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Conference report: “Religious Pluralisation—A Challenge for Modern Societies”

A conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Ashlee Quosigk, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The “Religious Pluralisation—A Challenge for Modern Societies” Conference was held 4-6 of October 2016 at the Herrenhausen Palace, in Hanover, Germany. The Volkswagen Foundation and the University of Hamburg’s Academy of World Religions joined together to sponsor the conference with an important and timely mission to identify innovative research approaches as well as broad political and social scopes of action to address religious plurality.

Herrenhausen Palace

Herrenhausen Palace

The conference included talks from over 30 academics, including a special lecture from Peter Berger; it also included an additional 30 “young scholars” lightening presentations, along with times for networking that allowed participants to get to know each other and further discuss research ideas. The conference was interdisciplinary and provided a place for participants to engage in dialogue on how to think about religious pluralism. The conference location was well selected as Western Europe holds a prominent secularity. The failure of the secularization thesis (the idea that modernity necessarily leads to a decline in religion) in Western Europe to explain the new, often fervent religious adherents that make up the changing landscape, calls for a significant reassessment. Due to the visible demographic shifts, brought on by established immigrant populations, many of whom are more religious and have more children, along with the very recent massive influx of mainly Muslims refugees, academics are trying to address the questions of how to best meet the challenges of religious pluralisation and how interreligious dialogue can contribute.

The conference included sessions on a variety of topics: religion and dialogue in different contexts, community building and policymaking from European perspectives, the contribution of religious education to dialogue and integration, the relevance of interreligious dialogue in the public sphere, and interreligious education.

fullsizerender_1The conference began with a welcome address by Wilhelm Krull, Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation, that invoked Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who argued that religion can have a rational basis and thus, can be a subject matter of intellectual discourse—discourse that would mediate different positions and look at contradictions, which would then pave the way for a richer understanding of God. Krull discussed that Pope Benedikt also, during his controversial Regensburg Address in 2006, made use of a rational concept of God to be applied to interreligious dialogue. Krull contrasted the approach of Leibniz and Pope Benedikt with the goal of the conference, which is not to find an unambiguous conception of divinity, but rather to focus on the phenomenon of religious plurality and coexistence of different religious convictions and mindsets in one society, which according to Krull, means that ambiguities, contradictions, and rational gaps are inevitable. Krull ended his welcome by wishing attendees much light and inspiration during their exchange of ideas.

The conference included a special lecture from Peter Berger, Professor Emeritus of Religion, Sociology, and Theology and Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University. His lecture entitled, “Toward a New Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age” argued that our age is not one of secularity but of pluralism. Berger holds secularization theory to be only applicable to Western Europe and the international intelligentsia (mostly of the humanities and social sciences) and believes it to be inadequate to explain the majority world, where religion never went away. Berger feels this new paradigm of pluralism strikes a middle ground between secularization theory and the passionate vitality of religion, allowing that, places like courtrooms and hospitals are secular spaces, even though people of a variety of religious beliefs are engaged in them. According to Berger, these are examples of very important sectors of modern societies where a secular discourse necessarily dominates. Rather than it being modernity or religion, it has become modernity and religion.

Berger also highlighted two current explosions of religion: radical Islamism and the less talked about global explosion of Pentecostal Protestantism. After his discussion of these two movements, Berger posed a sensitive question: “Does Islam belong to Germany?” He responded by stating: “Islam is already in Germany! The question is rather, how will Islam belong? And how is German society going to cope with this?” Berger asked conference attendees if they could envisage a Muslim Bavarian. He added that due to the demographic realities, unless indigenous white Bavarians will have many more kids than they are willing to have now, in a few decades there will be no Bavarians at all.

During the open Q&A following the Forum on Dialogical Theology, Sallie B. King, Professor of Philosophy and Religion at James Madison University, used her experience of teaching on interreligious dialogue at a university in Virginia, where many students were conservative and/or fundamentalist Christians, to answer a question regarding Christian fundamentalism. She captivatingly responded by posing another question, “Who is the fundamentalist, here? “Don’t we think that we know the truth and they [fundamentalists] are wrong?”  While King made clear that she does not agree with their theology, she encouraged those who consider themselves “liberal” and/or “progressive” to intently listen to those whom they disagree with. From her personal teaching experience in Virginia, eventually she believes everyone will find something of value, even in the fundamentalist. If not, King questioned how effective one could be in engaging in dialogue with another.

Peter Berger and Ashlee Quosigk

Peter Berger and Ashlee Quosigk

The young scholars lightening presentations were diverse. My presentation “Conflict on the Topic of Islam: How Comfortability with Secularity Affects Evangelical Views of Muslims in the United States” fell within the fourth and last lightening session, and offered an empirical case to investigate Peter Berger’s new paradigm, which argues that individuals in a pluralistic society undergo “cognitive contamination” that allows them to move away from an either/or distinction between their faith and secularity, and rather toward a both/and view. Other presentations dealing with the topic of Muslim-Christian relations came from Iryna Martynyak on “Contemporary Dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Ukraine” and Susan Mwangi presented on “The Role of Media in Promoting Interreligious Dialogue in Kenya,” which looked at how a Swahili radio show is encouraging dialogue between Christians and Muslims. However, the young scholar presentations were certainly not entirely focused on Christian-Muslim relations, and also included presentations on a wide array of issues, such as “Post-Metaphysical Developments in Continental Philosophy of Religion, Hermeneutic Pluralism, and Interreligious Encounter” presented by Marius van Hoogstraten and “Religious Literacy and Teaching about Religion in a Multicultural and Multi-Faith Society: A Critical Perspective” presented by Najwan Saada.

It was useful and challenging for scholars to learn from the research of others in different fields. Best of all, the academic conference was open to the public—a public with concerned and fertile minds due to the changing religious demographics around them.

 

 

 

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 15 December 2015

Calls for papers

EASR panel: Religion and youth culture

June 28–July 1, 2015

Helsinki, Finland

Deadline: December 31, 2015

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EASR panel: “Boring, detached, heap of facts – and disregarding the really important questions”? – Outsider representations of the academic Study of Religions

January 28–29, 2016

Queen’s University Belfast, UK

Deadline: December 18, 2015

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EASR panel: Thinking pluralism

June 28–July 1, 2015

Helsinki, Finland

Deadline: December 31, 2015

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EASR panel: Hindu pilgrimage and tourism

June 28–July 1, 2015

Helsinki, Finland

Deadline: December 31, 2015

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The Gender of Apocalypse: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives

January 28–29, 2016

Queen’s University Belfast, UK

Deadline: December 18, 2015

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Pew Research Center: Advancing the Demographic Study of Religion

March 30, 2016

Washington, DC, USA

Deadline: February 1, 2016

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Events

SOCREL: Religion and the Media

January 20, 2016

London, UK

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Jobs and funding

CREST research program

Lancaster University and others, UK

Deadline: February 5, 2015

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Visiting Assistant Professor of South Asian Religions

Oberlin College, OH, USA

Deadline: February 1, 2016

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PhD fellow: Ancient History of Religion

University of Erfurt, Germany

Deadline: January 15, 2016

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PhD Scholarships: Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science

University of Leeds, UK

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Jameel Scholarships

Cardiff University, UK

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Baby Boomers, Quest Culture, and Spiritual Seeking

Wade Clark Roof is Emeritus Professor of Religion and Society in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the director of the Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion and Public Life. He has published many books and articles on religion in the United States, especially focusing on developments within liberal Protestantism and American mainline congregations, the spiritual journeys of the Baby Boom generation and their effect on the spiritual marketplace, and religious pluralism and civil religion. These investigations have traced the contours of post-WWII American religious and social life, revealing the protean fluidity of “religion” and “spirituality” as scholarly and popular categories.

