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The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia

Estonia, the northernmost of the Baltic states, has a reputation of being one of the most secularized countries in Europe. Although the visibility of religion is rising, being ‘not religious’ is still considered normative. Estonia is a context in which notions and debates on religion, atheism, and indifference are interrelated in complex ways with the history of Estonian nationalism, and two foreign religious-secular regimes: German Lutheran and Soviet Atheism. In this interview, Chris and Atko Remmel discuss why the Estonian context is – or should be – interesting to scholars of ‘religion’. What happened during the Soviet era? What about the academic study of religion in Estonia? How did the strong connection between Estonian national identity and ‘atheism’ develop? How does this play out in the contemporary context?

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions’ 2018 conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland, and concludes by looking ahead to the 2019 EASR conference in Tartu, Estonia.

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


The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia

Podcast with Atko Remmel (28 January 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Remmel_-_The_Study_of_Religion_and_National_Identity_in_Estonia_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): The Estonian case in the study of religion is something that we’ve not really talked about very much on the Religious Studies Project. But I am speaking to you right now from the EASR conference in Bern where I’ve been hearing quite a bit about it. I’ve heard some papers, and it was even mentioned quite a bit in one of the keynote lectures yesterday. And so I thought it would be fantastic to get Atko Remmel, who I’ve known for a number of years now, onto the RSP to talk about the Estonian context, the study of religion in Estonia and some of the complex intersections between religion, non-religion, nationalism in this context that’s sort of been dominated historically by two foreign religious secular regimes: the German Lutheran Church and Soviet atheism. So first of all, Atko Remmel, it’s my pleasure to welcome you to the Religious Studies Project.

Atko Remmel (AR): It’s nice to be here. Thank you for having me.

CC: It’s an absolute pleasure. Just to say, Atko is senior researcher in Religious Studies and also a researcher in Cultural Studies at the University of Tartu in Estonia. And his work discusses religion, religious indifference, national identity and more, in Estonia, which is set as I’ve indicated, to be one of the most secularised countries in Europe. He has a number of publications in this broad area, including one called “Religion Interrupted: Observations on Religious Indifference in Estonia“, which is in a book, in which I and a number of RSP friends have chapters, that’s called Religious Indifference: New Perspectives from Studies on Secularisation and Non-religion, edited by Johannes Quack and Kora Schuh. And Atko is also the PI on one of the Understanding Unbelief projects, looking at Estonia. But we’ll not be talking too much about that just today. So, many of our Listeners out there may never have really thought much about the Estonian context at all. So, perhaps the way to start would be a broad introduction to Estonia, I guess, in relation to religion. A potted history! Away you go!

AR: Well, Estonia is a small country, by the Baltic Sea – one of the northern-most Baltic countries. And yes, it’s known for its very far-reaching secularisation.

CC: Yes. So we’ll be talking a lot about that in a moment, but the study of religion in Estonia: is that something relatively new – like Religious Studies, at an academic institution?

AR: Well actually, no. But to answer this question we have to look back into history. So, during the Soviet Union the only possibility to study religion was within the framework of Scientific Atheism. And another possibility was Folkloristics, where folk beliefs were studied as a part of national heritage. And after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Scientific Atheism of course faded away. And the Study of Religion was newly established under the label of Theology which, in Estonia, is an umbrella term for both Theology and the Study of Religion. And this, I would say, in the early days was more influenced by theological thinking. But in the last decade it has moved towards the Study of Religion. And the focus is on religious change, new religious movements, but mostly it’s still about Christian churches and their relationship to the state. And apart from that, religion is still studied under the discipline of Folkloristics, which in the Estonian context is another umbrella term that covers anthropology, ethnology, ethnography, but also folkloristics in its traditional sense. Since Estonia is in a bit better position than other Finno-Ugric nations that were incorporated into the Soviet Union, my colleagues have a keen interest towards their religious situation, language and so on.

CC: And of course, we’ll be hearing at the end of the interview, I hope, about a certain conference that’s going to be happening in Estonia, hosted by the Estonia Association. So it’s clearly been something that’s developing there. You mentioned the Soviet times there, and I suppose anything that we’re going to talk about in the rest of this interview will probably require a bit of historical contextualisation. So the stereotype we have is obviously (5:00) Soviets were not a massive fan of religion – suppression – end of Soviet time – maybe some sort of resurgence. But let’s . . . . Give me an actual picture.

AR: Well, it’s correct that the usual understanding of Soviet anti-religious policy is understood as something monolithic that was uniform from the start to the end. But actually, there were quite big changes in religious policy. And in some periods it was harsher, and other times less harsh. And after the Second World War, during Stalin‘s reign, the question of religion was sort-of secondary. But it changed radically under Nikita Khrushchev, who initiated an anti-religious campaign that lasted from 1958 until 1964. And in Estonia this policy had three main directions: the first one was so-called administration of the churches, which meant that different kind of legislative restrictions and direct control over the inner life of Churches; the second one was ethics propaganda for newspapers and lectures; and the third one was the development of Soviet secular rituals, to substitute religious rituals. And I would say that this administration and secular rituals were most effective. And as a result they manged to create an interruption in religious tradition, and to get rid of religion from public space. This, of course, didn’t mean that they managed to turn people into atheists. And, apart from the years of the Khrushchev anti-religious drive, atheist propaganda was actually not very visible. And atheism was one of so-called “red” subjects closely associated with the hated Soviet ideology. And also the level of atheist propaganda was quite low. And therefore it didn’t appeal to people. And so the result was widespread indifference both towards religion and atheism – like a sort of ideological vacuum, which was filled with all kinds of things when the Soviet Union finally collapsed. And this actually explains why Estonians, while considering themselves not religious, have a plethora of different beliefs and practices and so on, which are usually – in student terms – alternative spiritualties.

CC: Excellent. Thanks for that. This might be putting you on the spot a little bit. But, just for those of our Listeners who aren’t familiar with the dates, could you maybe give us the key dates in the 20th century, in Estonian history?

AR: In Estonian history . . . . Well, Estonia was at first occupied by Soviet forces in 1940, then again in 1944, then Joseph Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev was pushed aside in 1964, and then finally the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

CC: Fantastic. I just wanted to make sure that we got that in there. I guess if our Listeners have seen “The Death of Stalin” they might be familiar with Khrushchev.

AR: Yes.

CC: Excellent. So you’ve already alluded, there, to the suppression of religion and how this, maybe, largely succeeded in the public space. But a lot of your work, then, has been focussing upon contemporary surveys, and how effective this might have been on individual lives. So, let’s get specifically into your own research. You might just want to tell us a little bit about your research journey – the kind of questions that you’ve been asking – and then, what it can tell us about religious indifference, non-religion. And then we’ll get onto this national identity element, as well.

