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When Religion Is Not Religion: Inside Religious Studies’ Fight for Religious Literacy in the Public Sphere

After wrapping up a Q&A session at a public conference where I presented on the topic of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations to a largely evangelical Christian audience, an older man who was sitting in the back approached me at the podium.

Rather nonchalantly, he asked, “You do know that the Constitution wasn’t written for Muslims, right?”

As we talked, he elaborated on his opinion that the concept of religious freedom does not apply to Islam and Muslims because, he said matter-of-factly, “Islam is not a religion.” At the time, it seemed to me a fringe theory cooked up in the dark corners of the internet or in 6am greasy-spoon breakfast meet-ups.

In short, I could not really believe — given my own biases — that people could actually think that the First Amendment and its promise of religious freedom did not extend to Islam and Muslims in the U.S.

However, far from fringe political theory or radical cultural posturing, this view has found its way into legal briefs, court cases, and political contexts in recent years. In fact, these legal and political perspectives are the fodder for Asma Uddin’s new book When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom.

In this work, Uddin points out that many Americans insist that the religious liberty they so quickly claim for Christianity or Judaism (or other religions beyond the nation’s so-called “Judeo-Christian” heritage) does not extend to Islam and Muslims in the U.S.

Concerned that the loss of liberty for Muslims means a loss of liberties for all, Uddin surveys an alarming amount of politicized legal and social battles over whether or not Islam can be considered a “religion” and whether, by extension, Muslims should be afforded the same human rights and constitutional protections that others claim. Weaving together her legal expertise and personal perspective as an American Muslim, Uddin makes the case that despite today’s fraught culture wars, there is a path forward for defending religious liberty for Muslims in the U.S. that can – and should – appeal to those of multiple faith perspectives or none at all.

As I listened to her interview about the book and its ramifications on the Religious Studies Project, I not only appreciated her balanced and thorough approach to this topic, but found myself wanting to focus on three points that she touched on in the talk: 1) the ways in which “religion” is defined in the public sphere; 2) whether or not we should listen to “fringe” Islamophobes and their rhetoric on religion; and 3) thinking about “when Christianity is not a religion.”

1)  Definitions of “religion” in the public sphere.

Discussing how “religion” is defined in the courts, Uddin referenced how the majority of cases she reviewed contained definitions that reminded her of Paul Tillich’s: religion as “ultimate concern.”

The debate over what constitutes the category of “religion” has been lively in the field of religious studies over the proceeding decades since Tillich’s work and many within the discipline have landed on “definitions” that are highly critical of “religion” as a sui generis phenomenon (a la Jonathan Z. Smith and Russell T. McCutcheon). Others have turned to definitions that seek to address religion in terms of globalization in the late-modern era (Thomas Tweed) or from a materialist perspective (Manuel Vásquez). Suffice it to say, these are not the only definitions of religion – or of the field of religious studies – that are out there right now, but they point to the fact that definitions of religion abound.

Despite the robust conversation about “religion” and its referents in the field of religious studies, the general public’s interpretations of religion remain reified in the past or overly influenced by a Judeo-Christian frame.

Therefore, when public figures make comments about what does or does not constitute a “religion,” the greater populace relies on fairly outdated definitions of religion by which to respond to such claims.

For example, the current head of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and President of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins wrote:

only 16 percent of Islam is a religion — the rest is a combination of military, judicial, economic, and political system. Christianity, by comparison, isn’t a judicial or economic code — but a faith. So to suggest that we would be imposing some sort of religious test on Muslims is inaccurate. Sharia is not a religion in the context of the First Amendment.

This is exactly the kind of rhetoric Uddin addresses in her work. However, it is concerning that conversations around Islam being “only 16% religion” can gain such steam because of a general religious illiteracy or an overly Judeo-Christian conceptualization of what “religion” is. While Uddin does more than a fair job of deconstructing claims such as Perkins’, there remains a lot more work for those of us in religious studies.

We must humbly admit that we have largely failed in communicating the potent and helpful conversations we have had in the academy over the last decades to a wider public. Our discussions about religion as a construct have not been widely disseminated. While we may feel that such conversations are meant for the academic study of religion proper, I would argue that helping the wider public see that religion is more convention than “thing” would help address the constructions that frame Islam as “only 16% religion.” Furthermore, if we could successfully engage the public in this discussion about definitions, they might well become the best critics of the ways in which the term “religion” is constructed in popular parlance or politics.

Rather than dismiss the various definitions of “religion” that exist in the public sphere – or solely critique them in academic circles, conferences, and publications – scholars of religion should focus our energies in articulating proper responses to the definitions that are at work in the world and invite the wider public into seeing “religion” as a construct rather than a definitively defined category to apply to such things as Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. Uddin’s work helps prod us in such a direction.

2) Do we have to listen to “Islamophobes?” 

Such a move presumes that scholars of religion engage with the mainstream public in broad, but meaningful ways. This also means listening to supposedly “fringe” groups and their ideas about religion.

Uddin makes the provocative point that her research involved taking the claims about Islam not being a religion seriously. We might do well to take up her cue in order to better confront and critique such opinions.

Thus, when an individual such as the man at the conference I referenced earlier claims that “Islam is not a religion, but a political doctrine and form of government” we must take the time to not only listen, but parse out what this means. Where does such a view come from? How has it become operational in the lives of those who claim it? Why is it such a powerful perspective? Where, when, and how did it move from the margins to the putative center of public discourse?

Paying attention to such fringe opinions would help us better apperceive and address how wider publics give rise to the legal opinions, cases, and briefs that Uddin addresses in her work.

For example, in my current research I am aiming to go beyond the legal, state, and extreme social expressions of global Islamophobia to understand its social mechanizations and manifestations in quotidian contexts through an ethnographic study of “everyday Islamophobia.”

Rather than seeking to normalize such behavior, listening to “Islamophobes” can help scholars of religion better critique such perspectives and postures toward the “religious other.”

3) When Christianity is not a religion

While listening to and reading Uddin, I could not help but think about how one could make the argument that the political ideologies among Christians in the U.S. could also – by the very rules that lead to the conclusion that “Islam is not a religion” – be used to make the case that Christianity is not a religion either.

Christianity in the U.S., particularly in its specifically politicized evangelical varieties, could be seen as not only a set of religious beliefs and practices, but explicitly political doctrines that seek to shape social behavior through a combination of laws and penalties, not only by God, but by the state. According to the opinion that frames Islam as not a religion because of these very characteristics, one could argue that Christianity is not a religion either, but a form of government.

Let me be clear: I am not trying to say that Christianity or Islam (or any other “religion” for that matter) is not a “religion.” However, this rumination on whether Christianity should be considered a “religion” in light of the very arguments that make Islam not so in certain circles helps point us back to the very important task before religion scholars presented in this response to Uddin’s work.

First, scholars of religion must do a better job of discussing and addressing the many ways that “religion” is defined as a category in the public sphere. The helpful and powerful debate that we have had over preceding decades can, and should, benefit popular and political disputes over religious freedom and human rights. This is not only important for Muslims, but for people of any religion or no religion in particular. Debates over religious freedom in the U.S. and abroad are not going to go away any time soon. Confusion over what constitutes religion cannot be left to the wayside by scholars of religion or simply as a phenomenon to be studied. Religious studies scholars should insert themselves into the conversation.

Second, entering into these conversations and introducing the wider public to religion as a construct more than a sui generis category will not only require appealing to more progressive circles that might be more supple to our ideas, but also the conservative communities that espouse the very perspectives Uddin addresses in her work and that we might find ourselves highly critical of. While listening does not necessarily mean condoning, it does require a more humble and interpersonal engagement of attitudes we might often avoid or critique from a distance.

Uddin has done a great job in opening up such an avenue for other scholars. We would do well to follow in her footsteps. There remains much work to be done.

Science Fiction, Video Games, and Religion

Science fiction and video games have come to the forefront of a new global resurgence, with the popularity reaching record numbers in regards to cinema, and video games. From classic science fiction, to sandbox video games that require hundreds of hours to complete fully, religiosity can be utilised and attached to certain actions, places, characters, and stories. This podcast explores what feature religion plays within an attachment to science fiction and video games, how seekers attach meaning, and seek belief in things that are ‘out of this world,’ as a means of both escapism, and hope of the future.

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, Skyrim, The Witcher, and more.


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


Science Fiction, Video Games, and Religion

Podcast with Benn Banasik and Tara Smith (27 May 2019).