In this interview with Dusty Hoesly, discussion focuses on Roof’s work on the Baby Boom generation and beyond, particularly as expressed in his books A Generation of Seekers (1993) and Spiritual Marketplace (1999). In these books, Roof combined survey data with panel studies and interviews across a broad spectrum of Americans to describe the “quest culture” and “spiritual seeking” at the heart of America’s changing religious landscape, one which prizes “reflexive spirituality” amidst an increasingly pluralistic and evolving spiritual marketplace.

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 – particularly as the season known by many in certain contexts as “Christmas” is just around the corner, and this might have some impact upon the buying habits of visitors to our website in contexts where this term has particular “meaning” invested in it, due to the particular histories and power structures of those contexts.

Having Coffee with God: Evangelical Interpretations of God as a Person Among People

Characteristics attributed to God often indicate apotheosis—some quality beyond human understanding, beyond worldly constraints. Commonly used terms include supernatural, omnipotent, and incorporeal, to name a few. Four decades ago, it would have seemed absurd to hear God characterized by American evangelical Christians in terms of personhood, with words such as audible, visible, or coffee-drinker. In this interview, psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann describes how God becomes real for certain groups of evangelicals and how practicing prayer through mental imagery can develop sensory awareness of God’s presence. Discussing the fieldwork of her book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, Luhrmann explains the experience of God, not as a distant transcendent deity, but as a figure who is entirely present and accessible through an intensely personal relationship.

Through years of fieldwork with members of The Vineyard Movement, a multi-branch American evangelical church, Luhrmann observed congregants in direct contact with their friend, God. Through Vineyard prayer practices, congregants develop what Luhrmann describes as a “new theory of mind” in which even mundane thoughts are interpreted as evidence of God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, xxi). In her RSP interview, she recalls a congregant suggesting that, to understand the experience of the divine in real time, she should treat God as a real person and literally have a cup of coffee with him. For American Christians raised on a more formal association with God, positioning him in such a casual role might seem like a return to the playground days of imaginary friends. However, congregants insist that the sense of God’s presence is not only external but also interactive.

Luhrmann posits this conceptualization of a highly participatory God as a natural development within the context of emerging pluralism in America. As she explains in her interview, it all began with “hippie Christians” of the 1960s (e.g. the “Jesus Freaks”) who wove charismatic traditions of Pentecostal Christianity into their philosophy and practices. Instead of dropping acid to contact a transcendent reality, they brought transcendence down to them, making God a “person among people.” Luhrmann suggests that this form of association with God has staying power, providing a way to keep God not only close in heart, but actually present in life.

Though a popular notion in contemporary charismatic evangelical thought, a personal relationship with God does not always come easily; it often requires a learning process of becoming comfortable with God’s presence. Vineyard churches encourage practicing pretend casual conversations with God. In a sense, congregants become comfortable with God by playing house with him, literally pouring him a cup of coffee and chatting. To reinforce God’s presence, prayer groups occasionally designate someone to stand in for him as a human surrogate. Additionally, members are encouraged to imagine God as a loving therapist who is genuinely interested in their lives and concerns.

So, is this imaginary-yet-real God accessible to anyone? Luhrmann observed that about one-quarter of her interviewees do not experience intense sensations of God’s presence, while others experience God so intensely and frequently that Vineyard members refer to them as “prayer warriors” (Luhrmann 2012, 155). To investigate these apparent differences, Luhrmann used the Tellegen Absorption Scale to evaluate subjects on proclivity for absorption, or tendency for becoming absorbed in their imaginations. Results reflected trends of higher scores relative to higher reports of what Luhrmann describes in the interview as “cool, weird spiritual experiences.” She concludes that sharpened mental representations of God described by congregants correlate with (1) belief in God’s direct presence through sensory experiences, (2) absorption tendencies, and (3) practice of imagining God’s presence.

Seemingly central to Lurhmann’s interest is how some congregants report “mental changes” following prayer practices, as if, through prayer training, their minds learn to sense God (Luhrmann 2012, 190). In her book When God Talks Back, she describes Vineyard groups that convene to improve prayer practices through kataphatic exercises, where congregants imagine themselves observing or participating in a biblical scene while paying close attention to sensory details of the experience. She studied the effects of these absorbing imaginative practices among congregants, finding this type of prayer to be more effective in enhancing vividness of mental imagery than listening to scriptural lectures or apophatic prayer (i.e. centering the mind on a spiritually meaningful word). Like training for a triathlon, regularly practicing absorption in this way strengthens sensory awareness, enabling congregants to “give these imagined experiences the sensory vividness associated with the memories of real events,” thus becoming more receptive to (and conscious of) God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, 221-2).

From an etic perspective, it is difficult to accept claims of regularly and casually encountered religious experiences, especially when the caliber is so amplified as to relate a persistent (very real) presence of God. Yet, ironically, skeptics are not alone in facing the problem of interpreting the intangible; this challenge indeed characterizes the Vineyard experience at its core. As the process of sensing God requires an initially effortful imagination, congregants face the issue of discernment in determining the validity of their experiences. Luhrmann notes in the interview that congregants are often skeptical themselves; some even gossip about others who claim questionable divine requests. Interpreting divine inspiration requires the help of the community, with increasing urgency in cases of greater demands. To determine whether God’s instructions are real or imaginary, congregants employ a loose pattern of heuristics: (1) real God experiences are typically spontaneous and surprising; (2) the experience should realistically coincide with God’s expected behavior; (3) the credibility of an experience is valence-dependent; as Luhrmann suggests in the interview, Vineyard’s “teddy bear of a God” should inspire warm and fuzzy feelings.

Luhrmann makes a significant move by highlighting the interpretive challenge facing Vineyard congregants. She shows believers confronting the issue of maintaining faith in something that cannot be proven by scientific means. They are not shying away from epistemological evidence—they are actively engaged in altering their minds to welcome it in the form of God’s sensed presence. By illuminating the believer’s narrative, Luhrmann clarifies the spiritual experience that frequently halts discourse due to its internalized nature. She must be commended for this contribution to the enormous project of bridging the gap between believers and non-believers. For the sake of religious studies discourse, Luhrmann faces the tyrannical problem of communication head-on, enabling the possibility of respect through understanding.

References

Luhrmann, T. M. (2012) When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Vintage Books.

The Collaborative Experience of Religion and Health Research

A Jew, Muslim, Christian, and non-believer were all in the same room for the same reason: Where were they? They were at Duke University attending Dr. Harold Koenig’s summer workshop on conducting research in religion and health this past summer. My response to Thomas Coleman’s interview with Dr. Harold Koenig will draw on my personal experience attending Dr. Koenig’s research course. I would like to relate just a couple thoughts of my own that hopefully will encourage more scholars, scientists, and professionals from a variety of disciplines to engage in the collaborative endeavor of religion, spirituality, and health.

At the workshop there were a variety of disciplines, professions, and faiths represented. These attendees were all similarly interested in religion and health research and came from various parts of the contiguous United States, Alaska, Canada, Turkey, and Israel. They were made up of students, professors, directors, and professionals. They represented oncology, psychology, nursing, public health, social work, geriatrics, palliative care services, religious studies, sociology, psychiatry, pharmacotherapy, communication and interactive technology, and clergy. There were hospital and Veterans Affairs chaplains, senior pastors, a family physician, organizational consultant, occupational therapist, molecular biologist, and a variety of education and training supervisors.

