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Religion and Authority in Asia

Given its contextual and perspectival malleability, the notion of ‘authority’, and even more so of ‘religious authority’, is challenging to define and to study. In October 2014, a number of scholars working on both ‘traditional’ and new modes of authority gathered for the Religious Authority in Asia: Problems and Strategies of Recognition workshop, which was funded by the Dr Erica Baffelli who in today’s interview with Paulina Kolata discusses the notion of authority and charismatic leadership in the context of her research on New and ‘New’ New religions in contemporary Japan.

It seems that the most problematic issue in discussions on authority in the Japanese religious context and beyond is the very recognition and identification of its existence and its impact on communities at trans-national, national and local levels. The assertion of authority can be perceived through the prism of the scholarly discourse on religions, relationships between religious specialists and their supporting communities, and the state-religion interface. There are two watershed dates – 1946 and 1995 – and the events associated with them can be considered as crucial in shaping the socio-economic and political conditions of the religious power struggle in Japanese society in post-war Japan. The first date is linked to the promulgation of the new post-war constitution which sanctioned freedom of religious belief, and separated religion and the state.  The second marks the date of an act of domestic terrorism – the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway – perpetrated by members of new religious group Aum Shinrikyō led by a charismatic figure of Asahara Shōkō. Listen to Erica Baffelli talk charisma, leadership and the media in assertion of religious authority in the context of New Religions in Japan.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with Pauline Hope Cheong on Religious Authority and Social Media.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying books, pet food, socks, digital radios, action figures, and more.

The Emerging Church

What do you get when you mix a dash of pub culture, a splash of irreverence, a healthy dose of conversation, a smattering of postmodernist critique, a drizzle of discourse on problematic concepts such as ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’, and a host of other eclectic and idiosyncratic ingredients to taste? Depending upon the measures, one possible outcome could be an ideal-typical podcast from your friends at The Religious Studies Project. Prepare in a slightly different manner and your culinary exploits could produce a manifestation of the Emerging Church. However, in the case of the latter, similar results might be obtained from a completely different set of ingredients.

The Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is notoriously difficult to define. What are scholars of ‘religion’ to do with a trend seemingly emerging both within and without many contemporary manifestations of (Western) Christianity, that is both anti-institutional and ecumenical, aims to avoid hierarchies and power structures, embraces creativity, deconstruction and experimentation, and actively promotes a ‘neutral’ and ‘non-judgmental religious space’ where almost anything goes? In this week’s podcast, Chris is joined by Dr Gladys Ganiel to discuss this ‘problematic’, important and boundary-pushing phenomenon.

In The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford, 2014), Ganiel and co-author Gerardo Marti write:

“We define Emerging Christians in terms of sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction. We characterize the ECM as an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization. As such, the ECM is best seen as a mix of both reactive and proactive elements, vying for the passion and attention of Christians and nonbelievers. Emerging Christians react primarily against conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist Protestantism but also against other forms of traditional Christianity that they have experienced as inauthentic. At the same time, they proactively appropriate practices from a range of Christian traditions […] to nourish their individual spirituality and to enhance their life together as communities.” (25-26)

What is it that makes this movement ‘Christian’? What does it do to traditional understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘secularization’? How does one research such a seemingly diffuse and unbounded phenomenon? Is it only a matter of time before this movement undergoes a process of systematization? These questions and more form the basis of a discussion which took place in May 2014, at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin in Belfast, a couple of days after the 3rd Annual Conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion.

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.

 

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World

through examining [religions’] cultural DSC_0039_2products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World: Intention and Reception of Anthroposophical and Gurdjieffian Art Forms

By Dr Johanna Petsche, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 25 September 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Carole Cusack on Religion and Cultural Production (23 September 2013)

The Religious Studies Project’s interview with Professor Carole M. Cusack of the University of Sydney covers an ambitious range of issues by tackling some huge open-ended questions: How does one define a cultural product of a religion? Must it be material? What makes a product religious or sacred? What about products that are secular, but traceable to a new religion? Does the culture of celebrity fit into this? Cusack’s rigorous unpacking of these topics, and the tangential issues explored along the way, make for scintillating listening. The interview loosely centres on the recently published Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (2012), which was edited by Cusack and Alex Norman. This comprehensive compendium examines the impact of new religions upon cultural production through a set of case studies exploring realms of music, architecture, food, art, books, film, video games, and more.

New religions have been increasingly emerging in the West and other regions since the beginning of the nineteenth century. They are, however, often ignored or devalued due to the common suspicion that they are not ‘real religions’ and cannot be equated with traditional, historical religions (Cusack and Norman 2012, 1). This human tendency to disregard new religions and new spiritualities is reflected in the way that the cultural products of different religions are perceived. Taking works of music as examples, it is clear that where J. S. Bach’s (1686-1750) ‘St Matthew Passion’, Handel’s (1685-1759) ‘Messiah’ (both overtly Christian works), and the Sufi devotional qawwali music of Pakistan are easily acknowledged as masterworks of religious music, the same dignity is not accorded to the reggae music of the Rastafarians or the piano music of G. I. Gurdjieff and his pupil Thomas de Hartmann (Cusack and Norman 2012, 2; Murrell and Snider 2012, 495-518; Petsche 2012, 271-295). Where the former have come to be celebrated as exemplary, timeless artistic achievements representative of reputable religions, the art associated with new religions is often considered trivial and unimportant, like new religions themselves. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the art of new religions has not yet ‘stood the test of time’, and also that it arose in the materialistic, largely secular world. In this way it seems less meaningful or ‘authentic’ than the art of past epochs, which we commonly admire with a sense of awe and nostalgia.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnaaXk9OxA0]

The cultural products of new religions are often produced by insiders for insiders, but many have attained a level of broader cultural acceptance through various means (see also Cusack and Norman 2012, 2). Take for example Anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner’s (1861-1925) Goetheanum II in Dornach, Switzerland, which was completed in 1928. His Goetheanum I was built in 1913 but it was destroyed by fire in 1922, and then rebuilt as Goetheanum II. This is a building – known as “the Building” by Anthroposophists – set up deliberately as a spiritual centre embodying Anthroposophical ideals, with its symbolic, differently coloured windows representing Steiner’s colour theory, and special outside garden and water features designed to create specific effects on viewers. Goetheanum II seems to have been intentionally conceived by Steiner as a sacred site. Interestingly though, at the same time it has become a tourist attraction, with people being drawn to it purely for its aesthetic qualities. It is, after all, a beautiful example of Expressionist architecture (Cusack 2012, 175). Goetheanum II is actually a unique selling point for the village. In this way, the structure is simultaneously a desirable piece of architecture that tourists wish to visit and also, for Anthroposophists who must have much more nuanced, insider interpretations of it, a building imbued with spiritual meaning.

The Goetheanum

The Goetheanum

A number of modern architects, such as Swiss architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (better known as Le Corbusier), drew their influence from Steiner’s designs, without specifically calling upon Anthroposophical ideals. Other famous structures, such as the ING Bank headquarters in Amsterdam, built by Albert and van Huuts, have been erected to reflect Steiner principles (Cusack 2012, 188). One might also consider in this context the system of agriculture, known today as Biodynamic Agriculture or Biodynamics, which is discussed in Alex Norman’s chapter in the Handbook. Biodynamics has its starting point in Anthroposophical ideas (Steiner gave a series of eight lectures on the topic in 1924) but is now more concerned with the expression of terroir rather than spiritual development (Norman 2012, 213-234). G. I. Gurdjieff’s nine-pointed enneagram symbol is another example. The enneagram has, in recent years, been appropriated as a model for nine personality types, a model that has been widely promoted in business management and spiritual contexts, straying far from Gurdjieff’s use and teaching of the symbol. While cultural products might be inscribed with the intentions of their creators, it is social actors who make sense of the world and its cultural products (Cusack and Norman 2012, 4).

Another cultural product of a new religion is renowned theatre and film director Peter Brook’s 1979 film Meetings with Remarkable Men. The film is a cinematic adaptation of Armenian-Greek spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff’s (c.1866-1949) semi-autobiographical text of the same name. Brook’s film could be classed as a ‘Gurdjieffian film’ and a religious cultural product as it was created by a Gurdjieffian (Brook now heads the Gurdjieff Paris group), is based on one of Gurdjieff’s own books, and pays tribute to Gurdjieff. Unlike Steiner’s Goetheanum I and II, which were not really intended to cater for outsiders, Brook’s film about Gurdjieff was deliberately made for non-Gurdjieffian, as well as Gurdjieffian, audiences. It is interesting that spiritual meaning must be deeply embedded in the film, while Brook also intended it to fulfil the role of portraying the story of Gurdjieff’s life to ‘outsiders’, in an effective and entertaining way.

The study of new religions, a burgeoning area within the greater field of Religious Studies, gives a unique perspective on different facets of religion. Not only can we observe, through such a study, how religions begin, change, develop, and in some cases expire, but through examining their cultural products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

 

Bibliography

  • Cusack, Carole and Alex Norman (eds). “Introduction,” Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Cusack, Carole. “‘And the Building Becomes Man’: Meaning and Aesthetics in Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Murrell, Nathaniel and Justin Snider. “Identity, Subversion, and Reconstruction ‘Riddims’: Reggae as Cultural Expressions of Rastafarian Theology” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Norman, Alex. “Cosmic Flavour, Spiritual Nutrition?: The Biodynamic Agricultural Method and the Legacy of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy in Viticulture” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Petsche, Johanna. “G. I. Gurdjieff’s Piano Music and its Application in and Outside the ‘Work’” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.