AR: Well . . . long story short. I started out as a historian and my PhD thesis was on the institutions that were involved in Soviet anti-religious policy. It was mainly archival work. And by the time it was finished, in 2011, then the research on non-religion was already booming. (10:00) And then I got interested in how this Soviet background influences contemporary Estonian society. And by that time Estonians had already discovered this forgotten link between atheism and Estonian national identity. So for the last 4-5 years I have tried to keep a track on what’s happening in Estonian society, in connection with religion and non-religiosity. And I’m currently involved in several projects that touch these subjects. And one of them is on the Relocation of the Sacred around the Baltic Sea, which is led by my good colleague from Sweden, David Thurfjell. And it deals with the relationship between secularisation and nature spirituality. Another approach, which you already mentioned, was this Understanding Unbelief. And, in addition, we are – together with colleagues from the Czech Republic – we are compiling an edited volume with a preliminary title: Atheism and Freethinking in Central and Eastern Europe, which focusses on the twentieth and twenty-first century. And it’s a combination of historical and sociological approaches. And, hopefully, will be the first comprehensive overview of the development of current states of secular developments in that region.

CC: Fantastic. So how about we dive right into it, then? One of my favourite anecdotes from your presentation yesterday – and this might serve as a useful starter – was when the survey question, “Should the churches modernise?” was being asked. And people who were religious, people who were non-religious were maybe ticking agree, slightly agree, don’t have any opinion, vastly disagree. All over the place. And when you actually got to your qualitative work, the story was, “Should the churches modernise? Should they have electricity? Should they have Wi-Fi?” So, even the vocabulary of the questions were sort-of indicating what you might describe as secularisation of language.

AR: Yes.

CC: So, maybe that’s a way into the conversation?

AR: Yes, well. This religious gap, or this era of indifference, it’s really interesting how it has influenced society. And one of my research interests is the language my informants use, and I have identified some really interesting features. And one of them is that words or terms, religious terms, they have very negative connotations. One of the most loaded words is probably, “believer”. That has an association with mental abnormality or ignorance. And this is of course one of the successes of atheist propaganda. And I also have heard from my Russian colleagues, when they interview people and ask, “Are you a believer?” The response was “No, I’m normal.”

CC: (Laughs).

AR: And another thing – that you mentioned – is religious illiteracy. And also this secularisation of language. So this religious illiteracy: since religion in Estonian Society has had really low visibility, people sort-of don’t recognise the appearances of it. And they also are unable to express their thoughts about religion because of the lack of knowledge. And there is a really interesting story. In Turto there is a Marian Church that was turned into a gym during the Soviet era. And the bell tower was demolished and so on. But it still had the very specific features of a sacral building, like large arched windows and so on. I heard from my informants that when they were children, during the Soviet period, that when this building was finally given back to the congregation and turned into a sacral building again, they were really surprised when they learned that it was actually a church building! So we can call it a “religious blindness”, or something like that. And secularisation of language is the third interesting feature which I have found. It’s actually not so much secularisation. (15:00) It’s more like de-Christianisation: when religious terms have run dry of their Christian context. This example of church is sort of a text-book example. Where church is understood only as a building, not an organisation, or a group of people. So it can create a lot of confusion. So, yes. And then I got interested in that, because I had a hunch that non-religious people might not understand the questions in the surveys in the way they were meant to. And to some extent it seems to be true. And also it seems to be true that many questions asked in the surveys just prompt the answers, and have no relevance to people before and after that. So I’m a bit hesitant how meaningful this collected data is. And, of course, it’s always a problem but it can have much more serious results in a context where religious illiteracy is more widespread.

CC: Absolutely. It might help if we get some percentages here. I know that you had them in your presentation. You mightn’t have them to hand. But in certain surveys it’s quite an extraordinarily high number of, we might say, atheists – you might say non-identifiers, depending what the survey is. But then, on this national identity front, I notice that there was a large population of Russian Orthodox in Estonia. And so, maybe you could comment on the sort of connection between – I don’t know – Estonia, and atheism, and Russian Orthodoxy as it plays out?

AR: Yes. The point seems to be that orthodoxy is much stickier than Lutheranism. And the story with Estonians is that one of the things is the Estonian national narrative, which is a construct from 19th century, and tells a story about the Estonians’ everlasting fight for freedom. And there are two types of national narratives. One is the Golden past, another is the Promised Land. And Estonian one is the Golden Past type. But, usually, this Golden Past refers to the time where the country was very powerful, great kings and so on. But in the Estonian case this Golden Past is located into pre-Christian times. And Christianity is sort-of seen as responsible for its demise. And another thing is this connection between Estonian nationality and atheism. And it’s a really interesting story. But it has actually very little to do with believing or not believing in the existence of God, and rather it started out as an ethnic conflict. So the background is that Estonians were Christianised in the 13th century, during the Northern Crusades. And after that they were ruled by different other nations, until the 20th century. And this 19th century Romanticism resulted in the rise of Estonian national consciousness. And by that time, Estonia was incorporated to the Russian Empire, but Estonians were ruled by a Baltic German upper class. So most of the clergy was also German. So the Church was not perceived as Estonian, but more like German. Now, in 1905 there was a revolution in Russian Empire, and in Estonia as well. But in Estonia it took a sort-of nationalist form, so it was a fight for national autonomy. And the revolution was soon crushed and punitive squads started to do their work. And many people were executed. And then many Estonians accused German pastors that they didn’t protect their parish members, and rather collaborated with the troops. And, as a result, many Estonians didn’t go to Church any more. And, in return, Baltic Germans accused Estonians of atheism. And during the Soviet era, atheist propaganda, of course, made good use of both motives. (20:00) And then it created a new story of Estonians as historically being very sceptical towards religion, or being a religiously lukewarm nation. So in 2005 the Eurobarometer survey was published, and that revealed that only 16% of Estonians believe in a personal God. And all this information was happily put together. And Estonians started to understand themselves as the least religious – or most atheistic – country in the world, despite the fact that the survey covered only Europe!

CC: (Laughs).

AR: However, Estonians are actually not the only ones with this claim, and similar motives are present also in the Czech Republic, in Denmark, in Sweden, and in the Netherlands. So I question which country will be the least religious or most atheistic. It’s probably going to be a new Olympic Games discipline or something like that!

CC: Yes! And I wonder what the prize will be?

AR: (Laughs). God!

CC: You also had a leaflet in your presentation that said, “If you are an Estonian. . .” and listed a few things. It said ,“you do not believe in God . . . unless it’s Eurovision!” (Laughs).

AR: Right!

CC: Now I’ve only really got one more question before we talk about that important conference. But presumably, this isn’t getting the whole picture. You were showing a lot of nuance yesterday, and a lot of the beliefs and practices that these so-called non-believers, non-identifiers subscribe to. So maybe you could add a bit more nuance to this contemporary situation?

AR: Well, I will say that when we are talking about non- believers or atheists, then it basically boils down . . . that means that we are taking their identity as primary indicator, when we are talking in this way. Then, of course, the meaning of atheism in the Estonian case is sort-of different than in the Western context. It doesn’t mean the explicit denial of God, or something like that. Rather it refers to just not being Christian. And since atheism is the only known secular tradition in the Estonian context it has a very, very wide meaning.

CC: Excellent. So we are at about 25 minutes, which is a perfect time for me to just say that obviously we’re recording at the EASR in Bern, in Switzerland. But the 2019 EASR is in Tartu in Estonia. So perhaps you could maybe sell the conference a little bit? Just in terms of why might people want to come? But also, you could give us a hint of the intellectual thrust of the conference.