I attended the workshop as a Ph.D. student from the University of Alaska’s Clinical-Community Psychology Program with a Rural, Indigenous Emphasis. Entering the world of clinical psychology is fraught with many– if not limitless– opportunities and challenges. In a doctoral program such as my own, we train under a model that prepares us to become competent in conducting scientific research and also competent practicing clinicians. When “rural” and “indigenous” emphases are added to the already existing challenges of clinical psychology, one is quickly confronted with further philosophical, historical, and theoretical considerations.   “Scholar” ends up being added to the requisites of “scientist” and “practitioner.” One area of interest of mine is contact between indigenous spirituality and Western religions. I have become increasingly interested in conceptions of conversion and contemporary syncretistic religious practices in indigenous communities. Theoretical research interests are, for me, very much tied to culturally sensitive service delivery. Thankfully, I have benefited from several helpful and accessible handbook resources pertaining to work done in the broad field of the psychology of religion and spirituality (Hood, Hill, & Spilka, 2009; Miller, 2012; Paloutzian & Park, 2013; Pargament, Exline, & Jones, 2013; Pargament, Mahoney, & Shafranske, 2013). Dr. Koenig’s week-long intensive workshop was for me a perfect introduction to conducting research a bit more broadly in religion and health. Aside from all I learned, I have come away from the workshop reflecting on two general topics.

Researching While Preserving Religion For Its Own Sake

At the workshop I found it interesting to observe how many attendees were members of, or affiliated with, clergy services. A recurrent concern brought up during the week was the lack of appreciation for clergy’s role in patient care and within the healthcare system. Accordingly there was a recurrent interest to find ways to prove– through various types of research– the utility (or worthiness if you will) of clergy and faith being addressed in health care. Shuman and Meador (2003) have warned of what I might describe as the colonization of religious devotion and practices by Western medicine. It carries with it cultural forces such as individualism, consumerism, and a utilitarian ethic. They caution that a type of faith-for-health exchange will likely–and in the case of Christianity has already– distort particular faith traditions. By practicing particular, and research-approved, religious practices, patients can expect increased health. The additional caution is a resulting distortion of religious conceptions of health and the value of life in the face of modern medical technology and industry. Though Shuman and Meador write from a Christian perspective, I believe their caution is worthy of reflection by a broader audience.

Recently my wife returned home from taking our son to the playground. She was distraught by an observation she had made. She described witnessing another woman accompanying her daughter at the playground. The daughter was whining that she wanted to go home, to which the presumably concerned and well-intentioned mother replied, “the whole point of being here is to get exercise.” She seemed to be sending the message that the playground was a tool for exercise rather than fun or play. Two weeks ago I was looking at a description of a toy my wife and I had purchased for our son as a Christmas gift. I started noticing curious descriptive trends among the other toys in the catalog. One stated, “Keep baby endlessly fascinated and visually stimulated. Encourages fine motor skills and teaches cause and effect.” “For ages 10-24 mos.” I remember exclaiming out loud, “That’s it! Our society is officially killing play!” Sure, research has discovered many good and healthy things that play helps develop in children, but it works that way because it is play! Not work! What once was enjoyed as ‘fun’ and ‘play’ are now explicitly being justified and used instrumentally rather than simply enjoyed. I think these observations may be an anecdotal parallel to the concern of preserving the set-aside or sacred elements of religion for their own sake. To what end might we allow religious health interventions to mimic this trend?  As I have had more time to think about this observation at the workshop, I am beginning to worry that clergy feeling the need to conduct their own research to prove their value in healthcare settings may be a sign that the faithful are starting to identify with (or at least play by the rules of) their scientific captors.

Importance of Interdisciplinary Collaboration

As I flew all the way back home from the workshop I felt charged and encouraged by the atmosphere of Duke and the company I had been in. However, I confess that, more often than not, I view the field of religion & health as utterly overwhelming and often unreasonably complex. Challenges and opportunities sometimes seem more like problems and insurmountable barriers. This is compounded by the often general sense of awkwardness and even mistrust between the humanities, the social, and the natural sciences.

But treating the human being is complex. Philosopher Hubert Dreyfus (2011) described medicine as necessarily combining both the natural sciences and the human sciences. Humans are both natural-biological beings and embodied agents that also require interpretive understanding. As such, medical practice (and the like) span various levels of analysis and explanation. These levels include the biological and the hermeneutical. By studying religion’s relationship with health, the research will even more broadly span what Ann Taves (2011) summarized as subject-oriented disciplines (e.g. biology & psychology) and disciplines defined by their object of study (e.g. religion, music). Because of this breadth and complexity there is no doubt in my mind of the need for further interdisciplinary collaboration when studying religion and health. I like the phrase used by Emmons and Paloutzian (2003) more than ten years ago calling for a “multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm” approach. We will surely reap further rewards when scholars, scientists, and professionals approach religion and health from a variety of fields and a variety of faith and nonreligious traditions. Because religion and health research investigates both ‘objects’ and ‘subjects’ of study we will surely need a variety of levels of explanation and must continue to enhance collaboration. Interdisciplinary collaboration may also want to keep in mind the position that “causality does not exhaust meaning” (Teske, 2007 p. 94). I am hopeful that, collectively, we can prevent the hijacking of religious devotion from becoming colonized by other value systems. I hope interdisciplinary collaboration will prove to be more of an opportunity than a barrier and can honor and preserve the things we set aside even as we study them.

I sensed that this collective and interdisciplinary spirit was present at the heart of Dr. Koenig’s workshop as was evidenced by the diversity represented by the attendees. The variety of us together in the same room interested in the same general topic of religion and health research was what I enjoyed most during my week at Duke. Dr. Koenig is not only highly practical and productive, but also appeared warm and friendly. He seems to be one of those people that has the incredible ability to review and summarize massive amounts of information and research (e.g. Koenig, King, & Carson, 2012), but also maintains the demeanor of a gracious and attentive mentor– a welcome relief in the rigors of academia. The workshop balanced class didactics with interpersonal exchange of learning and friendship. We sat together in class and also shared meals while discussing everything from theory and method to pop-culture trivia over chicken and waffles. If you are interested in religion and health research and are from any discipline– or no discipline at all– I would gladly recommend attending the summer workshop with Dr. Koenig.

 References

Dreyfus, H. L. (2011). Medicine as combining natural and human science. Journal Of Medicine & Philosophy36(4), 335-341.

Emmons, R. A., & Paloutzian, R. F. (2003). The Psychology of religion. Annual Review Of Psychology, 54(1), 377.

Hood, R. W., Jr., Hill, P. C., & Spilka, B. (2009). The Psychology of religion: An Empirical approach (4th ed.). New York, NY: Gilford.

Koenig, H., King, D., & Carson, V. (2012). Handbook of religion and health (2nd ed). New York: Oxford University Press.

Miller, L. (2012). Oxford handbook of psychology and spirituality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pargament, K. I., Exline, J. J., & Jones, J. W. (Eds.). (2013). APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (Vol 1): Context, theory, and research. Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.

Pargament, K. I., Mahoney, A., & Shafranske, E. P. (Eds.). (2013). APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (Vol 2): An applied psychology of religion and spirituality. Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.

Paloutzian, R. F., & Park, C. L. (Eds.). (2013). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Shuman, J. J., & Meador, K. M. (2003). Heal thyself: Spirituality, medicine, and the distortion of Christianity. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Taves, A. (2011). 2010 Presidential address: “Religion” in the humanities and the humanities in the university. Journal Of The American Academy Of Religion, 79(2), 287-314.

Teske, J. (2010). Narrative and meaning in science and religion. Zygon: Journal Of Religion And Science45(1), 91-104.

Habermas and the Problem with the ‘Problem’ of Religion in Public Discourse

Living in a country where you don’t know the language means you have a great excuse for not talking to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

To be completely honest, I actually did understand the two Witnesses when they came to my door. Though I had just moved to Germany and just begun to study German, I knew what they were saying. “Bible” is the same in German and English and I knew the word for the verb, “to read.” Also they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They weren’t there to borrow sugar. I understood. But I lied.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I’m sorry. I only speak English.” It was a great excuse.

A week later, two more Witnesses came to my door. “You want to read the Bible?” they said. “You want to know God’s plan for human happiness?”

Their English was great.

Of course it was. As a religion that prioritizes proselytization, Witnesses put tremendous effort into reaching people who are different than themselves. They translate their message linguistically and culturally. They don’t expect to be accommodated in conversation; they accommodate.