Mormonism, Growth and Decline

Mormonism – or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) – exploded onto the scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the United States of America, and has courted controversy ever since. From the recent upsurge in worldwide visibility of Mormonism due to the widespread attention given to the religious identity of Mitt Romney (the Republican Candidate in the 2012 US Presidential elections), to the huge success of the Southpark creators’ hit musical The Book of Mormon, there is no shortage of ill-informed opinion surrounding this group. Unsurprisingly, the academic study of religion has its own questions about Mormonism: can it be described as a New Religious Movement? Is there a unified phenomenon which can be classified as Mormonism? Is Mormonism to be considered as a form of Christianity? This week, Chris is joined by Ryan Cragun – Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida – to discuss not only these conceptual issues, but issues relating specifically to quantitative research, Mormon demographics, and the worldwide growth and decline of the LDS Church.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter.

What numbers should a quantitative scholar use when ‘counting’ Mormonism? Who does the categorization? Is Mormonism outside of the US different? In what ways? And what about Mormonism in the ‘heartland’ of Utah? These are just some of the questions which come up in the interview, and Professor Cragun provides a great introduction not only to Mormonism and quantitative research, but also to Mormon growth and decline in the context of the secularization thesis, and to the intricate relationships and correlations which can be observed between LDS membership and factors such as gender, employment, education, and ethnicity.

A number of papers are referred to in this interview, including Comparing the Geographic Distributions and Growth of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses, The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists, and The Price of Free Inquiry in Mormonism, all of which can be accessed on Ryan’s personal website. Ryan Cragun is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida. He is author and co-author of many peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of Contemporary Relgiion, Sociology of Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and more, and is the co-author (with Rick Phillips) of Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election Year Guide to Mitt Romney’s Religion (2012), and author of the forthcoming What You Don’t Know About Religion (but Should).

This interview was recorded in the business centre at the Lord Elgin Hotel, Ottawa during the Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts Conference. We are grateful to everyone who facilitated the recording in any way.

Religion in the 2011 UK Census

An ’emergency broadcast’ from the Religious Studies Project… featuring George Chryssides, Bettina Schmidt, Teemu Taira, Beth Singler, Christopher Cotter, and David Robertson.

The results of the 2011 census were published this Tuesday (11/12/2012), and immediately the media -old and new – were occupied with statistics about “religion” in England and Wales in 2011 as compared to 2001. We couldn’t avoid the opportunity to comment, and to apply the sort of analysis RS scholars are singularly qualified to apply. What did the census actually say, and how did the press report it? Why does it matter, and how can we use the data more constructively?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Some data:

Thanks to all for taking part at short notice:

 

George D. Chryssides is Honorary Research Fellow in Contemporary Religion at the University of Birmingham. He studied philosophy and theology at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford, and has taught in several British universities, becoming Head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton in 2001. He has a particular interest in new religious movements, on which he has published extensively. Recent publications include Christians in the Twenty-First Century (with Margaret Z Wilkins), published by Equinox (2010). His second edition of Historical Dictionary of New Religious Movements is also out, dated 2012. His website, www.religion21.com, includes several resources which may be useful, including “From Jesus Christ to Father Christmas — an attempt to define the scope and subject-matter of Christianity”. You may also wish to see Russell T. McCutcheon’s edited volume The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion.

Dr Bettina Schmidt is Senior lecturer in the study of religions in the School of Theology, Religious Studies and Islamic Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity St. David. Her PhD concerned ethnicity and religion, focusing on Santeria and Spiritism in Puerto Rico (University of Marburg, 1996), and she went on to post-doctoral work in cultural theories and Caribbean religions (University of Marburg, 2001). Dr Schmidt has worked as a lecturer in anthropology for various German universities, as well as Visiting Professor at the City University of New York and of the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad in Cusco, Peru. At the moment she is member of the board of editors of the journal Indiana, an annual journal of the Ibero American Institute in Berlin, and of the journalCurare, a journal of medical anthropology and transcultural psychiatry, published by the AG Ethnomedicine, and Secretary of the BASR.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see www.teemutaira.wordpress.com.

Beth Singler is a PhD candidate at Cambridge University, UK. Her research focuses on New Religious Movements of the 20th and 21st Centuries, particularly those with an online community or an experimental relationship with popular culture. Beth’s MPhil research on the development online of a religion of Anorexia has been presented in papers at Interface 2011 (“Theology in the 3rd Millennium: Studying New Religious Movements on the Internet, the Case of the Pro-Ana Movement and Anamadim”) and at BASR 2011 (“When Ritual Cannot End – The Pro-Ana Movement and Anamadic Asceticism”). Jediism was the focus of a paper for BASR 2012, (“Jedi Ltd. or Limited Jedi? Jediism and the Changing Domains of Religious Conflict in New Religious Movements”) and she is currently working on a chapter examining how online New Religious Movements such as Jediism and Freezone Scientology deal with disputes and legal issues for a forthcoming book on religion and legal pluralism. Her PhD thesis examines the evolution of a New Age category of Self, Indigo Children, and has the provisional title: “The Indigo Children: New Age Experiments with Self and Science”. See her Academia.edu page for more details, or follow her @bvlsingler on Twitter.

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Recent publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2013). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.

James R. Lewis

Who joins New Religious Movements?

James R. Lewis was kind enough to have a chat with us at the 2012 EASR conference in Stockholm despite having a sore throat due to a cold. Lewis has been involved in research on new religious movements (NRMs) since the early late 1980s and has both written and edited extensively on the subject. In this episode of the Religious Studies Project, Lewis shares some of his views on the study of NRMs. It seems, claims Lewis, that our current generalizations about who joins such movements is based on outdated statistics. It seems no longer to be the case that it is primarily young people who join NMRs, rather joiners’ age has increased during recent decades. This demonstrates why we need more and better quantitative data. James and Knut also talk a bit about the situation in Norway when it comes to research on NRMs.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

James R. Lewis

James R. Lewis is a associate professor of religious studies at the University of Tromsø. Among Lewis’ latest titles are the monographs Children of Jesus and Mary: The Order of Christ Sophia (2009) and the forthcoming Embracing the Darkness: Modern Satanism (with Asbjørn Dyrendal & Jesper A. Petersen) and Routledge Introduction to New Religious Movements. Among his edited collections are Violence and New Religious Movements (2011) and Handbook of Religious and the Authority of Science (2010, with Olav Hammer). Lewis is also editor of Brill’s Handbooks on Contemporary Religion series. He co-founded the International Society for the Study of New Religions. The full publication list can be found here.

Names, books and other things mentioned in the podcast:

Prophecy and American Millennialism

RastafarI is itself a millennial movement with the belief that Haile Selassie I is the God Liberator, an avatar returned to restore True Salvation for the subaltern people of African lineage. It is also a revolutionary movement which wants to change the lot of Africans…

J. Gordon Melton: Prophecy and American Millennialism

By Marzia A. Coltri, University of Birmingham, UK

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with J. Gordon Melton on American Millennialism (15 October 2012).

J. Gorton Melton is a leading academic specialist on new religious movements, a scholar of occultists, Scientologists, Rosicrucianists, Neopagans, Branch Davidians, Theosophists, Reiki groups, UFO, Hare Krishnas, New Age  and vampires, who has spent his academic career investigating and classifying new religious groups throughout the world. He is founder of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, and in an interview at the 2012 annual meeting of INFORM in London he discussed Millennial movements in America, with particular stress on three typologies of movements that await the divine intervention of the Son of God on Earth. This eschatological conjecture in Christianity teaches and disseminates the ‘double resurrection’ of Jesus Christ (“the Messiah is coming again’) and the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth as the supreme signs of salvation and liberation from oppression and tribulation. As Melton observes, many new religious groups in the second half of the 20th century were small in size and had a lack of organizational structure. These movements are, he says, increasing rapidly, changing denominations and metaphysical features, and are waiting a New Era.

The impact of the prophet, with her/his charisma, which is for Weber ‘a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which she/he is set apart from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities’[1], is felt when s/he founds her/his own ‘new religious movement’, and her/his ideas and programme lead the members of the group. In the case of the RastafarI movement, for example, Marcus Garvey is one proponent of Pan-African nationalism and a particularly charismatic voice in the development of the movement.  Through the prophetic teachings of Garvey concerning the coronation of the God-King from Ethiopia (Haile Selassie I), RastafarI develops its belief in the Coming of the Second Messiah to the Earth to save the subaltern people of the African Diaspora and create a new kingdom (the Promised Land, Ethiopia). RastafarI is itself a millennial movement with the belief that Haile Selassie I is the God Liberator, an avatar returned to restore True Salvation for the subaltern people of African lineage. It is also a revolutionary movement which wants to change the lot of Africans and liberate them from the chains of corrupt, evil and sinful Babylon in order to create a new golden age in ‘the millennium kingdom’ of Ethiopia.