AR: The topic of the conference is “Religion: Continuations and Disruptions”. And, you know, conferences are very much like birthday parties. When you like the people, then you go! And at the same time they are like sort of style parties. And the topic gives the debates this general direction. So this topic was, of course, inspired by Eastern European recent history – which is actually a continuation of different disruptions. And this notion applies to religion as well. And religion and the understanding of religion is constantly changing. So we thought that it would give a good direction for our style party, to become fruitful basis for discussing whatever changes occur in regard to religion. But other than that, Tartu is just a very lovely town. And by the way, our restaurant street is just 50 metres from the conference venue! And for the conference party we have a place called Gunpowder Cellar, which is really an old gunpowder cellar that is turned into a restaurant and claims to be a pub with the highest ceiling in the world. Which is around 11 metres.

CC: So, the highest ceiling in the world and the lowest religiosity in the world!

AR: (Laughs). Exactly! They go together, hand-in-hand!

CC: Fantastic! One final question. (25:00) This conference that we’re at right now, the theme is “Multiple Religious Identities.” So, maybe, just a final thought from you on how the Estonian context and that conference theme of multiple religious identities maybe speak to each other? Or not?

AR: Of course they speak to each other: they are both religion-related. But, of course, there are continuations of religious identities, and all this overlapping and constant changing. So I would say this: our conference in Tartu will be a mental continuation of this topic here.

CC: Excellent! Well, Listeners, if you want to continue with a mental continuation, in about a year’s time we should have a number of podcasts from Tartu for you! But, for now, thanks for that really expansive, but also quite specific, teaser for the situation in Estonia and for your own research. So do check out Atko’s profile. And thank you very much!

AR: Thank you!


Citation Info: Remmel, Atko and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 28 January 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 October 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-study-of-religion-and-national-identity-in-estonia/

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Social Hostility toward Religion: Politicization of Religion? An expression of nationalism? A combination of both?

In his interview with Dr. Katayoun Kishi, interviewer Benjamin P. Marcus posed a question about a likely relationship between government restrictions and social hostilities. Dr. Kishi responded that although there were instances of positive correlation between the two variables, but the data were inconclusive.  In 2017, I wrote a paper with Abdalla Sirag, Ratneswary Rasiah, and Muzafar Shah Habibullah on the relationship between government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion. The study was motivated by the rising global religious oppression in Europe. Our investigation was about whether government restrictions fueled societal hostilities or vice versa. So in reply to Benjamin’s question, our finding, based on 45 European nations, showed a bi-directional positive causality between government restrictions and social hostility. However, the impact of government restrictions on social hostilities was greater in magnitude compared to the impact of social hostilities on government restrictions. In conclusion, we cautioned nations that their restrictive roles could be instrumental in inciting social hostilities.

Countries with very high government restrictions on religionDr. Kishi mentioned that countries in the categories of very high and high for government restrictions rose from 25% in 2015 to 28% in 2016. That’s a 3% increase in just one year. Indeed alarming. But a more pertinent question is: what is triggering  governments to adopt a restrictive stance? The latest report by Pew Research Centre (2018) on religious restrictions flagged the prevalence of  a nationalist agenda as a contributing factor, especially in Europe. An article by the  BBC on Europe and nationalism highlights that nationalist and far-right parties are securing electoral gains by advocating causes such as migrant crisis and growing influence of Islam in Europe. The nationalist and far-right parties are championing the idea of national identity and curbing the rising influence of Islam. Those in European society in alignment with these views are voting into power political parties promising to implement nationalistic policies.

On reflection, an interesting observation emerges: although the migrant crisis and influence of Islam are expressed as two separate concerns, they share a common denominator: the migrants are mainly Muslims. A question that we need to ask is whether the nationalist and far-right parties would enjoy similar support if the migrants were non-Muslims. I would like to argue that what is guised as loss of national identity is, in reality, concern regarding the rising influence of Islam. The fear seems to be that the Muslim migrants do not assimilate into the local culture or, worse still, impose their beliefs and practices on their host. This then gives rise to the notion of dilution of nationality, hijacking of the local culture, and fear of it been replaced by alien practices and beliefs–a worrying prospect for many that needs assuaging, no doubt.

 

Countries with very high social hostilities involving religionRising fear of being “replaced” among voters brings me to my earlier question: what is triggering governments to adopt a restrictive religious stance? It appears as if the political parties feel they need to put religious restrictions in place to assuage the growing fear among the masses. Even political parties not aligned to the far-right views feel coerced to take a hardliner stand to appease the worrying public. An example is Austria, where the left-wing Social Democrats and the conservative Austrian People’s Party Austria coalition implemented the ban on full-face veils in public, a measure seen necessary to counter the rise of the far-right Freedom Party. Summarizing the proposition above, we can state that the fear of rising influence of Islam has spurred the spirit of nationalism. The argument is that society concerned with the changes in the demographics of their society have voted into power, political parties that would be able to deliver a more nationalistic agenda, providing the impetus for governments in Europe to adopt a more restrictive stance.

How valid is this argument? I would like to present an alternative point of view: Politicization of Religion. This is where religious differences are used to create dissent, which is then instrumentalized for political gains. Remembering that it is government restrictions that fuel social hostilities rather than the other way around, we must ask whether the waves of discontent expressed by society arises organically through a reflective process or, in contrast, if these are orchestrated by political parties hoping to gain mileage by overplaying isolated incidents linked to certain religious communities. For example, as Valery Engel, the director of the European International Tolerance Center reports, “In Hungary and Poland, the government actively used the migration crisis to stir up fear toward migrants and Muslims among ordinary voters, seizing the initiative from the radicals. As a result, in 2016, the Poles and Hungarians demonstrated the highest indicators of fear of migrants and hatred of Muslims in Europe.”  A satisfactory answer to the question on whether the phenomena that we observe arises from politicization of religion or an expression of nationalism or a combination of both is only possible through further research.

Encounters Between Buddhism and the West

previously been interviewed for the RSP.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Britain still a Christian country?

When scholars involved in the social scientific study of ‘religion’ encounter claims concerning ‘religious identity’ – of states, groups or individuals – a number of questions immediately spring to mind. UK Prime Minster David Cameron’s controversy-inducing statement around Easter 2014 that Britain is ‘a Christian country’ is a perfect example of how an apparently simple statement is actually highly ambiguous and can potentially mask a host of powerful ideological concerns.

What does Cameron’s statement actually mean? In what sense can a country be “Christian”? Today on the Religious Studies Project, we welcome back Professor Linda Woodhead to discuss and interrogate the question “Is Britain Still a Christian Country?”, the topic of her recent Croall Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.

The Secularization Thesis. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, British cookbooks, cakes, model railways and more.

The Gamrie Brethren: At the Heart of Cosmic Struggle and the Fringes of the Imagined Community

In the RSP’s interview with Joe Webster, listeners are treated to rich ethnographic data which reveal how an immediate ‘local’ context is embedded in ‘global’ processes and networks. Webster conducted his fieldwork in the fishing village of Gardenstown or ‘Gamrie’ in Aberdeenshire, in the north-east of Scotland. Its population are notable for the concentration of followers of offshoots of the movement known as the ‘Plymouth Brethren’, or simply ‘Brethren’[1].

Both the local context and the Brethren movement generally are far from my areas of expertise, my own research concerns the contemporary relationship between ‘religious’ (including ‘non-religious’) affiliations and various constructions of ‘Scottish national identity’. In this regard I hope I can at least place Webster’s research in the wider social and historical context, the ‘national level’ alongside the ‘local’ and ‘global’ ones.