There has been much theorizing under the heading of “post-secular” about the problem of religious participation in public discourse. For the religious to speak to those who do not share their ontological presuppositions, it is said, in public discussions in pluralistic, democratic societies, it must be necessary for there to be a reformulation of religious arguments into publicly accessible, this-world terms. This is a very literal case of that problem. Yet it illustrates, if nothing else, that there might be a problem with framing the matter of religious people dialoguing with those who do not share their religion as a “problem.”

As philosopher Jürgen Habermas explains the problem, religious language can be allowed into the public sphere, but only on certain conditions: “The truth contents of religious contributions can enter into the institutionalized practice of deliberation and decision-making only when the necessary translation already occurs in the pre-parliamentarian domain, i.e. in the political public sphere itself … citizens of faith may make public contributions in their own religious language only subject to the translation proviso” (Between Naturalism and Religion 131-32). They cannot, that is, just appeal to divine authority when they come to your door or come to the public square. They cannot just invoke revelation. What is sacred to them must be re-conceived in reasoned discourse as secular. This burden of “translation” has been central to talk of the post-secular, and also to Habermas’ noted post-secular turn.

However, because this theoretical conceptualization frames translation as a problem, it misses how, in common practice, religious people do speak.

Sociologist Michelle Dillon makes a similar (but not identical) critique of Habermas and the post-secular in her interview with the Religious Studies Project. She notes that in his earlier work on communicative action, Habermas didn’t speak of religious participation in public discourse, implicitly excluding it. In his more recent work, with his turn to the post-secular, Habermas corrects this. He acknowledges that religious reasoning does have a place in pluralist democracies, and yet that toleration still has limits. “Habermas was saying, let’s reassess how we have often marginalized religion,” Dillon says. “But on further reading of Habermas . . . while he’s bringing religion back in, into the public sphere, he’s doing so very much in a Habermasian way.”

According to Dillon, one problem with Habermasian toleration of religion is that it only allows for a very narrow definition of religion. Religion is only acceptable, publicly, when it exhibits a “high rationality.” In this way, he is still excluding a lot of religious reasoning and barring many religious people from public discourse. If someone’s religion is emotional, or traditional, or grounded in personal experience, it is disallowed. Though he sounds like he’s pushing for an act of inclusion — against, for example, “the blinkered enlightenment which is unenlightened about itself and which denies religion any rational content” (An Awareness of What is Missing 18) — it is also an act of exclusion.

This critique can usefully be pushed further.

It seems right that, as Dillon says, the burden of translation is exclusionary. More than that, though, the translation proviso makes exclusion the default. Religious citizens are kept out of the public discourse, unless and until they can prove their reasoning is sufficiently translated. The onus is on them. The starting assumption is that religious people will be fundamentally unable to speak to those who don’t share their faith.

But why start with the assumption that translation will be a problem?

Dillon, in her work, has looked at Catholic bishop’s arguments against legalizing divorce in Ireland. She found that the bishops made sociological claims about the effects of divorce on women, children, and society. They did not just invoke their own authority, nor rely on Catholic moral teaching. Even though most Irish were Catholics, the arguments made by the bishops on this matter were public, secular arguments, entirely within what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame” (539-593).

Similarly, in the United States, many religious citizens have organized to oppose same-sex marriage. Mormon, Catholic, and evangelical groups have stated that they want to “defend traditional marriage,” and that their religious beliefs commit them to that position. However, when one looks at the legal briefs filed by religious groups in the landmark Supreme Court case Hollingsworth v. Perry, for example, one doesn’t find mainly religious arguments. One finds religious groups making sociological arguments about the importance of traditional marriage and the probable consequences of changing that. The debate is about what the contested law would and wouldn’t do. Whether or not one agrees, all the purportedly religious arguments are quite intelligible from a non-religious perspective.

It’s not even clear that it would be right to speak of these religious forays into public discourse as involving “translation.” The idea that divorce in Ireland or same-sex marriage in the United States will hurt families is not the secular equivalent of a religious idea. The sense, rather, is that religious teachings are relevant to human flourishing. To the extent that the wider public shares those conceptions of human flourishing, the arguments are intelligible.

This too can be pushed further: Even when religious people do explicitly invoke an authority that is not generally accepted, that doesn’t, in practice, mean that those arguments cannot be understood. Dillon has found that pro-change Catholics use theological arguments to claim their legitimate social identity. “The Catholics I had studied,” she says, “were clearly grounding their emancipatory claims for greater equality within religious reasoning. And it was the sort of reasoning that would appeal or could persuade people who were Catholic or not Catholic.” The same could be said of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ more controversial practice of rejecting blood transfusion. While the argument is religious — blood is connected to the soul— it is not unintelligible to those who don’t share the presuppositions of Witnesses. To the general public, these claims seem wrong, but not radically indecipherable.

Habermas, even after his new openness to the religious, holds that religious reasoning is entirely different from and incomprehensible to non-religious reasoning. He writes that “The cleavage between secular knowledge and revealed knowledge cannot be bridged” (An Awareness of What is Missing: 17). This is empirically wrong. Perhaps Habermas hasn’t seen such bridges, but they are quite common.

Religious people regularly enter into conversations with those from other religions as well as those with no religion. The Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door speaking English are good examples. They wanted to talk about God’s plan for a happy life. Their speech was, to use a Habermasian word, verständigungsorientiert. That is to say, it was oriented toward understanding (Communication and the Evolution of Society: 1).

The Witness’ speech, in fact, was a communicative action. It did all of the things that Habermas’ earlier work explains that communicative action is supposed to do. It was based on the four pragmatic presuppositions necessary to communication, “the shared presupposition of a world of independently existing objects, the reciprocal presupposition of rationality or ‘accountability,’ the unconditionality of context-transcending validity claims such as truth and moral rightness, and the demanding presuppositions of argumentation” (Between Naturalism and Religion: 28). It was, as argumentation, also grounded in the presuppositions of Habermasian rational discourse: publicity and inclusivity, equality, truthfulness, and the absence of coercion (Ibid: 50, 82). Though he might not have recognized it, the Witnesses are a good example of what Habermas has described as the embodiment of reason in everyday communicative practice (Ibid: 25).

Habermas’ ideas about the communicative action, then, usefully counter the so-called translation “problem” of the post-secular public sphere. These religious arguments are part of the normal spectrum of speech, and thus participate in the same normative conditions. To quote Habermas, “one can say that the general and unavoidable—in this sense transcendental—conditions of possible understanding have a normative content when one has in mind not only the binding character of norms of action or even the binding character of rules in general, but the validity basis of speech across its entire spectrum” (Communication and the Evolution of Society: 2).

To assume that translation will be a significant problem is to assume that religious people’s religious communication is not fundamentally verständigungsorientiert, not oriented toward understanding. But of course it is. For, as one can learn from Habermas, that orientation is internal to the structure of communication.

In her interview with the Religious Studies Project, Dillon suggests that Habermas is a great and underused resource. Thinking about religious people in dialogue with those who don’t share their beliefs is an example of how this is true. For those in religious studies, the problems and the potential of Habermas’ thought can serve as a starting place to ask about the kinds of arguments religious people are using in public reasoning and what frameworks they are using to legitimate their views.

Thinking with and against Habermas in this way can also, if nothing else, serve to correct the mistaken assumptions one makes when coming up with excuses not to talk to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

 

 Bibliography

Habermas, Jürgen. Between Naturalism and Religion. Cambridge: Polity, 2008.

——. Communication and the Evolution of Society. Boston: Beacon, 1979.

Habermas, Jürgen, et al. An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age. Cambridge: Polity, 2010.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Harvard, 2007.