Interviewed by Raymond Radford.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Banasik_and_Smith_-_Science_Fiction_Video_Games_and_Religion_1.1

 

Raymond Radford (RR): My name is Ray Radford. I am the social media editor of the RSP. And today we have a couple of my fellow PhD candidates along with me: Benn Banasik and Tara Smith. Hi Guys!

Tara Smith (TS): OK. How’s it going?

Benn Banasik (BB): Hi.

RR: So do you want to tell us a little bit about your dissertations?

BB: Sure! Ladies first!

TS: Oh, OK. Yes, let’s jump straight in. So I’m doing my PhD on science fiction as social fiction. I’m interested in the religious aspect incorporated within science fiction. And I’m doing some interviews in America at the Nebula science fiction conference, which I’m hoping to sort-of see how much writers are incorporating their own social concerns for the future into the work that they’re writing. I did my honours on Frank Herbert’s Dune, focussing on the eco-religious aspects of that. And yes, so I guess religion is incorporated in a lot of different aspects in the work I’m looking at. But so is science fiction as a genre, as well.

BB: Yes. So I did my honours focussing on Origen of Alexandria and the Jewish elements of his work. So I was looking at Jewish and Christian interrelations and interactions within the third and fourth century. That led me into looking at apophatic theory, and getting really deep into that, particularly from the Christian perspective, but also from the Jewish perspective. My PhD topic is taking those elements – unending aspects of theological engagement with God – and investigating video games through that lens. So, looking at the perpetual journey of video games and video gaming as a religious endeavour, and what that actually means for people. So I’m doing some social surveys looking at people’s interactions in video game space, as well as people who interact with religion – whatever that means today, and that’s a negotiated term – and then synchronising their responses to see if there are any similarities. And then doing more of the theoretical work in the background, as well.

RR: I like that it’s a bit of step from Origen to video games!

BB: It’s a negotiated step!

RR: Yeah. It’s very tentative, I like it. In case you haven’t been able to guess, in today’s podcast we’re going to be focussing on religion, video games, science fiction, popular culture and just the way that these are all entwined within . . . those who look for them or seek to get something out of them . . . I guess is a good way of explaining it. Quick question: have you guys read the Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke?

TS: I’ve got it on my bookshelf, but I’ve got a big, big pile and I’m hoping to get to it. I know it’s been on a lot of lists of things to read.

BB: I have not.

RR: Well it’s the . . . I was thinking about it earlier this morning. And it’s basically a group of monks in Tibet writing down the nine billion names of God because they think that when that happens that God will destroy the universe or, you know, everything will become fulfilled and then the universe will end. So they get to a point and they go, “Oh, this is going to take too long. So they rent a computer from a couple of Americans. The Americans come in and three months later it’s done. The Americans are like, “Oh it’s not going to happen. The computer’s not going to write down all these names of God. And then they’ll blame us when nothing happens.” And then it ends with them looking up and the stars are blinking out.

All: (Laughter)

RR: I thought that was a good analogy of how religion and technology can work together, especially in classic science fiction – which is where you’re looking, Tara.

TS: Yes, definitely. There’s a few . . . there are so many works of science fiction, and technology is such a key theme. One of my favourites is HG Wells’ The Time Machine, and just how he develops . . . it’s one of the first mentions of a time machine – a classic science fiction trope – and transporting somebody to the future. And it’s such a good story because you have, you know, the classic inventor and he’s thrown into this world of these two human races which are basically the sort-of English bourgeois class. And it’s taken to the nth degree, where they’ve formed two different species – the Eloi and the Morlocks.

RR: Yes.

TS: And they sort-of . . . it’s just such a funny little quirky exploration of, you know, how races . . . not races, but how some classes could develop in the future (5:00). And I feel like there’s a real little comic element to that as well. But just how . . . what a good story it is.

BB: I think that’s an interesting thing and this is where your and my PhD’s actually interact, here. And that’s the way that we think about religion in general, and how it interacts with other gaming, social media and technology in that regard. So that element of religion inside Sci-Fi, I can see some similarities in that regard for Second Life. Where you have people that are creating elements of a worldly environment inside a digital space. So people purchase off spots of land actually in Second Life. And there’s been lots of words written about Second Life. Probably more words written about Second Life than actual players of Second Life. Because it’s not actually that popular anymore. Nevertheless, it is interesting see that human interaction in an open space. . . and given the freedom, people set up farms, work places and religious institutions. And they are largely representative of things which happen in the real world, or best practices which people try to aim for in the real world. And I see that through Sci-Fi, as well.

TS: Yes, what’s interesting is they opt for quite mundane realities, you know? If you’re given an option to be an avatar you can do anything you want. And what people want to do is they want to keep farming, and they want to just keep living and forming relationships. You kind-of would imagine that they’d choose something a bit more out of this world. The sort-of everyday is what they like to recreate in those realities.

BB: It’s things like FarmVille

RR: Or Farming Simulator. These things that you can get now which are just simulating the real in virtual reality.

BB: So, for me, those elements and Stardew Valley is one of those games that I’m studying as part of my PhD. And I’ve asked people to engage with this survey. And it’s been my most popular survey, as well.

RR: Maybe you just want to explain Stardew Valley?

BB: OK. So for those who haven’t interacted with it, it is a farming simulator. You’re transported to a farm which is in your family, and you’re given the space to do whatever you like. You can construct fences and have animals, or you can till the fields. And there’s different seasons. And you can interact with people in the village that is close by. And you can also do fishing other mundane tasks. It’s this perpetual engagement with this space, though, that I think actually quantitates a religious experience. But that’s outside of what the first grouping of religion and technology is that I see. The first one being religion inside the technology. That aspect of creating a church in Second Life is not the same engagement which someone would have by hoeing the fields in their little farm, inside Stardew Valley. That’s a different experience. And it quantitates a different response. And it’s different. Both of those architectures don’t have ends. So they’re both spaces to involve, but it’s about what the player does in those spaces. Second Life is more of an open field. And games like Elder Scrolls or Sky Room, they’re closed environments. So you have these religions that are actually represented in those spaces, and they may be made up. From that, I think we have Sci-Fi in religion. So it can come outside of the computer.

TS: Yes. And you can really see some example of that in science fiction. Some examples that come to mind is obviously Frank Herbert’s Dune, which is just such a rich tapestry of different religions. I mean, I think he sort-of identified himself a little bit as a Zen Buddhist. So you have these sort-of very clear Zen ideas, but then also very overt references to Islamic religion. You’ve got other eco-religious sort-of aspects to it. And so many different examples. And I think that’s so interesting, as a reader, is you try and navigate the space of so many different philosophies and ideas. And I think Frank Herbert really just wanted you to try and work it out. And I think, in his books, he really tries to get you to question sort-of where you want to take the book, and who you think the goodies and the baddies are. And he doesn’t really spell it out. And I think that’s why they’re such a good series. (10:00) And the other example, of course, is Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which is about the Martian, Valentine, who sort-of comes on earth, and creates his own church – the Church of All Worlds. Which is this very sort-of sixties, free love, sort-of pagan church. Which is such a contrast to the religious, very strict kind-of world he finds himself in. And he kind-of creates this space. And then it’s actually being used and created in religion outside of the novels: Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and Morning Glory. I think they’re based in America, and they have concepts they’ve borrowed from books like “grok” kin which is a term in the book used in the water rituals – they do their own sort-of water rituals. And they call themselves water kin. They’re called “Nests” that they group themselves in. And all these sort of things are borrowed from novels, but they’ve obviously taken it as their own, and sort-of brought their own very pagan, probably even more pagan aspects to it, and created their own little religion. I think that’s just so interesting, where you have science fiction directly impacting religion in that. But there’s also, of course, religion in the novels itself. So you’ve got these two ways that it’s diverging.

RR: Let’s just go back to Heinlein, for a second. Because writing something like that, in the 1960s – especially 1960s America, was completely antithetical to the standards and practices, if you will, of American society at the time. Which brings us to the idea that science fiction is social fiction. So you know, he’s sort-of writing this idea that in the future, possibly, we have comradery and free love. And we’re not being jack-booted into oblivion by fascist governments or anything like that – which a lot of 1960s science fiction was about – apocalyptic, and all that kind of thing. So do you think some social aspects of society influence . . .?

TS: Oh, definitely. Of course. I think that’s a huge impact. You obviously write to what your surroundings are. But I think science fiction uses our social fictions. Because it’s set in the future – and all of these works are set quite far into the future – the writers can sort-of explore new ways of looking at . . . and that’s why you have utopias and dystopias. You can look at completely different, new ways of thinking and taking of the world to a different place. And that’s why I think it’s so powerful. And, in terms of religion, you can imagine different ways of how religion might look in the future. And with technology, you can see maybe how technology could be used, taken to it’s very most extreme view – sort-of as warning and as a guide. That’s why science fiction is so useful. And probably with gaming you see similar aspects of the reality and real life impacting fiction. And the lines are getting blurred. And with technology. Our kind-of idea of having distinct categories is sort-of dissolving.

