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Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Re-Experiencing Religious Experience

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is RSP Managing Editor, Tommy Coleman.

If I was marooned on a desert island and could only take one book with me I’d pick up my copy of Ann Taves’ David Gordon Wilson’s interview with Taves, entitled Religious Experience. The podcast, which is based on the game changing ideas found in RER, is also special for being our 50th episode. Anyone interested in stepping out the front door of their own discipline will find this podcast, like the book, contains tools for thinking you’d better not leave home without. Additionally, both serve as building blocks to her more recent work on Worldviews and Ways of Life. Have a listen…

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, corkscrews, thermal underwear, and more.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Resonance of Vestigial States

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is RSP stalwart (currently our videos producer), Jonathan Tuckett.

Way back in the early days of the RSP when I did interviews and roundtables I interviewed Naomi Goldenberg on religion as vestigial states. This was also back in the early days of my PhD when I had joined Stirling University and its program of phenomenology“. (Don’t worry this isn’t about phenomenology so much as it is about me).

This was all before I started reading Alfred Schutz who turned my thesis onto an entirely new path and eventually to the heights of “proper phenomenology”. The truth is, back then – when I interviewed Naomi – I couldn’t really say that a I “got” Critical Religion. As David has already explained in his editor’s choice, Timothy Fitzgerald is perhaps the most important scholar of religion of our time for the fact that he has made us change the way we think about religion. But I was stubborn and combative, so I had to come to realise the paradigm shift of Tim’s work by a slightly circuitous route.

And ever since I have made that paradigm shift, ever since I “got” Critical Religion and pronounce myself to be a part of that group, I have returned again and again to Naomi’s work on religion as vestigial states. I’m not saying I fully agree with Naomi’s theory. But the more I develop my proper phenomenology (yes, I am going to hammer that distinction again and again – I am no less stubborn and combative these days), the more I find how similarly my own views on “religion” resonate with hers. And, with potentially fortuitous timing, Naomi will be keynote speaker at this year’s BASR conference so we may well have another interview with her in the near future.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, buckets-o-soldiers, sharpies, and more.

Worldviews and Ways of Life

Ann Taves joins us to discuss her work arguing that we should study religions under the broader rubric of “worldviews” and “ways of life”. This ambitious interdisciplinary project aims to place a micro-level analysis of individual worldviews into a broader evolutionary perspective. Through case-studies (including ‘secular’ worldviews like Alcoholics Anonymous alongside more traditional ‘religions’), she explains how worldviews form in response to existential ‘Big Questions’ – here understood as core biological needs and goals, rather than theological or moral concerns – and are enacted in Ways of Life, individually or collectively.

This interview summarizes her Gunning Lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh, 19-21 March 2018.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, the classic album Wu-Tang Forever, peanut butter, and more.

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

Worldviews and Ways of Life

Podcast with Ann Taves (21 May 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Taves_-_Worldviews_and_Ways_of_Life_1.1

David Robertson (DR): It’s my pleasure to be joined here today by Professor Ann Taves from the Religious Studies Department and the University of California, Santa Barbara. It’s not her first visit to the podcast, but the first full-length interview I think. So this should be interesting. She’s here in Edinburgh to deliver the Gunning Lectures and that’s where the topic of today’s discussion has come from: talking about worldviews and ways of life. So let’s start where we were kind-of already talking before I started recording: a little bit, maybe, about, how did we come to this position? You were asked to write a blog? Is that right?

Ann Taves (AT): Yes. I mean, really the question is: why am I even talking about worldviews and ways of life, or studying religion as worldviews and ways of life? Which was the topic of the Gunning Lectures. And, as we were just talking about before, I was pretty much what I would call an “anti-definitionalist”, when it comes to defining religion for research purposes. Because I think it’s really important that we look at how people understand religion – and other related sorts of terms – on the ground. But I was kind-of forced to make a more constructive move – internally forced – after I was asked to write a blog post on method for the Non-Religion and Secularity Project. And it just struck me that talking about non-religion and religion, without ever specifying any larger category or rubric under which these two items fell, was kind of absurd.

DR: Yes.

AT: So that got me searching for . . . trying to answer the question: what do these two things have in common? And terms like worldviews and ways of life are actually very widely used, as an overarching framework for talking about these things. In fact, Lois Lee’s first objection to the worldviews language was it was too commonplace, and too ordinary.

DR: Yes. And there’s a question, there, why ordinary and commonplace . . . ? That should be fine, really? Maybe that’s part of the Protestant thing that religion should be special and set apart? But . . .

AT: Yes, I think her concern – and I’m putting words in her mouth . . .

DR: Yes. She can respond, if she wants!

AT: Right. I think her concern was actually one that came up in the Q and A after my first lecture. The ease with which everyday definitions of worldviews might get confused with whatever we might want to mean by it, in a more technical sense. And that’s one of our problems with defining religion.

DR: Yes. Very much so.

AT: We construct these technical definitions of what we mean, but then everybody has their meanings on the ground. What I’m arguing with worldviews and ways of life is that we actually can define them in a way that I’m arguing can stabilise them, in a way that we can’t stabilise definitions of religion; that religion is a complex, cultural concept – it simply does not have a stable meaning. But worldviews and ways of life – I think that we can root them in a perspective, and show how the ability to actually generate a worldview is something that humans can do that’s grounded in evolved capacities, basically, that emerge out of all mobile organisms having a way of life.

DR: That’s really interesting. I’m going to get you to take us through some of that – albeit in a truncated way – later on. First though, I think we need to jump back a little bit. (5:00) So, tell us what you mean by worldviews. And you also use this term ways of life.

AT: Yes

DR: Just unpack, for the listeners, a little bit what we mean by these terms.

AT: Well, let me start with worldviews. Basically, there’s a range of scholarship on worldviews. There still is an interdisciplinary group in Belgium and there are scholars and anthropologists such as André Droogers in Amsterdam who’ve been working on this idea of worldviews. And generally, in this literature, they define worldviews in terms of what I would call Big Questions. So the kind of . . . they use fundamental terms that you hear in philosophy. So terms like ontology, cosmology epistemology, anthropology, axiology, and praxeology – those are the big philosophical concepts. But we can translate those into very everyday language.

DR: OK.

AT: So that’s basically how Egil Asprem and I are working to define worldviews: in terms of answers to these six fundamental big questions.

DR: Can you give us a couple of examples of those as questions?

AT: Yes, so the ontology questions would be, “What exists? What’s real?” And the cosmology question would start with the very basic question of either, “Who am I?” or “Who are we?” But it would expand to “Where do we come from?” and “Where are we going?” The anthropology question would be, “What is our situation? What is the situation in which we find ourselves?” It could also then expand to, “What is our nature?” But two really crucial questions . . . . Well, let me just give you all of them. Because in relation to the “What’s real?” and “Who are we?”, “Where are we going?” questions, the next question is the epistemology question: “How do we know that?” And so you get answers from human beings, or science, or revelation – things like that. But then, after the one about our situation would come the question of goals and values. So, “What’s the good, or what’s the goal that we should be striving for?” And then, finally, the big path or action question: “How do we get there?” So we’re arguing that we can use this set of questions to unpack lots of things. From – at a very high level – teachings of a broad tradition, all the way down to how individuals would answer that question.

DR: So there’s a real scalability to this then?

AT: exactly

DR: And so these build into . . . am I understanding correctly, that the responses to these questions become embodied in ways of life? Would that be correct?

AT: Yes. We’re arguing that all mobile organisms, broadly speaking, have what we can think of as a way of life. But the more basic the organism, the more basic the way of life. There’s not going to be any choices. There’s certainly not going to be any mental reflection on ways of life, right? So, ways of life can get more and more complicated. But we see that as one of the ways that we can talk about humans as evolved animals. And we want to stress both continuity and difference. We’re trying to do a “both/and” kind of thing, rather than an “either/or”.

DR: OK

AT: But you were asking then, for humans, how do worldviews relate to ways of life?

DR: Yes. And prior to that, how do the big questions relate to ways of life and worldviews? What’s the direct relationship there?

AT: Yes. Well. We’re distinguishing – and I keep saying we, because Egil Asprem and I have been collaborating on some of this work. We’re talking about modes of worldview expression. And we’re distinguishing between enacted, articulated and recounted worldviews. (10:00) So recounted would include both oral traditions, where things are memorised, and textualised traditions. But before you can get to recounting, we’ve just got articulating a worldview in language. Then, prior to that, we’ve got the fact that they can be enacted without even being articulated. And all these levels can work together and interact. And so, at the enacted level, you’ve basically got implicit worldviews embedded in ways of life. And as researchers we would have to extract or infer answers to big questions, based on people’s actions and behaviour.

DR: So is it with this embodied, recounted level – is that where we start talking about worldviews rather than simply ways of life?

AT: Yes. Yes. So we’re arguing that, basically, you have to have a cultural capacity before you can have a worldview. And so we used a distinction, on the one hand, between natural and cultural affordances that we borrow from ecological psychology, and also a distinction between evolved and cultural schemas, which are a psychological construct for the kinds of representations that we have for things. And the distinction between natural and cultural is that natural affordances, or evolved schemas, are very much . . . there’s a direct relationship between the organism and the environment.

DR: OK.

AT: There’s no mediating possibility for some kind of cultural construct that organisms have agreed upon together. It’s not until we get to humans that – as far as we know – we have those more collective kinds of agreements about things that can be detached from the environment.

DR: So, maybe something like: you think you’ve seen something in the shadows, and you’re frightened – so it might be a schema: there’s an embodied reaction of fear. But that you saw a ghost, you are therefore frightened of ghosts – that’s more of a worldview? Or at least part of a way of life?

AT: Yes. It’s drawing in a cultural schema about ghosts.

DG: A collective cultural schema.

AT: And layering that on top of the evolved schema of when you hear a sound – or, more likely, when you perceive some sort of movement, right? We have an evolved tendency to assume there’s something animate there – something potentially dangerous.

DR: And potentially then, that would also tie into a larger view of the world. Because in order to have ghosts going about, you have to have some sort of notion of survival after death or non-real beings of some sort.

AT: Exactly. Right. So you can expand from that in steps to develop a larger underlying conception of how they would describe what’s real in the world.

DR: Right. And what’s nice about this schema, I think, is that it’s definitely a bottom-up approach to this, rather than top-down. So we’re starting with the most basic kind of responses and then building up to the worldviews from there.

AT: Well, certainly, if you want to start at the level of individual behaviour. But we actually can start in all kinds of places as long – I would argue – as we’re being responsible about the nature of our starting points. I mean as long as we’re up front about that.

DR: Yes.

AT: I think, as you know, I’ve been teaching Comparing Worldviews-type courses, which is an attempt to overcome some of the problems with the world religions paradigm.

DR: Which our listeners should, by now, be very familiar with! (Laughs).

AT: Exactly. That’s why I brought it up in this context, because I figured it might be relevant.

DR: Yes.

AT: But there, starting with a textbook depiction of the teachings of a so-called world religion, (15:00) we can have the students analyse that in terms of the big questions, to give themselves a basic sort-of framework. And I can then analyse or show them, using historical materials, how over time that those answers to the big questions coalesced into some sort of, say, orthodoxy, or some sort of tradition – including looking at the power structures and the authority structures that would make it coalesce into being that. But it doesn’t mean that every individual or all the groups all adhere to that. But we can still start at that level, and use this conception that way, is my point.

DR: How – and the answer to this might just be, “Not at all.” – but how is this in any way related to what Ninian Smart was trying to do, or at least what Ninian Smart said he was trying to do?

AT: Right. No, I think there is a relationship. And I think it’s important to see both what Ninian Smart did that I think is extremely positive, and the limitations of what he did. So the really positive thing is articulating, in a kind of obscure article (that I think more of us ought to be aware of) in which he, basically, argued that we ought to subsume the philosophy of religion under the philosophy of worldviews: the history of religions, in the broad religionsgeschichte sense, under the history of worldviews and the anthropology of religion under an anthropology of worldviews. So sort-of the whole range of methodologies that we tend to use in Religious Studies he saw as part of an expansive conception of Worldviews Studies. And I think that’s really cool.

DR: Yes.

AT: But the limitation is that he never defined what he meant by worldview. And what he did was simply import his six – or later, seven – dimensions of religion from the study of religion to the study of worldviews. And to me that was kind of importing . . . . You know, that was almost a new version of the missionary move – of taking our definition of religion and now applying it to worldviews.

DR: Yes. And the choice of the dimensions, and the relative weighting of them, kind-of speaks to that. So you know, like “texts” is there . . . But also, I’m not sure where exactly, but he certainly states at one point that obviously while we can view all of these things as worldviews, some of them are “more profound than others”. So, implicitly, he’s still making distinctions!

AT: Right. Right.

DR: And, of course, Christianity is going to be right at the top! I mean, I would put money on that.

AT: Right. But part of our move to viewing worldviews and ways of life from an evolutionary perspective is to try to turn that on its head. Because it makes the highly rationalised, highly systematised worldviews that philosophers and theologians are into – and maybe even world religions textbooks – into a very high end product that may, or may not, have that much relationship to everyday life. Or at least it’s a very open question – as scholars of so-called lived religion would argue – to how people live their everyday lives. So part of what we see, working from the bottom up, is a lot of open questions about: how integrated are people’s enacted worldviews? Do they need to articulate them in order to function? Or can an enculturated way of life be perfectly sufficient until it’s challenged in some way, by something or other? Then maybe people have to start to think about it on a need-to-know basis (20:00).

DR: And this is something that really interests me, actually. You said something about this. I think you said that we can see external . . . . What’s the term you used? Schemas. We can see schemas that are external to us, in other societies, very easily. But it’s very difficult to see schemas in our own. Which, obviously, is something that, as scholars, we’re trained to do, and we try and inculcate in our students as well. But I was thinking about . . . I’m very interested in the idea of challenging the idea of belief in the study of religion. I think there’s a lot of stress put on, “This is people’s belief.” And, when you actually look at the data on the ground, people are not consistent in these kind of things. Beliefs are not performative statements which people hold in their brain and then act in accordance to. And, for instance, we have ideas like situational belief, where people will respond differently in different circumstances. And I certainly saw this a lot in my research on New Age and conspiracy theories. That, for instance, people who were suffering from chronic pain will change their position or adopt multiple positions on alternative therapies. They may be the most scientifically-minded person going, but when pain-killers no longer work they’re willing to, subjunctively, entertain the idea that acupuncture, or flower remedies, or something else might work. And then, of course, if those seem to work, they may completely change their worldview.

AT: Or not completely.

DR: So yes. You can see where I’m . . .

AT: Yes. Because they may still be going to a more conventional physician or healer at the same time. So they may, people may actually be able to keep multiple variant implicit worldviews going, without thinking really carefully about the conflicts between them – as long as the conflicts aren’t causing them any problems.

DR: So are we seeing people, then, moving between different schemas? Are they moving between different worldviews, then? Or are we able to negotiate multiple schemas in different contexts?

AT: Yes. I mean I think . . . . Let me answer that a couple of ways. Because, if we think about other animals who would have evolved schemas that would be cued by the environment to elicit certain behaviours in certain situations, then certainly we could think that, at that basic level, we have tons of schemas that get differentially cued by different environmental contexts. Each of those contexts would be a whole situation where we could ask, “What’s the situation in which we find ourselves?” “What’s the goal in this situation?” “What is the means to get the goal?” “What kind of action . . .?” So, in that sense, we could begin to flesh out a micro-worldview, or micro-answers to the big questions, in that context. So part of the thing to keep in mind, I think, is the answers to the big questions don’t have to be super-big sounding! (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs). No, absolutely! Yes!

AT: But at a more human level, I think, another way to think about your question, that again came up at our discussions, was to think about it in relationship to people that are bicultural. And it seems to me that there’s an analogy between the kinds of people dealing with medical problems switching between healing frames, we could call it, that could develop into a whole consistent way of life, but could just be these partial things that people can flip back and forth between. And if we look at bicultural people, they get cued to speak different languages, bring whole different sets of cultural schemas into play when they’re with their relatives, wherever their family came from, or when they’re with their family in their new context.

DR: Interestingly – I didn’t mention this when we were talking about this yesterday (25:00) – but, because I worked in catering for a long time, I’ve known a lot of bicultural people. And several of them have said to me that their personality is slightly different when they’re in the other register. Like, I’ve known a French friend of mine who says she’s much more sarcastic and aggressive with her French family and friends than she is with her Scottish friends, for instance.

AT: Yes, I think that’s really interesting. I mean, in that she’s answering the big question about “Who am I?” With different answers.

DR: Differently.

AT: Yes. And I think we need a language to make sense of that, to explore that. And that’s part of what I see as the power of this approach. It seems to me there’s a whole lot of different directions that we can use it to explore.

DR: Yes. So let’s pursue that then – briefly, I mean. In the Gunning lectures you used the example of the AA quite a lot. And I thought you could, maybe, talk us quite quickly through that – just so the listeners have a real world example to play with. So taking the Alcoholics Anonymous – a group that kind-of . . . you know: a debatable case, an edge case as to whether we’re talking about something that’s religious or not. So let’s see how the model works.

AT: Yes, well that was exactly why I picked it. Because they are adamant that they are not a religion.

DR: Absolutely, yes.

AT: So, alcoholics Anonymous is happy to call itself a spiritual . . . as embodying a spiritual path, or a spiritual way of life. They actually use the way of life kind of language, or call themselves a fellowship. So that was why I picked them. Plus, I know a fair amount about them – so it seemed like an example I could spell out.

DR: Yes. That helps!

AT: Yes. So part of what I did in the first lecture was just to show the variety of ways that we can analyse it. So in the first lecture I talked about it at the sort-of high level of itself as a group with official documents, you know, describing who they are collectively. And so I used the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions, which are their core defining documents, to analyse how as an organisation they would officially answer the big questions. They don’t officially answer the big questions, but how we can tease out their answers to the big questions based on their official documents.

DR: OK

AT: And then I indicated that we could look, we could take that analysis in two directions. We could compare it to other groups in the culture to help us better understand how they were trying to position themselves, and why they wanted to insist they were not a religion. And it’s basically because they wanted to argue that their path is compatible with any religion or none at all. But then the other thing that I showed is how we can look at subgroups within AA, or individual narratives within AA, and examine the extent to which they buy the official conception that this is a generic spiritual path. And so I alluded to some of the different commentaries: feminist, Native American, Buddhist, Vedanta – you know. There’s all these different attempts to translate the Twelve Steps into other religious or spiritual terms.

DR: Yes.

AT: So that’s the kind of thing that I was looking at in the first lecture: some of the big picture things we could do. Then in the second lecture, when I looked at the evolutionary perspective, or foundations of worldviews, I used the kind of layered approach – developing the idea that we have these evolved schemas, and also internalised cultural schemas, that can lead us to act very quickly without thinking about it – to tease apart Bill Wilson – one of the Founders of AA – what he would describe as the sort of drinkers’ dilemma, which is that they can make this conscious choice to quit drinking and then have that immediately undermined when somebody hands them a drink (30:00). And so I use that to differentiate between an enacted way of life which is, “I’m an alcoholic”, and an articulated way of life, which is, “I’m going to quit drinking and I have the willpower to do it”.

DR: Yes.

AT: In the last lecture I looked at the emergence of AA and the transformation of the alcoholic as processes of change, both of groups and of individuals. And so I used this kind of analysis to analyse sort-of the before and after, and the transition from one way of life to another.

DR: We’re getting towards time, now. So let’s switch to the bigger questions. So, we’re talking about maybe the idea of subsuming RS under a broader umbrella of worldviews and stuff – where we started. But why is this so important now? What . . . ? This has some strong resonances with the field, and issues within the field generally, I think. And it would be good to speak to that, briefly.

AT: I think I’m frustrated with the field on a couple of levels. I’m frustrated with what strikes me as a continuing spinning of our wheels when it comes to critique. We’re very good at critiquing and identifying all the problems with the concept of religion. But I don’t see that much effort being put into solving the problems. And too often I see the potential solutions, including this one, being shut down because it might undermine our departments, and so-to-speak our way of life. So even if it might be more responsible intellectually, more consistent intellectually, we want to safeguard our way of life and therefore we’re not going to go there, and we’re going to continue to spin our wheels conceptually. I find that really frustrating – although I certainly understand why we might want to protect our way of life. The other frustration, for me, is the kind of polarisation between people that are deeply committed to a humanistic approach to the study of religion and people that are trying to approach it from a more scientific or cognitive scientific point of view. And I really see myself as trying to bridge between those two. And I strongly would argue for the value of both approaches. It’s not an either/or kind of thing. So, taken together, this kind of approach that I’m talking about is designed, one: to offer a constructive kind-of option to get us beyond just critique, and second: to bridge between the humanistic and the scientific approaches. So I’d just like to see more of us engaging in both bridge-building and trying to solve some of our problems.

DR: Yes. And we at the Religious Studies Project . . . those are two issues that we – well, certainly the former: moving beyond critique is something that we’ve taken quite seriously. And the interdisciplinary . . . I mean, we feature a lot of psychology and cognitive people on. But proper interdisciplinary work that builds on both sides equally is rare. But it’s also challenging to do, I think. This is may be a legacy of the way that the field’s construed. We’re already . . . you know, I’ve had to learn Sociology and History as methodologies, just in a standard RS context. So, then, to start building in Psychology and Cognitive Studies, you know – it’s big ask!

AT: I totally agree. It is a big ask. And I’ve been motivated to do it because I find it really fascinating. So if people don’t have any kind of internal curiosity driving them to do it, then you know it’s probably going to be pretty tough (35:00). But, on the other hand, people could be more open to those who are interested in doing it. But the second thing that I think we need to be really aware of is that people in the sciences tend to work collaboratively and people in the humanities tend to be single-author type folks.

DR: Yes.

AT: And so, the more of this kind of bridge-building work I’ve tried to do, the more I’ve been collaborating. So, just in this conversation, I’ve been mentioning Egil Asprem. I’ve been working with him on this worldviews and ways of life stuff, but when we decided to work out some of these ideas for a psychology journal we enlisted a psychologist as a third author. And we’re also working on a another paper that I’m going to be giving in an evolution of religion conference, where I’m going to argue about: why are we talking about the evolution of religion? Shouldn’t we be talking about the evolution of worldviews and ways of life? But, anyway, we’re enlisting an evolutionary psychologist as a third author on that paper. So, I want to have that kind of collaborative input so that I’m more confident that the ways that we’re pushing these ideas makes sense to people who are deeply invested in those particular fields. So it’s one thing to kind-of sketch a big picture, but it’s another to present it with the kind of detail that the people specialising in that area would want to have.