If one considers the question of how the Gamrie Brethren ‘fit into’ the wider picture of religion in Scotland, they would not appear to ‘fit’ at all. According to the latest census, conducted in 2011, only 54% of respondents identified as ‘Christian’, 16% identifying as ‘Roman Catholic’[2], and of the majority of this Christian population who could be classified as ‘Protestant’, it is difficult to gauge how many would have much in common with the Brethren – I suspect relatively few. This is novel for a country with an immensely long and complicated Christian history and which was long associated with staunch Protestantism.

While Scotland does possess an official national Church (the Church of Scotland), it could be quite accurately described as for the most part highly secularised. Along with this, religious pluralism has become part of the system of norms inculcated in Scottish civil society, despite the comparatively low numbers of non-Christian religious minorities.

In many ways this image of Scotland as secular and pluralist is that which many contemporary Scots project, a reflection both of their norms and experiences. As Benedict Anderson argued, nations are imagined communities, though the community that is imagined can vary immensely over time and in the present[3].

While much of Scotland’s romantic symbolism may be derived from the Highlands and many areas have contributed to the Scottish imagination, arguably the dominant perspective is that of the ‘central belt’. That is the area of the country dominated by its two biggest cities – Edinburgh and Glasgow; the centres of politics, business, the media, and, to large extent, ‘national’ religious institutions. Notably these cities have high concentrations of ‘non-religious’ people and are more religiously plural, meaning that a city-dweller may be more likely to attend a local Diwali celebration than a Gamrie Brethren service. As Anderson argued, ‘members’ of nations could never hope to personally interact with all who claim or are claimed to be members of the nation, which can help smooth over differences and affect the imaginative process[4].

However this does not mean that the Gamrie Brethren are necessarily representative of ‘traditional’ Scottish religion either. The movement was founded in Plymouth by an Irish medical student and would have to be implanted in this local Scottish soil. I cannot help but share the intuitive reaction of the interviewer (David Robertson) in being struck by the sense in which the movement and its religious practices appear more stereotypically ‘American’ to myself as someone raised in Scotland, than stereotypical of rural Scotland. The calls to emotional testimony of personal experience certainly do not fit the dour Calvinism stereotype of Scottish religion. Alive and well, living in Aberdeenshire and speaking Doric[5] it is though–regardless of how well it fits some preconceived image.

This cautions us against treating rural religion as an unbroken ‘survival’ of a bygone age; at the very least the Brethren could not have come to Gamrie earlier than 1831 when the movement was founded, and I would expect a much later date. Regardless, the Brethren have clearly been able to fundamentally shape life in the village down to the level of everyday interaction, and it is notable that the local branch of the ‘national’ Church has been moulded into the local ‘Brethren’ image.

Nonetheless, their case is not as atypical as it might first appear.  Without intending to essentialise, such cases have a long history in Scotland. Much of northern Scotland, especially, is rugged and rural and perhaps encourages the development of pockets of concentrated difference from the norms disseminated from the centre. When Presbyterian Calvinism was ascendant in the south, much of the north was Episcopalian with pockets of Roman Catholicism. Radical Calvinistic Presbyterianism began to take root in parts of the Highlands and continued to thrive when it began to fall from favour in the south, etc.

Webster related how the Brethren’s religious practices have led many of them to utilise Christian media, much of which is based in the US. Steve Bruce has argued that religious conservatives in Scotland did not develop the kind of alternative networks set up by their US counterparts because they were simply oblivious to the changes going on underneath their feet[6]. Nonetheless, clearly, expanding global communications have allowed the Gamrie Brethren to take advantage of such networks, which, in turn, inform the local context.

This religious context may be rural and divergent from the current Scottish norm (in both senses of the word) but this does not make it a product of isolation, and, in fact, appears to be as caught up in wider developments as central belt secularism. However, these global links clearly attain specific local significance. Webster’s informants not only see the power of God and the Devil working in their daily lives but also in the political relationship between the fishing communities of the north-east and the European Union.

Over the course of the interview, the question of how the Gamrie Brethren view themselves in relation to Scottish national identity and modern Scottish society was never broached as such. One would certainly not want to presume that it is significant at all; the local setting and transnational Evangelical networks may be of much greater significance. Webster has indicated that religious decline did not appear to trouble his informants who viewed it as indicative of end times. Scottish secularism may be viewed in similar terms. They may draw comfort and significance from the history of Scottish Protestantism, its leading figures such as John Knox and the Covenanter rebels, as many Scots did and still do. The advantage of a long and untidy history is there are plenty of ‘Scotlands’ to choose from. Clearly dealing with the religious landscape of the country in the present offers up no less diversity.

Bibliography

Anderson, B. Imagined Communities (2006) London: Verso

Bowker, J. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997) Oxford: Oxford University Press

Broun, D., Finlay, R.J. and Lynch, M. (eds.) Image and Identity: The Making of Scotland through the Ages (1998) Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd

Brown, C. Religion and Society in Scotland since 1707 (1997) Edinburgh University Press

Bruce, S. No Pope of Rome: Anti-Catholicism in Modern Scotland (1985) Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing

Devine, T.M. The History of the Scottish Nation 1700-2000 (2000) London: Penguin Books Ltd.

National Records of Scotland 2011 Census: Key results on Population, Ethnicity, Identity, Language, Religion, Health, Housing and Accommodation in Scotland – Release 2A (2013) Crown Copyright 2013

[1] C.f. “Plymouth Brethren” in Bowker, J. (ed). Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997) Oxford: Oxford University Press: p756

[2] National Records of Scotland 2011 Census: Key results on Population, Ethnicity, Identity, Language, Religion, Health, Housing and Accommodation in Scotland – Release 2A (2013) Crown Copyright 2013: p5

[3] Anderson, B Imagined Communities (2006) London: Verso: p5-6

[4] ibid

[5] ‘Doric’ is the name of the highly specific form of Scots or Lallans spoken in the region.

[6] Bruce, S No Pope of Rome: Anti-Catholicism in Modern Scotland (1985) Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing: p216

 

Belief, Belonging, and Academic Careers

Almost twenty years ago, Grace Davie observed that despite plenty of studies into the ‘exotic edges’ of religion, ‘the picture in the middle remains remarkably blurred’. Seeking to address this imbalance and engage with the ‘beliefs of ordinary British people in everyday life’, Abby Day‘s recent book, Believing in Belonging (the first topic for this interview), builds upon her doctoral and later postdoctoral fieldwork, beginning within small communities in Yorkshire, and extending to a number of modern industrialised nations.

in this interview with Chris, recorded at the 2013 BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference at Durham University, Day introduces listeners to the concept of ‘belief’ and sets out her own inductive approach, using semi-structured interviews, whereby definitions were allowed to arise from the field. Her central thesis acts as a focal point for a wide-ranging and insightful discussion on a variety of topics from nationalism and secularisation, to the usefulness of censuses as tools for measuring ‘religion’, to gender and belief in destiny. These themes are also picked up and developed in a recent volume published by Ashgate – Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular – which was co-edited by Abby, Chris, and Giselle Vincett.

Wearing one of her other hats, Abby also presents regularly on how to build an academic career, win research funding, and get articles published, and has published the books academic publishing and building an academic career.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc.

