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The removal and assimilation of NRM Children

A response to Susan Palmer on “Children in New Religious Movements”

by Patricia ‘Iolana

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Children in New Religious Movements

In the complex and sometimes fraught relationship between New Religious Movements and the wider culture and state, why is it that children are so often a focus? Children are seen as needing special protection and therefore legitimising dramatic state intervention, but are also seen as of particular importance to the future of these movements, and in some more millennial groups, of the world itself. To discuss this, we are once again joined by Susan Palmer, who draws on her vast ethnographic work with such groups to give real-world examples, showing the complexity of the issue. children, it seems, become the central focus of the ideological struggle between the state and the alternative offered by these groups. Who will imprint their ideology onto the children most successfully – and will they resort to violence to do so?

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

Children in New Religious Movements

Podcast with Susan Palmer (4 December 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Palmer_-Children_in_New_Religious_Movements_1.1

 

DR: I’m here in Bedford. It’s a beautiful sunny afternoon at the last day of the CenSAMM conference on Millenarianism and violence. I’m happy to be speaking today with Susan Palmer, welcoming her back to Religious Studies Project – one of the small group of people who’ve made a return visit! So, first of all, thanks for returning to the Religious Studies Project.

SP: It’s a pleasure, David.

DR: We’re going to be talking today about children in new religious movements, which Susan did her keynote presentation here about. But she’s also just about to start a major research project on the subject. Maybe the best place for us to start, then, is for you to tell us how you got interested in the idea of children, in particular, in these movements.

SP: Well, it all started with my PhD thesis which was on women’s roles in new religions. And at the time I had two young children when I was doing my research. So when I would go to visit these groups – the Hare Krishna, the Unification Church – I would sometimes have to drag my children along, because I didn’t have a babysitter, you know. So then the focus would be on . . . they would ask me about my children, and they’d introduce me to their children, and we’d be talking about motherhood. And I wasn’t really that interested, but I was humouring them! And then my children used to go off and play with their children, and I would realise on the way home that my children found out much more about what was really going on than I did!

DR: (Laughs)

SP: So I sort-of inadvertently got interested in the idea of children in new religions. And I ended up co-editing a book, with Charlotte Hardman, called Children in New Religions. And recently I’ve come back to the topic because several of the groups I’m interested in have had quite lot of conflict with society about their children. In fact, James Richardson made the point, which I agree with, that the old brainwashing allegation or controversy has sort-of, pretty well, died down. And one way you can attack new religions or criticise them is by focussing on their children. And certainly groups that are sectarian, who live in a commune or who live out in the country and have a lot of children, make people nervous, make their neighbours nervous, make social workers nervous, because they don’t really know what’s going on. And in today’s system children go to school, children go to doctors and you have close neighbours so everyone can keep an eye on how you’re raising your children. But if you’re off in a millenarian commune, somewhere in the country, that doesn’t practice medicine or does home-schooling, you know, authorities get suspicious. And the anti-cult movement has, I think, exploited the situation by publishing materials in which, well: an ex-member might say they were abused, or had a miserable childhood; or they take isolated statements by the leaders and show that these children are in danger. I mean, of course there are some groups, in fact, where children have been badly treated and abused – there’s no doubt about that. But there is this tendency – certainly in anti-cult literature in recent years – to assume that children in cults are separated from their parents, or that the parents are following orders from the charismatic leader. And Margaret Singer says parents are “middle management” in cults; she uses that term over and over again. So what struck me is there’s so much variety in how children are perceived. You know: the role of a child, how they’re brought up, and also in the patterns of the family as you look at the different groups. (5:00) And it’s an ephemeral period. Childhood is over quite quickly and many of the groups aren’t even prepared for children; they weren’t even thinking about children when they started. And then they have to improvise, make up education and so on. So it’s not very well documented. Many of the groups don’t really document their own process. Some of them do. The Children of God have a very rich documentation on all their experiments in their communal life – even like how they wash dishes! So I think it’s an important thing to study, but also it’s difficult to study, because many of the groups have had problems with social workers and, of course, custody battles. When there’s a couple who join a commune and one of them leaves and wants their children to leave with them, they might contact the anti-cult movement and, you know, use their philosophy or their theories in court to get their kid out. So there’s a lot of social forces today that are putting pressure on alternative religions to raise their children in the same way as secular children. And I’ve witnessed raids on children with this group I was studying in France with the Twelve Tribes. And they were raided. Their children were raided in Vermont and then in Germany and when I was visiting them in France there was actually a raid right under my nose, but in this case they were picking the fathers. And then there was the polygamous Mormons in Texas, the Yearning for Zion people, whose children were taken away. And this seems to be something that’s happening today and there are severable forces at work. First of all, there’s this idea that our mainstream secular culture is the highest type of culture, the right culture, so we want to give children an opportunity to develop, and choose their lifestyle, and get a good education, so they can have a decent profession. And if a child grows up in a Mormon polygamous compound, or the Twelve Tribes, or the Hare Krishna, inevitably they’re being deprived and it’s sort of our duty to give them all the rights as a citizen and remove them. And, of course, this violates the rights of the parents to practise their religion and raise their children in their own faith. And it also violates the rights of the children to be able to live with their parents and their brothers and sisters. So it’s a terrible thing that the children experience when they’re taken away. And often they’re put in these orphanages. Well, in the case of the Twelve Tribes these children were put in orphanages, or homes for troubled teens, or foster homes: rather cold environments, not very nice environments with terrible food, and so on. In the case of the Yearning for Zion, these children were just plonked in various foster homes and it was even hard to organise to get them back, because they were so widely scattered. So that’s one thing, and then the other thing is there seems to be this concern . . . well you were talking today about conspiracy theories about paedophile rings . . . . So, there’s often this idea that if there’s a charismatic prophet who’s a spiritual mystic, he must also be a paedophile. Somehow it’s a package, today. (10:00) And of course, you do have the odd charismatic leader who does fancy very young women or has anti-social tendencies or sexual appetites. But I get the impression, in many cases, that this is just mud that’s thrown at them randomly, and it appears in the media, and has a devastating effect.

DR: And you’ve made this point before, in your book on the Nuwaubian Nation. You make the point that this is not only quite a common allegation against cult leaders, but against black cult leaders in particular. And, presumably, that allegation relates to this idea of the child as vulnerable that you were taking about before.

SP: So I feel it’s really important that we study different groups and get a lot of data: and we look at the variety in child-rearing patterns; the variety in how children are perceived; and also in the family, and how the families integrate in with the community. And so we won’t have these monolithic stereotypes about children in cults.

DR: How does the child work as a symbol? What is it that makes the child such a powerful discursive unit in all of this?

SP: Well, Mary Douglas, in her book, Natural Symbols, she looks at the idea of the body as the perfect vessel that represents the whole group. And the idea that the group is inviolable and has no cracks. And there’s tremendous concern in some minority religions, or minority cultures, with diet and sexuality. And she sees that as: those are the two holes in which foreign elements could come in. And so, if the group can control the diet and who the person marries then they can protect their culture from assimilation. So she talks about the virgin, as an example, as a symbol of the community. You know, the Virgin Mary among the Early Christians. And she doesn’t actually talk about the child but, you know, you can see how, in the literature of some of these groups, or in their ritual practices, some of these groups are very child-centred. So their whole community is looking at the children and intent on breeding these perfect children, and the children are their hope for the future, the children will usher in the Millennium, the children will fight Armageddon, the children will be the 24 elders who will rule beside Jesus in the Millennium, the children will be 144000 elite, and so on. Some groups, of course, have zero interest in children, and they’re not allowed at their meetings, and they don’t even care if they join or not – like the Raëlians, for example. But in other groups it’s extremely important that the children carry on the religious mission of their parents, and their education is very important, and the control is very important. And they are the hope and so . . . . I read this book recently called The Child in Post-Apocalyptic Cinema, which had a lot of great ideas which applied to this situation. And the editor, whose name is Debbie Olsonn, said the child is this idea of the future, but also the past. So, for example in the Twelve Tribes, they dress their children to look like, you know, pioneers from 1800 or something. So when you go there you feel a sense of nostalgia, you feel you’re stepping into early America. (15:00) And their children represent the goodness and the simplicity and the beauty of country children 150 years ago, before things got all screwed up. And also, this idea that the child represents this new humanity that will arise after the destruction of the world.

DR: Well that’s nice, because that ties into this millenarian model of time that we’ve been talking about today – but we’ve talked about it on the Religious Studies Project a few times – that millennialism, although it seems so focussed on the future, is actually a way of tying the past and using the future as a lens. But, ultimately, with the pivotal point of it being the present day. So, for somebody who’s involved in one of these relatively exclusive or . . . I don’t know what the word is . . . the kind of new religions that, to some degree, shuts itself off . . .

SP: A sectarian group

DR: . . . a sectarian kind of movement, then you can see why children would be so important. Because, as you say, they’re not only embodying the future but they embody the movement of the ideas of the past. And the parent is almost creating that perfected version of the past in the future, by creating these children and controlling their particular set of circumstances and the influences that they have.

SP: Yes.

DR: Is the importance that children have in these kind of sectarian groups, is that the reason that they’re so often the site of conflict?

SP: Yes it is, I think. I mean, it is of course very upsetting to the parents and the leaders of these groups if somebody leaves and wants to take the child out. There’s this right-wing Catholic group in Quebec called the Apostles of Infinite Love: Apôtres de l’amour infini. Their leader was a mystical pope – he died recently. And they had a monastery which families would join, and then the couple would split up and become celibate monks and nuns. And the children would become the children of the monastery and live this very Spartan life. When people left – usually it was fathers who left, actually, and wanted to take their children out – the attitude of the group seemed to be, “But the world is an evil place, it’s going to be destroyed very soon, and we can’t let these poor children go.”

DR: Right

SP: So they felt it was very much their responsibility not to let the children leave the group, which was like a Noah’s Ark. So they had some very intense conflict and struggle that involved four police raids and helicopters and so on. And, you know, hiding children. And their mystical pope actually went to prison for a few years for séquestration des enfants, you know, kidnapping or hiding children. And, of course, we don’t really know if he did or not. Because he said the mothers just left and sort-of went underground, so that’s possible. He said “My people are free to do what they want. I don’t tell them what to do.” So anyway on one hand in these groups, often there’s a very strong reluctance to let the children go. And from society’s point of view, there’s the idea that we can’t let these poor children be deprived, and warped, and indoctrinated in an unrealistic worldview that thinks the word’s going to end, or is patriarchal and sees women as second class citizens who should get married as soon as they turn 18, and so on. So it’s very intense . . . there’s a very intense struggle going on there, a cultural battle.

DR: Yes, in a number of cases these conflicts have led to the state visiting violence upon children in these situations. I mean, we could mention Waco, for instance. Tell us a little bit about the situation that you mentioned – this bombing.

SP: Yes, I was talking yesterday about MOVE, in Philadelphia. And I find it amazing that many people don’t know about MOVE. I teach a course on New Religions at Concordia, and when I mention MOVE everyone looks blank. (20:00) But my students have all heard of Waco and the Branch Davidians and David Koresh.

DR: I had never heard of this.

SP: But in 1985 in the city of Philadelphia, the orders of the Mayor were to drop two bombs from a helicopter on a row (terraced) house, in which a new religious movement called MOVE lived. And they’re usually depicted as religious anarchists. And they were mainly black, although there were quite a lot of white people living there too. And five children were killed in the bombing, plus six adults.

DR: When you say bombing . . .

SP: They literally dropped two bombs! It’s unbelievable.

DR: That’s insane. This was 1989?

SP: 1985. May 13th.

DR: Right.

SP: And it was mainly to get rid of . . . . They’d created a fortress, a sort of bunker, on the top and they had rifles. And they used to patrol this bunker and shout out criticism with loudspeakers. And all the neighbours hated them. And so, it was mainly to get rid of that bunker and make sure that they all just left. But the trouble was, they had police surrounding the house shooting the people who left. So they couldn’t win. And then the mayor didn’t want the fire trucks to come in. He wanted to wait, because he wanted to make sure the place was really burned out. But, unfortunately, the rest of the neighbourhood caught fire and sixty-one houses burned to the ground. It’s incredible when you look at the pictures. It’s amazing. And the people who lived there, the neighbours had be warned to leave. So the houses had been evacuated. But a lot of them had left their pets at home and all the pets had died, too. It was terrible.

DR: Yes.

SP: So, as I mentioned in my talk, at the meeting between the police and the mayor and the city councillors, before this happened, they were talking about the children. And they were a bit worried that if they went in and arrested the men, the children would be used as hostages by the MOVE people. And they were also worried that these children could be dangerous because they were “like little wild animals” and they might have weapons. So they saw them as little guerrilla warriors or something. So the point that’s made in this book by Robin Wagner-Pacifici is that, you know, they probably wouldn’t have dropped a bomb if it had just been ordinary American kids. But they saw them as either being little wild animals or being guerrilla warriors or . . . . And you often find that in anti-cult books, or in media reports, looking at children in cults. They can be seen as sort-of scary, like in the Village of the Damned by John Wyndam; like little aliens. Or they could be seen as brainwashed little zombies.

DR: Deadthroat children, yeah! My girlfriend once pointed out to me that – this shift of seeing the child as . . . putting so much importance on the children, and their innocence and their importance and how much you have to nurture them, and childhood as this magical time – it’s quite modern. It arises in the Victorian era. But there’s this tension then between, you know, the Victorian era is the classic example of: yes, for some Victorian children it was a magical time, where they got to be free and innocent; but you also had the vast majority who were living in absolute squalor, ridden with disease, high infant mortality, child prostitution, all the rest of it. And so there’s this dichotomy: this feeling of embodying innocence in children happens at times when there’s an awareness of inequality of power. And I wonder if there’s something going on there about our relationship with power, and our ability to . . . maybe compromise in the position of being an adult, or something? I don’t know. How do you think this relationship to power structures is working here?

SP: (25:00) Yes, I think that’s a very interesting idea. Well, a lot of parents who go into new religions are rejecting the state, they’re rejecting the authority of the state. But of course, they then find themselves under sometimes even more controlling kinds of authority within the group. But they can accept that because it’s spiritual . . . .

DR: And it’s personal, maybe, rather than an impersonal distant power of the state.

SP: Yes. It’s charismatic, it’s not bureaucratic. But then if you read, you know, media reports or anti-cult literature, they tend to think that within with these groups people don’t know how to think. Children are discouraged from independent critical thought. So they grow up very, very passive and rather stupid. But if you read some of the literature by ex-members, for example, by Pierrepont Noyes who was one of the sons of the leader of the cult of Perfectionists. And he is the most rebellious, mischievous, critical kid you ever imagine. And he describes his childhood with a tremendous humour and so much vitality, and so many little rebellious escapades. And then you have Krishnamurti, of course, who was raised to be the avatar and basically refused, and rejected his role, and spent the rest of his life criticising religion and coming up with his own philosophy. And also I find, just going to these groups, you find that the children often have a sub-culture. Like, I went to one group and the parents were telling me that the children were – I won’t mention what the group is – they said, “We don’t believe in giving our children an allowance, we never give them money, we never let them eat candy and we don’t let them play with toys.” And my kids were there, and they’d said, “Go off in the woods and play,” to get them out of my hair. So my kids went off in the woods. And on the way home I said to them in the car, “So, what did you do?” And they said “Oh! Our friends took us in the woods and we dug up a treasure chest!” And I said, “What was in it?” And they said, “Money and candies and trucks!”

DR: (Laughs)

SP: They were doing the real research! But actually, Charlotte Hardman makes this point, too, in our early book – I think it was published in 1998 – that children – she’s’ an anthropologist who’s done work on the anthropology of children – she notices that children often have this kind of subculture within a culture. And they see things differently. And I’ve certainly found that, visiting some of these groups, that the children have their own little “cult within a cult”, if you like.

DR: That’s often the case in my work as well. Even in a relatively small group, you would get the official version, but when you hung around . . . . I used to always hang around, or try and have a drink with people, or go to the kitchen and help with the cooking, and things like that. And the more gossipy side of it would start to come out. And you realise that, you know: this situation is just as complex as any other social situation, with all sorts of different levels of discourse going on. You know, a lot of the conversation that we’ve been having has reminded me of . . . well, obviously there’s been quite a lot of stuff about Scientology recently, “Going Clear” being the most obvious example. And it ties into a number of different things. First of all, this movement away from the idea of brainwashing towards, you know, children being in the frame . . .

SP: Indoctrinated.

DR: Yes, indoctrinated, but also physically harmed. There’s been much more of a shift recently towards looking at L. Ron Hubbard‘s relationship with his own kids.

SP: Oh really?

DR: Yes. One of his children committed suicide and another attempted suicide.

SP: That’s right.

DR: That’s probably wrong but . . .

SP: I know one of them committed suicide.

DR: But I think the other one also, yeah, I can’t remember now. I think the other one attempted it as well. But also in “Going Clear”, the guy – is it Paul Haggis? It was his daughter coming out as homosexual that caused him to leave the church. So again, his children were involved. But when you were talking about this portrayal of people not being able to think properly and having their information limited – that’s exactly the narrative that he gives: that when you’re in Scientology you don’t get to question it (30:00). Except, of course, we’re hearing this from somebody who did question it from within Scientology. So the narrative doesn’t really work. And it’s playing into so many of these little discourses that you’re talking about there.

SP: Yes.

DR: Thank you so much for speaking to us again. Another big subject, but this has been a really exciting introduction. And, bringing in the idea of generationality, maybe in a year’s time we can meet up and talk about old people in new religions?!

SP Well thank you, David! (Laughs)

DR: But thanks, as always, for speaking to me.

SP: Old people are fun, too!

DR: Yes, absolutely!

Citation Info: Palmer, Susan and David Robertson. 2017. “Children in New Religious Movements”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 4 December 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 29 November 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/children-in-new-religious-movements/

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“Insider Knowledge”: Seeing the Bigger Picture with New Religious Movements

A Response to George Chryssides on “Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-Member Narratives”

By Aled Thomas

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Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration

In this podcast, Judith Weisenfeld talks to Brad Stoddard about her new book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Depression. In this book, Weisenfeld explores several social groups in the early 1900s who combined religious and racial rhetoric to fashion new identities. These groups include the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, and Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, and various Ethiopian Hebrews. These groups are not new to scholars of American religious history; however, Weisenfeld’s original analysis combined with her use of previously overlooked sources combine to tell a new and compelling story about these familiar groups.

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, Silly Putty, and more.

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

Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration

Podcast with Judith Weisenfeld (26 June 2017).

Interviewed by Brad Stoddard

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Weisenfeld – Black Religious Movements 1.1

Brad Stoddard (BS): Hello, this is Brad Stoddard for the Religious Studies Project. Today I have the pleasure of talking with Judith Weisenfeld, who is the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton. And she joins me today to talk about her new book, New World a-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Judith Weisenfeld (JW): Thanks, Brad.

BS: You write in this book that,“This book is the study of the theologies, practices, community, formations and politics of early 20th century black religious movements, that fostered novel understandings of the history and racial identity of people conventionally categorised as negro in American society.” Which specific groups do you address, and which story do they collectively tell?

JW: The book is a comparative study of the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement and a number of congregations of Black Hebrews. And I pursue this comparative study in order to think about the ways in which they each engage with questions of racial identity through a religious frame. They all emerged at the same time in the early 20th century, founded by migrants from the south to northern cities, or immigrants from the Caribbean to these same northern cities. And I was interested in, again, the ways in which they were all thinking about black racial identity history and doing so in ways that insisted that religion was to be part of these discussions. And so, taken together, we get a sense of a really vibrant conversation going on in black American life, in these groups and beyond these groups, about race and peoplehood – who we are. And I think one of the ways in which people have conventionally approached race and racial identity is to understand race as reality – race exists: people are of this race, that race, another race. With the rise of Critical Race Studies and thinking about race as a social construction, scholars have begun to talk more about race – not as a biological fact, but as socially produced. And in that kind of discussion, which informs much of my work, people who are not white are often presented as the objects of racial construction. So race is a social construction that produces hierarchy. It provides tools for controlling, otherising and so on. And so, people who are so racialised rarely appear as agents in discussion about race. And in looking at these groups together it became clear to me that, again, in these groups and in broader black public culture, people were asking these questions about who we are, racially. And these groups presented a really profound challenge to the conventional category of negro and the ways in which Christianity had become the kind-of assumed “appropriate” religion. And so, taking them together, we see black religious subjects talking about race, producing race, rejecting, changing and so on.

BS: Most of these groups, not all of them, emerged or were founded or created within a relatively short time period. What is significant about this time period in American history and why was it so ripe for the production of so many diverse religio-racial identities?

JW: These groups all come out of the period of the Great Migration, which begins around World War I: the movement of rural southern African-Americans, to urban contexts – the Urban South. And also the largest element of that was a northward migration. And so northern cities see huge increases in the black population over those decades, through . . . and there a various waves of it. I focus from the early ‘20s to the late ‘40s. (5:00) And so, people are moving to cities and on the East Coast in particular, in New York and Newark and Philadelphia, they are also interacting with immigrants from the Caribbean – mostly from the British West Indies but also from Danish, French and so on. And these urban contexts become a laboratory for the production of all sorts of new cultural movements. So we get the Harlem Renaissance and the cultural productions of Chicago, where black films, for example, get produced and exhibited; music and literary productions. And religious transformation is also one of the components of the social changes and the cultural changes of the Great Migration. And while these groups remain in the minority, it’s in these urban laboratories . . . . And there are political changes as well: we see the rising of Socialists and Communists. And Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association is based in Harlem, and it is also a kind of engine for thinking about black peoplehood in new ways. And so, these are people who are moving. They’re born – the members who join, and also the founders – they’re born at the end of Reconstruction, some of them at the beginning. They’re born as Jim Crow segregation really locks down life in the South. And then they’re part of this Great Migration. And I think one of the things that they’re struggling with is, “We’re no longer slaves,” and there was the potential of reconstruction, “but things are not . . . things are different, but things are not different in important ways”. And so [there’s] a kind of questioning of this hopeful trajectory of the Exodus, for example – questioning the degree to which black churches can be agents of liberation. And what’s really so powerful in these groups – for me I found really interesting – is just questioning the very terms of identity, who we are: is this who we are? “If this is who we are”, a lot of them say, “I don’t necessarily want that”. There’s a story of a man, who’s named only as Horace X, and he encounters the Nation of Islam, in Chicago, in the ‘40s. And he had tried out, he had grown up in the Church, he had tried out different . . . all sorts of different groups: political groups that had promised migration to Africa, and other kinds of religious groups that he’s joined – the Freemasons. And in the story he tells to a Sociologist, he heard someone preaching on the street: “This is not who you are. They told you you were a negro; they told you you were a Christian. That’s not true: I have the truth.” And he said, “I was ashamed to have been born a negro before this, and when I heard that, everything changed for me.” And it’s that kind-of rethinking of identity that I found so compelling and wanted to know more about. And I think it’s precisely the convergence of all of these things in the urban context that makes that possible.

BS: When you were describing Horace X it reminded me of what scholars refer to as the “seeker mentality”, but it’s alive and well, in different communities, much earlier – as you’re describing it.

JW: Yes, I found a number of cases like that in all of the groups, where people said, “I tried this, I tried that.” Sometimes they’re doing multiple things at the same time. And, when I started the research, I was revisiting some of the secondary literature and things I had read many times before, but hadn’t thought about it in relation to writing about these groups. And I looked back at a document by Miles Mark Fisher, who was an African-American minister and also a University of Chicago PhD after he wrote this. He wrote a piece called “Organised Religions and the Cults”, and he was advocating for the inclusion of some of these newer movements in the US census of religious bodies that was coming up in 1935, I think it would have been. And he was making the case that these are not numerically powerful groups, but that they spoke about something that was going on in African-American life. And in order to understand religion in American life, the Census Bureau should survey them. (10:00) And he also told a story. He said, “It’s very hard to tell . . . to draw a line between churches and the cults”, as he called them. And he told the story of his Sunday School teacher, who had also been a member of what he characterised as a cult. And he did that and was also a Sunday School teacher, and was buried out of the church. And so, returning to that piece sparked for me this sense that, as he made clear, the line is not that sharp between them; that people are moving sequentially through these or trying them out at the same time. And the other thing that became really important for me was to think about members of these groups, and the kinds of conversations they are engaged in, as part of a broader set of conversations in the black life at the time. So, not to marginalise them as strange people who put on fezzes and rejected all sorts of things to move off on their own – they were boundaried in lots of ways. But the kinds of questions they were asking were not strange, for that period. They were, actually, very much a part of what I call the kind-of public culture of race in black America.

BS: Scholars have discussed all of these groups before. In your book you bring, of course, your unique analytical lens to it, but you also bring new sources and new groups of people. So can you speak – and when I think of new people, you focus a lot on Caribbean people and their impact on these movements – also can you speak to your sources, and the groups of people who are included in your narrative?