BB: True. I think and we’re talking about this intermediary space between religion and Sci-Fi, or Sci-Fi, technology and religion. And there are elements that are in both. My thesis looks at the religious endeavour of the technology. So there is actually a third category we can look at. But to flow into that second category, you have elements, now, of technology and Sci-Fi being implemented in religions. And they’re commonly done. We had the Pope App that was launched, which has the “Click to Pray”. And Pope Francis was actually launching the app – he’s a bit of a technophobe, (self-) admittedly, a technophobe – and he asked the priest next to him whether he’d actually done it by clicking the prayer, making sure that he actually prayed at that point. Which is quite jovial I think! There is an android monk who has been created. And you can go, and the monk then offers constant prayers. And you have different elements of technology which is enabling people to practise their religions in unique and different ways. What I think that you can see, and where this crossover is, is the elements of religions that are from Sci-Fi or from technological basis, becoming religions in themselves. So the Church of All Worlds, yes, is a good example. Jedi – I know that there was protest religion for the census four years ago (15:00). The numbers dropped off but there are certain people that do practice what is known as . . .

RR: There are registered temples in the United Kingdom, I believe.

BB: Yeah. And the sociological aspect of . . . I guess our department in a university and Western universities in general, is that we have to take people for what their words are. And if they say they are practising a religion and “We believe that we are practising a religion”, who are we to question that? So they are seen as equal footing. But what I think is interesting is the technological element, or the video gaming element as a religious endeavour in itself. And Sci-Fi actually as religious endeavour, and using those texts as religious texts.

TS: Definitely. Especially if we see science fiction as technology itself. As a definition you could call fiction and science fiction technology, just the reading of it. Because I think the definition of technology is like – we probably should have . . .

RR: I think the definition of technology is the same as the definition of religion. It’s different to whoever’s discussing it, I guess. And that’s the big problem with Religious Studies is that it’s a different meaning to everybody.

BB: That’s true. Whether we’re using mundane tools or super computers creating digital spaces to deal with . . . they are both outside of the human experience, in its unique and abstract from. So if we think of it in that regard. So, myself as a human: how do I interact with the world? And my choice is – me, myself – is to sit at home and play video games, occasionally, when I get time. But involving ourselves in some sort of experience using a tool. That is, in itself, a technology. And I think that’s the boundary. And that’s all we can say about it. Because otherwise you get drawn into, “Well, is a Dolo Matrix computer system actually as equal technology as something as an iphone today?

TS: Yeah. I guess I’d want to just say that science fiction can be used as a tool almost like a form of technology, itself. And if we’re looking at science fiction like that, I think we can connect. We have similarities in our PhD topics and what we’re interested in. And that science fiction can be used both as a guide to these developments of technology . . . in the sense of, when we’re exploring topics like AI and cloning and looking back at the writers who were already thinking about this sort-of fifty years ago, and trying to project that into the future. That’s such a useful tool for us. But also science fiction being used as a way of shifting perception. And this is Darko Suvin’s definition of estrangement. So, good science fiction creates a sense of a new reality, a new perception, a new way of thinking. And that’s what I think is the key for science fiction, is really shifting what we think. And by setting new social realities in the future – whether  that’s exploring different ways of looking at gender, different ways of looking religion – it’s allowing us to really shift our perception, and grow as a civilisation, and that’s what I think the key is.

RR: I think one of the really good things about science fiction is it actually provides us a glossary for terms for technology now. So things like when Arthur C Clarke first used the term satellite, it hadn’t been used before. And now we are all calling these things orbiting the earth satellites. But even things like when Steve Jobs first announced the ipad, or the iphone, he was calling it a “magic tablet”, because you were essentially using your finger like a wand. And sort-of taking these terms from literature and them importing them into technology.

BB: It’s a very . . . that speech which Jobs gave at that Apple conference and there’s the ipod

RR: The ipod – even earlier! Yes

BB: So that was where he pulled out the ipod and is talking about the beautiful cover art and how to actually listen to sounds and everything like that. But that element of talking about the finger touching onto the screen, or touching onto the dial at the time – so the circular dial – and being able to choose different things. And then the glass screen being fitted afterwards. It’s a really charismatic performance which he actually is creating. And it blurs the lines of, you know, a traditional religion, into that regard (20:00). And there’s people that have written on this: the dress code that he’d apply . . .

RR: Oh, the turtle neck?

BB: Turtle neck, the black, and speaking in certain ways, no visible microphones and this sort-of darkened room but a crowded audience, so you have that sense of being drawn into something like a church. It’s very organised. And it’s quite amazing seeing that line of technology almost manifesting itself into a religion and religious experience.

TS: Definitely. It’s like all the geek culture now is becoming like sort-of what we are in science fiction and gaming, the geek culture – not exclusively, but I mean that how we make meaning and how we connect to the world is really changing I feel. And it doesn’t make it any more or less religious. It’s still people still getting sort-of a religious experience doesn’t always have to be what we typically understand religion for. And I think that’s why, as studies of religion students, our definition is constantly trying to change and fit into new paradigms. And I think that’s what – not everyone agrees – but I think that what is important to have different ideas and trying to constantly rethink what we think is technically religion. And not dismiss things that don’t necessarily fit into what we thought.

BB: I agree and that’s a large part of my PhD, actually, is going to engage with, “What is religious experience?” And so William James actually coined that phrase, and uses religious experience in a certain way. And he’s using that on the basis of quoting from people like Tolstoy which then Albert Camus, and later writers, actually engage with as well. I actually think there is a misreading here that we – as people that are studying theology or philosophy or religious studies or religion in general – we’ve actually taken a lot for granted. And it needs to go back and look at what these writers are talking about. So where Tolstoy, in My Confession, he paints the picture of being in the well and hanging from the sides of the well, seeing a snake that is about to bite your hand. And then there’s this little sapling with some sap that’s dripping forth almost a honey. What do you do in that experience? Do you fall? Do you accept that you’re going to fall? Do you try and fight on? Or do you joyously eat the sap and accept that that is going to be your lot in life? Camus and Tolstoy, they’re engaging with these things – this absurdism of accepting your lot in life, and actually engaging with it as much as you can, and doing the best that you can in that space. That’s where I see these similarities of religious experience of somebody who plays that Stardew Valley, as to someone who’s sitting in the church pews, or engaging with pilgrimage and going to the mountaintops. And I can see the same languages being used with these different people. Now it’s not every person that’s going to get that experience. I don’t think that the casual gamer who’s jumping on line to play with their friends, playing Call of Duty or whatever the game is, is going experience that. Nor do I think that games like Mario Parties, which are a social event, may give you those feelings. They may, but it is not necessarily the case that every person that engages with reading Sci-Fi is going to have the divine experiences of questioning what it is to be human and what it is for reality. But some texts definitely do. And some games definitely do.

RR: I think a lot of the text where it comes down to questioning reality, or questioning what it is to be human, comes down to if the book is really well-written you can sortof start thinking about that. But I think it’s something else where the book starts giving you religious fervour. Sort-of like . . ., trying to think of a good example . . .those sort of books where . . . things like Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, which gives a good example of the internet, being written in 1993, is sort-of the next precursor to Neuromancer to explore the ideas of virtual reality, and all that kind of thing. But I don’t see any religions being made around it, or it being held up in high esteem as . . . . I think it’s up there with Dune (25:00). It’s one of my favourite books. But that concept of religion and technology is, yeah, I think it’s sort-of . . . people pick and choose what they want to take from that, I think.

BB: Yeah. Well there is curation of course. But I think that if . . . and what my study is finding is you ask people set questions – and I’m asking people the same questions if they’re from this religious experience and they identity as religious, or they identify as players of Elite, or Stardew Valley. And we just copy and paste out the names of religious experience to playing Elite. And you find the responses are very similar. Which means that there is something that people are getting out of this that it is quite religious.

RR: I just want to quickly ask Tara . . .because you haven’t done your research part of it yet. You’re going over to America, as you said, in a couple of weeks to ask people questions. Is there anything in particular you feel that you want to get out of them?

TS: I guess I just want to see some awareness . . . and I think that’s going to be with writers that are writing specular fiction; that they are trying to create a force of social change for the good. I think that there’s a certain . . . and it’s not all writers, but I think a lot of science fiction writers, especially, are trying to create a better world through their writing. And I think that’s a unique aspect of science fiction

RR: People like Kim Stanley Robinson with the environmentalist message.

