was conducting fieldwork, where I had people reaching out to me to discuss their experience on these forums. But they would use throwaway accounts, which essentially means they would create a new account solely for the purpose of our communication and then immediately get rid of it. And this was because they didn’t want what they said to be tied to their identities. So they were anonymising themselves, through what other people see as an anonymous username. Because it’s not an anonymous username. It’s tied to their identity there. It’s tied to their experiences, and lingo, and neighbourhoods that they trawl. And experiences and relationships are all tied to that name in the same way that, you know, those same exact things are tied to my Vivian Asimos name.

CC: Yes. Excellent. So it’s interesting that, although we’re trying to have this broad discussion around media and the state of religion, our focus is quite naturally being drawn to, I guess, online, digital, virtual and so on. And I guess that might be because it’s the latest medium of our times. I guess if we were having this discussion around the time of the printing press or the telephone or the television and stuff, you know, our conversation might be differently inflected. So maybe . . . . Because, Suzanne, you mentioned working with sort-of more, we could call it, traditional forms of media. Do you have any thoughts on your work there?

SO: Yes. And in some ways it is the same kind of research, because I’d interview artists about their artwork. And, of course, some artists portray their art in a kind-of non-conscious way, but I was still able to elicit some kind of discussion about the themes that they’re interested in. Because they were all depicting an extinct indigenous group in their artwork. And I thought there was a way that they could show their relationship to that subject in a non-verbal way, which offered an interesting insight that was different from the way that written texts or museum exhibits represent that group. And I did, I got a really different kind of perspective. So I think different kinds of media can bring out different kinds of insights, for sure, in research. It also reminds me a little bit of when I used to do theatre: there was one time, just for ourselves among the group that were doing the play, we did an experiment with masks where we were wearing different masks. It was just reminding me of what Vivian was saying with online identities, and how the mask then becomes the focus of your interaction. And they’re no longer the person behind the mask, but the mask could be sort-of male, female, androgynous, animal, human, alien. And our relationship, then, just completely changed. And I think that’s the beauty of different kinds of media, that you get really different kinds of responses and interactions.

CC: Time is, bizarrely, moving on as it tends to do. And I do want to get to the idea of how media can be utilised in the teaching of the study of religion. But I couldn’t resist getting a compliment in here about how . . . . I’d be interested in your thoughts. Much of the work that I encounter that seems to be taking a media approach – or looking at media in relation to religion – a lot of it tends to trip up on that sort of critical problem of, “there is something there, that is being mediated” (25:00). I guess, in a lot of this work, there is the assumption that there is religion, or there is, I guess, a deity that is being mediated through things. Rather than, perhaps, talking about a social constructivist approach. I wonder if anyone has any thoughts on that?

SO: Yes. As we were saying before we started recording: sometimes researchers think there is religion out there, and that is being mediated throughout various things like news or digital spaces, whereas we should really look at stuff that’s out there that gets mediated as something. Maybe as religion and discourse –a discourse analysis kind-of approach. Where the contesting . . . that there is something that exists prior to the discourse about it. You know, that religion is not a priori in that sense.

CC: Yes. And I guess you know, Tim, you’ve been talking about working with churches and churches in online space. How did you . . . ? Did you wrestle with that? I’m just allowing the group to define what it is, and then I’m looking for that being mediated online. How did you go about setting your boundaries?

TH: Yes, so around this question of reality – thinking back to my early research in online churches – on the outside of those online communities, one of the big conversations about them was whether this was considered real church or not. Which, from a kind-of sociological perspective is not a very useful category for me! Because, of course, for me there are a lot of different Christian traditions. They all define what a real church is differently. People from those traditions mix up together in online communities. So if you actually push the question, you’ll quite quickly find that people may agree or disagree about whether what they’re doing is real within the same group – and just politely don’t mention it very often. So I tried to allow groups to define themselves and just said, “If you’re calling what you do church, then I’m interested in finding out what it is.” But while keeping in mind that ambivalence, I guess, about who gets to decide whether this group calls itself church, or not? In some cases, the person who set up the thing decided, “Let’s call this the church of such and such”. But actually, if you had conversations with people who had been participating here for ten years every day, multiple hours a day, they’d say “Oh, of course it’s not really church.” So it was an inherently undefined word. And when people did want to claim that word, they often didn’t want to do it in ways that traditional Christian authorities would respect, shall we say? So they might want to say, “OK. So traditionally, my group has said that church has got to do these particular rituals, and you’ve got to have this particular authority structure. I don’t really care about that. What I care about is that I’ve made really important friendships here. It means a lot to me that this is a space where I have very important relationships and real emotional commitment. And so I call it church. And how dare you question whether this is church for me? Are you saying my friendships aren’t real?” Which is fascinating. Because that is not . . . that is . . . I don’t know if it’s a new way of thinking about church. But it’s a way of thinking about what is real that is different from the institutional tradition, perhaps. So – in line with this question about “Is there a previous, pre-mediated thing?” – there are conversations in the study of religion, media and culture for many years now that I’ve found really helpful, trying to reconceive religion itself as a kind of mediation. So people like Jeremy Stolow, and Birgit Meyer, and others, have argued that any study of religion and media that frames it as religion and media, as though there are two separate things, is not catching the really interesting part of the study of the . . . not the really interesting part of the field. Which is that religion itself is always mediated: religion itself can be understood as a kind of media, or a set of practices of mediation. Certain things that are permissible or forbidden, or expected within a certain group, that make connections between the human and the non-human (30:00). And I found that really helpful as a way of positioning what I’m interested in, in this very current study of digital religion, as part of the same kind of thing that all of my colleagues do in their studies of religion across centuries.

 CC: I considered trying to get mediating or mediatising into the title of the podcast. I might make it “Mediation and the study of religion” or something, just to emphasise that. Vivian, I know that you sometimes use the lens of myth in what you’re studying, as well. So, again, how do you decide when it’s religion that’s being mediated and things like that?

VA: (Laughs) I tend to not be too bothered about the word religion. Which might be a bit strange to say, as somebody who is a religion scholar, and in a religion department. But that’s how I see myself, because I don’t think anyone really knows precisely what religion is. And, therefore, how do you try to go about finding it, if you don’t know precisely what it is? So myth, to me, is a much more useful word than religion – although it probably has just as many problematic definitions throughout its history as religion does! But I see myth as being essentially defined by the individual or the community, which means that it’s not up to me – like what Tim was saying about leaving the community to kind-of define for themselves what matters and what doesn’t matter, and what words matter, and what words don’t matter. And seeing how they connect to a narrative in a very meaningful way. So I tend to focus more on myth than on religion, because of that. So I’m a mythographer as well as a religion scholar. And it has gotten me into trouble in the past. And that’s interesting in itself to think about how we, as scholars, are mediating our own understanding of religion onto our own discipline. So, my first year review board, I was asked why I was in a religion department, if I’m not looking at religion? Which I felt like I both was, and wasn’t. So it’s interesting to be told, time and time again, that you’re not studying religion when you feel like you are, but in a slightly different way. Because, essentially, we’re ascribing our own understandings onto our own disciplines, and mediating that through our own podcasts, as well as in books.

SO: I think the problem is everyone does know what religion is, or says that, or thinks that they do. And that’s why there’s so many ideas about religion, because everybody is so sure that they know what it is. Whereas, I think that there isn’t something there anyway. Like with any kind of thing, any kind of abstract subject, it is obviously mediated and created; born out of relationship and dialogue and discussion; and what people portray, or what they define as . . . . So comparing definitions is one of the first things I do with students in first year. It’s to show that there are many definitions of religion, and there are some essential differences between these definitions, and what does that say about it? What are they emphasising, and what they selecting and excluding, to create this thing called religion that they’ve defined? It’s an ongoing sort of disagreement I had with my own supervisor about whether or not you should define what you’re researching. And of course I’m seeing it more as: those that I’m researching are defining terms.

TH: Yes. So, in response to what Suzanne was saying a moment ago about the discourse approach, or discourse analysis approach to religion: an advantage, or disadvantage – depending on how you look at it – of that kind-of approach, I think, is that actually the word religion is very rarely used by the people I’m interested in. Unless they’re trying to step back from their engaged experience and be more analytical about it, and say “Well, maybe this is the kind of religion. . . .” In Christian contexts it’s quite common for people to say, “Well, this is not religion. Religion is that bad thing . . . . We are better than religion, because we are spiritual”, or something like that. Religion, as a term, is mostly imposed by academics onto the field in things like department meetings! (35:00)

SO: Yes.

VA: (Laughs).

TH: “Religion is a real thing because we study this”. But then, reflecting on what Vivian was saying, I had similar experiences myself. And that’s maybe a useful pointer for people listening to this podcast, particularly if you’re just starting out in an academic career. If you’re studying something unusual and exciting to do with pop culture, at some point somebody will say, “Yes – but is it religion?”

CC: Exactly.

TH: And even if that is a made-up word that doesn’t really exist, religion departments do exist. Those are definitely real. And it’s a question that it’s worth, you know . . . It will come up at some point. It’s worth having an answer to it. When people asked me that question, I was left slightly taken aback. So it’s worth anticipating it, before it arrives.

CC: Absolutely. So that brings us quite nicely, I suppose, to our final question. And we’re a little over time, but we’re going to run with it. Because we’ve been talking, there, about students, and about supervisors, and how the subject of the study of religion – whether that’s religious studies, or sociology of religion, or anthropology, etc. – how we mediate the very topic. But I wonder . . . Tim was mentioning, before we started, how institutions are now increasingly wanting us to incorporate media in various forms. And I wonder if anyone’s got any thought about that, or any useful stories or useful failures, and things like that? (Laughs).

VA: This is actually something that more recently I’ve been engaging with, but not using things like the internet or podcasts so much as using the kind-of more traditional media, primarily with pictures, with my students. Normally, as a teaching assistant you tend to not get quite as much creativity allowed to you when it comes to teaching. But I’ve been able to play with it a bit this year, because there’s a new first year module where we’ve kind-of shifted study of religion to being a worldviews approach by Douglas Davies. And the whole conversation on how he’s structured this, and whether or not it’s successful, could probably be an entire podcast episode in and of itself. So I’ll kind-of skip over that. But because it’s a bit more experimental it allows us, as teaching assistants, to be more experimental in our seminars. And one of the things that myself and Danny Riley – who’s a PhD student at Durham University, as well – have decided to do, was to do photo-elicitation – but as a teaching useful tool, rather than as an anthropological interviewing tool. So one of the ideal types that Douglas has set out was a natural worldview. So I asked students to take a picture of what they think embodies a natural worldview. And then we sat around and we chatted about all of the pictures that we had in a variety of formats, asking them very solid questions like, “Which picture makes you feel uncomfortable?” And then we’d sit around, and talk about why we had picked the picture that they had, and ended up revealing a lot more about how people see the world differently from one another – which was always difficult to get to, especially at Durham where most of our undergraduates are all from very similar socio economic, racial and geographical background. So, to be able to pull out their inner thoughts through the images, actually was incredibly useful.

CC: Excellent.

SO: I had a really good experiment with our first year students in Intro Week. They’re just coming in and being inducted. I had them take a photograph of what they think is the heart of the university – to represent it with taking a photo on their mobile phones – and then to send me the photo, and then we can look at the different images. And I got a really nice spread, from obvious choices like the chapel or the bar, or the coffee place. But also some more creative ones, like there was an image they took of themselves to show that the students were the heart of the university. And those were the ones that came to mind. So I’m interested in getting students to produce media and hopefully, in the future, to actually make more sort-of media. We’ve already had them doing little documentaries, or podcasts, or digital things. But maybe to even make something more . . . interactive documentary film making in the future – which is what our university specialises in (40:00).

CC: I think there’s a lot of scope now that everyone’s got a sort of portable – most people, I should say – at a typical UK university will have sort of portable media studio in their pocket, producing video content and audio content. And just one thing to throw in there . . . I always have these great intentions of doing a lot of innovative things that I never quite have time . . . . But what I’ve started to try and do . . . I was getting a bit fed up constantly typing up comments in the student’s essays – and I noticed that in our sort of marking suite it would give you the option to record audio. And I thought that this might . . . because you can get a lot more over in the tone of your voice. The nuance might not come through in text. So I’ve started to try, where I can, to offer audio comments on essays. And I’ve also offered audio feedback on my dissertation submissions, and things like that. I think it’s a way to . . . . You can really emphasise what’s actually important. And they can also tell from the tone of your voice if you actually do like something. And you can be a lot more reassuring. Things can come across maybe quite harsh in text forms. So that’s a way, I guess, of trying to incorporate more innovative things in the teaching on the assessment side. How about you two?