Podcasts

The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia

Estonia, the northernmost of the Baltic states, has a reputation of being one of the most secularized countries in Europe. Although the visibility of religion is rising, being ‘not religious’ is still considered normative. Estonia is a context in which notions and debates on religion, atheism, and indifference are interrelated in complex ways with the history of Estonian nationalism, and two foreign religious-secular regimes: German Lutheran and Soviet Atheism. In this interview, Chris and Atko Remmel discuss why the Estonian context is – or should be – interesting to scholars of ‘religion’. What happened during the Soviet era? What about the academic study of religion in Estonia? How did the strong connection between Estonian national identity and ‘atheism’ develop? How does this play out in the contemporary context?

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions’ 2018 conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland, and concludes by looking ahead to the 2019 EASR conference in Tartu, Estonia.

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


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


The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia

Podcast with Atko Remmel (28 January 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Remmel_-_The_Study_of_Religion_and_National_Identity_in_Estonia_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): The Estonian case in the study of religion is something that we’ve not really talked about very much on the Religious Studies Project. But I am speaking to you right now from the EASR conference in Bern where I’ve been hearing quite a bit about it. I’ve heard some papers, and it was even mentioned quite a bit in one of the keynote lectures yesterday. And so I thought it would be fantastic to get Atko Remmel, who I’ve known for a number of years now, onto the RSP to talk about the Estonian context, the study of religion in Estonia and some of the complex intersections between religion, non-religion, nationalism in this context that’s sort of been dominated historically by two foreign religious secular regimes: the German Lutheran Church and Soviet atheism. So first of all, Atko Remmel, it’s my pleasure to welcome you to the Religious Studies Project.

Atko Remmel (AR): It’s nice to be here. Thank you for having me.

CC: It’s an absolute pleasure. Just to say, Atko is senior researcher in Religious Studies and also a researcher in Cultural Studies at the University of Tartu in Estonia. And his work discusses religion, religious indifference, national identity and more, in Estonia, which is set as I’ve indicated, to be one of the most secularised countries in Europe. He has a number of publications in this broad area, including one called “Religion Interrupted: Observations on Religious Indifference in Estonia“, which is in a book, in which I and a number of RSP friends have chapters, that’s called Religious Indifference: New Perspectives from Studies on Secularisation and Non-religion, edited by Johannes Quack and Kora Schuh. And Atko is also the PI on one of the Understanding Unbelief projects, looking at Estonia. But we’ll not be talking too much about that just today. So, many of our Listeners out there may never have really thought much about the Estonian context at all. So, perhaps the way to start would be a broad introduction to Estonia, I guess, in relation to religion. A potted history! Away you go!

AR: Well, Estonia is a small country, by the Baltic Sea – one of the northern-most Baltic countries. And yes, it’s known for its very far-reaching secularisation.

CC: Yes. So we’ll be talking a lot about that in a moment, but the study of religion in Estonia: is that something relatively new – like Religious Studies, at an academic institution?

AR: Well actually, no. But to answer this question we have to look back into history. So, during the Soviet Union the only possibility to study religion was within the framework of Scientific Atheism. And another possibility was Folkloristics, where folk beliefs were studied as a part of national heritage. And after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Scientific Atheism of course faded away. And the Study of Religion was newly established under the label of Theology which, in Estonia, is an umbrella term for both Theology and the Study of Religion. And this, I would say, in the early days was more influenced by theological thinking. But in the last decade it has moved towards the Study of Religion. And the focus is on religious change, new religious movements, but mostly it’s still about Christian churches and their relationship to the state. And apart from that, religion is still studied under the discipline of Folkloristics, which in the Estonian context is another umbrella term that covers anthropology, ethnology, ethnography, but also folkloristics in its traditional sense. Since Estonia is in a bit better position than other Finno-Ugric nations that were incorporated into the Soviet Union, my colleagues have a keen interest towards their religious situation, language and so on.

CC: And of course, we’ll be hearing at the end of the interview, I hope, about a certain conference that’s going to be happening in Estonia, hosted by the Estonia Association. So it’s clearly been something that’s developing there. You mentioned the Soviet times there, and I suppose anything that we’re going to talk about in the rest of this interview will probably require a bit of historical contextualisation. So the stereotype we have is obviously (5:00) Soviets were not a massive fan of religion – suppression – end of Soviet time – maybe some sort of resurgence. But let’s . . . . Give me an actual picture.

AR: Well, it’s correct that the usual understanding of Soviet anti-religious policy is understood as something monolithic that was uniform from the start to the end. But actually, there were quite big changes in religious policy. And in some periods it was harsher, and other times less harsh. And after the Second World War, during Stalin‘s reign, the question of religion was sort-of secondary. But it changed radically under Nikita Khrushchev, who initiated an anti-religious campaign that lasted from 1958 until 1964. And in Estonia this policy had three main directions: the first one was so-called administration of the churches, which meant that different kind of legislative restrictions and direct control over the inner life of Churches; the second one was ethics propaganda for newspapers and lectures; and the third one was the development of Soviet secular rituals, to substitute religious rituals. And I would say that this administration and secular rituals were most effective. And as a result they manged to create an interruption in religious tradition, and to get rid of religion from public space. This, of course, didn’t mean that they managed to turn people into atheists. And, apart from the years of the Khrushchev anti-religious drive, atheist propaganda was actually not very visible. And atheism was one of so-called “red” subjects closely associated with the hated Soviet ideology. And also the level of atheist propaganda was quite low. And therefore it didn’t appeal to people. And so the result was widespread indifference both towards religion and atheism – like a sort of ideological vacuum, which was filled with all kinds of things when the Soviet Union finally collapsed. And this actually explains why Estonians, while considering themselves not religious, have a plethora of different beliefs and practices and so on, which are usually – in student terms – alternative spiritualties.

CC: Excellent. Thanks for that. This might be putting you on the spot a little bit. But, just for those of our Listeners who aren’t familiar with the dates, could you maybe give us the key dates in the 20th century, in Estonian history?

AR: In Estonian history . . . . Well, Estonia was at first occupied by Soviet forces in 1940, then again in 1944, then Joseph Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev was pushed aside in 1964, and then finally the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

CC: Fantastic. I just wanted to make sure that we got that in there. I guess if our Listeners have seen “The Death of Stalin” they might be familiar with Khrushchev.

AR: Yes.

CC: Excellent. So you’ve already alluded, there, to the suppression of religion and how this, maybe, largely succeeded in the public space. But a lot of your work, then, has been focussing upon contemporary surveys, and how effective this might have been on individual lives. So, let’s get specifically into your own research. You might just want to tell us a little bit about your research journey – the kind of questions that you’ve been asking – and then, what it can tell us about religious indifference, non-religion. And then we’ll get onto this national identity element, as well.

AR: Well . . . long story short. I started out as a historian and my PhD thesis was on the institutions that were involved in Soviet anti-religious policy. It was mainly archival work. And by the time it was finished, in 2011, then the research on non-religion was already booming. (10:00) And then I got interested in how this Soviet background influences contemporary Estonian society. And by that time Estonians had already discovered this forgotten link between atheism and Estonian national identity. So for the last 4-5 years I have tried to keep a track on what’s happening in Estonian society, in connection with religion and non-religiosity. And I’m currently involved in several projects that touch these subjects. And one of them is on the Relocation of the Sacred around the Baltic Sea, which is led by my good colleague from Sweden, David Thurfjell. And it deals with the relationship between secularisation and nature spirituality. Another approach, which you already mentioned, was this Understanding Unbelief. And, in addition, we are – together with colleagues from the Czech Republic – we are compiling an edited volume with a preliminary title: Atheism and Freethinking in Central and Eastern Europe, which focusses on the twentieth and twenty-first century. And it’s a combination of historical and sociological approaches. And, hopefully, will be the first comprehensive overview of the development of current states of secular developments in that region.