TS: Exactly, yes. And so what I want to do, there’s a few things that I’m looking at. I’m looking at AI, I’m looking at environment, I’m looking at interplanetary travel, so there’s a few themes that I’m looking at. But I’m just trying to see: if they’re concerned about climate change, is that being reflected in their writing? And I think that obviously it will. But I just want some sort of confirmation that young writers – and I’ll probably get a range a people at Nebula, so all different periods of their writing experience – but that’s like a real . . . . That it’s sort-of at the forefront of their writing. And I think it will be. And that’s why I think it’s such a unique genre. Because it’s concerned with the same questions that philosophies are concerned with: “Who are we?”; “Why are we here?”; and also, making the world better. And I think you’d be hard-pressed to find people who don’t want to make the world a better place. And we’re in such an era the moment where people are feeling very fatigued and very depressed with the kind-of state of affairs. And I feel like that’s why it’s so important.

RR: Do you think things like science fiction and video games give people the hope . . . that they find themselves doing these things in order to better feel better about things, about the world? Give some form of meaning, some form of credence?

TS: You mean like escapism?

RR: Escapism, yeah.

TS: Sort-of, but I also think more of a warning. Speculative fiction that’s set in the future and shows a very bleak . . . where technology’s gone totally terrible, and it’s like this very bleak world, we can go: “Ok. Should we, maybe, alter the way that we’re progressing with artificial intelligence? In reality, can we do some measures to try and, maybe, not get to that place? Or how can we change the way we interact with Facebook or our iphones, to maybe then impact the future? And that’s what I’m hoping science fiction . . . . What I think science fiction does is it also acts as a warning – not just that escapism from reality. That’s definitely an aspect of it, but also a warning in the dystopia of what our realities could become.

RR: Yes. Benn?

BB: Yes! (Laughter) I think . . .

RR: Because I’ve got to admit I’m very much a video game player and I play for a multitude of reasons. None of them are religious – it’s usually to avoid other people.

BB: And that’s, I think, where most people do find themselves engaging with this space. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you cannot get the same experience there that someone who is having an openly religious experience is. So they can be one and the same. I’m not necessarily concerned or even really interested in why people engage with video gaming or religion. Because I think that becomes a whole quagmire of thought, based on family background, social background, and then you have to almost get into the psychology of someone who is engaging that way (30:00). All I’m interested in is flat-lining the approach. So classifying people as: you’re either playing, or you’re not playing these games. And I then asked the question well, “Why are you playing these games? Why are you continually playing a game which is meant to only have a ten or twenty hour engagement? Why have you played that for four or five hundred hours? Why do you continue to play World of Warcraft?” Once you’ve got to the end, you’ve got your character maxed out, and you’re one of the toughest in your group. And, yes, you perform in a certain role in a team environment. But it brings people back. It’s not physically possible to finish every element in a lot of these games. And they are sand boxes, many of them. But some of them aren’t. And this is the interesting thing. There’s people that have played games which are meant to be coin-crunchers – arcade experience games, that you’re meant to only play for two or three minutes, and then you give way to the next person at the arcade to put another quarter in there, and that’s what those games are developed with – people that play those games for eighteen to twenty hours at a time on a single credit. Nibbler for example. It’s not a great game. It’s a snake that is going round a field constantly – same type of field. That’s not a great experience, it looks like, from someone who stands back. But people try and do that because they’re trying to get the world record. But they’re returning to it constantly, because they’re obviously enjoying that experience. Otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it. And that, I think, is really interesting. Where you can have what looks like a very mundane task, and it gives that sort-of perpetual feeling of engagement. And it keeps drawing people back, over and over again. If I can share a quote?

RR: Yes, please.

BB: So this started off on a Tumblr site and it’s been copied across to a website. And it’s called Journey Stories. And the user Jitterfish shared this, which I thought was quite interesting. It’s about Journey the video game. So Journey is a game where you are a cloaked avatar. So you’re a cloaked figure that appears in a vast dessert landscape. And you don’t see anything, except for a light on a hill in the distance. And there’s very little actually in the field of play, initially. And it draws you to constantly march towards . . .

RR: It’s very linear.

BB: Yes – very, very linear. You do interact with another person in the game. So it’s not – spoiler alert! It’s a ten year-old game, I think we can spoil it! The other person that appears in the game is actually another user who is playing the game at the same time, somewhere else in the world. So it’s a live experience. And it’s not initially clear that you have that experience. Now, Jenova Chen actually studies flow, studies philosophy, writes a little bit about religious experience in that regard, but not so much. But he was interested in creating this experience where he’d engaged with users in a very limited way. So you only have a set tone, so you can set off this tone. And that’s it in the game. So you can jump, set off a tone and walk. Very, very limited. So Jitterfish writes: “Is it possible to have a religious experience in a video game? Because I just danced for twenty minutes with a complete stranger in the final level of Journey. When we got to the end I learned that the final part of the mountain, just before you walk into the light, if you run into your companion and jump you can fly into the air. We synchronised our jumps until we were floating above the light, twirling and dancing and laughing. And I just – I don’t even know, man. I’m crying. So many feels! Carlos G. Nice, if you’re reading this, you’re amazing.”

RR: It’s kind-of sweet.

BB: And that for me is – it is a very sweet experience. And I have had very similar experience, playing the game, where I walked and played with someone from the beginning to the end of the game. It’s only happened once since I’ve played it, and I’ve played it a number of times through. And then you float back to the beginning and you lose connection with that person. So, yes, there is this interaction that you’re getting which is a divine experience. And that is quite magnificent for a game to actually give you that experience.

RR: I guess that brings me to my last thing I want to talk about, and that is perception of reality within video games (35:00). Because I mean, that’s quite a nice story here. Journey is, what, five hours long?

BB: Not even that. It can be two to three. And that’s if you go all the way through it.

RR: But for that two or three hours, that’s your reality. Where do you see technology, video games, science fiction sort-of leading in regards to reality?

BB: I think with the freedom of human experience now being shaken, and what it actually means to be human, it gives people a place for free expression – this is video games. So the expression . . . I think the narrative is interesting, which is given to players, and given these choices. So if you play Last of Us or something like that, this is quite an amazing experience. But they are somewhat a “choose your own adventure” game. Maybe a little bit more complex, but generally that’s what they are. The experiences where players push that boundary can be in linear experiences, but generally it is in these sandbox, larger games, where people break that narrative and then exist within the space. That’s what I find fascinating. And that I think is something unique to our generations now, where we’re looking at technology, in this regard, as a place where we can go home and interact in those environments –and “be the best that we can”, to take the Pokémon phrase! And that very best that we can may not necessarily mean that I am even known by my name as Benn, anymore. It may be that I’ve taken on a persona, and am existing in this space, and am free to do so because of the limitations being removed. And then that pulls onto things that people like William Bainbridge, who has a background in Theology, looks at world of Warcraft in that regard, actually spoke about how his sister has passed away, and in creating an avatar and naming that avatar after her, and engaging with that avatar, and imagining a persona of her experience in there, that really opens up possibilities of what gaming can actually provide.

TS: Yes. I think science fiction is such a useful way of exploring different realities and new realities and I mean when I was I think about fifteen was when I read Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker and his Last and First Men. And they were just such big perception shifts for me. And I just remember in Star Maker – and I’ve written an essay on it since then – but this massive cosmic journey that you take through all these different universes and worlds, and you meet all these different alien lives, so different from yours. You’ve got these amazing creatures that he creates. And the whole purpose of the journey is to meet the Star Maker and meet who created all this life. And you get this feeling of this real, depressed . . . all these civilisations that can’t quite reach this perfect state. They just can’t quite get there. And this big quest. And you know, towards the end, the actual meaning of the Star Maker is not what you expected. You end up coming back a bit disappointed. And you return back to – the character’s unnamed – but you return to this grassy hill in England in the dark, looking up at the stars. And you sort-of feel this sense of awe, but also a little bit of this sense of loss. And the two things that Stapledon gives you – as a final conclusion, two pillars that we can really rely on – is a sense of community and a connection with people, and the sense of this cosmic awe and the striving to know that, even if we never reach that. And I think that really fits in well, Benn, with your perpetual journeying and also those two elements in Journey that you talked about: doing the Journey with somebody else, and that kind of connection with another person; and also this striving for something that you never really can get. And those two features are just such a sweet little reminder of what, I think, is this way that this profound effect that reading good science fiction and playing good games can have on you as an individual.

BB: Totally.

RR: I think we may have to leave it there. Benn, Tara – thank you very much!