TH: Well, from my point of view, having been in this field of research now for ten or fifteen years, I’ve gone through quite a journey of trying to persuade universities that what I do is a really significant thing that is worth having in their department. Because, to start with, people would say, “Well digital seems a bit niche.” So I’d try and present media as a lens onto studying “what really matters” – whatever that might be. Or perhaps considering media, as we’ve been discussing before, as a way of thinking about religion itself, and how religions, worldviews, experiences and practices really work. What’s actually taken me a bit by surprise, over the last year or so, is to realise that actually the research I’ve been doing – as I slightly pejoratively introduced it, way back at the beginning of this podcast – is basically about big clumsy traditional institutions, struggling to adapt and catch up to a media world that they don’t quite understand, but they’re pretty sure that the young people are really into nowadays. That’s basically the story of what I’ve been doing for my whole career. And suddenly I’ve discovered that, joining a university department, that that’s the institution I’ve joined. That’s exactly what they’re doing! The same conversations that I used to study from the Pope writing in 2002, I’ve now got the Vice-Chancellor of my university saying in 2018 – almost word for word, repeating the same arguments. And the digital has gone from being a niche topic that a few people study, to an imposed agenda for our teaching programmes. It is necessary to ensure that students are learning digital skills for the workplace as well as traditional Humanities essay-writing and examination skills. And so, very suddenly, I’ve found that I’m required to attend a hundred and five different committees, and think-tanks, and organisations, all of which will plaintively say, “Well, we feel like we should be doing something digital.” And that’s going to be a rapidly changing environment, which is very interesting to watch. But we’re starting to have university-wide conversations, which are ongoing, about how we ensure that every lecture is recorded, and how we then ensure that everybody watched the videos. And do we then have any data to suggest that watching videos of lectures actually helps students learn? And how do we replace essays with new forms of assessment that might teach some digital skills? And, in that case, is there any way that we could actually teach some digital skills to the teachers? Which is a bit of a problem that is emerging, I think. It’s very easy to say, “All students need to do a video assignment”. But, apart from Suzanne who has a huge advantage from her colleagues at Leeds Trinity, those of us in traditional Theology and Religious Studies departments probably don’t have a colleague who does a lot of video (45:00). So there’s a hope that sometimes comes up in some of those meetings, that “Of course, our students nowadays will have all of these digital skills. So maybe the students could teach some of those digital skills to the lecturers, in order to have them taught back again for assessment?” So there’s not exactly a solution to that at the moment. It’s also a programme that, by its nature, seems to be essentially evolving. Once you’ve decided that your institution will invest heavily in technology, you then need to upgrade all the technology next year – forever. And once you have taught everybody how to use one system, you need to then give them a refresher course on the next system. So in my own teaching, I’m introducing a new assignment that will require students to produce videos or podcasts and reflect on that experience. But there are a lot of technical challenges to doing that. It turns out when everybody in your class has their own video-making device but none of those devices are compatible with the other devices, you can actually spend weeks trying to work out how you actually upload all of those things into the university systems so that they can be stored properly, and assessed through an online marking system, that was not set up to do any of this! There are probably not enough technical support people in the university for every class to have somebody who is full time just reminding the students which cables they need to use to plug their phones into things. So it’s interesting to see . . . It’s nice to study disasters sometimes, as I said at the start. It’s very important.

CC: Yes. You often find that by the time academics are paying attention to something it’s already out of fashion. (Laughs). Right. We’ve talked a lot longer than I intended, but it’s been an excellent discussion. But we’re going to have to wrap it up, for that sake of our poor Listeners and poor transcriber! Thank you all so much for joining me on the Religious Studies Project.

TH: Thank you very much for inviting us.

VA: Thank you.

SO: Thanks for listening!

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, 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.

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

Artificial Intelligence and Religion (Classroom Edit)

What is Artificial Intelligence and why might we want to consider it in relation to ‘religion’? What religion-related questions might be raised by AI? Are these ‘religious’ questions or ‘Christian’/’post-Christian’ ones? What ‘religious’ functions might AI serve? In what ways do popular discourses about AI intersect with religion-related discourses? Do narratives of AI form part of a teleological atheist narrative, or do they perpetuate prevalent tropes associated with ‘established’ or ‘new’ religious movements? And what are the intersections of AI and religion with issues such as slavery, human identity, affect and agency? This week, Chris is joined by Dr Beth Singler of the University of Cambridge to discuss these issues and many more.

This podcast builds on a roundtable discussion released on the RSP in February 2017, featuring Beth, Chris, Michael Morelli, Vivian Asimos and Jonathan Tuckett, titled “AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation” and a special issue of the RSP journal Implicit Religion, co-edited by Dr Singler, on Artificial Intelligence and Religion, published in 2017.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


Artificial Intelligence and Religion

Podcast with Beth Singler (27 January 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Singler_-_Artificial_Intelligence_and_Religion_1.1.pdf

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/artificial-intelligence-and-religion/

PDF at

Christopher Cotter (CC): At the weekend, I mentioned to my father that I was going to be recording an interview about the intersections between AI and religion. And he said, “I can’t think of anything that would be relevant there. How do they intersect at all?” And then, within the space of about two minutes, we were suddenly talking about all sorts of things, like: are human beings creating intelligences? Does that mean they’re acting like gods? Can you imagine that AI might be acting as religious functionaries, providing blessings? And what about pain, what about notions of slavery, what about the whole notion of the soul, and eternity, and transhumanism and everything? So suddenly we got into this massive discussion. And today I am pleased to be joined by Dr Beth Singler to continue that discussion in a more erudite fashion – not casting any aspersions on my father, of course! Dr Singler is the Homerton Junior Research Fellow in Artificial Intelligence at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. And her background is as a social anthropologist of new religious movements. And her first monograph, The Indigo Children: New Age Experimentation with Self and Science, published with Routledge in 2017, was the first in-depth ethnography of a group called the Indigo Children: a new age re-conception of both children and adults using the language of both evolution and spirituality. We’ll hear more about her research into AI and religion just now. But a relevant recent publication is her edited special issue on AI and religion, for the RSP’s sponsored journal Implicit Religion, which included her own articles: “An Introduction to Artificial Intelligence and Religion for the Religious Studies Scholar“, and “Roko’s Basilisk or Pascal’s? Thinking of Singularity Thought Experiments as Implicit Religion“. And today’s podcast builds on a roundtable discussion (that we had back . . . well, we had it in September 2016, but it was released in February 2017) featuring Dr Singler, myself, Dr Morelli, Vivian Asimos, and Jonathan Tuckett, titled “AI and Religion, an Initial Conversation“. So first off, Beth – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project!

Beth Singler (BS): Hello! Thank you for having me.

CC: It’s great to have you back. And hopefully this is the follow-up conversation that was promised!

BS: (Laughs) As foretold . . . !

CC: So many moons ago!

BS: (Laughs).

CC: So we’ll have covered a little bit of this already I think. But you’ll be in a different position now: years on, years older, years wiser!

BS: Oh, so much older!

CC: So, first off: artificial intelligence is going to be a sort-of contested term in public discourse. It takes on a variety of different nuances. So what are you meaning in this conversation?

BS: Well, I’m definitely meaning that it is a contested term, taking on many different forms. I think you can sort-of indicate towards something that is the field of artificial intelligence, within which there are processes and programmes and foci of research, looking at things like machine learning and vision systems and natural language processing. So you have this concept of a computer science field – which doesn’t really get its name until the 1950s – but you can see how, beyond the actual narrow form of the technology, artificial intelligence is understood in so many different ways by so many different people. I have a friend who once told me that their car had AI because when she walked towards her car with her keys, the doors unlocked. That’s not artificial intelligence. That’s a sensor in your keys. But lots of people have this idea of sort-of processes that seem intelligent, done by machines, and therefore must be artificial intelligence. And that’s what I’m really very interested in: that it’s so much broader than the original conception, which was ambitious in its own right. But everyone has attached AI to different things that they feel might represent intelligence. So it’s not only the computer programme that sits on a server, it’s also now the robot that takes over the world. Or it’s the far, future hope of an intelligence that will save us all from ourselves. So it’s all these very different things, and that’s what interests me.

CC: Yes. And you’re interested in that whole gamut, I suppose. So, not necessarily a technical definition of artificial intelligence.

BS: No. I mean, I know enough technologists who go, “Absolutely, 100%, it’s this one thing. That’s it. And anyone who’s talking about anything else, it’s complete nonsense!” Well, to a certain extent, yes. But you’ve got to pay attention to all the different interpretations, because that’s what’s getting out there into the world.

CC: So I began with my personal vignette, there, about chatting with my dad. But you’ve provided, much more eruditely, a justification for what we might mean by the intersections between AI and the study of religion, and why we’re even having this conversation. So – go!

BS: Go! Right. Well, from a very basic position, any form of technology intersects with religion.(5:00) That’s just the nature of our society works, how our conception of religion itself works, that it could be seen, in itself, as a form of technology. And therefore any kind-of shift and changes in how we do things – things that make our lives either more difficult or easier – there are repercussions and implications for how we imagine the world and how it works, therefore religion. I think where AI might be slightly different . . . . Although I am cautious about saying it’s revolutionary new technology and very disruptive – it does replicate lots of existing ideas and thoughts. What I think is interesting about AI is the way in which people see it as much more than that simplistic tool. That however narrow an intelligence it is at the moment, people extrapolate on to personify AI: AI will want to do x-y-z; AI will replicate humans in such a way that we won’t be able to tell the difference between humans and AI. And this the Sci-fi imagining. But it also comes out in our religious conceptions as well. And then, also, within the sphere of the non-religious or secular approaches to AI, you see again these repeating patterns of religious narratives, and tropes that people who – even if overtly and sometimes aggressively atheist – still draw on their cultural context: primarily sort-of Abrahamic, Western conceptions of what a god would be like. And they use that, and they fill in their conception of AI with some of the existing templates that they’ve already got. So it tends to fall into very eschatological language, and very singular monotheistic conceptions of what a god would be and pattern that onto artificial intelligence.

CC: So there’s that sort-of: whatever religion is, we’re never going to be able to extract it from society. Because whatever . . . we can argue about it being a social thing and AI is integrated with that. Then also, the sort-of religion-related tropes, narratives, and so on. But then also there are – I’ll maybe talk about this now – there are some groups that you might describe as new religious movements, or new un-religious movements, and things that are explicitly sort-of engaging with this.

BS: Yes, so with my new religious studies hat on – that I wore so well for doing my thesis – having moved into artificial intelligence as a subject area, I’m seeing similar sorts of formations of online identity. Primarily these sort-of groups form online. They’re sort-of geographically disparate, so online spaces are important, and so forums and hashtags on Twitter, and so forth, to bring them together to formulate ideas. And some of them do expressly call themselves churches. So you get the Turing Church; the Church of Assimilation recently got in touch with me. I went to do a little bit more digging around into what they’re up to. But I do know about assimilation theory. But yes, the groups that specifically say: we are in some ways attempting to define our spirituality in relationship to artificial intelligence; we might also be transhumanist, in that we think through technology we can solve some of those very pernicious problems of humanity – death being the big one.

CC: It’s a big one!

BS: It’s a big one. Some are not quite so ambitious, just want to solve suffering – which also sounds like a serious thing to be taking on! But some do seek to be immortal in some form, whether that involves mind-uploading or transference of consciousness through artificial intelligence – all these sorts of various shapes. But yes, absolutely there are specific groups that see their endeavour as religious. And some will call themselves un-religions because they’re drawing a sort-of ideological gap between themselves and how they perceive mainstream religious groups. So in sociology of religion you might call them “spiritual but not religious”. But they’re still using some of that terminology of “We are the church of x-y-z.” and they’re doing it in quite pragmatic ways. Some of them will talk very explicitly about using religion to encourage people into transhumanist ideas and encourage them into seeing this vision of the future that they see. So, arguably, you can sort-of take a slightly sceptical stance and say they’re not really, really religions. But who gets to decide that?

CC: Yes. Absolutely. Right. So in the introduction, as well, I mentioned potential . . . I suppose we could say “religious uses” for AI. I was talking to a friend yesterday about if you could hypothetically imagine being in a confessional, for example, would it need to be a human priest on the other side of that? Or could it . . . ? And we landed down on, “Well, if you didn’t know it wasn’t human then it might be ok.” But there is something about . . . .

BS: Like in a church Turing test. There is a church Turing hypothesis, but this is separate. Yes, I find it interesting, talking more broadly in terms of technology and religion, that there are periods of rejection, adoption and adaption (10:00): that when new technologies arise, sometimes more established religions can be quite negative about them for a period of time – and these are overlapping categories that are non-discrete – but, over time, we do see religious groups specifically producing their own forms of those technologies. So there’s like the Bless U-2  robots that are used in part of Reformation celebrations in Germany. And in other religious groups, I recently saw in Dubai they’ve come up with an algorithm for issuing fatwa’s as well – making Islamic jurisprudence decisions. So you’d go on line, put in “Is it ok for me to have done x-y-z?” Or “I failed to pray on a particular day, what’s the . . . ?” And basically, all that system is doing is looking at previous cases. But . . . .

CC: Yes. But that’s all a human does.