DR: Absolutely. And, you know, I know this myself from the limited amount of collaboration I’ve had in terms of working with conspiracy theory scholars. Because, as someone trained in Religious Studies, I’m kind of a minority there. Probably 50% of them are psychologists and maybe 30% are political science – so very different methodologies. But very clear that the next stage in the scholarship needs to take the humanities’ critiques, and analyses, and understanding of terms together with the kind of data-generating ability, and the quantitative analysis that they can do. And so, yes, I think there’s a very timely call. And it’s probably a good place to leave, on that kind-of rousing call to action!

AT: Yes.

DR: So I’m just going to say – thanks so much for joining us today, Ann. Thank you.

Citation Info: Taves, Ann, and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Worldviews and Ways of Life”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 21 May 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 May 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/worldviews-and-ways-of-life/

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcribing the Religious Studies Project archive, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Witchcraft in Rural Slovenia

In this podcast, professor Mirjam Mencej talks about contemporary witchcraft in Styria region in rural Eastern Slovenia. Based on her ethnographic fieldwork in the area, Mencej describes witchcraft from a variety of angles, from psychological to anthropological and historical, providing a detailed understanding of witchcraft as part of the lived social reality of the community. In what kind of situations are witchcraft narratives evoked? What makes them effective? Who could gain the reputation of being a witch and why? Mencej also describes the role of the ‘unwitcher’, a person who had the power to counter bewitchment and detect the witch responsible.

Check out and subscribe to our YouTube channel!

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Wu Tang classic T’s, and more.


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


Podcast with Mirjam Mencej 

Interviewed by Hannah Lehtinen

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Hannah Lehtinen (HL): So, welcome to the Religious Studies Project. My name is Hannah Lehtinen and we are currently in Turku. It’s early morning and it’s relatively cloudy.And with me is Mirjam Mencej from the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. And she is the Professor of Folklore Studies at the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology there. And her accomplishments include, but are not limited to, numerous articles and six published monographs on various topics related to vernacular religion, folklore and witchcraft, which is what we’ll be discussing here today. Professor Mencej’s latest volume, which will be out later this year, is called Styrian Witches in European Perspective. It’s based on her ethnographical work in the rural areas of Eastern Slovenia and it deals with witchcraft from a variety of angles. So welcome, Mirjam. It’s great to have you here today.

Mirjam Mencej (MM): Good Morning. Thank you for inviting me.

HL: So, we might just begin with, witchcraft. As we saw yesterday, the lecture was a huge success.

MM: Thank you

HL: But witchcraft probably brings up lots of different images and ideas of what we are exactly dealing with. How would you define witchcraft, in the context of your own work?

MM: Well first, let me answer the first part of your question. Indeed witchcraft, nowadays, appears in many guises. It has become a commodity, really. Witches flood the movies, the internet, the journals, the books – even cook books! Women dress up as witches to partake in Halloween parties. And, actually, it has become a trademark of radical feminism, etc. But all these witchcrafts have nothing to do with what traditional witchcraft is about, which I actually researched in this Styrian area of Slovenia and lectured on yesterday. Traditional witchcraft was typically set in more-or-less, small-scale, close-knit, face-to-face agricultural communities. And witchcraft, in fact, served as an explanation of misfortune: interpreting the source of personal misfortunes as the consequence of another’s malevolent agency. So the basic premise in witchcraft, is that the origin of misfortune is social. And the person responsible for misfortune is understood to be the witch. Now, when misfortune occurs, people usually seek culprits amongst their close neighbours or immediate vicinity, their immediate environment. And especially close neighbours were particularly feared in this regard. In most ethnographic areas, sometimes, also foreigners feature in witchcraft, but this is much less typical than the neighbours – particularly close neighbours. And it was, basically, their envy that was particularly feared. And, actually, they represented a constant threat of possible misfortune.

HL: Yes. And how did you end up studying witchcraft, actually?

MM: This was more-or-less by accident! In summer 2000 I arrived with a group of my students to a [rural region] in Slovenian Styria. I mean, Styria is a wider region, really, and this was a part of the Styrian region. (5:00) And our aim was to conduct fieldwork in order to help the local institutions’ mission to promote local heritage, really. So, what I hoped for was, basically, the etiological legends, related to some features or plants, or caves or some buildings in the region, etc. Yet, knowing that these kinds of legends tend to be rarer than the so-called belief narratives or belief legends, I also instructed my students to ask about witchcraft, the dead , and the supernatural in general. Now when the groups met, in the evening, to share the results of their first day of fieldwork – and also all the following evenings – one thing became clear: that the topic in the region was actually witchcraft. And so after that, we just continued to focus on witchcraft. And actually, really encountered plenty of people who still believed in witchcraft, and some even still practised witchcraft – although we never witnessed any of these practices. But, obviously, some people still buried bones or eggs on their neighbours’ property in order to do them harm. And some people even still understood witchcraft as an institution – actually they relied on witchcraft as an institution, explaining the misfortunes that befell them.

HL: Exactly. And this area, where you were conducting your study, could you describe it a little bit. It’s very remote?

MM: Yes. Actually this is a very remote area, with poor transport connections. The farms are small – the land divided into small parcels. And the people mainly engage in subsistence agriculture. Our interlocutors were mainly old people, because mostly older people lived there. Because most of the younger generation just moved into the cities or usually migrated somewhere. And, in fact, this is the region that is – in the frames of Slovenia – still a synonym for backwardness, and remoteness, and poverty, really. But the region where we were doing fieldwork was even more impoverished until the ‘70s. The ’70s brought some changes into the life of the population, for instance: electricity and water supply became available to more households than before; many houses were rebuilt; free medical care became available even to farmers; and several factories and tourism facilities were established at the periphery of the region – this actually offered some job opportunities to people living in the region, which consequently triggered daily migrations of part of the population; and also the improvement of the roads and transport facilities.Better roads also allowed for the use of tractors, which improved agricultural yields, etc. This was also the time when television started to make its way into rural households. And all these changes consequently triggered the loosening of the bonds of close communities and changed the social life in the villages. Now in our area, the key setting for the communication of witchcraft narratives, and also the basic context in which theses narratives were narrated and evaluated, was always “shared work”: the time when people gathered together in this or that house to shell beans, or pluck feathers, husk corn and do similar work. And with these economic changes and other changes like television etc, this basic setting was over. There was no such thing as common work in the evenings. And this, consequently, actually caused the witchcraft discourse to start losing its adherence and communal support. So, people did not have this framework anymore within which they could discuss witchcraft. I mean, they obviously still managed to find ways to tell narratives about witchcraft and even to practise some sort of magical practices, (10:00) but this basic setting was over, and they could not talk publicly about it as they used to do.

HL: So it wasn’t quite as accepted anymore, perhaps, as an explanation?

MM: Not generally accepted. They definitely were still able to talk about it within the family circles, or with some of the neighbours that still believed in witchcraft, but it was not an overt practice to discuss it anymore.

HL: So when you said that witchcraft sort-of struck you, when you were doing the fieldwork, as something really to focus on . . . . Did people talk about it very openly, or was there some reservation?

MM: No, generally people . . . yes. Generally, they had no problems talking about witchcraft overtly, although some did use . . . some did try to, somehow, hide their beliefs from me or the students – at least at the beginning of the interview. They would often start talking about witchcraft like: “No, I never heard about witchcraft! I don’t believe in witchcraft”, and similar. But then, after a while, they would just tell you a great story about their own involvement in witchcraft, or their discovery of bewitched items or their visit to a fortune-teller, who acted as an unwitcher inthe region, and so on. You know, like Jeanne Favret-Saada, who wrote a fascinating book on French witchcraft, understands this as a kind of reconciliation between their witchcraft discourse and the assumed rational discourse of the researcher . . . as a way to reconcile these two, at least at the beginning. There was no problem, really. It was quite a topic that croppeed up more-or-less by itself. We didn’t really expect it to be there or to find it.

HL: We already touched upon this, but perhaps again: how would you define witchcraft, in this context? What is it? And what is a witch?

MM: Well as I said, basically, the answer you would get from anthropological research, would be: “a witch is a person who is considered to be doing . . . to use some supernatural means to do harm to others. So, basically, the idea is witchcraft is a social thing: the origin of witchcraft is social. If a misfortune befalls you, basically there is a human being – usually from the same community – that is supposed to have caused it, right? But in fact, I actually defined in my book various layers of witchcraft and various types of witches. And I think one should actually pay attention, during the research, to different types of witches. Because, if you don’t, the answers can be a bit confusing. Basically, I would say, there is this social layer of witchcraft that anthropologists often research. But within it one could actually distinguish between a “neighbourhood witch” – I call it a neighbourhood witch, some would probably call it a social witch – and the “village witch”, that some researchers called the “scapegoat witch”. Now there is a difference between these two. The neighbourhood witch was mostly blamed for the misfortune that befell the neighbour. So, you assumed your neighbour caused the misfortune that befell you by either, for instance, burying bones or eggs on your property or by praising your child, or your livestock – there are various modes of bewitching, I can discuss this later, perhaps – but on the other hand, the village witch was not necessarily blamed for any misfortune, although some village witches, of course, get a reputation based on the general consensus of their harmful activities (15:00) – usually born out of envy – which is typical for the neighbourhood witch. But also, [there are] other reasons that have nothing to do with this accusation of causing misfortunes and are more or less related to some stereotypical notions about a witch, like: if she looked ugly, unkempt or old, of course, this already was a strong sign that she could be a witch. Or, moreover, if she behaved quarrelsome, if she quarrelled a lot, if she was inquisitive, this was even more likely to cause a reputation. If the family in which . . . . Well, if her family was proclaimed to be related to witchcraft, like for instance, if her mother already had such a reputation, the reputation was likely passed over to her daughter. Because it was also generally believed that a mother transmits her knowledge to her daughter. Or, if her father owned magic books, or a magic book – and it was usually men who were believed to have these books – his daughter would also kind-of inherit such a reputation. And sometimes they would even judge about who the village witch is, according to the way she died. So a person could acquire a reputation even after her death. Like [if] something unusual happened during the funeral, she was likely[to be] recognised as a witch afterwards. Or also, any extra knowledge – something that others would not know, but she allegedly knew – likely, also, could cause a reputation. So this was a social layer of witchcraft. But there was another layer, which I would tentatively call a “supernatural layer”, that anthropologists often skipped from their research. And it was also not always necessarily present in the regions where the fieldwork was done. These are witches that I call “night witches” because they usually appear at night, often in the shape of some flickering lights, sometimes invisible, and usually causing people to lose their orientation, to get totally disoriented in the forest and to get lost. Often, the same deeds and the same shapes and appearances are referred to: fairies, or the souls of the dead, or any other supernatural entities within European folklore. Anyway, in our region, they were always called witches. And while they had no. . . they did not do any economic damage, they were still blamed for misfortune of another type: they caused people to lose their way, to spend the night in the forest. And sometimes, subsequently, they were recognised as a certain person from the community. Not always, but sometimes people would say, “Yes, I recognised those witches that looked like lights” – it’s always plural – “during the night”. And the next day they would scold them or threaten them. So there are differences. There are differences in the discourses between these social and supernatural layers; there are differences in the manner of protection and the attitudes towards the different witches; also the attitude toward the neighbourhood and the village witch was different, right? So [there are] many differences, and yet people would talk about these witches in the same breath. If you asked them about witches, they could either answer with the response that referred to neighbourhood, village, or night witches.

HL: Well it seems pretty obvious – from general depictions of witches, and also from what you’re saying – that witches were often considered to be women, or it was to do with women?

MM: Yes. Actually, in our region, it was mostly women, except for, basically, one category of village witch which also encountered men. (20:00) As I said, those men basically that possessed – or allegedly possessed, because one couldn’t check, right? – the magic book. They were mostly men. And men could sometimes appear as witches, also, when they severely transgressed social norms, like in the case of blasphemy or cursing and drinking heavily. But this was really seldom. Mostly, it was women.

HL: Can you think up any reasons why it would be?

MM: Well, actually, this is quite historic. This has historical roots. Women were always related to witchcraft. This idea that women were connected to, well, night and moon, but also to magic, are ideas that spread up already in antiquity. So there is a strong connection in this notion in traditional ideas, I would say. But also during the witch trials, several historians pointed out that women were often regarded as somehow more prone to be able to be seduced by a devil, they were weaker, and well, actually, all theses accusations somehow reflected the misogyny of the period, right? Also, women were often proclaimed witches when they were old and when they were in the period of menopause, which was related to the idea about menstruation: that, while they still have their menstruation they can kind-of purify themselves and, afterwards, they could not do that any more. So these bad fluids just prevailed in their bodies. And there are many reasons, of course. Widows and unmarried women were among the first targets of accusation, also. One [reason was] because their status was unclear and, in the early modern period, the idea about a woman was to be married, to have a man by their side, this strong patriarchal approach to looking at the role of women in society. And, on the other hand, it was also their weaker position in this case: they had no social . . . they did not have a husband who would perhaps protect them, in this regard, against the gossip, against the accusations.

HL: Exactly. So these witchcraft accusations could also act as a very powerful tool for social control.

MM: Oh definitely, yes. Actually, the narratives themselves acted as a form of social control. People tried to behave in a way that they could not possibly be accused of witchcraft. So, yes, definitely this is one way to look at witchcraft.

HL: Another interesting category that you bring up in your work is the so-called “unwitchers”. So could you tell us a little bit about them, and how they belong into this dynamic of the witchcraft discourse?

MM: Yes well, unwitchers, or some would probably call them “counter-witches”, or “unbewitchers”, were an important figure in this triangle of victim, witch and unwitcher. In our region, it was fortune-tellers that acted as unwitchers in the sense that they could counteract the bewitchment, and act in the direction to identify the witch responsible for the misfortune. (25:00) Now, the people would usually [approach] unwitchers [if it was] the case that many misfortunes happened in very different areas of their life, or household etc. And unwitchers would, actually, first . . . well the first step in their procedure would usually be to proclaim the misfortune as a result of witchcraft. And in further steps they would usually try to annihilate the bewitchment by various instructions that they gave to their clients, and to identify the witch. Because the identification was crucial in this regard. It allowed the client to face their opponents, to materialise something that was abstract, beforehand. And, in the end, they also offered a possibility of the redirection of this bewitchment, or the evil, back to its source, which, of course, people usually didn’t like to accept. Well, basically, in my book I argued that the main role of unwitchers was in helping, especially women, to . . . well, one thing was to help them in times of economic insecurity, when their household were not prospering. But the basic thing was to help women maintain their social position in times when it was endangered. Because women were basically evaluated according to their work: how they managed to do the household works; were they successful in this regard? And if they were not, their social position was strongly threatened and in this case they actually needed, I think – at least in our region, that’s the way I understood the situation – they needed the unwitchers to help them transpose or relocate the blame from themselves to the outside witch, or to somebody else and thus help them maintain their social position. Because it was not them that was to be blamed for the misfortunes that befell the household, but some outsider coming from the other household – coming from usually the same community, but not from within the household.

HL: So, identifying some kind of enemy, or some kind of cause, from the outside was very crucial?

MM: Exactly, yes.

HL: We already mentioned that if, for example, the livestock or in some other way the livelihood was endangered, this would be one reason to suspect witchcraft. Could you mention some other cases or situations where this witchcraft discourse, or the accusations of witchcraft, even could be invoked?

MM: Well, the main targets of bewitchment in our region, were livestock, really. Now this is a different situation than the one I encountered in Bosnia – where I just recently did three months’ fieldwork – when witchcraft is mostly directed against people, against their wellbeing and health and jobs etc. In our region, it was really mostly livestock – sometimes small children, but basically livestock – that were the main target of bewitchment. But, of course, there were other situations where people could use the witchcraft discourse to their benefit. And it was not necessarily related to their personal belief in the proposition. Many, many situations, many circumstances, could . . . . In many circumstances, witchcraft discourse could be used for people to save face, for instance, or to give an acceptable explanation to the family, or to the community at large. And I can just give you some examples, for instance, a young man was unable to work, to find a job, to search for a job. A young man who, actually, withdrew himself from society and was probably suffering some sort of depression or perhaps some mental illness.(30:00) The explanation , in terms of witchcraft, was actually a suitable explanation at hand for a family to give to the community at large which, probably not understanding the depression as a serious mental state, would proclaim him an idler or perhaps even blame his family for a failed upbringing. And, on the other hand, this helped the family to cope with the situation, to understand and to accept their son’s position. Also, for instance, when marital quarrels appeared, when a couple quarrelled and suddenly. . . and then one story told by a certain interlocutor . . . . Suddenly, when a woman threw her husband out of bed, she said, “at that moment I saw a toad under the bed. And I trampled her, I destroyed her and the next day I saw a woman in the village who lost her leg just at the same time.” Now this is how they recognised that it was that woman that was transformed into the toad and this was a general notion in our region that witches can either transform into toads, or sand toads. Actually, she recognised the witch that transformed into a toad by her losing a leg in the same moment. And there are many such circumstances that actually allowed people to use the witchcraft discourse, especially when they’d transgressed social norms., you know: having spent a night in the forest after a night drinking, you could just say, “Night witches carried me away so I couldn’t find the way out of the forest”; or, it could be a cover up for sexual relationships that were illicit; or it could just be flat sexual fantasies sometimes; or, I don’t know, it was also used as an education means in the upbringing of children, you know, walking into dangerous areas at night; or to prevent people from doing illicit things in the night, like meeting other men and wives. It could even be invoked by workers who wanted to stop work during the night, you know at 2am – I guess everybody would propose to stop working already – and they could just invoke this idea about witches: “No, I’m going to go home now, because otherwise witches will come . . . ” etc. So there were many opportunities for the use of witchcraft discourse. And this was not really related to one’s belief or disbelief in the proposition, and they were not also used intentionally in order to manipulate other people’s opinion, but acted more like a spontaneous act, based on the habitus, really. Of course, it could be used to manipulate public opinion [as well], especially if they gossip with others. Like, I was told that this witchcraft accusation often occurred when a son of a wealthy family wanted to marry a woman from a poor family. In this case the mother of that woman was often proclaimed to be a witch, you know, who made some witchcraft in order for the son of the wealthy family to fall in love with this poor girl. Bribery is another case, of course, and an accusation of witchcraft could also redefine the social position, lower the social prestige of a certain person.

HL: Yes. So there are very various ways that you can use it.

MM: Definitely.

HL: Did you, when you were conducting this work – I understood that people talked about these experiences – but did you ever speak with a witch? Or anyone who would admit using witchcraft? Or who knew, at least, that they were [accused] of witchcraft?

MM: (35:00) Well, nobody would ever admit that they used witchcraft. There is no such thing, you know. If they admitted that they used witchcraft this would immediately ruin their social position, probably forever, right?

HL: Yes.

MM: Of course, I could sometimes realise that some people did indeed practice some sort of magic practices. Like – one thing that I mentioned before was burying objects, usually eggs or bones on a neighbour’s property. And, while they would never admit that they buried a certain object on their neighbour’s property, they did sometimes admit that they buried it as a response for the buried object they found in their property. They assumed that it came from a certain neighbour, with whom they were probably in some conflict or tense relationships, and they just threw it back to their property, or buried it back on their property. So, obviously, something was going on. But I only received several admissions of this kind and never as being the first perpetrator, but always as a response to the act that was done before. Anyway, I did also hear about several people, several women, that had a reputation for being a witch in the community, and I did interview them. And I tried to make them tell me that they were aware of their reputation. But I was never successful. Nobody actually ever admitted that they knew about their reputation, and I’m not really sure if they knew or not. I often got an impression that they didn’t. But I do not dare declaim, because it’s a difficult thing, I guess, to admit that people treat you as the witch, right? Well I heard, also, about some circumstances in which people overtly told some women in the community that they were a witch – like, especially when they were drunk, you know, they would just tell them to their face, “You’re a witch!” or something. Otherwise, generally, they would try to avoid blaming directly because, if it was a village witch they feared that she would take revenge and do some witchcraft, and if it was a neighbourhood witch they always said, “Well, you never know, you can never be sure, you can suspect this or that neighbour, but you can never be sure, because you never actually saw them doing some bewitching.” So, they never really dared to blame them overtly.

HL: It also brings to mind, perhaps – especially with this neighbourhood witch case – if you would blame directly, wouldn’t that maybe take away from the functioning of the accusation dynamic? Because if you blame directly, perhaps, then it can be disputed more easily, or refuted, that this is not the case.

MM: Oh yes. You’re right.

HL: It could change the dynamics of how the accusations work.

MM: Yes. It could, yes. In one way it could. But also you know, you’d be in the position of the accuser. And yes, if you did not get the public support in this case, right, you could end up – perhaps not as a witch – but you could end up with your social position, again, being lowered because you did something that you were not supposed to do. And if you did not have any proofs of their bewitching activities then, how could you do it?

HL: And the evidence would be difficult to produce, so that would be a high risk thing to do.

MM: Yes

HL: Exactly. So, I understand that there are no unwitchers in the region anymore. So, it was simply in the stories . . . about . . . ?

MM: Well, you see, there was a very famous unwitching family that provided services for people in this region. And this family – well the starter of the family’s business was a certain woman who was born at the beginning of the 19th -century. (40:00) And then the profession was continued by her son. And after her son died, during World War II, it was continued by his widow. And that last in line, of these famous fortune-tellers, actually died at the beginning of the ’80s. I was lucky to find her grandson, who actually lived with her when he was a child, and observed her working. But anyway, he told me that already in the ’70s she started losing her clients. That her job . . . . She had no job any more at the end of the ’70s, and at the beginning of the ’80s she died. So, basically, there are no traditional unwitchers in the region any more. I know that there was another unwitcher who was practising, offering similar services to the clients, living quite nearby. But, obviously, she did not use the same discourse. She did not continue to work on counteracting witches – instead she used the term enemy, which is much more generalised idea. So, I guess, she was able to continue with this work and she focussed much more on fortune-telling in general, not unwitching procedure as such. But of course, nowadays, people can just turn to New Age therapists, which are often, especially, in bigger cities and communities. And they actually do this nowadays. They actually go to New Age therapists. I’m not sure about people from my region: I did not ask them about that. But I, actually, recently conducted an interview with a woman – an educated woman, an intelligent woman – living quite close to this region, who actually experienced the same type of bewitchment, obviously, as was generally proclaimed to be the main sort of bewitchment in our region. That was – she kept finding eggs buried in her property. And she, indeed, turned to a New Age therapist. This was a Taoist therapist, or dealing with Taoist chrystal therapy and, you know, she helped her clients with some angels’ blessing, did angel therapy etc. So it was not a traditional unwitcher but a New Age therapist, who, in a way, took over the work of traditional unwitchers.