TS: Thank you.

BB: Thank you (40:00)


Citation Info: Banasik, Benn, Tara Smith and Raymond Radford. 2019. “Science Fiction, Video Games and Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27 May 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 22 May 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/science-fiction-video-games-and-religion/

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.

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Demystifying the Study of Religion

In this podcast we have a group discussion about Russell McCutcheon’s new book, Religion in Theory and Practice: Demystifying the Field for Burgeoning Academics. Joining us on the podcast is not only the author himself, but two young scholars who also contributed to the book, Matt Sheedy and Tara Baldrick-Morrone.

This book is of particular interest to the RSP because it is not just another critical theory book on religion, but examines the practical sites where theory gets implemented and challenged at the university. Moreover, it specifically includes the perspective of early career scholars and the struggles they face as they navigate the sparse job market. In this interview we discuss what is included in the book, how it got put together, and some of the broader theoretical and practical issues it deals with. Topics discussed include how to construct an introductory course, the job market, contingent labor, the gap between what we learn as graduate students and what we are expected to teach once we are working in the field, as well as other issues.

 

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, doughnuts, kale, and more.


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


Demystifying the Study of Religion

Podcast with Russell T. McCutcheon, Matt Sheedy and Tara Baldrick- Morrone (29 April 2019).

Interviewed by Tenzan Eaghll.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: McCutcheon_et_al._-_Demystifying_the_Study_of_Religion_1.1

 

Tenzan Eaghll: Hello. We are gathered here today, over the mighty inter-webs to discuss Russell McCutcheon’s latest book,Religion” in Theory and Practice: Demystifying the Field for Burgeoning Academics. Joining me is not only the author himself, Russell McCutcheon, but a couple of young scholars who contributed small pieces to the volume – Matt Sheedy and Tara Baldrick-Morrone. Russell McCutcheon probably needs no introduction to most of our Listeners but just for some of those who may be new, he is Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Matt Sheedy is visiting Professor of North American Studies at the University of Bonn. And Tara Baldrick-Morrone is a PhD candidate and instructor at the Department of Religion at Florida State University. Now part of what makes this book special, and why I wanted to include Matt and Tara in this podcast, is that it isn’t just another theory book about Religious Studies, but actively engages with questions about what it takes to make it as a scholar in today’s world. And there are about twenty other young scholars, including myself, who wrote short pieces for this book reflecting on some of the concerns and issues that young Religious Studies scholars face in the workplace today, as well as in their scholarship. So what I want to do is start with Russell and get a sense of what this book is all about, and then bring in Matt and Tara to the conversation and talk about their respective contributions and about some of the issues that burgeoning scholars face in the world today. Now, Russell – one of the first things that jumped out at me when I originally initially read the blurb for the book, on the back jacket, is that it is a bit of a follow-up to your previous book, Entanglements. So I was hoping you might start by summarising the general aim of the book for our Listeners, and saying something about how it relates to your previous work and how it differs.

Russell McCutcheon (RM): Sure. Thanks for wanting to talk about this. Entanglements was a collection – also with Equinox – of replies and rejoinders that I’ve been lucky enough to have – interactions with a variety of people – over the years in print. And those things all just sit somewhere and have a life of their own. And nobody knows they happen, if they don’t stumble across it. So I thought I’d pull all this together. But in pulling that together I wrote a fair bit of new material to open every one of the pieces and situate it, contextualise it – when was this given, why was it given. But in writing those, I explicitly tried to think of an earlier career reader who might not yet have had the luxury of doing these sorts of things, of talking to these sorts of people. Because latterly I’ve paid a fair bit of attention to job market issues, things that have been issues for decades in the Humanities, but have certainly hit a peak in the last five, ten years in North America at least – also in Europe now. So it occurred to me that that would be a good audience to write to, whatever anybody else did with it. So that was Entanglements, it certainly wasn’t a “how to” volume or anything. But then a review of Entanglements – and there have been many reviews – but a review of Entanglements written by Travis Cooper – who recently finished his PhD at Indiana, mainly I think in anthropology but also Religious Studies – he wrote a review of it and had some qualms with the book here and there. He said some nice things, he said some critical things. But I open the introduction to this set of pieces quoting his review, where he basically says, “Where’s the other senior career people in the file, writing things? Where are they? Why aren’t they writing things like this?” And that stuck in my head after the press sent me a copy of that review. And for a variety of reasons I’ve become an essayist. I didn’t set out to be an essayist, but I’ve turned into an essayist in my career. And so, periodically, I’ve collected together things that have been published, things that haven’t been published. And that was in my head. And his review line prompted me to think, “Well I have a number of things I’ve written – on the field, on teaching, on the intro course – that have not been pulled together, and a few that have not been published yet. And so that’s how his book came about. Thinking specifically to – in an even more explicit way – address a variety of career and professional issues with the earlier career person in mind. Whether they agree or not with how I study religion they’ll probably at least come across certain departmental or professional issues. So that was the logic of this book.

TE: OK, great. And maybe just to add to that, that the organisation of this book is also quite interesting. It’s divided into three sections: theory, in practice and then in praxis. Is there a particular rational for that division?

RM: Well I finished this book quite a long time ago, to be honest. Well over a year, a year-and-a-half ago. And presses all have their own publishing schedules. And the book originally had two sections. That’s the title: in theory and in practice (5:00). And my logic was, you’re looking for some . . . you know, it’s myth-making, right? You’re looking for some hindsight organisational principle to the pieces you’re pulling together. You think, in your head, that they’re related somehow. And I thought, “Well, a group of these are mainly about my interest in the category of religion, classification interests. But a number of these are a lot more practically concerned. They’re about . . . The Bulletin blog series, I repurposed a piece that I wrote there, and Matt was involved in commissioning that, right? But: “What do you tell people you do, when they ask you, as a scholar of religion?”; a piece that I originally did up at Chicago on practical choices you have to make in designing a curriculum syllabus . . . so there’s your practice. But because the piece was done so long ago and it had not moved to copy editing, that’s when it occurred to me that a whole bunch of these additional pieces where people had replied to something I wrote ten years ago on professionalisation issues, that what a perfect opportunity to get all these people – if they were interested – to get their pieces into print. I liked my theory/practice division and that’s when it occurred to me, “Well, yes: praxis! Why not? There’s the third section.” It’s certainly not praxis in the technical Marxist sense, but giving early career people – ABD people, or at least they were when they wrote this, not all of them still are – reflecting on their own situation in the light of some theses about the profession from a decade ago, seemed to have this very nice integration of theory and practice. This very nice sense of practically applied theory. And thus the structure of the book came about.

TE: One thing that I liked about the book, on reading it, is that it didn’t just say a lot of the familiar stuff that those of us who have read your other books, say, have come to know and expect from your work, such as your critique of the world religion paradigm and, say, tropes like the spiritual-but-not-religious notion. But it also had this really kind-of cool practice section where you almost were thinking through, in some of the essays, your own development as a teacher and scholar, and how you kind-of came to arrive at certain more critical positions, and give a nice reflection on the development of you and academics and Religious Studies in the field today. . . .

RM: Oh that’s very kind. You found some of those useful, then?

TE: Yes, I thought these was an interesting juxtaposition – because we didn’t’ just get the critique but how those critiques formed, and how they formed – particularly in the classroom in some of your reflections on teaching introduction classes. But I have a question on that, so I’ll get to that in a moment.

RM: Well one thing I could say, jumping off that, is that – I’ve written about this – I’ve long been frustrated by the classic division of labour between teaching and research. And, “My teaching gets in the way of my research”, which all kinds of people talk about that. Or on the other side, people will call themselves “teaching specialists”. I’ve never been sure exactly what that means to be honest. In other words, I’ve never met a teaching specialist who teaches more than I do, that teaches more different courses than I would. We all, generally, do about the same. That division of labour, wherever you side yourself, has always been frustrating. Because, at least in my experience, the things that I’ve taught in classes have been deeply consequential to my writing. I don’t know anyone who teaches something in a class that didn’t come from someone’s research, right? We read books, we use books in classes, and we do field work and talk about it in our class. So anything that draws attention to intimate cross-pollination between these, strikes me as an important thing.

RM: That’s one of the similarities between some of your essays and the works of, say, Jonathan Z. Smith, is that he often did the same thing: used essays as an occasion to reflect on the intersection between the two, teaching and theory.