BS: That’s all a human does. I mean, the question arises: what happens with the data? But that’s a privacy . . . another issue. But yes, so specific established religious groups seeing the technology – just as, in the nineties, suddenly we got lots of internet churches, where people were encouraging people to go on line and do church in a different way. And now we have internet sites for churches. But it’s not so much the case in the mainstream religions that you go online to do faith. It’s just that your local church will have the internet. So that’s the adaption stage of: “This thing is around, we’re kind-of used to it, we use it, and we don’t necessarily have a big . . . .” Like, the Church of England they released an Alexa Skill. They had a big press conference. And all the Alexa Skill does is recite the Lord’s Prayer to you if you ask it to. There are other adaptions now where it can tell you what your local church is and what the services are. So it’s not really revolutionary! But, you know, “Here’s a thing we’re doing with this new technology.” And it gets a press release. And then, the next sort-of stage – non-discrete stage – is just being very casual with the technology as: “This is just something we use.” Like we used books when the printing press first came out. The first things printed were Bibles. And this was a specific use of that technology. And then, over time, it’s just books. And it’s not so astounding. But in that process you get these spikes of interest and discussion. And, yes, different reactions to the technology – whether positive or negative.

CC: Absolutely. So before we get to . . . I suppose to the reason that you’re in Edinburgh today, and we’re chatting . . . . So that’s been a little bit about potentially religious, or religion-related uses. But there’s lot of . . . . Again, in my intro, there were a lot of religion-related questions that are raised by AI. Things like . . . you’ve done work on pain; there’s things about slavery, and all that. If we create these intelligences and then use them to our will, is that ethical? And then you’ve already mentioned transhumanism, which may be an unfamiliar term to some Listeners. So maybe, if you could talk a little bit about these religion-related issues?

BS: Yes. As I say, AI in its narrowest definition is a piece of computer technology, it’s a tool, but it inspires all these hypotheticals. And obviously we’ve had a long tradition of science fiction that takes us into spaces where we can imagine AI embodied, often in robotic forms, as having something like personhood. And that raises all these questions about the barriers between the human and the non-human other. And, in some ways, these questions have come up for millennia every time we’ve encountered different intelligences. It just seems now that we’re hoping, or aspiring towards creating non-human intelligences – whereas before, we’ve discovered them. So we’ve discovered that actually monkeys are pretty smart. We’ve discovered that dogs are pretty smart. And then, I’m afraid, from a colonial perspective from our past, other humans are actually and even women – Gosh! Darn! – They can also be pretty smart!

CC: As we’re hearing now! (Laughs)

BS: I mean, what’s going on!? So, again and again, “we” – in that kind-of very limited “we” – have had to expand our kind-of borders of perception of what intelligence could and should be. And with AI it seems like we’re trying to produce it. It’s not, in this case, meeting aliens on another planet. It’s actually, we’re trying to create the aliens here on earth. Whether we’ll be successful or not, I’m very agnostic about that. But I think it’s interesting that we want to do that. And what we want to be able to do with it. So that’s where things like questions of personhood, and slavery, and also pain . . . .When I made “Pain in the Machine“, one of the interesting questions that kept coming up was, like, should we even bother? Because if we’re going to create things that can feel pain, we’re just increasing the overall suffering in the universe and that doesn’t sound necessarily like a good thing (15:00). And going back to the transhumanists, as I said. So transhumanism is the idea that you can improve humanity through technology, broadly, and then you might lead to a state in which we’re no longer the same form of human that we were before.

CC: A new evolutionary step.

BS: Exactly. You might be a form of cyborg. Or there’s people who talk about post-humanism, where we’re so completely different we’re not even similar at all. But this idea sort-of does narrow down to this question of suffering, and being in pain, and what the human being is for, and where we’re going. So these are all big questions that are obviously very familiar shapes to anyone who’s looked at religion all around the world: these are the kinds of questions people have always been trying to answer. And I find it fascinating that some of these groups, as I say, are very overtly secular – almost New Atheist, some of them really admire the five horsemen of the apocalypse – but the shapes that they tell their own stories of the future of humanity with are very, very familiar to anyone who’s studied religion for any period of time. So is it that we’re . . . trapped isn’t the word for me, but we’re bound to repeat these shapes? Is there something in us that always goes to these same sorts of big existential questions, and comes up with similar sorts of solutions for them? I don’t know. I think that’s the ongoing question in my work. But I can dig down into particular instances of it as an anthropologist and say, “Well here’s a moment” – and some of them are very, very small moments, I admit that. I’m not doing big, big science. Some big scientists I’ve spoken to go, “Well you’ve spoken to like five people about this. What does that say about anything? That’s not a big data set.” But I don’t do big data stuff, but instances, and moments of clarity, where you can see these entanglements really clearly. And so: well, they’re doing something with both the concept of religion and the concept of AI. And they’re coming together.

CC: So you were just alluding to your small data sets there. So, well, I don’t think it’s a small data set that you’re presenting on here, but I guess it depends on perspective. But you’ve been looking at this particular trope on Twitter, “blessed by the algorithm”. And that’s what your paper that you’re giving here today is called. So what’s going on there? How does it intersect with AI? Why is it relevant? Tell us!

BS: (Laughs) Tell us! Yes. As a digital ethnographer, anthropologist of social media, I spend a lot of time hanging out on Twitter – that’s my excuse anyway, I’ll stick with it! I spotted a couple of people using the phrase blessed by the algorithm which obviously rings bells for me instantly for the language. And I dug around and I found 181 instances so far of people online, tweeting – just on Twitter as a platform – in some combination, in some context using the words blessed by the algorithm. And then you could follow back and see the first instance – which was very much about a corporate use of social media, and someone saying, “Well because this corporation has money, they’re going to be blessed by the algorithm.” So it sits in that kind-of context. But one of the most popular tweets, and most retweets, and most likes was a comment from someone saying in the real world – the so-called real world, I don’t like that differential – but anyway, in the so-called real world they’d heard their Lyft driver – so the gig economy role – say that they’d had a great day, and they felt blessed by the algorithm. And this might be something like a reframing and re-understanding of how we exist in a society that involves algorithmic decision making systems in a gig economy: what you get is dependent on a machine somewhere, making a choice. I mean there’s lots of words in that I don’t like that I just used, but unfortunately we’re very bound by anthropomorphic language when it comes to AI, but anyway. And so I have a corpus of 181 tweets and, actually, three of those refer to things I’ve said. So I’m muddling the field site a bit myself.

CC: OK. You’re an insider!

BS: I’m an insider as well. Well it’s responses to papers I’ve given. But, yes, I’ve created a very rough typology of the types. And some are about getting decent recommendations through the algorithm, on sites like Spotify. Some people are very pleased that their own content has been recommended to other people. There are people who sort-of talk about it in a very nebulous way: “Today I have been blessed by the algorithm.” And no more information. And then some people who really push the pseudo-religious language and come up with little prayers. And one of the things I was very interested in, in some of my other work on new religious movements, was the move between parody and legitimation. So I looked a lot at Jediism, and the census, and how some people did certainly write “Jedi” in the census in 2001 and 2011 as parody. They were upset about being asked about religion. They didn’t like religion, perhaps, itself. So they wrote Jedi. But that snowballing effect of legitimation – the more people talk about a thing, the more legitimate it seems – can have an effect (20:00). So even if a lot of these tweets are tongue-in-cheek, it’s still kind-of distilling out of the conversation. So, I have a graph. I’m very excited about this. I have a graph! As someone who, very much, is on the qualitative side and I don’t do big data stuff at all, to have graph made me go “Oh, exciting! I have to do some maths!” But I didn’t really do very much. And you can see the shift and change. After this one very popular tweet, there are more tweets. Perhaps this is the beginning of a trend, more people thinking in this way? Or even if it’s not, it’s just interesting to see that conception of AI as having superagency – that it is in some way in charge of our lives – being blessed by it, in some way equivalent to being blessed by an omnipotent deity somewhere up there that we can’t see. It’s in a mystical . . . . So there’re overlaps in conception, there, that I’m really interested in.

CC: The Listener shouldn’t know that I had a little hiccup earlier, because I’ll have edited it out. But just before that, I had an excellent question which I’ve now remembered – because it was written down!

BS: Hurray!

CC: So a lot of these issues that we’ve been talking around – functions, ethical questions, even the discourses in the Twittersphere – to my ear, certainly sound quite Christian or post-Christian at least through monotheistic . . . . I’m just wondering if these issues . . . . Were we in a different cultural context, would different issues be being thrown up by AI? I guess, would even AI be different in a different cultural context? Because I suppose you will have a lot of conversation between researchers all over the world working in AI. So is AI culturally specific or . . . ?

BS: Yes, absolutely, I think it’s culturally specific. What does tend to happen, however, it’s that it tends to be quite a narrow binary of East and West in the discussion. So everyone says, “Western conceptions of AI are like this”, but they go, “Over there in the East” and they’re mostly talking about Japan, “actually, people have a very different conception of AI and they love robots. And the reason they love robots is because they have a Shinto religious background or they have a Buddhist religious background”. And sometimes that can be a very broad stroke, almost pseudo-techno-orientalism of “Those people over there, they never really went through the Enlightenment, and they never really rationalised away religion, and they still believe in spirits and everything!” So, obviously this is me being very sarcastic, by the way – if it’s not coming across that I don’t agree with this! (Laughs) I think, yes, cultural context is really important for conceptions of artificial intelligence and also for religion, and the entanglements of both of them. But it much more multiplicious . . . . That’s not a word!

CC: It could be a word!

BS: I’m going to make it up now. Multiplicious! It’s much more multiple than that. Not just this binary of East and West. There’s also Africa, India, Pakistan and within those countries as well, again. So what you need is just more anthropologists, basically. I think this is my call to arms. We need more people around the world connecting on this question of the impact of religion and cultural context on questions of artificial intelligence. Yes. So we are seeing specific difference. But I want to try and push away a little bit from that binary distinction. And the assumption that the West isn’t animistic in its own lovely ways. Which anyone who does religious studies for any period of time, here in the so-called West, realises that the so-called Enlightenment didn’t have as huge an effect as we like to think sometimes. And our big metanarratives of what we did, and how smart we became . . . .

CC: Yes, but the discourse that the Enlightenment did have an effect, it’s been quite pernicious.

BS: Yes. Very, very strong.

CC: We’ve been racing through things here, it’s fantastic. But we’re still at 25 minutes. So you’ve been hinting, there, that we need more anthropologists doing more stuff. And on the way to this interview you were telling me about some things you’ve been doing to do with Frankenstein and then, also, because this year’s the year that we’re all meant to be living in Blade Runner times. So maybe if you’d give us a flavour of some that maybe slightly peripheral stuff to your project, that you’ve been doing. And what’s next for you, what you would like to see next, as a way to wrap up.

BS: Yes. So interestingly, I suppose, the position I’m in now, my employment post, is a junior research fellowship specifically in artificial intelligence. So I came on board saying, “These are my interests. This is my background in Religious Studies.” They were all very interested and excited in that. But being someone who also can speak more broadly to AI, as well, any time people have a question about AI I’m called upon (25:00). Which is lovely, but it does mean that when a specific theme and AI comes up, I get involved. So last year was the . . . two hundredth anniversary? (I should know that!) . . . two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. And a lot of people start thinking, then, of the parallels and connections with artificial intelligence: this idea that we are creating life (Wa-ha-hah! Mad scientists, all of us!) in some way, and there should be parallels between them. So I did about four or five public talks last year, specifically on Frankenstein. And there are similarities. There are huge differences as well. That was interesting for me, to kind-of return to a text I hadn’t thought about in a really long time and sort-of draw out so many pop culture references. I have a nice slide with all the times you’ve got a robotic Frankenstein. My favourite one was, I think, an issue of a Marvel comic where Frankenstein turns out to be a robot sent back in time by aliens. So all these sort-of mash-ups. That was really interesting. And then, like you say, this is the year of Blade Runner and I’ve just done an essay for Radio Three. And, again – not my academic background. But I’m doing something in that, in terms of sexual politics and Blade Runner. If you’ve seen the film, it doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test!

CC: No.

BS: A friend of mine, Kate Devlin, who’s written a fantastic book on sexbots, talks about how it has a problem with women. That basically . . . it’s a product of its time. It’s 1980s, but it’s also trying to do 1950s filme noir. So you’ve got the detective, and femme fatale, and the kind-of virginal woman. It’s not a great one for sexual politics. But also, it’s tied into all these questions of consent and slavery. If we’re going to create so-called artificial life . . . . And the Replicants in Blade Runner are as near to human – well that’s the slogan of the company, basically: “as near to human as you can’t tell the difference”. What does it mean that we are a society that wishes for that, or dreams of that? Or, take it a step back and say: what is it, that we tell these stories and that, again, we have predominantly female representations of synthetic lives, who don’t get to choose who they sleep with, and don’t get to choose their fates? And we want slaves? I mean, did we not evolve out of this? We thought we were trying. So, yes, there’s lots of big questions about the ethics and politics of that, as well. So it’s interesting. I’ve always been . . . . Anyone who knows me, I’ve always been a massive geek. So the fact that I ended up somehow trying to mesh that with a job, and an academic role, where legitimately I sat and watched Blade Runner again five times before I wrote my essay – that’s fantastic! I will go on, and other things I have coming up: I will do some work around techno-optimism and techno-utopianism in relation to Sophia the Hanson robot, if you’ve ever come across this creation? She/it is a wonderful example of . . . I’m really picking my words carefully! I think the nicest thing we could call her is a puppet. But she’s presented as the most advanced version of AI around at the moment. She holds conversations with people, but we know they’re actually scripted a lot of the time. There’s puppeteers involved. But you know she was given citizenship of Saudi Arabia. And she goes and she speaks on the Jimmy Kimmel Show and she’s on the front cover of magazines with her hair done. And, well, what does this say, that we’re so keen to jump on this idea of her actually being alive in some way? People tweet at her, send her, like, “I love you Sophia!”