HL: So, was the procedure the same, or. . . ?

MM: In fact it was very similar, in many regards. But there were also differences in her discourse, in relation to the unwitcher’s discourse. Well, first she would admit, just like traditional unwitchers, that – not admit but confirm – that something “was done”, which was a typical discursive expression, in the region, that related to bewitchment, really: that somebody bewitched you, in a way. Although, she definitely denied the involvement of witchcraft. So she said, “There is no such thing as witchcraft.” Anyway, she confirmed that this was done by a certain person who wishes bad to the woman that I had an interview with, and she also tried to annihilate the bewitchment – now it should be “bewitchment” in inverted commas, right?- she gave her some angels’ blessings, in order to annihilate the harm that was being done. But the basic difference is that of trying to help the client identify their witch, which was a really crucial thing in the traditional therapy, the traditional unwitchers procedure: she actually redirected the blame from the outside to one’s own body and mind, within. So, actually, she said, “We should not condemn anyone, you know? It doesn’t matter. There are people . . . ” she vaguely admitted there are people who wish us bad, or who are envious etc, but basically she redirected the blame to ourselves. (45:00) So it is us who have to – actually, it is that woman I mentioned, but I can say generally “us” – we have to purify ourselves, we have to meditate, we have to strengthen our energy etc, and when we do that, no one can blame us any more. So there is just a basic difference, I think that, you know, from finding and searching for the perpetrator on the outside, and finding the “witch” inside within us. That’s the change in this New Age discourse. And, of course, I think it’s got a lot to do with the changes also that happened in Western neoliberal society, where we are actually encouraged to think of our own lives, our own wellbeing, as something that is entirely under our own control, right? It’s ourselves who are responsible for this. And it’s entirely in our hands. We have to look at our own lives as an artistic product or an enterprise, right? We cannot absolutely obtain relief anymore by blaming someone on the outside for our failures.We have become trained to search for the one who is to blame for any misfortune that befell us, in ourselves.

HL: Yes. That’s . . . . So that would be this kind-of: on the one hand it continues, but it changes shape?

MM: It adopts to the demands of this neoliberal capitalistic society that we live in nowadays, right?

HL: Yes.

MM: But basically its the same thing. You can call it witchcraft, or you cannot call it witchcraft, basically. It’s just the transformation, it’s adaptation. But basically, its a continuation.

HL: Thank you. This has been very interesting.

MM: Thank you. You’re welcome.

HL: Thank you for joining us today.

MM: Thank you.


Citation Info: Mencej, Mirjam 2017. “Witchcraft in Rural Slovenia”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 15 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 11 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/witchcraft-in-rural-slovenia/

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

Method and Theory in the Cognitive Sciences of Religion

podcast with the Religious Studies Project in 2014, Dr. Robert McCauley gave an overview of some of these processes cognitive scientists appeal to in accounting for religion (e.g., agent detection, theory of mind), as well as a 2015 North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) conference (and thanks to their support), McCauley discusses methodological and theoretical issues within CSR. He begins by tackling the topic of “naturalism” vs. “supernaturalism” in explaining religion, moving on to how these explanations function at different levels of analysis and integration. In closing, McCauley discusses the relationship between the humanities and the sciences, some successful and not so successful CSR theories, and the interplay between explanations emphasizing cognition and culture.

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

Mysticism, Spirituality, and Boats at the IAPR 2015 World Congress

The International Association for the Psychology of Religion (IAPR) 2015 World Congress was held on August 17th-20th. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Alex Uzdavines, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University.

It’d be too much to say that I finally “get” horizontal transcendence (Coleman, Silver, & Hood, In Press), but I certainly got a horizontally transcendent experience at the IAPR 2015 World Congress in Istanbul, Turkey. Obviously, I was on a boat. It might have been related to the truly international collection of researchers discussing fascinating things (shop talk and otherwise) while enjoying a flagrantly stunning day on the  Bosphorous. Although on reflection, the sea-sickness meds probably didn’t hurt. Regardless, there were several points along the way where I found myself disconnected, floating for a moment in a sense of overwhelming peace and happiness. Of course, I might have also been primed for this experience by a symposium the day before, which stuck (and has continued to stick) in my mind.

 Jesper Sørensen presenting.

Jesper Sørensen

One could almost describe the first invited symposium of the conference, organized by Heinz Streib, as magical, although not the kind I usually deal with. Magic, Mysticism, Spirituality: Religion’s Fellow Species delivered exactly what was promised, as series of interesting talks on areas which are both components of and discreet from religion more broadly. After an introduction by Dr. Streib which outlined both the usefulness and problems with using prototypical categories like the ones dealt with in the symposium, Jesper Sørensen outlined his work in fractioning the idea of magic. He discussed both the discreet components of what it is (people have a goal with doing it, the causal mechanism is opaque, ritualized, etc.) and that before we can synthesize these components together to study magic as a whole, we need to develop and explore hypotheses about the discreet components. For instance, when thinking about ritual behavior one component might be a need to negate strong causal expectations or develop weak ones. He used the ritual of Christian Communion as an example, “There’s no intuitive schema for why eating bread leads to grace,” but the ritual surrounding the cracker consumption develops a causal link where there otherwise might not be one. For me, this discussion highlighted the furor surrounding the desecration of a communion wafer by PZ Myers, and perhaps explained some of the underlying cognitive reasons behind it.

Ralph W. Hood Jr.

Ralph W. Hood Jr.

symposium from the APA Division 36 mid-year conference. It also, in some ways, ran counter to Sørensen’s discussion of the need to explore the individual components of higher-order factors before working with the factors themselves. Of course, much of this has to do with what one means by, “reductionism.” Nevertheless, Hood described the push to make the psychology of religion fit into mainstream psychology by jettisoning many of the variables and ideas unique to religion and theology. Instead early researchers framed the sub-field using the same variables as the rest of psychology, but with some being more salient within a religious context than others. In doing so, the field might have lost out on exploring some of the more ineffable experiences that are associated with mysticism. This jettisoning is reflected in a lack of critical history among the current crop of handbooks on the psychology of religion and spirituality. They don’t discuss the tensions and interplay between the fields of psychology and theology which have led to the current state of the psychology of religion.

The final talk, presented by Streib, dealt with the semantics of spirituality and his work exploring the subfactors which may comprise this construct. He presented the results of several principal component analyses on data derived from a content analysis of open responses from roughly 1700 Germans and Americans on what they considered to be, “spirituality.” The participants had a wide range of belief identifications within the religious, spiritual, and nonreligious spectrum, allowing Streib and the other researchers to get a wider range of meanings than what might be found in a purely theistic sample. The PCAs generated ten different subfactors nested along three higher-order axes and, when taken together, define the range of meanings which grew out of their content analysis of the qualitative data. In particular, I was interested in how the three axes worked to explain some of the tension which can occur when trying to stitch together the definitions of “spirituality” generated by both believers and nonbelievers. In particular, the axes Mystical vs. Humanistic Transcending (something beyond, higher self) and Theistic vs. Nontheistic Transcending (higher power(s), part of religion) seem to be a big step towards shaving off some of the “fuzz” which often surrounds findings that rely on measures of “spirituality” which don’t take into account that different people can come at that term from very different meanings.

However, the big issue that was (and is) still in my mind after these three talks was the idea of supernaturalism vs. naturalism and the tensions between these that Hood raised. Here, Sørensen’s work seemed to be placed firmly within the realm of the naturalistic by breaking magic down into the cognitive processes that go into the beliefs surrounding it. Yet this doesn’t seem to be hitting on the “ineffable” components that may be unique to religion and mystical experience, which magic certainly seems to be a part of. Similarly, the two axes presented by Streib (which I discussed here) seem to imply a dichotomy of spirituality that is supernaturalistically versus naturalistically derived. Most of the constructs he presented seemed to sit more on the side of the “supernatural” with “natural” spirituality seemingly defined more in opposition, similarly to how theistic nonbelief is defined mostly in opposition to or as absence of theistic belief, rather than being a thing within itself. In effect, is it possible that people who identify as “neither religious, nor spiritual,” yet experience similar feelings of connectedness to those who identify as “spiritual,” have just removed the “spirit” component which implies the supernatural, while still retaining the other components of the term? It’s hard to say, but I’m looking forward to seeing more work (and producing some myself!) to try and figure this out.

Paul Harris

Paul Harris

My particular focus on this symposium came out of its relationship to my own work and what I feel are some of the major discussions going on in our field rather than out of lack of other fascinating talks to cover, not to mention the boat trip. However, several examples pertaining to nonbelief and nonbelievers can be found in Thomas Coleman’s forthcoming report for the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network Blog. Further, due to travel difficulties among the other presenters, Peter Hill gracefully carried an entire symposium on measurement with a discussion of his work generating a scale to measure Intellectual Humility and Paul Harris’ keynote about how children only seem to come to believe in magical and miraculous thinking when they have a religious upbringing (as opposed to magical and miraculous thinking being native) is worthy of its own discrete report.

The academic quality of the conference alone was strong enough to make this one of the best conference experiences in my career so far. However, given the stunning beauty of the location, the warmth and kindness of our hosts from Marmara and İzmir Katip Çelebi Universities and the Center for Islamic Studies (special mention going to Kenan Sevinç both for much of the photography throughout the conference and helping me navigate a Turkish pharmacy so I could go on the boat trip), I suspect this conference will stand out in my memory for a long time to come.

The Historic Penisula, with the Hagia Sophia (middle) and the Blue Mosque (far right).

The Historic Penisula, with the Hagia Sophia (middle) and the Blue Mosque (far right).

References

Coleman, T. J. III, Silver, C. F., & Hood, R. W. Jr. (In Press). “…if the universe is beautiful, we’re part of that beauty.” – A ‘Neither Religious nor Spiritual’ Biography as Horizontal Transcendence In Streib, H. & Hood, R. (Eds.) The Semantics and Psychology of Spirituality. Dordrecht, NL:
Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-21245-6_22

‘Religious’ and ‘Spiritual’ Struggles: Now in ‘Nonreligious’ and ‘Nonspiritual’ flavors!

The fact that not only do religious believers sometimes question, struggle with, or even doubt their beliefs, but that resolving these issues can lead someone to a greater level of acceptance and understanding of their faith has been embodied in the form of quest-orientation for some time (Batson & Ventis, 1982). But recently, researchers studying the psychology of religion and spirituality have become more interested in how these spiritual stuggles might also lead towards distress as well (Exline, Pargament, Grubbs, & Yali, 2014). But are these struggles only experienced by the ‘religious’ about ‘religious’ beliefs? Or could people, even nonbelievers, also experience analogous struggles which impact their lives, for both good and bad.

In this podcast, psychologist Dr. Julie Exline talks about her work in developing the Religious and Spiritual Struggles scale, where the original ideas came from and how they interacted with her previous work surrounding anger towards god (Exline, Park, Smyth, & Carey, 2011). She then goes on to describe how some interesting findings within her previous work led her to be interested in whether or not nonbelievers experience similar ‘spiritual’ struggles, if they could be measured and compared to believers’ struggles, and how to measure them in a way valid for both believers and nonbelievers. She also gives a brief overview of some of her current work and interests in the area of nonbelief and secularity more broadly.

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 (but only if you enjoyed it, please). And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, non-academic texts, arcane grimoires, miscellaneous intellectual paraphernalia, and more!

This is our last podcast until September 2015… but don’t forget that you can keep up with the RSP on Martin will be featuring podcasts from the archive on the homepage throughout the summer, and that there will be the occasional feature to keep you entertained. Thanks for listening!

References

  • Batson, C. D., & Ventis, W. L. (1982). The religious experience: A social-psychological perspective. Oxford University Press, USA.
  • Exline, J. J., Pargament, K. I., Grubbs, J. B., & Yali, A. M. (2014). The Religious and Spiritual Struggles Scale: Development and initial validation. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6(3), 208–222. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0036465
  • Exline, J. J., Park, C. L., Smyth, J. M., & Carey, M. P. (2011). Anger toward God: Social-cognitive predictors, prevalence, and links with adjustment to bereavement and cancer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(1), 129–148. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0021716

Workshop: ‘What is religious belief?’ report

PhD candidate Hans Van Eyghen reporting for The Religious Studies Project:

The question ‘What is religious belief?’ has a long history and with no definitive answer to date. The aim of this one day workshop was to shed new light on the question by combining three perspectives on the matter: cognitive science of religion, philosophy, and theology. The day consisted of four talks by Neil Van Leeuwen (philosopher), Michiel van Elk (cognitive scientist), Helen de Cruz (philosopher) and Gijsbert van den Brink (theologian).

Philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen. Photo by Rik Peels

1. Neil Van Leeuwen ‘Props in the Clouds: On the Role of Agent Like Stimuli in Religious Practice’

 

Neil Van Leeuwen (Georgia State University & University of Antwerp) proposed an alternative account of Stewart Guthrie and Justin Barrett’s ideas on hyperactive agency detection. Rather than seeing ‘faces in the clouds’, religious believers see ‘props in the clouds’. He began by discussing the ambiguous relation between religious belief and evidence. On the one hand, religious belief seems mindful of evidence. Believers often refer to intelligent design arguments or arguments for the historicity of the gospels to defend their beliefs. The fact that some lose their faith after acquiring scientific evidence and the fact that believers sometimes avoid encounters with potentially disconfirming evidence also signals that evidence is important for religious belief. On the other hand, there are also reasons to believe that religious belief persists despite of evidence to the counter. Doomsday cults often continue to exist after their predictions about an alleged apocalypse turn out to be false. Young earth creationism and evolution denialism disregard massive evidence from geology and biology. According to Van Leeuwen the classic account of hyperactive agency detection (which he calls Agency Indicator-Based Belief or AIBB) by Guthrie and Barrett cannot account for this ambiguous relation between religious belief and evidence. The classic account portrays the process of belief acquisition as:

agent-like stimulus → evolved HADD → belief in supernatural agents

Van Leeuwen argues the AIBB-account suffers from three main problems. First, the reactions to agent like stimuli are not uniform but very diverse. Second, beliefs resulting from AIBB are very sensitive to evidence whereas religious beliefs often are not. Third, AIBB does not allow a role for voluntariness though believers often choose to interpret evidence as coming from God. Nonetheless, there is something in AIBB worth saving because the idea of agency detection has much empirical support. Van Leeuwen proposes to look at agent like stimuli in a different way, namely as props that provide support for previously held cultural beliefs. In his view, cultural beliefs generate supernatural representations. In light of these cultural beliefs, agent like stimuli are used as props in a game of make belief. For example, a face in the clouds can be interpreted by someone with the cultural belief that “God sends signs by using nature, as a message from God”. The prop thereby reinforces the cultural beliefs.

2. Michiel van Elk ‘A Porous Theory of Mind underlies Religious Belief’

Psychologist Michiel van Elk. Photo by Rik Peels

Cognitive scientist Michiel van Elk. Photo by Rik Peels

The second speaker Michiel van Elk (University of Amsterdam) discussed the results of empirical testing of Justin Barrett’s account of hyperactive agency detection (Van Leeuwen’s AIBB), the theory of mind (ToM) account, and another account inspired by Tanya Luhrmann’s work called the Porous Theory of Mind (PToM). Van Elk claimed that Barrett’s HADD account and the ToM account have only little empirical evidence whereas PToM has strong explanatory potential when it comes to explaining supernatural beliefs and experiences. From Barrett’s account, which states that people become religious because of hyperactivity in agency detection leading to beliefs about invisible agents, van Elk deduces four testable predictions: (1) in threatening situations people should show a bias towards detecting agency, (2) supernatural agent concepts should be related to agency detection biases, (3) believers may be more prone to detecting agents than non-believers. Van Elk and his team tested all three hypotheses; the first and third were confirmed but the second was disconfirmed. Van Elk also presented experiments on the ToM account, which states that belief in God could rely on an over attribution of ToM reasoning to non-natural objects. This account predicts that a higher score on the autism-spectrum-scale will result in lower religiosity. Van Elk and his team indeed found that scoring high on the autism spectrum scale is negatively related to belief in God and to symbolic thinking, but the explained variance is close to zero. ToM might thus be a necessary condition for religious belief, but not a sufficient condition. The last account van Elk discussed was the PToM account, which posits that believers consider their minds to be open to intrusion by the supernatural. The account was introduced by Tanya Luhrmann who reported how evangelical Christians believe that God implants thoughts into their minds. Empirical testing showed that PToM is a very good predictor of religious belief in many cases. PToM does, however, not predict religiosity for religions where direct interaction between God and believers is frowned upon, like Calvinism.

3. Helen de Cruz ‘What Philosophers of Religion believe’

Philosopher Helen de Cruz. photo by Rik Peels

Philosopher Helen de Cruz. photo by Rik Peels

Helen de Cruz (Free University Amsterdam) began by noting that each workshop/conference always has one ‘strange’ talk that doesn’t really fit well with the rest. Her talk indeed did not address what religious beliefs are but instead what philosophers of religion believe and more precisely what role irrelevant causal factors play. She discussed a qualitative survey she conducted among philosophers of religion and discussed its implications for the rationality of defending views in philosophy of religion. Sometimes philosophy of religion is suspected of a disproportionate bias due to emotional and psychosocial aspects of religion. The (much) higher prevalence of theists in philosophy of religion compared to other philosophical disciplines also raises some suspicion. De Cruz’s survey found that of the 139 interviewed philosophers of religion, 59% self-identified as ‘Christian’ and 24% as ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’. The main motivations for practicing philosophy of religion were religious identity, philosophy and education; a minority was motivated by proselytism. Only 21% reported a change in religious belief during their time as philosopher; 16% reported a sophistication of their beliefs; and 15% a tempering. Further, the study showed a significant difference between the number of former religious believers (33%) and former atheists (12%) engaging in philosophy of religion. overall, the study found a lot of support for the claim that irrelevant causal factors are widespread in philosophy of religion. De Cruz distinguished three potential problems for philosophy of religion: (1) the fact that irrelevant influences have motivated a majority of philosophers of religion to engage in philosophy of religion, (2) that philosophers of religion might be prejudiced in such a way that it becomes hard to assess evidence in a dispassionate way, and (3) that the cultural background leads philosophers of religion to regard Christian theism and scientific naturalism as the only two viable options. Against (1), de Cruz argued that having a certain background is no reason to assume that one is being unreliable. (2) was not clearly confirmed by the survey because a considerable number of interviewed philosophers had changed their minds. She did acknowledge (3) was a real problem.

4. Gijsbert van den Brink ‘I Know that my Redeemer Lives. The indispensability of Factual Claims for Religious Belief’

Theologian Gijsbert van den Brink. Photo by Rik Peels

Theologian Gijsbert van den Brink. Photo by Rik Peels

The final speaker of the day, Gijsbert van den Brink (Free University Amsterdam) offered a theological answer to the question ‘What is religious belief?’. His talk was a defense of religious cognitivism, the view stating that religious belief has propositional content. He began by discussing the alternative position, non-cognitivism. Non-cognitivists hold that religious belief is not about factual states of affairs but about the affective, expressive, self-involving, prescriptive, interrogative, etc. role they fulfill in believer’s lives. Van den Brink acknowledges that there is some truth in non-cognitivism insofar that religious belief is structurally different from the mere believing in the existence of some object, like the planet Venus. A religious believer does not simply believe that there is a supernatural being out there, but believing in God involves attitudes of awe, love or hope. Nonetheless, factual claims are indispensable for religious beliefs according to van den Brink, because the attitudes associated with religious belief are only possible if its factual presuppositions are true.

Psychology of Religion at Its Best…and Less Best

There were a number of excellent talks at the (deep breath) American Psychological Association Division 36 Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 2015 Mid-Year Conference hosted by Brigham Young University (BYU) at the Marriott Conference Center in Provo, Utah, United States on March 20th and 21st (exhale). In particular, the second keynote address by Dr. Frank Fincham, Director of the Florida State University Family Institute was an excellent model of how research in the psychology of religion and spirituality can have practical use in designing psychological interventions in addition to the acquisition of knowledge. His and his collaborators’ work involved the psychological impacts of partner-directed prayer on the romantic relationships of religious believers, specifically how prayer can bolster relationship quality by increasing the forgiveness ability of the praying partner. Over a series of carefully framed studies he described the process they used to look at the broad effects of partner directed prayer on relationships. After narrowing their focus, they found that increased cooperative behavior was the primary mediator of the effect of prayer on forgiveness. They used these findings to construct and validate a prayer-focused marriage therapy intervention within an African-American, religious population. Throughout his talk, he was careful to make it clear that these studies were done with, and only apply to, religious believers and that the possibility of comparable mechanisms for nonbeliever couples still need to be researched.

Dr. Julie Exline’s Laboratory at Case Western Reserve University: Alex Uzdavines, Julie Exline, Valencia Harriott, Steffany Homolka, Nick Stauner, and Josh Wilt.

At least for my part, this was greatly appreciated. As someone who studies religious nonbelievers (not to mention being one), it can chafe reading or watching a presentation on research which has broadly sweeping conclusions about the benefits of religious belief which go far beyond what the data allow. Often this research implicitly (sometimes explicitly) assumes that the audience is religious themselves and that the research can be generalized to nonbelievers by just flipping the direction of the results. It was refreshing to have religious-oriented research presented in a manner that both framed the results within the context of the beliefs of the people who participated in the research and explicitly acknowledged that the conclusions drawn could not be applied to nonbelievers without further study.

Dr. Fincham’s focus on measurable psychological mechanisms contrasted sharply with the major themes from symposium presented by a number of scholars from BYU the previous day. The presenters answered the title of the symposium, chaired by Shannon Starks, “Does Psychology’s Naturalism Hamper Understanding of Religious Phenomena?” with a resounding “Yes!” Ms. Starks spoke first and her presentation outlined how widely used introductory psychology texts take a strictly naturalistic stance and often reject supernatural hypotheses for psychological phenomena just as resoundingly. Dr. Jeffery S. Reber presented the second talk and gave a number of examples of psychological theories that grew out of the work of famous theologians. However, when the writers most responsible for bringing these theories into psychology (sometimes the theologian themself!) translated them, all references to a god/gods, the divine, or the supernatural were removed.