JW: Sure. One of the . . . . As you said, scholars have written about these groups, the Moorish Science Temple and its’ founder Noble Drew Ali, the Nation of Islam and W D Fard and Elijah Mohammad, Father Divine and also scholarship on black or Ethiopian Hebrews. And all that . . . . Those are texts that consider these groups individually, and focus primarily on the leaders and the theologies that they promoted. And I was interested in what it would mean to put them together in one study and think about, as I’ve said, the way they talk about race – reimagine race in a religious frame. And I ended up calling that ‘religio-racial identity” because, for them, as all the founders preached, religion and race are inextricably linked.And once you understand your religious identity – be it as an Asiatic Muslim, as the Nation of Islam and Moorish Science Temple would talk about it; or an Ethiopian Hebrew; or for Father Divine’s movement, raceless – once you know that, you know what your religion is supposed to be as well. So Islam, for the Nation of Islam, was created for the Asiatic; you can’t separate those things. And I felt, in reading some of the secondary literature, that people were . . . scholars were really interested in how to talk about the religious transformations that these groups represented, but didn’t really take seriously these claims of Asiatic or Ethiopian identity. And I wanted to know (I see them – in reading the primary sources – for these people, inextricably linked ) and I wanted to know how – if you are Horace X and you hear a minister of the Nation of Islam preaching, “You are not a negro Christian, you are an Asiatic Muslim” – how did Horace X go about being that thing that he came to believe he really was? And so finding what the average members did was really a challenge. (15:00) And this is, I think, why most of the texts really focus on the theologies of the leaders. And so, I ended up benefitting from some recent archival sources. Emory, for example, has a Father Divine collection that has a huge number of letters to and from Father Divine that give the texture of life in the movement – though those are not unconventional. But I ended up using vital records: the census and government documents like draft cards that are, many of them, available at ancestry.com. And reading those kinds of documents – I just kind of stumbled on them as a way into this – showed me how profoundly important it was to members of these groups that they be represented in public, in official documents, with the religio-racial identity they had claimed and, in some cases, the names they had chosen to reflect their true identities. And so we see, in the draft cards of these men going in, there’s a pre-printed category or column of racial categories listed. And it’s white, negro, Asian Filipino, Indian – it says Oriental on the 1942 form. And these men say, “None of those categories fit me.” And so you have to write Moorish American. And they were successful in doing that. And those kinds of documents were, again, a completely unexpected way of finding names of average members, but also an unexpected source for finding out ways to kind-of calibrate the stakes and their investment in it. So, if you’re potentially being drafted into the military, and you’re struggling over how you’re represented racially on this form, it means a lot to you. And I see it on the census and things like that. I learned all kinds of things from the census about residential patterns of these groups. So I spent a lot of time on ancestry.com!

BS: (Laughs) Excellent.

JW: On the topic of both new sources and new social actors, I was interested in the role of immigration from the West Indies from the Caribbean in this story. Because they are there. It is Marcus Garvey’s . . . . He was a Jamaican immigrant who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and proposed a sense of global black identity. He did embrace the label negro, but he really generated a sense of black pride, a connection to Africa, investment in collective political engagement in a ways that was new for the period, and in a lot . . . . He was from Jamaica and a lot of the people in the movement, when it was headquartered in Harlem, were from the Caribbean. And this gets erased a lot – very often, I think, in African-American history – that these were people who come from a very different social and political context, in many ways, to the US – and religious context as well. There are commonalities, but they have cultural differences and they’re negotiating them. And these movements emerge, in part, out of those cultural negotiations across communities. But it also turns out that most of the Ethiopian Hebrews are Caribbean immigrants, the vast majority of people in the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam are African-Americans, and Father Divine’s movement has a mix. And so this project was interesting, to me, to think about, again, black racial identity across not just African-American, but thinking about how these groups were in conversation with one another. I didn’t do as much as I had hoped to attend to the cultural specifity of West Indian immigrants in the story, so I hope somebody else will pick that up.

BS: As I read your book, you’re suggesting that membership in one of these groups required the person to undergo a rather thorough process of reimagining. And I have a couple of questions about that reimagining. How did membership of one of these groups – and I know it varied from group to group – but what were some of the major ways that it involved them reimaging their sense of self and even their bodies? (20:00)

JW: That was one of the ways I tried to answer the question of: if yesterday you thought you were a negro Christian and today you have been persuaded that you are a raceless child of Father Divine, or Ethiopian Hebrew – how do you do that? And so I looked at these practices of self-fashioning that are different, as you said, in each of the groups. But I did find some patterns in that, for many of them, changing their names was important and, in the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, rejecting the name, the . . . . Well, in the Nation of Islam, rejecting the slave name and reclaiming (what they talked about as) a kind of “tribal” name or “true” name – for both the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam – was an important step of kind-of separating from old self and moving into the new self. And in Father Divine’s Peace Mission they rejected their (what they talked of as) “mortal names” and took spiritual names that reflected their new status. So these processes of separation from the former identity and taking on a new one that reflects your true history, as they talked about it, was important. Some of the groups took on forms of dress that also spoke about that history, that lineage. The Moorish Science Temple were the most notable one with adopting Moorish dress: the fez for men and turbans for women. And, again, the draft cards were really interesting sources for me for thinking about the meaning of that, and the ways in which men who were registering for the draft thought of that fez as, actually, part of their bodies. And it was Nobel Drew Ali who enjoined them to wear the fez at all times. But when you see on the draft cards that they list that as a physical characteristic, by which they can be identified . . . . You know it’s: they have a scar, or a missing digit, or something like that. It revealed, again, how much they saw as kind-of reimagining their body, in a profound way, into this being that could be recognised as its true self, now. Names, dress, some of the group reimagined skin colour, adopted different kind of terminology for talking about the surface of the body. Moorish Science Temple, again, used the term “olive”. They talked about themselves as olive-skinned Moors. And it didn’t matter that there might not be a correspondence between what the beholder might think they looked like, but it was a theological way of talking about skin colour as connected to Allah and scripture, and the catechism explained that. And then practices of diet, again, they kind of separate you from your old self and you take on a true diet that remakes you and keeps you healthy. All of these groups actually had a deep investment in longevity, and thought that – in different ways – the poison diet – the wrong diet of enslavement and negro-ness and Christianity, to a certain extent, had debilitated black people as individuals and black people as a whole. So they developed certain dietary practices: either feasting or fasting, in different cases; certain foods; and also they all had investments in healing, sometimes through medicine, sometimes through diet. And they all, actually, believed that black people could live for a very, very long time, if not – in Father Divine’s group – for ever, and that enslavement in the Americas had made that impossible, but they were being restored to that possibility.

BS: Part of that reimagining also involved them reimagining their sense, not only geographically, but also historically. It seems that the dominant narrative at this time, in African-American communities, was to understand their position in history relative to slavery. And these new religious movements in this period provided a whole new understanding of history. Can you speak to that? (25:00)

JW: That was one of , I think, the great appeals of these movements. And collectively they do the same kind of work. And in some ways saying, “You are not a negro” is saying the same thing: “Your history did not begin with slavery.” The negro is, all of them would argue, a racial category that was produced only in America – or through slavery in the Americas – and that it was a containing trap to imagine yourself that way, and that God didn’t make you that way. So then one has to say, “Well, who are we?” Right? “What is our history?” And so they all insist that, in one way or another, black history began before slavery – which of course we know – and fill that in. And so in some cases they’re arguing that . . . . So, the Moorish Science Temple says: we are actually the descendents of . . . we are Moroccan, born in America. And then [it] also uses the Bible to trace back even further, so that there is a Biblical connection. But the Moorish Science Temple wants to orient people to the geographic space of Morocco, and use that as a way of talking about the beginning of history. Ethiopian Hebrew congregations again use the Bible to talk about Biblical history as African history and African history as Biblical history. They are interested in Ethiopia but there are also other geographic locations in Africa they they’re interested in. And for Father Divine’s Peace Mission and the Nation of Islam, it’s less a geographic connection – although the Nation of Islam is very interested in Mecca. And for the Peace Mission, Father Divine’s kingdom on earth is where . . . he is there and he’s created this Utopia. But their approach to rejecting the history of negros and enslavement involved not geography, but time – is how I came to think about it. So the Nation of Islam, there’s a lot of . . . . In African-American Christians, and also in the Ethiopian Hebrew groups and the Moorish Science Temple, there’s a lot of engagement with the Bible, and looking for where we are, and how to fit our history there. And the Nation of Islam says: “ Lets just throw that away. Because even from the beginning of time, from the moment of creation, that’s where we are. We have to get rid of . . . .The Bible tells us the whole story wrong.” And Father Divine – time approaches to say: “Race is a product of the devil, I’ve returned to usher in a new heaven and new earth. Heaven is not some far-off thing; it’s here now. And so we start from now. You can enter my kingdom if you do all of these things. And you’re not a negro, that’s from the past. And being a negro is why you die. And if you reject all of that you can live with me for ever.” So the Nation of Islam projected back to the moment of creation and Father Divine projected forward into an eternal future. There’s a great . . . . He would send out this Christmas and New year’s card, in the late ‘40s, that had his image and Mother Divine, his wife, and it said : “One eternal Merry Christmas, one eternal Happy New Year!”

BS: Very good! Thank you. Well, I’d like to say that this is a phenomenal book. And I can imagine it finding a home in quite a few Religious Studies courses, actually. So, best of luck with the book, and thank you so much for your time and your insights. I appreciate it.

JW: Thank you.

Citation Info: Weisenfeld, Judith 2017. “Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/black-religious-movements-and-religio-racial-identities-during-the-great-migration/

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Millennialism and Violence?

Descriptions of the End Times are full of violent imagery, of mass destruction through earthquakes, tidal waves, fire and ice. These images are written deeply into our culture through the book of Revelation, but are by no means limited to the Christian imagination. Often, our idea of modern millennial groups is informed by images of violent confrontations between them and the state, for example at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, or of mass suicide, such as with Heaven’s Gate or the People’s Temple at Jonestown.

Are we right to connect millennialism and violence? Are these groups typical, or rare exceptions, magnified out of proportion by the lens of the media – and scholarship? How do we account for the popularity of millennialism outside of religious traditions, new, extreme or otherwise?

This audio/visual episode was produced in collaboration with CenSAMM, the Centre for the Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements.

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


Podcast with Eileen Barker, Moojan Momen, Joseph Webster and Tristan Sturm (22 May 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available CenSAMM conference – Millennialism and Violence 1.1.

David Robertson (DR): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. I’m here today, in the grounds of the Panacea Museum in sunny Bedford, for the inaugural CenSAMM conference on the subject of Millenarian Groups and Violence. I’m joined today by Moojan Momen, by Joseph Webster, by Eileen Barker and by Tristan Sturm. And we’re going to discuss the issues around millenarianism, millennialism and violence. And all of the talks from this conference have been streamed and there’ll be a link to that below. But just to get the ball rolling, I’m going to ask: what is it we’re talking about? I mean “millenarianism”, “millennialism”, “apocalypticism”: are these different terms? What do they mean? Joe, maybe you could get the ball rolling on that?

Joseph Webster (JW): OK, yes. It’s an interesting question. I’m not so sure that I have a clear answer, possibly because a clear answer doesn’t exist. I think these terms have been used for a very long time, interchangeably. Sometimes, that’s because of potentially sloppy scholarship on behalf of those who are using the terms. On the other hand, part of the answer might be that these terms – particularly millenarianism and millennialism – have been, to some extent, interchangeable. The OED – which isn’t the final word on these conversations but still, nevertheless – the OED does define these terms as synonyms. The way that millenarianism is used in anthropology – the discipline that I come from – tends to see millennialism as more distinctly Christian than millenarianism; millenarianism being treated as a broader term that has resonances with the Cargo Cult literature and the Ghost Dance literature. However, again, that’s not universally true. Some scholars within anthropology do use millennialism as a way to refer to Cargo Cults and the Ghost Dance. So, whilst I don’t think there’s any clear definitional answer, my assumption would be that the best way to proceed is how the groups themselves use these terms. And they don’t, actually, tend to use of either of those terms for themselves. So let’s take it from there.

Tristan Sturm (TS): I would add to that “apocalypticism”. And I think we can think about apocalypticism versus millennialism – which is the distinction I would use – as two sides of the same coin. The Apocalypse or apocalypticism, meaning unveiling, happens before the Millennium: 1000 years, or a period of time after which the world ends. So, I would understand it that way; I would teach that to my students. I would say apocalypticism is the events before the sort-of  Revelation – or the end of the world – and the Renewal is the Millennium. That’s how I would understand it. And I think, using apocalypticism versus millennialism is important in certain cases. Apocalypticism is useful, of course, for various secular movements who don’t believe in a Renewal, a new world, right? Whether that would come from climate change; Trumpism – potentially – for some individuals; and for others, equally, Barrack Obama, right? That doesn’t have, necessarily, a Christian or any religious overlay over it. We can still use the term apocalypticism – and I think many social theorists do – to talk about things like climate change and the severity of the series of events that would happen from that.

DR: We’re often, when we hear about apocalypticism, millennialism, we’re often hearing about these cults, these controversial new religious movements. Eileen, maybe you’d speak to this? Is there some necessary connection between new religious movements and apocalyptic millennial thinking?

Eileen Barker (EB): No.

DR: Then why is it so often connected in the public mind?

EB: Well, it’s quite frequent that millennial groups, or millenarian groups or apocalyptic groups will be termed cults. And cults, sort-of technically, usually means some kind of religious or non-religious movement that’s in tension with society in some ways. There’s a sort-of classic division between the cult and the sect, which are in tension with society and a denomination of the church, which aren’t. But, technically, that’s one thing. But just generally, in popular parlance, to say something is a cult means: “it’s a religion I don’t like”. And it’s not really very much more than that. (5:00) I mean, I often get asked: “Is it a real religion, a genuine religion, or is it a cult?” And you’ve just got to say, “Well, what do you mean by a cult?” and one man’s, or one woman’s cult is a another person’s religion. Nobody says, “I belong to a cult.” Not seriously. They might say it as a joke, or in self-defence. Now, some of these movements on which people put the label of cult are millenarian, but most of them are not. Well, I wouldn’t like to say how many are and how many aren’t, but the two don’t necessarily go together – except that it’s more likely that the millenarian groups are a sub-group of cult. But you get millenarianism in denominations and in church – if you’re just looking at the tension with society – so it goes either way. You’ve got to be terribly clear what you’re talking about. And sometimes such categories are useful, but quite often they just obscure.

DR: Indeed.

EB: So, say what you’re talking about!

Moojan Momen (MM): And I think we need to bear in mind that, even Christianity itself , when it first arose – if you read the Gospels – you’ll see there that they are talking about how Christianity is fulfilling prophecy. So Christianity is, therefore, a millenarian movement in Judaism and was probably regarded as a cult by other Jews. So, we’re talking about a history of religion developing gradually from being a cult, to being a sect, to being a religion.

DR: And how important is prophecy? Is this an essential aspect here?

EB: I think so, almost by definition. Because you’re expecting something to happen. So you have some kind of knowledge that’s come from somewhere. Now it might just be in your own little brain, but usually there’s somebody who says . . . or a book or something that can be read as saying . . . . So, there’s some sort of “saying” what’s going to happen in the future. It’s future-oriented.

DR: Yes. But it’s not entirely about the future?

EB: Oh no. No, I’m not saying that. It’s necessary but not sufficient.

DR: It’s a good in.

JW: Yes, I think that’s right. I think one of the key aspects to whether we’re talking about millenarian movements, or apocalyptic movements, or millennialism, is the way in which temporality and time are really central to what’s going on. And crucially, I think, the way in which parts of time, which we customarily think of as very distinct, actually end up collapsing into each other and becoming conflated. So: the present being seen as a very unique moment when prophecy is being fulfilled; when things that were said of the future are coming to pass right now; but also that the present is seen as deeply resonant with an ancient past. Look at the way in which the Christian groups, for instance, that are most dispensational – groups like the Brethren, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Baptist groups – certainly look at today’s age as morally bankrupt and immediately reach back into the Old Testament past for examples of the same: Sodom and Gomorrah, the days of Noah, the days of the Tower of Babel. And, immediately, what that does is it transforms the present into something that is not only future-oriented, but is deeply indebted to, and is seen as a replaying of ancient past Biblical events.

EB: Of course the Abrahamic faiths, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, have a linear view of history: that there’s a past, we’re in present and there is a future. And they’re promising something about the future. But we should remember that a lot of new religions, cults, sects, traditional religions, are cyclical. And they see time in this sort-of birth, death, rebirth etc. Now, sometimes it’s an upwards spiral. Sometimes you go through various ages. But they’re not just sort-of straight lineal like they are in the Abrahamic [faiths], which lend themselves more to apocalyptic visions because there’s something happening. But within Hinduism you can get different ages, which can be very different. And the New Age, indeed. There’s something very fundamental that’s changing in society, which is what’s expected in these kind of movements.

TS: I would agree, but I also think, prior to say the Enlightenment, prior to Hobbes or someone like that, you would see, I think, a cyclical idea within Christianity, still. (10:00) I’m taking this from Reinhart Koselleck and he says, you know, the ideas of the Apocalypse didn’t really emerge in the everyday life of Christians until, really, the period of the Enlightenment, with the idea of progress, and the Kantian idea that because the past is different, the future must also be different. And so we get this idea that the Apocalypse isn’t part of a cycle, a scaled-up everyday cycle of seasons, that we would see with a lot of individuals. So, I think there is a change actually happening around the end of the 16th century, where we’re moving even out of a Christian cyclicalism to a more linear idea of the future. And I would add to that that I think now the future is becoming more important. And it’s been studied I think, even across disciplines, it’s becoming this tag term, that we’re trying to theorise now. And I think here of Susan Harding, for example, who talks about “memories of the future”. And she talks about, you know, that the future is a kind of memory. We have an idea of the past and those are kind-of memories as well, outside of history. We’re selective about the memories that we want to bring to the present and give continuity to the way things are. In the same way, we do that with the future. We kind-of know how the future’s going to play out. We have a sort of selectivity of ideas. There are certain paths that we’re pretty sure are more likely to happen that others. And we go down those paths. And prophecy functions in a similar way. It tries to close off the way the future could go. It sort-of says, “Well, this is the likely space that the future will go.” And so it’s closing off of the future. And we have a kind of memory of the future. We re-member ideas from the future. And we all do this. We do this with our jobs, how we foresee our lives are going to go. And they more-or-less do take place the way we probably thought that they would, given a certain level of difference there. And so, I would say that about time. And I also . . . and there’s a book that I really like. It’s called “The Past is a Foreign Country” and he says that we’re selective about our pasts. But I would say that the future is also a foreign country where we’re selective about the future that we want to bring, to give meaning to our present. And, you know, St Augustine said this as well. He said that there’s no such thing as the past or the future. There’s only the present past, the present present, and the present future. And he’s referring to that kind of presentism, I think, that exists across religions and everyday life. And that’s really where we only exist.

DR: Well, I think an interesting and very important part of millennial thinking and prophetic thinking is that it places the individual right at this axis point of history. As you say, you know, it’s the memories of history: a narrative construction, leading to this point and you have various futures branching out. And something about apocalyptic and millennialism, when it becomes involved in violence particularly, is that sometimes it’s seen that in order for the future to go one way there has to be some sort of violent or cataclysmic change; which brings us to the issue of violence, then. Is there a necessary connection between millenarianism and violence? Or is that only in the popular imagination?

EB: Absolutely not.

JW: I couldn’t agree more. I see nothing within millenarianism that makes it essentially violent. And I think the other important point to make is that not only do we “other” millenarian groups, by often assuming that they are violent, but we normalise ourselves – the secular, the non-religious, the mainstream – as something that is somehow essentially non-violent. So we make cults and sects and millenarianism essentially violent and we make the mainstream somehow essentially non-violent. And I think both are completely false. The evidence just does not stack up.

MM: And, of course, we’re sitting here at the Panacea Society, which was a millenarian movement that was not at all violent, so . . . . And, in fact, probably the vast majority of millenarian movements are not violent. It requires a certain set of circumstances to lead a millenarian movement to violence. And the vast majority of them don’t have that set of circumstances.

TS: Can I add to that?

DR: Yes, absolutely.

TS: I guess I’m interested in the way we’re using the word “violence”, here. I think we’re talking about overt, coercive types of violence. But I think discourse or language can be violent as well. (15:00) I think certain other, “small v” forms of violence take place as well. And they take place outside of . . . they’re not exclusive or endemic to millennial movements, they happen in everyday life. I’m speaking here of a kind of power that we exact on all sorts of things. And millennial movements, apocalyptic movements are a different kind of normative discourse and they challenge the dominant normative discourses that Joe was just talking about, right? In a sense they’re kind-of doing a violence: they’re trying to change the way we think about the world. Our normative way that we think about the world is not the right way, it’s not the absolute truth. It’s truth because more people believe it than often the millennial and apocalyptic movements. That doesn’t mean there’s not a kind of violence that’s going on there: there is.

DR: Absolutely.

EB: I’d like to add that a lot of the movements are actually pacifist and they work hard for pacifism. And it’s very interesting that today, while this is being recorded – April 6th – the Jehovah’s Witnesses are – perhaps it’s already happened – being threatened with entire extinction from Russia, because they are absolutely non-violent. They’re in prison in places like South Korea because they’re conscientious objectors. They won’t kill. They’re prepared to be killed. They were killed in Auschwitz, for example. Unlike the Jews and the homosexuals and the Gypsies, who were going to suffer anyway, the Jehovah’s Witnesses could have said, “No, we’ll obey the state”, and they didn’t. They preferred to be killed rather than this.

DR: Mmm.

EB: Because they just refused to do certain things. And the group that you were talking about today, also tried to be pacifist. And so it’s not just that they’re not violent. They will work against sometimes. But of course, some are violent with a capital V.

MM: Yes, the group that I was talking about today was historically the Bábis of Iran. They were a precurser of what is today the Bahai faith. But in mid-19th century Iran they were a group that became very popular, spread very rapidly. And the leader of this group worked very hard to diffuse the violent possibilities, because he claimed to be the Mahdi – and people were expecting the Mahdi to come and lead an army to victory. So they were expecting a violent result from Mahdi coming, and the Báb worked very hard to diffuse that potential for violence. And, really, one of the main factors that eventually did lead to violence, as a result of this movement, was the fact that the Báb was removed from his ability to lead his followers. Because he was imprisoned in a fortress, right up in the northwest corner of the country, and therefore cut off from his followers and prevented from leading his followers in the way that he wanted to.

DR: Did you want to add something there, Joe?

JW: Well, this is an issue that we’ve been discussing throughout the day. I think, when we speak about violence, when we speak about the way in which pacifism within new religious movements is often ignored . . .

EB: Or, seen as dangerous and violent!

JW: Indeed. . . where the refusal to fight becomes a type of extremism. I think, connected to this, is the way in which, in some cases scholars, and in other cases political entities – governmental agents – try and explain away millenarian movements rather than explain them. And, I guess, by that I mean that they have a tendency to look for external causes of behaviour: explanations which, wholesale, refuse to countenance the possibility that the local native account – emerging from within the religious movement in question – might have something to contribute to an understanding of why that movement is doing what it’s doing; or in some cases, not doing what it’s not doing, for instance, fighting. So if we try, as scholars, to begin to break down the idea that religious movements are saying and doing one thing and on the other hand our job is to analyse them in ways that are alien to that movement and external to that movement; if we begin to break down that process of explanation, I think we might begin to have a more fertile understanding of what new religious movements are, or what millennial movements are. Because we can learn things from them in ways that very often we simply refuse to acknowledge.

DR: Absolutely. (20:00) And that’s something I talk about a lot, especially. . . . It’s part of the heritage of Religious Studies to be talking about beliefs, and particularly about deviant beliefs, and sometimes going as far as pathologising these kind of ways of viewing the world. But your work, I know, is talking about things that are very relevant to today: you mentioned Trump earlier on. And when these political movements, for instance, suddenly start to engage with other millenarian kind-of ideas, I think it shocks people when they actually realise, “ well, maybe this is more normal” than they perhaps realised.

TS: I think there’s a couple of things going on here, right? Let’s start with Trump. One of Trump’s main security advisers, Steve Bannon, has his own millennial perspective: something he calls the Fourth Turning. He gets this from a series of books on generations, which is a kind of secular apocalypse: that the world is getting bad, capitalism is being destroyed, traditional culture is being broken down, and he needs to take action to do something about that. In other ways, some millennial groups align themselves with political groups, right? And maybe their action is something as simple and normative as voting. It’s not really taking action. In fact, many of the groups that I study – Christian Zionists [for example] – are fatalistic. They’re pacifists, in the sense that they don’t actually take any kind of physical action, but they might vote. But we might even argue that doing nothing sometimes is still taking a side, right? So the groups that I study, the Pilgrims – the Christian Zionist programmes from the United States, going to Israel and Palestine – they’re not doing anything to contribute to the conflicts that I write about, directly. But indirectly they are, insofar as they support a tourism industry; they support a particular political ideology, both in Israel and America that might actually take physical violence, or take the form of physical violence. So, in a sense, they’re pacifists but they’re still involved, or part of the assemblage of violence, I would argue.

DR: So when violence does arise, then, what is difference? What happens there? What is the process by which a group minority or majority becomes violent? I mean, there are well-known cases, obviously: Waco seems to be the sort of paradigmatic account today, at the conference; but Heavens Gate as well; Jonestown. What is it that causes violence in these unusual cases?