Millenarian thought is the belief that after the end of this world a new, fertile and harmonious world will appear. Such a conviction is referred to the term Millennium which is taken from the Apocalypse of John and the Book of Revelation. Millennialisms are expecting either a collective earthly salvation by supernatural agencies or a heavenly salvation. However, as we know, millenarian movements often appear in periods of crisis and act as expressions of frustration, vulnerability and the desire to escape. With their charismatic personalities, millenarianists believe in an earthly Golden Age but have a pessimistic view of the future.  They can be classified as catastrophic (the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses) and progressive millennial movements (the New Agers and the Theosophical movement). The progressive millennial thought has a positive view of the collective growth of society in harmony with the divine (Gods or Angels). Both the progressive and catastrophic millennial movements reflect dramatic episodes of failure and violence, awaiting a radical transit to salvation. They may be violent revolutionaries whose aim is to eradicate the ‘old’ to create the ‘new’. What is common in Millenarian movements is that they are exultant about the predictions of a New Era.

By way of conclusion, what happens in various millenarian movements is directly connected to the economic, religious, sexual and racial power which puts their adherents in a marginal position in relation to the dominant society. Therefore it is not clear how these forces operate within society due to extreme variations in the movements themselves, especially when the prophets die, which  may cause trauma (see the recent death of the Korean Revd. Sun Myung Moon, founder and charismatic leader of the Unification Church). Many of them are expecting that world will be transformed by divine interventions through prophecies in order to eliminate suffering and to offer collective salvation.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Marzia Coltri was born in Verona, Italy and completed a BA in Philosophy with a thesis on the liberal and scientific thought of Karl Popper. After finishing her MA in Philosophical Counselling, she came to England in 2007 to embark on research on minority ethnic religious groups. She recently received her PhD in African and Caribbean religions (the RastafarI movement and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church) in the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham (UK). She is currently part-time visiting lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, UK. Her research focuses on gender studies, post-colonialism and NRMs. She has presented several papers in the UK and abroad, three of which are published in the proceedings of the CESNUR conference. One of her recent articles ‘The Challenge of the Queen of Sheba: The Hidden Matriarchy in the Ancient East’ has also been published in the History of the Ancient World website.

Bibliography:

Melton, J. Gordon. ‘The counter-cult monitoring movement in historical perspective’ in Challenging Religion: Essays in Honour of Eileen Barker, James A. Beckford and James T. Richardson, eds. (London: Routledge, 2003)

Bromley, David and Melton, J. Gordon, eds., Cults, Religion and Violence, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge: 2003)

Melton, J. Gordon. Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices, ABC-Clio (2002)

Melton, J. Gordon. Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions, Thomson Gale; 8th edition (2009),

Miller, Timothy. When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements. ed., Intr. by J. Gordon Melton.  State University of New York Press (Albany, USA: 1991)

Useful links:

http://www.cesnur.org/testi/melton_speak.htmp

http://www.cesnur.org/2010/to-coltri.htm

 


[1] Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, tr. by Ephraim Fischoff (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953), 52.

Ends and Beginnings: A Reflection on the 2012 EASR Conference

Ends and Beginnings: A Reflection on the 2012 EASR Conference

By Venetia Robertson, University of Sydney

A Religious Studies Project Conference Report, published on 27 September 2012. European Association for the Study of Religions – 23-26 August 2012 – Stockholm, Sweden

Some months ago, I was encouraged by my supervisor, Jay Johnston, to submit abstracts to the 2012 EASR and the 1st International Conference on Contemporary Esotericism. Much to my delight, I ended up attending and presenting at both of these amazing events in August. I would like to share with you some of my experiences from this intense, week-long symposium.

EASR 2012 – Ends and Beginnings

Venetia was really proud of that name-tag

To open the 2012 conference for the European Association for the Study of Religions (in conjunction with the International Association for the History of Religion) at Södetörn University, Stockholm, Ingvild Sælid Gilhus tackled the theme of ‘Ends and Beginnings’ by talking about the ‘founding fathers’ of our discipline. As we mulled over Müller and theorised Freud (what were their motivations? Where did they locate the origins of religion?) the inevitable question that kept repeating in my mind was, ‘where are the founding mothers?’ Mary Douglas, Gilhus added, could be considered a founding mother for sure, but this concession does little to address the white male dominance of the humanities in general. But as I looked around the packed auditorium at the sea of heads belonging to people of all genders, all ages, all stages of their careers, I felt some comfort. In my (albeit limited) experience of international conferences, I have been frequently mislabeled as someone’s wife or daughter, rather than a scholar in my own right, or, for that matter, a presenter intending to deliver a paper. In Stockholm for a solid week of conferencing, I made it my aim never to be mislabeled, and in this atmosphere of diversity coupled with solidarity, I don’t think at any point I was.

If I had to choose I would say my favourite thing about these conferences was seeing young and vibrant postgraduate students presenting their craft. I was continuously impressed and excited by the high quality scholarship, ideas, and conversations presented and stimulated by my peers. This year’s EASR delivered an incredibly extensive program. Four days with as many as twelve parallel sessions per session, this conference featured hundreds of speakers. Topics ranged from the Arab Spring to apocalypticism, ecology to esotericism, Pureland to popular culture, and almost everything in between. Of course this leads to the problems that plague all good conferences – one cannot get to see everything they would like to, if speakers drop out and the order is changed scheduling can be even more complicated, etc. Some rooms saw overwhelming popularity – not an inch of space could be spared for latecomers hoping to see Jörg Rüpke talk about death in lived religion! Luckily for me, my session saw no lack of seats. I was speaking in the aula, the massive main hall set aside for keynotes and network sessions.

Venetia delivering her presentation

I spoke, alongside Manon Hedenborg White (Stockholm University) and Sara Duppils (Åbo Akademi) as part of the Graham Harvey and Donald Wiebe), but I was pleased to see about thirty attendees making that vast space seem a little less empty. Actually, the session was very enjoyable as we three (all still students) presented on vastly different topics – Manon on gender in Wicca, Sara on ‘neo-spiritism’ and paranormal beliefs online, and I on Therianthropy and animal-human identity. The response from the audience was brilliant, with intelligent and genuinely engaged questions, suggestions, and comments. This level of interest was followed up with the exchanging of emails, soliciting of articles, and promises to publish forthwith! Nothing is so inspiring as getting the opportunity to pull your head of the proverbial arse of thesis-land to experience an international community of your colleagues understanding and encouraging your seemingly obscure area of interest.

It was disappointing to miss hearing from speakers who pulled out (Henrik Bogdan, Oliver Krüger) and even more frustrating to fail to catch the brief window given to others. Nonetheless, I saw some provocative and valuable papers. For the sake of convenience, I restricted myself to sessions that directly related to my research interests. This is always a gamble, and can be a little monotonous, but there were certainly some highlights. It was really enjoyable to see Doug Ezzy of the University of Tasmania present on a katabatic ritual performed by Australian neo-Pagans. His personable yet informative delivery, supported by his own photographs of the event, made this talk particularly appealing. Jonas Otterbeck of Lund University gave a very interesting paper on masculinity in the genre of ‘Halal pop.’ Franz Höllinger of the University of Graz presented some intriguing statistics on the political and social attitudes of New Agers in Austria, and Peter Åkerbäck of Stockholm University provided insights into the changing reactions toward ‘cults’ in Sweden by government bodies and ‘cult awareness’ groups. On the second day, the impeccably dressed Kocku von Stuckrad of the University of Gronigen delivered an astute key note that highlighted the imbrication of science and religion, and specifically, the ‘scientification’ of religion, and the ‘religionism’ of science. The overlapping of these two magisteria (to misquote Steven Jay Gould) is a topic eye-opening in its relevance and insidiousness in our field of work.

The impeccably dressed Kocku von Stuckrad

Student speakers also proffered papers that spoke to their burgeoning expertise and laudable research efforts. Sara Duppils and Minja Blom (University of Helsinki) both presented findings from their online research of discussion forums (a still woefully under utilized source pool), Manon Hedenborg White discussed information gathered from her own fieldwork and interviews with British Wiccans, Christian Greer (University of Amsterdam) exhibited his collection of rare and arcane Discordian primary materials, and Kristian Pettersson (Uppsala University) in his talk on entheogens and the spiritual experience, submitted his theory of ‘altered states of perception’ to challenge the more commonly and perhaps mistakenly used phrase ‘altered states of consciousness.’ On the New Religious Movements front, Rasa Pranskeviciute (Vytautas Magnus University) introduced me to two environmentally-minded NRMs that have emerged in the post-Soviet world, the Anastasians and the Vissarionites, while the Raëlians got a reappraisal from Erik Östling (Stockholm University) as a group that relies not only on the Bible, but several works of science fiction in constructing their UFOlogical theology. Many of the papers I saw dealt with the meeting of spirituality and popular culture, and one theme that I felt was overlooked was the paradigm shift involved in making fictional texts sacred texts – a more nuanced understanding of changing attitudes towards the boundaries of fantasy and reality was needed.

Round table on Wouter Hanegraaff’s new “Esotericism in the Academy” with O. Hammer, M. Pasi, M. Stausberg

While some student papers were less polished or analytically sophisticated than those of more established scholars, I think it is commendable that conferences like the EASR extend the opportunity for such a number of postgrads (and even the occasional undergrad) to contribute their scholarship to the broader academic community. The fact that so many of the sessions I chose to attend consisted, unbeknownst to me initially, of mostly student presenters strongly suggests that it is a younger generation of scholars that are investigating the ‘alternative’ and ‘fringe’ currents of spirituality which are, ironically, becoming more and more visible, mainstreamed, and imperative to the study of modern religion. In short, these students have their finger on the pulse, and it is events like international conferences that allow the rest of the academic world to learn from these fresh and innovative perspectives.