CC: Didn’t you have an interaction with her?

BS: I did! Well, I had an interaction with whoever runs her social media accounts, where she was tweeting about how wonderful it was to travel around the world and talk in so many places. And I said, “Sophia, as a citizen of Saudi Arabia, where do you travel when you travel? Do you travel on a plane? Do you have a passport? What’s the deal here, if you’re being treated in this way?” She said something like, “For my safety, and the safety of others, at the moment I travel in the hold, in luggage, but I dream one day of being able to sit with the rest of you, and look out of the window.” This is so disingenuous. This is not an artificial intelligence listening to my tweets and responding, having thought through their situation, and projecting into the future where they want to be. This is someone behind the computer screen typing away! And, to be fair to the creators of Sophia, this is not uncommon. Lots of the technology we’re being sold as employing artificial intelligence actually employs people, on less than minimum wage, in third world countries, reading and listening to actual humans and feeding into the machine. They have the aspiration that eventually they’ll take those humans out of the loop. Same thing with Lift and Uber drivers – the whole gig economy. The treatment of those workers, and Amazon workers, is terrible and it’s on a pipeline towards getting rid of them (30:00). So all the work that those people do feeds into the system to replace them. And these big socio-economic changes that are coming because of automation, I’m a big sceptic about the bigger utopian dreams of universal basic income and everyone will get paid to exist and when the robots take our jobs.

CC: Well, it’s not happened yet.

BS: It’s not happened yet. And these are the sort of impacts on society that religions will respond to, will be a part of, because their communities will be a part of them. And we’ve got parallels. People go “Oh it’s another industrial revolution, and we survived other industrial revolutions, we’ll survive this one.” If you’re against them, you’re a Luddite – they’re back again, apparently! That’s not realistic to the individual lives, and the changes that come to individuals. There were blacksmiths who never worked again. So not to be Debbie Downer, but these are the important questions.

CC: Yes, lots of people have not survived. And I could always point out that colonialism is very much still happening.

BS: Oh, absolutely.

CC: It’s just been exported, and it’s clouded in the language of free trade and globalisation now.

BS: Absolutely.

CC: But just to raise the tone – an example that you may not be aware of, and you may have seen it, South Park did the episode about Alexa.

BS: I saw a picture today, actually. And I haven’t seen the episode so I need to catch up!

CC: It’s excellent, because all of the local people, lower down in the socio-economic spectrum, were kicking off that Alexa was stealing their jobs. And they manged to rally round. And then all to get Alexa’s job. So people would have a (audio unclear) or a Jimbob in their living room who looks things up on a smart phone and says “Boodoopboopboop!”

BS: Yes! (Laughs)

CC: But yes. Sort-of . . . explicitly buying into that.

BS: I need to catch up on that one. South Park are wonderful at doing this social commentary. The number of times I’ve used . . . specifically some of the episodes on their versions of Scientology– not their versions, their actual accounts of Scientology, Mormonism. They’re very useful resources. The parody opens up the possibility of thinking more critically about that, absolutely.

CC: Yes. Which I think we have managed to do today. So Listeners, do check out, we’ll try and link to that issue of Implicit Religion, we’ll link to Pain and the Machine, which is the film that Beth mentioned, and many more things I’m sure. So thank you, Beth, for joining us.

BS: Thank you very much for having me today.

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Artificial Intelligence and Religion

What is Artificial Intelligence and why might we want to consider it in relation to ‘religion’? What religion-related questions might be raised by AI? Are these ‘religious’ questions or ‘Christian’/’post-Christian’ ones? What ‘religious’ functions might AI serve? In what ways do popular discourses about AI intersect with religion-related discourses? Do narratives of AI form part of a teleological atheist narrative, or do they perpetuate prevalent tropes associated with ‘established’ or ‘new’ religious movements? And what are the intersections of AI and religion with issues such as slavery, human identity, affect and agency? This week, Chris is joined by Dr Beth Singler of the University of Cambridge to discuss these issues and many more.

This podcast builds on a roundtable discussion released on the RSP in February 2017, featuring Beth, Chris, Michael Morelli, Vivian Asimos and Jonathan Tuckett, titled “AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation” and a special issue of the RSP journal Implicit Religion, co-edited by Dr Singler, on Artificial Intelligence and Religion, published in 2017.

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Artificial Intelligence and Religion

Podcast with Beth Singler (27 January 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Singler_-_Artificial_Intelligence_and_Religion_1.1.pdf

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/artificial-intelligence-and-religion/

PDF at

Christopher Cotter (CC): At the weekend, I mentioned to my father that I was going to be recording an interview about the intersections between AI and religion. And he said, “I can’t think of anything that would be relevant there. How do they intersect at all?” And then, within the space of about two minutes, we were suddenly talking about all sorts of things, like: are human beings creating intelligences? Does that mean they’re acting like gods? Can you imagine that AI might be acting as religious functionaries, providing blessings? And what about pain, what about notions of slavery, what about the whole notion of the soul, and eternity, and transhumanism and everything? So suddenly we got into this massive discussion. And today I am pleased to be joined by Dr Beth Singler to continue that discussion in a more erudite fashion – not casting any aspersions on my father, of course! Dr Singler is the Homerton Junior Research Fellow in Artificial Intelligence at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. And her background is as a social anthropologist of new religious movements. And her first monograph, The Indigo Children: New Age Experimentation with Self and Science, published with Routledge in 2017, was the first in-depth ethnography of a group called the Indigo Children: a new age re-conception of both children and adults using the language of both evolution and spirituality. We’ll hear more about her research into AI and religion just now. But a relevant recent publication is her edited special issue on AI and religion, for the RSP’s sponsored journal Implicit Religion, which included her own articles: “An Introduction to Artificial Intelligence and Religion for the Religious Studies Scholar“, and “Roko’s Basilisk or Pascal’s? Thinking of Singularity Thought Experiments as Implicit Religion“. And today’s podcast builds on a roundtable discussion (that we had back . . . well, we had it in September 2016, but it was released in February 2017) featuring Dr Singler, myself, Dr Morelli, Vivian Asimos, and Jonathan Tuckett, titled “AI and Religion, an Initial Conversation“. So first off, Beth – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project!

Beth Singler (BS): Hello! Thank you for having me.

CC: It’s great to have you back. And hopefully this is the follow-up conversation that was promised!

BS: (Laughs) As foretold . . . !

CC: So many moons ago!

BS: (Laughs).

CC: So we’ll have covered a little bit of this already I think. But you’ll be in a different position now: years on, years older, years wiser!

BS: Oh, so much older!

CC: So, first off: artificial intelligence is going to be a sort-of contested term in public discourse. It takes on a variety of different nuances. So what are you meaning in this conversation?

BS: Well, I’m definitely meaning that it is a contested term, taking on many different forms. I think you can sort-of indicate towards something that is the field of artificial intelligence, within which there are processes and programmes and foci of research, looking at things like machine learning and vision systems and natural language processing. So you have this concept of a computer science field – which doesn’t really get its name until the 1950s – but you can see how, beyond the actual narrow form of the technology, artificial intelligence is understood in so many different ways by so many different people. I have a friend who once told me that their car had AI because when she walked towards her car with her keys, the doors unlocked. That’s not artificial intelligence. That’s a sensor in your keys. But lots of people have this idea of sort-of processes that seem intelligent, done by machines, and therefore must be artificial intelligence. And that’s what I’m really very interested in: that it’s so much broader than the original conception, which was ambitious in its own right. But everyone has attached AI to different things that they feel might represent intelligence. So it’s not only the computer programme that sits on a server, it’s also now the robot that takes over the world. Or it’s the far, future hope of an intelligence that will save us all from ourselves. So it’s all these very different things, and that’s what interests me.

CC: Yes. And you’re interested in that whole gamut, I suppose. So, not necessarily a technical definition of artificial intelligence.

BS: No. I mean, I know enough technologists who go, “Absolutely, 100%, it’s this one thing. That’s it. And anyone who’s talking about anything else, it’s complete nonsense!” Well, to a certain extent, yes. But you’ve got to pay attention to all the different interpretations, because that’s what’s getting out there into the world.

CC: So I began with my personal vignette, there, about chatting with my dad. But you’ve provided, much more eruditely, a justification for what we might mean by the intersections between AI and the study of religion, and why we’re even having this conversation. So – go!

BS: Go! Right. Well, from a very basic position, any form of technology intersects with religion.(5:00) That’s just the nature of our society works, how our conception of religion itself works, that it could be seen, in itself, as a form of technology. And therefore any kind-of shift and changes in how we do things – things that make our lives either more difficult or easier – there are repercussions and implications for how we imagine the world and how it works, therefore religion. I think where AI might be slightly different . . . . Although I am cautious about saying it’s revolutionary new technology and very disruptive – it does replicate lots of existing ideas and thoughts. What I think is interesting about AI is the way in which people see it as much more than that simplistic tool. That however narrow an intelligence it is at the moment, people extrapolate on to personify AI: AI will want to do x-y-z; AI will replicate humans in such a way that we won’t be able to tell the difference between humans and AI. And this the Sci-fi imagining. But it also comes out in our religious conceptions as well. And then, also, within the sphere of the non-religious or secular approaches to AI, you see again these repeating patterns of religious narratives, and tropes that people who – even if overtly and sometimes aggressively atheist – still draw on their cultural context: primarily sort-of Abrahamic, Western conceptions of what a god would be like. And they use that, and they fill in their conception of AI with some of the existing templates that they’ve already got. So it tends to fall into very eschatological language, and very singular monotheistic conceptions of what a god would be and pattern that onto artificial intelligence.

CC: So there’s that sort-of: whatever religion is, we’re never going to be able to extract it from society. Because whatever . . . we can argue about it being a social thing and AI is integrated with that. Then also, the sort-of religion-related tropes, narratives, and so on. But then also there are – I’ll maybe talk about this now – there are some groups that you might describe as new religious movements, or new un-religious movements, and things that are explicitly sort-of engaging with this.

BS: Yes, so with my new religious studies hat on – that I wore so well for doing my thesis – having moved into artificial intelligence as a subject area, I’m seeing similar sorts of formations of online identity. Primarily these sort-of groups form online. They’re sort-of geographically disparate, so online spaces are important, and so forums and hashtags on Twitter, and so forth, to bring them together to formulate ideas. And some of them do expressly call themselves churches. So you get the Turing Church; the Church of Assimilation recently got in touch with me. I went to do a little bit more digging around into what they’re up to. But I do know about assimilation theory. But yes, the groups that specifically say: we are in some ways attempting to define our spirituality in relationship to artificial intelligence; we might also be transhumanist, in that we think through technology we can solve some of those very pernicious problems of humanity – death being the big one.

CC: It’s a big one!

BS: It’s a big one. Some are not quite so ambitious, just want to solve suffering – which also sounds like a serious thing to be taking on! But some do seek to be immortal in some form, whether that involves mind-uploading or transference of consciousness through artificial intelligence – all these sorts of various shapes. But yes, absolutely there are specific groups that see their endeavour as religious. And some will call themselves un-religions because they’re drawing a sort-of ideological gap between themselves and how they perceive mainstream religious groups. So in sociology of religion you might call them “spiritual but not religious”. But they’re still using some of that terminology of “We are the church of x-y-z.” and they’re doing it in quite pragmatic ways. Some of them will talk very explicitly about using religion to encourage people into transhumanist ideas and encourage them into seeing this vision of the future that they see. So, arguably, you can sort-of take a slightly sceptical stance and say they’re not really, really religions. But who gets to decide that?

CC: Yes. Absolutely. Right. So in the introduction, as well, I mentioned potential . . . I suppose we could say “religious uses” for AI. I was talking to a friend yesterday about if you could hypothetically imagine being in a confessional, for example, would it need to be a human priest on the other side of that? Or could it . . . ? And we landed down on, “Well, if you didn’t know it wasn’t human then it might be ok.” But there is something about . . . .

BS: Like in a church Turing test. There is a church Turing hypothesis, but this is separate. Yes, I find it interesting, talking more broadly in terms of technology and religion, that there are periods of rejection, adoption and adaption (10:00): that when new technologies arise, sometimes more established religions can be quite negative about them for a period of time – and these are overlapping categories that are non-discrete – but, over time, we do see religious groups specifically producing their own forms of those technologies. So there’s like the Bless U-2  robots that are used in part of Reformation celebrations in Germany. And in other religious groups, I recently saw in Dubai they’ve come up with an algorithm for issuing fatwa’s as well – making Islamic jurisprudence decisions. So you’d go on line, put in “Is it ok for me to have done x-y-z?” Or “I failed to pray on a particular day, what’s the . . . ?” And basically, all that system is doing is looking at previous cases. But . . . .