EB: Well, they’re all different. Part of our job, as scholars, is to look at the particulars in order to try and compare them, in order to see the similarities and differences, and pull out some of the threads and similarities. But there aren’t a certain number of similarities, and the other things are different: there are groups; there are categories; there are clusters; bundles of things that seem to go together; and the sort of tension that Joe was talking about earlier between the internal reasons and the external reasons – and Stuart Wright had a paper, today, which talked about this – and the importance of seeing the interaction between the two. And you can’t predict by doing one or the other: it’s seeing how the two react on each other. And these can lead to spirals of what criminologists call “deviance amplification”: each side does something that’s slightly bad in the other side’s view and gives the other side permission to be slightly worse. And so it grows. . . and then – wham! And Waco is an example of that. But Waco is very, very unusual, thank goodness! There are cases where you can see this writ large – and they’re easy to see – and therefore we focus on them, because they give us a kind of template, or an idea, against which we can measure the other movements which are not like that. And I think it’s very important that we keep remembering that they’re not like that, and that we look at the other ones and take those into our calculation, as well. I think that’s important. I think the reason why Waco – or perhaps another example would be Aum Shinrikyo – becomes paradigmatic is because, there is some sense in which we’ve already come to the study of Millenarian movements having decided that they are somehow profoundly different to religions at large. And therefore, by a process of scholarly selection by us, we simply focus on those cases which fit the paradigm. (25:00) This is the classic case of “normal science”: that we simply look for evidence which fits pre-existing paradigms and conveniently – or, in some cases, very inconveniently – ignore all the other counter examples; and the theories – or, in some cases, prejudices – that we have of these groups are wrongly reinforced. And another consequence of this is, as Eileen says: many of the groups that are committed to non-violence – or don’t even feel the need to commit themselves to non-violence because they are so inherently non-violent that that commitment doesn’t need to made – that those groups are simply ignored. Many people don’t focus on those groups because they simply don’t fit the prejudices that we seem to have within the scholarship.

EB: I think we have to make the distinction between the violence that is done to a group and violence that the group does. And nearly all the violence is done – again with a capital V – is done to their own members. Some are done to people that they know, personally, who they don’t like. And very, very few are done to strangers: Aum Shinrikyo is an example, but one of the very few; the Manson family is another one. But, mostly, the harm is internal rather than externally directed. Most of them expect that God, or something, will happen: the Apocalypse or Armageddon will happen. Now, they might have to be the midwife – and that’s another quite interesting question that we haven’t touched on yet, is: what happens when prophecy fails, when they expect this great big change? But I think it’s important to remember that very, very few go around killing people. That tends to be the traditional major religions – the churches and the denominations – who’ve got the money and the armies. Now, of course, it might be different if they get hold of sarin gas or something, but this happened very much . . . .

DR: This ties into what you were saying before, about the importance . . . . We have to generalise, to some degree, to make cross-comparisons, but we have to remain aware of the important differences all the time. And, a lot of the time, these groups that we’re comparing – the actual violence that we’re talking about is very, very different. And you also have cases like Heaven’s Gate, where there’s very little evidence of coercion there. I mean, if you watch the exit videos that the members shot, for instance, they’re going quite happily into that situation with their eyes fully open. It’s only from our external point of view that it can be described as violence at all – largely because of going into it, or looking at it, with this kind of brainwashing mentality that earlier discourses on new religions bought into, which is very much discredited now.

EB: And they were only harming themselves.

DR: Exactly

EB: And Joe ought to jump down on me immediately, because they didn’t see themselves as harming . . . .

JW: Of course!

EB: They saw themselves as being ‘transitionised”, or whatever the word was?

JW: Going to the level above the human, TELAH. Yes, I think that’s a really interesting point: that what he have here is – to bring it back to your question about failed prophecy, and this does link to violence . . . . Whether or not we can genuinely point to groups like Heaven’s Gate; or classic historical case studies like the Millerites; or Festinger’s famous book about cognitive dissonance, using the Seekers – even if we leave violence in the equation, or if we take it out – there is still the enduring question about: does prophecy for these groups ever fail at all?

EB: Oh, it does!

JW: Well see, I’m not so sure about that. When I think about Heaven’s Gate I think about the fact that they ended their lives and – as far as we’re aware, as far as they’re aware – made a successful journey to where they were going. The same, I think, can be said with the Seekers and Mrs Keech: the idea that the prophecy did not fail, the flood didn’t fail to arrive, it wasn’t a failure, it was them successfully spreading enough light to call the floods off. The Seventh Day Adventists did not explain away a failure of Millerite prophecy. It seems to me that Ellen White simply realised that Miller’s prophecy was correct but that the revolution began in heaven, not on earth. So, I’m intrigued to hear your pushback on that. In what cases does prophecy really fail?

EB: Well there are some groups that have said, “Oops, we got it wrong!” (30:00) I can’t remember his name. The man who – it was May sometime about 4 or 5 years ago – Radio something . . .

All: Harold Camping

JW: Family Radio

EB: Now, he said . . .

DR: After a couple of events, yes!

EB: And, at that time, he said “God got it wrong”, according a newspaper headline!

DR: Which is one of the techniques mentioned in Festinger’s books, actually: that the transmission was garbled and – reception issues.

EB: You can get the reception wrong; you can have it happening in the spirit world – like with Joanna Southcott and lots of others; you can have people saying, “Well, because we did this, we stopped the terrible thing happening”; or you can say, “Because they didn’t do this, God didn’t come yet. We weren’t ready. We didn’t listen to the Messiah, telling us what to do.” There are a whole lot of different ways out. But there are those that . . . . There was a chap – again, I can’t remember, I want to say Garland – he was a Chinese chap in America. And he said, “I’ll come out and apologise if nothing’s happened.” And he came out and apologised. This was about ten years ago. He was Chinese, or he was Oriental of some kind.

DR: Well, hopefully, one of the listeners can tell us who it is in the comments.

EB: I’m sure they will. And provide other examples.

DR: I hope they do.

TS: I want to add to this conversation about “small v” versus “big V” violence. I think, one way in which small v violence takes place is . . . Harold Camping is a good example. A lot of people – thousands of people – sold their houses, they went into debt; they expected this to happen. That had a tremendous amount of violence on their families and their lives. They moved into forests, they bought bunkers. This is a form of violence, right? I think another form of violence, that wasn’t really talked about in the conference, is spatial violence: the way that these groups imagine spaces in particular ways; homogenised spaces; map spaces; understand whole groups of people in homogenised ways and treat them in certain ways. And some of these groups are aligned with state power. Sometimes the state see them as a threat, and disciplines them with large V Violence. And sometimes they align themselves with the state: with large V Violence; by their voting for them; by their interests. We’re seeing this at the moment with Donald Trump – he’s doing all sorts of violence to homosexuals, to women’s rights over their body, these sorts of things – aligning themselves with larger Christian movements like Christian Zionists, like pre-millennial dispensationalist, right. . . that are doing violence to all sorts of other people within the electorate. And also, in terms of foreign policy, the way that Americans understand Muslims, the war in Iraq, right? These are all contributing factors. I think maybe the mistake, then, is to look at just the millennial movement. You have to see the effects that they have outside of their movement, right? Their social effects. Look at Marxism, for example. This is a good example . . . . Or another point, maybe, I want to make is the difference between belief and practice. So, we have textual beliefs – we have written documents, for a lot of these groups – and then we have the way people actually act, which are two different things. You know, would someone say that Stalin was a true Communist – a true Marxist – who murdered millions of people? Is that an example? Marxism is a form of millennialism: it’s clearly interpreted and was influenced by Jewish and Christian thought, in the way that there is a kind of . . . . Capitalism kind-of reaches a point where it can’t abide, it fails, and then we have a kind of proletariat millennialism afterwards. So the practice and belief is also a discussion that we need to have, within these discussions.

DR: Unfortunately, I’m going to have to do small v violence to the conversation and to return to the subject of time! We have been talking about this all day. We could continue to talk about it all evening, and we will be talking about it again, tomorrow. For the viewer and listener I urge you to check out the millennialism, on new religious movements, on violence and these kind of issues. Other than that, I would like to thank all of our participants for taking part. And thanks for watching.


Citation Info:, Barker, Eileen, Moojan Momen, Joseph Webster, Tristam Strum. 2017. “Millennialism and Violence?” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 18 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/millennialism-and-violence/

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Minority Religions in the Secret Police Archives

CaptureJames Kapaló takes us inside the Eastern European secret police archives to show us how minority and new religious groups were portrayed. We explore the visual and material presence of religious minorities in the secret police archives in Hungary, Romania and the Republic of Moldova. In particular, we look at Inochentism, a new religious movement in Moldova and Romania. In the discussion, we consider the theoretical and methodological issues in working in archives suh as these, and the historiography of NRMs. We also discuss the complexity of the religious field in post-Communist Europe.

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


Minority Religions in the Secret Police Archives

Podcast with James Kapaló  

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

David Roberston (DR): I’m here in Edinburgh, on a beautiful sunny day, and I’m pleased to be joined by Dr James Kapaló from the University College, Cork, where he’s Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion. First of all: welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

James Kapaló  (JK): Thank you, I’m pleased to be here.

DR: And we’re pleased to be talking to you today about your research programme, which is called “Creative Agency in Religious Minorities: Hidden Galleries in the Secret Police Archives in Central and Eastern Europe”. And the obvious place to start, then, is to tell us a little bit about the project.

JK: Great, well, its a bit of a mouthful! But the project really focuses on the secret police archives as a resource for the history and anthropology, let’s say, of contemporary religions in the region. And anyone that knows a little bit about Eastern European history, will be familiar with the authoritarian, sort-of communist regimes, and before them the fascist regimes, that held sway in most of the region. And with the change of system that came in 1989-1990 , the fall of the Berlin Wall, the secret police archives – the archives of the security services – began to be opened up to victims, but also to the scholarly community, to research, to look into. And this created a dramatic change, if you like, in the study of religions in the region. I mean, prior to that, there was a lot of Western scholarship on East and Central Europe, and that was very much of a kind of “advocacy” scholarship type. So, because groups were persecuted under Communism, Western scholars tended to advocate for their human rights, political rights and so on. Post the change of system, the archives took on an identity as the site of “truths” about that past: truths in the sense that people wanted to discover, you know, who the agents had been, who the collaborators had been. The focus was on mainstream political actors, but also mainstream religious figures from the period: bishops that had been arrested and incarcerated, sometimes died, and so- on. So the archive represented an opportunity. But at the heart of the use of the archives there’s a central paradox, which was that these archives were produced by authoritarian, totalitarian regimes, which were discredited. But at the same time, they were considered to hold truths about the period. So, the opening of the archive actually created a lot of controversy. There were blackmail cases, especially of high-profile politicians and religious figures, who were compromised by the findings. It was all part of a process called “lustration”, which was, in post-Communism, vetting people that will go into the public sphere to check that they were not compromised by their past. So, from a Study of Religions perspective, there are some important questions – if you like some dilemmas – to face the scholar. And in 2014, I was lucky enough to spend . . . . I had a sabbatical, so I spent six months in the secret service archives in Romania, and also a couple of months in the Republic of Moldova, looking at KGB files. And what I discovered was that they also contain – apart from containing these incredible biographies of people’s lives, which were collected by agents and often extracted under duress in quite extreme circumstances, sometimes – they also contain a gallery of confiscated materials, artistic products. (5:00) So, not generally the kind of more impressive forms of art, but the ephemera of religious lives: pamphlets, leaflets, photographs, hymns, poems, notebooks, postcards – all this kind of stuff are in the archive. And this is when I began to think about: how than those archives be used in a different way, that will perhaps will not endanger the archive? Because the archives were under threat of closure in a couple of Eastern European countries, because of all the scandals. And scholars across the globe actually campaigned for those archives to remain open. But it highlighted the fact that they needed to be used in a different way. They need to be investigated not simply as sites of truth. It was all about truth and texts: texts that tell us the truth . . . about what happened at a particular time. But they also contain this visual material component. And so that is really what the project is all about. It’s looking into the archives to explore this material. We’re taking a material religion approach, or vernacular religion approach, to the materials that are there, but also beginning to question the legitimacy of those archives to hold sacred materials. The question of the legitimacy of colonial archives in museums to hold the sacred patrimony of indigenous peoples is well-known. It’s been going for several decades now. But no-one’s ever thought about that in the European contexts. We have these archives of stuff which are the product of an arbitrary power, exerted over a population. But what is their right to retrieve those confiscated items? So, the project has a couple of stages. The first stage is the basic research phase: what’s out there? It will be the mapping and creation of a digital archive on the basis of that and, obviously, the production of general scholarly work about what we can learn about cultural production and material production under authoritarianism: how religious communities used new media, photo montage, film to get their message across. The history of the use of new media for political purposes, from the same period, is well-written. But no-one’s written anything about how religious groups, especially religious minorities, managed to engage with those new media. So that’s the first stage. The second stage, then, is taking some of those items back to the communities that produced them. I mean, we’re talking, now – there’s probably a generation gap. But we’ll be fortunate enough to find some people still alive that remember the production, and the context within which those items were confiscated by the security services. So we go back to the communities and explore the meaning of that period, and the material and visual artistic products of the period, in the light of the changes that have taken place since. Because what we have today is the emergence of democracies and more open societies across Eastern Europe, and that is something that perhaps we in the West take for granted. But the societal prejudices that would underlie, and were constructed by, these extreme regimes were extremely wary of new religious groups that emerged.

DRAnd religion at all, in many cases, yes.

JK: More so than mainstream religious groups. There’s been a lot of research – church history, if you like – of mainstream groups and how they managed the situation. But religious minorities – “sectants”, as they were generally referred to – were considered to be especially dangerous, so they were subjected to the most intense oppression and persecution. So, the project will engage with those communities, try and understand how they relate to those objects now, begin a new conversation with the institutions that hold them. And this is, again, building on. . . . There’s a movement in museology – the new museology, the New Museum Movement – that really engage critically with: ethically, what do you do with materials are, perhaps, compromised by the means by which they were collected? So, posing those questions of the institutions is the final phase, and an exhibition will be constructed on that basis.

DR: Wonderful. We’ve talked about this idea of cultural. . .  how we deal with displaying and talking about – for want of a better word – ethnographic material in museums but also in other contexts, quite a few times in the religious studies project. But this is a really interesting example. You’ve kind-of touched on this already, but we’re well used to this post-colonial critique of the ins and outs of displaying, the cultural products of “far away” countries, you know, with – I’m doing scare quotes – “primitive people” and their indigenous religions. (10:00) But we’ve not been so good at applying that same critique to cultures closer to home. And do you think this project has anything to offer that?

JK: Oh, certainly. And I think there are two aspects of that, in terms of the project. One is that, as an ongoing debate in the study of East/Central Europe about the relationship between post-socialism – studies of post-socialism – and post-colonialism. Because many of the societies were actually post-colonial societies as well as being post-socialism: the two overlay each other. So, the importation of post-colonial discourses into East /Central European Studies is ongoing. And it started around questions of difficult knowledge around heritage sites and so on. So that’s the emergence of a movement there. The other is around questions of inclusivity in society, and the way that the vast differences that you talked about, between the ethnographic other and the self, have actually completely collapsed. I mean, the world is that much smaller in that we no longer can take for granted the fact that [for example,] the materials I have from indigenous peoples in Brazil are not going to be visited by indigenous Brazilians – they will be!

DR: Yes.

JK: So that has collapsed. It’s coming to that realisation that it was the product of the ethnographic eye – the ethnographic colonial eye – but also romantic nationalism in Europe where peasants were the “other”. Again the classic peasant class, in anthropological terms, has disappeared but we continue to display things as if, in Ireland, for example, there’s a romantic West of Ireland that was Irish speaking and epitomised the nation. That same problematic goes for, you know, peoples within most nation states in Europe that could be exoticised and represented as an “other”. And what we’re trying to do with this is collapse that . . .  the engaged part of the project, I mean: inclusivity – a more inclusive and holistic narrative; to try and encourage mainstream society to question their distancing of the enemy, the “other”, the heretic, the sectant, and so on; to see the human stories behind those, which have tended not to find a place within scholarship.

DR: Yes. And what’s very interesting is that the distance is not only collapsed geographically, but chronologically as well. I mean, I’m old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, so we’re talking about something within recent living memory. And I think there’s an important message there that we can apply to ethnography in general. We tend to see – when we’re talking about these so-called “primitive” cultures – that, as soon as we arrive as colonials and as scholars, that we’ve somehow changed this eternal, timeless tradition, that was always there. But the more ethnography that we do, we realise that things are constantly shifting. And this is an example,  within living memory for me, of it changing once. But there would be older people, as you have said, who would remember that situation even starting. And so we have two dramatic changes within living memory. And who’s to say that’s not been the case anywhere else?

JK: Absolutely, I mean one of the classic critiques of early anthropology, Malinowski in particular, was that the impact of British colonialism is not felt through his work, and yes, there’s this idea that when the academic arrives, when the scholar or the ethnographer arrives, you somehow sort of “create meaning” around a place, which is – OK,  it’s translatable to other cultures, to an elite, but for the people that lived at that time, it’s their time, it was their life, it is part of a continuity that on-goes. You know, I’m old enough, myself, to remember very well the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was actually in Budapest at the time, with some friends.

DR: (laughs) Nice!

JK: And we were surrounded by East Germans waiting to cross the Berlin Wall. But I think my whole scholarly trajectory relates to the Iron Curtain. My father was a refugee from Hungary, in 1956.

DR: I see.

JK: (15:00) And as soon as I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve been visiting Hungary through the ’80s – the end of the Communist era when things were beginning to become a bit more relaxed. But I returned to Romania, to begin to do research, immediately after the fall of Communism. And this is where I witnessed this incredible upsurge in interest in religion, plus the arrival of large numbers of American US Missionaries from various denominations. Many Baptists and so on, but also many Hare Krishnas and different religious movements all descended on Eastern Europe and they were incredibly popular to begin with. At the same time, there was a resurgence of the mainstream churches, who tried to recapture that public space that they’d lost during Communism. So I think that experience – I was in my late teens / early twenties – has been on the backburner and what leads, ultimately, to the project that we’re starting now. I think, so yes – a general point: I think biographies of scholars are really important. And it helps us be critical of our own positions.

DR: Yes, yes.

JK: And so when something is – like this – actually quite close to my research topic, I think it’s appropriate to expose where I’ve come from, and maybe pre-empt some of the criticisms that could be levelled at the project. Because it’s far more engaged than many contemporary Study of Religions or Religious Studies Projects would be. But I draw the line at being. . .  or, I try and delineate a position between advocacy and engaged scholarship. For me, there’s a very clear separation there.

DR: I was going to ask: what particular kinds of new religious movements, or minority religions, are we talking about here? Are we predominantly talking about, you know, the religions of immigrants? Or are we talking about quite innovative new religious movements? What was the religious picture on the ground?

JK: So, again, going back to the sort of description of the inspiration of the project, there’s a lot of scholarship. . . . Well, what characterises scholarship on religions in Eastern Europe today? Two very strong currents are: scholarship from the West, funded by institutions in the West, that have looked at all of the main missionary – Christian missionary – religions that were present in Eastern Europe and were persecuted so:  Jehovah Witnesses, Adventists, Baptists, Evangelicals of different kinds. So, there’s a large body of historical scholarship on those communities. At the same time, within the region, scholars from those communities have gone into the archive and have decided to write their own histories of their oppression and persecution. So the project doesn’t actually look at those groups.Because there’s  another group that’s fallen off the radar, which are the more kind-of locally-inspired groups that formed around local charismatic leaders, or local powerful pilgrimage sites, around prophets and seers, behind monks and priests, that came into conflict with the church – often because they felt the church had been compromised by its engagement with or collaboration with the regime. So one group, in particular, that I’ve been looking at for the last four or five years now, is called “Inochentism”. It comes from an Orthodox monk named Ioan Inochentie Levizor. He comes

Inochentist women

Inochentist women

from the border region between Russia and Romania. And he initiated a charismatic movement that soon became labelled a sect, and operated underground for over a hundred years. So, during the end of the Tsarist Russian period, during the Fascist period in Romania and during Communism in Romania and the Soviet Union, the group lived underground, digging underground cells and communities and producing a very distinctive visual culture of their own – a very distinctive literary culture of their own. That really can’t be put down simply to resistance. I don’t like reducing any movement to resistance. But actually, there’s a powerful dialogical relationship between the exertion of power on religious communities and the way that they can respond, and it gives birth to these creative responses. So, one of the key terms we’re using, when talking about the project, is: it’s taking emphasis away from religious communities as victims and looking at religious communities as creative communities.

DR: (20:00) We’ve talked to Milda Ališauskienė recently about the beginnings of the academic study of RS in that part of the world. And you touched on a similar point that she did, and that we talked about at the time: how, it’s interesting that for a part of the world that is ostensibly very Christian – I mean there’s variation across the different countries, of course – yet there’s this enormous creativity within that Christian heritage. It’s a very different situation than we see in the Northern and Western European countries – perhaps more to do with the Protestant rather than Catholic context, I think, where we see this sort of religious innovation happening, or identifying as other than Christian. Is that something that you’ve found repeated in Romania and elsewhere?

JK: Yes, absolutely. So, I would stress, really, that each of the countries of Central Europe are very different from one another, and the project covers three: it covers the Republic of Moldova, which was in the Soviet union; Romania, which is the majority Orthodox country; and Hungary, which is split between mainly Catholic and Reformed. So, the project brings in these different cultural and religious settings. But, yes, there was an incredible yearning, if you like, for spirituality. And people – towards the end of the Soviet Union and in the immediate post-Soviet period – people experimented a lot with different forms of religious seeking, which wasn’t. . . . Much of it wasn’t beyond the pale for the Soviet regime and the Communist regimes. They were just wary of the formation of communities that might go alongside that, that would produce an alternate source of authority for groups. So that’s certainly the case. I mean the countries that I’ve worked in – Romania especially – is very strongly Orthodox today, in fact there’s been a massive revival in monasticism in Romania. So, I’d say on the whole, Romania has tended to stay within the Christian tradition, Protestant groups are becoming stronger, especially Pentecostals amongst the Roman community, which is a very interesting sort of area of investigation. It opens up all sorts of comparative possibilities with other parts of the world: Africa and Latin America where it’s similarly. . . Pentecostal forms of Christianity are very popular. But the influence of those groups – the global spread of Pentecostalism, for example – has not been really explored yet with Eastern Orthodoxy or within Catholicism in Eastern Europe, fully. So again, the group that I’m working on, they date back to 1909/1908, which is very soon after the first Pentecostal appeared in the region. And, coincidentally enough, the idea of the action of the Holy Spirit in the world was, sort of pre-eminent. And, in fact, the leader of the movement was considered to be the Holy Spirit embodied or incarnate, and possession, exorcism, healing were right at the heart of the movement. And women took on much greater, very important roles, had a greater range of competencies, if you like, within their religious communities. So these are all very interesting questions to do with the issues of gender and power and authority, and. . . .

DR: But also, they’re all features that we would expect to find in more typical New Age and Millennial new religious movements in the West. And even, just to take the classic example of  When Prophecy Fails  from the ‘50s, that’s exactly what we see. We see the central leader identifying as the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, we see prophecy, we see healing central, we see the role of women specifically as channellers: it’s exactly the same pattern that we would expect to see, except within this Christian context.

JK: And I think, what drives much of so many of those points, is also marginalisation.

DR: Yes.

JK: So the process of being marginalised, feeling marginalised, encourages certain religious responses. And that’s certainly what you see in Eastern Europe. I hesitate to use “Eastern Europe” or “Central Europe” in a blanket way, but. . .

DR: (25:00) It’s OK. We only give you twenty-five minutes, so we understand that sometimes there are some complications!

JK: The other point about the project – which I forgot to mention earlier, actually – is that we’ve chosen three different countries and three different societies. The project has another mission to try and encourage cross-cultural, and also inter-disciplinary, but transnational collaboration between Religious Studies scholars in Eastern/ Central Europe. I mean it already goes on, but I think there’s a lot more to be done. There’s a lot of barriers in terms of language, and this has obviously been overcome, to a certain extent, by the increasing use of English in the academic sphere. But I think there are a lot of issues and questions, that scholars in Lithuania, and Hungary, and Romania, and Moldova, and Ukraine have in common, that they can engage with much more vibrantly, if you like, across the region.

DR: Well that’s a perfect place to draw this to a close. Because the Religious Studies Project. . .  we’re striving to bring in scholars from this part of the world, particularly, and people talking about this part of the world. So, you know, we’ll certainly be featuring a lot more. . . . Hopefully we’ll be recording some at the EASR and the IAHR this year coming. Marion Bowman’s currently working on a project involving a lot of Eastern European scholars on the idea of pilgrimage, so hopefully we’ll speak to her. But, as an introduction to this field, this has been an absolute pleasure. So, thank you, James, for taking part in the Religious Studies Project.

JK: Thank you very much, again, for the invitation.


Citation Info: Kapaló, James 2017. “Minority Religions in the Secret Police Archives”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 8 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/minority-religions-in-the-secret-police-archives/

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New Horizons in the Sociology of Religion: Beyond Secularization?

Since September we have been running a series of podcasts, co-produced with the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) to celebrate their 40th anniversary. The series was entitled “New Horizons in British Sociology of Religion”, and began with “An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion” with Grace Davie, and has featured interviews with Dawn Llewellyn (on “Religion and Feminism“), Anna Strhan (on “Evangelicalism and Civic Space“), Naomi Thompson (on “Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality“), Mat Francis (on “Researching Radicalization“) and Titus Hjelm & Paul-Francois Tremlett (on “The Sociology of Religion and Religious Studies“). To conclude this series, we invited scholars from a variety of fields to contribute to a collaborative compilation episode, under the title “New Horizons in the earth-rising-sun-desktop-backgroundSociology of Religion: Beyond Secularization?”