Of course conferences offer the opportunity for social as well as professional networking (facilitated somewhat by free, room-temperature glasses of box wine). Personal highlights here include discovering that Wouter Hanegraaff’s spirit animal is the Owl, being asked to contribute a paper to Pomegranate, and being invited to speak at the 2013 ISSR Conference in Turku. Ending up at Medusa Bar for a pint and a bit of a headbang with some of the pretty young things wasn’t a bad end to an evening either. But, after four intense days of stimulating conversation, there was little time to rest before it all had to pick up again at the Contemporary Esotericism conference at Stockholm University!

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Venetia Robertson is a PhD candidate, tutor, and research assistant at the University of Sydney in the department of Studies in Religion. Her thesis explores themes of animal-human identity, shape-shifting, popular oc/culture, and myth-making. Forthcoming publications include an article that delves into her thesis topic by discussing the online Therianthropy community and non-human ontology, and an article that offers an explication of masculinity, fandom, and the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic cartoon series. She is currently co-editing an issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion, and will be contributing a paper that looks at the intersections of posthumanism, animality, and eschatology.

 

What should we do with the study of new religions?

 

In the interview with Professor Eileen Barker, three broad themes are brought up. First, the definitions of ’new religious movement’ and ’cult’ are given a brief consideration. After this, Barker introduces the Inform network and its activities in distributing information and making the results of scientific research concerning new religious movements available to society at large. Finally, the future of the study of new religious movements as well as its contribution to the wider field of the study of religion is considered. In this text, I will focus mainly on the second theme: how the results of scientific research are put in practical use by Inform, and what kind of questions this brings up. Along with the interview, I make use of an article Barker has written on the same subject, What should we do about the cults?

The Information Network Focus on Religious Movements, or Inform for short, was founded by Eileen Barker herself in 1988. Behind the founding of the organization lies her observation that there was (and there still is) quite a lot of misinformation, rumours and hearsay about the new religious movements, or ‘cults’, as they often are labelled, and that this confusion created a lot of misunderstanding and ”unnecessary suffering”, as Barker herself puts it. This suspicion is present in the way the term ‘cult’ in itself carries connotations of something deviant, evil and criminal. Neutral information was not easy to find, since the movements themselves tended to offer a very bright picture, whereas the information produced by opposing parties, such as anti-cult movements, emphasized the negative sides. In addition, media contributed to the discussion by picking up only the extreme examples.

In a situation like this, providing scientific, as-neutral-and-objective-knowledge-as-possible about new religious movements is a reasonable thing to do. And this is what Inform is all about. The network collects, assesses and distributes balanced, objective-as-possible information about new religious and spiritual movements. This is done through consultation and publications as well as connecting people with relevant experts, arranging seminars, workshops and conferences. Their services are being used by very different parties, from government officials to convert´s conserned relatives.

Aside from just distributing information about new religious movements, Inform also provides venues for different interested parties to meet and exchange views. Involving the religious movements themselves, as well as their former members and cult-watch movements in seminars, for example, may help the parties to overcome some suspicions and misunderstandings.

Inform is definitely an inspiring example of how the work of scholars of religion can be put into practical use. Academics are often accused of living in their own little worlds, their heads full of fuzzy terminology and grand theories, and forgetting all about the real, messy world around them. And there just might be a grain of truth in that accusation. Not long ago, I read an article written by Tiina Raevaara, currently an independent Author and a blogger on Suomen Kuvalehti website. She brings up the fact that even though the ‘third task’ of universities (next to research and teaching) is to serve and benefit the society, the academics are often not willing to come out in the public to talk about their research, let alone voice their opinions. And while so few academics wish to do this, the ones who do are often frowned upon by the academic community. Raevaara claims in her blog entry, that researchers should get more guidance in how to interact with larger public, and encouraged to do so.

I do agree that universities and scientific community in general are an important part of the society, and should interact with it in a constructive way. This is not unproblematic, of course. Fear of losing one’s perspective lingers; fear of getting too involved. Who of us has not been warned about going native? Even though the very possibility of strict objectivity has been disputed long time ago, distance is still seen as vital for maintaining a proper scientific attitude and conducting valid research – as objective as possible. And even though an individual scholar might not lose her or his perspective, so to say, this might still happen in the eyes of the public. Especially in debates of great political weight, (social) scientists´ commitments and ideological backgrounds are called into question– even if these would not have anything to do with the results of a scientific research itself. As Barker mentions in the interview, she has received her share of such suspicion and accusations.

Inform is a good example of a contact spot between academia and the society at large. While holding up the ideals and methods of social sciences, the network benefits the public: government officials, media, religious groups, individual members of civil society, and more. They do this by offering what the scholarly community can offer: information and opportunities for open discussion. Both are equally important. People with different worldviews, religious and otherwise, must be able to deal with each other, so that society holds together. For this kind of interaction and negotiation to take place, it is important to have arenas where people can learn from one another and at least avoid conflicts rooted in simple misunderstandings.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

 

References:

Barker, Eileen 2006: What should we do about the cults?  Policies, perspective and the perspective of Inform. Published in Pauline Côté and Jeremy Grunn (eds) 2006: The New Religious Question. State Regulation or State Interference? Frankfurt, Peter Lang, ss. 371-394 (article can also be downloaded from the Inform website: http://www.inform.ac/node/1547)

Habermas, Jürgen 2008: Notes on a post-secular society. Published at the website signandsight.com http://www.signandsight.com/features/1714.html accessed May 14th

Raevaara, Tiina 2012: Tutkijat ja traumaattinen julkisuus. Blog entry on the website of Suomen Kuvalehti. (eng. ”Researchers and the traumatic publicity”.) http://suomenkuvalehti.fi/blogit/tarinoita-tieteesta/tutkijat-ja-traumaattinen-julkisuus accessed May 15th­

Studying “Cults”

Although “cult” and “sect” are used as technical terms in religious studies, in their popular usage, “cult” tends to refer to a New Religious Movement [NRM] or other group whose beliefs or practices are considered reprehensible. Since such pejorative attitudes are generally considered inappropriate for the academic study of religion, scholars have tended to adopt the nomenclature of NRMs to refer to “a wide range of groups and movements of alternative spirituality, the emergence of which is generally associated with the aftermath of the 1960s counter-culture” (Arweck 2002:269). In this interview with Chris, Emeritus Professor Eileen Barker (LSE) takes us through the academic study of NRMs from the 1960s onwards, engaging with the particular challenges and successes which have been encountered by academics in the field, and reflecting on some of the more colourful aspects of this area of research.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Eileen Barker OBE, FBA, is Emeritus Professor of Sociology with special reference to the study of Religion at the London School of Economics. She has been researching minority religions and the responses to which they give rise since the early 1970s. Her study of conversion to the Unification Church for her PhD, led to an interest in a wide variety of movements, and she has personally studied, to greater or lesser degree, over 150 different groups. She has over 300 publications, translated into 27 languages. She travels extensively for research purposes, particularly in North America, Europe and Japan, and, since collapse of the Berlin Wall, in Eastern Europe and, more recently, China. She was the first non-American to be elected President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

She is also the founder of INFORM (Information Network, Focus on Religious Movements), an independent charity that was founded in 1988 with the support of the British Home Office and the mainstream Churches. It is based at the London School of Economics. According to Inform’s website, “the primary aim of Inform is to help people by providing them with information that is as accurate, balanced, and up-to-date as possible about alternative religious, spiritual and esoteric movements.”

Among Professor Barker’s publications, the following may be of interest (those which are open-access are indicated with an asterisk):

Reference:
Arweck, Elizabeth 2002. “New Religious Movements” in Religions in the Modern World, edited by Linda Woodhead, Paul Fletcher, Hiroko Kawanami and David Smith. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 264-288.

Podcasts

Religion and Authority in Asia

Given its contextual and perspectival malleability, the notion of ‘authority’, and even more so of ‘religious authority’, is challenging to define and to study. In October 2014, a number of scholars working on both ‘traditional’ and new modes of authority gathered for the Religious Authority in Asia: Problems and Strategies of Recognition workshop, which was funded by the Dr Erica Baffelli who in today’s interview with Paulina Kolata discusses the notion of authority and charismatic leadership in the context of her research on New and ‘New’ New religions in contemporary Japan.

It seems that the most problematic issue in discussions on authority in the Japanese religious context and beyond is the very recognition and identification of its existence and its impact on communities at trans-national, national and local levels. The assertion of authority can be perceived through the prism of the scholarly discourse on religions, relationships between religious specialists and their supporting communities, and the state-religion interface. There are two watershed dates – 1946 and 1995 – and the events associated with them can be considered as crucial in shaping the socio-economic and political conditions of the religious power struggle in Japanese society in post-war Japan. The first date is linked to the promulgation of the new post-war constitution which sanctioned freedom of religious belief, and separated religion and the state.  The second marks the date of an act of domestic terrorism – the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway – perpetrated by members of new religious group Aum Shinrikyō led by a charismatic figure of Asahara Shōkō. Listen to Erica Baffelli talk charisma, leadership and the media in assertion of religious authority in the context of New Religions in Japan.