RM: For me it was profoundly evident in my very first job. I was a full-time instructor at the University of Tennessee. I’ve written about this, when they asked me . . . . In a different book that’s come out, I reflect on this quite explicitly, to use Huston Smith’s world religions – The Religions of Man is originally the title – in one of my courses. And I didn’t know much about Huston Smith’s book. I kind-of knew a little bit about it – I’m writing my dissertation and I’m not paying attention to that particular Smith – and I used it. I had to use it. And the kind-of world religions critique someone like me would offer wasn’t present in the field. Then, not many people were thinking much about it. And at least for me, that particular experience – using the book I was told to use in classroom – played a crucial role in helping to cement a real dissatisfaction in the particular model that probably, prior to that, I hadn’t thought too much about (10:00). And thus Manufacturing Religion takes on a new character. There’s new examples used in that – specific things from Smith, used as instances of problems in the field. So it was a frustrating experience for me using the book, but it was only a frustrating experience for me as I used the book. And as I became familiar with that very popular model that a lot of other people were using. So again, that was fortuitous that they asked me to use that.

TE: This might work as a partial springboard to the next question, then. It’s one of the points you make in your introduction that I found interesting: many of the concerns about the current state of the field are not new, but have been of concern to young scholars for a number of years – including yourself, when you were a young scholar. I found this interesting, because it’s something that I hadn’t thought about when I was a grad student and heard everybody complaining about the lack of jobs and the current state of the Humanities. I would always kind-of wonder to what extent these struggles are all new, how new they were? And so I guess I wanted to throw that question out here, and ask you to expand a bit on what you think is new for young scholars in today’s climate and what is similar. Do we face new challenges or is it all the same-old . . .?

RM: I say, I think, a little bit in the introduction and then a little bit in the intro to the third part. Before Matt’s piece, in the third part of the book, I repeat this. I always find it frustrating the manner in which groups – who might otherwise have shared interest – consume each other in their critique. That I often now see conflicts between scholars more senior than myself – and I write about this a little bit in the book – and scholars much more junior to myself. And the two of them are quite critical of each other. On the one side I see almost a view of: “Suck it up! It’s all hard work.” And on the other side I see this view of: “You’re a privileged older person and you don’t really get how hard it is right now.” While I certainly understand that situation – at least from where I sit, being well between those generations. I’m fifty-seven, so I’m not a seventy year-old scholar. I got my PhD in ‘95. I started doing my PhD in about ‘88-‘89. I kind-of forget. So the generation that taught me, as opposed to the generation that are now getting PhDs, so I feel a little between those groups. And they strike me as having dramatically shared interests. They strike me as facing very similar problems, that there’s all kinds of people in their sixties and seventies and eighties – depending on how far back we go – who certainly just walked into jobs. Yes – at times, that happened. But if you ask scholars of those generations more about their own background you easily start to hear stories that are very identifiable with today. Today however, especially, you know, post 2008 budget collapse etc., it’s ramped up dramatically. It’s not just the 2008 budget collapse. At least here, in the United States, state budgets where education is largely funded, have been declining for decades, steadily, right? The proportion of state funds going to higher education. So, none of this just happened overnight. This has been a steady process. But when you add the post-2008 budget collapse it does seem to heighten it pretty dramatically. So I think they’re incredibly similar situations. But the magnitude of the situation now, it’s not difficult to see someone in a situation now thinking, perhaps rightly so, that it’s a change in kind. It is so heightened. So I guess again, the attempt was to try to get a number of people currently in that situation – the pieces in the last section of the book were written a few years ago, so some of those people’s situation has changed – to really get, to have a voice. And I don’t know that we’re here to convince people more senior than myself about anything. They’ll read this, they’re retired perhaps. But as least back to Travis Cooper, to really start thinking of those other senior people in the field. It’s not that like department chairs control universities. They’re largely the victims of funding decisions that happen elsewhere, too! But to think a little more constructively about contingent labour, about PhD programmes across the country: what should they be doing? How do we train students? What are we training them for? Let alone MA programmes? So if that starts a little bit more of a conversation that would be wonderful. It’s a long-overdue conversation, there’s tremendous interest probably against ever really having the conversation. That’s just the standard way. But I’m hopeful.

TE: Alright, that might be a good spot to turn to Matt and Tara. Their contributions were reflecting upon Russell’sTheses on Professionalization, which he originally wrote in 2007. So perhaps, Matt, you could start by saying something about your role as editor of The Bulletin (15:00), and how these responses to the “Theses on Professionalization” came together, and your specific response in the volume?

Matt Sheedy (MS): Yes. Well, thanks very much for this invite and the opportunity to talk about this sort-of interesting collaborative project. I was – past tense – editor for The Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog – that’s the blog portal of The Bulletin for the Study of Religion – from approximately 2012 to this past summer, 2018, as The Bulletin has had some transitions in terms of editor. And I don’t remember exactly how the idea for this came about, but Russ’s piece on professionalisation had circulated for quite some time since it was originally written. And it was something that was widely read and engaged with, and talked about. And so it became this opportunity – possibly seven, eight, nine years after the fact – to revisit some of the questions in the theses that he proposed, with early-career scholars who are trying to sort-of navigate the job market and deal with questions of professionalisation more generally. So, with a few suggestions from Russ and from people that I knew as editor at The Bulletin, I was able to bring together twenty-one early career scholars at various stages in their careers – some who were ABD (all but dissertation), some who had just finished their PhDs, some who were taking on visiting professorships and post-docs, and so forth, to reflect on the different questions from their own experience. So what’s really interesting about these responses is that it reflects a fairly broad range of scholars, dealing with similar sets of questions, in around the same time, with widely different experiences. You know, for me, when I was asked to bring all these together and it became this interesting project, the idea of turning this into a book came about through a variety of conversations. And that never fully took place for a variety of reasons. And the idea of turning these blog responses into a book was temporarily shelved. And then Russ came to me and said that he thought, if I was interested, that a portion of this book would be a good place to include these responses. Not only because they’re obviously theses responding to something that he had written, but because it reflects very much this idea of religion in theory and practice, and engaging the process of professionalisation; engaging young scholars. And it really worked out that way. Everyone was able to rethink their pieces, upwards of two years on from originally writing them, to get that published in this volume. For me, I talk about how – as Russ touched upon earlier – the 2008 economic crisis was really a crucial hinge in how a lot of us, at least, early career scholars had been thinking about this process of professionalisation. And whether or not, and to what extent, these problems were around and persisted in earlier generations. Certainly conversations, narratives about the crisis – not only in the broader economy but also in academia – really started to come to the fore, by my estimation. In the aftermath of things like the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, shortly after that in 2012-2013, one started to see regular articles appear in higher education (publications) and a variety of other forms, talking about younger academics having problems getting jobs, having problems making that transition. And, more generally, this idea that the economic crisis was finally coming to the academy. And the assumption here is that there was a bit of a lag, a bit of a delay, in terms of the impact and the effects on less and less people getting jobs. And for me, one of the things that I mention is the experiences of two scholars in particular, one of whom, Kelly J Baker, has a piece in the 21 pieces on professionalisation. She very publicly made the decision to walk away from academia and yet, at the same time, pursued her writing career that was related to her training in the study of religion, related to a lot of problems of being an academic, getting a job, the current job market, questions of gender and so forth. And she’s a really interesting example of someone who has made lemonade out of the lemons that she was given, so to speak. Another scholar that I mention is Kate Daley-Bailey, who was engaged with academic circles, certainly was working with Russ and Tara and a number of others as well. And she made an announcement as well, I think around 2014 – 2015 that she was leaving academia because there weren’t enough jobs for her as adjunct (20:00). And this sort-of struck me as a somewhat personal, or at least emblematic, instance of someone I knew who seemed to have all the sharps, all the skills, all the motivation to do this job and do it well, but had to walk away because of her own experience with those structural issues. And so those were a few of the things that I gesture to in the introduction. And I also bring together just sort-of an overview of the different themes that are talked about and covered in the 21 theses. As well as the changes that have taken place over the course of about 2 years: seeing certain people succeed, get tenure track positions. In other cases people remaining adjuncts, still working through their PhDs and in some cases scholars having left academia either temporarily or altogether. So it really struck me as microcosm bringing these 21 scholars together, of all of the different sort of experiences that one may encounter in this current academic market specifically related to the study of religion.

TE: That’s definitely one of the most interesting parts, having read them all when they were first initially published on The Bulletin and then reading them now, is kind-of the development of some of the responses over the couple of years. Initially I think, when everybody wrote, there was a lot more morbid tone in some of them – at least mine! Mine was very . . . when I first wrote it, it was very like “Everything’s hopeless!” But now my reflection, a couple of years on, is a little bit more nuanced. Throwing it to Tara, perhaps you could say something about your thesis and your response?