In this longer-than-usual episode, Chris and David provide an interlinking narrative between Grace Davie, Joe Webster, Carole Cusack, Jonathan Jong, Paul-Francois Tremlett, Linda Woodhead and Kim Knott, reflecting on current or future developments in the sociology of religion which challenge the ubiquity of the secularization thesis, problematize it, or go beyond it. The key question: beyond secularization, what is the sociology of religion for you?

Many thanks to SOCREL for supporting this collaboration. Remember that you can keep the conversation going in the comments below each podcast and response, on our social media feeds, or by sending an email to the editors.

Also, check out some of our other great compilation podcasts: After the World Religions Paradigm…?; What is the future of Religious Studies?; and Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?

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, Turducken, dinosaur slippers, and more.

Communism and Catholicism: Religion and Religious Studies in Lithuania

Under Communism, religion was suppressed in the formerly Catholic Eastern European country of Lithuania until the 1990s. Milda Ališauskienė tells David Robertson about the religious field like in a country where religion was banned for half of the 20th century. Do we see a simple resurgence of Catholicism, or something more complex? What about New Religious Movements – are there new forms of vernacular Lithuanian religious expression? How does immigration affect this field?

indexThe second half of the interview discusses the practicalities of how you go about setting up and running a Religious Studies department in a post-Soviet country such as Lithuania. While there was no academic study of religion during the Soviet era, this has also affected the public perception of the need for such a study. This interview presents a fascinating inside look at the study of religion between two hegemonies – Communism and Catholicism.

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 Che Guevara T-shirts, Rosaries, Pokemon Go, and many other capitalist goods.

New Religious Movements and Contemporary Discourses About Religion

As I listened to Susan Palmer’s RSP interview and read about her new co-authored book (with Stuart A. Wright) Storming Zion: Government Raids on Religious Communities (2015), I was reminded why NRMs make such useful case studies in the religious studies classroom. From a pedagogical perspective, the study of NRMs offers a valuable resource for creative teaching and theorizing about religion. In my introductory classes, for example, I use Scientology to illustrate how NRMs have negotiated with the state in their quest for legitimacy. There is plenty of great scholarship to assign, and students are often surprised to learn how seemingly unrelated government agencies–the Food and Drug Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation–helped legitimate Scientology’s “religion” status.

One of the most useful parts of Palmer’s interview, then, is her insistence on paying attention to the words people use to describe NRMs. Winnifred Sullivan, in her recent book, argues that the US government (and the US Supreme Court in particular) increasingly understands “religion” as “being neither particularly threatening nor particularly in need of protection” (17). The trend, as Sullivan and others have noted, is increasingly to see people as religious by default, even (and perhaps especially) those people who do not see themselves as religious. What, then, are we to make of religious groups whose relationship with the state do not fit this mold? How do we explain relationships so contentious that they result in raids and gun battles? At first glance, the events chronicled in Palmer’s Storming Zion seem to be outliers. Yet Palmer and Wright suggest elsewhere that these kinds of raids are more common than one might suspect. Why?

One possible answer is that increased attention to religion by international governments and NGOs has not necessarily resulted in less problematic models of religion being used by these governments and groups. As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has pointed out in her recent book, what scholars understand as “religion” often makes for unwieldy government use. Hurd demonstrates how government classifications of religion are by necessity rigid and slow to respond to change, leading governments to understand and engage religion in a clumsy–and in Palmer’s studies, dangerous–fashion.

Of course, most of the large-scale government efforts directed at cultivating appropriate forms of religion aren’t directed at the kinds of groups Palmer studies. It boils down to size, as Palmer and Robertson both note: smaller groups can be more easily dismissed or ignored by those in power. This is another example of the way in which governments separate religious groups into what might be called “serious” and “unserious” camps, an approach sometimes replicated by the scholars who study them. Both Palmer and Davidson call for more work to be done to change this status quo. They would like to see groups with little political or social capital treated similarly to “big name” religions–the groups that get chapters devoted to them in World Religions textbooks. They would like to see, to paraphrase JZ Smith, how the “exotic” NRMs are just another example of “what we see in Europe everyday.” Smith notes the difference by explaining it as a tension “between religion imagined as an exotic category of human experience and expression, and religion imagined as an ordinary category of human expression and activity.”[1] (1). Thus, as Palmer points out, even the seemingly “exotic” components of NRMs–things like brainwashing and deprogramming–should be both historicized and theorized.[2]

These considerations are timely ones. Though the interview focuses on what religion scholars might expect to hear on work related to NRMs–Raelians, Scientologists, millennial movements of various stripes–I was struck by how much of what was discussed would apply to Islam. Robertson and Palmer note how the media and popular culture tend to portray NRMs in particularly dismissive or fear-inducing ways. As events of recent weeks have again reminded us, what do we make of the fact that Islam is often discussed using similar language? The same kinds of militarized policing tactics directed at NRMs have, in recent weeks, been endorsed by a number of candidates for U.S. president as a means to control Muslims in the United States and around the world.

There’s a relevant history to this “NRM-ization” of Islam, particularly in the United States. Those interested in Palmer’s work, and in her work on government raids on NRMs, should also make time for Sylvester Johnson’s African-American Religions, 1500-2000, specifically his study of the history of the US government’s surveillance of and violence towards African-American Muslims. Johnson’s work highlights many of the tensions Palmer identifies: how classificatory criticism (“authentic” religion versus “cults”) bolstered state action against the political claims of new and emerging religious groups (in this specific case, the Nation of Islam). As a result, Johnson argues, “US officials increasingly resorted to the specific grammar of terrorism to represent political Islam.”[3] While scholars do not usually place global Islam within the category of new religious movements, Johnson shows how this early racialization of Islam within the United States shapes how global Islam is treated by the US government today.

For someone like myself, interested in questions of law and religion, the tension between emerging religious groups and state authorities is one of particular importance. Susan Palmer’s interview is a great example of why new religious movements make such good tools with which scholars can think about the study of religion.

[1] Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University Of Chicago Press, 1982), xii.

[2] For one excellent and recent example, see Matthew Dunne, A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

[3] Sylvester Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 382.

Minority Religions and the Law

cult” and “sect” uncritically. Nevertheless, outside of academia, the language of “cults” continues to be used, and particularly through the law, has an affect on the lives of real people. Susan J. Palmer joins David G. Robertson to discuss the intersection between new or minority religions and the law. Professor Palmer describes how she came to study these minority groups, and to realise that they were often being misrepresented, or at least unduly targeted. Discussion ranges from Scientology in France to the Branch Davidians and the Nuwaubians in the US, with issues of secularity, race and “brainwashing” come to the fore. A fascinating overview for anyone interested in how the discourse on “religion” operates in the contemporary world.

Religion and the Law (Winnifred F. Sullivan), Studying “Cults” (Eileen Barker), and Is Britain still a Christian country? (Linda Woodhead), and feature essays by Daniel SillimanEssi Mäkelä, and Kevin Whitesides. 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, fake fir trees, playing cards, and more!

The Supernatural and the New Comparativism

Jeffrey J. Kripal tells David G. Robertson about his approach to studying “paranormal” and “supernatural” phenomena.

The conversation begins by explaining how Kripal came to be studying figures like Charles Fort and Whitley Strieber from a background in Hinduism. He then argues for a New Comparativism within the study of religion that will put “the impossible” back on the table again, and encourage a more even conversation between the sciences and the humanities. His suggestion is that we should put consciousness at the centre of studies in religion, suggesting a new approach to the sacred, and opening up new theoretical avenues.

Studying Non-Ordinary Realities, and Religious Studies and the Paranormal.

‘Religious Innovation and Religious Change in the 21st Century’ – 2015 CESNUR Conference Report

CESNUR (Centre for Studies on New Religions, Torino) Annual Conference 2015, Tallinn University, Estonia, 17-20 June. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Prof. Carole M. Cusack, Department of Studies in Religion, The University of Sydney

The 2015 CESNUR conference was held at University of Tallin, Estonia, and was organized by Dr Ringo Ringvee (The Estonian Ministry of Interior). The theme was ‘Religious Innovation and Religious Change in the 21st Century’. There were no plenary lectures, although the interesting address by Massimo Introvigne (President of CESNUR) at the conference dinner at the Von Krahl Theatre, on Friday 19 June, ‘The Sociology of Religious Movements and the Sociology of Time in Conversation’ performed something of that function. As CESNUR is an organization that welcomes members of new religions, there were ‘insider’ papers and responses from members of the Twelve Tribes, the Plymouth Brethren, and the Church of Scientology, among others.

Academic presentations included: Liselotte Frisk and Sanja Nilsson (Dalarna University), ‘Upbringing and Schooling of the Children of the Exclusive Brethren: The Swedish Perspective’; Bernard Doherty (Macquarie University), ‘Spooks and Scientologists: Secrecy, Surveillance, and Subversion in Cold War Australia, 1954-1983’; Tommy Ramstedt (Abo Akademi University), ‘Credibility, Authority, and the Paranormal: The Relation Between Science and Paranormal Claims Within the Finnish Alternative Spiritual Milieu’; Timothy Miller (University of Kansas), ‘Will the Hutterites Survive the 21st Century?’; Carole M. Cusack (University of Sydney), ‘Gurdjieff and Sufism: A Contested Relationship’; and Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney), ‘Kenja: Unique Australian NRM or Auditing Without an E-Meter?’

Tallinn, Estonia

The International Society for the Study of New Religions (ISSNR) held its third two-yearly meeting since it began in 2009 during the conference. This was a successful gathering that acknowledged the quality of the first five years of the International Journal for the Study of New Religion (Volumes 1-4 under the editorship of Carole M. Cusack and Liselotte Frisk, and Volume 5 under the current editorial team of Alex Norman and Asbjørn Dyrendal) and developed plans for the future, as the new President, Milda Ališauskienė (Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania) was elected. The meeting thanked the outgoing President, Jean François Mayer (Religioscope Institute, Switzerland). The ISSNR sponsored sessions at CESNUR as did it at the EASR in Budapest in September 2011.

The conference was well-attended, though the absence of long-time CESNUR stalwart J. Gordon Melton (Baylor University and the Institute for the Study of American Religion) due to extreme weather conditions that presented him travelling was noted by all. At the conference’s close after lunch on Saturday 20 June, members were taken by bus to the first of a series of sacred sites in Tallin, the Song Festival Grounds (Lauluväljak). The bus then dropped the group off in Toompea, the upper town, and Ringo Ringvee guided through sites including: the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral (from the outside); St Mary’s Cathedral (Dome Church or Toomkirik), the oldest church in Tallinn, formerly Catholic and now Lutheran; and the fascinating Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is a unobtrusively nested within the town walls, with a crypt filled with folk art, and a church with a distinctive iconostasis. The dedication is to the Virgin With Three Hands, and the complex also houses a crafts business, a small monastery, and the Ukrainian Cultural Centre. CESNUR 2016 will be in Seoul, Korea, from 28-30 June.

— Carole M. Cusack, University of Sydney

CSENUR 2015 online conference proceedings available HERE.

 

 

 

Religious Authority in a Post-Religious Society

The question of charismatic and spiritual authority has become ever more relevant in present day Japan, which is an exceedingly “non-religious but spiritual” nation. In her interview, Dr. Erica Baffelli introduces us to a wide variety of perspectives on creating, distributing, maintaining and defending religious authority that can be found within Japanese new religious movements (NRMs). Japanese religious leaders operate in a complex social landscape in which they must constantly maneuver between tradition and modernity, specificity and universalism, nation and world, in their quest for legitimacy. The variety of approaches that can be found among NRMs, and the persistence of non-Western views of history and ritual that call the applicability of the category “religion” into question, make the country’s religious landscape difficult to characterize, but Dr. Baffelli does an admirable job of summarizing some major avenues of study into Japanese religious authority.

As Dr. Baffelli and her interviewer describe, religious authority in Japan can be analyzed through categories such as space, body, text, politics, media, and technology. The differences between Japanese and Western formations of these subjects, as well as the diversity within Japan, can help shed light on the assumptions we make about how authority is acquired and asserted. For example, Western understandings of religious text are closely linked to the concept of a “scripture,” a divinely inspired, normative document. But Japan has traditionally had many different kinds of religious text, which are not necessarily considered inspired or treated as normative. Japanese NRMs offer us many different ways to derive authority from a text.

Dr. Baffelli points to a recent article by Clark Chilson, “Cultivating Charisma: Ikeda Daisaku’s Self Presentations and Transformational Leadership”, which is an excellent study of the Sōka Gakkai leader’s use of text, primarily the roman à clef epic Human Revolution, to distribute authority to his readers. As Chilson describes it, Ikeda’s readers are apprentices as he once was. They have been initiated into his path to the Truth and are now striving to mature their own capacities for leadership. Ikeda’s text describes how his authority was not granted to him exclusively, but was acquired through experience and can be passed on to any Gakkai member. Ikeda is thus preparing the Gakkai to manage institutional authority and power long after he himself is gone.

Ikeda’s magnum opus makes for a sharp contrast with the texts of Ōkawa Ryūhō, founder of the NRM called, in English, Happy Science. Ōkawa’s many speeches and books make it evident that his authority belongs to him alone, through his hidden identity as God the Father, and cannot be acquired by anyone else. Ōkawa’s ability to expound on the past and future of humanity, and to channel the higher spirit of any human or extraterrestrial being, living or dead, makes reading his books a lesson in simple “awareness” of his omniscience, not an instruction manual for those who would want to maintain his sect in future generations.

The bumpy transition from charismatic to institutional authority has been a key turning point in many Japanese NRMs. Dr. Baffelli states that many groups find comfortable rule by a group of experienced members to be preferable to a continuation of unruly charismatic leadership. But the sudden loss of a charismatic leader just as frequently causes an NRM to lose its direction and unity. In a 2007 article, “Shifting Paradigms and Mediating Media,” Christal Whelan described how an NRM called God Light Association underwent radical changes and splits following the loss of its leader, Takahashi Shinji. Members in Osaka continued to revere Takahashi by watching videos of his glossolalic interpretations, while members in Tokyo reorganized around his daughter Keiko , who rebuilt the group into a completely different therapeutic program. Still other members joined Ōkawa Ryūhō at Happy Science, or another NRM known as Pana Wave Laboratory.

A notable point made at the end of this interview deserves the attention of scholars of religion. Since the 1980s, the innumerable thousands of organized Japanese NRMs, called shinshūkyō in Japanese, have been losing members. The 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway by Aum Shinrikyō, an esoteric NRM which had attracted the support of several Japanese religious scholars, certainly hastened criticism of NRMs in public discourse, but the trend away from NRMs did not begin with Aum. Since the 1980s, social and economic pressures to stay within mainstream society have become more prominent, and spiritually minded individuals more often seek more limited, loosely bonded participation in New Age-style modes of thought, dubbed “new spirituality movements” by Shimazono Susumu (c.f. Shimazono 2004).

But questions of charismatic, spiritual, and institutional authority remain with us. The scholarly work on NRMs is by no means outdated, but, in fact, is increasing in relevance as we try to make sense of Shimazono’s NSMs. From crystal healing and Reiki, to millenarian “ascension,” to attendance at shrines, to therapeutic forms of mass communication, NSMs are everywhere in 21st century Japan, and with them come new questions about how spiritual institutions can aid the bricoleurs who wander their way, and what sort of authority is possible in such loosely connected interactions.

In his book, “Spiritual” wa naze hayaru no ka, journalist Isomura Kentarō offers the counterintuitive but revealing example of an e-mail list and blog run by former video game designer Itoi Shigesato, which offers self-help advice and pick-me ups to roughly a hundred thousand subscribers every day. Readers are devoted to the heartwarming writings of Itoi, who is affectionately dubbed “Darling,” but when they bring up his blog posts in everyday life, they frequently get the impression of being perceived as adherents of a religious cult. Having discovered his charismatic authority, Itoi now has the full-time job of delicately managing a small media empire while avoiding the stain of religiousness. He aims to produce messages and physical products (most notably, a fancy notebook called the Hobonichi Planner) that readers will enjoy, but not to draw them in as closely as an NRM leader would have done.

A similar phenomenon is happening even in overtly spiritual movements. I will soon begin a study of a loose network of readers of the channeled text Hitsuki Shinji. After being the focus of two NRMs in the postwar years, the lengthy text was virtually abandoned until the 1990s, when the writer Nakaya Shin’ichi began publishing dozens of books offering a spiritually minded exegesis. But until this year, Nakaya’s interactions with his readers have been limited to a monthly magazine and public talks. Similar to Itoi’s mailing list, the text has been offered as a direct reading experience unmediated by any organization, and its implementation has been essentially left to the individual. But starting this spring, Nakaya intends to take the risk of forming a more tight-knit group and asserting authority as the text’s chief interpreter. Can an NSM be transformed into an NRM? The answer to this will be found in the complex social landscape of modern religious authority.

References

Chilson, Clark. 2014. “Cultivating Charisma: Ikeda Daisaku’s Self Presentations and Transformational Leadership” Journal of Global Buddhism, vol. 15, pp. 65-78

Isomura Kentarō. 2010. “Spiritual” wa naze hayaru no ka. PHP Kenkyūjo.

Whelan, Christal. 2007. “Shifting Paradigms and Mediating Media: Redefining a New Religion as ‘Rational’ in Contemporary Society.” Nova Religio, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 54-72

Shimazono Susumu. 2004. From Salvation to Spirituality: Popular Religious Movements in Modern Japan. Trans Pacific Press.

Prayer, Pretense, and Personification: How God becomes real

Over one hundred years ago, William James dedicated an entire chapter in The Varieties of Religious Experience to “The Reality of the Unseen”. When we typically imagine religion, we imagine that religion has to do with something perceivable, yet paradoxically something that we cannot see, taste, smell, or touch. James characterized the relationship of the individual psyche and belief in the supernatural realm as “…if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call ‘something there’…” (1985, p. 55 [emphasis in original]).

While the impulse to believe may be there, one’s relationship to this unseen realm is not easy to cultivate and maintain. Our evolved psychology was not ‘built’ with the intuition that, even though we have minds, there is an unseen – ultimate mind – that has access to our own and shares thoughts with us (Boyer, 2013). Such ideas require cultural scaffolding, and are not easily sustained in the absence of social systems. Although often ignored, “all our ethnography and history suggests that there is learning involved in the practice of religion…” (Luhrmann, 2013, p. 147). How does one learn to experience God as really real?

In her interview with Thomas Coleman, psychological-anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann discusses her multiyear ethnography of American evangelicals where she sought to understand how some of these individuals come to have close, personal, intimate relationships with God (Luhrmann, 2012). She begins by providing the background into her extensive research on the Vineyard Church movement, where she attended sermons, house groups, prayer groups, and many other opportunities to understand evangelicals, specifically, how God becomes real for them. Luhrmann details the rise of evangelicals in the 60’s and 70’s, and how anthropological work can be informed by evolutionary psychology. This serves as a framework to understand the unique training processes that teach an individual that their mind is not only open to their own thoughts, but God’s as well. Luhrmann goes beyond a purely explanatory endeavor and is interested in understanding the processes that lead some to see God as “a person among people”. One aspect of this learning process, she found, involves pretense and instructs the individual to treat God as an imaginary friend, but with one caveat – God (to them) is real and imaginary friends are not.

group_prayer

Furthermore, while imagining God, Luhrmann uncovered that the individual is often instructed to treat God as they would another person, like a close friend you tell your secrets to. This helps to cultivate an understanding and experience of God that is highly anthropomorphic and cognitively pleasing, rather than thinking of God as Aristotle’s “unmoved mover”, who would hardly be interested in your innermost thoughts. In closing, she details some of the prayer exercises that further help individuals to develop this personal sense of divine presence and answers an RSP listener’s question about the possibility of gender differences in experiencing the divine.

You can visit Dr. Luhrmann’s website to find out more about her work and research at: http://luhrmann.net/

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.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Citations

Now We Know Religion is Not Disappearing

Postsecular, like postmodern, is a title applied to phenomena in society that do not seem fit into an earlier paradigm and has thus been named post-something because it perhaps is not yet visible what comes next. It is an end of an era but also a shift towards another and has the academic world digging out all the blind spots of the earlier theories, suddenly noticing a variety of things that weren’t perceived before. The secularisation theories saw traditional institutionalised religion slowly disappearing: less people in churches, less belief in God and more non-Christians answering surveys. When the shift arrived this time, it was noted that religion is not disappearing. Secularisation was defined in less all-inclusive ways – or even as a minority phenomenon of the educated elite, as Peter Berger saw it (eg. Berger: 2002: p. 291–294.) – and new theories appeared. Only, now the question became ‘how is religion changing’ instead of ‘how is religion disappearing’.

Gray mentions 9/11 as an example of how religiosity has become very visible in the political sphere. Another, less grim, example is the various new religious movements that seek to establish a presence in politics through challenging the hegemony of traditional churches in a very peculiar way. I am referring especially to the Pastafarians in Europe and the US, the Kopimists in Sweden, and the Satanists in Oklahoma. These groups have very different religious views, but what they have in common is that they were born after the World Wars and have received some attention in the media due to their critique of the social definition of religion. I do not want to entirely omit all the pagan and other movements that have a similar agenda, but what I see as a connection between these three examples are their recent public campaigns seeking legitimation through invoking laws on religious equality.

Whether you are a Pastafarian demanding to wear a colander for your driver’s license or wearing it while taking your oath of office, a Kopimist seeking to register your religious community sacralizing file sharing on the Internet, or a Satanist wishing to publicly announce the love of Baphomet or to have your kids in school taught the Satanist way, the officials and courts of several countries have had to deal with your religious interpretations. Making claims for religious equality while maintaining close connections between the state and the Christian Churches has long been a point of cultural critique, especially in Europe (Eg. Martin: 2010). These movements, mentioned above, have put this message into action. For instance, Pastafarianism was born as a critique of the teaching of intelligent design in schools in Kansas. These movements have pretty much everything imaginable it takes to be a religion: holy books such as The Satanic Bible or the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster; rituals and holy days such as the sharing of files for Kopimists, a Kopimist wedding, Satanic baptism, wedding and funeral, Pastafarian Talk Like a Pirate Day and Ramedan; and of course religious symbols.

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Spageti

 

Because religions are defined in books of law and scholars of religion have found many ways to classify religion (eg. Ninian Smart’s Seven Dimensions of Religion) – none of which is explicit enough to include everything ‘commonly considered as religious’ and to exclude everything ‘not commonly considered as religious’ – these definitions can be used by the people to create their own sets of belief systems, to venerate their ideals, and to celebrate worldviews separate from the institutionalised churches that seem to have been the main focus of many theorists of religion. This focus on a specific type of religion was indeed one of the factors which gave rise to the secularisation theories.

Now, one may argue that some of the movements mentioned above have been created to celebrate secularisation and rationalisation of the world and merely to mock religiosity. However, it is not uncommon for such a ‘parody’ or critique to become more than just a joke. The Pastafarians in Poland and Finland have sought to be registered as a religious community. Both attempts, so far, having been declined. However, the Polish Pastafarians have had some more positive rulings from the Polish courts on the way, and both groups keep on fighting for recognition. The Kopimist community is registered as a religious community in Sweden, and the Satanists were organised as The Church of Satan already in the 1960’s. I believe the level of commitment has to be strong to some extent for a community to seek an official status as a religious community and to apply for bureaucratic legitimacy for their movement.

I am hesitant to use terms such as ‘serious’ or ‘meaningful’ in this context because of their vague connotations as definitive adjectives for religious practice. What is ‘serious’ or ‘meaningful’ religiosity? Is belonging without believing ‘meaningful’ and how does it differ from, for example, Pastafarian belonging? Is the Jewish holiday of Purim ‘serious’? Does the carnival atmosphere of it make Judaism less of a religion? I, myself, have been studying Discordianism, which is a very interesting example of how a group with critical or satirical origins can create profoundly life changing ideas, which could be viewed as religious or spiritual for even the creators of the movement (Mäkelä & Petsche: 2013).

No matter how we classify the movements stated above, their claims for religious rights within society (even a community of Finnish Discordians have their registration application on it’s way) show a certain meaning behind the rhetorics of religious equality. As Gray mentions in the podcast, postsecularism is in many ways about dealing with everyone: the religious, the atheists, the agnostics, and all the religious identities in between. It is not about trying to force religious speech into politics or trying to force it out of the public domain, like the secular discourse in many ways tried, it is about dealing with the fact that now we know religion is not disappearing.

References

Peter Berger: ‘Secularization and De-Secularization’ in Religions in the Modern World, ed. Linda Woodhead. 2002. Routledge, London.

Craig Martin: Masking Hegemony. 2010. Equinox, London.

Ninian Smart: The World’s Religions. 1989. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Mäkelä & Petsche: ‘Serious Parody: Discordianism as Liquid Religion’ in Culture and Religion Journal Vol.14 Issue 4. 2013. Taylor & Francis Group.