Listeners might also be interested in our previous interview with Pauline Hope Cheong on Religious Authority and Social Media.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying books, pet food, socks, digital radios, action figures, and more.

The Emerging Church

What do you get when you mix a dash of pub culture, a splash of irreverence, a healthy dose of conversation, a smattering of postmodernist critique, a drizzle of discourse on problematic concepts such as ‘religion’ and ‘the secular’, and a host of other eclectic and idiosyncratic ingredients to taste? Depending upon the measures, one possible outcome could be an ideal-typical podcast from your friends at The Religious Studies Project. Prepare in a slightly different manner and your culinary exploits could produce a manifestation of the Emerging Church. However, in the case of the latter, similar results might be obtained from a completely different set of ingredients.

The Emerging Church Movement (ECM) is notoriously difficult to define. What are scholars of ‘religion’ to do with a trend seemingly emerging both within and without many contemporary manifestations of (Western) Christianity, that is both anti-institutional and ecumenical, aims to avoid hierarchies and power structures, embraces creativity, deconstruction and experimentation, and actively promotes a ‘neutral’ and ‘non-judgmental religious space’ where almost anything goes? In this week’s podcast, Chris is joined by Dr Gladys Ganiel to discuss this ‘problematic’, important and boundary-pushing phenomenon.

In The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (Oxford, 2014), Ganiel and co-author Gerardo Marti write:

“We define Emerging Christians in terms of sharing a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction. We characterize the ECM as an institutionalizing structure, made up of a package of beliefs, practices, and identities that are continually deconstructed and reframed by the religious institutional entrepreneurs who drive the movement and seek to resist its institutionalization. As such, the ECM is best seen as a mix of both reactive and proactive elements, vying for the passion and attention of Christians and nonbelievers. Emerging Christians react primarily against conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist Protestantism but also against other forms of traditional Christianity that they have experienced as inauthentic. At the same time, they proactively appropriate practices from a range of Christian traditions […] to nourish their individual spirituality and to enhance their life together as communities.” (25-26)

What is it that makes this movement ‘Christian’? What does it do to traditional understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘secularization’? How does one research such a seemingly diffuse and unbounded phenomenon? Is it only a matter of time before this movement undergoes a process of systematization? These questions and more form the basis of a discussion which took place in May 2014, at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin in Belfast, a couple of days after the 3rd Annual Conference of the Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion.

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.

 

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World

through examining [religions’] cultural DSC_0039_2products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

Religious Artefacts of the Contemporary World: Intention and Reception of Anthroposophical and Gurdjieffian Art Forms

By Dr Johanna Petsche, University of Sydney

Published by the Religious Studies Project on 25 September 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Carole Cusack on Religion and Cultural Production (23 September 2013)

The Religious Studies Project’s interview with Professor Carole M. Cusack of the University of Sydney covers an ambitious range of issues by tackling some huge open-ended questions: How does one define a cultural product of a religion? Must it be material? What makes a product religious or sacred? What about products that are secular, but traceable to a new religion? Does the culture of celebrity fit into this? Cusack’s rigorous unpacking of these topics, and the tangential issues explored along the way, make for scintillating listening. The interview loosely centres on the recently published Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production (2012), which was edited by Cusack and Alex Norman. This comprehensive compendium examines the impact of new religions upon cultural production through a set of case studies exploring realms of music, architecture, food, art, books, film, video games, and more.

New religions have been increasingly emerging in the West and other regions since the beginning of the nineteenth century. They are, however, often ignored or devalued due to the common suspicion that they are not ‘real religions’ and cannot be equated with traditional, historical religions (Cusack and Norman 2012, 1). This human tendency to disregard new religions and new spiritualities is reflected in the way that the cultural products of different religions are perceived. Taking works of music as examples, it is clear that where J. S. Bach’s (1686-1750) ‘St Matthew Passion’, Handel’s (1685-1759) ‘Messiah’ (both overtly Christian works), and the Sufi devotional qawwali music of Pakistan are easily acknowledged as masterworks of religious music, the same dignity is not accorded to the reggae music of the Rastafarians or the piano music of G. I. Gurdjieff and his pupil Thomas de Hartmann (Cusack and Norman 2012, 2; Murrell and Snider 2012, 495-518; Petsche 2012, 271-295). Where the former have come to be celebrated as exemplary, timeless artistic achievements representative of reputable religions, the art associated with new religions is often considered trivial and unimportant, like new religions themselves. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the art of new religions has not yet ‘stood the test of time’, and also that it arose in the materialistic, largely secular world. In this way it seems less meaningful or ‘authentic’ than the art of past epochs, which we commonly admire with a sense of awe and nostalgia.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnaaXk9OxA0]

The cultural products of new religions are often produced by insiders for insiders, but many have attained a level of broader cultural acceptance through various means (see also Cusack and Norman 2012, 2). Take for example Anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner’s (1861-1925) Goetheanum II in Dornach, Switzerland, which was completed in 1928. His Goetheanum I was built in 1913 but it was destroyed by fire in 1922, and then rebuilt as Goetheanum II. This is a building – known as “the Building” by Anthroposophists – set up deliberately as a spiritual centre embodying Anthroposophical ideals, with its symbolic, differently coloured windows representing Steiner’s colour theory, and special outside garden and water features designed to create specific effects on viewers. Goetheanum II seems to have been intentionally conceived by Steiner as a sacred site. Interestingly though, at the same time it has become a tourist attraction, with people being drawn to it purely for its aesthetic qualities. It is, after all, a beautiful example of Expressionist architecture (Cusack 2012, 175). Goetheanum II is actually a unique selling point for the village. In this way, the structure is simultaneously a desirable piece of architecture that tourists wish to visit and also, for Anthroposophists who must have much more nuanced, insider interpretations of it, a building imbued with spiritual meaning.

The Goetheanum

The Goetheanum

A number of modern architects, such as Swiss architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (better known as Le Corbusier), drew their influence from Steiner’s designs, without specifically calling upon Anthroposophical ideals. Other famous structures, such as the ING Bank headquarters in Amsterdam, built by Albert and van Huuts, have been erected to reflect Steiner principles (Cusack 2012, 188). One might also consider in this context the system of agriculture, known today as Biodynamic Agriculture or Biodynamics, which is discussed in Alex Norman’s chapter in the Handbook. Biodynamics has its starting point in Anthroposophical ideas (Steiner gave a series of eight lectures on the topic in 1924) but is now more concerned with the expression of terroir rather than spiritual development (Norman 2012, 213-234). G. I. Gurdjieff’s nine-pointed enneagram symbol is another example. The enneagram has, in recent years, been appropriated as a model for nine personality types, a model that has been widely promoted in business management and spiritual contexts, straying far from Gurdjieff’s use and teaching of the symbol. While cultural products might be inscribed with the intentions of their creators, it is social actors who make sense of the world and its cultural products (Cusack and Norman 2012, 4).

Another cultural product of a new religion is renowned theatre and film director Peter Brook’s 1979 film Meetings with Remarkable Men. The film is a cinematic adaptation of Armenian-Greek spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff’s (c.1866-1949) semi-autobiographical text of the same name. Brook’s film could be classed as a ‘Gurdjieffian film’ and a religious cultural product as it was created by a Gurdjieffian (Brook now heads the Gurdjieff Paris group), is based on one of Gurdjieff’s own books, and pays tribute to Gurdjieff. Unlike Steiner’s Goetheanum I and II, which were not really intended to cater for outsiders, Brook’s film about Gurdjieff was deliberately made for non-Gurdjieffian, as well as Gurdjieffian, audiences. It is interesting that spiritual meaning must be deeply embedded in the film, while Brook also intended it to fulfil the role of portraying the story of Gurdjieff’s life to ‘outsiders’, in an effective and entertaining way.

The study of new religions, a burgeoning area within the greater field of Religious Studies, gives a unique perspective on different facets of religion. Not only can we observe, through such a study, how religions begin, change, develop, and in some cases expire, but through examining their cultural products we come to notice the different kinds of relationships that exist between how these products are portrayed and intended by their creators, and how they actually go on to be perceived and experienced in wider society.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

 

Bibliography

  • Cusack, Carole and Alex Norman (eds). “Introduction,” Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Cusack, Carole. “‘And the Building Becomes Man’: Meaning and Aesthetics in Rudolf Steiner’s Goetheanum” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Murrell, Nathaniel and Justin Snider. “Identity, Subversion, and Reconstruction ‘Riddims’: Reggae as Cultural Expressions of Rastafarian Theology” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Norman, Alex. “Cosmic Flavour, Spiritual Nutrition?: The Biodynamic Agricultural Method and the Legacy of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy in Viticulture” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.
  • Petsche, Johanna. “G. I. Gurdjieff’s Piano Music and its Application in and Outside the ‘Work’” in Cusack and Norman (eds) Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2012.