Podcasts

Conference report: “Religious Pluralisation—A Challenge for Modern Societies”

A conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Ashlee Quosigk, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The “Religious Pluralisation—A Challenge for Modern Societies” Conference was held 4-6 of October 2016 at the Herrenhausen Palace, in Hanover, Germany. The Volkswagen Foundation and the University of Hamburg’s Academy of World Religions joined together to sponsor the conference with an important and timely mission to identify innovative research approaches as well as broad political and social scopes of action to address religious plurality.

Herrenhausen Palace

Herrenhausen Palace

The conference included talks from over 30 academics, including a special lecture from Peter Berger; it also included an additional 30 “young scholars” lightening presentations, along with times for networking that allowed participants to get to know each other and further discuss research ideas. The conference was interdisciplinary and provided a place for participants to engage in dialogue on how to think about religious pluralism. The conference location was well selected as Western Europe holds a prominent secularity. The failure of the secularization thesis (the idea that modernity necessarily leads to a decline in religion) in Western Europe to explain the new, often fervent religious adherents that make up the changing landscape, calls for a significant reassessment. Due to the visible demographic shifts, brought on by established immigrant populations, many of whom are more religious and have more children, along with the very recent massive influx of mainly Muslims refugees, academics are trying to address the questions of how to best meet the challenges of religious pluralisation and how interreligious dialogue can contribute.

The conference included sessions on a variety of topics: religion and dialogue in different contexts, community building and policymaking from European perspectives, the contribution of religious education to dialogue and integration, the relevance of interreligious dialogue in the public sphere, and interreligious education.

fullsizerender_1The conference began with a welcome address by Wilhelm Krull, Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation, that invoked Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who argued that religion can have a rational basis and thus, can be a subject matter of intellectual discourse—discourse that would mediate different positions and look at contradictions, which would then pave the way for a richer understanding of God. Krull discussed that Pope Benedikt also, during his controversial Regensburg Address in 2006, made use of a rational concept of God to be applied to interreligious dialogue. Krull contrasted the approach of Leibniz and Pope Benedikt with the goal of the conference, which is not to find an unambiguous conception of divinity, but rather to focus on the phenomenon of religious plurality and coexistence of different religious convictions and mindsets in one society, which according to Krull, means that ambiguities, contradictions, and rational gaps are inevitable. Krull ended his welcome by wishing attendees much light and inspiration during their exchange of ideas.

The conference included a special lecture from Peter Berger, Professor Emeritus of Religion, Sociology, and Theology and Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University. His lecture entitled, “Toward a New Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age” argued that our age is not one of secularity but of pluralism. Berger holds secularization theory to be only applicable to Western Europe and the international intelligentsia (mostly of the humanities and social sciences) and believes it to be inadequate to explain the majority world, where religion never went away. Berger feels this new paradigm of pluralism strikes a middle ground between secularization theory and the passionate vitality of religion, allowing that, places like courtrooms and hospitals are secular spaces, even though people of a variety of religious beliefs are engaged in them. According to Berger, these are examples of very important sectors of modern societies where a secular discourse necessarily dominates. Rather than it being modernity or religion, it has become modernity and religion.

Berger also highlighted two current explosions of religion: radical Islamism and the less talked about global explosion of Pentecostal Protestantism. After his discussion of these two movements, Berger posed a sensitive question: “Does Islam belong to Germany?” He responded by stating: “Islam is already in Germany! The question is rather, how will Islam belong? And how is German society going to cope with this?” Berger asked conference attendees if they could envisage a Muslim Bavarian. He added that due to the demographic realities, unless indigenous white Bavarians will have many more kids than they are willing to have now, in a few decades there will be no Bavarians at all.

During the open Q&A following the Forum on Dialogical Theology, Sallie B. King, Professor of Philosophy and Religion at James Madison University, used her experience of teaching on interreligious dialogue at a university in Virginia, where many students were conservative and/or fundamentalist Christians, to answer a question regarding Christian fundamentalism. She captivatingly responded by posing another question, “Who is the fundamentalist, here? “Don’t we think that we know the truth and they [fundamentalists] are wrong?”  While King made clear that she does not agree with their theology, she encouraged those who consider themselves “liberal” and/or “progressive” to intently listen to those whom they disagree with. From her personal teaching experience in Virginia, eventually she believes everyone will find something of value, even in the fundamentalist. If not, King questioned how effective one could be in engaging in dialogue with another.

Peter Berger and Ashlee Quosigk

Peter Berger and Ashlee Quosigk

The young scholars lightening presentations were diverse. My presentation “Conflict on the Topic of Islam: How Comfortability with Secularity Affects Evangelical Views of Muslims in the United States” fell within the fourth and last lightening session, and offered an empirical case to investigate Peter Berger’s new paradigm, which argues that individuals in a pluralistic society undergo “cognitive contamination” that allows them to move away from an either/or distinction between their faith and secularity, and rather toward a both/and view. Other presentations dealing with the topic of Muslim-Christian relations came from Iryna Martynyak on “Contemporary Dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Ukraine” and Susan Mwangi presented on “The Role of Media in Promoting Interreligious Dialogue in Kenya,” which looked at how a Swahili radio show is encouraging dialogue between Christians and Muslims. However, the young scholar presentations were certainly not entirely focused on Christian-Muslim relations, and also included presentations on a wide array of issues, such as “Post-Metaphysical Developments in Continental Philosophy of Religion, Hermeneutic Pluralism, and Interreligious Encounter” presented by Marius van Hoogstraten and “Religious Literacy and Teaching about Religion in a Multicultural and Multi-Faith Society: A Critical Perspective” presented by Najwan Saada.

It was useful and challenging for scholars to learn from the research of others in different fields. Best of all, the academic conference was open to the public—a public with concerned and fertile minds due to the changing religious demographics around them.

 

 

 

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 15 December 2015

Calls for papers

EASR panel: Religion and youth culture

June 28–July 1, 2015

Helsinki, Finland

Deadline: December 31, 2015

More information

EASR panel: “Boring, detached, heap of facts – and disregarding the really important questions”? – Outsider representations of the academic Study of Religions

January 28–29, 2016

Queen’s University Belfast, UK

Deadline: December 18, 2015

More information

EASR panel: Thinking pluralism

June 28–July 1, 2015

Helsinki, Finland

Deadline: December 31, 2015

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EASR panel: Hindu pilgrimage and tourism

June 28–July 1, 2015

Helsinki, Finland

Deadline: December 31, 2015

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The Gender of Apocalypse: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives

January 28–29, 2016

Queen’s University Belfast, UK

Deadline: December 18, 2015

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Pew Research Center: Advancing the Demographic Study of Religion

March 30, 2016

Washington, DC, USA

Deadline: February 1, 2016

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Events

SOCREL: Religion and the Media

January 20, 2016

London, UK

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Jobs and funding

CREST research program

Lancaster University and others, UK

Deadline: February 5, 2015

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Visiting Assistant Professor of South Asian Religions

Oberlin College, OH, USA

Deadline: February 1, 2016

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PhD fellow: Ancient History of Religion

University of Erfurt, Germany

Deadline: January 15, 2016

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PhD Scholarships: Philosophy, Religion and the History of Science

University of Leeds, UK

Deadline: February 5, 2016

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Jameel Scholarships

Cardiff University, UK

Deadline: January 29, 2016

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Baby Boomers, Quest Culture, and Spiritual Seeking

Wade Clark Roof is Emeritus Professor of Religion and Society in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the director of the Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion and Public Life. He has published many books and articles on religion in the United States, especially focusing on developments within liberal Protestantism and American mainline congregations, the spiritual journeys of the Baby Boom generation and their effect on the spiritual marketplace, and religious pluralism and civil religion. These investigations have traced the contours of post-WWII American religious and social life, revealing the protean fluidity of “religion” and “spirituality” as scholarly and popular categories.