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman, APA Div. 36 President Dr. Kevin Ladd, and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr. Melanie Nyhof

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman with Dr. Kevin Ladd and Dr. Melanie Nyhof enjoying the post conference Sundance tour.

The third talk, presented by Dr. Edwinn E. Gantt, built upon the first two presentations but shifted focus examining how psychological research often misses the supernatural reality of an individual’s lived experience, while the majority of researchers hunt for naturalistic mechanisms. He argued that since people qualitatively experience the supernatural as real, psychology is doing a disservice to human experience by saying that the supernatural is just a figment of explainable mechanisms. Finally, Dr. Brent D. Slife discussed a story from his clinical internship where he specifically focused on naturalistic therapeutic approaches at the behest of his supervisor. Over time he began to feel ashamed of how this cognitive-behavioral approach shifted his clients’ focus away from her spirituality and to thoughts and behaviors that seemed to reduce her suffering. In fact, Dr. Slife argued that by focusing on the reduction of suffering, psychologists are doing a disservice to religious clients because God might intend for them to suffer and reducing this risks moving their client away from God’s wishes. This is understandable only as long as a therapist discusses their naturalistic orientation with their client and the client still chooses to continue therapy. Conversely, a religious therapist should discuss their beliefs and intent to bring these beliefs into therapy ahead of time so that if the client does not wish to participate in religious therapy they can find a new therapist.

There were two major themes gleaned from this symposium. The first was one of “religious deletion” which seemed to operate similarly within the psychological community to how “bisexual deletion” works in both gay and straight communities. Aspects of identity, thought, or experience which don’t fit within the dominant culture of the community are either ignored or dismissed as not real, as religious/supernatural ideas and experience are dismissed within the psychological community – according to the speakers (and many other psychologists of religion I have spoken with). Requiring that psychological theories (or psychologists themselves) be stripped of their religious background in order to be taken seriously within the field does a disservice to everyone involved. While the current extent of the anti-religious nature of psychology is open to study, it does seem to be present and working towards a more theologically inclusive field might be a benefit to those who study the psychology of religion and spirituality, regardless of whether or not they are religious themselves.

The second major theme was more questionable, however. The idea that consideration of the supernatural is off-limits to psychological study pervaded all the presentations, with the exception of Dr. Reber’s. Well, off-limits to “naturalistic psychology,” anyways. Ms. Starks even went so far as criticizing studies that looked at Extra Sensory Perception and dreams that could predict future events. Rather than raising any methodological critiques, she simply implied that because the researchers operated within a naturalistic framework the studies were a priori invalid. Despite saying that the supernatural exists and that it impacts the natural world of which psychological processes are a part, the speakers refused to actually discuss any methodology that could be used to study either the supernatural itself or how it impacts naturalistic psychology, even after being directly asked to go into this by a few audience questions. In doing so, the impression I was left with was that it wasn’t psychology’s job to try and peek behind the “wizard’s curtain” of religious experience and if naturalistic scientists can’t prove the non-existence of the supernatural, they should simply acknowledge that it is real since many people experience it as real. The fact that some of us actively experience the supernatural to be imaginary and very much not-real can be safely ignored in the interest of privileging religious experience.

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

The implication that Christianity was the religious experience that should be privileged above all others within the field was made painfully clear during the dinner hosted by BYU. In three events (a Christian prayer; a campus ministry capella group which hoped to convert non-Christian division members; and the final dinner talk in which the speaker railed against non-Christian psychologists throughout the twentieth century, non-Christian moral principles in general, and drug use in Europe, which is a clear, unambiguous indicator of a lack of religious belief in a region) there was a very clear message that non-Christians were not welcome. This was actually news to me, as I have been involved with Division 36 since 2012 and this was the third divisional mid-year conference I’d spoken at. Unfortunately, it was the first time I’d felt deeply unwelcome as an Atheist member of the division. Despite the committee organizing the conference making it clear to BYU that this was not a religious conference, the organizers at BYU ignored this and appeared to go out of their way to make the events they did have control over as hostile to non-Christians as possible, while still maintaining a facade of inclusivity.

Overall, this conference highlighted both the good and bad aspects of our sub-field. The keynote from Dr. Fincham and the symposium lead by Ms. Starks displayed the strides being made towards the rigorous study of the impacts religious and spiritual practices may have on psychological functioning and the arguments we need to have within the field to define the border areas of the natural and supernatural for the purpose of further study. Unfortunately, the sectarian aspects of BYU’s dinner events aimed exclusively towards the Christian attendees showed that we still have a long path ahead. For my part, I’m going to continue going to these mid-year conferences and advocating that those of us who study the psychology of (and/or are) religious/spiritual nonbelievers or non-Christians attend as well.

God’s Mind, Your Mind, and Theory of Mind

Do you believe that unseen forces have the causal power to move physical objects and intervene in everyday human affairs? Of course you do. You are probably like most other humans alive today who effortlessly place great explanatory weight on these hidden forces. However, such unseen forces are not the local forest spirits, or gods in the sky, per se, but as Gervais (2013, p. 380) writes: “These entities are called minds”. Conversely, it just so happens that we attribute to the forest spirit, to the gods, and even to the Christian God (Barrett & Keil, 1996) for example, a mind that has the same conceptual limitations as our own (e.g. being limited in action by both time and space). A core tenet of cognitive science of religion (CSR) is that the folk-psychological ability to explain human behavior in terms of beliefs, desires and intentions – known as theory of mind (ToM) – is also a system that makes us receptive to belief in the supernatural (Banerjee & Bloom, 2013; Gervais, 2013). But why?

In his interview with Thomas Coleman, cultural and evolutionary psychologist Dr. Will Gervais talks about the role that ToM plays in explaining both belief, and nonbelief in supernatural agents. Gervais begins by discussing some of his prior research in the field, and draws salient the various phenomena that falls under the ability, he terms as “mind perception”. Further, he touches on how, and why ToM is an important construct in CSR for explaining god beliefs, and gives the listener insight into how unseen mental states can be measured.* In closing, Gervais answers important questions such as “Is ToM a religion specific system?” and even weighs in on the suggested autism-atheism connection prevalent in CSR.

A short video clip of Heider and Simmel’s classic 1944 experiment mentioned in the podcast can be found here. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, rubber ducks, dandelion seeds, and more.

References

  • Banerjee, K., & Bloom, P. (2013). Would Tarzan believe in God? Conditions for the emergence of religious belief. Trends In Cognitive Sciences, 17(1), 7-8. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2012.11.005
  • Barrett, J., & Keil, F. (1996). Conceptualizing a Nonnatural Entity: Anthropomorphism in God Concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31(3), 219-247. doi:10.1006/cogp.1996.0017
  • Gervais, W. (2013). Perceiving Minds and Gods: How Mind Perception Enables, Constrains, and Is Triggered by Belief in Gods. Perspectives On Psychological Science, 8(4), 380-394. doi:10.1177/1745691613489836

Prayer, Pretense, and Personification: How God becomes real

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

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

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

group_prayer

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

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

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Citations

Halloween Special: Religion’s Role in Terror Management Theory

mm2 When confronted with mortality, humans face the possibility of experiencing a significant amount of terror. Interestingly, many times, people are able to avoid this terror and actually enjoy the mortality themes that are presented. Consider the horror movie industry. To illustrate, Paranormal Activity (Blum & Peli, 2007) brought in $19,617,650 on its opening weekend alone (IMDB, n.d.). Further, consider the timeless horror classics such as Friday the 13th (Geiler & Cunningham, 1980) and Halloween (Hill & Carpenter, 1978) that are full of themes of death. Why do we enjoy these anxiety provoking situations? Research into Terror Management Theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Rosenblatt, Veeder, Kirkland, & Lyon, 1990; Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991) suggests a possible explanation for this perplexing phenomenon. Humans engage in several cultural worldview defense mechanisms when cognizant of their own mortality in order to shield against the terror that is associated with it. More specifically, people observe their worldviews more strongly in order to give themselves a degree of self-purpose to combat the adverse effects that thoughts of their own mortality have on their well-being (Solomon et al., 1991). Further, religion has been found to be a strong buffer for death anxiety because it not only gives people the self-purpose inherent in successful death awareness coping, but it also gives followers a literal immortality in an afterlife (Bos et al, 2012). The following paper describes the role that religion plays in TMT and provides a possible explanation as to why it is able to buffer anxiety.

TMT Overview

Research into TMT is based primarily on the works of Ernest Becker (1962; 1973; 1975) in which a need for self-esteem allows us to think in self-reflective, symbolic, and temporal thought. Although this is evolutionarily adaptive, it also causes several problems associated with this type of thought. For example, humans have the ability to contemplate their purpose in life and reason for existing. Also, people can surmise that the world is an uncontrollable place and that we could cease to exist at any time. More specifically, we can anticipate that we will ultimately die.

In order to shield against the terror that is associated with this idea of the world, humans began to develop a sense of culture that allowed us to see the world as a predictable place of permanence and order. Each culture also provides a way to surmise the creation of this “just” world and a way to achieve immortality by living a life that is good and meaningful. This suggests the importance for self-esteem. Being cultural animals, we can assign a value to ourselves based primarily on whether or not we satisfy the cultural requirements for being good. By increasing our self-esteem, we believe that we are living a meaningful life that is deemed culturally good. Due to this, we can ultimately “deny” mortality and the terror that is associated with it. The denial of this mortality allows us to deny our creatureliness and further allows us to separate ourselves from the social animals that do not possess culture. By believing that we are good, we diminish terror and gain a degree of immortality because we live in a just world (Greenberg et al., 1986).

Religion’s fulfillment of TMT

It is important to note that when discussing religion’s role in TMT, most research has been conducted on Christianity and will thus be the primary subject of the current paper. Of the different worldview defense mechanisms, religion has been found to be very effective in mitigating the death anxiety that mortality salience evokes. When faced with their own mortality, religious people rely on teachings from their faith in order to buffet the negative aspects associated with the perception of death (Bos et al., 2012). For instance, consider the Biblical teachings paramount to Christianity. According to Romans 13:1 (New Revised Standard Version), God is in control of every aspect of life. Considering that God is viewed as a “just God” (2 Thessalonians 1:6, New Revised Standard Version), death anxiety can be mitigated by believing that God is in control of every aspect of life. So long as one believes in God and asks his forgiveness (John 3:16, New Revised Standard Version), the teachings suggest that there is no need to worry about invoking God’s wrath. TMT research corroborates this conjecture. Because the world and God are viewed as just, believers do not worry that they will be punished and therefore gain a figurative degree of symbolic immortality so long as they follow and uphold these beliefs (Greenberg et al., 1986; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, & Schimel, 2004).

5671121397_bc52022026_zPossibly the strongest defense against death anxiety as it relates to religion is the concept of an afterlife. When faced with thoughts of death, religion gives people an alternative to the terror that is associated with nonexistence after death (Pyszczynski et al., 2004). When considering Christianity, Heaven is considered to be a wonderful place where “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” and beautiful “as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2 – 6, New Revised Standard Version). Further, by following the teachings of Christianity, any believer can be part of this kingdom after they have died. Considering that the primary reason that death anxiety manifests is due to the fear of nonexistence (Greenberg et al., 1986), this literal afterlife should successfully mitigate this anxiety. The concept of Heaven allows believers to have a place where they will exist and be rewarded for their good behavior and belief after they have died, ultimately alleviating death anxiety.

One additional consideration regarding religion’s role in TMT is that of belonging. Symbolic immortality can be achieved by being part of something that is perceived as larger than oneself. Simply by identifying with a religion, people are shielded from some of the anxiety associated with death awareness (Pyszczynski et al., 2004). Generally, this sense of belonging is achieved through adherence to the religious tenets suggesting additional importance in following the religious beliefs in order to better shield against death anxiety (Dechesne, Pyszczynski, Arndt, Ransom, Sheldon, van Knippenberg, & Janssen, 2003).

Religious Reinforcement

As has been suggested, religious adherence is a successful method to mitigate death anxiety. Early research in TMT suggests that people react positively when others uphold their cultural worldviews and react negatively when they are violated. Further, this behavior reinforces the person’s worldview belief. Any person or belief that goes against these worldviews are considered a hazard to the belief’s validity and are reacted against negatively (Rosenblatt et al., 1989). Subsequent research on TMT and religion provides increased support for this finding. Christians have been found to react strongly against people and beliefs that go against the basic tenets of the religion. More specifically, they react very defensively against alternate worldviews. This has been postulated to be due to the importance that this religion plays in self-identification (Bos et al., 2012). Due to these defenses, Christians and people in general are more likely to react with hostility to people that hold different worldviews (Greenberg et al., 1990).

Conclusion

In regards to TMT, religion can be used to successfully mitigate the anxiety that is associated with death awareness. Primarily, adherence to the tenets of religion allows the believer to achieve both a symbolic and literal immortality (Bos et al., 2012). This dual function of religion may give one possible explanation as to why some religions are more widespread than others. Perhaps the larger religions provide more anxiety buffering defenses than do the smaller ones by providing more prominent tenets to follow and a more believable afterlife.

References

  • Becker, E. (1962). The birth and death of meaning. New York, New York: Free Press.
  • Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York, New York: Free Press.
  • Becker, E. (1975). Escape from evil. New York, New York: Free Press.
  • Bos, K., Doosje, B., Loseman, A., Laarhoven, D., Veldhuizen, T., & Veldman, J. (2012). On shielding from death as an important but malleable motive of worldview defense: Christian versus Muslim beliefs modulating the self-threat of mortality salience. Social Cognition, 30(6), 778–802.
  • Blum, J. (Producer), & Peli, O. (Director). (2007). Paranormal Activity [Motion Picture]. United States of America: Paramount Pictures
  • Dechesne, M., Pyszczynski, T., Arndt, J., Ransom, S., Sheldon, K., van Knippenberg, A., & Janssen, J. (2003). Literal and symbolic immortality: The effect of evidence of literal immortalityon self-esteem striving in response to mortality salience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 722-737.
  • Geiler, A. (Producer), & Cunningham, N. (Director). (1980). Friday the 13th. United States of America: Paramount Pictures.
  • Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In R.F. Baumeister (Ed.) Public Self and Private Self (p. 189 – 212). New York, New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M., Kirkland, S., & Lyon, D. (1990). Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(2), 308-318.
  • Hill, D. (Producer), & Carpenter, J. (Director). (1978). Halloween. United States: Compass International Pictures.
  • IMDB (n.d.). Paranormal Activity Box Office. Retrieved October 11, 2014. Retrieved from
  • http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1179904/business
  • Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., and Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 435-468.
  • Rosenblatt, A., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., & Lyon, D. (1989). Evidence for terror management theory: I. The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who violate or uphold cultural values. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(4), 681-690.
  • Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T (1991). A terror management theory of social behavior: The psychological functions of self-esteem and cultural worldviews. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 93-159.

Conference Report: International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion (IACSR) 5th Biennial Conference

The RSP would like to thank Christopher Kavanagh for writing the conference report.

For the past few days I attended the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion’s (IACSR) 5th Biennial Conference. The theme this year was focused on addressing the state of the field, 25 years after the cognitive approach to religion (CSR) first appeared (at least in its modern incarnation). I contributed to these efforts by presenting a critical review of the Minimal Counterintuitiveness (MCI) literature, and a short poster that detailed a recoding of a previous study on MCI items in Roman prodigies (Lisdorf, 2001) (for those who may be interested, the recoding reversed the original pattern reported). However, I’m not going to review my own talk (for obvious reasons), nor do I intend to offer a thorough account of the entire conference, instead I’d just like to point out some personal highlights and my impressions of the conference overall.

Justin Lane presenting

‘Justin Lane presenting’ photo by Nora Parren

Unfortunately, at any conference there are times when your energy sags, your attention wanders, or you are preoccupied (such as when you are furiously attempting to make last minute changes to your upcoming presentation). As a result, while I was bodily present for the opening talks and took in the broad strokes of the presentations I feel like I only really got about 70% of the material presented. These talks, however, were perhaps the most important for addressing the state of the field and updating the progress made on various research agendas. The tone overall was positive but, as ever, there were calls for better and more meaningful collaborations to be pursued with our arts and humanities counterparts and an acknowledgement that greater methodological and statistical rigor was required to advance the field. Senior figures, such as Armin Geertz, rather modestly emphasised that the greatest hope for the future of the field lay with the emerging generation of scholars who possess a greater fluency with the firmly established approaches of the humanities and the newer experimental and statistical methods prevalent in modern cognitive research. This was a theme also raised by Ted Slingerland who highlighted the need for culturally bilingual researchers, who would in turn also possess the regional speciality and linguistic competences more often associated with devoted anthropologists or classicists.

Their points were well made and certainly valid however I think established researchers, such as Joseph Bulbulia, who freely admit to coming to statistics later in their careers, also demonstrate that this is a shift that is also occurring in the upper echelons of the field. To what extent it is possible for CSR researchers to bridge the divide with humanities scholars, while simultaneously developing statistical and methodological approaches that are likely to prove alienating to such researchers, is an open question. Personally, while I don’t think CSR researchers should give up on consilience, I think it is also worth looking to cross-cultural psychologists for potentially illuminating collaborations, as the regional specialisation is still there but there is also a shared recognition of the value of quantitative methods. There is no cookie cutter format for successful collaborations but another recurring theme was the need to combine the findings of lab experiments with relevant field research, or at least cross-cultural replications. Dimitris Xygalatas and his collaborators provided successful models for how the two methodologies could be fruitfully combined but such success typically only comes only after many years of preparation and effort.

Photo by Silvie Kotherova

‘Dr. Deb Kelemen presenting’ Photo by Silvie Kotherova

Getting back to the conference itself, while I enjoyed pretty much all of the talks, three that particularly stood out to me were the presentations of Deborah Kelemen, Paul Reddish and Hein Thomas van Schie. Taking each in turn, Deborah Kelemen presented a very polished summary of the evidence to date for a variety of “early developing conceptual biases” many of which have been presented elsewhere as evidence that humans are “born believers”. I have issues with such a characterisation, see this previous blog post for details, but Deborah actually raised the very same point in her talk, noting that many teleological intuitions are not necessarily in-line with any religious doctrine (i.e. monkeys exist to make the jungle more interesting). She also gave ample time to emphasis the importance of methodological rigor: highlighting the necessity of conducting replications and gathering comparable cross-cultural data. As such, there were a lot of interesting results reported during the talk and, while I was familiar with some of the material, I wasn’t aware of just quite how far earlier findings had been followed up on and expanded. It was a welcome surprise and given that Keleman’s work on the teleological bias was some of the first research I came across that got me interested in the CSR, it was a pleasure to hear how things had progressed.

Paul Reddish’s talk covered some of his research on synchrony and also identified some important theoretical and definitional issues that need to be ironed out if the research is to make progress. The fact that ‘synchrony’ can be used to refer to soldiers marching in step, capoeirastas performing in a roda and a barbershop quartet singing a harmony is indicative of the complexity involved with the concept of ‘synchrony’ and Paul strongly urged for a clear typology to be employed in order that more useful comparisons could be made between studies in the future. This point echoed my own summary of the research literature on counterintuitiveness concepts, which has also suffered from the same problem of inconsistent operationalization and idiosyncratic definitions. Still it is heartening that the field is beginning to recognise and address these issues and doing so may result in the reasons for earlier discrepancies in results becoming better understood.

‘Dr. Paulo Sousa’ photo by Silvie Kotherova

Hein Thomas van Schie’s presentation discussed his research into afterlife beliefs, which sought to explore the pervasiveness of intuitive mind-body dualist assumptions about whether mental or biological processes continue after death. His talk complemented Keleman’s presentation very neatly as they both employed a variation of Jesse Bering’s “dead mouse” methodology, previously used to examine children’s intuitions concerning the afterlife. The basic methodology involves respondents reading a scenario in which someone has died (in Bering’s original version this was a mouse eaten by a crocodile) and then asking them various questions to assess whether people consider psychological states or biological needs to be still active. Van Schie’s study expanded the psychological aspects addressed and also added in the twist of varying the pre-death beliefs of the deceased (such as whether they were believers or atheists). This additionally enabled comparisons to be made with regards to whether people judged the afterlife of those with opposing or complementary viewpoints to their own differently. The findings were mixed but provided some evidence that ingroup bias may trump theological convictions as in one study atheists were found to attribute more mental activities to a dead atheist than a dead religious person.

There is much more that could be said about these talks and many other very interesting talks that I have not even mentioned. Predictably the issue of definitions of ‘religion’ came up frequently (it was the core subject of Maurice Bloch’s talk for instance), as did the importance of avoiding being academically pigeon-holed as a fringe. However, personally I think that the majority of researchers (and the field in general) have largely addressed these issues (for instance, by abandoning any claim for a single unitary explanation of ‘religion’). Religion is a tricky and perhaps largely artificial category but I don’t agree with those who say it is not useful. Government is an equally fuzzy concept and can be difficult to meaningfully apply to certain historical contexts and societies but, just like religion, as a conceptual or analytical category it remains useful. In short while there is inevitably room for further development and improvement, the conference itself served to illustrate that people within CSR are taking the need for replications (cross-cultural and otherwise), precise definitions and greater methodological rigor seriously. This is a good thing, and with the growing emphasis on collaboration with other disciplines I remain optimistic for CSRs future.

Christopher Kavanagh

Christopher Kavanagh

Podcasts

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Re-Experiencing Religious Experience

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is RSP Managing Editor, Tommy Coleman.

If I was marooned on a desert island and could only take one book with me I’d pick up my copy of Ann Taves’ David Gordon Wilson’s interview with Taves, entitled Religious Experience. The podcast, which is based on the game changing ideas found in RER, is also special for being our 50th episode. Anyone interested in stepping out the front door of their own discipline will find this podcast, like the book, contains tools for thinking you’d better not leave home without. Additionally, both serve as building blocks to her more recent work on Worldviews and Ways of Life. Have a listen…

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, corkscrews, thermal underwear, and more.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Resonance of Vestigial States

During our “summer break”, various members of the RSP editorial team will be sharing their thoughts on some podcasts from the RSP archive that they think you should listen to (again). Editors’ Picks, if you will. These aren’t necessarily ‘favourites’, but just some podcasts that came to mind that the author has found useful for whatever reason. We hope you enjoy these musings, and that you’ll maybe share some of your own in the comments, on social media, or by sending us an audio or video clip. And we’ll be back with new content on 17 September! Thanks for listening.