CC: Fantastic. So how about we dive right into it, then? One of my favourite anecdotes from your presentation yesterday – and this might serve as a useful starter – was when the survey question, “Should the churches modernise?” was being asked. And people who were religious, people who were non-religious were maybe ticking agree, slightly agree, don’t have any opinion, vastly disagree. All over the place. And when you actually got to your qualitative work, the story was, “Should the churches modernise? Should they have electricity? Should they have Wi-Fi?” So, even the vocabulary of the questions were sort-of indicating what you might describe as secularisation of language.

AR: Yes.

CC: So, maybe that’s a way into the conversation?

AR: Yes, well. This religious gap, or this era of indifference, it’s really interesting how it has influenced society. And one of my research interests is the language my informants use, and I have identified some really interesting features. And one of them is that words or terms, religious terms, they have very negative connotations. One of the most loaded words is probably, “believer”. That has an association with mental abnormality or ignorance. And this is of course one of the successes of atheist propaganda. And I also have heard from my Russian colleagues, when they interview people and ask, “Are you a believer?” The response was “No, I’m normal.”

CC: (Laughs).

AR: And another thing – that you mentioned – is religious illiteracy. And also this secularisation of language. So this religious illiteracy: since religion in Estonian Society has had really low visibility, people sort-of don’t recognise the appearances of it. And they also are unable to express their thoughts about religion because of the lack of knowledge. And there is a really interesting story. In Turto there is a Marian Church that was turned into a gym during the Soviet era. And the bell tower was demolished and so on. But it still had the very specific features of a sacral building, like large arched windows and so on. I heard from my informants that when they were children, during the Soviet period, that when this building was finally given back to the congregation and turned into a sacral building again, they were really surprised when they learned that it was actually a church building! So we can call it a “religious blindness”, or something like that. And secularisation of language is the third interesting feature which I have found. It’s actually not so much secularisation. (15:00) It’s more like de-Christianisation: when religious terms have run dry of their Christian context. This example of church is sort of a text-book example. Where church is understood only as a building, not an organisation, or a group of people. So it can create a lot of confusion. So, yes. And then I got interested in that, because I had a hunch that non-religious people might not understand the questions in the surveys in the way they were meant to. And to some extent it seems to be true. And also it seems to be true that many questions asked in the surveys just prompt the answers, and have no relevance to people before and after that. So I’m a bit hesitant how meaningful this collected data is. And, of course, it’s always a problem but it can have much more serious results in a context where religious illiteracy is more widespread.

CC: Absolutely. It might help if we get some percentages here. I know that you had them in your presentation. You mightn’t have them to hand. But in certain surveys it’s quite an extraordinarily high number of, we might say, atheists – you might say non-identifiers, depending what the survey is. But then, on this national identity front, I notice that there was a large population of Russian Orthodox in Estonia. And so, maybe you could comment on the sort of connection between – I don’t know – Estonia, and atheism, and Russian Orthodoxy as it plays out?

AR: Yes. The point seems to be that orthodoxy is much stickier than Lutheranism. And the story with Estonians is that one of the things is the Estonian national narrative, which is a construct from 19th century, and tells a story about the Estonians’ everlasting fight for freedom. And there are two types of national narratives. One is the Golden past, another is the Promised Land. And Estonian one is the Golden Past type. But, usually, this Golden Past refers to the time where the country was very powerful, great kings and so on. But in the Estonian case this Golden Past is located into pre-Christian times. And Christianity is sort-of seen as responsible for its demise. And another thing is this connection between Estonian nationality and atheism. And it’s a really interesting story. But it has actually very little to do with believing or not believing in the existence of God, and rather it started out as an ethnic conflict. So the background is that Estonians were Christianised in the 13th century, during the Northern Crusades. And after that they were ruled by different other nations, until the 20th century. And this 19th century Romanticism resulted in the rise of Estonian national consciousness. And by that time, Estonia was incorporated to the Russian Empire, but Estonians were ruled by a Baltic German upper class. So most of the clergy was also German. So the Church was not perceived as Estonian, but more like German. Now, in 1905 there was a revolution in Russian Empire, and in Estonia as well. But in Estonia it took a sort-of nationalist form, so it was a fight for national autonomy. And the revolution was soon crushed and punitive squads started to do their work. And many people were executed. And then many Estonians accused German pastors that they didn’t protect their parish members, and rather collaborated with the troops. And, as a result, many Estonians didn’t go to Church any more. And, in return, Baltic Germans accused Estonians of atheism. And during the Soviet era, atheist propaganda, of course, made good use of both motives. (20:00) And then it created a new story of Estonians as historically being very sceptical towards religion, or being a religiously lukewarm nation. So in 2005 the Eurobarometer survey was published, and that revealed that only 16% of Estonians believe in a personal God. And all this information was happily put together. And Estonians started to understand themselves as the least religious – or most atheistic – country in the world, despite the fact that the survey covered only Europe!

CC: (Laughs).

AR: However, Estonians are actually not the only ones with this claim, and similar motives are present also in the Czech Republic, in Denmark, in Sweden, and in the Netherlands. So I question which country will be the least religious or most atheistic. It’s probably going to be a new Olympic Games discipline or something like that!

CC: Yes! And I wonder what the prize will be?

AR: (Laughs). God!

CC: You also had a leaflet in your presentation that said, “If you are an Estonian. . .” and listed a few things. It said ,“you do not believe in God . . . unless it’s Eurovision!” (Laughs).

AR: Right!

CC: Now I’ve only really got one more question before we talk about that important conference. But presumably, this isn’t getting the whole picture. You were showing a lot of nuance yesterday, and a lot of the beliefs and practices that these so-called non-believers, non-identifiers subscribe to. So maybe you could add a bit more nuance to this contemporary situation?

AR: Well, I will say that when we are talking about non- believers or atheists, then it basically boils down . . . that means that we are taking their identity as primary indicator, when we are talking in this way. Then, of course, the meaning of atheism in the Estonian case is sort-of different than in the Western context. It doesn’t mean the explicit denial of God, or something like that. Rather it refers to just not being Christian. And since atheism is the only known secular tradition in the Estonian context it has a very, very wide meaning.

CC: Excellent. So we are at about 25 minutes, which is a perfect time for me to just say that obviously we’re recording at the EASR in Bern, in Switzerland. But the 2019 EASR is in Tartu in Estonia. So perhaps you could maybe sell the conference a little bit? Just in terms of why might people want to come? But also, you could give us a hint of the intellectual thrust of the conference.