Podcasts

The removal and assimilation of NRM Children

A response to Susan Palmer on “Children in New Religious Movements”

by Patricia ‘Iolana

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Children in New Religious Movements

In the complex and sometimes fraught relationship between New Religious Movements and the wider culture and state, why is it that children are so often a focus? Children are seen as needing special protection and therefore legitimising dramatic state intervention, but are also seen as of particular importance to the future of these movements, and in some more millennial groups, of the world itself. To discuss this, we are once again joined by Susan Palmer, who draws on her vast ethnographic work with such groups to give real-world examples, showing the complexity of the issue. children, it seems, become the central focus of the ideological struggle between the state and the alternative offered by these groups. Who will imprint their ideology onto the children most successfully – and will they resort to violence to do so?

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

Children in New Religious Movements

Podcast with Susan Palmer (4 December 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Palmer_-Children_in_New_Religious_Movements_1.1

 

DR: I’m here in Bedford. It’s a beautiful sunny afternoon at the last day of the CenSAMM conference on Millenarianism and violence. I’m happy to be speaking today with Susan Palmer, welcoming her back to Religious Studies Project – one of the small group of people who’ve made a return visit! So, first of all, thanks for returning to the Religious Studies Project.

SP: It’s a pleasure, David.

DR: We’re going to be talking today about children in new religious movements, which Susan did her keynote presentation here about. But she’s also just about to start a major research project on the subject. Maybe the best place for us to start, then, is for you to tell us how you got interested in the idea of children, in particular, in these movements.

SP: Well, it all started with my PhD thesis which was on women’s roles in new religions. And at the time I had two young children when I was doing my research. So when I would go to visit these groups – the Hare Krishna, the Unification Church – I would sometimes have to drag my children along, because I didn’t have a babysitter, you know. So then the focus would be on . . . they would ask me about my children, and they’d introduce me to their children, and we’d be talking about motherhood. And I wasn’t really that interested, but I was humouring them! And then my children used to go off and play with their children, and I would realise on the way home that my children found out much more about what was really going on than I did!

DR: (Laughs)

SP: So I sort-of inadvertently got interested in the idea of children in new religions. And I ended up co-editing a book, with Charlotte Hardman, called Children in New Religions. And recently I’ve come back to the topic because several of the groups I’m interested in have had quite lot of conflict with society about their children. In fact, James Richardson made the point, which I agree with, that the old brainwashing allegation or controversy has sort-of, pretty well, died down. And one way you can attack new religions or criticise them is by focussing on their children. And certainly groups that are sectarian, who live in a commune or who live out in the country and have a lot of children, make people nervous, make their neighbours nervous, make social workers nervous, because they don’t really know what’s going on. And in today’s system children go to school, children go to doctors and you have close neighbours so everyone can keep an eye on how you’re raising your children. But if you’re off in a millenarian commune, somewhere in the country, that doesn’t practice medicine or does home-schooling, you know, authorities get suspicious. And the anti-cult movement has, I think, exploited the situation by publishing materials in which, well: an ex-member might say they were abused, or had a miserable childhood; or they take isolated statements by the leaders and show that these children are in danger. I mean, of course there are some groups, in fact, where children have been badly treated and abused – there’s no doubt about that. But there is this tendency – certainly in anti-cult literature in recent years – to assume that children in cults are separated from their parents, or that the parents are following orders from the charismatic leader. And Margaret Singer says parents are “middle management” in cults; she uses that term over and over again. So what struck me is there’s so much variety in how children are perceived. You know: the role of a child, how they’re brought up, and also in the patterns of the family as you look at the different groups. (5:00) And it’s an ephemeral period. Childhood is over quite quickly and many of the groups aren’t even prepared for children; they weren’t even thinking about children when they started. And then they have to improvise, make up education and so on. So it’s not very well documented. Many of the groups don’t really document their own process. Some of them do. The Children of God have a very rich documentation on all their experiments in their communal life – even like how they wash dishes! So I think it’s an important thing to study, but also it’s difficult to study, because many of the groups have had problems with social workers and, of course, custody battles. When there’s a couple who join a commune and one of them leaves and wants their children to leave with them, they might contact the anti-cult movement and, you know, use their philosophy or their theories in court to get their kid out. So there’s a lot of social forces today that are putting pressure on alternative religions to raise their children in the same way as secular children. And I’ve witnessed raids on children with this group I was studying in France with the Twelve Tribes. And they were raided. Their children were raided in Vermont and then in Germany and when I was visiting them in France there was actually a raid right under my nose, but in this case they were picking the fathers. And then there was the polygamous Mormons in Texas, the Yearning for Zion people, whose children were taken away. And this seems to be something that’s happening today and there are severable forces at work. First of all, there’s this idea that our mainstream secular culture is the highest type of culture, the right culture, so we want to give children an opportunity to develop, and choose their lifestyle, and get a good education, so they can have a decent profession. And if a child grows up in a Mormon polygamous compound, or the Twelve Tribes, or the Hare Krishna, inevitably they’re being deprived and it’s sort of our duty to give them all the rights as a citizen and remove them. And, of course, this violates the rights of the parents to practise their religion and raise their children in their own faith. And it also violates the rights of the children to be able to live with their parents and their brothers and sisters. So it’s a terrible thing that the children experience when they’re taken away. And often they’re put in these orphanages. Well, in the case of the Twelve Tribes these children were put in orphanages, or homes for troubled teens, or foster homes: rather cold environments, not very nice environments with terrible food, and so on. In the case of the Yearning for Zion, these children were just plonked in various foster homes and it was even hard to organise to get them back, because they were so widely scattered. So that’s one thing, and then the other thing is there seems to be this concern . . . well you were talking today about conspiracy theories about paedophile rings . . . . So, there’s often this idea that if there’s a charismatic prophet who’s a spiritual mystic, he must also be a paedophile. Somehow it’s a package, today. (10:00) And of course, you do have the odd charismatic leader who does fancy very young women or has anti-social tendencies or sexual appetites. But I get the impression, in many cases, that this is just mud that’s thrown at them randomly, and it appears in the media, and has a devastating effect.

DR: And you’ve made this point before, in your book on the Nuwaubian Nation. You make the point that this is not only quite a common allegation against cult leaders, but against black cult leaders in particular. And, presumably, that allegation relates to this idea of the child as vulnerable that you were taking about before.

SP: So I feel it’s really important that we study different groups and get a lot of data: and we look at the variety in child-rearing patterns; the variety in how children are perceived; and also in the family, and how the families integrate in with the community. And so we won’t have these monolithic stereotypes about children in cults.

DR: How does the child work as a symbol? What is it that makes the child such a powerful discursive unit in all of this?

SP: Well, Mary Douglas, in her book, Natural Symbols, she looks at the idea of the body as the perfect vessel that represents the whole group. And the idea that the group is inviolable and has no cracks. And there’s tremendous concern in some minority religions, or minority cultures, with diet and sexuality. And she sees that as: those are the two holes in which foreign elements could come in. And so, if the group can control the diet and who the person marries then they can protect their culture from assimilation. So she talks about the virgin, as an example, as a symbol of the community. You know, the Virgin Mary among the Early Christians. And she doesn’t actually talk about the child but, you know, you can see how, in the literature of some of these groups, or in their ritual practices, some of these groups are very child-centred. So their whole community is looking at the children and intent on breeding these perfect children, and the children are their hope for the future, the children will usher in the Millennium, the children will fight Armageddon, the children will be the 24 elders who will rule beside Jesus in the Millennium, the children will be 144000 elite, and so on. Some groups, of course, have zero interest in children, and they’re not allowed at their meetings, and they don’t even care if they join or not – like the Raëlians, for example. But in other groups it’s extremely important that the children carry on the religious mission of their parents, and their education is very important, and the control is very important. And they are the hope and so . . . . I read this book recently called The Child in Post-Apocalyptic Cinema, which had a lot of great ideas which applied to this situation. And the editor, whose name is Debbie Olsonn, said the child is this idea of the future, but also the past. So, for example in the Twelve Tribes, they dress their children to look like, you know, pioneers from 1800 or something. So when you go there you feel a sense of nostalgia, you feel you’re stepping into early America. (15:00) And their children represent the goodness and the simplicity and the beauty of country children 150 years ago, before things got all screwed up. And also, this idea that the child represents this new humanity that will arise after the destruction of the world.

DR: Well that’s nice, because that ties into this millenarian model of time that we’ve been talking about today – but we’ve talked about it on the Religious Studies Project a few times – that millennialism, although it seems so focussed on the future, is actually a way of tying the past and using the future as a lens. But, ultimately, with the pivotal point of it being the present day. So, for somebody who’s involved in one of these relatively exclusive or . . . I don’t know what the word is . . . the kind of new religions that, to some degree, shuts itself off . . .

SP: A sectarian group

DR: . . . a sectarian kind of movement, then you can see why children would be so important. Because, as you say, they’re not only embodying the future but they embody the movement of the ideas of the past. And the parent is almost creating that perfected version of the past in the future, by creating these children and controlling their particular set of circumstances and the influences that they have.

SP: Yes.

DR: Is the importance that children have in these kind of sectarian groups, is that the reason that they’re so often the site of conflict?

SP: Yes it is, I think. I mean, it is of course very upsetting to the parents and the leaders of these groups if somebody leaves and wants to take the child out. There’s this right-wing Catholic group in Quebec called the Apostles of Infinite Love: Apôtres de l’amour infini. Their leader was a mystical pope – he died recently. And they had a monastery which families would join, and then the couple would split up and become celibate monks and nuns. And the children would become the children of the monastery and live this very Spartan life. When people left – usually it was fathers who left, actually, and wanted to take their children out – the attitude of the group seemed to be, “But the world is an evil place, it’s going to be destroyed very soon, and we can’t let these poor children go.”

DR: Right

SP: So they felt it was very much their responsibility not to let the children leave the group, which was like a Noah’s Ark. So they had some very intense conflict and struggle that involved four police raids and helicopters and so on. And, you know, hiding children. And their mystical pope actually went to prison for a few years for séquestration des enfants, you know, kidnapping or hiding children. And, of course, we don’t really know if he did or not. Because he said the mothers just left and sort-of went underground, so that’s possible. He said “My people are free to do what they want. I don’t tell them what to do.” So anyway on one hand in these groups, often there’s a very strong reluctance to let the children go. And from society’s point of view, there’s the idea that we can’t let these poor children be deprived, and warped, and indoctrinated in an unrealistic worldview that thinks the word’s going to end, or is patriarchal and sees women as second class citizens who should get married as soon as they turn 18, and so on. So it’s very intense . . . there’s a very intense struggle going on there, a cultural battle.

DR: Yes, in a number of cases these conflicts have led to the state visiting violence upon children in these situations. I mean, we could mention Waco, for instance. Tell us a little bit about the situation that you mentioned – this bombing.

SP: Yes, I was talking yesterday about MOVE, in Philadelphia. And I find it amazing that many people don’t know about MOVE. I teach a course on New Religions at Concordia, and when I mention MOVE everyone looks blank. (20:00) But my students have all heard of Waco and the Branch Davidians and David Koresh.

DR: I had never heard of this.

SP: But in 1985 in the city of Philadelphia, the orders of the Mayor were to drop two bombs from a helicopter on a row (terraced) house, in which a new religious movement called MOVE lived. And they’re usually depicted as religious anarchists. And they were mainly black, although there were quite a lot of white people living there too. And five children were killed in the bombing, plus six adults.

DR: When you say bombing . . .

SP: They literally dropped two bombs! It’s unbelievable.

DR: That’s insane. This was 1989?

SP: 1985. May 13th.

DR: Right.

SP: And it was mainly to get rid of . . . . They’d created a fortress, a sort of bunker, on the top and they had rifles. And they used to patrol this bunker and shout out criticism with loudspeakers. And all the neighbours hated them. And so, it was mainly to get rid of that bunker and make sure that they all just left. But the trouble was, they had police surrounding the house shooting the people who left. So they couldn’t win. And then the mayor didn’t want the fire trucks to come in. He wanted to wait, because he wanted to make sure the place was really burned out. But, unfortunately, the rest of the neighbourhood caught fire and sixty-one houses burned to the ground. It’s incredible when you look at the pictures. It’s amazing. And the people who lived there, the neighbours had be warned to leave. So the houses had been evacuated. But a lot of them had left their pets at home and all the pets had died, too. It was terrible.

DR: Yes.

SP: So, as I mentioned in my talk, at the meeting between the police and the mayor and the city councillors, before this happened, they were talking about the children. And they were a bit worried that if they went in and arrested the men, the children would be used as hostages by the MOVE people. And they were also worried that these children could be dangerous because they were “like little wild animals” and they might have weapons. So they saw them as little guerrilla warriors or something. So the point that’s made in this book by Robin Wagner-Pacifici is that, you know, they probably wouldn’t have dropped a bomb if it had just been ordinary American kids. But they saw them as either being little wild animals or being guerrilla warriors or . . . . And you often find that in anti-cult books, or in media reports, looking at children in cults. They can be seen as sort-of scary, like in the Village of the Damned by John Wyndam; like little aliens. Or they could be seen as brainwashed little zombies.

DR: Deadthroat children, yeah! My girlfriend once pointed out to me that – this shift of seeing the child as . . . putting so much importance on the children, and their innocence and their importance and how much you have to nurture them, and childhood as this magical time – it’s quite modern. It arises in the Victorian era. But there’s this tension then between, you know, the Victorian era is the classic example of: yes, for some Victorian children it was a magical time, where they got to be free and innocent; but you also had the vast majority who were living in absolute squalor, ridden with disease, high infant mortality, child prostitution, all the rest of it. And so there’s this dichotomy: this feeling of embodying innocence in children happens at times when there’s an awareness of inequality of power. And I wonder if there’s something going on there about our relationship with power, and our ability to . . . maybe compromise in the position of being an adult, or something? I don’t know. How do you think this relationship to power structures is working here?

SP: (25:00) Yes, I think that’s a very interesting idea. Well, a lot of parents who go into new religions are rejecting the state, they’re rejecting the authority of the state. But of course, they then find themselves under sometimes even more controlling kinds of authority within the group. But they can accept that because it’s spiritual . . . .

DR: And it’s personal, maybe, rather than an impersonal distant power of the state.

SP: Yes. It’s charismatic, it’s not bureaucratic. But then if you read, you know, media reports or anti-cult literature, they tend to think that within with these groups people don’t know how to think. Children are discouraged from independent critical thought. So they grow up very, very passive and rather stupid. But if you read some of the literature by ex-members, for example, by Pierrepont Noyes who was one of the sons of the leader of the cult of Perfectionists. And he is the most rebellious, mischievous, critical kid you ever imagine. And he describes his childhood with a tremendous humour and so much vitality, and so many little rebellious escapades. And then you have Krishnamurti, of course, who was raised to be the avatar and basically refused, and rejected his role, and spent the rest of his life criticising religion and coming up with his own philosophy. And also I find, just going to these groups, you find that the children often have a sub-culture. Like, I went to one group and the parents were telling me that the children were – I won’t mention what the group is – they said, “We don’t believe in giving our children an allowance, we never give them money, we never let them eat candy and we don’t let them play with toys.” And my kids were there, and they’d said, “Go off in the woods and play,” to get them out of my hair. So my kids went off in the woods. And on the way home I said to them in the car, “So, what did you do?” And they said “Oh! Our friends took us in the woods and we dug up a treasure chest!” And I said, “What was in it?” And they said, “Money and candies and trucks!”

DR: (Laughs)

SP: They were doing the real research! But actually, Charlotte Hardman makes this point, too, in our early book – I think it was published in 1998 – that children – she’s’ an anthropologist who’s done work on the anthropology of children – she notices that children often have this kind of subculture within a culture. And they see things differently. And I’ve certainly found that, visiting some of these groups, that the children have their own little “cult within a cult”, if you like.

DR: That’s often the case in my work as well. Even in a relatively small group, you would get the official version, but when you hung around . . . . I used to always hang around, or try and have a drink with people, or go to the kitchen and help with the cooking, and things like that. And the more gossipy side of it would start to come out. And you realise that, you know: this situation is just as complex as any other social situation, with all sorts of different levels of discourse going on. You know, a lot of the conversation that we’ve been having has reminded me of . . . well, obviously there’s been quite a lot of stuff about Scientology recently, “Going Clear” being the most obvious example. And it ties into a number of different things. First of all, this movement away from the idea of brainwashing towards, you know, children being in the frame . . .

SP: Indoctrinated.

DR: Yes, indoctrinated, but also physically harmed. There’s been much more of a shift recently towards looking at L. Ron Hubbard‘s relationship with his own kids.

SP: Oh really?

DR: Yes. One of his children committed suicide and another attempted suicide.

SP: That’s right.

DR: That’s probably wrong but . . .

SP: I know one of them committed suicide.

DR: But I think the other one also, yeah, I can’t remember now. I think the other one attempted it as well. But also in “Going Clear”, the guy – is it Paul Haggis? It was his daughter coming out as homosexual that caused him to leave the church. So again, his children were involved. But when you were talking about this portrayal of people not being able to think properly and having their information limited – that’s exactly the narrative that he gives: that when you’re in Scientology you don’t get to question it (30:00). Except, of course, we’re hearing this from somebody who did question it from within Scientology. So the narrative doesn’t really work. And it’s playing into so many of these little discourses that you’re talking about there.

SP: Yes.

DR: Thank you so much for speaking to us again. Another big subject, but this has been a really exciting introduction. And, bringing in the idea of generationality, maybe in a year’s time we can meet up and talk about old people in new religions?!

SP Well thank you, David! (Laughs)

DR: But thanks, as always, for speaking to me.

SP: Old people are fun, too!

DR: Yes, absolutely!

Citation Info: Palmer, Susan and David Robertson. 2017. “Children in New Religious Movements”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 4 December 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 29 November 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/children-in-new-religious-movements/

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“Insider Knowledge”: Seeing the Bigger Picture with New Religious Movements

A Response to George Chryssides on “Changing Your Story: Assessing Ex-Member Narratives”

By Aled Thomas

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Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration

In this podcast, Judith Weisenfeld talks to Brad Stoddard about her new book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Depression. In this book, Weisenfeld explores several social groups in the early 1900s who combined religious and racial rhetoric to fashion new identities. These groups include the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science Temple, and Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement, and various Ethiopian Hebrews. These groups are not new to scholars of American religious history; however, Weisenfeld’s original analysis combined with her use of previously overlooked sources combine to tell a new and compelling story about these familiar groups.

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, Silly Putty, and more.

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

Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration

Podcast with Judith Weisenfeld (26 June 2017).

Interviewed by Brad Stoddard

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Weisenfeld – Black Religious Movements 1.1

Brad Stoddard (BS): Hello, this is Brad Stoddard for the Religious Studies Project. Today I have the pleasure of talking with Judith Weisenfeld, who is the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor of Religion at Princeton. And she joins me today to talk about her new book, New World a-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration. Welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Judith Weisenfeld (JW): Thanks, Brad.

BS: You write in this book that,“This book is the study of the theologies, practices, community, formations and politics of early 20th century black religious movements, that fostered novel understandings of the history and racial identity of people conventionally categorised as negro in American society.” Which specific groups do you address, and which story do they collectively tell?

JW: The book is a comparative study of the Moorish Science Temple, the Nation of Islam, Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement and a number of congregations of Black Hebrews. And I pursue this comparative study in order to think about the ways in which they each engage with questions of racial identity through a religious frame. They all emerged at the same time in the early 20th century, founded by migrants from the south to northern cities, or immigrants from the Caribbean to these same northern cities. And I was interested in, again, the ways in which they were all thinking about black racial identity history and doing so in ways that insisted that religion was to be part of these discussions. And so, taken together, we get a sense of a really vibrant conversation going on in black American life, in these groups and beyond these groups, about race and peoplehood – who we are. And I think one of the ways in which people have conventionally approached race and racial identity is to understand race as reality – race exists: people are of this race, that race, another race. With the rise of Critical Race Studies and thinking about race as a social construction, scholars have begun to talk more about race – not as a biological fact, but as socially produced. And in that kind of discussion, which informs much of my work, people who are not white are often presented as the objects of racial construction. So race is a social construction that produces hierarchy. It provides tools for controlling, otherising and so on. And so, people who are so racialised rarely appear as agents in discussion about race. And in looking at these groups together it became clear to me that, again, in these groups and in broader black public culture, people were asking these questions about who we are, racially. And these groups presented a really profound challenge to the conventional category of negro and the ways in which Christianity had become the kind-of assumed “appropriate” religion. And so, taking them together, we see black religious subjects talking about race, producing race, rejecting, changing and so on.

BS: Most of these groups, not all of them, emerged or were founded or created within a relatively short time period. What is significant about this time period in American history and why was it so ripe for the production of so many diverse religio-racial identities?

JW: These groups all come out of the period of the Great Migration, which begins around World War I: the movement of rural southern African-Americans, to urban contexts – the Urban South. And also the largest element of that was a northward migration. And so northern cities see huge increases in the black population over those decades, through . . . and there a various waves of it. I focus from the early ‘20s to the late ‘40s. (5:00) And so, people are moving to cities and on the East Coast in particular, in New York and Newark and Philadelphia, they are also interacting with immigrants from the Caribbean – mostly from the British West Indies but also from Danish, French and so on. And these urban contexts become a laboratory for the production of all sorts of new cultural movements. So we get the Harlem Renaissance and the cultural productions of Chicago, where black films, for example, get produced and exhibited; music and literary productions. And religious transformation is also one of the components of the social changes and the cultural changes of the Great Migration. And while these groups remain in the minority, it’s in these urban laboratories . . . . And there are political changes as well: we see the rising of Socialists and Communists. And Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association is based in Harlem, and it is also a kind of engine for thinking about black peoplehood in new ways. And so, these are people who are moving. They’re born – the members who join, and also the founders – they’re born at the end of Reconstruction, some of them at the beginning. They’re born as Jim Crow segregation really locks down life in the South. And then they’re part of this Great Migration. And I think one of the things that they’re struggling with is, “We’re no longer slaves,” and there was the potential of reconstruction, “but things are not . . . things are different, but things are not different in important ways”. And so [there’s] a kind of questioning of this hopeful trajectory of the Exodus, for example – questioning the degree to which black churches can be agents of liberation. And what’s really so powerful in these groups – for me I found really interesting – is just questioning the very terms of identity, who we are: is this who we are? “If this is who we are”, a lot of them say, “I don’t necessarily want that”. There’s a story of a man, who’s named only as Horace X, and he encounters the Nation of Islam, in Chicago, in the ‘40s. And he had tried out, he had grown up in the Church, he had tried out different . . . all sorts of different groups: political groups that had promised migration to Africa, and other kinds of religious groups that he’s joined – the Freemasons. And in the story he tells to a Sociologist, he heard someone preaching on the street: “This is not who you are. They told you you were a negro; they told you you were a Christian. That’s not true: I have the truth.” And he said, “I was ashamed to have been born a negro before this, and when I heard that, everything changed for me.” And it’s that kind-of rethinking of identity that I found so compelling and wanted to know more about. And I think it’s precisely the convergence of all of these things in the urban context that makes that possible.

BS: When you were describing Horace X it reminded me of what scholars refer to as the “seeker mentality”, but it’s alive and well, in different communities, much earlier – as you’re describing it.

JW: Yes, I found a number of cases like that in all of the groups, where people said, “I tried this, I tried that.” Sometimes they’re doing multiple things at the same time. And, when I started the research, I was revisiting some of the secondary literature and things I had read many times before, but hadn’t thought about it in relation to writing about these groups. And I looked back at a document by Miles Mark Fisher, who was an African-American minister and also a University of Chicago PhD after he wrote this. He wrote a piece called “Organised Religions and the Cults”, and he was advocating for the inclusion of some of these newer movements in the US census of religious bodies that was coming up in 1935, I think it would have been. And he was making the case that these are not numerically powerful groups, but that they spoke about something that was going on in African-American life. And in order to understand religion in American life, the Census Bureau should survey them. (10:00) And he also told a story. He said, “It’s very hard to tell . . . to draw a line between churches and the cults”, as he called them. And he told the story of his Sunday School teacher, who had also been a member of what he characterised as a cult. And he did that and was also a Sunday School teacher, and was buried out of the church. And so, returning to that piece sparked for me this sense that, as he made clear, the line is not that sharp between them; that people are moving sequentially through these or trying them out at the same time. And the other thing that became really important for me was to think about members of these groups, and the kinds of conversations they are engaged in, as part of a broader set of conversations in the black life at the time. So, not to marginalise them as strange people who put on fezzes and rejected all sorts of things to move off on their own – they were boundaried in lots of ways. But the kinds of questions they were asking were not strange, for that period. They were, actually, very much a part of what I call the kind-of public culture of race in black America.

BS: Scholars have discussed all of these groups before. In your book you bring, of course, your unique analytical lens to it, but you also bring new sources and new groups of people. So can you speak – and when I think of new people, you focus a lot on Caribbean people and their impact on these movements – also can you speak to your sources, and the groups of people who are included in your narrative?