Continuing the ‘series’ is RSP stalwart (currently our videos producer), Jonathan Tuckett.

Way back in the early days of the RSP when I did interviews and roundtables I interviewed Naomi Goldenberg on religion as vestigial states. This was also back in the early days of my PhD when I had joined Stirling University and its program of phenomenology“. (Don’t worry this isn’t about phenomenology so much as it is about me).

This was all before I started reading Alfred Schutz who turned my thesis onto an entirely new path and eventually to the heights of “proper phenomenology”. The truth is, back then – when I interviewed Naomi – I couldn’t really say that a I “got” Critical Religion. As David has already explained in his editor’s choice, Timothy Fitzgerald is perhaps the most important scholar of religion of our time for the fact that he has made us change the way we think about religion. But I was stubborn and combative, so I had to come to realise the paradigm shift of Tim’s work by a slightly circuitous route.

And ever since I have made that paradigm shift, ever since I “got” Critical Religion and pronounce myself to be a part of that group, I have returned again and again to Naomi’s work on religion as vestigial states. I’m not saying I fully agree with Naomi’s theory. But the more I develop my proper phenomenology (yes, I am going to hammer that distinction again and again – I am no less stubborn and combative these days), the more I find how similarly my own views on “religion” resonate with hers. And, with potentially fortuitous timing, Naomi will be keynote speaker at this year’s BASR conference so we may well have another interview with her in the near future.

You can listen to the podcast below, view and download from the original post, or find it on iTunes and other podcast providers.

 

Don’t forget about our Patreon appeal – if you can spare even $1 a month we could really do with your support. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, buckets-o-soldiers, sharpies, and more.

Worldviews and Ways of Life

Ann Taves joins us to discuss her work arguing that we should study religions under the broader rubric of “worldviews” and “ways of life”. This ambitious interdisciplinary project aims to place a micro-level analysis of individual worldviews into a broader evolutionary perspective. Through case-studies (including ‘secular’ worldviews like Alcoholics Anonymous alongside more traditional ‘religions’), she explains how worldviews form in response to existential ‘Big Questions’ – here understood as core biological needs and goals, rather than theological or moral concerns – and are enacted in Ways of Life, individually or collectively.

This interview summarizes her Gunning Lectures, delivered at the University of Edinburgh, 19-21 March 2018.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, the classic album Wu-Tang Forever, peanut butter, and more.

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

Worldviews and Ways of Life

Podcast with Ann Taves (21 May 2018).

Interviewed by David G. Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Taves_-_Worldviews_and_Ways_of_Life_1.1

David Robertson (DR): It’s my pleasure to be joined here today by Professor Ann Taves from the Religious Studies Department and the University of California, Santa Barbara. It’s not her first visit to the podcast, but the first full-length interview I think. So this should be interesting. She’s here in Edinburgh to deliver the Gunning Lectures and that’s where the topic of today’s discussion has come from: talking about worldviews and ways of life. So let’s start where we were kind-of already talking before I started recording: a little bit, maybe, about, how did we come to this position? You were asked to write a blog? Is that right?

Ann Taves (AT): Yes. I mean, really the question is: why am I even talking about worldviews and ways of life, or studying religion as worldviews and ways of life? Which was the topic of the Gunning Lectures. And, as we were just talking about before, I was pretty much what I would call an “anti-definitionalist”, when it comes to defining religion for research purposes. Because I think it’s really important that we look at how people understand religion – and other related sorts of terms – on the ground. But I was kind-of forced to make a more constructive move – internally forced – after I was asked to write a blog post on method for the Non-Religion and Secularity Project. And it just struck me that talking about non-religion and religion, without ever specifying any larger category or rubric under which these two items fell, was kind of absurd.

DR: Yes.

AT: So that got me searching for . . . trying to answer the question: what do these two things have in common? And terms like worldviews and ways of life are actually very widely used, as an overarching framework for talking about these things. In fact, Lois Lee’s first objection to the worldviews language was it was too commonplace, and too ordinary.

DR: Yes. And there’s a question, there, why ordinary and commonplace . . . ? That should be fine, really? Maybe that’s part of the Protestant thing that religion should be special and set apart? But . . .

AT: Yes, I think her concern – and I’m putting words in her mouth . . .

DR: Yes. She can respond, if she wants!

AT: Right. I think her concern was actually one that came up in the Q and A after my first lecture. The ease with which everyday definitions of worldviews might get confused with whatever we might want to mean by it, in a more technical sense. And that’s one of our problems with defining religion.

DR: Yes. Very much so.

AT: We construct these technical definitions of what we mean, but then everybody has their meanings on the ground. What I’m arguing with worldviews and ways of life is that we actually can define them in a way that I’m arguing can stabilise them, in a way that we can’t stabilise definitions of religion; that religion is a complex, cultural concept – it simply does not have a stable meaning. But worldviews and ways of life – I think that we can root them in a perspective, and show how the ability to actually generate a worldview is something that humans can do that’s grounded in evolved capacities, basically, that emerge out of all mobile organisms having a way of life.

DR: That’s really interesting. I’m going to get you to take us through some of that – albeit in a truncated way – later on. First though, I think we need to jump back a little bit. (5:00) So, tell us what you mean by worldviews. And you also use this term ways of life.

AT: Yes

DR: Just unpack, for the listeners, a little bit what we mean by these terms.

AT: Well, let me start with worldviews. Basically, there’s a range of scholarship on worldviews. There still is an interdisciplinary group in Belgium and there are scholars and anthropologists such as André Droogers in Amsterdam who’ve been working on this idea of worldviews. And generally, in this literature, they define worldviews in terms of what I would call Big Questions. So the kind of . . . they use fundamental terms that you hear in philosophy. So terms like ontology, cosmology epistemology, anthropology, axiology, and praxeology – those are the big philosophical concepts. But we can translate those into very everyday language.

DR: OK.

AT: So that’s basically how Egil Asprem and I are working to define worldviews: in terms of answers to these six fundamental big questions.

DR: Can you give us a couple of examples of those as questions?

AT: Yes, so the ontology questions would be, “What exists? What’s real?” And the cosmology question would start with the very basic question of either, “Who am I?” or “Who are we?” But it would expand to “Where do we come from?” and “Where are we going?” The anthropology question would be, “What is our situation? What is the situation in which we find ourselves?” It could also then expand to, “What is our nature?” But two really crucial questions . . . . Well, let me just give you all of them. Because in relation to the “What’s real?” and “Who are we?”, “Where are we going?” questions, the next question is the epistemology question: “How do we know that?” And so you get answers from human beings, or science, or revelation – things like that. But then, after the one about our situation would come the question of goals and values. So, “What’s the good, or what’s the goal that we should be striving for?” And then, finally, the big path or action question: “How do we get there?” So we’re arguing that we can use this set of questions to unpack lots of things. From – at a very high level – teachings of a broad tradition, all the way down to how individuals would answer that question.

DR: So there’s a real scalability to this then?

AT: exactly

DR: And so these build into . . . am I understanding correctly, that the responses to these questions become embodied in ways of life? Would that be correct?

AT: Yes. We’re arguing that all mobile organisms, broadly speaking, have what we can think of as a way of life. But the more basic the organism, the more basic the way of life. There’s not going to be any choices. There’s certainly not going to be any mental reflection on ways of life, right? So, ways of life can get more and more complicated. But we see that as one of the ways that we can talk about humans as evolved animals. And we want to stress both continuity and difference. We’re trying to do a “both/and” kind of thing, rather than an “either/or”.

DR: OK

AT: But you were asking then, for humans, how do worldviews relate to ways of life?

DR: Yes. And prior to that, how do the big questions relate to ways of life and worldviews? What’s the direct relationship there?

AT: Yes. Well. We’re distinguishing – and I keep saying we, because Egil Asprem and I have been collaborating on some of this work. We’re talking about modes of worldview expression. And we’re distinguishing between enacted, articulated and recounted worldviews. (10:00) So recounted would include both oral traditions, where things are memorised, and textualised traditions. But before you can get to recounting, we’ve just got articulating a worldview in language. Then, prior to that, we’ve got the fact that they can be enacted without even being articulated. And all these levels can work together and interact. And so, at the enacted level, you’ve basically got implicit worldviews embedded in ways of life. And as researchers we would have to extract or infer answers to big questions, based on people’s actions and behaviour.

DR: So is it with this embodied, recounted level – is that where we start talking about worldviews rather than simply ways of life?

AT: Yes. Yes. So we’re arguing that, basically, you have to have a cultural capacity before you can have a worldview. And so we used a distinction, on the one hand, between natural and cultural affordances that we borrow from ecological psychology, and also a distinction between evolved and cultural schemas, which are a psychological construct for the kinds of representations that we have for things. And the distinction between natural and cultural is that natural affordances, or evolved schemas, are very much . . . there’s a direct relationship between the organism and the environment.

DR: OK.

AT: There’s no mediating possibility for some kind of cultural construct that organisms have agreed upon together. It’s not until we get to humans that – as far as we know – we have those more collective kinds of agreements about things that can be detached from the environment.

DR: So, maybe something like: you think you’ve seen something in the shadows, and you’re frightened – so it might be a schema: there’s an embodied reaction of fear. But that you saw a ghost, you are therefore frightened of ghosts – that’s more of a worldview? Or at least part of a way of life?

AT: Yes. It’s drawing in a cultural schema about ghosts.

DG: A collective cultural schema.

AT: And layering that on top of the evolved schema of when you hear a sound – or, more likely, when you perceive some sort of movement, right? We have an evolved tendency to assume there’s something animate there – something potentially dangerous.

DR: And potentially then, that would also tie into a larger view of the world. Because in order to have ghosts going about, you have to have some sort of notion of survival after death or non-real beings of some sort.

AT: Exactly. Right. So you can expand from that in steps to develop a larger underlying conception of how they would describe what’s real in the world.

DR: Right. And what’s nice about this schema, I think, is that it’s definitely a bottom-up approach to this, rather than top-down. So we’re starting with the most basic kind of responses and then building up to the worldviews from there.

AT: Well, certainly, if you want to start at the level of individual behaviour. But we actually can start in all kinds of places as long – I would argue – as we’re being responsible about the nature of our starting points. I mean as long as we’re up front about that.

DR: Yes.

AT: I think, as you know, I’ve been teaching Comparing Worldviews-type courses, which is an attempt to overcome some of the problems with the world religions paradigm.

DR: Which our listeners should, by now, be very familiar with! (Laughs).

AT: Exactly. That’s why I brought it up in this context, because I figured it might be relevant.

DR: Yes.

AT: But there, starting with a textbook depiction of the teachings of a so-called world religion, (15:00) we can have the students analyse that in terms of the big questions, to give themselves a basic sort-of framework. And I can then analyse or show them, using historical materials, how over time that those answers to the big questions coalesced into some sort of, say, orthodoxy, or some sort of tradition – including looking at the power structures and the authority structures that would make it coalesce into being that. But it doesn’t mean that every individual or all the groups all adhere to that. But we can still start at that level, and use this conception that way, is my point.

DR: How – and the answer to this might just be, “Not at all.” – but how is this in any way related to what Ninian Smart was trying to do, or at least what Ninian Smart said he was trying to do?

AT: Right. No, I think there is a relationship. And I think it’s important to see both what Ninian Smart did that I think is extremely positive, and the limitations of what he did. So the really positive thing is articulating, in a kind of obscure article (that I think more of us ought to be aware of) in which he, basically, argued that we ought to subsume the philosophy of religion under the philosophy of worldviews: the history of religions, in the broad religionsgeschichte sense, under the history of worldviews and the anthropology of religion under an anthropology of worldviews. So sort-of the whole range of methodologies that we tend to use in Religious Studies he saw as part of an expansive conception of Worldviews Studies. And I think that’s really cool.

DR: Yes.

AT: But the limitation is that he never defined what he meant by worldview. And what he did was simply import his six – or later, seven – dimensions of religion from the study of religion to the study of worldviews. And to me that was kind of importing . . . . You know, that was almost a new version of the missionary move – of taking our definition of religion and now applying it to worldviews.

DR: Yes. And the choice of the dimensions, and the relative weighting of them, kind-of speaks to that. So you know, like “texts” is there . . . But also, I’m not sure where exactly, but he certainly states at one point that obviously while we can view all of these things as worldviews, some of them are “more profound than others”. So, implicitly, he’s still making distinctions!

AT: Right. Right.

DR: And, of course, Christianity is going to be right at the top! I mean, I would put money on that.

AT: Right. But part of our move to viewing worldviews and ways of life from an evolutionary perspective is to try to turn that on its head. Because it makes the highly rationalised, highly systematised worldviews that philosophers and theologians are into – and maybe even world religions textbooks – into a very high end product that may, or may not, have that much relationship to everyday life. Or at least it’s a very open question – as scholars of so-called lived religion would argue – to how people live their everyday lives. So part of what we see, working from the bottom up, is a lot of open questions about: how integrated are people’s enacted worldviews? Do they need to articulate them in order to function? Or can an enculturated way of life be perfectly sufficient until it’s challenged in some way, by something or other? Then maybe people have to start to think about it on a need-to-know basis (20:00).

DR: And this is something that really interests me, actually. You said something about this. I think you said that we can see external . . . . What’s the term you used? Schemas. We can see schemas that are external to us, in other societies, very easily. But it’s very difficult to see schemas in our own. Which, obviously, is something that, as scholars, we’re trained to do, and we try and inculcate in our students as well. But I was thinking about . . . I’m very interested in the idea of challenging the idea of belief in the study of religion. I think there’s a lot of stress put on, “This is people’s belief.” And, when you actually look at the data on the ground, people are not consistent in these kind of things. Beliefs are not performative statements which people hold in their brain and then act in accordance to. And, for instance, we have ideas like situational belief, where people will respond differently in different circumstances. And I certainly saw this a lot in my research on New Age and conspiracy theories. That, for instance, people who were suffering from chronic pain will change their position or adopt multiple positions on alternative therapies. They may be the most scientifically-minded person going, but when pain-killers no longer work they’re willing to, subjunctively, entertain the idea that acupuncture, or flower remedies, or something else might work. And then, of course, if those seem to work, they may completely change their worldview.

AT: Or not completely.

DR: So yes. You can see where I’m . . .

AT: Yes. Because they may still be going to a more conventional physician or healer at the same time. So they may, people may actually be able to keep multiple variant implicit worldviews going, without thinking really carefully about the conflicts between them – as long as the conflicts aren’t causing them any problems.

DR: So are we seeing people, then, moving between different schemas? Are they moving between different worldviews, then? Or are we able to negotiate multiple schemas in different contexts?

AT: Yes. I mean I think . . . . Let me answer that a couple of ways. Because, if we think about other animals who would have evolved schemas that would be cued by the environment to elicit certain behaviours in certain situations, then certainly we could think that, at that basic level, we have tons of schemas that get differentially cued by different environmental contexts. Each of those contexts would be a whole situation where we could ask, “What’s the situation in which we find ourselves?” “What’s the goal in this situation?” “What is the means to get the goal?” “What kind of action . . .?” So, in that sense, we could begin to flesh out a micro-worldview, or micro-answers to the big questions, in that context. So part of the thing to keep in mind, I think, is the answers to the big questions don’t have to be super-big sounding! (Laughs).

DR: (Laughs). No, absolutely! Yes!

AT: But at a more human level, I think, another way to think about your question, that again came up at our discussions, was to think about it in relationship to people that are bicultural. And it seems to me that there’s an analogy between the kinds of people dealing with medical problems switching between healing frames, we could call it, that could develop into a whole consistent way of life, but could just be these partial things that people can flip back and forth between. And if we look at bicultural people, they get cued to speak different languages, bring whole different sets of cultural schemas into play when they’re with their relatives, wherever their family came from, or when they’re with their family in their new context.

DR: Interestingly – I didn’t mention this when we were talking about this yesterday (25:00) – but, because I worked in catering for a long time, I’ve known a lot of bicultural people. And several of them have said to me that their personality is slightly different when they’re in the other register. Like, I’ve known a French friend of mine who says she’s much more sarcastic and aggressive with her French family and friends than she is with her Scottish friends, for instance.

AT: Yes, I think that’s really interesting. I mean, in that she’s answering the big question about “Who am I?” With different answers.

DR: Differently.

AT: Yes. And I think we need a language to make sense of that, to explore that. And that’s part of what I see as the power of this approach. It seems to me there’s a whole lot of different directions that we can use it to explore.

DR: Yes. So let’s pursue that then – briefly, I mean. In the Gunning lectures you used the example of the AA quite a lot. And I thought you could, maybe, talk us quite quickly through that – just so the listeners have a real world example to play with. So taking the Alcoholics Anonymous – a group that kind-of . . . you know: a debatable case, an edge case as to whether we’re talking about something that’s religious or not. So let’s see how the model works.

AT: Yes, well that was exactly why I picked it. Because they are adamant that they are not a religion.

DR: Absolutely, yes.

AT: So, alcoholics Anonymous is happy to call itself a spiritual . . . as embodying a spiritual path, or a spiritual way of life. They actually use the way of life kind of language, or call themselves a fellowship. So that was why I picked them. Plus, I know a fair amount about them – so it seemed like an example I could spell out.

DR: Yes. That helps!

AT: Yes. So part of what I did in the first lecture was just to show the variety of ways that we can analyse it. So in the first lecture I talked about it at the sort-of high level of itself as a group with official documents, you know, describing who they are collectively. And so I used the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions, which are their core defining documents, to analyse how as an organisation they would officially answer the big questions. They don’t officially answer the big questions, but how we can tease out their answers to the big questions based on their official documents.

DR: OK

AT: And then I indicated that we could look, we could take that analysis in two directions. We could compare it to other groups in the culture to help us better understand how they were trying to position themselves, and why they wanted to insist they were not a religion. And it’s basically because they wanted to argue that their path is compatible with any religion or none at all. But then the other thing that I showed is how we can look at subgroups within AA, or individual narratives within AA, and examine the extent to which they buy the official conception that this is a generic spiritual path. And so I alluded to some of the different commentaries: feminist, Native American, Buddhist, Vedanta – you know. There’s all these different attempts to translate the Twelve Steps into other religious or spiritual terms.

DR: Yes.

AT: So that’s the kind of thing that I was looking at in the first lecture: some of the big picture things we could do. Then in the second lecture, when I looked at the evolutionary perspective, or foundations of worldviews, I used the kind of layered approach – developing the idea that we have these evolved schemas, and also internalised cultural schemas, that can lead us to act very quickly without thinking about it – to tease apart Bill Wilson – one of the Founders of AA – what he would describe as the sort of drinkers’ dilemma, which is that they can make this conscious choice to quit drinking and then have that immediately undermined when somebody hands them a drink (30:00). And so I use that to differentiate between an enacted way of life which is, “I’m an alcoholic”, and an articulated way of life, which is, “I’m going to quit drinking and I have the willpower to do it”.

DR: Yes.

AT: In the last lecture I looked at the emergence of AA and the transformation of the alcoholic as processes of change, both of groups and of individuals. And so I used this kind of analysis to analyse sort-of the before and after, and the transition from one way of life to another.

DR: We’re getting towards time, now. So let’s switch to the bigger questions. So, we’re talking about maybe the idea of subsuming RS under a broader umbrella of worldviews and stuff – where we started. But why is this so important now? What . . . ? This has some strong resonances with the field, and issues within the field generally, I think. And it would be good to speak to that, briefly.

AT: I think I’m frustrated with the field on a couple of levels. I’m frustrated with what strikes me as a continuing spinning of our wheels when it comes to critique. We’re very good at critiquing and identifying all the problems with the concept of religion. But I don’t see that much effort being put into solving the problems. And too often I see the potential solutions, including this one, being shut down because it might undermine our departments, and so-to-speak our way of life. So even if it might be more responsible intellectually, more consistent intellectually, we want to safeguard our way of life and therefore we’re not going to go there, and we’re going to continue to spin our wheels conceptually. I find that really frustrating – although I certainly understand why we might want to protect our way of life. The other frustration, for me, is the kind of polarisation between people that are deeply committed to a humanistic approach to the study of religion and people that are trying to approach it from a more scientific or cognitive scientific point of view. And I really see myself as trying to bridge between those two. And I strongly would argue for the value of both approaches. It’s not an either/or kind of thing. So, taken together, this kind of approach that I’m talking about is designed, one: to offer a constructive kind-of option to get us beyond just critique, and second: to bridge between the humanistic and the scientific approaches. So I’d just like to see more of us engaging in both bridge-building and trying to solve some of our problems.

DR: Yes. And we at the Religious Studies Project . . . those are two issues that we – well, certainly the former: moving beyond critique is something that we’ve taken quite seriously. And the interdisciplinary . . . I mean, we feature a lot of psychology and cognitive people on. But proper interdisciplinary work that builds on both sides equally is rare. But it’s also challenging to do, I think. This is may be a legacy of the way that the field’s construed. We’re already . . . you know, I’ve had to learn Sociology and History as methodologies, just in a standard RS context. So, then, to start building in Psychology and Cognitive Studies, you know – it’s big ask!

AT: I totally agree. It is a big ask. And I’ve been motivated to do it because I find it really fascinating. So if people don’t have any kind of internal curiosity driving them to do it, then you know it’s probably going to be pretty tough (35:00). But, on the other hand, people could be more open to those who are interested in doing it. But the second thing that I think we need to be really aware of is that people in the sciences tend to work collaboratively and people in the humanities tend to be single-author type folks.

DR: Yes.

AT: And so, the more of this kind of bridge-building work I’ve tried to do, the more I’ve been collaborating. So, just in this conversation, I’ve been mentioning Egil Asprem. I’ve been working with him on this worldviews and ways of life stuff, but when we decided to work out some of these ideas for a psychology journal we enlisted a psychologist as a third author. And we’re also working on a another paper that I’m going to be giving in an evolution of religion conference, where I’m going to argue about: why are we talking about the evolution of religion? Shouldn’t we be talking about the evolution of worldviews and ways of life? But, anyway, we’re enlisting an evolutionary psychologist as a third author on that paper. So, I want to have that kind of collaborative input so that I’m more confident that the ways that we’re pushing these ideas makes sense to people who are deeply invested in those particular fields. So it’s one thing to kind-of sketch a big picture, but it’s another to present it with the kind of detail that the people specialising in that area would want to have.