Tara Baldrick Morrone (TB-M): Sure. And thank you for asking about this. I responded to Thesis Number 6. And the general point of this thesis that Russ wrote is that simply getting a doctoral degree is no longer enough to obtain a full-time position in academia. And in my response I discussed how this has related to the hyper-professionalisation that has been occurring in the Humanities. That people like Frank Donoghue have written about The Last Professors. And the idea is that younger scholars, those still in graduate school, are expected to publish, to gain a lot of teaching experience while they are still students and as they are still working on their own coursework, in order to professionalise them so to speak, in order to obtain that tenure track job. And as Matt was talking about, that’s not always the case. You can sort-of fulfil all of these requirements and still not obtain a secure full-time position in academia – as the examples that he mentioned, Kate Daley Bailey and Kelly J Baker. And so I wanted to draw attention to this because this is one of the things that we’re all told. That if we do all of these extra things we can attain that position. And looking at the job numbers from the reports released by the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, the number of tenure track jobs have actually been decreasing. And that just is further evidence, I think, of those positions not being available.

TE: Yes, and the amount of grad students doubling in the process, which is those two colliding: the faculty tenure track positions decreasing and then the PhD applicants doubling and tripling. That creates a quandary. Yeah, definite strategies are needed and it’s so tricky once you get out in the workplace and you’re actually then responsible for even recruiting new MA students, like I am now in my current position. And you kind-of feel this burden. The department is asking you for more students and to promote the department, because they want the revenue from the students. But at the same time you know, like – what’s the end here? It’s just more PhD students on the job market. Now in my response to Russell’s “Theses on Professionalization”, I address the gap between what we study as grad students and what we’re expected to teach once we are working in the field (25:00). And I would like to extend that topic to both of you, Matt and Tara, for consideration. Since both of you are now teaching at the moment, I wonder if you’d be able to offer some reflection on the gap you have experienced between your, say, early dissertation and research topics and the actual content that you have been expected to teach. Have you found any conflict between these areas? And if so, how have you dealt with that? Maybe we could start with Matt?

MS: Well, for me I would say it’s very much a mixed bag. My training is in critical social theory, broadly speaking. I look at religion in the public sphere, focussed on the Frankfurt School and Habermas in particular. Its theories of post-secularism offer what I consider a very strong critique of that position. I have, for example, had to teach fairly generic on-the-books courses like ethics and world religions, among other classes, which – with only one exception, in the case of an online course – required me to follow a standard introductory text book. I’ve been very fortunate, apart from that, to have the opportunity to basically reimagine or redesign those courses when teaching them in person, in any way that I see fit. That’s been, I guess, gratuitous in my case, in my recent position in my second year as a visiting professor in a North American Studies department at the University of Bonn. It might be worth mentioning something briefly about that particular transaction. But getting hired on as a visiting professor there, again, now in my second year I have an opportunity to do a third year next year. I was given a complete autonomy to design whatever courses that I wanted. So I don’t have any a particular complaints in that regard. When I have continued to teach some of these course on-line, that’s when the constraints come in. I on one occasion had to teach text books that reflected the world religions paradigm. And on a personal level it might have some utility in getting you to constantly re-engage those ideas from my own work, moving forward. But pedagogically, it’s very limiting. So I have some issues with that. And the other broader point that I just wanted to mention was that in my current position in a department of North American Studies, I hadn’t really anticipated making that kind-of shift from Religious Studies. A friend sent me an application to this visiting professorship opportunity at the University of Bonn. And I gave it a casual glance and thought to myself, “Well, I’m a scholar of religion, a scholar of critical social theory, cultural studies, and these sort of things. I’m not really sure if that fits.” And my friend replied back, “Well, why not? You focus on North America, for the most part.” West, more generally. And I said, “OK, yeah. That’s a good point,” I sent in an application. And they were thrilled to get someone who focusses on North America and comes at it from the study of religion. So maybe to make a slight shift away from the doom and gloom and the negative stories often associated with these current academic market, for me at least, in this instance, I was able to transfer my skills to a slightly different department. And I came to realise very quickly that their own particular data set in this department of North American Studies may not be “religion” quote-unquote, but we share very similar theoretical backgrounds. So there are, certainly in my experience, and I know in the experience of others, opportunities like that to continue to professionalise, to get a post-doc, to get a visiting professorship and hopefully use that as a springboard to move forward. So I just wanted to put a shiny spin on that, in mentioning my experience.

TE: Shiny spins are always welcome! Tara, what is the gap that you have experienced between your dissertation and research topic, and your teaching experience?

TB-M: I am in the Religions of Western Antiquity track in my department and I have been trained as a historian of early Christianity, translating Greek and Latin and focussing mainly on second to sixth century CE. But there aren’t many courses, besides the intro to the New Testament course, that specifically focus on related issues. And so I’ve been teaching courses that my department needs me to teach. Some of those courses include introduction to world religions, a multicultural film course and gender in religion (30:00). And so I have attempted to make that teaching work for me, in a sense. So some of my earlier work has been on the world religions paradigm, presenting papers for example at NASR meetings about that along with Mike Graziano and Brad Stoddard. And also thinking about how I might teach other courses in similar manners – such as gender and religion which is what I’m doing right now. And so I can’t just focus on those areas that I have been trained in. I have to broaden my own research interest in order to teach my students about something other than the ancient world. So there is a gap there, but I think that I’ve made it work for me by pairing some of my research interests with other topics that I’m either nominally interested in, or that I think my students will be interested in.

TE: Great. Well, thank you very much Russell, and Matt, and Tara for joining us today. It was a great conversation.


Citation Info: McCutcheon, Russell T., Matt Sheedy, Tara Baldrick- Morrone and Tenzan Eaghll. 2019. “Demystifying the Study of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 29 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 23 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/demystifying-the-study-of-religion/

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.

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Nonreligion, Religion, and Public Health

The link between religion/spirituality (RS) and health is a recurring theme in the empirical literature within the psychology and sociology of religion, medical studies, and other disciplines. Although this research is usually limited to correlational studies, RS is often interpreted to be an important causal factor in positive health outcomes. This has led some academics, NGO’s, and governments to argue that the putative health benefits of RS might be harnessed for public health and public policy more broadly. For example, the United States Army has recently launched a “spiritual health” program, and in the United Kingdom there is an ongoing debate about whether mindfulness meditation should be taught in schools. Government initiatives aside, what if the nonreligious are equally as healthy? In this podcast, Thomas J. Coleman III interviews Dr. David Speed on how research using nonreligious and nonbelieving samples problematizes some of the underlying assumptions of the relationship between RS and public health.

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 original Buns of Steel VHS tape, G.I. Joes, and more.


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


Nonreligion, Religion and Public Health

Podcast with David Speed (22 April 2019).

Interviewed by Thomas J. Coleman III.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Speed_-_Nonreligion,_Religion_and_Public_Health_1.1

Thomas Coleman (TC): Thank you for joining us today on the Religious Studies Project. I’m Thomas Coleman. And I have an interesting topic that I don’t believe we’ve broached before, on nonreligion and public health. And I have a special guest with us today to talk about this. But I kind-of wanted to provide the Listeners with a little bit of background first, before we introduce him. So the link between religion and public health is really a recurring theme in the empirical literature within the psychology of religion, public health, medical studies and other disciplines. This research is often limited to correlational studies because the procedures required to test these things experimentally are either unfeasible or raise serious ethical considerations. For example, as psychologists it’s really hard for us to figure out how we could validly manipulate someone’s nonreligious or religious identification, their beliefs or their behaviour, in a laboratory setting. And university ethics committees have a problem with us kind-of assigning people to the cancer condition for an experiment. So we can’t do that! But when many of these aforementioned correlational studies – some of which we’ll talk about in a second – identify a relationship between religion and improved health, religion is often interpreted to be an important causal factor. And in today’s podcast I’m pleased to have with us Dr David Speed who is an Assistant Professor at the University of New Brunswick. And his own research has applied a critical perspective to the religion and health literature, specifically focusing on how the nonreligious have comparable health to the religious. David, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

David Speed (DS): Hi Tommy. Thanks for having me.

TC: Excellent, excellent. So I was hoping we could have a little discussion along the lines of religion, nonreligion – kind-of the intersection on public health more generally – but also from the perspective of just psychological and individual’s health.

DS: Sure.

TC: And I know – just pointing out some further relevance for the Listeners here – in the US I think the Department of Defence has a multimillion dollar initiative looking at “spiritual fitness training“ and in screening of troops. And I can see David grimacing right now! But you know, this underscores an important fact that many governments and public health researchers are not simply interested in understanding or studying the relationships between religion and health, but actually using the purported benefits of religion and spirituality to shape public policy. And then, a last example here, I’m reminded, because I’ve been living in the UK off and on for the past two years, of how the United Kingdom has recently funded mindfulness meditation interventions I think in over two hundred county wide schools. So I’m excited to get down to a critical discussion about the nature of religion and health with you David and see where it goes.