In this interview with Dusty Hoesly, discussion focuses on Roof’s work on the Baby Boom generation and beyond, particularly as expressed in his books A Generation of Seekers (1993) and Spiritual Marketplace (1999). In these books, Roof combined survey data with panel studies and interviews across a broad spectrum of Americans to describe the “quest culture” and “spiritual seeking” at the heart of America’s changing religious landscape, one which prizes “reflexive spirituality” amidst an increasingly pluralistic and evolving spiritual marketplace.

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 – particularly as the season known by many in certain contexts as “Christmas” is just around the corner, and this might have some impact upon the buying habits of visitors to our website in contexts where this term has particular “meaning” invested in it, due to the particular histories and power structures of those contexts.

Having Coffee with God: Evangelical Interpretations of God as a Person Among People

Characteristics attributed to God often indicate apotheosis—some quality beyond human understanding, beyond worldly constraints. Commonly used terms include supernatural, omnipotent, and incorporeal, to name a few. Four decades ago, it would have seemed absurd to hear God characterized by American evangelical Christians in terms of personhood, with words such as audible, visible, or coffee-drinker. In this interview, psychological anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann describes how God becomes real for certain groups of evangelicals and how practicing prayer through mental imagery can develop sensory awareness of God’s presence. Discussing the fieldwork of her book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, Luhrmann explains the experience of God, not as a distant transcendent deity, but as a figure who is entirely present and accessible through an intensely personal relationship.

Through years of fieldwork with members of The Vineyard Movement, a multi-branch American evangelical church, Luhrmann observed congregants in direct contact with their friend, God. Through Vineyard prayer practices, congregants develop what Luhrmann describes as a “new theory of mind” in which even mundane thoughts are interpreted as evidence of God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, xxi). In her RSP interview, she recalls a congregant suggesting that, to understand the experience of the divine in real time, she should treat God as a real person and literally have a cup of coffee with him. For American Christians raised on a more formal association with God, positioning him in such a casual role might seem like a return to the playground days of imaginary friends. However, congregants insist that the sense of God’s presence is not only external but also interactive.

Luhrmann posits this conceptualization of a highly participatory God as a natural development within the context of emerging pluralism in America. As she explains in her interview, it all began with “hippie Christians” of the 1960s (e.g. the “Jesus Freaks”) who wove charismatic traditions of Pentecostal Christianity into their philosophy and practices. Instead of dropping acid to contact a transcendent reality, they brought transcendence down to them, making God a “person among people.” Luhrmann suggests that this form of association with God has staying power, providing a way to keep God not only close in heart, but actually present in life.

Though a popular notion in contemporary charismatic evangelical thought, a personal relationship with God does not always come easily; it often requires a learning process of becoming comfortable with God’s presence. Vineyard churches encourage practicing pretend casual conversations with God. In a sense, congregants become comfortable with God by playing house with him, literally pouring him a cup of coffee and chatting. To reinforce God’s presence, prayer groups occasionally designate someone to stand in for him as a human surrogate. Additionally, members are encouraged to imagine God as a loving therapist who is genuinely interested in their lives and concerns.

So, is this imaginary-yet-real God accessible to anyone? Luhrmann observed that about one-quarter of her interviewees do not experience intense sensations of God’s presence, while others experience God so intensely and frequently that Vineyard members refer to them as “prayer warriors” (Luhrmann 2012, 155). To investigate these apparent differences, Luhrmann used the Tellegen Absorption Scale to evaluate subjects on proclivity for absorption, or tendency for becoming absorbed in their imaginations. Results reflected trends of higher scores relative to higher reports of what Luhrmann describes in the interview as “cool, weird spiritual experiences.” She concludes that sharpened mental representations of God described by congregants correlate with (1) belief in God’s direct presence through sensory experiences, (2) absorption tendencies, and (3) practice of imagining God’s presence.

Seemingly central to Lurhmann’s interest is how some congregants report “mental changes” following prayer practices, as if, through prayer training, their minds learn to sense God (Luhrmann 2012, 190). In her book When God Talks Back, she describes Vineyard groups that convene to improve prayer practices through kataphatic exercises, where congregants imagine themselves observing or participating in a biblical scene while paying close attention to sensory details of the experience. She studied the effects of these absorbing imaginative practices among congregants, finding this type of prayer to be more effective in enhancing vividness of mental imagery than listening to scriptural lectures or apophatic prayer (i.e. centering the mind on a spiritually meaningful word). Like training for a triathlon, regularly practicing absorption in this way strengthens sensory awareness, enabling congregants to “give these imagined experiences the sensory vividness associated with the memories of real events,” thus becoming more receptive to (and conscious of) God’s presence (Luhrmann 2012, 221-2).

From an etic perspective, it is difficult to accept claims of regularly and casually encountered religious experiences, especially when the caliber is so amplified as to relate a persistent (very real) presence of God. Yet, ironically, skeptics are not alone in facing the problem of interpreting the intangible; this challenge indeed characterizes the Vineyard experience at its core. As the process of sensing God requires an initially effortful imagination, congregants face the issue of discernment in determining the validity of their experiences. Luhrmann notes in the interview that congregants are often skeptical themselves; some even gossip about others who claim questionable divine requests. Interpreting divine inspiration requires the help of the community, with increasing urgency in cases of greater demands. To determine whether God’s instructions are real or imaginary, congregants employ a loose pattern of heuristics: (1) real God experiences are typically spontaneous and surprising; (2) the experience should realistically coincide with God’s expected behavior; (3) the credibility of an experience is valence-dependent; as Luhrmann suggests in the interview, Vineyard’s “teddy bear of a God” should inspire warm and fuzzy feelings.

Luhrmann makes a significant move by highlighting the interpretive challenge facing Vineyard congregants. She shows believers confronting the issue of maintaining faith in something that cannot be proven by scientific means. They are not shying away from epistemological evidence—they are actively engaged in altering their minds to welcome it in the form of God’s sensed presence. By illuminating the believer’s narrative, Luhrmann clarifies the spiritual experience that frequently halts discourse due to its internalized nature. She must be commended for this contribution to the enormous project of bridging the gap between believers and non-believers. For the sake of religious studies discourse, Luhrmann faces the tyrannical problem of communication head-on, enabling the possibility of respect through understanding.

References

Luhrmann, T. M. (2012) When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Vintage Books.

The Collaborative Experience of Religion and Health Research

A Jew, Muslim, Christian, and non-believer were all in the same room for the same reason: Where were they? They were at Duke University attending Dr. Harold Koenig’s summer workshop on conducting research in religion and health this past summer. My response to Thomas Coleman’s interview with Dr. Harold Koenig will draw on my personal experience attending Dr. Koenig’s research course. I would like to relate just a couple thoughts of my own that hopefully will encourage more scholars, scientists, and professionals from a variety of disciplines to engage in the collaborative endeavor of religion, spirituality, and health.

At the workshop there were a variety of disciplines, professions, and faiths represented. These attendees were all similarly interested in religion and health research and came from various parts of the contiguous United States, Alaska, Canada, Turkey, and Israel. They were made up of students, professors, directors, and professionals. They represented oncology, psychology, nursing, public health, social work, geriatrics, palliative care services, religious studies, sociology, psychiatry, pharmacotherapy, communication and interactive technology, and clergy. There were hospital and Veterans Affairs chaplains, senior pastors, a family physician, organizational consultant, occupational therapist, molecular biologist, and a variety of education and training supervisors.