JW: Sure. One of the . . . . As you said, scholars have written about these groups, the Moorish Science Temple and its’ founder Noble Drew Ali, the Nation of Islam and W D Fard and Elijah Mohammad, Father Divine and also scholarship on black or Ethiopian Hebrews. And all that . . . . Those are texts that consider these groups individually, and focus primarily on the leaders and the theologies that they promoted. And I was interested in what it would mean to put them together in one study and think about, as I’ve said, the way they talk about race – reimagine race in a religious frame. And I ended up calling that ‘religio-racial identity” because, for them, as all the founders preached, religion and race are inextricably linked.And once you understand your religious identity – be it as an Asiatic Muslim, as the Nation of Islam and Moorish Science Temple would talk about it; or an Ethiopian Hebrew; or for Father Divine’s movement, raceless – once you know that, you know what your religion is supposed to be as well. So Islam, for the Nation of Islam, was created for the Asiatic; you can’t separate those things. And I felt, in reading some of the secondary literature, that people were . . . scholars were really interested in how to talk about the religious transformations that these groups represented, but didn’t really take seriously these claims of Asiatic or Ethiopian identity. And I wanted to know (I see them – in reading the primary sources – for these people, inextricably linked ) and I wanted to know how – if you are Horace X and you hear a minister of the Nation of Islam preaching, “You are not a negro Christian, you are an Asiatic Muslim” – how did Horace X go about being that thing that he came to believe he really was? And so finding what the average members did was really a challenge. (15:00) And this is, I think, why most of the texts really focus on the theologies of the leaders. And so, I ended up benefitting from some recent archival sources. Emory, for example, has a Father Divine collection that has a huge number of letters to and from Father Divine that give the texture of life in the movement – though those are not unconventional. But I ended up using vital records: the census and government documents like draft cards that are, many of them, available at ancestry.com. And reading those kinds of documents – I just kind of stumbled on them as a way into this – showed me how profoundly important it was to members of these groups that they be represented in public, in official documents, with the religio-racial identity they had claimed and, in some cases, the names they had chosen to reflect their true identities. And so we see, in the draft cards of these men going in, there’s a pre-printed category or column of racial categories listed. And it’s white, negro, Asian Filipino, Indian – it says Oriental on the 1942 form. And these men say, “None of those categories fit me.” And so you have to write Moorish American. And they were successful in doing that. And those kinds of documents were, again, a completely unexpected way of finding names of average members, but also an unexpected source for finding out ways to kind-of calibrate the stakes and their investment in it. So, if you’re potentially being drafted into the military, and you’re struggling over how you’re represented racially on this form, it means a lot to you. And I see it on the census and things like that. I learned all kinds of things from the census about residential patterns of these groups. So I spent a lot of time on ancestry.com!

BS: (Laughs) Excellent.

JW: On the topic of both new sources and new social actors, I was interested in the role of immigration from the West Indies from the Caribbean in this story. Because they are there. It is Marcus Garvey’s . . . . He was a Jamaican immigrant who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and proposed a sense of global black identity. He did embrace the label negro, but he really generated a sense of black pride, a connection to Africa, investment in collective political engagement in a ways that was new for the period, and in a lot . . . . He was from Jamaica and a lot of the people in the movement, when it was headquartered in Harlem, were from the Caribbean. And this gets erased a lot – very often, I think, in African-American history – that these were people who come from a very different social and political context, in many ways, to the US – and religious context as well. There are commonalities, but they have cultural differences and they’re negotiating them. And these movements emerge, in part, out of those cultural negotiations across communities. But it also turns out that most of the Ethiopian Hebrews are Caribbean immigrants, the vast majority of people in the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam are African-Americans, and Father Divine’s movement has a mix. And so this project was interesting, to me, to think about, again, black racial identity across not just African-American, but thinking about how these groups were in conversation with one another. I didn’t do as much as I had hoped to attend to the cultural specifity of West Indian immigrants in the story, so I hope somebody else will pick that up.

BS: As I read your book, you’re suggesting that membership in one of these groups required the person to undergo a rather thorough process of reimagining. And I have a couple of questions about that reimagining. How did membership of one of these groups – and I know it varied from group to group – but what were some of the major ways that it involved them reimaging their sense of self and even their bodies? (20:00)

JW: That was one of the ways I tried to answer the question of: if yesterday you thought you were a negro Christian and today you have been persuaded that you are a raceless child of Father Divine, or Ethiopian Hebrew – how do you do that? And so I looked at these practices of self-fashioning that are different, as you said, in each of the groups. But I did find some patterns in that, for many of them, changing their names was important and, in the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam, rejecting the name, the . . . . Well, in the Nation of Islam, rejecting the slave name and reclaiming (what they talked about as) a kind of “tribal” name or “true” name – for both the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam – was an important step of kind-of separating from old self and moving into the new self. And in Father Divine’s Peace Mission they rejected their (what they talked of as) “mortal names” and took spiritual names that reflected their new status. So these processes of separation from the former identity and taking on a new one that reflects your true history, as they talked about it, was important. Some of the groups took on forms of dress that also spoke about that history, that lineage. The Moorish Science Temple were the most notable one with adopting Moorish dress: the fez for men and turbans for women. And, again, the draft cards were really interesting sources for me for thinking about the meaning of that, and the ways in which men who were registering for the draft thought of that fez as, actually, part of their bodies. And it was Nobel Drew Ali who enjoined them to wear the fez at all times. But when you see on the draft cards that they list that as a physical characteristic, by which they can be identified . . . . You know it’s: they have a scar, or a missing digit, or something like that. It revealed, again, how much they saw as kind-of reimagining their body, in a profound way, into this being that could be recognised as its true self, now. Names, dress, some of the group reimagined skin colour, adopted different kind of terminology for talking about the surface of the body. Moorish Science Temple, again, used the term “olive”. They talked about themselves as olive-skinned Moors. And it didn’t matter that there might not be a correspondence between what the beholder might think they looked like, but it was a theological way of talking about skin colour as connected to Allah and scripture, and the catechism explained that. And then practices of diet, again, they kind of separate you from your old self and you take on a true diet that remakes you and keeps you healthy. All of these groups actually had a deep investment in longevity, and thought that – in different ways – the poison diet – the wrong diet of enslavement and negro-ness and Christianity, to a certain extent, had debilitated black people as individuals and black people as a whole. So they developed certain dietary practices: either feasting or fasting, in different cases; certain foods; and also they all had investments in healing, sometimes through medicine, sometimes through diet. And they all, actually, believed that black people could live for a very, very long time, if not – in Father Divine’s group – for ever, and that enslavement in the Americas had made that impossible, but they were being restored to that possibility.

BS: Part of that reimagining also involved them reimagining their sense, not only geographically, but also historically. It seems that the dominant narrative at this time, in African-American communities, was to understand their position in history relative to slavery. And these new religious movements in this period provided a whole new understanding of history. Can you speak to that? (25:00)

JW: That was one of , I think, the great appeals of these movements. And collectively they do the same kind of work. And in some ways saying, “You are not a negro” is saying the same thing: “Your history did not begin with slavery.” The negro is, all of them would argue, a racial category that was produced only in America – or through slavery in the Americas – and that it was a containing trap to imagine yourself that way, and that God didn’t make you that way. So then one has to say, “Well, who are we?” Right? “What is our history?” And so they all insist that, in one way or another, black history began before slavery – which of course we know – and fill that in. And so in some cases they’re arguing that . . . . So, the Moorish Science Temple says: we are actually the descendents of . . . we are Moroccan, born in America. And then [it] also uses the Bible to trace back even further, so that there is a Biblical connection. But the Moorish Science Temple wants to orient people to the geographic space of Morocco, and use that as a way of talking about the beginning of history. Ethiopian Hebrew congregations again use the Bible to talk about Biblical history as African history and African history as Biblical history. They are interested in Ethiopia but there are also other geographic locations in Africa they they’re interested in. And for Father Divine’s Peace Mission and the Nation of Islam, it’s less a geographic connection – although the Nation of Islam is very interested in Mecca. And for the Peace Mission, Father Divine’s kingdom on earth is where . . . he is there and he’s created this Utopia. But their approach to rejecting the history of negros and enslavement involved not geography, but time – is how I came to think about it. So the Nation of Islam, there’s a lot of . . . . In African-American Christians, and also in the Ethiopian Hebrew groups and the Moorish Science Temple, there’s a lot of engagement with the Bible, and looking for where we are, and how to fit our history there. And the Nation of Islam says: “ Lets just throw that away. Because even from the beginning of time, from the moment of creation, that’s where we are. We have to get rid of . . . .The Bible tells us the whole story wrong.” And Father Divine – time approaches to say: “Race is a product of the devil, I’ve returned to usher in a new heaven and new earth. Heaven is not some far-off thing; it’s here now. And so we start from now. You can enter my kingdom if you do all of these things. And you’re not a negro, that’s from the past. And being a negro is why you die. And if you reject all of that you can live with me for ever.” So the Nation of Islam projected back to the moment of creation and Father Divine projected forward into an eternal future. There’s a great . . . . He would send out this Christmas and New year’s card, in the late ‘40s, that had his image and Mother Divine, his wife, and it said : “One eternal Merry Christmas, one eternal Happy New Year!”

BS: Very good! Thank you. Well, I’d like to say that this is a phenomenal book. And I can imagine it finding a home in quite a few Religious Studies courses, actually. So, best of luck with the book, and thank you so much for your time and your insights. I appreciate it.

JW: Thank you.

Citation Info: Weisenfeld, Judith 2017. “Black Religious Movements and Religio-Racial Identities during the Great Migration”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 26 June 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 21 June 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/black-religious-movements-and-religio-racial-identities-during-the-great-migration/

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Millennialism and Violence?

Descriptions of the End Times are full of violent imagery, of mass destruction through earthquakes, tidal waves, fire and ice. These images are written deeply into our culture through the book of Revelation, but are by no means limited to the Christian imagination. Often, our idea of modern millennial groups is informed by images of violent confrontations between them and the state, for example at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, or of mass suicide, such as with Heaven’s Gate or the People’s Temple at Jonestown.

Are we right to connect millennialism and violence? Are these groups typical, or rare exceptions, magnified out of proportion by the lens of the media – and scholarship? How do we account for the popularity of millennialism outside of religious traditions, new, extreme or otherwise?

This audio/visual episode was produced in collaboration with CenSAMM, the Centre for the Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements.

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


Podcast with Eileen Barker, Moojan Momen, Joseph Webster and Tristan Sturm (22 May 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available CenSAMM conference – Millennialism and Violence 1.1.

David Robertson (DR): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. I’m here today, in the grounds of the Panacea Museum in sunny Bedford, for the inaugural CenSAMM conference on the subject of Millenarian Groups and Violence. I’m joined today by Moojan Momen, by Joseph Webster, by Eileen Barker and by Tristan Sturm. And we’re going to discuss the issues around millenarianism, millennialism and violence. And all of the talks from this conference have been streamed and there’ll be a link to that below. But just to get the ball rolling, I’m going to ask: what is it we’re talking about? I mean “millenarianism”, “millennialism”, “apocalypticism”: are these different terms? What do they mean? Joe, maybe you could get the ball rolling on that?

Joseph Webster (JW): OK, yes. It’s an interesting question. I’m not so sure that I have a clear answer, possibly because a clear answer doesn’t exist. I think these terms have been used for a very long time, interchangeably. Sometimes, that’s because of potentially sloppy scholarship on behalf of those who are using the terms. On the other hand, part of the answer might be that these terms – particularly millenarianism and millennialism – have been, to some extent, interchangeable. The OED – which isn’t the final word on these conversations but still, nevertheless – the OED does define these terms as synonyms. The way that millenarianism is used in anthropology – the discipline that I come from – tends to see millennialism as more distinctly Christian than millenarianism; millenarianism being treated as a broader term that has resonances with the Cargo Cult literature and the Ghost Dance literature. However, again, that’s not universally true. Some scholars within anthropology do use millennialism as a way to refer to Cargo Cults and the Ghost Dance. So, whilst I don’t think there’s any clear definitional answer, my assumption would be that the best way to proceed is how the groups themselves use these terms. And they don’t, actually, tend to use of either of those terms for themselves. So let’s take it from there.

Tristan Sturm (TS): I would add to that “apocalypticism”. And I think we can think about apocalypticism versus millennialism – which is the distinction I would use – as two sides of the same coin. The Apocalypse or apocalypticism, meaning unveiling, happens before the Millennium: 1000 years, or a period of time after which the world ends. So, I would understand it that way; I would teach that to my students. I would say apocalypticism is the events before the sort-of  Revelation – or the end of the world – and the Renewal is the Millennium. That’s how I would understand it. And I think, using apocalypticism versus millennialism is important in certain cases. Apocalypticism is useful, of course, for various secular movements who don’t believe in a Renewal, a new world, right? Whether that would come from climate change; Trumpism – potentially – for some individuals; and for others, equally, Barrack Obama, right? That doesn’t have, necessarily, a Christian or any religious overlay over it. We can still use the term apocalypticism – and I think many social theorists do – to talk about things like climate change and the severity of the series of events that would happen from that.

DR: We’re often, when we hear about apocalypticism, millennialism, we’re often hearing about these cults, these controversial new religious movements. Eileen, maybe you’d speak to this? Is there some necessary connection between new religious movements and apocalyptic millennial thinking?

Eileen Barker (EB): No.

DR: Then why is it so often connected in the public mind?

EB: Well, it’s quite frequent that millennial groups, or millenarian groups or apocalyptic groups will be termed cults. And cults, sort-of technically, usually means some kind of religious or non-religious movement that’s in tension with society in some ways. There’s a sort-of classic division between the cult and the sect, which are in tension with society and a denomination of the church, which aren’t. But, technically, that’s one thing. But just generally, in popular parlance, to say something is a cult means: “it’s a religion I don’t like”. And it’s not really very much more than that. (5:00) I mean, I often get asked: “Is it a real religion, a genuine religion, or is it a cult?” And you’ve just got to say, “Well, what do you mean by a cult?” and one man’s, or one woman’s cult is a another person’s religion. Nobody says, “I belong to a cult.” Not seriously. They might say it as a joke, or in self-defence. Now, some of these movements on which people put the label of cult are millenarian, but most of them are not. Well, I wouldn’t like to say how many are and how many aren’t, but the two don’t necessarily go together – except that it’s more likely that the millenarian groups are a sub-group of cult. But you get millenarianism in denominations and in church – if you’re just looking at the tension with society – so it goes either way. You’ve got to be terribly clear what you’re talking about. And sometimes such categories are useful, but quite often they just obscure.

DR: Indeed.

EB: So, say what you’re talking about!

Moojan Momen (MM): And I think we need to bear in mind that, even Christianity itself , when it first arose – if you read the Gospels – you’ll see there that they are talking about how Christianity is fulfilling prophecy. So Christianity is, therefore, a millenarian movement in Judaism and was probably regarded as a cult by other Jews. So, we’re talking about a history of religion developing gradually from being a cult, to being a sect, to being a religion.

DR: And how important is prophecy? Is this an essential aspect here?

EB: I think so, almost by definition. Because you’re expecting something to happen. So you have some kind of knowledge that’s come from somewhere. Now it might just be in your own little brain, but usually there’s somebody who says . . . or a book or something that can be read as saying . . . . So, there’s some sort of “saying” what’s going to happen in the future. It’s future-oriented.

DR: Yes. But it’s not entirely about the future?

EB: Oh no. No, I’m not saying that. It’s necessary but not sufficient.

DR: It’s a good in.

JW: Yes, I think that’s right. I think one of the key aspects to whether we’re talking about millenarian movements, or apocalyptic movements, or millennialism, is the way in which temporality and time are really central to what’s going on. And crucially, I think, the way in which parts of time, which we customarily think of as very distinct, actually end up collapsing into each other and becoming conflated. So: the present being seen as a very unique moment when prophecy is being fulfilled; when things that were said of the future are coming to pass right now; but also that the present is seen as deeply resonant with an ancient past. Look at the way in which the Christian groups, for instance, that are most dispensational – groups like the Brethren, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Baptist groups – certainly look at today’s age as morally bankrupt and immediately reach back into the Old Testament past for examples of the same: Sodom and Gomorrah, the days of Noah, the days of the Tower of Babel. And, immediately, what that does is it transforms the present into something that is not only future-oriented, but is deeply indebted to, and is seen as a replaying of ancient past Biblical events.

EB: Of course the Abrahamic faiths, Islam, Christianity and Judaism, have a linear view of history: that there’s a past, we’re in present and there is a future. And they’re promising something about the future. But we should remember that a lot of new religions, cults, sects, traditional religions, are cyclical. And they see time in this sort-of birth, death, rebirth etc. Now, sometimes it’s an upwards spiral. Sometimes you go through various ages. But they’re not just sort-of straight lineal like they are in the Abrahamic [faiths], which lend themselves more to apocalyptic visions because there’s something happening. But within Hinduism you can get different ages, which can be very different. And the New Age, indeed. There’s something very fundamental that’s changing in society, which is what’s expected in these kind of movements.

TS: I would agree, but I also think, prior to say the Enlightenment, prior to Hobbes or someone like that, you would see, I think, a cyclical idea within Christianity, still. (10:00) I’m taking this from Reinhart Koselleck and he says, you know, the ideas of the Apocalypse didn’t really emerge in the everyday life of Christians until, really, the period of the Enlightenment, with the idea of progress, and the Kantian idea that because the past is different, the future must also be different. And so we get this idea that the Apocalypse isn’t part of a cycle, a scaled-up everyday cycle of seasons, that we would see with a lot of individuals. So, I think there is a change actually happening around the end of the 16th century, where we’re moving even out of a Christian cyclicalism to a more linear idea of the future. And I would add to that that I think now the future is becoming more important. And it’s been studied I think, even across disciplines, it’s becoming this tag term, that we’re trying to theorise now. And I think here of Susan Harding, for example, who talks about “memories of the future”. And she talks about, you know, that the future is a kind of memory. We have an idea of the past and those are kind-of memories as well, outside of history. We’re selective about the memories that we want to bring to the present and give continuity to the way things are. In the same way, we do that with the future. We kind-of know how the future’s going to play out. We have a sort of selectivity of ideas. There are certain paths that we’re pretty sure are more likely to happen that others. And we go down those paths. And prophecy functions in a similar way. It tries to close off the way the future could go. It sort-of says, “Well, this is the likely space that the future will go.” And so it’s closing off of the future. And we have a kind of memory of the future. We re-member ideas from the future. And we all do this. We do this with our jobs, how we foresee our lives are going to go. And they more-or-less do take place the way we probably thought that they would, given a certain level of difference there. And so, I would say that about time. And I also . . . and there’s a book that I really like. It’s called “The Past is a Foreign Country” and he says that we’re selective about our pasts. But I would say that the future is also a foreign country where we’re selective about the future that we want to bring, to give meaning to our present. And, you know, St Augustine said this as well. He said that there’s no such thing as the past or the future. There’s only the present past, the present present, and the present future. And he’s referring to that kind of presentism, I think, that exists across religions and everyday life. And that’s really where we only exist.

DR: Well, I think an interesting and very important part of millennial thinking and prophetic thinking is that it places the individual right at this axis point of history. As you say, you know, it’s the memories of history: a narrative construction, leading to this point and you have various futures branching out. And something about apocalyptic and millennialism, when it becomes involved in violence particularly, is that sometimes it’s seen that in order for the future to go one way there has to be some sort of violent or cataclysmic change; which brings us to the issue of violence, then. Is there a necessary connection between millenarianism and violence? Or is that only in the popular imagination?

EB: Absolutely not.

JW: I couldn’t agree more. I see nothing within millenarianism that makes it essentially violent. And I think the other important point to make is that not only do we “other” millenarian groups, by often assuming that they are violent, but we normalise ourselves – the secular, the non-religious, the mainstream – as something that is somehow essentially non-violent. So we make cults and sects and millenarianism essentially violent and we make the mainstream somehow essentially non-violent. And I think both are completely false. The evidence just does not stack up.

MM: And, of course, we’re sitting here at the Panacea Society, which was a millenarian movement that was not at all violent, so . . . . And, in fact, probably the vast majority of millenarian movements are not violent. It requires a certain set of circumstances to lead a millenarian movement to violence. And the vast majority of them don’t have that set of circumstances.

TS: Can I add to that?

DR: Yes, absolutely.

TS: I guess I’m interested in the way we’re using the word “violence”, here. I think we’re talking about overt, coercive types of violence. But I think discourse or language can be violent as well. (15:00) I think certain other, “small v” forms of violence take place as well. And they take place outside of . . . they’re not exclusive or endemic to millennial movements, they happen in everyday life. I’m speaking here of a kind of power that we exact on all sorts of things. And millennial movements, apocalyptic movements are a different kind of normative discourse and they challenge the dominant normative discourses that Joe was just talking about, right? In a sense they’re kind-of doing a violence: they’re trying to change the way we think about the world. Our normative way that we think about the world is not the right way, it’s not the absolute truth. It’s truth because more people believe it than often the millennial and apocalyptic movements. That doesn’t mean there’s not a kind of violence that’s going on there: there is.

DR: Absolutely.

EB: I’d like to add that a lot of the movements are actually pacifist and they work hard for pacifism. And it’s very interesting that today, while this is being recorded – April 6th – the Jehovah’s Witnesses are – perhaps it’s already happened – being threatened with entire extinction from Russia, because they are absolutely non-violent. They’re in prison in places like South Korea because they’re conscientious objectors. They won’t kill. They’re prepared to be killed. They were killed in Auschwitz, for example. Unlike the Jews and the homosexuals and the Gypsies, who were going to suffer anyway, the Jehovah’s Witnesses could have said, “No, we’ll obey the state”, and they didn’t. They preferred to be killed rather than this.

DR: Mmm.

EB: Because they just refused to do certain things. And the group that you were talking about today, also tried to be pacifist. And so it’s not just that they’re not violent. They will work against sometimes. But of course, some are violent with a capital V.

MM: Yes, the group that I was talking about today was historically the Bábis of Iran. They were a precurser of what is today the Bahai faith. But in mid-19th century Iran they were a group that became very popular, spread very rapidly. And the leader of this group worked very hard to diffuse the violent possibilities, because he claimed to be the Mahdi – and people were expecting the Mahdi to come and lead an army to victory. So they were expecting a violent result from Mahdi coming, and the Báb worked very hard to diffuse that potential for violence. And, really, one of the main factors that eventually did lead to violence, as a result of this movement, was the fact that the Báb was removed from his ability to lead his followers. Because he was imprisoned in a fortress, right up in the northwest corner of the country, and therefore cut off from his followers and prevented from leading his followers in the way that he wanted to.

DR: Did you want to add something there, Joe?

JW: Well, this is an issue that we’ve been discussing throughout the day. I think, when we speak about violence, when we speak about the way in which pacifism within new religious movements is often ignored . . .

EB: Or, seen as dangerous and violent!

JW: Indeed. . . where the refusal to fight becomes a type of extremism. I think, connected to this, is the way in which, in some cases scholars, and in other cases political entities – governmental agents – try and explain away millenarian movements rather than explain them. And, I guess, by that I mean that they have a tendency to look for external causes of behaviour: explanations which, wholesale, refuse to countenance the possibility that the local native account – emerging from within the religious movement in question – might have something to contribute to an understanding of why that movement is doing what it’s doing; or in some cases, not doing what it’s not doing, for instance, fighting. So if we try, as scholars, to begin to break down the idea that religious movements are saying and doing one thing and on the other hand our job is to analyse them in ways that are alien to that movement and external to that movement; if we begin to break down that process of explanation, I think we might begin to have a more fertile understanding of what new religious movements are, or what millennial movements are. Because we can learn things from them in ways that very often we simply refuse to acknowledge.

DR: Absolutely. (20:00) And that’s something I talk about a lot, especially. . . . It’s part of the heritage of Religious Studies to be talking about beliefs, and particularly about deviant beliefs, and sometimes going as far as pathologising these kind of ways of viewing the world. But your work, I know, is talking about things that are very relevant to today: you mentioned Trump earlier on. And when these political movements, for instance, suddenly start to engage with other millenarian kind-of ideas, I think it shocks people when they actually realise, “ well, maybe this is more normal” than they perhaps realised.

TS: I think there’s a couple of things going on here, right? Let’s start with Trump. One of Trump’s main security advisers, Steve Bannon, has his own millennial perspective: something he calls the Fourth Turning. He gets this from a series of books on generations, which is a kind of secular apocalypse: that the world is getting bad, capitalism is being destroyed, traditional culture is being broken down, and he needs to take action to do something about that. In other ways, some millennial groups align themselves with political groups, right? And maybe their action is something as simple and normative as voting. It’s not really taking action. In fact, many of the groups that I study – Christian Zionists [for example] – are fatalistic. They’re pacifists, in the sense that they don’t actually take any kind of physical action, but they might vote. But we might even argue that doing nothing sometimes is still taking a side, right? So the groups that I study, the Pilgrims – the Christian Zionist programmes from the United States, going to Israel and Palestine – they’re not doing anything to contribute to the conflicts that I write about, directly. But indirectly they are, insofar as they support a tourism industry; they support a particular political ideology, both in Israel and America that might actually take physical violence, or take the form of physical violence. So, in a sense, they’re pacifists but they’re still involved, or part of the assemblage of violence, I would argue.

DR: So when violence does arise, then, what is difference? What happens there? What is the process by which a group minority or majority becomes violent? I mean, there are well-known cases, obviously: Waco seems to be the sort of paradigmatic account today, at the conference; but Heavens Gate as well; Jonestown. What is it that causes violence in these unusual cases?