DR: Absolutely. And, you know, I know this myself from the limited amount of collaboration I’ve had in terms of working with conspiracy theory scholars. Because, as someone trained in Religious Studies, I’m kind of a minority there. Probably 50% of them are psychologists and maybe 30% are political science – so very different methodologies. But very clear that the next stage in the scholarship needs to take the humanities’ critiques, and analyses, and understanding of terms together with the kind of data-generating ability, and the quantitative analysis that they can do. And so, yes, I think there’s a very timely call. And it’s probably a good place to leave, on that kind-of rousing call to action!

AT: Yes.

DR: So I’m just going to say – thanks so much for joining us today, Ann. Thank you.

Citation Info: Taves, Ann, and David G. Robertson. 2018. “Worldviews and Ways of Life”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 21 May 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 May 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/worldviews-and-ways-of-life/

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Witchcraft in Rural Slovenia

In this podcast, professor Mirjam Mencej talks about contemporary witchcraft in Styria region in rural Eastern Slovenia. Based on her ethnographic fieldwork in the area, Mencej describes witchcraft from a variety of angles, from psychological to anthropological and historical, providing a detailed understanding of witchcraft as part of the lived social reality of the community. In what kind of situations are witchcraft narratives evoked? What makes them effective? Who could gain the reputation of being a witch and why? Mencej also describes the role of the ‘unwitcher’, a person who had the power to counter bewitchment and detect the witch responsible.

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


Podcast with Mirjam Mencej 

Interviewed by Hannah Lehtinen

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Hannah Lehtinen (HL): So, welcome to the Religious Studies Project. My name is Hannah Lehtinen and we are currently in Turku. It’s early morning and it’s relatively cloudy.And with me is Mirjam Mencej from the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. And she is the Professor of Folklore Studies at the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology there. And her accomplishments include, but are not limited to, numerous articles and six published monographs on various topics related to vernacular religion, folklore and witchcraft, which is what we’ll be discussing here today. Professor Mencej’s latest volume, which will be out later this year, is called Styrian Witches in European Perspective. It’s based on her ethnographical work in the rural areas of Eastern Slovenia and it deals with witchcraft from a variety of angles. So welcome, Mirjam. It’s great to have you here today.

Mirjam Mencej (MM): Good Morning. Thank you for inviting me.

HL: So, we might just begin with, witchcraft. As we saw yesterday, the lecture was a huge success.

MM: Thank you

HL: But witchcraft probably brings up lots of different images and ideas of what we are exactly dealing with. How would you define witchcraft, in the context of your own work?

MM: Well first, let me answer the first part of your question. Indeed witchcraft, nowadays, appears in many guises. It has become a commodity, really. Witches flood the movies, the internet, the journals, the books – even cook books! Women dress up as witches to partake in Halloween parties. And, actually, it has become a trademark of radical feminism, etc. But all these witchcrafts have nothing to do with what traditional witchcraft is about, which I actually researched in this Styrian area of Slovenia and lectured on yesterday. Traditional witchcraft was typically set in more-or-less, small-scale, close-knit, face-to-face agricultural communities. And witchcraft, in fact, served as an explanation of misfortune: interpreting the source of personal misfortunes as the consequence of another’s malevolent agency. So the basic premise in witchcraft, is that the origin of misfortune is social. And the person responsible for misfortune is understood to be the witch. Now, when misfortune occurs, people usually seek culprits amongst their close neighbours or immediate vicinity, their immediate environment. And especially close neighbours were particularly feared in this regard. In most ethnographic areas, sometimes, also foreigners feature in witchcraft, but this is much less typical than the neighbours – particularly close neighbours. And it was, basically, their envy that was particularly feared. And, actually, they represented a constant threat of possible misfortune.

HL: Yes. And how did you end up studying witchcraft, actually?

MM: This was more-or-less by accident! In summer 2000 I arrived with a group of my students to a [rural region] in Slovenian Styria. I mean, Styria is a wider region, really, and this was a part of the Styrian region. (5:00) And our aim was to conduct fieldwork in order to help the local institutions’ mission to promote local heritage, really. So, what I hoped for was, basically, the etiological legends, related to some features or plants, or caves or some buildings in the region, etc. Yet, knowing that these kinds of legends tend to be rarer than the so-called belief narratives or belief legends, I also instructed my students to ask about witchcraft, the dead , and the supernatural in general. Now when the groups met, in the evening, to share the results of their first day of fieldwork – and also all the following evenings – one thing became clear: that the topic in the region was actually witchcraft. And so after that, we just continued to focus on witchcraft. And actually, really encountered plenty of people who still believed in witchcraft, and some even still practised witchcraft – although we never witnessed any of these practices. But, obviously, some people still buried bones or eggs on their neighbours’ property in order to do them harm. And some people even still understood witchcraft as an institution – actually they relied on witchcraft as an institution, explaining the misfortunes that befell them.

HL: Exactly. And this area, where you were conducting your study, could you describe it a little bit. It’s very remote?

MM: Yes. Actually this is a very remote area, with poor transport connections. The farms are small – the land divided into small parcels. And the people mainly engage in subsistence agriculture. Our interlocutors were mainly old people, because mostly older people lived there. Because most of the younger generation just moved into the cities or usually migrated somewhere. And, in fact, this is the region that is – in the frames of Slovenia – still a synonym for backwardness, and remoteness, and poverty, really. But the region where we were doing fieldwork was even more impoverished until the ‘70s. The ’70s brought some changes into the life of the population, for instance: electricity and water supply became available to more households than before; many houses were rebuilt; free medical care became available even to farmers; and several factories and tourism facilities were established at the periphery of the region – this actually offered some job opportunities to people living in the region, which consequently triggered daily migrations of part of the population; and also the improvement of the roads and transport facilities.Better roads also allowed for the use of tractors, which improved agricultural yields, etc. This was also the time when television started to make its way into rural households. And all these changes consequently triggered the loosening of the bonds of close communities and changed the social life in the villages. Now in our area, the key setting for the communication of witchcraft narratives, and also the basic context in which theses narratives were narrated and evaluated, was always “shared work”: the time when people gathered together in this or that house to shell beans, or pluck feathers, husk corn and do similar work. And with these economic changes and other changes like television etc, this basic setting was over. There was no such thing as common work in the evenings. And this, consequently, actually caused the witchcraft discourse to start losing its adherence and communal support. So, people did not have this framework anymore within which they could discuss witchcraft. I mean, they obviously still managed to find ways to tell narratives about witchcraft and even to practise some sort of magical practices, (10:00) but this basic setting was over, and they could not talk publicly about it as they used to do.

HL: So it wasn’t quite as accepted anymore, perhaps, as an explanation?

MM: Not generally accepted. They definitely were still able to talk about it within the family circles, or with some of the neighbours that still believed in witchcraft, but it was not an overt practice to discuss it anymore.

HL: So when you said that witchcraft sort-of struck you, when you were doing the fieldwork, as something really to focus on . . . . Did people talk about it very openly, or was there some reservation?

MM: No, generally people . . . yes. Generally, they had no problems talking about witchcraft overtly, although some did use . . . some did try to, somehow, hide their beliefs from me or the students – at least at the beginning of the interview. They would often start talking about witchcraft like: “No, I never heard about witchcraft! I don’t believe in witchcraft”, and similar. But then, after a while, they would just tell you a great story about their own involvement in witchcraft, or their discovery of bewitched items or their visit to a fortune-teller, who acted as an unwitcher inthe region, and so on. You know, like Jeanne Favret-Saada, who wrote a fascinating book on French witchcraft, understands this as a kind of reconciliation between their witchcraft discourse and the assumed rational discourse of the researcher . . . as a way to reconcile these two, at least at the beginning. There was no problem, really. It was quite a topic that croppeed up more-or-less by itself. We didn’t really expect it to be there or to find it.

HL: We already touched upon this, but perhaps again: how would you define witchcraft, in this context? What is it? And what is a witch?

MM: Well as I said, basically, the answer you would get from anthropological research, would be: “a witch is a person who is considered to be doing . . . to use some supernatural means to do harm to others. So, basically, the idea is witchcraft is a social thing: the origin of witchcraft is social. If a misfortune befalls you, basically there is a human being – usually from the same community – that is supposed to have caused it, right? But in fact, I actually defined in my book various layers of witchcraft and various types of witches. And I think one should actually pay attention, during the research, to different types of witches. Because, if you don’t, the answers can be a bit confusing. Basically, I would say, there is this social layer of witchcraft that anthropologists often research. But within it one could actually distinguish between a “neighbourhood witch” – I call it a neighbourhood witch, some would probably call it a social witch – and the “village witch”, that some researchers called the “scapegoat witch”. Now there is a difference between these two. The neighbourhood witch was mostly blamed for the misfortune that befell the neighbour. So, you assumed your neighbour caused the misfortune that befell you by either, for instance, burying bones or eggs on your property or by praising your child, or your livestock – there are various modes of bewitching, I can discuss this later, perhaps – but on the other hand, the village witch was not necessarily blamed for any misfortune, although some village witches, of course, get a reputation based on the general consensus of their harmful activities (15:00) – usually born out of envy – which is typical for the neighbourhood witch. But also, [there are] other reasons that have nothing to do with this accusation of causing misfortunes and are more or less related to some stereotypical notions about a witch, like: if she looked ugly, unkempt or old, of course, this already was a strong sign that she could be a witch. Or, moreover, if she behaved quarrelsome, if she quarrelled a lot, if she was inquisitive, this was even more likely to cause a reputation. If the family in which . . . . Well, if her family was proclaimed to be related to witchcraft, like for instance, if her mother already had such a reputation, the reputation was likely passed over to her daughter. Because it was also generally believed that a mother transmits her knowledge to her daughter. Or, if her father owned magic books, or a magic book – and it was usually men who were believed to have these books – his daughter would also kind-of inherit such a reputation. And sometimes they would even judge about who the village witch is, according to the way she died. So a person could acquire a reputation even after her death. Like [if] something unusual happened during the funeral, she was likely[to be] recognised as a witch afterwards. Or also, any extra knowledge – something that others would not know, but she allegedly knew – likely, also, could cause a reputation. So this was a social layer of witchcraft. But there was another layer, which I would tentatively call a “supernatural layer”, that anthropologists often skipped from their research. And it was also not always necessarily present in the regions where the fieldwork was done. These are witches that I call “night witches” because they usually appear at night, often in the shape of some flickering lights, sometimes invisible, and usually causing people to lose their orientation, to get totally disoriented in the forest and to get lost. Often, the same deeds and the same shapes and appearances are referred to: fairies, or the souls of the dead, or any other supernatural entities within European folklore. Anyway, in our region, they were always called witches. And while they had no. . . they did not do any economic damage, they were still blamed for misfortune of another type: they caused people to lose their way, to spend the night in the forest. And sometimes, subsequently, they were recognised as a certain person from the community. Not always, but sometimes people would say, “Yes, I recognised those witches that looked like lights” – it’s always plural – “during the night”. And the next day they would scold them or threaten them. So there are differences. There are differences in the discourses between these social and supernatural layers; there are differences in the manner of protection and the attitudes towards the different witches; also the attitude toward the neighbourhood and the village witch was different, right? So [there are] many differences, and yet people would talk about these witches in the same breath. If you asked them about witches, they could either answer with the response that referred to neighbourhood, village, or night witches.

HL: Well it seems pretty obvious – from general depictions of witches, and also from what you’re saying – that witches were often considered to be women, or it was to do with women?

MM: Yes. Actually, in our region, it was mostly women, except for, basically, one category of village witch which also encountered men. (20:00) As I said, those men basically that possessed – or allegedly possessed, because one couldn’t check, right? – the magic book. They were mostly men. And men could sometimes appear as witches, also, when they severely transgressed social norms, like in the case of blasphemy or cursing and drinking heavily. But this was really seldom. Mostly, it was women.

HL: Can you think up any reasons why it would be?

MM: Well, actually, this is quite historic. This has historical roots. Women were always related to witchcraft. This idea that women were connected to, well, night and moon, but also to magic, are ideas that spread up already in antiquity. So there is a strong connection in this notion in traditional ideas, I would say. But also during the witch trials, several historians pointed out that women were often regarded as somehow more prone to be able to be seduced by a devil, they were weaker, and well, actually, all theses accusations somehow reflected the misogyny of the period, right? Also, women were often proclaimed witches when they were old and when they were in the period of menopause, which was related to the idea about menstruation: that, while they still have their menstruation they can kind-of purify themselves and, afterwards, they could not do that any more. So these bad fluids just prevailed in their bodies. And there are many reasons, of course. Widows and unmarried women were among the first targets of accusation, also. One [reason was] because their status was unclear and, in the early modern period, the idea about a woman was to be married, to have a man by their side, this strong patriarchal approach to looking at the role of women in society. And, on the other hand, it was also their weaker position in this case: they had no social . . . they did not have a husband who would perhaps protect them, in this regard, against the gossip, against the accusations.

HL: Exactly. So these witchcraft accusations could also act as a very powerful tool for social control.

MM: Oh definitely, yes. Actually, the narratives themselves acted as a form of social control. People tried to behave in a way that they could not possibly be accused of witchcraft. So, yes, definitely this is one way to look at witchcraft.

HL: Another interesting category that you bring up in your work is the so-called “unwitchers”. So could you tell us a little bit about them, and how they belong into this dynamic of the witchcraft discourse?

MM: Yes well, unwitchers, or some would probably call them “counter-witches”, or “unbewitchers”, were an important figure in this triangle of victim, witch and unwitcher. In our region, it was fortune-tellers that acted as unwitchers in the sense that they could counteract the bewitchment, and act in the direction to identify the witch responsible for the misfortune. (25:00) Now, the people would usually [approach] unwitchers [if it was] the case that many misfortunes happened in very different areas of their life, or household etc. And unwitchers would, actually, first . . . well the first step in their procedure would usually be to proclaim the misfortune as a result of witchcraft. And in further steps they would usually try to annihilate the bewitchment by various instructions that they gave to their clients, and to identify the witch. Because the identification was crucial in this regard. It allowed the client to face their opponents, to materialise something that was abstract, beforehand. And, in the end, they also offered a possibility of the redirection of this bewitchment, or the evil, back to its source, which, of course, people usually didn’t like to accept. Well, basically, in my book I argued that the main role of unwitchers was in helping, especially women, to . . . well, one thing was to help them in times of economic insecurity, when their household were not prospering. But the basic thing was to help women maintain their social position in times when it was endangered. Because women were basically evaluated according to their work: how they managed to do the household works; were they successful in this regard? And if they were not, their social position was strongly threatened and in this case they actually needed, I think – at least in our region, that’s the way I understood the situation – they needed the unwitchers to help them transpose or relocate the blame from themselves to the outside witch, or to somebody else and thus help them maintain their social position. Because it was not them that was to be blamed for the misfortunes that befell the household, but some outsider coming from the other household – coming from usually the same community, but not from within the household.

HL: So, identifying some kind of enemy, or some kind of cause, from the outside was very crucial?

MM: Exactly, yes.

HL: We already mentioned that if, for example, the livestock or in some other way the livelihood was endangered, this would be one reason to suspect witchcraft. Could you mention some other cases or situations where this witchcraft discourse, or the accusations of witchcraft, even could be invoked?

MM: Well, the main targets of bewitchment in our region, were livestock, really. Now this is a different situation than the one I encountered in Bosnia – where I just recently did three months’ fieldwork – when witchcraft is mostly directed against people, against their wellbeing and health and jobs etc. In our region, it was really mostly livestock – sometimes small children, but basically livestock – that were the main target of bewitchment. But, of course, there were other situations where people could use the witchcraft discourse to their benefit. And it was not necessarily related to their personal belief in the proposition. Many, many situations, many circumstances, could . . . . In many circumstances, witchcraft discourse could be used for people to save face, for instance, or to give an acceptable explanation to the family, or to the community at large. And I can just give you some examples, for instance, a young man was unable to work, to find a job, to search for a job. A young man who, actually, withdrew himself from society and was probably suffering some sort of depression or perhaps some mental illness.(30:00) The explanation , in terms of witchcraft, was actually a suitable explanation at hand for a family to give to the community at large which, probably not understanding the depression as a serious mental state, would proclaim him an idler or perhaps even blame his family for a failed upbringing. And, on the other hand, this helped the family to cope with the situation, to understand and to accept their son’s position. Also, for instance, when marital quarrels appeared, when a couple quarrelled and suddenly. . . and then one story told by a certain interlocutor . . . . Suddenly, when a woman threw her husband out of bed, she said, “at that moment I saw a toad under the bed. And I trampled her, I destroyed her and the next day I saw a woman in the village who lost her leg just at the same time.” Now this is how they recognised that it was that woman that was transformed into the toad and this was a general notion in our region that witches can either transform into toads, or sand toads. Actually, she recognised the witch that transformed into a toad by her losing a leg in the same moment. And there are many such circumstances that actually allowed people to use the witchcraft discourse, especially when they’d transgressed social norms., you know: having spent a night in the forest after a night drinking, you could just say, “Night witches carried me away so I couldn’t find the way out of the forest”; or, it could be a cover up for sexual relationships that were illicit; or it could just be flat sexual fantasies sometimes; or, I don’t know, it was also used as an education means in the upbringing of children, you know, walking into dangerous areas at night; or to prevent people from doing illicit things in the night, like meeting other men and wives. It could even be invoked by workers who wanted to stop work during the night, you know at 2am – I guess everybody would propose to stop working already – and they could just invoke this idea about witches: “No, I’m going to go home now, because otherwise witches will come . . . ” etc. So there were many opportunities for the use of witchcraft discourse. And this was not really related to one’s belief or disbelief in the proposition, and they were not also used intentionally in order to manipulate other people’s opinion, but acted more like a spontaneous act, based on the habitus, really. Of course, it could be used to manipulate public opinion [as well], especially if they gossip with others. Like, I was told that this witchcraft accusation often occurred when a son of a wealthy family wanted to marry a woman from a poor family. In this case the mother of that woman was often proclaimed to be a witch, you know, who made some witchcraft in order for the son of the wealthy family to fall in love with this poor girl. Bribery is another case, of course, and an accusation of witchcraft could also redefine the social position, lower the social prestige of a certain person.

HL: Yes. So there are very various ways that you can use it.

MM: Definitely.

HL: Did you, when you were conducting this work – I understood that people talked about these experiences – but did you ever speak with a witch? Or anyone who would admit using witchcraft? Or who knew, at least, that they were [accused] of witchcraft?

MM: (35:00) Well, nobody would ever admit that they used witchcraft. There is no such thing, you know. If they admitted that they used witchcraft this would immediately ruin their social position, probably forever, right?

HL: Yes.

MM: Of course, I could sometimes realise that some people did indeed practice some sort of magic practices. Like – one thing that I mentioned before was burying objects, usually eggs or bones on a neighbour’s property. And, while they would never admit that they buried a certain object on their neighbour’s property, they did sometimes admit that they buried it as a response for the buried object they found in their property. They assumed that it came from a certain neighbour, with whom they were probably in some conflict or tense relationships, and they just threw it back to their property, or buried it back on their property. So, obviously, something was going on. But I only received several admissions of this kind and never as being the first perpetrator, but always as a response to the act that was done before. Anyway, I did also hear about several people, several women, that had a reputation for being a witch in the community, and I did interview them. And I tried to make them tell me that they were aware of their reputation. But I was never successful. Nobody actually ever admitted that they knew about their reputation, and I’m not really sure if they knew or not. I often got an impression that they didn’t. But I do not dare declaim, because it’s a difficult thing, I guess, to admit that people treat you as the witch, right? Well I heard, also, about some circumstances in which people overtly told some women in the community that they were a witch – like, especially when they were drunk, you know, they would just tell them to their face, “You’re a witch!” or something. Otherwise, generally, they would try to avoid blaming directly because, if it was a village witch they feared that she would take revenge and do some witchcraft, and if it was a neighbourhood witch they always said, “Well, you never know, you can never be sure, you can suspect this or that neighbour, but you can never be sure, because you never actually saw them doing some bewitching.” So, they never really dared to blame them overtly.

HL: It also brings to mind, perhaps – especially with this neighbourhood witch case – if you would blame directly, wouldn’t that maybe take away from the functioning of the accusation dynamic? Because if you blame directly, perhaps, then it can be disputed more easily, or refuted, that this is not the case.

MM: Oh yes. You’re right.

HL: It could change the dynamics of how the accusations work.

MM: Yes. It could, yes. In one way it could. But also you know, you’d be in the position of the accuser. And yes, if you did not get the public support in this case, right, you could end up – perhaps not as a witch – but you could end up with your social position, again, being lowered because you did something that you were not supposed to do. And if you did not have any proofs of their bewitching activities then, how could you do it?

HL: And the evidence would be difficult to produce, so that would be a high risk thing to do.

MM: Yes

HL: Exactly. So, I understand that there are no unwitchers in the region anymore. So, it was simply in the stories . . . about . . . ?

MM: Well, you see, there was a very famous unwitching family that provided services for people in this region. And this family – well the starter of the family’s business was a certain woman who was born at the beginning of the 19th -century. (40:00) And then the profession was continued by her son. And after her son died, during World War II, it was continued by his widow. And that last in line, of these famous fortune-tellers, actually died at the beginning of the ’80s. I was lucky to find her grandson, who actually lived with her when he was a child, and observed her working. But anyway, he told me that already in the ’70s she started losing her clients. That her job . . . . She had no job any more at the end of the ’70s, and at the beginning of the ’80s she died. So, basically, there are no traditional unwitchers in the region any more. I know that there was another unwitcher who was practising, offering similar services to the clients, living quite nearby. But, obviously, she did not use the same discourse. She did not continue to work on counteracting witches – instead she used the term enemy, which is much more generalised idea. So, I guess, she was able to continue with this work and she focussed much more on fortune-telling in general, not unwitching procedure as such. But of course, nowadays, people can just turn to New Age therapists, which are often, especially, in bigger cities and communities. And they actually do this nowadays. They actually go to New Age therapists. I’m not sure about people from my region: I did not ask them about that. But I, actually, recently conducted an interview with a woman – an educated woman, an intelligent woman – living quite close to this region, who actually experienced the same type of bewitchment, obviously, as was generally proclaimed to be the main sort of bewitchment in our region. That was – she kept finding eggs buried in her property. And she, indeed, turned to a New Age therapist. This was a Taoist therapist, or dealing with Taoist chrystal therapy and, you know, she helped her clients with some angels’ blessing, did angel therapy etc. So it was not a traditional unwitcher but a New Age therapist, who, in a way, took over the work of traditional unwitchers.