I attended the workshop as a Ph.D. student from the University of Alaska’s Clinical-Community Psychology Program with a Rural, Indigenous Emphasis. Entering the world of clinical psychology is fraught with many– if not limitless– opportunities and challenges. In a doctoral program such as my own, we train under a model that prepares us to become competent in conducting scientific research and also competent practicing clinicians. When “rural” and “indigenous” emphases are added to the already existing challenges of clinical psychology, one is quickly confronted with further philosophical, historical, and theoretical considerations.   “Scholar” ends up being added to the requisites of “scientist” and “practitioner.” One area of interest of mine is contact between indigenous spirituality and Western religions. I have become increasingly interested in conceptions of conversion and contemporary syncretistic religious practices in indigenous communities. Theoretical research interests are, for me, very much tied to culturally sensitive service delivery. Thankfully, I have benefited from several helpful and accessible handbook resources pertaining to work done in the broad field of the psychology of religion and spirituality (Hood, Hill, & Spilka, 2009; Miller, 2012; Paloutzian & Park, 2013; Pargament, Exline, & Jones, 2013; Pargament, Mahoney, & Shafranske, 2013). Dr. Koenig’s week-long intensive workshop was for me a perfect introduction to conducting research a bit more broadly in religion and health. Aside from all I learned, I have come away from the workshop reflecting on two general topics.

Researching While Preserving Religion For Its Own Sake

At the workshop I found it interesting to observe how many attendees were members of, or affiliated with, clergy services. A recurrent concern brought up during the week was the lack of appreciation for clergy’s role in patient care and within the healthcare system. Accordingly there was a recurrent interest to find ways to prove– through various types of research– the utility (or worthiness if you will) of clergy and faith being addressed in health care. Shuman and Meador (2003) have warned of what I might describe as the colonization of religious devotion and practices by Western medicine. It carries with it cultural forces such as individualism, consumerism, and a utilitarian ethic. They caution that a type of faith-for-health exchange will likely–and in the case of Christianity has already– distort particular faith traditions. By practicing particular, and research-approved, religious practices, patients can expect increased health. The additional caution is a resulting distortion of religious conceptions of health and the value of life in the face of modern medical technology and industry. Though Shuman and Meador write from a Christian perspective, I believe their caution is worthy of reflection by a broader audience.

Recently my wife returned home from taking our son to the playground. She was distraught by an observation she had made. She described witnessing another woman accompanying her daughter at the playground. The daughter was whining that she wanted to go home, to which the presumably concerned and well-intentioned mother replied, “the whole point of being here is to get exercise.” She seemed to be sending the message that the playground was a tool for exercise rather than fun or play. Two weeks ago I was looking at a description of a toy my wife and I had purchased for our son as a Christmas gift. I started noticing curious descriptive trends among the other toys in the catalog. One stated, “Keep baby endlessly fascinated and visually stimulated. Encourages fine motor skills and teaches cause and effect.” “For ages 10-24 mos.” I remember exclaiming out loud, “That’s it! Our society is officially killing play!” Sure, research has discovered many good and healthy things that play helps develop in children, but it works that way because it is play! Not work! What once was enjoyed as ‘fun’ and ‘play’ are now explicitly being justified and used instrumentally rather than simply enjoyed. I think these observations may be an anecdotal parallel to the concern of preserving the set-aside or sacred elements of religion for their own sake. To what end might we allow religious health interventions to mimic this trend?  As I have had more time to think about this observation at the workshop, I am beginning to worry that clergy feeling the need to conduct their own research to prove their value in healthcare settings may be a sign that the faithful are starting to identify with (or at least play by the rules of) their scientific captors.

Importance of Interdisciplinary Collaboration

As I flew all the way back home from the workshop I felt charged and encouraged by the atmosphere of Duke and the company I had been in. However, I confess that, more often than not, I view the field of religion & health as utterly overwhelming and often unreasonably complex. Challenges and opportunities sometimes seem more like problems and insurmountable barriers. This is compounded by the often general sense of awkwardness and even mistrust between the humanities, the social, and the natural sciences.

But treating the human being is complex. Philosopher Hubert Dreyfus (2011) described medicine as necessarily combining both the natural sciences and the human sciences. Humans are both natural-biological beings and embodied agents that also require interpretive understanding. As such, medical practice (and the like) span various levels of analysis and explanation. These levels include the biological and the hermeneutical. By studying religion’s relationship with health, the research will even more broadly span what Ann Taves (2011) summarized as subject-oriented disciplines (e.g. biology & psychology) and disciplines defined by their object of study (e.g. religion, music). Because of this breadth and complexity there is no doubt in my mind of the need for further interdisciplinary collaboration when studying religion and health. I like the phrase used by Emmons and Paloutzian (2003) more than ten years ago calling for a “multilevel interdisciplinary paradigm” approach. We will surely reap further rewards when scholars, scientists, and professionals approach religion and health from a variety of fields and a variety of faith and nonreligious traditions. Because religion and health research investigates both ‘objects’ and ‘subjects’ of study we will surely need a variety of levels of explanation and must continue to enhance collaboration. Interdisciplinary collaboration may also want to keep in mind the position that “causality does not exhaust meaning” (Teske, 2007 p. 94). I am hopeful that, collectively, we can prevent the hijacking of religious devotion from becoming colonized by other value systems. I hope interdisciplinary collaboration will prove to be more of an opportunity than a barrier and can honor and preserve the things we set aside even as we study them.

I sensed that this collective and interdisciplinary spirit was present at the heart of Dr. Koenig’s workshop as was evidenced by the diversity represented by the attendees. The variety of us together in the same room interested in the same general topic of religion and health research was what I enjoyed most during my week at Duke. Dr. Koenig is not only highly practical and productive, but also appeared warm and friendly. He seems to be one of those people that has the incredible ability to review and summarize massive amounts of information and research (e.g. Koenig, King, & Carson, 2012), but also maintains the demeanor of a gracious and attentive mentor– a welcome relief in the rigors of academia. The workshop balanced class didactics with interpersonal exchange of learning and friendship. We sat together in class and also shared meals while discussing everything from theory and method to pop-culture trivia over chicken and waffles. If you are interested in religion and health research and are from any discipline– or no discipline at all– I would gladly recommend attending the summer workshop with Dr. Koenig.

 References

Dreyfus, H. L. (2011). Medicine as combining natural and human science. Journal Of Medicine & Philosophy36(4), 335-341.

Emmons, R. A., & Paloutzian, R. F. (2003). The Psychology of religion. Annual Review Of Psychology, 54(1), 377.

Hood, R. W., Jr., Hill, P. C., & Spilka, B. (2009). The Psychology of religion: An Empirical approach (4th ed.). New York, NY: Gilford.

Koenig, H., King, D., & Carson, V. (2012). Handbook of religion and health (2nd ed). New York: Oxford University Press.

Miller, L. (2012). Oxford handbook of psychology and spirituality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pargament, K. I., Exline, J. J., & Jones, J. W. (Eds.). (2013). APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (Vol 1): Context, theory, and research. Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.

Pargament, K. I., Mahoney, A., & Shafranske, E. P. (Eds.). (2013). APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (Vol 2): An applied psychology of religion and spirituality. Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.

Paloutzian, R. F., & Park, C. L. (Eds.). (2013). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Shuman, J. J., & Meador, K. M. (2003). Heal thyself: Spirituality, medicine, and the distortion of Christianity. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Taves, A. (2011). 2010 Presidential address: “Religion” in the humanities and the humanities in the university. Journal Of The American Academy Of Religion, 79(2), 287-314.

Teske, J. (2010). Narrative and meaning in science and religion. Zygon: Journal Of Religion And Science45(1), 91-104.

Habermas and the Problem with the ‘Problem’ of Religion in Public Discourse

Living in a country where you don’t know the language means you have a great excuse for not talking to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

To be completely honest, I actually did understand the two Witnesses when they came to my door. Though I had just moved to Germany and just begun to study German, I knew what they were saying. “Bible” is the same in German and English and I knew the word for the verb, “to read.” Also they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They weren’t there to borrow sugar. I understood. But I lied.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I’m sorry. I only speak English.” It was a great excuse.

A week later, two more Witnesses came to my door. “You want to read the Bible?” they said. “You want to know God’s plan for human happiness?”

Their English was great.