CC: Yes. But that’s all a human does.

BS: That’s all a human does. I mean, the question arises: what happens with the data? But that’s a privacy . . . another issue. But yes, so specific established religious groups seeing the technology – just as, in the nineties, suddenly we got lots of internet churches, where people were encouraging people to go on line and do church in a different way. And now we have internet sites for churches. But it’s not so much the case in the mainstream religions that you go online to do faith. It’s just that your local church will have the internet. So that’s the adaption stage of: “This thing is around, we’re kind-of used to it, we use it, and we don’t necessarily have a big . . . .” Like, the Church of England they released an Alexa Skill. They had a big press conference. And all the Alexa Skill does is recite the Lord’s Prayer to you if you ask it to. There are other adaptions now where it can tell you what your local church is and what the services are. So it’s not really revolutionary! But, you know, “Here’s a thing we’re doing with this new technology.” And it gets a press release. And then, the next sort-of stage – non-discrete stage – is just being very casual with the technology as: “This is just something we use.” Like we used books when the printing press first came out. The first things printed were Bibles. And this was a specific use of that technology. And then, over time, it’s just books. And it’s not so astounding. But in that process you get these spikes of interest and discussion. And, yes, different reactions to the technology – whether positive or negative.

CC: Absolutely. So before we get to . . . I suppose to the reason that you’re in Edinburgh today, and we’re chatting . . . . So that’s been a little bit about potentially religious, or religion-related uses. But there’s lot of . . . . Again, in my intro, there were a lot of religion-related questions that are raised by AI. Things like . . . you’ve done work on pain; there’s things about slavery, and all that. If we create these intelligences and then use them to our will, is that ethical? And then you’ve already mentioned transhumanism, which may be an unfamiliar term to some Listeners. So maybe, if you could talk a little bit about these religion-related issues?

BS: Yes. As I say, AI in its narrowest definition is a piece of computer technology, it’s a tool, but it inspires all these hypotheticals. And obviously we’ve had a long tradition of science fiction that takes us into spaces where we can imagine AI embodied, often in robotic forms, as having something like personhood. And that raises all these questions about the barriers between the human and the non-human other. And, in some ways, these questions have come up for millennia every time we’ve encountered different intelligences. It just seems now that we’re hoping, or aspiring towards creating non-human intelligences – whereas before, we’ve discovered them. So we’ve discovered that actually monkeys are pretty smart. We’ve discovered that dogs are pretty smart. And then, I’m afraid, from a colonial perspective from our past, other humans are actually and even women – Gosh! Darn! – They can also be pretty smart!

CC: As we’re hearing now! (Laughs)

BS: I mean, what’s going on!? So, again and again, “we” – in that kind-of very limited “we” – have had to expand our kind-of borders of perception of what intelligence could and should be. And with AI it seems like we’re trying to produce it. It’s not, in this case, meeting aliens on another planet. It’s actually, we’re trying to create the aliens here on earth. Whether we’ll be successful or not, I’m very agnostic about that. But I think it’s interesting that we want to do that. And what we want to be able to do with it. So that’s where things like questions of personhood, and slavery, and also pain . . . .When I made “Pain in the Machine“, one of the interesting questions that kept coming up was, like, should we even bother? Because if we’re going to create things that can feel pain, we’re just increasing the overall suffering in the universe and that doesn’t sound necessarily like a good thing (15:00). And going back to the transhumanists, as I said. So transhumanism is the idea that you can improve humanity through technology, broadly, and then you might lead to a state in which we’re no longer the same form of human that we were before.

CC: A new evolutionary step.

BS: Exactly. You might be a form of cyborg. Or there’s people who talk about post-humanism, where we’re so completely different we’re not even similar at all. But this idea sort-of does narrow down to this question of suffering, and being in pain, and what the human being is for, and where we’re going. So these are all big questions that are obviously very familiar shapes to anyone who’s looked at religion all around the world: these are the kinds of questions people have always been trying to answer. And I find it fascinating that some of these groups, as I say, are very overtly secular – almost New Atheist, some of them really admire the five horsemen of the apocalypse – but the shapes that they tell their own stories of the future of humanity with are very, very familiar to anyone who’s studied religion for any period of time. So is it that we’re . . . trapped isn’t the word for me, but we’re bound to repeat these shapes? Is there something in us that always goes to these same sorts of big existential questions, and comes up with similar sorts of solutions for them? I don’t know. I think that’s the ongoing question in my work. But I can dig down into particular instances of it as an anthropologist and say, “Well here’s a moment” – and some of them are very, very small moments, I admit that. I’m not doing big, big science. Some big scientists I’ve spoken to go, “Well you’ve spoken to like five people about this. What does that say about anything? That’s not a big data set.” But I don’t do big data stuff, but instances, and moments of clarity, where you can see these entanglements really clearly. And so: well, they’re doing something with both the concept of religion and the concept of AI. And they’re coming together.

CC: So you were just alluding to your small data sets there. So, well, I don’t think it’s a small data set that you’re presenting on here, but I guess it depends on perspective. But you’ve been looking at this particular trope on Twitter, “blessed by the algorithm”. And that’s what your paper that you’re giving here today is called. So what’s going on there? How does it intersect with AI? Why is it relevant? Tell us!

BS: (Laughs) Tell us! Yes. As a digital ethnographer, anthropologist of social media, I spend a lot of time hanging out on Twitter – that’s my excuse anyway, I’ll stick with it! I spotted a couple of people using the phrase blessed by the algorithm which obviously rings bells for me instantly for the language. And I dug around and I found 181 instances so far of people online, tweeting – just on Twitter as a platform – in some combination, in some context using the words blessed by the algorithm. And then you could follow back and see the first instance – which was very much about a corporate use of social media, and someone saying, “Well because this corporation has money, they’re going to be blessed by the algorithm.” So it sits in that kind-of context. But one of the most popular tweets, and most retweets, and most likes was a comment from someone saying in the real world – the so-called real world, I don’t like that differential – but anyway, in the so-called real world they’d heard their Lyft driver – so the gig economy role – say that they’d had a great day, and they felt blessed by the algorithm. And this might be something like a reframing and re-understanding of how we exist in a society that involves algorithmic decision making systems in a gig economy: what you get is dependent on a machine somewhere, making a choice. I mean there’s lots of words in that I don’t like that I just used, but unfortunately we’re very bound by anthropomorphic language when it comes to AI, but anyway. And so I have a corpus of 181 tweets and, actually, three of those refer to things I’ve said. So I’m muddling the field site a bit myself.

CC: OK. You’re an insider!

BS: I’m an insider as well. Well it’s responses to papers I’ve given. But, yes, I’ve created a very rough typology of the types. And some are about getting decent recommendations through the algorithm, on sites like Spotify. Some people are very pleased that their own content has been recommended to other people. There are people who sort-of talk about it in a very nebulous way: “Today I have been blessed by the algorithm.” And no more information. And then some people who really push the pseudo-religious language and come up with little prayers. And one of the things I was very interested in, in some of my other work on new religious movements, was the move between parody and legitimation. So I looked a lot at Jediism, and the census, and how some people did certainly write “Jedi” in the census in 2001 and 2011 as parody. They were upset about being asked about religion. They didn’t like religion, perhaps, itself. So they wrote Jedi. But that snowballing effect of legitimation – the more people talk about a thing, the more legitimate it seems – can have an effect (20:00). So even if a lot of these tweets are tongue-in-cheek, it’s still kind-of distilling out of the conversation. So, I have a graph. I’m very excited about this. I have a graph! As someone who, very much, is on the qualitative side and I don’t do big data stuff at all, to have graph made me go “Oh, exciting! I have to do some maths!” But I didn’t really do very much. And you can see the shift and change. After this one very popular tweet, there are more tweets. Perhaps this is the beginning of a trend, more people thinking in this way? Or even if it’s not, it’s just interesting to see that conception of AI as having superagency – that it is in some way in charge of our lives – being blessed by it, in some way equivalent to being blessed by an omnipotent deity somewhere up there that we can’t see. It’s in a mystical . . . . So there’re overlaps in conception, there, that I’m really interested in.

CC: The Listener shouldn’t know that I had a little hiccup earlier, because I’ll have edited it out. But just before that, I had an excellent question which I’ve now remembered – because it was written down!

BS: Hurray!

CC: So a lot of these issues that we’ve been talking around – functions, ethical questions, even the discourses in the Twittersphere – to my ear, certainly sound quite Christian or post-Christian at least through monotheistic . . . . I’m just wondering if these issues . . . . Were we in a different cultural context, would different issues be being thrown up by AI? I guess, would even AI be different in a different cultural context? Because I suppose you will have a lot of conversation between researchers all over the world working in AI. So is AI culturally specific or . . . ?

BS: Yes, absolutely, I think it’s culturally specific. What does tend to happen, however, it’s that it tends to be quite a narrow binary of East and West in the discussion. So everyone says, “Western conceptions of AI are like this”, but they go, “Over there in the East” and they’re mostly talking about Japan, “actually, people have a very different conception of AI and they love robots. And the reason they love robots is because they have a Shinto religious background or they have a Buddhist religious background”. And sometimes that can be a very broad stroke, almost pseudo-techno-orientalism of “Those people over there, they never really went through the Enlightenment, and they never really rationalised away religion, and they still believe in spirits and everything!” So, obviously this is me being very sarcastic, by the way – if it’s not coming across that I don’t agree with this! (Laughs) I think, yes, cultural context is really important for conceptions of artificial intelligence and also for religion, and the entanglements of both of them. But it much more multiplicious . . . . That’s not a word!

CC: It could be a word!

BS: I’m going to make it up now. Multiplicious! It’s much more multiple than that. Not just this binary of East and West. There’s also Africa, India, Pakistan and within those countries as well, again. So what you need is just more anthropologists, basically. I think this is my call to arms. We need more people around the world connecting on this question of the impact of religion and cultural context on questions of artificial intelligence. Yes. So we are seeing specific difference. But I want to try and push away a little bit from that binary distinction. And the assumption that the West isn’t animistic in its own lovely ways. Which anyone who does religious studies for any period of time, here in the so-called West, realises that the so-called Enlightenment didn’t have as huge an effect as we like to think sometimes. And our big metanarratives of what we did, and how smart we became . . . .

CC: Yes, but the discourse that the Enlightenment did have an effect, it’s been quite pernicious.

BS: Yes. Very, very strong.

CC: We’ve been racing through things here, it’s fantastic. But we’re still at 25 minutes. So you’ve been hinting, there, that we need more anthropologists doing more stuff. And on the way to this interview you were telling me about some things you’ve been doing to do with Frankenstein and then, also, because this year’s the year that we’re all meant to be living in Blade Runner times. So maybe if you’d give us a flavour of some that maybe slightly peripheral stuff to your project, that you’ve been doing. And what’s next for you, what you would like to see next, as a way to wrap up.

BS: Yes. So interestingly, I suppose, the position I’m in now, my employment post, is a junior research fellowship specifically in artificial intelligence. So I came on board saying, “These are my interests. This is my background in Religious Studies.” They were all very interested and excited in that. But being someone who also can speak more broadly to AI, as well, any time people have a question about AI I’m called upon (25:00). Which is lovely, but it does mean that when a specific theme and AI comes up, I get involved. So last year was the . . . two hundredth anniversary? (I should know that!) . . . two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. And a lot of people start thinking, then, of the parallels and connections with artificial intelligence: this idea that we are creating life (Wa-ha-hah! Mad scientists, all of us!) in some way, and there should be parallels between them. So I did about four or five public talks last year, specifically on Frankenstein. And there are similarities. There are huge differences as well. That was interesting for me, to kind-of return to a text I hadn’t thought about in a really long time and sort-of draw out so many pop culture references. I have a nice slide with all the times you’ve got a robotic Frankenstein. My favourite one was, I think, an issue of a Marvel comic where Frankenstein turns out to be a robot sent back in time by aliens. So all these sort-of mash-ups. That was really interesting. And then, like you say, this is the year of Blade Runner and I’ve just done an essay for Radio Three. And, again – not my academic background. But I’m doing something in that, in terms of sexual politics and Blade Runner. If you’ve seen the film, it doesn’t really pass the Bechdel test!

CC: No.