AR: The topic of the conference is “Religion: Continuations and Disruptions”. And, you know, conferences are very much like birthday parties. When you like the people, then you go! And at the same time they are like sort of style parties. And the topic gives the debates this general direction. So this topic was, of course, inspired by Eastern European recent history – which is actually a continuation of different disruptions. And this notion applies to religion as well. And religion and the understanding of religion is constantly changing. So we thought that it would give a good direction for our style party, to become fruitful basis for discussing whatever changes occur in regard to religion. But other than that, Tartu is just a very lovely town. And by the way, our restaurant street is just 50 metres from the conference venue! And for the conference party we have a place called Gunpowder Cellar, which is really an old gunpowder cellar that is turned into a restaurant and claims to be a pub with the highest ceiling in the world. Which is around 11 metres.

CC: So, the highest ceiling in the world and the lowest religiosity in the world!

AR: (Laughs). Exactly! They go together, hand-in-hand!

CC: Fantastic! One final question. (25:00) This conference that we’re at right now, the theme is “Multiple Religious Identities.” So, maybe, just a final thought from you on how the Estonian context and that conference theme of multiple religious identities maybe speak to each other? Or not?

AR: Of course they speak to each other: they are both religion-related. But, of course, there are continuations of religious identities, and all this overlapping and constant changing. So I would say this: our conference in Tartu will be a mental continuation of this topic here.

CC: Excellent! Well, Listeners, if you want to continue with a mental continuation, in about a year’s time we should have a number of podcasts from Tartu for you! But, for now, thanks for that really expansive, but also quite specific, teaser for the situation in Estonia and for your own research. So do check out Atko’s profile. And thank you very much!

AR: Thank you!


Citation Info: Remmel, Atko and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 28 January 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 October 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-study-of-religion-and-national-identity-in-estonia/

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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.

Social Hostility toward Religion: Politicization of Religion? An expression of nationalism? A combination of both?

In his interview with Dr. Katayoun Kishi, interviewer Benjamin P. Marcus posed a question about a likely relationship between government restrictions and social hostilities. Dr. Kishi responded that although there were instances of positive correlation between the two variables, but the data were inconclusive.  In 2017, I wrote a paper with Abdalla Sirag, Ratneswary Rasiah, and Muzafar Shah Habibullah on the relationship between government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion. The study was motivated by the rising global religious oppression in Europe. Our investigation was about whether government restrictions fueled societal hostilities or vice versa. So in reply to Benjamin’s question, our finding, based on 45 European nations, showed a bi-directional positive causality between government restrictions and social hostility. However, the impact of government restrictions on social hostilities was greater in magnitude compared to the impact of social hostilities on government restrictions. In conclusion, we cautioned nations that their restrictive roles could be instrumental in inciting social hostilities.

Countries with very high government restrictions on religionDr. Kishi mentioned that countries in the categories of very high and high for government restrictions rose from 25% in 2015 to 28% in 2016. That’s a 3% increase in just one year. Indeed alarming. But a more pertinent question is: what is triggering  governments to adopt a restrictive stance? The latest report by Pew Research Centre (2018) on religious restrictions flagged the prevalence of  a nationalist agenda as a contributing factor, especially in Europe. An article by the  BBC on Europe and nationalism highlights that nationalist and far-right parties are securing electoral gains by advocating causes such as migrant crisis and growing influence of Islam in Europe. The nationalist and far-right parties are championing the idea of national identity and curbing the rising influence of Islam. Those in European society in alignment with these views are voting into power political parties promising to implement nationalistic policies.

On reflection, an interesting observation emerges: although the migrant crisis and influence of Islam are expressed as two separate concerns, they share a common denominator: the migrants are mainly Muslims. A question that we need to ask is whether the nationalist and far-right parties would enjoy similar support if the migrants were non-Muslims. I would like to argue that what is guised as loss of national identity is, in reality, concern regarding the rising influence of Islam. The fear seems to be that the Muslim migrants do not assimilate into the local culture or, worse still, impose their beliefs and practices on their host. This then gives rise to the notion of dilution of nationality, hijacking of the local culture, and fear of it been replaced by alien practices and beliefs–a worrying prospect for many that needs assuaging, no doubt.

 

Countries with very high social hostilities involving religionRising fear of being “replaced” among voters brings me to my earlier question: what is triggering governments to adopt a restrictive religious stance? It appears as if the political parties feel they need to put religious restrictions in place to assuage the growing fear among the masses. Even political parties not aligned to the far-right views feel coerced to take a hardliner stand to appease the worrying public. An example is Austria, where the left-wing Social Democrats and the conservative Austrian People’s Party Austria coalition implemented the ban on full-face veils in public, a measure seen necessary to counter the rise of the far-right Freedom Party. Summarizing the proposition above, we can state that the fear of rising influence of Islam has spurred the spirit of nationalism. The argument is that society concerned with the changes in the demographics of their society have voted into power, political parties that would be able to deliver a more nationalistic agenda, providing the impetus for governments in Europe to adopt a more restrictive stance.

How valid is this argument? I would like to present an alternative point of view: Politicization of Religion. This is where religious differences are used to create dissent, which is then instrumentalized for political gains. Remembering that it is government restrictions that fuel social hostilities rather than the other way around, we must ask whether the waves of discontent expressed by society arises organically through a reflective process or, in contrast, if these are orchestrated by political parties hoping to gain mileage by overplaying isolated incidents linked to certain religious communities. For example, as Valery Engel, the director of the European International Tolerance Center reports, “In Hungary and Poland, the government actively used the migration crisis to stir up fear toward migrants and Muslims among ordinary voters, seizing the initiative from the radicals. As a result, in 2016, the Poles and Hungarians demonstrated the highest indicators of fear of migrants and hatred of Muslims in Europe.”  A satisfactory answer to the question on whether the phenomena that we observe arises from politicization of religion or an expression of nationalism or a combination of both is only possible through further research.

Encounters Between Buddhism and the West

previously been interviewed for the RSP.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Britain still a Christian country?

When scholars involved in the social scientific study of ‘religion’ encounter claims concerning ‘religious identity’ – of states, groups or individuals – a number of questions immediately spring to mind. UK Prime Minster David Cameron’s controversy-inducing statement around Easter 2014 that Britain is ‘a Christian country’ is a perfect example of how an apparently simple statement is actually highly ambiguous and can potentially mask a host of powerful ideological concerns.

What does Cameron’s statement actually mean? In what sense can a country be “Christian”? Today on the Religious Studies Project, we welcome back Professor Linda Woodhead to discuss and interrogate the question “Is Britain Still a Christian Country?”, the topic of her recent Croall Lectures at the University of Edinburgh.

The Secularization Thesis. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, British cookbooks, cakes, model railways and more.

The Gamrie Brethren: At the Heart of Cosmic Struggle and the Fringes of the Imagined Community

In the RSP’s interview with Joe Webster, listeners are treated to rich ethnographic data which reveal how an immediate ‘local’ context is embedded in ‘global’ processes and networks. Webster conducted his fieldwork in the fishing village of Gardenstown or ‘Gamrie’ in Aberdeenshire, in the north-east of Scotland. Its population are notable for the concentration of followers of offshoots of the movement known as the ‘Plymouth Brethren’, or simply ‘Brethren’[1].

Both the local context and the Brethren movement generally are far from my areas of expertise, my own research concerns the contemporary relationship between ‘religious’ (including ‘non-religious’) affiliations and various constructions of ‘Scottish national identity’. In this regard I hope I can at least place Webster’s research in the wider social and historical context, the ‘national level’ alongside the ‘local’ and ‘global’ ones.