Mormonism, Growth and Decline

Mormonism – or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) – exploded onto the scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the United States of America, and has courted controversy ever since. From the recent upsurge in worldwide visibility of Mormonism due to the widespread attention given to the religious identity of Mitt Romney (the Republican Candidate in the 2012 US Presidential elections), to the huge success of the Southpark creators’ hit musical The Book of Mormon, there is no shortage of ill-informed opinion surrounding this group. Unsurprisingly, the academic study of religion has its own questions about Mormonism: can it be described as a New Religious Movement? Is there a unified phenomenon which can be classified as Mormonism? Is Mormonism to be considered as a form of Christianity? This week, Chris is joined by Ryan Cragun – Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida – to discuss not only these conceptual issues, but issues relating specifically to quantitative research, Mormon demographics, and the worldwide growth and decline of the LDS Church.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter.

What numbers should a quantitative scholar use when ‘counting’ Mormonism? Who does the categorization? Is Mormonism outside of the US different? In what ways? And what about Mormonism in the ‘heartland’ of Utah? These are just some of the questions which come up in the interview, and Professor Cragun provides a great introduction not only to Mormonism and quantitative research, but also to Mormon growth and decline in the context of the secularization thesis, and to the intricate relationships and correlations which can be observed between LDS membership and factors such as gender, employment, education, and ethnicity.

A number of papers are referred to in this interview, including Comparing the Geographic Distributions and Growth of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses, The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists, and The Price of Free Inquiry in Mormonism, all of which can be accessed on Ryan’s personal website. Ryan Cragun is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida. He is author and co-author of many peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of Contemporary Relgiion, Sociology of Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and more, and is the co-author (with Rick Phillips) of Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election Year Guide to Mitt Romney’s Religion (2012), and author of the forthcoming What You Don’t Know About Religion (but Should).

This interview was recorded in the business centre at the Lord Elgin Hotel, Ottawa during the Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts Conference. We are grateful to everyone who facilitated the recording in any way.

Religion in the 2011 UK Census

An ’emergency broadcast’ from the Religious Studies Project… featuring George Chryssides, Bettina Schmidt, Teemu Taira, Beth Singler, Christopher Cotter, and David Robertson.

The results of the 2011 census were published this Tuesday (11/12/2012), and immediately the media -old and new – were occupied with statistics about “religion” in England and Wales in 2011 as compared to 2001. We couldn’t avoid the opportunity to comment, and to apply the sort of analysis RS scholars are singularly qualified to apply. What did the census actually say, and how did the press report it? Why does it matter, and how can we use the data more constructively?

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Some data:

Thanks to all for taking part at short notice:

 

George D. Chryssides is Honorary Research Fellow in Contemporary Religion at the University of Birmingham. He studied philosophy and theology at the universities of Glasgow and Oxford, and has taught in several British universities, becoming Head of Religious Studies at the University of Wolverhampton in 2001. He has a particular interest in new religious movements, on which he has published extensively. Recent publications include Christians in the Twenty-First Century (with Margaret Z Wilkins), published by Equinox (2010). His second edition of Historical Dictionary of New Religious Movements is also out, dated 2012. His website, www.religion21.com, includes several resources which may be useful, including “From Jesus Christ to Father Christmas — an attempt to define the scope and subject-matter of Christianity”. You may also wish to see Russell T. McCutcheon’s edited volume The Insider/Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion.

Dr Bettina Schmidt is Senior lecturer in the study of religions in the School of Theology, Religious Studies and Islamic Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity St. David. Her PhD concerned ethnicity and religion, focusing on Santeria and Spiritism in Puerto Rico (University of Marburg, 1996), and she went on to post-doctoral work in cultural theories and Caribbean religions (University of Marburg, 2001). Dr Schmidt has worked as a lecturer in anthropology for various German universities, as well as Visiting Professor at the City University of New York and of the Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad in Cusco, Peru. At the moment she is member of the board of editors of the journal Indiana, an annual journal of the Ibero American Institute in Berlin, and of the journalCurare, a journal of medical anthropology and transcultural psychiatry, published by the AG Ethnomedicine, and Secretary of the BASR.

Dr. Teemu Taira holds a research fellowship at the Academy of Finland at the department of Comparative Religion, University of Turku, Finland. He received his PhD in 2006 from the University of Turku and his recent research has focused on three areas: (1) religion and the secular in the British and Finnish media, (2) the new visibility of atheism, and (3) discursive study on ‘religion’. Taira’s current project examines discourse on religion and the secular in the Finnish media. For a full list of Taira’s publications in English and Finnish languages, see www.teemutaira.wordpress.com.

Beth Singler is a PhD candidate at Cambridge University, UK. Her research focuses on New Religious Movements of the 20th and 21st Centuries, particularly those with an online community or an experimental relationship with popular culture. Beth’s MPhil research on the development online of a religion of Anorexia has been presented in papers at Interface 2011 (“Theology in the 3rd Millennium: Studying New Religious Movements on the Internet, the Case of the Pro-Ana Movement and Anamadim”) and at BASR 2011 (“When Ritual Cannot End – The Pro-Ana Movement and Anamadic Asceticism”). Jediism was the focus of a paper for BASR 2012, (“Jedi Ltd. or Limited Jedi? Jediism and the Changing Domains of Religious Conflict in New Religious Movements”) and she is currently working on a chapter examining how online New Religious Movements such as Jediism and Freezone Scientology deal with disputes and legal issues for a forthcoming book on religion and legal pluralism. Her PhD thesis examines the evolution of a New Age category of Self, Indigo Children, and has the provisional title: “The Indigo Children: New Age Experiments with Self and Science”. See her Academia.edu page for more details, or follow her @bvlsingler on Twitter.

Christopher R. Cotter is a PhD Candidate at Lancaster University, UK. His thesis, under the supervision of Professor Kim Knott, focuses upon the lived relationships between the concepts of ‘religion’, ‘nonreligion’, and the ‘secular’, and their theoretical implications for Religious Studies. In 2011, he completed his MSc by Research in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, on the topic ‘Toward a Typology of Nonreligion: A Qualitative Analysis of Everyday Narratives of Scottish University Students’. Chris has published on contemporary atheism in the International Journal for the Study of New Religions, is Editor and Bibliography Manager at the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, and co-editor (with Abby Day and Giselle Vincett) of the volume Social Identities between the Sacred and the Secular (Ashgate, 2013). See his personal blog, or academia.edu page for a full CV.

David G. Robertson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies department of the University of Edinburgh. His research  examines how UFO narratives became the bridge by which ideas crossed between the conspiracist and New Age milieus in the post-Cold War period. More broadly, his work concerns contemporary alternative spiritualities, and their relationship with popular culture. Recent publications: “Making the Donkey Visible: Discordianism in the Works of Robert Anton Wilson” in C. Cusack & A. Norman (Eds.), Brill Handbook of New Religions and Cultural Production. Leiden: Brill (2012) “(Always) Living in the End Times: The “rolling prophecy” of the conspracist milieu” in When Prophecy Persists. London: INFORM/Ashgate (2013). For a full CV and my MSc thesis on contemporary gnosticism, see my Academia page or my personal blog.

James R. Lewis

Who joins New Religious Movements?

James R. Lewis was kind enough to have a chat with us at the 2012 EASR conference in Stockholm despite having a sore throat due to a cold. Lewis has been involved in research on new religious movements (NRMs) since the early late 1980s and has both written and edited extensively on the subject. In this episode of the Religious Studies Project, Lewis shares some of his views on the study of NRMs. It seems, claims Lewis, that our current generalizations about who joins such movements is based on outdated statistics. It seems no longer to be the case that it is primarily young people who join NMRs, rather joiners’ age has increased during recent decades. This demonstrates why we need more and better quantitative data. James and Knut also talk a bit about the situation in Norway when it comes to research on NRMs.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

James R. Lewis

James R. Lewis is a associate professor of religious studies at the University of Tromsø. Among Lewis’ latest titles are the monographs Children of Jesus and Mary: The Order of Christ Sophia (2009) and the forthcoming Embracing the Darkness: Modern Satanism (with Asbjørn Dyrendal & Jesper A. Petersen) and Routledge Introduction to New Religious Movements. Among his edited collections are Violence and New Religious Movements (2011) and Handbook of Religious and the Authority of Science (2010, with Olav Hammer). Lewis is also editor of Brill’s Handbooks on Contemporary Religion series. He co-founded the International Society for the Study of New Religions. The full publication list can be found here.

Names, books and other things mentioned in the podcast:

Prophecy and American Millennialism

RastafarI is itself a millennial movement with the belief that Haile Selassie I is the God Liberator, an avatar returned to restore True Salvation for the subaltern people of African lineage. It is also a revolutionary movement which wants to change the lot of Africans…

J. Gordon Melton: Prophecy and American Millennialism

By Marzia A. Coltri, University of Birmingham, UK

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 October 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with J. Gordon Melton on American Millennialism (15 October 2012).

J. Gorton Melton is a leading academic specialist on new religious movements, a scholar of occultists, Scientologists, Rosicrucianists, Neopagans, Branch Davidians, Theosophists, Reiki groups, UFO, Hare Krishnas, New Age  and vampires, who has spent his academic career investigating and classifying new religious groups throughout the world. He is founder of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, and in an interview at the 2012 annual meeting of INFORM in London he discussed Millennial movements in America, with particular stress on three typologies of movements that await the divine intervention of the Son of God on Earth. This eschatological conjecture in Christianity teaches and disseminates the ‘double resurrection’ of Jesus Christ (“the Messiah is coming again’) and the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth as the supreme signs of salvation and liberation from oppression and tribulation. As Melton observes, many new religious groups in the second half of the 20th century were small in size and had a lack of organizational structure. These movements are, he says, increasing rapidly, changing denominations and metaphysical features, and are waiting a New Era.