EB: Well, they’re all different. Part of our job, as scholars, is to look at the particulars in order to try and compare them, in order to see the similarities and differences, and pull out some of the threads and similarities. But there aren’t a certain number of similarities, and the other things are different: there are groups; there are categories; there are clusters; bundles of things that seem to go together; and the sort of tension that Joe was talking about earlier between the internal reasons and the external reasons – and Stuart Wright had a paper, today, which talked about this – and the importance of seeing the interaction between the two. And you can’t predict by doing one or the other: it’s seeing how the two react on each other. And these can lead to spirals of what criminologists call “deviance amplification”: each side does something that’s slightly bad in the other side’s view and gives the other side permission to be slightly worse. And so it grows. . . and then – wham! And Waco is an example of that. But Waco is very, very unusual, thank goodness! There are cases where you can see this writ large – and they’re easy to see – and therefore we focus on them, because they give us a kind of template, or an idea, against which we can measure the other movements which are not like that. And I think it’s very important that we keep remembering that they’re not like that, and that we look at the other ones and take those into our calculation, as well. I think that’s important. I think the reason why Waco – or perhaps another example would be Aum Shinrikyo – becomes paradigmatic is because, there is some sense in which we’ve already come to the study of Millenarian movements having decided that they are somehow profoundly different to religions at large. And therefore, by a process of scholarly selection by us, we simply focus on those cases which fit the paradigm. (25:00) This is the classic case of “normal science”: that we simply look for evidence which fits pre-existing paradigms and conveniently – or, in some cases, very inconveniently – ignore all the other counter examples; and the theories – or, in some cases, prejudices – that we have of these groups are wrongly reinforced. And another consequence of this is, as Eileen says: many of the groups that are committed to non-violence – or don’t even feel the need to commit themselves to non-violence because they are so inherently non-violent that that commitment doesn’t need to made – that those groups are simply ignored. Many people don’t focus on those groups because they simply don’t fit the prejudices that we seem to have within the scholarship.

EB: I think we have to make the distinction between the violence that is done to a group and violence that the group does. And nearly all the violence is done – again with a capital V – is done to their own members. Some are done to people that they know, personally, who they don’t like. And very, very few are done to strangers: Aum Shinrikyo is an example, but one of the very few; the Manson family is another one. But, mostly, the harm is internal rather than externally directed. Most of them expect that God, or something, will happen: the Apocalypse or Armageddon will happen. Now, they might have to be the midwife – and that’s another quite interesting question that we haven’t touched on yet, is: what happens when prophecy fails, when they expect this great big change? But I think it’s important to remember that very, very few go around killing people. That tends to be the traditional major religions – the churches and the denominations – who’ve got the money and the armies. Now, of course, it might be different if they get hold of sarin gas or something, but this happened very much . . . .

DR: This ties into what you were saying before, about the importance . . . . We have to generalise, to some degree, to make cross-comparisons, but we have to remain aware of the important differences all the time. And, a lot of the time, these groups that we’re comparing – the actual violence that we’re talking about is very, very different. And you also have cases like Heaven’s Gate, where there’s very little evidence of coercion there. I mean, if you watch the exit videos that the members shot, for instance, they’re going quite happily into that situation with their eyes fully open. It’s only from our external point of view that it can be described as violence at all – largely because of going into it, or looking at it, with this kind of brainwashing mentality that earlier discourses on new religions bought into, which is very much discredited now.

EB: And they were only harming themselves.

DR: Exactly

EB: And Joe ought to jump down on me immediately, because they didn’t see themselves as harming . . . .

JW: Of course!

EB: They saw themselves as being ‘transitionised”, or whatever the word was?

JW: Going to the level above the human, TELAH. Yes, I think that’s a really interesting point: that what he have here is – to bring it back to your question about failed prophecy, and this does link to violence . . . . Whether or not we can genuinely point to groups like Heaven’s Gate; or classic historical case studies like the Millerites; or Festinger’s famous book about cognitive dissonance, using the Seekers – even if we leave violence in the equation, or if we take it out – there is still the enduring question about: does prophecy for these groups ever fail at all?

EB: Oh, it does!

JW: Well see, I’m not so sure about that. When I think about Heaven’s Gate I think about the fact that they ended their lives and – as far as we’re aware, as far as they’re aware – made a successful journey to where they were going. The same, I think, can be said with the Seekers and Mrs Keech: the idea that the prophecy did not fail, the flood didn’t fail to arrive, it wasn’t a failure, it was them successfully spreading enough light to call the floods off. The Seventh Day Adventists did not explain away a failure of Millerite prophecy. It seems to me that Ellen White simply realised that Miller’s prophecy was correct but that the revolution began in heaven, not on earth. So, I’m intrigued to hear your pushback on that. In what cases does prophecy really fail?

EB: Well there are some groups that have said, “Oops, we got it wrong!” (30:00) I can’t remember his name. The man who – it was May sometime about 4 or 5 years ago – Radio something . . .

All: Harold Camping

JW: Family Radio

EB: Now, he said . . .

DR: After a couple of events, yes!

EB: And, at that time, he said “God got it wrong”, according a newspaper headline!

DR: Which is one of the techniques mentioned in Festinger’s books, actually: that the transmission was garbled and – reception issues.

EB: You can get the reception wrong; you can have it happening in the spirit world – like with Joanna Southcott and lots of others; you can have people saying, “Well, because we did this, we stopped the terrible thing happening”; or you can say, “Because they didn’t do this, God didn’t come yet. We weren’t ready. We didn’t listen to the Messiah, telling us what to do.” There are a whole lot of different ways out. But there are those that . . . . There was a chap – again, I can’t remember, I want to say Garland – he was a Chinese chap in America. And he said, “I’ll come out and apologise if nothing’s happened.” And he came out and apologised. This was about ten years ago. He was Chinese, or he was Oriental of some kind.

DR: Well, hopefully, one of the listeners can tell us who it is in the comments.

EB: I’m sure they will. And provide other examples.

DR: I hope they do.

TS: I want to add to this conversation about “small v” versus “big V” violence. I think, one way in which small v violence takes place is . . . Harold Camping is a good example. A lot of people – thousands of people – sold their houses, they went into debt; they expected this to happen. That had a tremendous amount of violence on their families and their lives. They moved into forests, they bought bunkers. This is a form of violence, right? I think another form of violence, that wasn’t really talked about in the conference, is spatial violence: the way that these groups imagine spaces in particular ways; homogenised spaces; map spaces; understand whole groups of people in homogenised ways and treat them in certain ways. And some of these groups are aligned with state power. Sometimes the state see them as a threat, and disciplines them with large V Violence. And sometimes they align themselves with the state: with large V Violence; by their voting for them; by their interests. We’re seeing this at the moment with Donald Trump – he’s doing all sorts of violence to homosexuals, to women’s rights over their body, these sorts of things – aligning themselves with larger Christian movements like Christian Zionists, like pre-millennial dispensationalist, right. . . that are doing violence to all sorts of other people within the electorate. And also, in terms of foreign policy, the way that Americans understand Muslims, the war in Iraq, right? These are all contributing factors. I think maybe the mistake, then, is to look at just the millennial movement. You have to see the effects that they have outside of their movement, right? Their social effects. Look at Marxism, for example. This is a good example . . . . Or another point, maybe, I want to make is the difference between belief and practice. So, we have textual beliefs – we have written documents, for a lot of these groups – and then we have the way people actually act, which are two different things. You know, would someone say that Stalin was a true Communist – a true Marxist – who murdered millions of people? Is that an example? Marxism is a form of millennialism: it’s clearly interpreted and was influenced by Jewish and Christian thought, in the way that there is a kind of . . . . Capitalism kind-of reaches a point where it can’t abide, it fails, and then we have a kind of proletariat millennialism afterwards. So the practice and belief is also a discussion that we need to have, within these discussions.

DR: Unfortunately, I’m going to have to do small v violence to the conversation and to return to the subject of time! We have been talking about this all day. We could continue to talk about it all evening, and we will be talking about it again, tomorrow. For the viewer and listener I urge you to check out the millennialism, on new religious movements, on violence and these kind of issues. Other than that, I would like to thank all of our participants for taking part. And thanks for watching.


Citation Info:, Barker, Eileen, Moojan Momen, Joseph Webster, Tristam Strum. 2017. “Millennialism and Violence?” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 18 May 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/millennialism-and-violence/

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Minority Religions in the Secret Police Archives

CaptureJames Kapaló takes us inside the Eastern European secret police archives to show us how minority and new religious groups were portrayed. We explore the visual and material presence of religious minorities in the secret police archives in Hungary, Romania and the Republic of Moldova. In particular, we look at Inochentism, a new religious movement in Moldova and Romania. In the discussion, we consider the theoretical and methodological issues in working in archives suh as these, and the historiography of NRMs. We also discuss the complexity of the religious field in post-Communist Europe.

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


Minority Religions in the Secret Police Archives

Podcast with James Kapaló  

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

David Roberston (DR): I’m here in Edinburgh, on a beautiful sunny day, and I’m pleased to be joined by Dr James Kapaló from the University College, Cork, where he’s Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion. First of all: welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

James Kapaló  (JK): Thank you, I’m pleased to be here.

DR: And we’re pleased to be talking to you today about your research programme, which is called “Creative Agency in Religious Minorities: Hidden Galleries in the Secret Police Archives in Central and Eastern Europe”. And the obvious place to start, then, is to tell us a little bit about the project.

JK: Great, well, its a bit of a mouthful! But the project really focuses on the secret police archives as a resource for the history and anthropology, let’s say, of contemporary religions in the region. And anyone that knows a little bit about Eastern European history, will be familiar with the authoritarian, sort-of communist regimes, and before them the fascist regimes, that held sway in most of the region. And with the change of system that came in 1989-1990 , the fall of the Berlin Wall, the secret police archives – the archives of the security services – began to be opened up to victims, but also to the scholarly community, to research, to look into. And this created a dramatic change, if you like, in the study of religions in the region. I mean, prior to that, there was a lot of Western scholarship on East and Central Europe, and that was very much of a kind of “advocacy” scholarship type. So, because groups were persecuted under Communism, Western scholars tended to advocate for their human rights, political rights and so on. Post the change of system, the archives took on an identity as the site of “truths” about that past: truths in the sense that people wanted to discover, you know, who the agents had been, who the collaborators had been. The focus was on mainstream political actors, but also mainstream religious figures from the period: bishops that had been arrested and incarcerated, sometimes died, and so- on. So the archive represented an opportunity. But at the heart of the use of the archives there’s a central paradox, which was that these archives were produced by authoritarian, totalitarian regimes, which were discredited. But at the same time, they were considered to hold truths about the period. So, the opening of the archive actually created a lot of controversy. There were blackmail cases, especially of high-profile politicians and religious figures, who were compromised by the findings. It was all part of a process called “lustration”, which was, in post-Communism, vetting people that will go into the public sphere to check that they were not compromised by their past. So, from a Study of Religions perspective, there are some important questions – if you like some dilemmas – to face the scholar. And in 2014, I was lucky enough to spend . . . . I had a sabbatical, so I spent six months in the secret service archives in Romania, and also a couple of months in the Republic of Moldova, looking at KGB files. And what I discovered was that they also contain – apart from containing these incredible biographies of people’s lives, which were collected by agents and often extracted under duress in quite extreme circumstances, sometimes – they also contain a gallery of confiscated materials, artistic products. (5:00) So, not generally the kind of more impressive forms of art, but the ephemera of religious lives: pamphlets, leaflets, photographs, hymns, poems, notebooks, postcards – all this kind of stuff are in the archive. And this is when I began to think about: how than those archives be used in a different way, that will perhaps will not endanger the archive? Because the archives were under threat of closure in a couple of Eastern European countries, because of all the scandals. And scholars across the globe actually campaigned for those archives to remain open. But it highlighted the fact that they needed to be used in a different way. They need to be investigated not simply as sites of truth. It was all about truth and texts: texts that tell us the truth . . . about what happened at a particular time. But they also contain this visual material component. And so that is really what the project is all about. It’s looking into the archives to explore this material. We’re taking a material religion approach, or vernacular religion approach, to the materials that are there, but also beginning to question the legitimacy of those archives to hold sacred materials. The question of the legitimacy of colonial archives in museums to hold the sacred patrimony of indigenous peoples is well-known. It’s been going for several decades now. But no-one’s ever thought about that in the European contexts. We have these archives of stuff which are the product of an arbitrary power, exerted over a population. But what is their right to retrieve those confiscated items? So, the project has a couple of stages. The first stage is the basic research phase: what’s out there? It will be the mapping and creation of a digital archive on the basis of that and, obviously, the production of general scholarly work about what we can learn about cultural production and material production under authoritarianism: how religious communities used new media, photo montage, film to get their message across. The history of the use of new media for political purposes, from the same period, is well-written. But no-one’s written anything about how religious groups, especially religious minorities, managed to engage with those new media. So that’s the first stage. The second stage, then, is taking some of those items back to the communities that produced them. I mean, we’re talking, now – there’s probably a generation gap. But we’ll be fortunate enough to find some people still alive that remember the production, and the context within which those items were confiscated by the security services. So we go back to the communities and explore the meaning of that period, and the material and visual artistic products of the period, in the light of the changes that have taken place since. Because what we have today is the emergence of democracies and more open societies across Eastern Europe, and that is something that perhaps we in the West take for granted. But the societal prejudices that would underlie, and were constructed by, these extreme regimes were extremely wary of new religious groups that emerged.

DRAnd religion at all, in many cases, yes.

JK: More so than mainstream religious groups. There’s been a lot of research – church history, if you like – of mainstream groups and how they managed the situation. But religious minorities – “sectants”, as they were generally referred to – were considered to be especially dangerous, so they were subjected to the most intense oppression and persecution. So, the project will engage with those communities, try and understand how they relate to those objects now, begin a new conversation with the institutions that hold them. And this is, again, building on. . . . There’s a movement in museology – the new museology, the New Museum Movement – that really engage critically with: ethically, what do you do with materials are, perhaps, compromised by the means by which they were collected? So, posing those questions of the institutions is the final phase, and an exhibition will be constructed on that basis.

DR: Wonderful. We’ve talked about this idea of cultural. . .  how we deal with displaying and talking about – for want of a better word – ethnographic material in museums but also in other contexts, quite a few times in the religious studies project. But this is a really interesting example. You’ve kind-of touched on this already, but we’re well used to this post-colonial critique of the ins and outs of displaying, the cultural products of “far away” countries, you know, with – I’m doing scare quotes – “primitive people” and their indigenous religions. (10:00) But we’ve not been so good at applying that same critique to cultures closer to home. And do you think this project has anything to offer that?

JK: Oh, certainly. And I think there are two aspects of that, in terms of the project. One is that, as an ongoing debate in the study of East/Central Europe about the relationship between post-socialism – studies of post-socialism – and post-colonialism. Because many of the societies were actually post-colonial societies as well as being post-socialism: the two overlay each other. So, the importation of post-colonial discourses into East /Central European Studies is ongoing. And it started around questions of difficult knowledge around heritage sites and so on. So that’s the emergence of a movement there. The other is around questions of inclusivity in society, and the way that the vast differences that you talked about, between the ethnographic other and the self, have actually completely collapsed. I mean, the world is that much smaller in that we no longer can take for granted the fact that [for example,] the materials I have from indigenous peoples in Brazil are not going to be visited by indigenous Brazilians – they will be!

DR: Yes.

JK: So that has collapsed. It’s coming to that realisation that it was the product of the ethnographic eye – the ethnographic colonial eye – but also romantic nationalism in Europe where peasants were the “other”. Again the classic peasant class, in anthropological terms, has disappeared but we continue to display things as if, in Ireland, for example, there’s a romantic West of Ireland that was Irish speaking and epitomised the nation. That same problematic goes for, you know, peoples within most nation states in Europe that could be exoticised and represented as an “other”. And what we’re trying to do with this is collapse that . . .  the engaged part of the project, I mean: inclusivity – a more inclusive and holistic narrative; to try and encourage mainstream society to question their distancing of the enemy, the “other”, the heretic, the sectant, and so on; to see the human stories behind those, which have tended not to find a place within scholarship.

DR: Yes. And what’s very interesting is that the distance is not only collapsed geographically, but chronologically as well. I mean, I’m old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, so we’re talking about something within recent living memory. And I think there’s an important message there that we can apply to ethnography in general. We tend to see – when we’re talking about these so-called “primitive” cultures – that, as soon as we arrive as colonials and as scholars, that we’ve somehow changed this eternal, timeless tradition, that was always there. But the more ethnography that we do, we realise that things are constantly shifting. And this is an example,  within living memory for me, of it changing once. But there would be older people, as you have said, who would remember that situation even starting. And so we have two dramatic changes within living memory. And who’s to say that’s not been the case anywhere else?

JK: Absolutely, I mean one of the classic critiques of early anthropology, Malinowski in particular, was that the impact of British colonialism is not felt through his work, and yes, there’s this idea that when the academic arrives, when the scholar or the ethnographer arrives, you somehow sort of “create meaning” around a place, which is – OK,  it’s translatable to other cultures, to an elite, but for the people that lived at that time, it’s their time, it was their life, it is part of a continuity that on-goes. You know, I’m old enough, myself, to remember very well the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was actually in Budapest at the time, with some friends.

DR: (laughs) Nice!

JK: And we were surrounded by East Germans waiting to cross the Berlin Wall. But I think my whole scholarly trajectory relates to the Iron Curtain. My father was a refugee from Hungary, in 1956.

DR: I see.

JK: (15:00) And as soon as I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve been visiting Hungary through the ’80s – the end of the Communist era when things were beginning to become a bit more relaxed. But I returned to Romania, to begin to do research, immediately after the fall of Communism. And this is where I witnessed this incredible upsurge in interest in religion, plus the arrival of large numbers of American US Missionaries from various denominations. Many Baptists and so on, but also many Hare Krishnas and different religious movements all descended on Eastern Europe and they were incredibly popular to begin with. At the same time, there was a resurgence of the mainstream churches, who tried to recapture that public space that they’d lost during Communism. So I think that experience – I was in my late teens / early twenties – has been on the backburner and what leads, ultimately, to the project that we’re starting now. I think, so yes – a general point: I think biographies of scholars are really important. And it helps us be critical of our own positions.

DR: Yes, yes.

JK: And so when something is – like this – actually quite close to my research topic, I think it’s appropriate to expose where I’ve come from, and maybe pre-empt some of the criticisms that could be levelled at the project. Because it’s far more engaged than many contemporary Study of Religions or Religious Studies Projects would be. But I draw the line at being. . .  or, I try and delineate a position between advocacy and engaged scholarship. For me, there’s a very clear separation there.

DR: I was going to ask: what particular kinds of new religious movements, or minority religions, are we talking about here? Are we predominantly talking about, you know, the religions of immigrants? Or are we talking about quite innovative new religious movements? What was the religious picture on the ground?

JK: So, again, going back to the sort of description of the inspiration of the project, there’s a lot of scholarship. . . . Well, what characterises scholarship on religions in Eastern Europe today? Two very strong currents are: scholarship from the West, funded by institutions in the West, that have looked at all of the main missionary – Christian missionary – religions that were present in Eastern Europe and were persecuted so:  Jehovah Witnesses, Adventists, Baptists, Evangelicals of different kinds. So, there’s a large body of historical scholarship on those communities. At the same time, within the region, scholars from those communities have gone into the archive and have decided to write their own histories of their oppression and persecution. So the project doesn’t actually look at those groups.Because there’s  another group that’s fallen off the radar, which are the more kind-of locally-inspired groups that formed around local charismatic leaders, or local powerful pilgrimage sites, around prophets and seers, behind monks and priests, that came into conflict with the church – often because they felt the church had been compromised by its engagement with or collaboration with the regime. So one group, in particular, that I’ve been looking at for the last four or five years now, is called “Inochentism”. It comes from an Orthodox monk named Ioan Inochentie Levizor. He comes

Inochentist women

Inochentist women

from the border region between Russia and Romania. And he initiated a charismatic movement that soon became labelled a sect, and operated underground for over a hundred years. So, during the end of the Tsarist Russian period, during the Fascist period in Romania and during Communism in Romania and the Soviet Union, the group lived underground, digging underground cells and communities and producing a very distinctive visual culture of their own – a very distinctive literary culture of their own. That really can’t be put down simply to resistance. I don’t like reducing any movement to resistance. But actually, there’s a powerful dialogical relationship between the exertion of power on religious communities and the way that they can respond, and it gives birth to these creative responses. So, one of the key terms we’re using, when talking about the project, is: it’s taking emphasis away from religious communities as victims and looking at religious communities as creative communities.

DR: (20:00) We’ve talked to Milda Ališauskienė recently about the beginnings of the academic study of RS in that part of the world. And you touched on a similar point that she did, and that we talked about at the time: how, it’s interesting that for a part of the world that is ostensibly very Christian – I mean there’s variation across the different countries, of course – yet there’s this enormous creativity within that Christian heritage. It’s a very different situation than we see in the Northern and Western European countries – perhaps more to do with the Protestant rather than Catholic context, I think, where we see this sort of religious innovation happening, or identifying as other than Christian. Is that something that you’ve found repeated in Romania and elsewhere?

JK: Yes, absolutely. So, I would stress, really, that each of the countries of Central Europe are very different from one another, and the project covers three: it covers the Republic of Moldova, which was in the Soviet union; Romania, which is the majority Orthodox country; and Hungary, which is split between mainly Catholic and Reformed. So, the project brings in these different cultural and religious settings. But, yes, there was an incredible yearning, if you like, for spirituality. And people – towards the end of the Soviet Union and in the immediate post-Soviet period – people experimented a lot with different forms of religious seeking, which wasn’t. . . . Much of it wasn’t beyond the pale for the Soviet regime and the Communist regimes. They were just wary of the formation of communities that might go alongside that, that would produce an alternate source of authority for groups. So that’s certainly the case. I mean the countries that I’ve worked in – Romania especially – is very strongly Orthodox today, in fact there’s been a massive revival in monasticism in Romania. So, I’d say on the whole, Romania has tended to stay within the Christian tradition, Protestant groups are becoming stronger, especially Pentecostals amongst the Roman community, which is a very interesting sort of area of investigation. It opens up all sorts of comparative possibilities with other parts of the world: Africa and Latin America where it’s similarly. . . Pentecostal forms of Christianity are very popular. But the influence of those groups – the global spread of Pentecostalism, for example – has not been really explored yet with Eastern Orthodoxy or within Catholicism in Eastern Europe, fully. So again, the group that I’m working on, they date back to 1909/1908, which is very soon after the first Pentecostal appeared in the region. And, coincidentally enough, the idea of the action of the Holy Spirit in the world was, sort of pre-eminent. And, in fact, the leader of the movement was considered to be the Holy Spirit embodied or incarnate, and possession, exorcism, healing were right at the heart of the movement. And women took on much greater, very important roles, had a greater range of competencies, if you like, within their religious communities. So these are all very interesting questions to do with the issues of gender and power and authority, and. . . .

DR: But also, they’re all features that we would expect to find in more typical New Age and Millennial new religious movements in the West. And even, just to take the classic example of  When Prophecy Fails  from the ‘50s, that’s exactly what we see. We see the central leader identifying as the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, we see prophecy, we see healing central, we see the role of women specifically as channellers: it’s exactly the same pattern that we would expect to see, except within this Christian context.

JK: And I think, what drives much of so many of those points, is also marginalisation.

DR: Yes.

JK: So the process of being marginalised, feeling marginalised, encourages certain religious responses. And that’s certainly what you see in Eastern Europe. I hesitate to use “Eastern Europe” or “Central Europe” in a blanket way, but. . .

DR: (25:00) It’s OK. We only give you twenty-five minutes, so we understand that sometimes there are some complications!

JK: The other point about the project – which I forgot to mention earlier, actually – is that we’ve chosen three different countries and three different societies. The project has another mission to try and encourage cross-cultural, and also inter-disciplinary, but transnational collaboration between Religious Studies scholars in Eastern/ Central Europe. I mean it already goes on, but I think there’s a lot more to be done. There’s a lot of barriers in terms of language, and this has obviously been overcome, to a certain extent, by the increasing use of English in the academic sphere. But I think there are a lot of issues and questions, that scholars in Lithuania, and Hungary, and Romania, and Moldova, and Ukraine have in common, that they can engage with much more vibrantly, if you like, across the region.

DR: Well that’s a perfect place to draw this to a close. Because the Religious Studies Project. . .  we’re striving to bring in scholars from this part of the world, particularly, and people talking about this part of the world. So, you know, we’ll certainly be featuring a lot more. . . . Hopefully we’ll be recording some at the EASR and the IAHR this year coming. Marion Bowman’s currently working on a project involving a lot of Eastern European scholars on the idea of pilgrimage, so hopefully we’ll speak to her. But, as an introduction to this field, this has been an absolute pleasure. So, thank you, James, for taking part in the Religious Studies Project.

JK: Thank you very much, again, for the invitation.


Citation Info: Kapaló, James 2017. “Minority Religions in the Secret Police Archives”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 8 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/minority-religions-in-the-secret-police-archives/

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.

New Horizons in the Sociology of Religion: Beyond Secularization?

Since September we have been running a series of podcasts, co-produced with the British Sociological Association’s Sociology of Religion Study Group (SOCREL) to celebrate their 40th anniversary. The series was entitled “New Horizons in British Sociology of Religion”, and began with “An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion” with Grace Davie, and has featured interviews with Dawn Llewellyn (on “Religion and Feminism“), Anna Strhan (on “Evangelicalism and Civic Space“), Naomi Thompson (on “Religion, Youth and Intergenerationality“), Mat Francis (on “Researching Radicalization“) and Titus Hjelm & Paul-Francois Tremlett (on “The Sociology of Religion and Religious Studies“). To conclude this series, we invited scholars from a variety of fields to contribute to a collaborative compilation episode, under the title “New Horizons in the earth-rising-sun-desktop-backgroundSociology of Religion: Beyond Secularization?”