HL: So, was the procedure the same, or. . . ?

MM: In fact it was very similar, in many regards. But there were also differences in her discourse, in relation to the unwitcher’s discourse. Well, first she would admit, just like traditional unwitchers, that – not admit but confirm – that something “was done”, which was a typical discursive expression, in the region, that related to bewitchment, really: that somebody bewitched you, in a way. Although, she definitely denied the involvement of witchcraft. So she said, “There is no such thing as witchcraft.” Anyway, she confirmed that this was done by a certain person who wishes bad to the woman that I had an interview with, and she also tried to annihilate the bewitchment – now it should be “bewitchment” in inverted commas, right?- she gave her some angels’ blessings, in order to annihilate the harm that was being done. But the basic difference is that of trying to help the client identify their witch, which was a really crucial thing in the traditional therapy, the traditional unwitchers procedure: she actually redirected the blame from the outside to one’s own body and mind, within. So, actually, she said, “We should not condemn anyone, you know? It doesn’t matter. There are people . . . ” she vaguely admitted there are people who wish us bad, or who are envious etc, but basically she redirected the blame to ourselves. (45:00) So it is us who have to – actually, it is that woman I mentioned, but I can say generally “us” – we have to purify ourselves, we have to meditate, we have to strengthen our energy etc, and when we do that, no one can blame us any more. So there is just a basic difference, I think that, you know, from finding and searching for the perpetrator on the outside, and finding the “witch” inside within us. That’s the change in this New Age discourse. And, of course, I think it’s got a lot to do with the changes also that happened in Western neoliberal society, where we are actually encouraged to think of our own lives, our own wellbeing, as something that is entirely under our own control, right? It’s ourselves who are responsible for this. And it’s entirely in our hands. We have to look at our own lives as an artistic product or an enterprise, right? We cannot absolutely obtain relief anymore by blaming someone on the outside for our failures.We have become trained to search for the one who is to blame for any misfortune that befell us, in ourselves.

HL: Yes. That’s . . . . So that would be this kind-of: on the one hand it continues, but it changes shape?

MM: It adopts to the demands of this neoliberal capitalistic society that we live in nowadays, right?

HL: Yes.

MM: But basically its the same thing. You can call it witchcraft, or you cannot call it witchcraft, basically. It’s just the transformation, it’s adaptation. But basically, its a continuation.

HL: Thank you. This has been very interesting.

MM: Thank you. You’re welcome.

HL: Thank you for joining us today.

MM: Thank you.


Citation Info: Mencej, Mirjam 2017. “Witchcraft in Rural Slovenia”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 15 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 11 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/witchcraft-in-rural-slovenia/

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New Horizons in the Sociology of Religion: Beyond Secularization?

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

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

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

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

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

Embodied religious practices, child psychology and cognitive neuroscience

embodimentIn this interview, Brock Bahler, visiting assistant professor in Religious studies at the University of Pittsburgh, talks about his research on cognitive neuroscience, child psychology and embodied religious practices. Through the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, Descartes, and Levinas on the relationship between the mind and the body, Bahler discusses the notion of ritual as a locus of power in terms of structure and agency. His recent book, Childlike Peace in Levinas and Merleau-Ponty: Intersubjectivity as a Dialectical Spiral (Lexington Books, forthcoming) focuses on neuroscience to grasp the topic power relations at the confluence of religion and other social influences on one’s trajectories. As such, Bahler examines, with a “phenomenological twist”, what rituals do in terms of education, psychology, and subjectivity.

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

Method and Theory in the Cognitive Sciences of Religion

podcast with the Religious Studies Project in 2014, Dr. Robert McCauley gave an overview of some of these processes cognitive scientists appeal to in accounting for religion (e.g., agent detection, theory of mind), as well as a 2015 North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) conference (and thanks to their support), McCauley discusses methodological and theoretical issues within CSR. He begins by tackling the topic of “naturalism” vs. “supernaturalism” in explaining religion, moving on to how these explanations function at different levels of analysis and integration. In closing, McCauley discusses the relationship between the humanities and the sciences, some successful and not so successful CSR theories, and the interplay between explanations emphasizing cognition and culture.

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

Mysticism, Spirituality, and Boats at the IAPR 2015 World Congress

The International Association for the Psychology of Religion (IAPR) 2015 World Congress was held on August 17th-20th. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Alex Uzdavines, a PhD student at Case Western Reserve University.

It’d be too much to say that I finally “get” horizontal transcendence (Coleman, Silver, & Hood, In Press), but I certainly got a horizontally transcendent experience at the IAPR 2015 World Congress in Istanbul, Turkey. Obviously, I was on a boat. It might have been related to the truly international collection of researchers discussing fascinating things (shop talk and otherwise) while enjoying a flagrantly stunning day on the  Bosphorous. Although on reflection, the sea-sickness meds probably didn’t hurt. Regardless, there were several points along the way where I found myself disconnected, floating for a moment in a sense of overwhelming peace and happiness. Of course, I might have also been primed for this experience by a symposium the day before, which stuck (and has continued to stick) in my mind.

 Jesper Sørensen presenting.

Jesper Sørensen

One could almost describe the first invited symposium of the conference, organized by Heinz Streib, as magical, although not the kind I usually deal with. Magic, Mysticism, Spirituality: Religion’s Fellow Species delivered exactly what was promised, as series of interesting talks on areas which are both components of and discreet from religion more broadly. After an introduction by Dr. Streib which outlined both the usefulness and problems with using prototypical categories like the ones dealt with in the symposium, Jesper Sørensen outlined his work in fractioning the idea of magic. He discussed both the discreet components of what it is (people have a goal with doing it, the causal mechanism is opaque, ritualized, etc.) and that before we can synthesize these components together to study magic as a whole, we need to develop and explore hypotheses about the discreet components. For instance, when thinking about ritual behavior one component might be a need to negate strong causal expectations or develop weak ones. He used the ritual of Christian Communion as an example, “There’s no intuitive schema for why eating bread leads to grace,” but the ritual surrounding the cracker consumption develops a causal link where there otherwise might not be one. For me, this discussion highlighted the furor surrounding the desecration of a communion wafer by PZ Myers, and perhaps explained some of the underlying cognitive reasons behind it.

Ralph W. Hood Jr.

Ralph W. Hood Jr.

symposium from the APA Division 36 mid-year conference. It also, in some ways, ran counter to Sørensen’s discussion of the need to explore the individual components of higher-order factors before working with the factors themselves. Of course, much of this has to do with what one means by, “reductionism.” Nevertheless, Hood described the push to make the psychology of religion fit into mainstream psychology by jettisoning many of the variables and ideas unique to religion and theology. Instead early researchers framed the sub-field using the same variables as the rest of psychology, but with some being more salient within a religious context than others. In doing so, the field might have lost out on exploring some of the more ineffable experiences that are associated with mysticism. This jettisoning is reflected in a lack of critical history among the current crop of handbooks on the psychology of religion and spirituality. They don’t discuss the tensions and interplay between the fields of psychology and theology which have led to the current state of the psychology of religion.

The final talk, presented by Streib, dealt with the semantics of spirituality and his work exploring the subfactors which may comprise this construct. He presented the results of several principal component analyses on data derived from a content analysis of open responses from roughly 1700 Germans and Americans on what they considered to be, “spirituality.” The participants had a wide range of belief identifications within the religious, spiritual, and nonreligious spectrum, allowing Streib and the other researchers to get a wider range of meanings than what might be found in a purely theistic sample. The PCAs generated ten different subfactors nested along three higher-order axes and, when taken together, define the range of meanings which grew out of their content analysis of the qualitative data. In particular, I was interested in how the three axes worked to explain some of the tension which can occur when trying to stitch together the definitions of “spirituality” generated by both believers and nonbelievers. In particular, the axes Mystical vs. Humanistic Transcending (something beyond, higher self) and Theistic vs. Nontheistic Transcending (higher power(s), part of religion) seem to be a big step towards shaving off some of the “fuzz” which often surrounds findings that rely on measures of “spirituality” which don’t take into account that different people can come at that term from very different meanings.

However, the big issue that was (and is) still in my mind after these three talks was the idea of supernaturalism vs. naturalism and the tensions between these that Hood raised. Here, Sørensen’s work seemed to be placed firmly within the realm of the naturalistic by breaking magic down into the cognitive processes that go into the beliefs surrounding it. Yet this doesn’t seem to be hitting on the “ineffable” components that may be unique to religion and mystical experience, which magic certainly seems to be a part of. Similarly, the two axes presented by Streib (which I discussed here) seem to imply a dichotomy of spirituality that is supernaturalistically versus naturalistically derived. Most of the constructs he presented seemed to sit more on the side of the “supernatural” with “natural” spirituality seemingly defined more in opposition, similarly to how theistic nonbelief is defined mostly in opposition to or as absence of theistic belief, rather than being a thing within itself. In effect, is it possible that people who identify as “neither religious, nor spiritual,” yet experience similar feelings of connectedness to those who identify as “spiritual,” have just removed the “spirit” component which implies the supernatural, while still retaining the other components of the term? It’s hard to say, but I’m looking forward to seeing more work (and producing some myself!) to try and figure this out.

Paul Harris

Paul Harris

My particular focus on this symposium came out of its relationship to my own work and what I feel are some of the major discussions going on in our field rather than out of lack of other fascinating talks to cover, not to mention the boat trip. However, several examples pertaining to nonbelief and nonbelievers can be found in Thomas Coleman’s forthcoming report for the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network Blog. Further, due to travel difficulties among the other presenters, Peter Hill gracefully carried an entire symposium on measurement with a discussion of his work generating a scale to measure Intellectual Humility and Paul Harris’ keynote about how children only seem to come to believe in magical and miraculous thinking when they have a religious upbringing (as opposed to magical and miraculous thinking being native) is worthy of its own discrete report.

The academic quality of the conference alone was strong enough to make this one of the best conference experiences in my career so far. However, given the stunning beauty of the location, the warmth and kindness of our hosts from Marmara and İzmir Katip Çelebi Universities and the Center for Islamic Studies (special mention going to Kenan Sevinç both for much of the photography throughout the conference and helping me navigate a Turkish pharmacy so I could go on the boat trip), I suspect this conference will stand out in my memory for a long time to come.

The Historic Penisula, with the Hagia Sophia (middle) and the Blue Mosque (far right).

The Historic Penisula, with the Hagia Sophia (middle) and the Blue Mosque (far right).

References

Coleman, T. J. III, Silver, C. F., & Hood, R. W. Jr. (In Press). “…if the universe is beautiful, we’re part of that beauty.” – A ‘Neither Religious nor Spiritual’ Biography as Horizontal Transcendence In Streib, H. & Hood, R. (Eds.) The Semantics and Psychology of Spirituality. Dordrecht, NL:
Springer. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-21245-6_22

‘Religious’ and ‘Spiritual’ Struggles: Now in ‘Nonreligious’ and ‘Nonspiritual’ flavors!

The fact that not only do religious believers sometimes question, struggle with, or even doubt their beliefs, but that resolving these issues can lead someone to a greater level of acceptance and understanding of their faith has been embodied in the form of quest-orientation for some time (Batson & Ventis, 1982). But recently, researchers studying the psychology of religion and spirituality have become more interested in how these spiritual stuggles might also lead towards distress as well (Exline, Pargament, Grubbs, & Yali, 2014). But are these struggles only experienced by the ‘religious’ about ‘religious’ beliefs? Or could people, even nonbelievers, also experience analogous struggles which impact their lives, for both good and bad.

In this podcast, psychologist Dr. Julie Exline talks about her work in developing the Religious and Spiritual Struggles scale, where the original ideas came from and how they interacted with her previous work surrounding anger towards god (Exline, Park, Smyth, & Carey, 2011). She then goes on to describe how some interesting findings within her previous work led her to be interested in whether or not nonbelievers experience similar ‘spiritual’ struggles, if they could be measured and compared to believers’ struggles, and how to measure them in a way valid for both believers and nonbelievers. She also gives a brief overview of some of her current work and interests in the area of nonbelief and secularity more broadly.

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 (but only if you enjoyed it, please). And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, non-academic texts, arcane grimoires, miscellaneous intellectual paraphernalia, and more!

This is our last podcast until September 2015… but don’t forget that you can keep up with the RSP on Martin will be featuring podcasts from the archive on the homepage throughout the summer, and that there will be the occasional feature to keep you entertained. Thanks for listening!

References

  • Batson, C. D., & Ventis, W. L. (1982). The religious experience: A social-psychological perspective. Oxford University Press, USA.
  • Exline, J. J., Pargament, K. I., Grubbs, J. B., & Yali, A. M. (2014). The Religious and Spiritual Struggles Scale: Development and initial validation. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6(3), 208–222. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0036465
  • Exline, J. J., Park, C. L., Smyth, J. M., & Carey, M. P. (2011). Anger toward God: Social-cognitive predictors, prevalence, and links with adjustment to bereavement and cancer. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(1), 129–148. http://doi.org/10.1037/a0021716

Workshop: ‘What is religious belief?’ report

PhD candidate Hans Van Eyghen reporting for The Religious Studies Project:

The question ‘What is religious belief?’ has a long history and with no definitive answer to date. The aim of this one day workshop was to shed new light on the question by combining three perspectives on the matter: cognitive science of religion, philosophy, and theology. The day consisted of four talks by Neil Van Leeuwen (philosopher), Michiel van Elk (cognitive scientist), Helen de Cruz (philosopher) and Gijsbert van den Brink (theologian).

Philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen. Photo by Rik Peels

1. Neil Van Leeuwen ‘Props in the Clouds: On the Role of Agent Like Stimuli in Religious Practice’

 

Neil Van Leeuwen (Georgia State University & University of Antwerp) proposed an alternative account of Stewart Guthrie and Justin Barrett’s ideas on hyperactive agency detection. Rather than seeing ‘faces in the clouds’, religious believers see ‘props in the clouds’. He began by discussing the ambiguous relation between religious belief and evidence. On the one hand, religious belief seems mindful of evidence. Believers often refer to intelligent design arguments or arguments for the historicity of the gospels to defend their beliefs. The fact that some lose their faith after acquiring scientific evidence and the fact that believers sometimes avoid encounters with potentially disconfirming evidence also signals that evidence is important for religious belief. On the other hand, there are also reasons to believe that religious belief persists despite of evidence to the counter. Doomsday cults often continue to exist after their predictions about an alleged apocalypse turn out to be false. Young earth creationism and evolution denialism disregard massive evidence from geology and biology. According to Van Leeuwen the classic account of hyperactive agency detection (which he calls Agency Indicator-Based Belief or AIBB) by Guthrie and Barrett cannot account for this ambiguous relation between religious belief and evidence. The classic account portrays the process of belief acquisition as:

agent-like stimulus → evolved HADD → belief in supernatural agents

Van Leeuwen argues the AIBB-account suffers from three main problems. First, the reactions to agent like stimuli are not uniform but very diverse. Second, beliefs resulting from AIBB are very sensitive to evidence whereas religious beliefs often are not. Third, AIBB does not allow a role for voluntariness though believers often choose to interpret evidence as coming from God. Nonetheless, there is something in AIBB worth saving because the idea of agency detection has much empirical support. Van Leeuwen proposes to look at agent like stimuli in a different way, namely as props that provide support for previously held cultural beliefs. In his view, cultural beliefs generate supernatural representations. In light of these cultural beliefs, agent like stimuli are used as props in a game of make belief. For example, a face in the clouds can be interpreted by someone with the cultural belief that “God sends signs by using nature, as a message from God”. The prop thereby reinforces the cultural beliefs.

2. Michiel van Elk ‘A Porous Theory of Mind underlies Religious Belief’

Psychologist Michiel van Elk. Photo by Rik Peels

Cognitive scientist Michiel van Elk. Photo by Rik Peels

The second speaker Michiel van Elk (University of Amsterdam) discussed the results of empirical testing of Justin Barrett’s account of hyperactive agency detection (Van Leeuwen’s AIBB), the theory of mind (ToM) account, and another account inspired by Tanya Luhrmann’s work called the Porous Theory of Mind (PToM). Van Elk claimed that Barrett’s HADD account and the ToM account have only little empirical evidence whereas PToM has strong explanatory potential when it comes to explaining supernatural beliefs and experiences. From Barrett’s account, which states that people become religious because of hyperactivity in agency detection leading to beliefs about invisible agents, van Elk deduces four testable predictions: (1) in threatening situations people should show a bias towards detecting agency, (2) supernatural agent concepts should be related to agency detection biases, (3) believers may be more prone to detecting agents than non-believers. Van Elk and his team tested all three hypotheses; the first and third were confirmed but the second was disconfirmed. Van Elk also presented experiments on the ToM account, which states that belief in God could rely on an over attribution of ToM reasoning to non-natural objects. This account predicts that a higher score on the autism-spectrum-scale will result in lower religiosity. Van Elk and his team indeed found that scoring high on the autism spectrum scale is negatively related to belief in God and to symbolic thinking, but the explained variance is close to zero. ToM might thus be a necessary condition for religious belief, but not a sufficient condition. The last account van Elk discussed was the PToM account, which posits that believers consider their minds to be open to intrusion by the supernatural. The account was introduced by Tanya Luhrmann who reported how evangelical Christians believe that God implants thoughts into their minds. Empirical testing showed that PToM is a very good predictor of religious belief in many cases. PToM does, however, not predict religiosity for religions where direct interaction between God and believers is frowned upon, like Calvinism.

3. Helen de Cruz ‘What Philosophers of Religion believe’

Philosopher Helen de Cruz. photo by Rik Peels

Philosopher Helen de Cruz. photo by Rik Peels

Helen de Cruz (Free University Amsterdam) began by noting that each workshop/conference always has one ‘strange’ talk that doesn’t really fit well with the rest. Her talk indeed did not address what religious beliefs are but instead what philosophers of religion believe and more precisely what role irrelevant causal factors play. She discussed a qualitative survey she conducted among philosophers of religion and discussed its implications for the rationality of defending views in philosophy of religion. Sometimes philosophy of religion is suspected of a disproportionate bias due to emotional and psychosocial aspects of religion. The (much) higher prevalence of theists in philosophy of religion compared to other philosophical disciplines also raises some suspicion. De Cruz’s survey found that of the 139 interviewed philosophers of religion, 59% self-identified as ‘Christian’ and 24% as ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’. The main motivations for practicing philosophy of religion were religious identity, philosophy and education; a minority was motivated by proselytism. Only 21% reported a change in religious belief during their time as philosopher; 16% reported a sophistication of their beliefs; and 15% a tempering. Further, the study showed a significant difference between the number of former religious believers (33%) and former atheists (12%) engaging in philosophy of religion. overall, the study found a lot of support for the claim that irrelevant causal factors are widespread in philosophy of religion. De Cruz distinguished three potential problems for philosophy of religion: (1) the fact that irrelevant influences have motivated a majority of philosophers of religion to engage in philosophy of religion, (2) that philosophers of religion might be prejudiced in such a way that it becomes hard to assess evidence in a dispassionate way, and (3) that the cultural background leads philosophers of religion to regard Christian theism and scientific naturalism as the only two viable options. Against (1), de Cruz argued that having a certain background is no reason to assume that one is being unreliable. (2) was not clearly confirmed by the survey because a considerable number of interviewed philosophers had changed their minds. She did acknowledge (3) was a real problem.

4. Gijsbert van den Brink ‘I Know that my Redeemer Lives. The indispensability of Factual Claims for Religious Belief’

Theologian Gijsbert van den Brink. Photo by Rik Peels

Theologian Gijsbert van den Brink. Photo by Rik Peels

The final speaker of the day, Gijsbert van den Brink (Free University Amsterdam) offered a theological answer to the question ‘What is religious belief?’. His talk was a defense of religious cognitivism, the view stating that religious belief has propositional content. He began by discussing the alternative position, non-cognitivism. Non-cognitivists hold that religious belief is not about factual states of affairs but about the affective, expressive, self-involving, prescriptive, interrogative, etc. role they fulfill in believer’s lives. Van den Brink acknowledges that there is some truth in non-cognitivism insofar that religious belief is structurally different from the mere believing in the existence of some object, like the planet Venus. A religious believer does not simply believe that there is a supernatural being out there, but believing in God involves attitudes of awe, love or hope. Nonetheless, factual claims are indispensable for religious beliefs according to van den Brink, because the attitudes associated with religious belief are only possible if its factual presuppositions are true.

Psychology of Religion at Its Best…and Less Best

There were a number of excellent talks at the (deep breath) American Psychological Association Division 36 Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 2015 Mid-Year Conference hosted by Brigham Young University (BYU) at the Marriott Conference Center in Provo, Utah, United States on March 20th and 21st (exhale). In particular, the second keynote address by Dr. Frank Fincham, Director of the Florida State University Family Institute was an excellent model of how research in the psychology of religion and spirituality can have practical use in designing psychological interventions in addition to the acquisition of knowledge. His and his collaborators’ work involved the psychological impacts of partner-directed prayer on the romantic relationships of religious believers, specifically how prayer can bolster relationship quality by increasing the forgiveness ability of the praying partner. Over a series of carefully framed studies he described the process they used to look at the broad effects of partner directed prayer on relationships. After narrowing their focus, they found that increased cooperative behavior was the primary mediator of the effect of prayer on forgiveness. They used these findings to construct and validate a prayer-focused marriage therapy intervention within an African-American, religious population. Throughout his talk, he was careful to make it clear that these studies were done with, and only apply to, religious believers and that the possibility of comparable mechanisms for nonbeliever couples still need to be researched.

Dr. Julie Exline’s Laboratory at Case Western Reserve University: Alex Uzdavines, Julie Exline, Valencia Harriott, Steffany Homolka, Nick Stauner, and Josh Wilt.

At least for my part, this was greatly appreciated. As someone who studies religious nonbelievers (not to mention being one), it can chafe reading or watching a presentation on research which has broadly sweeping conclusions about the benefits of religious belief which go far beyond what the data allow. Often this research implicitly (sometimes explicitly) assumes that the audience is religious themselves and that the research can be generalized to nonbelievers by just flipping the direction of the results. It was refreshing to have religious-oriented research presented in a manner that both framed the results within the context of the beliefs of the people who participated in the research and explicitly acknowledged that the conclusions drawn could not be applied to nonbelievers without further study.