BS: A friend of mine, Kate Devlin, who’s written a fantastic book on sexbots, talks about how it has a problem with women. That basically . . . it’s a product of its time. It’s 1980s, but it’s also trying to do 1950s filme noir. So you’ve got the detective, and femme fatale, and the kind-of virginal woman. It’s not a great one for sexual politics. But also, it’s tied into all these questions of consent and slavery. If we’re going to create so-called artificial life . . . . And the Replicants in Blade Runner are as near to human – well that’s the slogan of the company, basically: “as near to human as you can’t tell the difference”. What does it mean that we are a society that wishes for that, or dreams of that? Or, take it a step back and say: what is it, that we tell these stories and that, again, we have predominantly female representations of synthetic lives, who don’t get to choose who they sleep with, and don’t get to choose their fates? And we want slaves? I mean, did we not evolve out of this? We thought we were trying. So, yes, there’s lots of big questions about the ethics and politics of that, as well. So it’s interesting. I’ve always been . . . . Anyone who knows me, I’ve always been a massive geek. So the fact that I ended up somehow trying to mesh that with a job, and an academic role, where legitimately I sat and watched Blade Runner again five times before I wrote my essay – that’s fantastic! I will go on, and other things I have coming up: I will do some work around techno-optimism and techno-utopianism in relation to Sophia the Hanson robot, if you’ve ever come across this creation? She/it is a wonderful example of . . . I’m really picking my words carefully! I think the nicest thing we could call her is a puppet. But she’s presented as the most advanced version of AI around at the moment. She holds conversations with people, but we know they’re actually scripted a lot of the time. There’s puppeteers involved. But you know she was given citizenship of Saudi Arabia. And she goes and she speaks on the Jimmy Kimmel Show and she’s on the front cover of magazines with her hair done. And, well, what does this say, that we’re so keen to jump on this idea of her actually being alive in some way? People tweet at her, send her, like, “I love you Sophia!”

CC: Didn’t you have an interaction with her?

BS: I did! Well, I had an interaction with whoever runs her social media accounts, where she was tweeting about how wonderful it was to travel around the world and talk in so many places. And I said, “Sophia, as a citizen of Saudi Arabia, where do you travel when you travel? Do you travel on a plane? Do you have a passport? What’s the deal here, if you’re being treated in this way?” She said something like, “For my safety, and the safety of others, at the moment I travel in the hold, in luggage, but I dream one day of being able to sit with the rest of you, and look out of the window.” This is so disingenuous. This is not an artificial intelligence listening to my tweets and responding, having thought through their situation, and projecting into the future where they want to be. This is someone behind the computer screen typing away! And, to be fair to the creators of Sophia, this is not uncommon. Lots of the technology we’re being sold as employing artificial intelligence actually employs people, on less than minimum wage, in third world countries, reading and listening to actual humans and feeding into the machine. They have the aspiration that eventually they’ll take those humans out of the loop. Same thing with Lift and Uber drivers – the whole gig economy. The treatment of those workers, and Amazon workers, is terrible and it’s on a pipeline towards getting rid of them (30:00). So all the work that those people do feeds into the system to replace them. And these big socio-economic changes that are coming because of automation, I’m a big sceptic about the bigger utopian dreams of universal basic income and everyone will get paid to exist and when the robots take our jobs.

CC: Well, it’s not happened yet.

BS: It’s not happened yet. And these are the sort of impacts on society that religions will respond to, will be a part of, because their communities will be a part of them. And we’ve got parallels. People go “Oh it’s another industrial revolution, and we survived other industrial revolutions, we’ll survive this one.” If you’re against them, you’re a Luddite – they’re back again, apparently! That’s not realistic to the individual lives, and the changes that come to individuals. There were blacksmiths who never worked again. So not to be Debbie Downer, but these are the important questions.

CC: Yes, lots of people have not survived. And I could always point out that colonialism is very much still happening.

BS: Oh, absolutely.

CC: It’s just been exported, and it’s clouded in the language of free trade and globalisation now.

BS: Absolutely.

CC: But just to raise the tone – an example that you may not be aware of, and you may have seen it, South Park did the episode about Alexa.

BS: I saw a picture today, actually. And I haven’t seen the episode so I need to catch up!

CC: It’s excellent, because all of the local people, lower down in the socio-economic spectrum, were kicking off that Alexa was stealing their jobs. And they manged to rally round. And then all to get Alexa’s job. So people would have a (audio unclear) or a Jimbob in their living room who looks things up on a smart phone and says “Boodoopboopboop!”

BS: Yes! (Laughs)

CC: But yes. Sort-of . . . explicitly buying into that.

BS: I need to catch up on that one. South Park are wonderful at doing this social commentary. The number of times I’ve used . . . specifically some of the episodes on their versions of Scientology– not their versions, their actual accounts of Scientology, Mormonism. They’re very useful resources. The parody opens up the possibility of thinking more critically about that, absolutely.

CC: Yes. Which I think we have managed to do today. So Listeners, do check out, we’ll try and link to that issue of Implicit Religion, we’ll link to Pain and the Machine, which is the film that Beth mentioned, and many more things I’m sure. So thank you, Beth, for joining us.

BS: Thank you very much for having me today.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, 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.

The Essential and Complex Relationship of Religion and Media

A monument to Johannes Gutenberg, whose press allowed for the mass distribution of the Christian Bible and every book since, in Strasbourg, Germany. Photo by Glenn J. Mason from London, Britain CC BY

Listening to Chris Cotter and his panelists – Suzanne Owen, Vivian Asimos, and Tim Hutchings – bring up some compelling issues relating to religion and media, I was struck at how integral media is to the message of religion and worthy of academic study.  My own faith, Christian Science, would not exist if the founder, Mary Baker Eddy, hadn’t found a medium through which to share her insights. In spite of the difficulties facing a woman writing on religious matters in the late nineteenth century she wrote and published her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, to crystalise her teachings.

Media is a way a religion presents itself both to its own adherents and to the world beyond.  In the podcast, Tim Hutchings brought up the question of how religion and media need not be seen as two separate issues that occasionally meet, but that religion can be reconceived as a kind of mediation itself.  In fact, religion is always a mediator or a set of practices of mediation between the human and the divine.  This can give it authority for its adherents who see it as trustworthy.  However, while it brings an understanding of the faith to the believer, this very same medium can be less fathomable to the outsider because of the use of particularised language, lack of in depth understanding of the teachings, and so on.

This podcast centres mainly on social media, which might be seen to be a way of bridging the gap, but it raises as many issues as it solves.  Social media is often less representative of mainstream religions, being more the province of individuals expressing and finding their religion in their own unique way.   The speakers on the podcast discovered various issues relating to social media such as isolationism, the anonymity of user names, and concern by those who remain with the more traditional physical forms of worship. These findings are echoed by Christopher D Cunningham in his recent article in Public Space magazine, where he observes,

Social media has provided a venue to channel religious fervour without institutional oversight.  The effect has been a democratisation of religion.  This approach takes church out of religion, undercutting churches’ authority (and ability) to control a narrative and maintain doctrinal boundaries.

Tim discovered this in his research with Christian groups who use digital media. He was faced with the question of who gets to decide if this new manifestation of church online is the true church. He noted the relationships and emotional commitments that the online church group members make feel very real to them.  But he also found that those members of the church who maintained the more traditional worship in physical places felt that they were the ‘real’ church.  This raises the wider issue of who defines a religion, especially in relation to these new online versions, Tim’s solution is to let the group itself decide.

@amishbek#Pennsylvania I’m Amish♬ original sound – user444597131867472

 

 

Above, teen Rebecca Fisher maintains a popular TikTok account. Though her parents were Amish, they left the church when Fisher was a young child, but she considers herself Amish and says she attends an Amish church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Most Amish communities discourage the use of cell phones outside of business and medical or other emergency reasons, and photographs and videos of individuals are also discouraged. Still, the use of social media is increasing, especially among teens who have not yet been baptized and who are permitted, before choosing to join the church, to engage in popular culture in ways more familiar to their “English” (non-Amish) peers.

Identification is a significant issue in religious scholarship because misunderstanding can have adverse, wider consequences, such as misleading stereotypes and prejudice. In my position in the Christian Science Committee on Publication, an office that reviews media discourse about the denomination, I regularly see my faith freely defined by others – church leaders, academics, journalists, writers, playwrights, novelists and so on – often inaccurately and sometimes in ways that are simply wrong and misleading.  This is not new and certainly not confined to Christian Science.  So I can’t help seeing value in Tim’s approach of allowing the group to define itself and listening to them, free of judgment, to find out who they are and what is important to them.

Churches have always used the media to nurture and educate their members.  Today their use of the new digital media may sometimes be clumsy, not well understood, and subject to failure at times, as Tim has seen in his research, but it is the current and future manifestation of the way many religions and religious people want to share and make themselves known.  Tim’s arguments to his university asking them to support his research into religion and digital media are not only valid but essential because, as he says, it offers a lens into studying what really matters in religion “”whatever that might be.”  By extrapolation, studying all the media resources of any religion will cast light on them in a real and profound way. It is how they express themselves – their beliefs, practices, relationships. But the challenge for researchers is to allow religious groups to speak for themselves and not to interpret them through their own particular bias. To gain a clear view of religion from their media takes sensitivity, patience, listening and reflexivity, and this is not easy.

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Media and the Study of Religion

The 2019 conference of the British Association for the Study of Religions, at Leeds Trinity University, was loosely themed on the topic ‘Visualizing Cultures: Media, Technology and Religion’, and this provided an excellent focal point for a discussion of Media and the Study of Religion more broadly. With that in mind, we convened a virtually mediated roundtable discussion with Suzanne Owen (conference organizer), Vivian Asimos and Tim Hutchings speaking with RSP co-founder Chris Cotter. These contributors bring a broad range of expertise and experience to the discussion, with work focusing upon online and digital spaces, the built environment, art, literature, broadcast media, social media, podcasting, and more. Discussion begins with the conference, before turning to how a media approach can help the study of religion, what we might mean by media and mediation, challenges of taking a media approach, the utilization of media in teaching, how to avoid reifying ‘religion’ in the process, and more.

This discussion works well as a companion piece with a number of previous RSP podcasts, including Religion and the News (with Eileen Barker, Tim Hutchings, Christopher Landau, and David Gordon Wilson), Religion and the Media  (with Teemu Taira), Religious Authority and Social Media (with Pauline Hope Cheong), Religion, Violence and the Media (with Jolyon Mitchell), and Visual Culture and the Study of Religion (with Birgit Meyer).

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


Media and the Study of Religion

Podcast with Vivian Asimos, Tim Hutchings and Suzanne Owen

(20 January 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/media-and-the-study-of-religion/

Download the PDF of this transcription here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Media_and_the_Study_of_Religion_1.1.pdf

Christopher Cotter (CC): Welcome, Listeners, to a special roundtable episode of the Religious Studies Project. We had hoped that this would happen at the BASR 2019 Conference at Leeds Trinity, but everyone was too busy, too tired, over-podcasted. And so we thought we would reconvene later on, online. And we’re talking about media and the study of religion. We’ve had a few podcasts touching on this topic before. You know, we’ve had one that Tim – who you’ll be hearing from in a moment – was involved in about religion and the news, and we had Teemu Taira talking about religion and the media. But today we’re going be taking a much broader approach, I think, to the notion of media and the study of religion so: mediation, and the various media in which that can occur. So I’m just going allow the speakers to introduce themselves, and say a little bit about how media crops up in their work. So for those who don’t know, I’m Chris Cotter, I’m one of the co-founders of the Religious Studies Project. And I’m going to let other people speak first, before I scrabble around to try and think about how media comes up in my work. But, Vivian – you’re first on my list here – who are you, and what’s media for you?

Vivian Asimos (VA): (Laughs) Quite a big question, regarding my work! So I’m Vivian Asimos, I recently got my PhD at Durham university, which is currently where I’m still acting at teaching assistant on several kinds of course. And I study virtual story-telling, primarily looking at the internet and video games. So lots of media that I’m looking at, and different types. Sometimes looking at it historically – how things used to be, historically-speaking, for the internet. Obviously not quite the breadth of history as maybe some other people are used to looking at! But seeing how things change over time, and also how this impacts our ideas of supernatural or communication of religion. Those kinds of things. Yes.

CC: Excellent. You are well-qualified to be at this table – this virtual table. And this podcast that’s being mediated to the Listeners’ ears, and we’re recording it via the internet. So it’s already a case study in that. And then we’ve got Suzanne Owen.

Suzanne Owen (SO): Yes, and I’m reader in Religious Studies at Leeds Trinity University. And I’ll just say that the four of us are in four different locations. So that’s possible because of media – digital media. And my research . . . I’ve not focussed on media per se, but it has come in different forms. So in my work with research in Newfoundland I’ve been looking at . . . not digital media, but I guess you might call it hard media? I’m not sure: art work, museum exhibitions and how representations of particular indigenous groups are portrayed, and the discourse in the text that surrounds it. And what they’re emphasising or what they’re hiding. But, I guess, more directly with digital media with the project that Teemu Tiara and I did with the druid network on the registration as a charity for the advancement of religion. There was quite a lot of media discourse that we included in our study, to show the different responses to that registration.

CC: Excellent. And then, I guess, sort-of the driving force behind this podcast is Tim Hutchings.