In this longer-than-usual episode, Chris and David provide an interlinking narrative between Grace Davie, Joe Webster, Carole Cusack, Jonathan Jong, Paul-Francois Tremlett, Linda Woodhead and Kim Knott, reflecting on current or future developments in the sociology of religion which challenge the ubiquity of the secularization thesis, problematize it, or go beyond it. The key question: beyond secularization, what is the sociology of religion for you?

Many thanks to SOCREL for supporting this collaboration. Remember that you can keep the conversation going in the comments below each podcast and response, on our social media feeds, or by sending an email to the editors.

Also, check out some of our other great compilation podcasts: After the World Religions Paradigm…?; What is the future of Religious Studies?; and Should Scholars of Religion be Critics or Caretakers?

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, Turducken, dinosaur slippers, and more.

Communism and Catholicism: Religion and Religious Studies in Lithuania

Under Communism, religion was suppressed in the formerly Catholic Eastern European country of Lithuania until the 1990s. Milda Ališauskienė tells David Robertson about the religious field like in a country where religion was banned for half of the 20th century. Do we see a simple resurgence of Catholicism, or something more complex? What about New Religious Movements – are there new forms of vernacular Lithuanian religious expression? How does immigration affect this field?

indexThe second half of the interview discusses the practicalities of how you go about setting up and running a Religious Studies department in a post-Soviet country such as Lithuania. While there was no academic study of religion during the Soviet era, this has also affected the public perception of the need for such a study. This interview presents a fascinating inside look at the study of religion between two hegemonies – Communism and Catholicism.

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 Che Guevara T-shirts, Rosaries, Pokemon Go, and many other capitalist goods.

New Religious Movements and Contemporary Discourses About Religion

As I listened to Susan Palmer’s RSP interview and read about her new co-authored book (with Stuart A. Wright) Storming Zion: Government Raids on Religious Communities (2015), I was reminded why NRMs make such useful case studies in the religious studies classroom. From a pedagogical perspective, the study of NRMs offers a valuable resource for creative teaching and theorizing about religion. In my introductory classes, for example, I use Scientology to illustrate how NRMs have negotiated with the state in their quest for legitimacy. There is plenty of great scholarship to assign, and students are often surprised to learn how seemingly unrelated government agencies–the Food and Drug Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation–helped legitimate Scientology’s “religion” status.

One of the most useful parts of Palmer’s interview, then, is her insistence on paying attention to the words people use to describe NRMs. Winnifred Sullivan, in her recent book, argues that the US government (and the US Supreme Court in particular) increasingly understands “religion” as “being neither particularly threatening nor particularly in need of protection” (17). The trend, as Sullivan and others have noted, is increasingly to see people as religious by default, even (and perhaps especially) those people who do not see themselves as religious. What, then, are we to make of religious groups whose relationship with the state do not fit this mold? How do we explain relationships so contentious that they result in raids and gun battles? At first glance, the events chronicled in Palmer’s Storming Zion seem to be outliers. Yet Palmer and Wright suggest elsewhere that these kinds of raids are more common than one might suspect. Why?

One possible answer is that increased attention to religion by international governments and NGOs has not necessarily resulted in less problematic models of religion being used by these governments and groups. As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has pointed out in her recent book, what scholars understand as “religion” often makes for unwieldy government use. Hurd demonstrates how government classifications of religion are by necessity rigid and slow to respond to change, leading governments to understand and engage religion in a clumsy–and in Palmer’s studies, dangerous–fashion.

Of course, most of the large-scale government efforts directed at cultivating appropriate forms of religion aren’t directed at the kinds of groups Palmer studies. It boils down to size, as Palmer and Robertson both note: smaller groups can be more easily dismissed or ignored by those in power. This is another example of the way in which governments separate religious groups into what might be called “serious” and “unserious” camps, an approach sometimes replicated by the scholars who study them. Both Palmer and Davidson call for more work to be done to change this status quo. They would like to see groups with little political or social capital treated similarly to “big name” religions–the groups that get chapters devoted to them in World Religions textbooks. They would like to see, to paraphrase JZ Smith, how the “exotic” NRMs are just another example of “what we see in Europe everyday.” Smith notes the difference by explaining it as a tension “between religion imagined as an exotic category of human experience and expression, and religion imagined as an ordinary category of human expression and activity.”[1] (1). Thus, as Palmer points out, even the seemingly “exotic” components of NRMs–things like brainwashing and deprogramming–should be both historicized and theorized.[2]

These considerations are timely ones. Though the interview focuses on what religion scholars might expect to hear on work related to NRMs–Raelians, Scientologists, millennial movements of various stripes–I was struck by how much of what was discussed would apply to Islam. Robertson and Palmer note how the media and popular culture tend to portray NRMs in particularly dismissive or fear-inducing ways. As events of recent weeks have again reminded us, what do we make of the fact that Islam is often discussed using similar language? The same kinds of militarized policing tactics directed at NRMs have, in recent weeks, been endorsed by a number of candidates for U.S. president as a means to control Muslims in the United States and around the world.

There’s a relevant history to this “NRM-ization” of Islam, particularly in the United States. Those interested in Palmer’s work, and in her work on government raids on NRMs, should also make time for Sylvester Johnson’s African-American Religions, 1500-2000, specifically his study of the history of the US government’s surveillance of and violence towards African-American Muslims. Johnson’s work highlights many of the tensions Palmer identifies: how classificatory criticism (“authentic” religion versus “cults”) bolstered state action against the political claims of new and emerging religious groups (in this specific case, the Nation of Islam). As a result, Johnson argues, “US officials increasingly resorted to the specific grammar of terrorism to represent political Islam.”[3] While scholars do not usually place global Islam within the category of new religious movements, Johnson shows how this early racialization of Islam within the United States shapes how global Islam is treated by the US government today.

For someone like myself, interested in questions of law and religion, the tension between emerging religious groups and state authorities is one of particular importance. Susan Palmer’s interview is a great example of why new religious movements make such good tools with which scholars can think about the study of religion.

[1] Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University Of Chicago Press, 1982), xii.

[2] For one excellent and recent example, see Matthew Dunne, A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

[3] Sylvester Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 382.

Minority Religions and the Law

cult” and “sect” uncritically. Nevertheless, outside of academia, the language of “cults” continues to be used, and particularly through the law, has an affect on the lives of real people. Susan J. Palmer joins David G. Robertson to discuss the intersection between new or minority religions and the law. Professor Palmer describes how she came to study these minority groups, and to realise that they were often being misrepresented, or at least unduly targeted. Discussion ranges from Scientology in France to the Branch Davidians and the Nuwaubians in the US, with issues of secularity, race and “brainwashing” come to the fore. A fascinating overview for anyone interested in how the discourse on “religion” operates in the contemporary world.

Religion and the Law (Winnifred F. Sullivan), Studying “Cults” (Eileen Barker), and Is Britain still a Christian country? (Linda Woodhead), and feature essays by Daniel SillimanEssi Mäkelä, and Kevin Whitesides. 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, fake fir trees, playing cards, and more!

The Supernatural and the New Comparativism

Jeffrey J. Kripal tells David G. Robertson about his approach to studying “paranormal” and “supernatural” phenomena.

The conversation begins by explaining how Kripal came to be studying figures like Charles Fort and Whitley Strieber from a background in Hinduism. He then argues for a New Comparativism within the study of religion that will put “the impossible” back on the table again, and encourage a more even conversation between the sciences and the humanities. His suggestion is that we should put consciousness at the centre of studies in religion, suggesting a new approach to the sacred, and opening up new theoretical avenues.

Studying Non-Ordinary Realities, and Religious Studies and the Paranormal.

‘Religious Innovation and Religious Change in the 21st Century’ – 2015 CESNUR Conference Report

CESNUR (Centre for Studies on New Religions, Torino) Annual Conference 2015, Tallinn University, Estonia, 17-20 June. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Prof. Carole M. Cusack, Department of Studies in Religion, The University of Sydney

The 2015 CESNUR conference was held at University of Tallin, Estonia, and was organized by Dr Ringo Ringvee (The Estonian Ministry of Interior). The theme was ‘Religious Innovation and Religious Change in the 21st Century’. There were no plenary lectures, although the interesting address by Massimo Introvigne (President of CESNUR) at the conference dinner at the Von Krahl Theatre, on Friday 19 June, ‘The Sociology of Religious Movements and the Sociology of Time in Conversation’ performed something of that function. As CESNUR is an organization that welcomes members of new religions, there were ‘insider’ papers and responses from members of the Twelve Tribes, the Plymouth Brethren, and the Church of Scientology, among others.

Academic presentations included: Liselotte Frisk and Sanja Nilsson (Dalarna University), ‘Upbringing and Schooling of the Children of the Exclusive Brethren: The Swedish Perspective’; Bernard Doherty (Macquarie University), ‘Spooks and Scientologists: Secrecy, Surveillance, and Subversion in Cold War Australia, 1954-1983’; Tommy Ramstedt (Abo Akademi University), ‘Credibility, Authority, and the Paranormal: The Relation Between Science and Paranormal Claims Within the Finnish Alternative Spiritual Milieu’; Timothy Miller (University of Kansas), ‘Will the Hutterites Survive the 21st Century?’; Carole M. Cusack (University of Sydney), ‘Gurdjieff and Sufism: A Contested Relationship’; and Christopher Hartney (University of Sydney), ‘Kenja: Unique Australian NRM or Auditing Without an E-Meter?’

Tallinn, Estonia

The International Society for the Study of New Religions (ISSNR) held its third two-yearly meeting since it began in 2009 during the conference. This was a successful gathering that acknowledged the quality of the first five years of the International Journal for the Study of New Religion (Volumes 1-4 under the editorship of Carole M. Cusack and Liselotte Frisk, and Volume 5 under the current editorial team of Alex Norman and Asbjørn Dyrendal) and developed plans for the future, as the new President, Milda Ališauskienė (Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania) was elected. The meeting thanked the outgoing President, Jean François Mayer (Religioscope Institute, Switzerland). The ISSNR sponsored sessions at CESNUR as did it at the EASR in Budapest in September 2011.

The conference was well-attended, though the absence of long-time CESNUR stalwart J. Gordon Melton (Baylor University and the Institute for the Study of American Religion) due to extreme weather conditions that presented him travelling was noted by all. At the conference’s close after lunch on Saturday 20 June, members were taken by bus to the first of a series of sacred sites in Tallin, the Song Festival Grounds (Lauluväljak). The bus then dropped the group off in Toompea, the upper town, and Ringo Ringvee guided through sites including: the Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral (from the outside); St Mary’s Cathedral (Dome Church or Toomkirik), the oldest church in Tallinn, formerly Catholic and now Lutheran; and the fascinating Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which is a unobtrusively nested within the town walls, with a crypt filled with folk art, and a church with a distinctive iconostasis. The dedication is to the Virgin With Three Hands, and the complex also houses a crafts business, a small monastery, and the Ukrainian Cultural Centre. CESNUR 2016 will be in Seoul, Korea, from 28-30 June.

— Carole M. Cusack, University of Sydney

CSENUR 2015 online conference proceedings available HERE.

 

 

 

Religious Authority in a Post-Religious Society

The question of charismatic and spiritual authority has become ever more relevant in present day Japan, which is an exceedingly “non-religious but spiritual” nation. In her interview, Dr. Erica Baffelli introduces us to a wide variety of perspectives on creating, distributing, maintaining and defending religious authority that can be found within Japanese new religious movements (NRMs). Japanese religious leaders operate in a complex social landscape in which they must constantly maneuver between tradition and modernity, specificity and universalism, nation and world, in their quest for legitimacy. The variety of approaches that can be found among NRMs, and the persistence of non-Western views of history and ritual that call the applicability of the category “religion” into question, make the country’s religious landscape difficult to characterize, but Dr. Baffelli does an admirable job of summarizing some major avenues of study into Japanese religious authority.

As Dr. Baffelli and her interviewer describe, religious authority in Japan can be analyzed through categories such as space, body, text, politics, media, and technology. The differences between Japanese and Western formations of these subjects, as well as the diversity within Japan, can help shed light on the assumptions we make about how authority is acquired and asserted. For example, Western understandings of religious text are closely linked to the concept of a “scripture,” a divinely inspired, normative document. But Japan has traditionally had many different kinds of religious text, which are not necessarily considered inspired or treated as normative. Japanese NRMs offer us many different ways to derive authority from a text.

Dr. Baffelli points to a recent article by Clark Chilson, “Cultivating Charisma: Ikeda Daisaku’s Self Presentations and Transformational Leadership”, which is an excellent study of the Sōka Gakkai leader’s use of text, primarily the roman à clef epic Human Revolution, to distribute authority to his readers. As Chilson describes it, Ikeda’s readers are apprentices as he once was. They have been initiated into his path to the Truth and are now striving to mature their own capacities for leadership. Ikeda’s text describes how his authority was not granted to him exclusively, but was acquired through experience and can be passed on to any Gakkai member. Ikeda is thus preparing the Gakkai to manage institutional authority and power long after he himself is gone.

Ikeda’s magnum opus makes for a sharp contrast with the texts of Ōkawa Ryūhō, founder of the NRM called, in English, Happy Science. Ōkawa’s many speeches and books make it evident that his authority belongs to him alone, through his hidden identity as God the Father, and cannot be acquired by anyone else. Ōkawa’s ability to expound on the past and future of humanity, and to channel the higher spirit of any human or extraterrestrial being, living or dead, makes reading his books a lesson in simple “awareness” of his omniscience, not an instruction manual for those who would want to maintain his sect in future generations.

The bumpy transition from charismatic to institutional authority has been a key turning point in many Japanese NRMs. Dr. Baffelli states that many groups find comfortable rule by a group of experienced members to be preferable to a continuation of unruly charismatic leadership. But the sudden loss of a charismatic leader just as frequently causes an NRM to lose its direction and unity. In a 2007 article, “Shifting Paradigms and Mediating Media,” Christal Whelan described how an NRM called God Light Association underwent radical changes and splits following the loss of its leader, Takahashi Shinji. Members in Osaka continued to revere Takahashi by watching videos of his glossolalic interpretations, while members in Tokyo reorganized around his daughter Keiko , who rebuilt the group into a completely different therapeutic program. Still other members joined Ōkawa Ryūhō at Happy Science, or another NRM known as Pana Wave Laboratory.

A notable point made at the end of this interview deserves the attention of scholars of religion. Since the 1980s, the innumerable thousands of organized Japanese NRMs, called shinshūkyō in Japanese, have been losing members. The 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway by Aum Shinrikyō, an esoteric NRM which had attracted the support of several Japanese religious scholars, certainly hastened criticism of NRMs in public discourse, but the trend away from NRMs did not begin with Aum. Since the 1980s, social and economic pressures to stay within mainstream society have become more prominent, and spiritually minded individuals more often seek more limited, loosely bonded participation in New Age-style modes of thought, dubbed “new spirituality movements” by Shimazono Susumu (c.f. Shimazono 2004).

But questions of charismatic, spiritual, and institutional authority remain with us. The scholarly work on NRMs is by no means outdated, but, in fact, is increasing in relevance as we try to make sense of Shimazono’s NSMs. From crystal healing and Reiki, to millenarian “ascension,” to attendance at shrines, to therapeutic forms of mass communication, NSMs are everywhere in 21st century Japan, and with them come new questions about how spiritual institutions can aid the bricoleurs who wander their way, and what sort of authority is possible in such loosely connected interactions.

In his book, “Spiritual” wa naze hayaru no ka, journalist Isomura Kentarō offers the counterintuitive but revealing example of an e-mail list and blog run by former video game designer Itoi Shigesato, which offers self-help advice and pick-me ups to roughly a hundred thousand subscribers every day. Readers are devoted to the heartwarming writings of Itoi, who is affectionately dubbed “Darling,” but when they bring up his blog posts in everyday life, they frequently get the impression of being perceived as adherents of a religious cult. Having discovered his charismatic authority, Itoi now has the full-time job of delicately managing a small media empire while avoiding the stain of religiousness. He aims to produce messages and physical products (most notably, a fancy notebook called the Hobonichi Planner) that readers will enjoy, but not to draw them in as closely as an NRM leader would have done.

A similar phenomenon is happening even in overtly spiritual movements. I will soon begin a study of a loose network of readers of the channeled text Hitsuki Shinji. After being the focus of two NRMs in the postwar years, the lengthy text was virtually abandoned until the 1990s, when the writer Nakaya Shin’ichi began publishing dozens of books offering a spiritually minded exegesis. But until this year, Nakaya’s interactions with his readers have been limited to a monthly magazine and public talks. Similar to Itoi’s mailing list, the text has been offered as a direct reading experience unmediated by any organization, and its implementation has been essentially left to the individual. But starting this spring, Nakaya intends to take the risk of forming a more tight-knit group and asserting authority as the text’s chief interpreter. Can an NSM be transformed into an NRM? The answer to this will be found in the complex social landscape of modern religious authority.

References

Chilson, Clark. 2014. “Cultivating Charisma: Ikeda Daisaku’s Self Presentations and Transformational Leadership” Journal of Global Buddhism, vol. 15, pp. 65-78

Isomura Kentarō. 2010. “Spiritual” wa naze hayaru no ka. PHP Kenkyūjo.

Whelan, Christal. 2007. “Shifting Paradigms and Mediating Media: Redefining a New Religion as ‘Rational’ in Contemporary Society.” Nova Religio, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 54-72

Shimazono Susumu. 2004. From Salvation to Spirituality: Popular Religious Movements in Modern Japan. Trans Pacific Press.

Prayer, Pretense, and Personification: How God becomes real

Over one hundred years ago, William James dedicated an entire chapter in The Varieties of Religious Experience to “The Reality of the Unseen”. When we typically imagine religion, we imagine that religion has to do with something perceivable, yet paradoxically something that we cannot see, taste, smell, or touch. James characterized the relationship of the individual psyche and belief in the supernatural realm as “…if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call ‘something there’…” (1985, p. 55 [emphasis in original]).

While the impulse to believe may be there, one’s relationship to this unseen realm is not easy to cultivate and maintain. Our evolved psychology was not ‘built’ with the intuition that, even though we have minds, there is an unseen – ultimate mind – that has access to our own and shares thoughts with us (Boyer, 2013). Such ideas require cultural scaffolding, and are not easily sustained in the absence of social systems. Although often ignored, “all our ethnography and history suggests that there is learning involved in the practice of religion…” (Luhrmann, 2013, p. 147). How does one learn to experience God as really real?

In her interview with Thomas Coleman, psychological-anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann discusses her multiyear ethnography of American evangelicals where she sought to understand how some of these individuals come to have close, personal, intimate relationships with God (Luhrmann, 2012). She begins by providing the background into her extensive research on the Vineyard Church movement, where she attended sermons, house groups, prayer groups, and many other opportunities to understand evangelicals, specifically, how God becomes real for them. Luhrmann details the rise of evangelicals in the 60’s and 70’s, and how anthropological work can be informed by evolutionary psychology. This serves as a framework to understand the unique training processes that teach an individual that their mind is not only open to their own thoughts, but God’s as well. Luhrmann goes beyond a purely explanatory endeavor and is interested in understanding the processes that lead some to see God as “a person among people”. One aspect of this learning process, she found, involves pretense and instructs the individual to treat God as an imaginary friend, but with one caveat – God (to them) is real and imaginary friends are not.

group_prayer

Furthermore, while imagining God, Luhrmann uncovered that the individual is often instructed to treat God as they would another person, like a close friend you tell your secrets to. This helps to cultivate an understanding and experience of God that is highly anthropomorphic and cognitively pleasing, rather than thinking of God as Aristotle’s “unmoved mover”, who would hardly be interested in your innermost thoughts. In closing, she details some of the prayer exercises that further help individuals to develop this personal sense of divine presence and answers an RSP listener’s question about the possibility of gender differences in experiencing the divine.

You can visit Dr. Luhrmann’s website to find out more about her work and research at: http://luhrmann.net/

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Citations

Now We Know Religion is Not Disappearing

Postsecular, like postmodern, is a title applied to phenomena in society that do not seem fit into an earlier paradigm and has thus been named post-something because it perhaps is not yet visible what comes next. It is an end of an era but also a shift towards another and has the academic world digging out all the blind spots of the earlier theories, suddenly noticing a variety of things that weren’t perceived before. The secularisation theories saw traditional institutionalised religion slowly disappearing: less people in churches, less belief in God and more non-Christians answering surveys. When the shift arrived this time, it was noted that religion is not disappearing. Secularisation was defined in less all-inclusive ways – or even as a minority phenomenon of the educated elite, as Peter Berger saw it (eg. Berger: 2002: p. 291–294.) – and new theories appeared. Only, now the question became ‘how is religion changing’ instead of ‘how is religion disappearing’.

Gray mentions 9/11 as an example of how religiosity has become very visible in the political sphere. Another, less grim, example is the various new religious movements that seek to establish a presence in politics through challenging the hegemony of traditional churches in a very peculiar way. I am referring especially to the Pastafarians in Europe and the US, the Kopimists in Sweden, and the Satanists in Oklahoma. These groups have very different religious views, but what they have in common is that they were born after the World Wars and have received some attention in the media due to their critique of the social definition of religion. I do not want to entirely omit all the pagan and other movements that have a similar agenda, but what I see as a connection between these three examples are their recent public campaigns seeking legitimation through invoking laws on religious equality.

Whether you are a Pastafarian demanding to wear a colander for your driver’s license or wearing it while taking your oath of office, a Kopimist seeking to register your religious community sacralizing file sharing on the Internet, or a Satanist wishing to publicly announce the love of Baphomet or to have your kids in school taught the Satanist way, the officials and courts of several countries have had to deal with your religious interpretations. Making claims for religious equality while maintaining close connections between the state and the Christian Churches has long been a point of cultural critique, especially in Europe (Eg. Martin: 2010). These movements, mentioned above, have put this message into action. For instance, Pastafarianism was born as a critique of the teaching of intelligent design in schools in Kansas. These movements have pretty much everything imaginable it takes to be a religion: holy books such as The Satanic Bible or the Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster; rituals and holy days such as the sharing of files for Kopimists, a Kopimist wedding, Satanic baptism, wedding and funeral, Pastafarian Talk Like a Pirate Day and Ramedan; and of course religious symbols.

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Spageti

 

Because religions are defined in books of law and scholars of religion have found many ways to classify religion (eg. Ninian Smart’s Seven Dimensions of Religion) – none of which is explicit enough to include everything ‘commonly considered as religious’ and to exclude everything ‘not commonly considered as religious’ – these definitions can be used by the people to create their own sets of belief systems, to venerate their ideals, and to celebrate worldviews separate from the institutionalised churches that seem to have been the main focus of many theorists of religion. This focus on a specific type of religion was indeed one of the factors which gave rise to the secularisation theories.

Now, one may argue that some of the movements mentioned above have been created to celebrate secularisation and rationalisation of the world and merely to mock religiosity. However, it is not uncommon for such a ‘parody’ or critique to become more than just a joke. The Pastafarians in Poland and Finland have sought to be registered as a religious community. Both attempts, so far, having been declined. However, the Polish Pastafarians have had some more positive rulings from the Polish courts on the way, and both groups keep on fighting for recognition. The Kopimist community is registered as a religious community in Sweden, and the Satanists were organised as The Church of Satan already in the 1960’s. I believe the level of commitment has to be strong to some extent for a community to seek an official status as a religious community and to apply for bureaucratic legitimacy for their movement.

I am hesitant to use terms such as ‘serious’ or ‘meaningful’ in this context because of their vague connotations as definitive adjectives for religious practice. What is ‘serious’ or ‘meaningful’ religiosity? Is belonging without believing ‘meaningful’ and how does it differ from, for example, Pastafarian belonging? Is the Jewish holiday of Purim ‘serious’? Does the carnival atmosphere of it make Judaism less of a religion? I, myself, have been studying Discordianism, which is a very interesting example of how a group with critical or satirical origins can create profoundly life changing ideas, which could be viewed as religious or spiritual for even the creators of the movement (Mäkelä & Petsche: 2013).

No matter how we classify the movements stated above, their claims for religious rights within society (even a community of Finnish Discordians have their registration application on it’s way) show a certain meaning behind the rhetorics of religious equality. As Gray mentions in the podcast, postsecularism is in many ways about dealing with everyone: the religious, the atheists, the agnostics, and all the religious identities in between. It is not about trying to force religious speech into politics or trying to force it out of the public domain, like the secular discourse in many ways tried, it is about dealing with the fact that now we know religion is not disappearing.

References

Peter Berger: ‘Secularization and De-Secularization’ in Religions in the Modern World, ed. Linda Woodhead. 2002. Routledge, London.

Craig Martin: Masking Hegemony. 2010. Equinox, London.

Ninian Smart: The World’s Religions. 1989. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Mäkelä & Petsche: ‘Serious Parody: Discordianism as Liquid Religion’ in Culture and Religion Journal Vol.14 Issue 4. 2013. Taylor & Francis Group.