Dr. Fincham’s focus on measurable psychological mechanisms contrasted sharply with the major themes from symposium presented by a number of scholars from BYU the previous day. The presenters answered the title of the symposium, chaired by Shannon Starks, “Does Psychology’s Naturalism Hamper Understanding of Religious Phenomena?” with a resounding “Yes!” Ms. Starks spoke first and her presentation outlined how widely used introductory psychology texts take a strictly naturalistic stance and often reject supernatural hypotheses for psychological phenomena just as resoundingly. Dr. Jeffery S. Reber presented the second talk and gave a number of examples of psychological theories that grew out of the work of famous theologians. However, when the writers most responsible for bringing these theories into psychology (sometimes the theologian themself!) translated them, all references to a god/gods, the divine, or the supernatural were removed.

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman, APA Div. 36 President Dr. Kevin Ladd, and Post-Doctoral Research Fellow Dr. Melanie Nyhof

RSP assistant editor Thomas Coleman with Dr. Kevin Ladd and Dr. Melanie Nyhof enjoying the post conference Sundance tour.

The third talk, presented by Dr. Edwinn E. Gantt, built upon the first two presentations but shifted focus examining how psychological research often misses the supernatural reality of an individual’s lived experience, while the majority of researchers hunt for naturalistic mechanisms. He argued that since people qualitatively experience the supernatural as real, psychology is doing a disservice to human experience by saying that the supernatural is just a figment of explainable mechanisms. Finally, Dr. Brent D. Slife discussed a story from his clinical internship where he specifically focused on naturalistic therapeutic approaches at the behest of his supervisor. Over time he began to feel ashamed of how this cognitive-behavioral approach shifted his clients’ focus away from her spirituality and to thoughts and behaviors that seemed to reduce her suffering. In fact, Dr. Slife argued that by focusing on the reduction of suffering, psychologists are doing a disservice to religious clients because God might intend for them to suffer and reducing this risks moving their client away from God’s wishes. This is understandable only as long as a therapist discusses their naturalistic orientation with their client and the client still chooses to continue therapy. Conversely, a religious therapist should discuss their beliefs and intent to bring these beliefs into therapy ahead of time so that if the client does not wish to participate in religious therapy they can find a new therapist.

There were two major themes gleaned from this symposium. The first was one of “religious deletion” which seemed to operate similarly within the psychological community to how “bisexual deletion” works in both gay and straight communities. Aspects of identity, thought, or experience which don’t fit within the dominant culture of the community are either ignored or dismissed as not real, as religious/supernatural ideas and experience are dismissed within the psychological community – according to the speakers (and many other psychologists of religion I have spoken with). Requiring that psychological theories (or psychologists themselves) be stripped of their religious background in order to be taken seriously within the field does a disservice to everyone involved. While the current extent of the anti-religious nature of psychology is open to study, it does seem to be present and working towards a more theologically inclusive field might be a benefit to those who study the psychology of religion and spirituality, regardless of whether or not they are religious themselves.

The second major theme was more questionable, however. The idea that consideration of the supernatural is off-limits to psychological study pervaded all the presentations, with the exception of Dr. Reber’s. Well, off-limits to “naturalistic psychology,” anyways. Ms. Starks even went so far as criticizing studies that looked at Extra Sensory Perception and dreams that could predict future events. Rather than raising any methodological critiques, she simply implied that because the researchers operated within a naturalistic framework the studies were a priori invalid. Despite saying that the supernatural exists and that it impacts the natural world of which psychological processes are a part, the speakers refused to actually discuss any methodology that could be used to study either the supernatural itself or how it impacts naturalistic psychology, even after being directly asked to go into this by a few audience questions. In doing so, the impression I was left with was that it wasn’t psychology’s job to try and peek behind the “wizard’s curtain” of religious experience and if naturalistic scientists can’t prove the non-existence of the supernatural, they should simply acknowledge that it is real since many people experience it as real. The fact that some of us actively experience the supernatural to be imaginary and very much not-real can be safely ignored in the interest of privileging religious experience.

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

View from the Provo Marriott conference center

The implication that Christianity was the religious experience that should be privileged above all others within the field was made painfully clear during the dinner hosted by BYU. In three events (a Christian prayer; a campus ministry capella group which hoped to convert non-Christian division members; and the final dinner talk in which the speaker railed against non-Christian psychologists throughout the twentieth century, non-Christian moral principles in general, and drug use in Europe, which is a clear, unambiguous indicator of a lack of religious belief in a region) there was a very clear message that non-Christians were not welcome. This was actually news to me, as I have been involved with Division 36 since 2012 and this was the third divisional mid-year conference I’d spoken at. Unfortunately, it was the first time I’d felt deeply unwelcome as an Atheist member of the division. Despite the committee organizing the conference making it clear to BYU that this was not a religious conference, the organizers at BYU ignored this and appeared to go out of their way to make the events they did have control over as hostile to non-Christians as possible, while still maintaining a facade of inclusivity.

Overall, this conference highlighted both the good and bad aspects of our sub-field. The keynote from Dr. Fincham and the symposium lead by Ms. Starks displayed the strides being made towards the rigorous study of the impacts religious and spiritual practices may have on psychological functioning and the arguments we need to have within the field to define the border areas of the natural and supernatural for the purpose of further study. Unfortunately, the sectarian aspects of BYU’s dinner events aimed exclusively towards the Christian attendees showed that we still have a long path ahead. For my part, I’m going to continue going to these mid-year conferences and advocating that those of us who study the psychology of (and/or are) religious/spiritual nonbelievers or non-Christians attend as well.

God’s Mind, Your Mind, and Theory of Mind

Do you believe that unseen forces have the causal power to move physical objects and intervene in everyday human affairs? Of course you do. You are probably like most other humans alive today who effortlessly place great explanatory weight on these hidden forces. However, such unseen forces are not the local forest spirits, or gods in the sky, per se, but as Gervais (2013, p. 380) writes: “These entities are called minds”. Conversely, it just so happens that we attribute to the forest spirit, to the gods, and even to the Christian God (Barrett & Keil, 1996) for example, a mind that has the same conceptual limitations as our own (e.g. being limited in action by both time and space). A core tenet of cognitive science of religion (CSR) is that the folk-psychological ability to explain human behavior in terms of beliefs, desires and intentions – known as theory of mind (ToM) – is also a system that makes us receptive to belief in the supernatural (Banerjee & Bloom, 2013; Gervais, 2013). But why?

In his interview with Thomas Coleman, cultural and evolutionary psychologist Dr. Will Gervais talks about the role that ToM plays in explaining both belief, and nonbelief in supernatural agents. Gervais begins by discussing some of his prior research in the field, and draws salient the various phenomena that falls under the ability, he terms as “mind perception”. Further, he touches on how, and why ToM is an important construct in CSR for explaining god beliefs, and gives the listener insight into how unseen mental states can be measured.* In closing, Gervais answers important questions such as “Is ToM a religion specific system?” and even weighs in on the suggested autism-atheism connection prevalent in CSR.

A short video clip of Heider and Simmel’s classic 1944 experiment mentioned in the podcast can be found here. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost buying academic texts, rubber ducks, dandelion seeds, and more.

References

  • Banerjee, K., & Bloom, P. (2013). Would Tarzan believe in God? Conditions for the emergence of religious belief. Trends In Cognitive Sciences, 17(1), 7-8. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2012.11.005
  • Barrett, J., & Keil, F. (1996). Conceptualizing a Nonnatural Entity: Anthropomorphism in God Concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31(3), 219-247. doi:10.1006/cogp.1996.0017
  • Gervais, W. (2013). Perceiving Minds and Gods: How Mind Perception Enables, Constrains, and Is Triggered by Belief in Gods. Perspectives On Psychological Science, 8(4), 380-394. doi:10.1177/1745691613489836

Prayer, Pretense, and Personification: How God becomes real

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

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

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

group_prayer

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

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

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

Citations

Halloween Special: Religion’s Role in Terror Management Theory

mm2 When confronted with mortality, humans face the possibility of experiencing a significant amount of terror. Interestingly, many times, people are able to avoid this terror and actually enjoy the mortality themes that are presented. Consider the horror movie industry. To illustrate, Paranormal Activity (Blum & Peli, 2007) brought in $19,617,650 on its opening weekend alone (IMDB, n.d.). Further, consider the timeless horror classics such as Friday the 13th (Geiler & Cunningham, 1980) and Halloween (Hill & Carpenter, 1978) that are full of themes of death. Why do we enjoy these anxiety provoking situations? Research into Terror Management Theory (TMT; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986; Greenberg, Pyszczynski, Solomon, Rosenblatt, Veeder, Kirkland, & Lyon, 1990; Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991) suggests a possible explanation for this perplexing phenomenon. Humans engage in several cultural worldview defense mechanisms when cognizant of their own mortality in order to shield against the terror that is associated with it. More specifically, people observe their worldviews more strongly in order to give themselves a degree of self-purpose to combat the adverse effects that thoughts of their own mortality have on their well-being (Solomon et al., 1991). Further, religion has been found to be a strong buffer for death anxiety because it not only gives people the self-purpose inherent in successful death awareness coping, but it also gives followers a literal immortality in an afterlife (Bos et al, 2012). The following paper describes the role that religion plays in TMT and provides a possible explanation as to why it is able to buffer anxiety.

TMT Overview

Research into TMT is based primarily on the works of Ernest Becker (1962; 1973; 1975) in which a need for self-esteem allows us to think in self-reflective, symbolic, and temporal thought. Although this is evolutionarily adaptive, it also causes several problems associated with this type of thought. For example, humans have the ability to contemplate their purpose in life and reason for existing. Also, people can surmise that the world is an uncontrollable place and that we could cease to exist at any time. More specifically, we can anticipate that we will ultimately die.

In order to shield against the terror that is associated with this idea of the world, humans began to develop a sense of culture that allowed us to see the world as a predictable place of permanence and order. Each culture also provides a way to surmise the creation of this “just” world and a way to achieve immortality by living a life that is good and meaningful. This suggests the importance for self-esteem. Being cultural animals, we can assign a value to ourselves based primarily on whether or not we satisfy the cultural requirements for being good. By increasing our self-esteem, we believe that we are living a meaningful life that is deemed culturally good. Due to this, we can ultimately “deny” mortality and the terror that is associated with it. The denial of this mortality allows us to deny our creatureliness and further allows us to separate ourselves from the social animals that do not possess culture. By believing that we are good, we diminish terror and gain a degree of immortality because we live in a just world (Greenberg et al., 1986).

Religion’s fulfillment of TMT

It is important to note that when discussing religion’s role in TMT, most research has been conducted on Christianity and will thus be the primary subject of the current paper. Of the different worldview defense mechanisms, religion has been found to be very effective in mitigating the death anxiety that mortality salience evokes. When faced with their own mortality, religious people rely on teachings from their faith in order to buffet the negative aspects associated with the perception of death (Bos et al., 2012). For instance, consider the Biblical teachings paramount to Christianity. According to Romans 13:1 (New Revised Standard Version), God is in control of every aspect of life. Considering that God is viewed as a “just God” (2 Thessalonians 1:6, New Revised Standard Version), death anxiety can be mitigated by believing that God is in control of every aspect of life. So long as one believes in God and asks his forgiveness (John 3:16, New Revised Standard Version), the teachings suggest that there is no need to worry about invoking God’s wrath. TMT research corroborates this conjecture. Because the world and God are viewed as just, believers do not worry that they will be punished and therefore gain a figurative degree of symbolic immortality so long as they follow and uphold these beliefs (Greenberg et al., 1986; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, & Schimel, 2004).

5671121397_bc52022026_zPossibly the strongest defense against death anxiety as it relates to religion is the concept of an afterlife. When faced with thoughts of death, religion gives people an alternative to the terror that is associated with nonexistence after death (Pyszczynski et al., 2004). When considering Christianity, Heaven is considered to be a wonderful place where “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” and beautiful “as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelation 21:2 – 6, New Revised Standard Version). Further, by following the teachings of Christianity, any believer can be part of this kingdom after they have died. Considering that the primary reason that death anxiety manifests is due to the fear of nonexistence (Greenberg et al., 1986), this literal afterlife should successfully mitigate this anxiety. The concept of Heaven allows believers to have a place where they will exist and be rewarded for their good behavior and belief after they have died, ultimately alleviating death anxiety.

One additional consideration regarding religion’s role in TMT is that of belonging. Symbolic immortality can be achieved by being part of something that is perceived as larger than oneself. Simply by identifying with a religion, people are shielded from some of the anxiety associated with death awareness (Pyszczynski et al., 2004). Generally, this sense of belonging is achieved through adherence to the religious tenets suggesting additional importance in following the religious beliefs in order to better shield against death anxiety (Dechesne, Pyszczynski, Arndt, Ransom, Sheldon, van Knippenberg, & Janssen, 2003).

Religious Reinforcement

As has been suggested, religious adherence is a successful method to mitigate death anxiety. Early research in TMT suggests that people react positively when others uphold their cultural worldviews and react negatively when they are violated. Further, this behavior reinforces the person’s worldview belief. Any person or belief that goes against these worldviews are considered a hazard to the belief’s validity and are reacted against negatively (Rosenblatt et al., 1989). Subsequent research on TMT and religion provides increased support for this finding. Christians have been found to react strongly against people and beliefs that go against the basic tenets of the religion. More specifically, they react very defensively against alternate worldviews. This has been postulated to be due to the importance that this religion plays in self-identification (Bos et al., 2012). Due to these defenses, Christians and people in general are more likely to react with hostility to people that hold different worldviews (Greenberg et al., 1990).

Conclusion

In regards to TMT, religion can be used to successfully mitigate the anxiety that is associated with death awareness. Primarily, adherence to the tenets of religion allows the believer to achieve both a symbolic and literal immortality (Bos et al., 2012). This dual function of religion may give one possible explanation as to why some religions are more widespread than others. Perhaps the larger religions provide more anxiety buffering defenses than do the smaller ones by providing more prominent tenets to follow and a more believable afterlife.

References

  • Becker, E. (1962). The birth and death of meaning. New York, New York: Free Press.
  • Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York, New York: Free Press.
  • Becker, E. (1975). Escape from evil. New York, New York: Free Press.
  • Bos, K., Doosje, B., Loseman, A., Laarhoven, D., Veldhuizen, T., & Veldman, J. (2012). On shielding from death as an important but malleable motive of worldview defense: Christian versus Muslim beliefs modulating the self-threat of mortality salience. Social Cognition, 30(6), 778–802.
  • Blum, J. (Producer), & Peli, O. (Director). (2007). Paranormal Activity [Motion Picture]. United States of America: Paramount Pictures
  • Dechesne, M., Pyszczynski, T., Arndt, J., Ransom, S., Sheldon, K., van Knippenberg, A., & Janssen, J. (2003). Literal and symbolic immortality: The effect of evidence of literal immortalityon self-esteem striving in response to mortality salience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 722-737.
  • Geiler, A. (Producer), & Cunningham, N. (Director). (1980). Friday the 13th. United States of America: Paramount Pictures.
  • Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In R.F. Baumeister (Ed.) Public Self and Private Self (p. 189 – 212). New York, New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., Solomon, S., Rosenblatt, A., Veeder, M., Kirkland, S., & Lyon, D. (1990). Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(2), 308-318.
  • Hill, D. (Producer), & Carpenter, J. (Director). (1978). Halloween. United States: Compass International Pictures.
  • IMDB (n.d.). Paranormal Activity Box Office. Retrieved October 11, 2014. Retrieved from
  • http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1179904/business
  • Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., and Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 435-468.
  • Rosenblatt, A., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Pyszczynski, T., & Lyon, D. (1989). Evidence for terror management theory: I. The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who violate or uphold cultural values. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(4), 681-690.
  • Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T (1991). A terror management theory of social behavior: The psychological functions of self-esteem and cultural worldviews. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 93-159.

Conference Report: International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion (IACSR) 5th Biennial Conference

The RSP would like to thank Christopher Kavanagh for writing the conference report.

For the past few days I attended the International Association for the Cognitive Science of Religion’s (IACSR) 5th Biennial Conference. The theme this year was focused on addressing the state of the field, 25 years after the cognitive approach to religion (CSR) first appeared (at least in its modern incarnation). I contributed to these efforts by presenting a critical review of the Minimal Counterintuitiveness (MCI) literature, and a short poster that detailed a recoding of a previous study on MCI items in Roman prodigies (Lisdorf, 2001) (for those who may be interested, the recoding reversed the original pattern reported). However, I’m not going to review my own talk (for obvious reasons), nor do I intend to offer a thorough account of the entire conference, instead I’d just like to point out some personal highlights and my impressions of the conference overall.

Justin Lane presenting

‘Justin Lane presenting’ photo by Nora Parren

Unfortunately, at any conference there are times when your energy sags, your attention wanders, or you are preoccupied (such as when you are furiously attempting to make last minute changes to your upcoming presentation). As a result, while I was bodily present for the opening talks and took in the broad strokes of the presentations I feel like I only really got about 70% of the material presented. These talks, however, were perhaps the most important for addressing the state of the field and updating the progress made on various research agendas. The tone overall was positive but, as ever, there were calls for better and more meaningful collaborations to be pursued with our arts and humanities counterparts and an acknowledgement that greater methodological and statistical rigor was required to advance the field. Senior figures, such as Armin Geertz, rather modestly emphasised that the greatest hope for the future of the field lay with the emerging generation of scholars who possess a greater fluency with the firmly established approaches of the humanities and the newer experimental and statistical methods prevalent in modern cognitive research. This was a theme also raised by Ted Slingerland who highlighted the need for culturally bilingual researchers, who would in turn also possess the regional speciality and linguistic competences more often associated with devoted anthropologists or classicists.

Their points were well made and certainly valid however I think established researchers, such as Joseph Bulbulia, who freely admit to coming to statistics later in their careers, also demonstrate that this is a shift that is also occurring in the upper echelons of the field. To what extent it is possible for CSR researchers to bridge the divide with humanities scholars, while simultaneously developing statistical and methodological approaches that are likely to prove alienating to such researchers, is an open question. Personally, while I don’t think CSR researchers should give up on consilience, I think it is also worth looking to cross-cultural psychologists for potentially illuminating collaborations, as the regional specialisation is still there but there is also a shared recognition of the value of quantitative methods. There is no cookie cutter format for successful collaborations but another recurring theme was the need to combine the findings of lab experiments with relevant field research, or at least cross-cultural replications. Dimitris Xygalatas and his collaborators provided successful models for how the two methodologies could be fruitfully combined but such success typically only comes only after many years of preparation and effort.

Photo by Silvie Kotherova

‘Dr. Deb Kelemen presenting’ Photo by Silvie Kotherova

Getting back to the conference itself, while I enjoyed pretty much all of the talks, three that particularly stood out to me were the presentations of Deborah Kelemen, Paul Reddish and Hein Thomas van Schie. Taking each in turn, Deborah Kelemen presented a very polished summary of the evidence to date for a variety of “early developing conceptual biases” many of which have been presented elsewhere as evidence that humans are “born believers”. I have issues with such a characterisation, see this previous blog post for details, but Deborah actually raised the very same point in her talk, noting that many teleological intuitions are not necessarily in-line with any religious doctrine (i.e. monkeys exist to make the jungle more interesting). She also gave ample time to emphasis the importance of methodological rigor: highlighting the necessity of conducting replications and gathering comparable cross-cultural data. As such, there were a lot of interesting results reported during the talk and, while I was familiar with some of the material, I wasn’t aware of just quite how far earlier findings had been followed up on and expanded. It was a welcome surprise and given that Keleman’s work on the teleological bias was some of the first research I came across that got me interested in the CSR, it was a pleasure to hear how things had progressed.

Paul Reddish’s talk covered some of his research on synchrony and also identified some important theoretical and definitional issues that need to be ironed out if the research is to make progress. The fact that ‘synchrony’ can be used to refer to soldiers marching in step, capoeirastas performing in a roda and a barbershop quartet singing a harmony is indicative of the complexity involved with the concept of ‘synchrony’ and Paul strongly urged for a clear typology to be employed in order that more useful comparisons could be made between studies in the future. This point echoed my own summary of the research literature on counterintuitiveness concepts, which has also suffered from the same problem of inconsistent operationalization and idiosyncratic definitions. Still it is heartening that the field is beginning to recognise and address these issues and doing so may result in the reasons for earlier discrepancies in results becoming better understood.

‘Dr. Paulo Sousa’ photo by Silvie Kotherova

Hein Thomas van Schie’s presentation discussed his research into afterlife beliefs, which sought to explore the pervasiveness of intuitive mind-body dualist assumptions about whether mental or biological processes continue after death. His talk complemented Keleman’s presentation very neatly as they both employed a variation of Jesse Bering’s “dead mouse” methodology, previously used to examine children’s intuitions concerning the afterlife. The basic methodology involves respondents reading a scenario in which someone has died (in Bering’s original version this was a mouse eaten by a crocodile) and then asking them various questions to assess whether people consider psychological states or biological needs to be still active. Van Schie’s study expanded the psychological aspects addressed and also added in the twist of varying the pre-death beliefs of the deceased (such as whether they were believers or atheists). This additionally enabled comparisons to be made with regards to whether people judged the afterlife of those with opposing or complementary viewpoints to their own differently. The findings were mixed but provided some evidence that ingroup bias may trump theological convictions as in one study atheists were found to attribute more mental activities to a dead atheist than a dead religious person.

There is much more that could be said about these talks and many other very interesting talks that I have not even mentioned. Predictably the issue of definitions of ‘religion’ came up frequently (it was the core subject of Maurice Bloch’s talk for instance), as did the importance of avoiding being academically pigeon-holed as a fringe. However, personally I think that the majority of researchers (and the field in general) have largely addressed these issues (for instance, by abandoning any claim for a single unitary explanation of ‘religion’). Religion is a tricky and perhaps largely artificial category but I don’t agree with those who say it is not useful. Government is an equally fuzzy concept and can be difficult to meaningfully apply to certain historical contexts and societies but, just like religion, as a conceptual or analytical category it remains useful. In short while there is inevitably room for further development and improvement, the conference itself served to illustrate that people within CSR are taking the need for replications (cross-cultural and otherwise), precise definitions and greater methodological rigor seriously. This is a good thing, and with the growing emphasis on collaboration with other disciplines I remain optimistic for CSRs future.

Christopher Kavanagh

Christopher Kavanagh