Of course it was. As a religion that prioritizes proselytization, Witnesses put tremendous effort into reaching people who are different than themselves. They translate their message linguistically and culturally. They don’t expect to be accommodated in conversation; they accommodate.

There has been much theorizing under the heading of “post-secular” about the problem of religious participation in public discourse. For the religious to speak to those who do not share their ontological presuppositions, it is said, in public discussions in pluralistic, democratic societies, it must be necessary for there to be a reformulation of religious arguments into publicly accessible, this-world terms. This is a very literal case of that problem. Yet it illustrates, if nothing else, that there might be a problem with framing the matter of religious people dialoguing with those who do not share their religion as a “problem.”

As philosopher Jürgen Habermas explains the problem, religious language can be allowed into the public sphere, but only on certain conditions: “The truth contents of religious contributions can enter into the institutionalized practice of deliberation and decision-making only when the necessary translation already occurs in the pre-parliamentarian domain, i.e. in the political public sphere itself … citizens of faith may make public contributions in their own religious language only subject to the translation proviso” (Between Naturalism and Religion 131-32). They cannot, that is, just appeal to divine authority when they come to your door or come to the public square. They cannot just invoke revelation. What is sacred to them must be re-conceived in reasoned discourse as secular. This burden of “translation” has been central to talk of the post-secular, and also to Habermas’ noted post-secular turn.

However, because this theoretical conceptualization frames translation as a problem, it misses how, in common practice, religious people do speak.

Sociologist Michelle Dillon makes a similar (but not identical) critique of Habermas and the post-secular in her interview with the Religious Studies Project. She notes that in his earlier work on communicative action, Habermas didn’t speak of religious participation in public discourse, implicitly excluding it. In his more recent work, with his turn to the post-secular, Habermas corrects this. He acknowledges that religious reasoning does have a place in pluralist democracies, and yet that toleration still has limits. “Habermas was saying, let’s reassess how we have often marginalized religion,” Dillon says. “But on further reading of Habermas . . . while he’s bringing religion back in, into the public sphere, he’s doing so very much in a Habermasian way.”

According to Dillon, one problem with Habermasian toleration of religion is that it only allows for a very narrow definition of religion. Religion is only acceptable, publicly, when it exhibits a “high rationality.” In this way, he is still excluding a lot of religious reasoning and barring many religious people from public discourse. If someone’s religion is emotional, or traditional, or grounded in personal experience, it is disallowed. Though he sounds like he’s pushing for an act of inclusion — against, for example, “the blinkered enlightenment which is unenlightened about itself and which denies religion any rational content” (An Awareness of What is Missing 18) — it is also an act of exclusion.

This critique can usefully be pushed further.

It seems right that, as Dillon says, the burden of translation is exclusionary. More than that, though, the translation proviso makes exclusion the default. Religious citizens are kept out of the public discourse, unless and until they can prove their reasoning is sufficiently translated. The onus is on them. The starting assumption is that religious people will be fundamentally unable to speak to those who don’t share their faith.

But why start with the assumption that translation will be a problem?

Dillon, in her work, has looked at Catholic bishop’s arguments against legalizing divorce in Ireland. She found that the bishops made sociological claims about the effects of divorce on women, children, and society. They did not just invoke their own authority, nor rely on Catholic moral teaching. Even though most Irish were Catholics, the arguments made by the bishops on this matter were public, secular arguments, entirely within what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “the immanent frame” (539-593).

Similarly, in the United States, many religious citizens have organized to oppose same-sex marriage. Mormon, Catholic, and evangelical groups have stated that they want to “defend traditional marriage,” and that their religious beliefs commit them to that position. However, when one looks at the legal briefs filed by religious groups in the landmark Supreme Court case Hollingsworth v. Perry, for example, one doesn’t find mainly religious arguments. One finds religious groups making sociological arguments about the importance of traditional marriage and the probable consequences of changing that. The debate is about what the contested law would and wouldn’t do. Whether or not one agrees, all the purportedly religious arguments are quite intelligible from a non-religious perspective.

It’s not even clear that it would be right to speak of these religious forays into public discourse as involving “translation.” The idea that divorce in Ireland or same-sex marriage in the United States will hurt families is not the secular equivalent of a religious idea. The sense, rather, is that religious teachings are relevant to human flourishing. To the extent that the wider public shares those conceptions of human flourishing, the arguments are intelligible.

This too can be pushed further: Even when religious people do explicitly invoke an authority that is not generally accepted, that doesn’t, in practice, mean that those arguments cannot be understood. Dillon has found that pro-change Catholics use theological arguments to claim their legitimate social identity. “The Catholics I had studied,” she says, “were clearly grounding their emancipatory claims for greater equality within religious reasoning. And it was the sort of reasoning that would appeal or could persuade people who were Catholic or not Catholic.” The same could be said of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ more controversial practice of rejecting blood transfusion. While the argument is religious — blood is connected to the soul— it is not unintelligible to those who don’t share the presuppositions of Witnesses. To the general public, these claims seem wrong, but not radically indecipherable.

Habermas, even after his new openness to the religious, holds that religious reasoning is entirely different from and incomprehensible to non-religious reasoning. He writes that “The cleavage between secular knowledge and revealed knowledge cannot be bridged” (An Awareness of What is Missing: 17). This is empirically wrong. Perhaps Habermas hasn’t seen such bridges, but they are quite common.

Religious people regularly enter into conversations with those from other religions as well as those with no religion. The Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to my door speaking English are good examples. They wanted to talk about God’s plan for a happy life. Their speech was, to use a Habermasian word, verständigungsorientiert. That is to say, it was oriented toward understanding (Communication and the Evolution of Society: 1).

The Witness’ speech, in fact, was a communicative action. It did all of the things that Habermas’ earlier work explains that communicative action is supposed to do. It was based on the four pragmatic presuppositions necessary to communication, “the shared presupposition of a world of independently existing objects, the reciprocal presupposition of rationality or ‘accountability,’ the unconditionality of context-transcending validity claims such as truth and moral rightness, and the demanding presuppositions of argumentation” (Between Naturalism and Religion: 28). It was, as argumentation, also grounded in the presuppositions of Habermasian rational discourse: publicity and inclusivity, equality, truthfulness, and the absence of coercion (Ibid: 50, 82). Though he might not have recognized it, the Witnesses are a good example of what Habermas has described as the embodiment of reason in everyday communicative practice (Ibid: 25).

Habermas’ ideas about the communicative action, then, usefully counter the so-called translation “problem” of the post-secular public sphere. These religious arguments are part of the normal spectrum of speech, and thus participate in the same normative conditions. To quote Habermas, “one can say that the general and unavoidable—in this sense transcendental—conditions of possible understanding have a normative content when one has in mind not only the binding character of norms of action or even the binding character of rules in general, but the validity basis of speech across its entire spectrum” (Communication and the Evolution of Society: 2).

To assume that translation will be a significant problem is to assume that religious people’s religious communication is not fundamentally verständigungsorientiert, not oriented toward understanding. But of course it is. For, as one can learn from Habermas, that orientation is internal to the structure of communication.

In her interview with the Religious Studies Project, Dillon suggests that Habermas is a great and underused resource. Thinking about religious people in dialogue with those who don’t share their beliefs is an example of how this is true. For those in religious studies, the problems and the potential of Habermas’ thought can serve as a starting place to ask about the kinds of arguments religious people are using in public reasoning and what frameworks they are using to legitimate their views.

Thinking with and against Habermas in this way can also, if nothing else, serve to correct the mistaken assumptions one makes when coming up with excuses not to talk to Jehovah’s Witnesses.

 

 Bibliography

Habermas, Jürgen. Between Naturalism and Religion. Cambridge: Polity, 2008.

——. Communication and the Evolution of Society. Boston: Beacon, 1979.

Habermas, Jürgen, et al. An Awareness of What is Missing: Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age. Cambridge: Polity, 2010.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age. Cambridge: Harvard, 2007.