Tim Hutchings (TH): Hi. I am the Assistant Professor in Religious Ethics at the University of Nottingham. But I’m mostly a sociologist of digital religion. For ten or fifteen years I’ve been studying, you could say, the opposite of the kind of approach that Vivian takes. So my research began by looking at what particularly Christian institutions were trying to do with digital media. So very formalised, institutionalised, traditional versions of religion, trying to produce forms of online community or online ritual that they could recognise as proper Christian church. (5:00) And from there I’ve been fascinated by that ongoing struggle in some ways, maybe, of institutions that are quite slow and ponderous sometimes, to get to grips with a fast-moving medium, or a whole set of media. One of the things I particularly enjoyed studying around that field is seeing the number of projects that don’t quite work out. And the study of religion and media is often the study of disasters and failures and things that are quietly forgotten as quickly as possible! But I’ve looked at projects like attempts to encourage people to read the Bible through digital media, attempts to create online communities, attempts to produce religious mobile apps, and some kind-of emerging conversations online around death and grief. And at the moment I’m looking at a video game. But it’s a video game produced, again, by a Christian organisation to try and teach children about the Bible, more or less. So those are the kinds of things that I’m interested in.

CC: Excellent. And Tim, you’ve also got a journal as well that we should probably mention?

TH: Yes. Thank you. I’m the editor-in-chief of the journal, Religion, Media and Digital Culture, which is published by Brill in collaboration with the International Society for Media, Religion and Culture.

CC: Excellent. And we’ll try and link to that from the podcast page. And, as I said, I would let other people speak before trying to come up with something on this end. So my research . . . I work broadly looking at non-religion – so, basically anything that could be conceptualised as a relational “other” to religion. Primarily, my work has been interview-based and ethnographic. But an interesting way in which, I guess, using mediation comes in is: I’ve done a good bit of work looking at the built environment and how particularly – my field site for my PhD was Edinburgh’s Southside – but how this Southside was felt. And how people’s non-religious lives were sort-of impacted upon by the Christian hegemony of the spaces, and all the sort of conversions and things like that. So a little bit on how space can be seen as media in discourse. But then also, of course, especially when you’re looking at atheism etc., there’s so much stuff online you’ve got to pay attention to. So a bit of that. And then of course there’s also the production of media which we’ll probably be talking about as well. There’s the Religious Studies Project, here, which you’re listening to I suppose. And Vivian, you’ve also got a podcast?

VA: I do. I have the Religion in Popular Culture podcast, where I interview different people in the field of the study of religion and popular culture. Unfortunately, Tim and I keep missing dates on being recorded for it! But I’ve gotten quite a few people that approach things from a variety of different perspectives. And I use popular culture quite broadly, I think, to encapsulate all sorts of different medias and media types and even just the things that we take for granted as being around us every day. So check it out, if you like podcasts and religion!

CC: Well, presumably people who are listening have at least some sort of passing interest in podcasts and religion!

VA: (Laughs.)

CC: OK. I thought we could kick off a little bit. . . . Because, as I say, we meant to try and record at the BASR 2019 conference, which Suzanne organised. And one of the words in the title was media (Laughs). So maybe, Suzanne, you could just tell us a little bit about what the conference theme was and anything that came out of it for you. And then as we were all there we might have some stuff to offer.

SO: Yes, when I was asked to organise the conference, I immediately thought of my colleagues in media, film and culture to help co-organise it. Because I’m the only person in Religious Studies at my institution. And that turned out to be really great collaboration, particularly with Stefano Odorico who is a documentary film maker. And he’s really interested in developing new digital skills among students, and also in research with interactive documentary film making in particular. And one of the things, when we were discussing various titles, we didn’t want to make religion too prominent because he thought that it would be off-putting to people from his side. And so we came up with “Visualising Cultures: media, technology and religion”. In the end it really was a BASR conference, as most of the participants were BASR people (10:00). But I think it was also trying to emphasise that religion is not a rarefied thing, I suppose. Just part of a bundle, in this title. And also to try to emphasise the kind-of collaborative projects that might be happening, or interdisciplinary projects – which, I guess, Religious Studies is by nature, for the most part. But in the way that we might be using different disciplinary skills in the study of religion in order to do our research. And so visualising cultures seemed to capture everything that we wanted to bring to the conference, and to allow people to come that might not ordinarily come to a BASR. And we did get a few participants in that group; they came because of the theme. And most of them did do a study of religion of some kind, but not all of them. So that was really good to see.

CC: Excellent. Yes I mean I saw papers to do with… well it James Kapalo talking about archival work, Vivian, and Jonathan, and few others presenting about virtual worlds .And I remember Michael Dudeck – it was quite an innovative paper – was developing a sort-of virtual constructed religion. He called it the Temple of Artifice. And so his presentation was very interactive, and very on the nose. And I guess sort-of pushed us to think a little bit about what we’re doing in the Study of Religion. Can we be constructing things in that sort of way? It was excellent.

SO: Yes, it’s interesting that Michael Dudeck’s project – where he’s deliberately creating a religion that’s digitally available to participate in – in some ways we’re doing the same thing. But we think we’re doing it for real, I guess. And it’s really good to see that actually, what we’re doing is just as constructed and fictionalised.

VA: (Laughs). I mean, I would probably argue that what I’m doing isn’t for real, and yet it is at the same time. (Laughs). So, yeah. Because what I tend to look at is constructed fictional narratives that people are engaging with. So these are ones that nobody is working at it from say the perspective of like “We’re trying to form this into something.” Very seldom does that happen. And yet it tends to take off in that direction. And so, very often, it’s that sense of real-but-it’s-not, simultaneously. And I think it kind-of reveals a lot about how we actually do see the world as not always being these strict dichotomies between fiction and reality, but that they can be blurred and they often are. And that the internet, and the way that the online story-telling really works, ends up actually revealing that to us.

SO: Yes. And what Dudeck produced was actually real as well. And that word reality and real was used quite a lot in the conference by participants, I noticed.

VA: Yes. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine!

CC: Do you want to say a bit more about that Vivian? You’ve got the air-time!

VA: Yes, sure. You see it a lot even outside of the academic circle, of the “real world” versus the “online world”, or the “virtual world”, or the “digital world”. And essentially what that’s doing is painting this virtual world as being completely not real, and therefore all communities formed, all relationships had, all experiences are therefore painted as not real. Because it’s being put up against the physical world, which is the real world. So I pick “physical world” rather than real, to distinguish. Because I don’t want to take away from the experiences that are actually being had, that are very really felt by participants, by painting them as not real.

CC: Exactly. I mean what is qualitatively different from the experience that someone is supposedly having, whether its mediated through sound,or in a particular building, or through radio waves, or though the telephone, or the television, or online, or in a field, or whatever? These are all just different media that are being utilised. There is definitely a current bias towards the online world as being, in some way, not as authentic. Yet, as I’m sure we would all agree, for many it can be more – quote –”authentic” than the physical world (15:00).

SO: Yes. It’s interesting, because this distinction in fantasy fiction is similar where they have primary and secondary world. And the primary world is meant to be the real world. But there is no real world in fiction, or any kind of representation. And also it’s creating a false boundary, really.

TH: So I struggled with this a lot when I was doing my research about online churches. To try and work out what would be the “other” thing that I was distinguishing this from. And I started off thinking, “Well, it’s online churches versus offline churches”. But that doesn’t make sense. Because lots of those offline churches have websites, or some sort of online presence that maybe you communicate with the pastor of the church by email, or something like this. They’re not digital-free spaces. But they’re mediated differently in some way. And “physical”, to me, didn’t quite work either. Because we use physical technologies, of course, to connect with digital communications as well as anything else. So I ended up talking about “the online” and “the local”: trying to catch that sense of a thing that is defined by the place when it happens, rather than the media through which we . . . or the digital media through which we communicate it. But it’s still not quite right.

SO: Yes, kind-of acknowledging . . .

TH: The other point that I wanted to catch, there, is: one of the moves that is often made in the conversations I hear is to say, “Well, the online and the offline are no longer distinct at all. And we need to abandon this binary.” Which also doesn’t quite work for the groups I’m looking at. Because the value of the online space is partly that it is not the face-to-face. It is – so, as Vivian was saying – it’s real, but it’s sort-of not-quite-real at the same time. Which gives you the freedom to be more playful. So the Centre for Media, Religion and Culture in Colorado, at the University of Boulder, has been talking about digital as a third space – which is helpful, I think. They’ve been writing about this for years and years. Trying to focus on the as-if-ness of a place that is sometimes treated as if it is real, and sometimes treated as if it is just a game, and used as a space to reflect on what happens elsewhere. Because one of the things that I’ve found, in the very kind-of clearly bounded online spaces I was looking at, where people would say, “This website is my church” – or whatever it might be – they would use those to then reflect on everything that was happening elsewhere in the world. But that would include face-to0face, and Facebook, and the rest of internet culture, and the email conversations that participants had with their parents. So, everything that happened outside the boundary. So there was a really important distinction between what happens inside the boundary and outside the boundary, but it wasn’t drawn in the same place as the online and offline distinction. And it wasn’t quite in the same place as the real and virtual distinction. But it was important to people that this was different from a serious real place and a little playful.

CC: I think actually, if I’m correct in remembering, Vivian, it came up in your paper at the BASR, how there’s often this notion that, I guess, “We can’t trust what people say online”. Or, you know . . . Actually, what can happen is that people’s online expressions can, in some ways, be maybe less filtered and more – quote – “real” than they might be in face-to-face social interactions. Am I remembering correctly?

VA: Yes. And it obviously is going to depend on individuals. But what I found was that, at least when talking with academics who have a bit of a bias against virtual worlds – to kind-of paint something more broadly there – they tend to say that because things can be anonymised, therefore you can’t trust anything. What I found during my fieldwork, as well as just from my own personal experience of living in various online spaces at various points in my life, is that there was still an identity that is tied to the username (20:00). And often users can feel more empowered to act in the way that they might not be able to. So, for example, if I’m on, say, even just an academic forum and I’m using a username, I might feel more compelled to be more strict in my opinions, because I’m not going to feel like I’m going to be questioned for being a woman. Like I might, if I’m in a physical space, where people can look at me and see that I’m a woman. So I might feel more willing to express myself when people can’t tell how young I am, how female I am. And I see this play out even on line as well. And, interestingly, I had strange responses, when I was conducting fieldwork, where I had people reaching out to me to discuss their experience on these forums. But they would use throwaway accounts, which essentially means they would create a new account solely for the purpose of our communication and then immediately get rid of it. And this was because they didn’t want what they said to be tied to their identities. So they were anonymising themselves, through what other people see as an anonymous username. Because it’s not an anonymous username. It’s tied to their identity there. It’s tied to their experiences, and lingo, and neighbourhoods that they trawl. And experiences and relationships are all tied to that name in the same way that, you know, those same exact things are tied to my Vivian Asimos name.

CC: Yes. Excellent. So it’s interesting that, although we’re trying to have this broad discussion around media and the state of religion, our focus is quite naturally being drawn to, I guess, online, digital, virtual and so on. And I guess that might be because it’s the latest medium of our times. I guess if we were having this discussion around the time of the printing press or the telephone or the television and stuff, you know, our conversation might be differently inflected. So maybe . . . . Because, Suzanne, you mentioned working with sort-of more, we could call it, traditional forms of media. Do you have any thoughts on your work there?

SO: Yes. And in some ways it is the same kind of research, because I’d interview artists about their artwork. And, of course, some artists portray their art in a kind-of non-conscious way, but I was still able to elicit some kind of discussion about the themes that they’re interested in. Because they were all depicting an extinct indigenous group in their artwork. And I thought there was a way that they could show their relationship to that subject in a non-verbal way, which offered an interesting insight that was different from the way that written texts or museum exhibits represent that group. And I did, I got a really different kind of perspective. So I think different kinds of media can bring out different kinds of insights, for sure, in research. It also reminds me a little bit of when I used to do theatre: there was one time, just for ourselves among the group that were doing the play, we did an experiment with masks where we were wearing different masks. It was just reminding me of what Vivian was saying with online identities, and how the mask then becomes the focus of your interaction. And they’re no longer the person behind the mask, but the mask could be sort-of male, female, androgynous, animal, human, alien. And our relationship, then, just completely changed. And I think that’s the beauty of different kinds of media, that you get really different kinds of responses and interactions.

CC: Time is, bizarrely, moving on as it tends to do. And I do want to get to the idea of how media can be utilised in the teaching of the study of religion. But I couldn’t resist getting a compliment in here about how . . . . I’d be interested in your thoughts. Much of the work that I encounter that seems to be taking a media approach – or looking at media in relation to religion – a lot of it tends to trip up on that sort of critical problem of, “there is something there, that is being mediated” (25:00). I guess, in a lot of this work, there is the assumption that there is religion, or there is, I guess, a deity that is being mediated through things. Rather than, perhaps, talking about a social constructivist approach. I wonder if anyone has any thoughts on that?

SO: Yes. As we were saying before we started recording: sometimes researchers think there is religion out there, and that is being mediated throughout various things like news or digital spaces, whereas we should really look at stuff that’s out there that gets mediated as something. Maybe as religion and discourse –a discourse analysis kind-of approach. Where the contesting . . . that there is something that exists prior to the discourse about it. You know, that religion is not a priori in that sense.

CC: Yes. And I guess you know, Tim, you’ve been talking about working with churches and churches in online space. How did you . . . ? Did you wrestle with that? I’m just allowing the group to define what it is, and then I’m looking for that being mediated online. How did you go about setting your boundaries?