If one considers the question of how the Gamrie Brethren ‘fit into’ the wider picture of religion in Scotland, they would not appear to ‘fit’ at all. According to the latest census, conducted in 2011, only 54% of respondents identified as ‘Christian’, 16% identifying as ‘Roman Catholic’[2], and of the majority of this Christian population who could be classified as ‘Protestant’, it is difficult to gauge how many would have much in common with the Brethren – I suspect relatively few. This is novel for a country with an immensely long and complicated Christian history and which was long associated with staunch Protestantism.

While Scotland does possess an official national Church (the Church of Scotland), it could be quite accurately described as for the most part highly secularised. Along with this, religious pluralism has become part of the system of norms inculcated in Scottish civil society, despite the comparatively low numbers of non-Christian religious minorities.

In many ways this image of Scotland as secular and pluralist is that which many contemporary Scots project, a reflection both of their norms and experiences. As Benedict Anderson argued, nations are imagined communities, though the community that is imagined can vary immensely over time and in the present[3].

While much of Scotland’s romantic symbolism may be derived from the Highlands and many areas have contributed to the Scottish imagination, arguably the dominant perspective is that of the ‘central belt’. That is the area of the country dominated by its two biggest cities – Edinburgh and Glasgow; the centres of politics, business, the media, and, to large extent, ‘national’ religious institutions. Notably these cities have high concentrations of ‘non-religious’ people and are more religiously plural, meaning that a city-dweller may be more likely to attend a local Diwali celebration than a Gamrie Brethren service. As Anderson argued, ‘members’ of nations could never hope to personally interact with all who claim or are claimed to be members of the nation, which can help smooth over differences and affect the imaginative process[4].

However this does not mean that the Gamrie Brethren are necessarily representative of ‘traditional’ Scottish religion either. The movement was founded in Plymouth by an Irish medical student and would have to be implanted in this local Scottish soil. I cannot help but share the intuitive reaction of the interviewer (David Robertson) in being struck by the sense in which the movement and its religious practices appear more stereotypically ‘American’ to myself as someone raised in Scotland, than stereotypical of rural Scotland. The calls to emotional testimony of personal experience certainly do not fit the dour Calvinism stereotype of Scottish religion. Alive and well, living in Aberdeenshire and speaking Doric[5] it is though–regardless of how well it fits some preconceived image.

This cautions us against treating rural religion as an unbroken ‘survival’ of a bygone age; at the very least the Brethren could not have come to Gamrie earlier than 1831 when the movement was founded, and I would expect a much later date. Regardless, the Brethren have clearly been able to fundamentally shape life in the village down to the level of everyday interaction, and it is notable that the local branch of the ‘national’ Church has been moulded into the local ‘Brethren’ image.

Nonetheless, their case is not as atypical as it might first appear.  Without intending to essentialise, such cases have a long history in Scotland. Much of northern Scotland, especially, is rugged and rural and perhaps encourages the development of pockets of concentrated difference from the norms disseminated from the centre. When Presbyterian Calvinism was ascendant in the south, much of the north was Episcopalian with pockets of Roman Catholicism. Radical Calvinistic Presbyterianism began to take root in parts of the Highlands and continued to thrive when it began to fall from favour in the south, etc.

Webster related how the Brethren’s religious practices have led many of them to utilise Christian media, much of which is based in the US. Steve Bruce has argued that religious conservatives in Scotland did not develop the kind of alternative networks set up by their US counterparts because they were simply oblivious to the changes going on underneath their feet[6]. Nonetheless, clearly, expanding global communications have allowed the Gamrie Brethren to take advantage of such networks, which, in turn, inform the local context.

This religious context may be rural and divergent from the current Scottish norm (in both senses of the word) but this does not make it a product of isolation, and, in fact, appears to be as caught up in wider developments as central belt secularism. However, these global links clearly attain specific local significance. Webster’s informants not only see the power of God and the Devil working in their daily lives but also in the political relationship between the fishing communities of the north-east and the European Union.

Over the course of the interview, the question of how the Gamrie Brethren view themselves in relation to Scottish national identity and modern Scottish society was never broached as such. One would certainly not want to presume that it is significant at all; the local setting and transnational Evangelical networks may be of much greater significance. Webster has indicated that religious decline did not appear to trouble his informants who viewed it as indicative of end times. Scottish secularism may be viewed in similar terms. They may draw comfort and significance from the history of Scottish Protestantism, its leading figures such as John Knox and the Covenanter rebels, as many Scots did and still do. The advantage of a long and untidy history is there are plenty of ‘Scotlands’ to choose from. Clearly dealing with the religious landscape of the country in the present offers up no less diversity.

Bibliography

Anderson, B. Imagined Communities (2006) London: Verso

Bowker, J. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997) Oxford: Oxford University Press

Broun, D., Finlay, R.J. and Lynch, M. (eds.) Image and Identity: The Making of Scotland through the Ages (1998) Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd

Brown, C. Religion and Society in Scotland since 1707 (1997) Edinburgh University Press

Bruce, S. No Pope of Rome: Anti-Catholicism in Modern Scotland (1985) Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing

Devine, T.M. The History of the Scottish Nation 1700-2000 (2000) London: Penguin Books Ltd.

National Records of Scotland 2011 Census: Key results on Population, Ethnicity, Identity, Language, Religion, Health, Housing and Accommodation in Scotland – Release 2A (2013) Crown Copyright 2013

[1] C.f. “Plymouth Brethren” in Bowker, J. (ed). Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997) Oxford: Oxford University Press: p756

[2] National Records of Scotland 2011 Census: Key results on Population, Ethnicity, Identity, Language, Religion, Health, Housing and Accommodation in Scotland – Release 2A (2013) Crown Copyright 2013: p5

[3] Anderson, B Imagined Communities (2006) London: Verso: p5-6

[4] ibid

[5] ‘Doric’ is the name of the highly specific form of Scots or Lallans spoken in the region.

[6] Bruce, S No Pope of Rome: Anti-Catholicism in Modern Scotland (1985) Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing: p216

 

Belief, Belonging, and Academic Careers

Almost twenty years ago, Grace Davie observed that despite plenty of studies into the ‘exotic edges’ of religion, ‘the picture in the middle remains remarkably blurred’. Seeking to address this imbalance and engage with the ‘beliefs of ordinary British people in everyday life’, Abby Day‘s recent book, Believing in Belonging (the first topic for this interview), builds upon her doctoral and later postdoctoral fieldwork, beginning within small communities in Yorkshire, and extending to a number of modern industrialised nations.

in this interview with Chris, recorded at the 2013 BSA Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference at Durham University, Day introduces listeners to the concept of ‘belief’ and sets out her own inductive approach, using semi-structured interviews, whereby definitions were allowed to arise from the field. Her central thesis acts as a focal point for a wide-ranging and insightful discussion on a variety of topics from nationalism and secularisation, to the usefulness of censuses as tools for measuring ‘religion’, to gender and belief in destiny. These themes are also picked up and developed in a recent volume published by Ashgate – Social Identities Between the Sacred and the Secular – which was co-edited by Abby, Chris, and Giselle Vincett.

Wearing one of her other hats, Abby also presents regularly on how to build an academic career, win research funding, and get articles published, and has published the books academic publishing and building an academic career.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your important books etc.