The impact of the prophet, with her/his charisma, which is for Weber ‘a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which she/he is set apart from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities’[1], is felt when s/he founds her/his own ‘new religious movement’, and her/his ideas and programme lead the members of the group. In the case of the RastafarI movement, for example, Marcus Garvey is one proponent of Pan-African nationalism and a particularly charismatic voice in the development of the movement.  Through the prophetic teachings of Garvey concerning the coronation of the God-King from Ethiopia (Haile Selassie I), RastafarI develops its belief in the Coming of the Second Messiah to the Earth to save the subaltern people of the African Diaspora and create a new kingdom (the Promised Land, Ethiopia). RastafarI is itself a millennial movement with the belief that Haile Selassie I is the God Liberator, an avatar returned to restore True Salvation for the subaltern people of African lineage. It is also a revolutionary movement which wants to change the lot of Africans and liberate them from the chains of corrupt, evil and sinful Babylon in order to create a new golden age in ‘the millennium kingdom’ of Ethiopia.

Millenarian thought is the belief that after the end of this world a new, fertile and harmonious world will appear. Such a conviction is referred to the term Millennium which is taken from the Apocalypse of John and the Book of Revelation. Millennialisms are expecting either a collective earthly salvation by supernatural agencies or a heavenly salvation. However, as we know, millenarian movements often appear in periods of crisis and act as expressions of frustration, vulnerability and the desire to escape. With their charismatic personalities, millenarianists believe in an earthly Golden Age but have a pessimistic view of the future.  They can be classified as catastrophic (the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses) and progressive millennial movements (the New Agers and the Theosophical movement). The progressive millennial thought has a positive view of the collective growth of society in harmony with the divine (Gods or Angels). Both the progressive and catastrophic millennial movements reflect dramatic episodes of failure and violence, awaiting a radical transit to salvation. They may be violent revolutionaries whose aim is to eradicate the ‘old’ to create the ‘new’. What is common in Millenarian movements is that they are exultant about the predictions of a New Era.

By way of conclusion, what happens in various millenarian movements is directly connected to the economic, religious, sexual and racial power which puts their adherents in a marginal position in relation to the dominant society. Therefore it is not clear how these forces operate within society due to extreme variations in the movements themselves, especially when the prophets die, which  may cause trauma (see the recent death of the Korean Revd. Sun Myung Moon, founder and charismatic leader of the Unification Church). Many of them are expecting that world will be transformed by divine interventions through prophecies in order to eliminate suffering and to offer collective salvation.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Marzia Coltri was born in Verona, Italy and completed a BA in Philosophy with a thesis on the liberal and scientific thought of Karl Popper. After finishing her MA in Philosophical Counselling, she came to England in 2007 to embark on research on minority ethnic religious groups. She recently received her PhD in African and Caribbean religions (the RastafarI movement and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church) in the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham (UK). She is currently part-time visiting lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, UK. Her research focuses on gender studies, post-colonialism and NRMs. She has presented several papers in the UK and abroad, three of which are published in the proceedings of the CESNUR conference. One of her recent articles ‘The Challenge of the Queen of Sheba: The Hidden Matriarchy in the Ancient East’ has also been published in the History of the Ancient World website.

Bibliography:

Melton, J. Gordon. ‘The counter-cult monitoring movement in historical perspective’ in Challenging Religion: Essays in Honour of Eileen Barker, James A. Beckford and James T. Richardson, eds. (London: Routledge, 2003)

Bromley, David and Melton, J. Gordon, eds., Cults, Religion and Violence, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge: 2003)

Melton, J. Gordon. Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices, ABC-Clio (2002)

Melton, J. Gordon. Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions, Thomson Gale; 8th edition (2009),

Miller, Timothy. When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements. ed., Intr. by J. Gordon Melton.  State University of New York Press (Albany, USA: 1991)

Useful links:

http://www.cesnur.org/testi/melton_speak.htmp

http://www.cesnur.org/2010/to-coltri.htm

 


[1] Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, tr. by Ephraim Fischoff (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953), 52.

Ends and Beginnings: A Reflection on the 2012 EASR Conference

Ends and Beginnings: A Reflection on the 2012 EASR Conference

By Venetia Robertson, University of Sydney

A Religious Studies Project Conference Report, published on 27 September 2012. European Association for the Study of Religions – 23-26 August 2012 – Stockholm, Sweden

Some months ago, I was encouraged by my supervisor, Jay Johnston, to submit abstracts to the 2012 EASR and the 1st International Conference on Contemporary Esotericism. Much to my delight, I ended up attending and presenting at both of these amazing events in August. I would like to share with you some of my experiences from this intense, week-long symposium.

EASR 2012 – Ends and Beginnings

Venetia was really proud of that name-tag

To open the 2012 conference for the European Association for the Study of Religions (in conjunction with the International Association for the History of Religion) at Södetörn University, Stockholm, Ingvild Sælid Gilhus tackled the theme of ‘Ends and Beginnings’ by talking about the ‘founding fathers’ of our discipline. As we mulled over Müller and theorised Freud (what were their motivations? Where did they locate the origins of religion?) the inevitable question that kept repeating in my mind was, ‘where are the founding mothers?’ Mary Douglas, Gilhus added, could be considered a founding mother for sure, but this concession does little to address the white male dominance of the humanities in general. But as I looked around the packed auditorium at the sea of heads belonging to people of all genders, all ages, all stages of their careers, I felt some comfort. In my (albeit limited) experience of international conferences, I have been frequently mislabeled as someone’s wife or daughter, rather than a scholar in my own right, or, for that matter, a presenter intending to deliver a paper. In Stockholm for a solid week of conferencing, I made it my aim never to be mislabeled, and in this atmosphere of diversity coupled with solidarity, I don’t think at any point I was.

If I had to choose I would say my favourite thing about these conferences was seeing young and vibrant postgraduate students presenting their craft. I was continuously impressed and excited by the high quality scholarship, ideas, and conversations presented and stimulated by my peers. This year’s EASR delivered an incredibly extensive program. Four days with as many as twelve parallel sessions per session, this conference featured hundreds of speakers. Topics ranged from the Arab Spring to apocalypticism, ecology to esotericism, Pureland to popular culture, and almost everything in between. Of course this leads to the problems that plague all good conferences – one cannot get to see everything they would like to, if speakers drop out and the order is changed scheduling can be even more complicated, etc. Some rooms saw overwhelming popularity – not an inch of space could be spared for latecomers hoping to see Jörg Rüpke talk about death in lived religion! Luckily for me, my session saw no lack of seats. I was speaking in the aula, the massive main hall set aside for keynotes and network sessions.

Venetia delivering her presentation

I spoke, alongside Manon Hedenborg White (Stockholm University) and Sara Duppils (Åbo Akademi) as part of the Graham Harvey and Donald Wiebe), but I was pleased to see about thirty attendees making that vast space seem a little less empty. Actually, the session was very enjoyable as we three (all still students) presented on vastly different topics – Manon on gender in Wicca, Sara on ‘neo-spiritism’ and paranormal beliefs online, and I on Therianthropy and animal-human identity. The response from the audience was brilliant, with intelligent and genuinely engaged questions, suggestions, and comments. This level of interest was followed up with the exchanging of emails, soliciting of articles, and promises to publish forthwith! Nothing is so inspiring as getting the opportunity to pull your head of the proverbial arse of thesis-land to experience an international community of your colleagues understanding and encouraging your seemingly obscure area of interest.

It was disappointing to miss hearing from speakers who pulled out (Henrik Bogdan, Oliver Krüger) and even more frustrating to fail to catch the brief window given to others. Nonetheless, I saw some provocative and valuable papers. For the sake of convenience, I restricted myself to sessions that directly related to my research interests. This is always a gamble, and can be a little monotonous, but there were certainly some highlights. It was really enjoyable to see Doug Ezzy of the University of Tasmania present on a katabatic ritual performed by Australian neo-Pagans. His personable yet informative delivery, supported by his own photographs of the event, made this talk particularly appealing. Jonas Otterbeck of Lund University gave a very interesting paper on masculinity in the genre of ‘Halal pop.’ Franz Höllinger of the University of Graz presented some intriguing statistics on the political and social attitudes of New Agers in Austria, and Peter Åkerbäck of Stockholm University provided insights into the changing reactions toward ‘cults’ in Sweden by government bodies and ‘cult awareness’ groups. On the second day, the impeccably dressed Kocku von Stuckrad of the University of Gronigen delivered an astute key note that highlighted the imbrication of science and religion, and specifically, the ‘scientification’ of religion, and the ‘religionism’ of science. The overlapping of these two magisteria (to misquote Steven Jay Gould) is a topic eye-opening in its relevance and insidiousness in our field of work.