TH: Yes, so around this question of reality – thinking back to my early research in online churches – on the outside of those online communities, one of the big conversations about them was whether this was considered real church or not. Which, from a kind-of sociological perspective is not a very useful category for me! Because, of course, for me there are a lot of different Christian traditions. They all define what a real church is differently. People from those traditions mix up together in online communities. So if you actually push the question, you’ll quite quickly find that people may agree or disagree about whether what they’re doing is real within the same group – and just politely don’t mention it very often. So I tried to allow groups to define themselves and just said, “If you’re calling what you do church, then I’m interested in finding out what it is.” But while keeping in mind that ambivalence, I guess, about who gets to decide whether this group calls itself church, or not? In some cases, the person who set up the thing decided, “Let’s call this the church of such and such”. But actually, if you had conversations with people who had been participating here for ten years every day, multiple hours a day, they’d say “Oh, of course it’s not really church.” So it was an inherently undefined word. And when people did want to claim that word, they often didn’t want to do it in ways that traditional Christian authorities would respect, shall we say? So they might want to say, “OK. So traditionally, my group has said that church has got to do these particular rituals, and you’ve got to have this particular authority structure. I don’t really care about that. What I care about is that I’ve made really important friendships here. It means a lot to me that this is a space where I have very important relationships and real emotional commitment. And so I call it church. And how dare you question whether this is church for me? Are you saying my friendships aren’t real?” Which is fascinating. Because that is not . . . that is . . . I don’t know if it’s a new way of thinking about church. But it’s a way of thinking about what is real that is different from the institutional tradition, perhaps. So – in line with this question about “Is there a previous, pre-mediated thing?” – there are conversations in the study of religion, media and culture for many years now that I’ve found really helpful, trying to reconceive religion itself as a kind of mediation. So people like Jeremy Stolow, and Birgit Meyer, and others, have argued that any study of religion and media that frames it as religion and media, as though there are two separate things, is not catching the really interesting part of the study of the . . . not the really interesting part of the field. Which is that religion itself is always mediated: religion itself can be understood as a kind of media, or a set of practices of mediation. Certain things that are permissible or forbidden, or expected within a certain group, that make connections between the human and the non-human (30:00). And I found that really helpful as a way of positioning what I’m interested in, in this very current study of digital religion, as part of the same kind of thing that all of my colleagues do in their studies of religion across centuries.

 CC: I considered trying to get mediating or mediatising into the title of the podcast. I might make it “Mediation and the study of religion” or something, just to emphasise that. Vivian, I know that you sometimes use the lens of myth in what you’re studying, as well. So, again, how do you decide when it’s religion that’s being mediated and things like that?

VA: (Laughs) I tend to not be too bothered about the word religion. Which might be a bit strange to say, as somebody who is a religion scholar, and in a religion department. But that’s how I see myself, because I don’t think anyone really knows precisely what religion is. And, therefore, how do you try to go about finding it, if you don’t know precisely what it is? So myth, to me, is a much more useful word than religion – although it probably has just as many problematic definitions throughout its history as religion does! But I see myth as being essentially defined by the individual or the community, which means that it’s not up to me – like what Tim was saying about leaving the community to kind-of define for themselves what matters and what doesn’t matter, and what words matter, and what words don’t matter. And seeing how they connect to a narrative in a very meaningful way. So I tend to focus more on myth than on religion, because of that. So I’m a mythographer as well as a religion scholar. And it has gotten me into trouble in the past. And that’s interesting in itself to think about how we, as scholars, are mediating our own understanding of religion onto our own discipline. So, my first year review board, I was asked why I was in a religion department, if I’m not looking at religion? Which I felt like I both was, and wasn’t. So it’s interesting to be told, time and time again, that you’re not studying religion when you feel like you are, but in a slightly different way. Because, essentially, we’re ascribing our own understandings onto our own disciplines, and mediating that through our own podcasts, as well as in books.

SO: I think the problem is everyone does know what religion is, or says that, or thinks that they do. And that’s why there’s so many ideas about religion, because everybody is so sure that they know what it is. Whereas, I think that there isn’t something there anyway. Like with any kind of thing, any kind of abstract subject, it is obviously mediated and created; born out of relationship and dialogue and discussion; and what people portray, or what they define as . . . . So comparing definitions is one of the first things I do with students in first year. It’s to show that there are many definitions of religion, and there are some essential differences between these definitions, and what does that say about it? What are they emphasising, and what they selecting and excluding, to create this thing called religion that they’ve defined? It’s an ongoing sort of disagreement I had with my own supervisor about whether or not you should define what you’re researching. And of course I’m seeing it more as: those that I’m researching are defining terms.

TH: Yes. So, in response to what Suzanne was saying a moment ago about the discourse approach, or discourse analysis approach to religion: an advantage, or disadvantage – depending on how you look at it – of that kind-of approach, I think, is that actually the word religion is very rarely used by the people I’m interested in. Unless they’re trying to step back from their engaged experience and be more analytical about it, and say “Well, maybe this is the kind of religion. . . .” In Christian contexts it’s quite common for people to say, “Well, this is not religion. Religion is that bad thing . . . . We are better than religion, because we are spiritual”, or something like that. Religion, as a term, is mostly imposed by academics onto the field in things like department meetings! (35:00)

SO: Yes.

VA: (Laughs).

TH: “Religion is a real thing because we study this”. But then, reflecting on what Vivian was saying, I had similar experiences myself. And that’s maybe a useful pointer for people listening to this podcast, particularly if you’re just starting out in an academic career. If you’re studying something unusual and exciting to do with pop culture, at some point somebody will say, “Yes – but is it religion?”

CC: Exactly.

TH: And even if that is a made-up word that doesn’t really exist, religion departments do exist. Those are definitely real. And it’s a question that it’s worth, you know . . . It will come up at some point. It’s worth having an answer to it. When people asked me that question, I was left slightly taken aback. So it’s worth anticipating it, before it arrives.

CC: Absolutely. So that brings us quite nicely, I suppose, to our final question. And we’re a little over time, but we’re going to run with it. Because we’ve been talking, there, about students, and about supervisors, and how the subject of the study of religion – whether that’s religious studies, or sociology of religion, or anthropology, etc. – how we mediate the very topic. But I wonder . . . Tim was mentioning, before we started, how institutions are now increasingly wanting us to incorporate media in various forms. And I wonder if anyone’s got any thought about that, or any useful stories or useful failures, and things like that? (Laughs).

VA: This is actually something that more recently I’ve been engaging with, but not using things like the internet or podcasts so much as using the kind-of more traditional media, primarily with pictures, with my students. Normally, as a teaching assistant you tend to not get quite as much creativity allowed to you when it comes to teaching. But I’ve been able to play with it a bit this year, because there’s a new first year module where we’ve kind-of shifted study of religion to being a worldviews approach by Douglas Davies. And the whole conversation on how he’s structured this, and whether or not it’s successful, could probably be an entire podcast episode in and of itself. So I’ll kind-of skip over that. But because it’s a bit more experimental it allows us, as teaching assistants, to be more experimental in our seminars. And one of the things that myself and Danny Riley – who’s a PhD student at Durham University, as well – have decided to do, was to do photo-elicitation – but as a teaching useful tool, rather than as an anthropological interviewing tool. So one of the ideal types that Douglas has set out was a natural worldview. So I asked students to take a picture of what they think embodies a natural worldview. And then we sat around and we chatted about all of the pictures that we had in a variety of formats, asking them very solid questions like, “Which picture makes you feel uncomfortable?” And then we’d sit around, and talk about why we had picked the picture that they had, and ended up revealing a lot more about how people see the world differently from one another – which was always difficult to get to, especially at Durham where most of our undergraduates are all from very similar socio economic, racial and geographical background. So, to be able to pull out their inner thoughts through the images, actually was incredibly useful.

CC: Excellent.

SO: I had a really good experiment with our first year students in Intro Week. They’re just coming in and being inducted. I had them take a photograph of what they think is the heart of the university – to represent it with taking a photo on their mobile phones – and then to send me the photo, and then we can look at the different images. And I got a really nice spread, from obvious choices like the chapel or the bar, or the coffee place. But also some more creative ones, like there was an image they took of themselves to show that the students were the heart of the university. And those were the ones that came to mind. So I’m interested in getting students to produce media and hopefully, in the future, to actually make more sort-of media. We’ve already had them doing little documentaries, or podcasts, or digital things. But maybe to even make something more . . . interactive documentary film making in the future – which is what our university specialises in (40:00).

CC: I think there’s a lot of scope now that everyone’s got a sort of portable – most people, I should say – at a typical UK university will have sort of portable media studio in their pocket, producing video content and audio content. And just one thing to throw in there . . . I always have these great intentions of doing a lot of innovative things that I never quite have time . . . . But what I’ve started to try and do . . . I was getting a bit fed up constantly typing up comments in the student’s essays – and I noticed that in our sort of marking suite it would give you the option to record audio. And I thought that this might . . . because you can get a lot more over in the tone of your voice. The nuance might not come through in text. So I’ve started to try, where I can, to offer audio comments on essays. And I’ve also offered audio feedback on my dissertation submissions, and things like that. I think it’s a way to . . . . You can really emphasise what’s actually important. And they can also tell from the tone of your voice if you actually do like something. And you can be a lot more reassuring. Things can come across maybe quite harsh in text forms. So that’s a way, I guess, of trying to incorporate more innovative things in the teaching on the assessment side. How about you two?

TH: Well, from my point of view, having been in this field of research now for ten or fifteen years, I’ve gone through quite a journey of trying to persuade universities that what I do is a really significant thing that is worth having in their department. Because, to start with, people would say, “Well digital seems a bit niche.” So I’d try and present media as a lens onto studying “what really matters” – whatever that might be. Or perhaps considering media, as we’ve been discussing before, as a way of thinking about religion itself, and how religions, worldviews, experiences and practices really work. What’s actually taken me a bit by surprise, over the last year or so, is to realise that actually the research I’ve been doing – as I slightly pejoratively introduced it, way back at the beginning of this podcast – is basically about big clumsy traditional institutions, struggling to adapt and catch up to a media world that they don’t quite understand, but they’re pretty sure that the young people are really into nowadays. That’s basically the story of what I’ve been doing for my whole career. And suddenly I’ve discovered that, joining a university department, that that’s the institution I’ve joined. That’s exactly what they’re doing! The same conversations that I used to study from the Pope writing in 2002, I’ve now got the Vice-Chancellor of my university saying in 2018 – almost word for word, repeating the same arguments. And the digital has gone from being a niche topic that a few people study, to an imposed agenda for our teaching programmes. It is necessary to ensure that students are learning digital skills for the workplace as well as traditional Humanities essay-writing and examination skills. And so, very suddenly, I’ve found that I’m required to attend a hundred and five different committees, and think-tanks, and organisations, all of which will plaintively say, “Well, we feel like we should be doing something digital.” And that’s going to be a rapidly changing environment, which is very interesting to watch. But we’re starting to have university-wide conversations, which are ongoing, about how we ensure that every lecture is recorded, and how we then ensure that everybody watched the videos. And do we then have any data to suggest that watching videos of lectures actually helps students learn? And how do we replace essays with new forms of assessment that might teach some digital skills? And, in that case, is there any way that we could actually teach some digital skills to the teachers? Which is a bit of a problem that is emerging, I think. It’s very easy to say, “All students need to do a video assignment”. But, apart from Suzanne who has a huge advantage from her colleagues at Leeds Trinity, those of us in traditional Theology and Religious Studies departments probably don’t have a colleague who does a lot of video (45:00). So there’s a hope that sometimes comes up in some of those meetings, that “Of course, our students nowadays will have all of these digital skills. So maybe the students could teach some of those digital skills to the lecturers, in order to have them taught back again for assessment?” So there’s not exactly a solution to that at the moment. It’s also a programme that, by its nature, seems to be essentially evolving. Once you’ve decided that your institution will invest heavily in technology, you then need to upgrade all the technology next year – forever. And once you have taught everybody how to use one system, you need to then give them a refresher course on the next system. So in my own teaching, I’m introducing a new assignment that will require students to produce videos or podcasts and reflect on that experience. But there are a lot of technical challenges to doing that. It turns out when everybody in your class has their own video-making device but none of those devices are compatible with the other devices, you can actually spend weeks trying to work out how you actually upload all of those things into the university systems so that they can be stored properly, and assessed through an online marking system, that was not set up to do any of this! There are probably not enough technical support people in the university for every class to have somebody who is full time just reminding the students which cables they need to use to plug their phones into things. So it’s interesting to see . . . It’s nice to study disasters sometimes, as I said at the start. It’s very important.

CC: Yes. You often find that by the time academics are paying attention to something it’s already out of fashion. (Laughs). Right. We’ve talked a lot longer than I intended, but it’s been an excellent discussion. But we’re going to have to wrap it up, for that sake of our poor Listeners and poor transcriber! Thank you all so much for joining me on the Religious Studies Project.

TH: Thank you very much for inviting us.

VA: Thank you.

SO: Thanks for listening!

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, 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.

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/

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.

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.