The impeccably dressed Kocku von Stuckrad

Student speakers also proffered papers that spoke to their burgeoning expertise and laudable research efforts. Sara Duppils and Minja Blom (University of Helsinki) both presented findings from their online research of discussion forums (a still woefully under utilized source pool), Manon Hedenborg White discussed information gathered from her own fieldwork and interviews with British Wiccans, Christian Greer (University of Amsterdam) exhibited his collection of rare and arcane Discordian primary materials, and Kristian Pettersson (Uppsala University) in his talk on entheogens and the spiritual experience, submitted his theory of ‘altered states of perception’ to challenge the more commonly and perhaps mistakenly used phrase ‘altered states of consciousness.’ On the New Religious Movements front, Rasa Pranskeviciute (Vytautas Magnus University) introduced me to two environmentally-minded NRMs that have emerged in the post-Soviet world, the Anastasians and the Vissarionites, while the Raëlians got a reappraisal from Erik Östling (Stockholm University) as a group that relies not only on the Bible, but several works of science fiction in constructing their UFOlogical theology. Many of the papers I saw dealt with the meeting of spirituality and popular culture, and one theme that I felt was overlooked was the paradigm shift involved in making fictional texts sacred texts – a more nuanced understanding of changing attitudes towards the boundaries of fantasy and reality was needed.

Round table on Wouter Hanegraaff’s new “Esotericism in the Academy” with O. Hammer, M. Pasi, M. Stausberg

While some student papers were less polished or analytically sophisticated than those of more established scholars, I think it is commendable that conferences like the EASR extend the opportunity for such a number of postgrads (and even the occasional undergrad) to contribute their scholarship to the broader academic community. The fact that so many of the sessions I chose to attend consisted, unbeknownst to me initially, of mostly student presenters strongly suggests that it is a younger generation of scholars that are investigating the ‘alternative’ and ‘fringe’ currents of spirituality which are, ironically, becoming more and more visible, mainstreamed, and imperative to the study of modern religion. In short, these students have their finger on the pulse, and it is events like international conferences that allow the rest of the academic world to learn from these fresh and innovative perspectives.

Of course conferences offer the opportunity for social as well as professional networking (facilitated somewhat by free, room-temperature glasses of box wine). Personal highlights here include discovering that Wouter Hanegraaff’s spirit animal is the Owl, being asked to contribute a paper to Pomegranate, and being invited to speak at the 2013 ISSR Conference in Turku. Ending up at Medusa Bar for a pint and a bit of a headbang with some of the pretty young things wasn’t a bad end to an evening either. But, after four intense days of stimulating conversation, there was little time to rest before it all had to pick up again at the Contemporary Esotericism conference at Stockholm University!

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Venetia Robertson is a PhD candidate, tutor, and research assistant at the University of Sydney in the department of Studies in Religion. Her thesis explores themes of animal-human identity, shape-shifting, popular oc/culture, and myth-making. Forthcoming publications include an article that delves into her thesis topic by discussing the online Therianthropy community and non-human ontology, and an article that offers an explication of masculinity, fandom, and the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic cartoon series. She is currently co-editing an issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion, and will be contributing a paper that looks at the intersections of posthumanism, animality, and eschatology.

 

What should we do with the study of new religions?

 

In the interview with Professor Eileen Barker, three broad themes are brought up. First, the definitions of ’new religious movement’ and ’cult’ are given a brief consideration. After this, Barker introduces the Inform network and its activities in distributing information and making the results of scientific research concerning new religious movements available to society at large. Finally, the future of the study of new religious movements as well as its contribution to the wider field of the study of religion is considered. In this text, I will focus mainly on the second theme: how the results of scientific research are put in practical use by Inform, and what kind of questions this brings up. Along with the interview, I make use of an article Barker has written on the same subject, What should we do about the cults?

The Information Network Focus on Religious Movements, or Inform for short, was founded by Eileen Barker herself in 1988. Behind the founding of the organization lies her observation that there was (and there still is) quite a lot of misinformation, rumours and hearsay about the new religious movements, or ‘cults’, as they often are labelled, and that this confusion created a lot of misunderstanding and ”unnecessary suffering”, as Barker herself puts it. This suspicion is present in the way the term ‘cult’ in itself carries connotations of something deviant, evil and criminal. Neutral information was not easy to find, since the movements themselves tended to offer a very bright picture, whereas the information produced by opposing parties, such as anti-cult movements, emphasized the negative sides. In addition, media contributed to the discussion by picking up only the extreme examples.

In a situation like this, providing scientific, as-neutral-and-objective-knowledge-as-possible about new religious movements is a reasonable thing to do. And this is what Inform is all about. The network collects, assesses and distributes balanced, objective-as-possible information about new religious and spiritual movements. This is done through consultation and publications as well as connecting people with relevant experts, arranging seminars, workshops and conferences. Their services are being used by very different parties, from government officials to convert´s conserned relatives.

Aside from just distributing information about new religious movements, Inform also provides venues for different interested parties to meet and exchange views. Involving the religious movements themselves, as well as their former members and cult-watch movements in seminars, for example, may help the parties to overcome some suspicions and misunderstandings.

Inform is definitely an inspiring example of how the work of scholars of religion can be put into practical use. Academics are often accused of living in their own little worlds, their heads full of fuzzy terminology and grand theories, and forgetting all about the real, messy world around them. And there just might be a grain of truth in that accusation. Not long ago, I read an article written by Tiina Raevaara, currently an independent Author and a blogger on Suomen Kuvalehti website. She brings up the fact that even though the ‘third task’ of universities (next to research and teaching) is to serve and benefit the society, the academics are often not willing to come out in the public to talk about their research, let alone voice their opinions. And while so few academics wish to do this, the ones who do are often frowned upon by the academic community. Raevaara claims in her blog entry, that researchers should get more guidance in how to interact with larger public, and encouraged to do so.

I do agree that universities and scientific community in general are an important part of the society, and should interact with it in a constructive way. This is not unproblematic, of course. Fear of losing one’s perspective lingers; fear of getting too involved. Who of us has not been warned about going native? Even though the very possibility of strict objectivity has been disputed long time ago, distance is still seen as vital for maintaining a proper scientific attitude and conducting valid research – as objective as possible. And even though an individual scholar might not lose her or his perspective, so to say, this might still happen in the eyes of the public. Especially in debates of great political weight, (social) scientists´ commitments and ideological backgrounds are called into question– even if these would not have anything to do with the results of a scientific research itself. As Barker mentions in the interview, she has received her share of such suspicion and accusations.

Inform is a good example of a contact spot between academia and the society at large. While holding up the ideals and methods of social sciences, the network benefits the public: government officials, media, religious groups, individual members of civil society, and more. They do this by offering what the scholarly community can offer: information and opportunities for open discussion. Both are equally important. People with different worldviews, religious and otherwise, must be able to deal with each other, so that society holds together. For this kind of interaction and negotiation to take place, it is important to have arenas where people can learn from one another and at least avoid conflicts rooted in simple misunderstandings.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

 

References:

Barker, Eileen 2006: What should we do about the cults?  Policies, perspective and the perspective of Inform. Published in Pauline Côté and Jeremy Grunn (eds) 2006: The New Religious Question. State Regulation or State Interference? Frankfurt, Peter Lang, ss. 371-394 (article can also be downloaded from the Inform website: http://www.inform.ac/node/1547)

Habermas, Jürgen 2008: Notes on a post-secular society. Published at the website signandsight.com http://www.signandsight.com/features/1714.html accessed May 14th

Raevaara, Tiina 2012: Tutkijat ja traumaattinen julkisuus. Blog entry on the website of Suomen Kuvalehti. (eng. ”Researchers and the traumatic publicity”.) http://suomenkuvalehti.fi/blogit/tarinoita-tieteesta/tutkijat-ja-traumaattinen-julkisuus accessed May 15th­

Studying “Cults”

Although “cult” and “sect” are used as technical terms in religious studies, in their popular usage, “cult” tends to refer to a New Religious Movement [NRM] or other group whose beliefs or practices are considered reprehensible. Since such pejorative attitudes are generally considered inappropriate for the academic study of religion, scholars have tended to adopt the nomenclature of NRMs to refer to “a wide range of groups and movements of alternative spirituality, the emergence of which is generally associated with the aftermath of the 1960s counter-culture” (Arweck 2002:269). In this interview with Chris, Emeritus Professor Eileen Barker (LSE) takes us through the academic study of NRMs from the 1960s onwards, engaging with the particular challenges and successes which have been encountered by academics in the field, and reflecting on some of the more colourful aspects of this area of research.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Eileen Barker OBE, FBA, is Emeritus Professor of Sociology with special reference to the study of Religion at the London School of Economics. She has been researching minority religions and the responses to which they give rise since the early 1970s. Her study of conversion to the Unification Church for her PhD, led to an interest in a wide variety of movements, and she has personally studied, to greater or lesser degree, over 150 different groups. She has over 300 publications, translated into 27 languages. She travels extensively for research purposes, particularly in North America, Europe and Japan, and, since collapse of the Berlin Wall, in Eastern Europe and, more recently, China. She was the first non-American to be elected President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

She is also the founder of INFORM (Information Network, Focus on Religious Movements), an independent charity that was founded in 1988 with the support of the British Home Office and the mainstream Churches. It is based at the London School of Economics. According to Inform’s website, “the primary aim of Inform is to help people by providing them with information that is as accurate, balanced, and up-to-date as possible about alternative religious, spiritual and esoteric movements.”

Among Professor Barker’s publications, the following may be of interest (those which are open-access are indicated with an asterisk):

Reference:
Arweck, Elizabeth 2002. “New Religious Movements” in Religions in the Modern World, edited by Linda Woodhead, Paul Fletcher, Hiroko Kawanami and David Smith. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 264-288.