DS: That sounds wonderful.

TC: So where does some of your own research fit in at the nexus between religion and nonreligion, and personal health and health in general?

DS: So I guess I can start with my dissertation. I started my PhD in 2011 and I graduated in 2015. And when I got accepted into my PhD programme I was told by my adviser I had to pick a health-related topic. And like many grad students I didn’t really know initially what to study. I knew I wanted a PhD but wasn’t sure what I wanted to study. And essentially, I got to the point where I was considering, well, if I could study anything, what would I want to study? And I had a pre-existing interest in atheism and in religion and so I was like, “I wonder how those things relate to health?” And so you go to the literature, as one does. And I immediately found literally hundreds of thousands of citations or references to various religions. So I thought “Well, ok. Obviously someone’s been very busy!” Because this was my first real exposure to it. And then I was like, “OK, well I’m curious how atheism fits into this.” And I found, I think, fewer than maybe a dozen papers, two dozen papers addressing atheism and health. So right away I knew that there, obviously, just on the numbers scale, atheism and health was under-studied (5:00). So I was curious about how atheism fits within the religion and health paradigm. And I started going through the literature. And over and over again you see this recurring set of findings that you’ve alluded to in your intro, that “Religion equals better health; religion equals better health.” So, going to church is good, being religious is good, prayer is good, meditation is good, spirituality is good, religious affiliation is good, belief in God is good, yadayadayada!

TC: So, could you give us a few examples there, though? Because I was very general about that – where these relationships appear.

DS: Sure, so if you’re looking at, say, church-based studies, you’ll find that religious congregants who attend church more frequently are more likely to report, say, lower levels of depression. They might report better perceived well-being. If you’re looking at national studies you might find that people with higher levels of church attendance report better happiness. It varies from country to country. There’s a cultural effect that happens. But a lot of the positive literature really centres around the US where religion tends to be more dominant. There’s a smaller proportion for Canada, and the UK, and other areas. But generally, a lot of these studies just kind-of recurrently suggest that if you go to church, or if you’re religious, you might be more likely to go for screening behaviours for cancers; if you’re religious you might be more likely to feel empowered; if you are religious, or if you believe in God, you are more likely to be comfortable in a situation where you have to face your own mortality. Something like that.

TC: And so you’re kind-of reviewing the literature, here, as you’re doing your doctoral studies. And you uncover this stuff, and what happens? What has happened since then? What did that prompt you to test, do, or dig in deeper?

DS: So as I’m going through the literature, there’s a few things that I start noticing kind-of simultaneously. And what it was is, you know, you read a few papers and you say, “Ok. People are saying that going to church is good. Ok that’s fine. Whatever. They’re generalising by accident.” But whatever. So you go through a few more and then you’re like “Wait a minute. Wait a minute.” So a lot of the studies – not all the studies, but a good chunk of the studies – they recruit from exclusively religious samples. So they’ll go to different church locations, they’ll ask congregants who are there, “How often do you go to church?”, “How happy are you?” and they’ll form a correlational relationship between these two ideas. And correlational research is not that. It’s difficult to make a causal argument with correlational data, but you can point to associations that are recurring. But if you are using an exclusively religious population in order to test something, you can’t generalise the benefits of whatever they’re doing to everyone, because not everyone’s part of that exclusive religious population. So if you sample like five Methodist churches in the Midwest, you can’t then say, “Well, everyone should go to church because of this sample.” You have to say, “Well, people who go to Methodist churches more frequently, congregants have better wellbeing.” That’s a fair conclusion. Now often the literature would say this in kind-of a round-about way. But they would often talk more broadly about the benefits of going to church, or the benefits of being religious, or prayer, or whatever. The other issue too is a lot of the research that is like large-scale is looking at outcomes that are intrinsically related to going to church frequently. So the classic one on this is slighting on the dependent variable. And self-rated health is one of the big benefits of being religious, or of scoring higher on measures of religion and spirituality or RS. So what researchers will do is go into say a religious organisation and they’ll say, “How often do you go to church?”, “How healthy do you think you are?” Or “Do you have any health issues?” They find that people who go to church more frequently report better perceived health and fewer health issues. Well, yes! Obviously! Because people who are really ill or people who have recurring health issues can’t get out and go to church frequently. That’s not shocking. It’s kind-of pointing out that, I don’t know, people who are going through some sort of medical treatment are somehow less healthy than people who don’t have to do that. Obviously they’re going through medical treatment because of the way they are, not because of some factor that’s driving the magic of that medical treatment! So this is a separate issue altogether is that if you’re slighting on the dependent variable, what essentially you’re going to do is that you’re limiting people who maybe on the lower end of that health, who would love to go to church more frequently but can’t (10:00). And the other issue with it – sorry I’m just rattling off a list of issues because this is my life!

TC: No. Perfect.

DS: Another one of the issues is that there was often a conflation of low religiosity with secularism. So it’s the idea that if you get really low levels of religiosity, so like: “I’m not religious, I don’t go to church, I don’t really pray”, the implicit conclusion or sometimes explicit conclusion of the researchers who do that kind of research would say, “Oh. These people embody secularism.” That is not an equivalent statement. The issue with that is, secularism is adhering to or taking specific positions on other topics, right? It’s not merely being apathetic towards religion, it’s endorsing other specific values that are more secular in nature. So there’s this conflation of low religiosity with secularism. So researchers will report, “You know religion’s healthier than secularism.” But they’re not assessing secularism the vast majority of the time. They’re just equating high secularism with low religiosity.

TC: And then we might say, more specifically, just secular nonreligious people per se. Because we’re used to, on the Religious Studies Project of course, taking a very critical approach to these terms. That’s something we don’t usually do in Psych of Religion although we should more. So just kind-of giving that to our Listeners as a blanket term here, you know, confusing people who probably self-identify as secular nonreligious with actually people who would identify as religious.

DS: Yes, absolutely. The biggest issue, though, for the research is that the mechanism driving the relationship between religion and health isn’t always clear. The big one that has the most support, I would argue is social support.

TC: Yes, I was going to say, what do mean by mechanism, here, in terms of driving? How does that work?

DS: Sure. So if you say that Advil is related to pain reduction, right? Advil is doing something – or Ibuprofen if we want to be non-brand specific – Ibuprofen is acting on your body in some biological way in order to produce the desired outcome. If the argument is that religion is connected with health, well, how is it connected with health? We can point at an association of high religion, high health, but why is that? What is the driving mechanism under-pinning that relationship? And arguably the strongest contender for that, from what I can see, is social support. And social support is associated with health. Social support is the perceived availability of resources around you from people. So I’m crying and I call my friend, will he or she console me? If I need money for rent until next week, will my friend have my back? If I really want to share about my day, will my wife humour me and listen to me talk about research for the 35th time that week? So that’s social support. So the more available social support a person has, and the higher degree of availability, the healthier they are. And this isn’t shocking. Like, having friends around you and having family and peers who you can rely on, that’s associated with good health. Religion’s associated with good health, this is true. But social support is also associated with religion. So people who are religious tend to report higher levels of social support. And to me this makes a lot of sense. Like, it would be astounding if you went to church on a weekly basis, or mosque on a weekly basis, or synagogue on a weekly basis and there was no social benefit to you. It would be astounding if that were the case. So the problem is . . . because the three of these things are inter-related, when you’re talking about social support. When we talk about religion benefitting health, a question that’s really important for researchers is “Why?” And if it’s social support, it gets more dicey about how we’re interpreting this then. Social support is a general benefit of social activities. It’s not a specific benefit of religion and spirituality.

TC: I was just going to get to asking that. Aren’t there some arguments that, maybe, religion is not the only source but, people might argue, a very good source of creating these social connections? How does that kind-of bode here? No – it’s not religion per se, but it is a really being driver of social connectedness?

DS: Sure. And I think that’s a very reasonable position to take. About half of my family I would describe as quite religious. They tend to go to church frequently. They tend to really enjoy church. But often they’re talking about. “So this happened in church . . .” or “So and so said this . . .” “I really like engaging with this person.” And it would be. . . . I think it’s a fantastic way of socialising with like-minded people. I think that’s wonderful (15:00). The problem is, is that the way this is presented within findings, and the way you often see justification for religious-oriented policy, say, like from government or from specific initiatives looking at improving spirituality in the fine young men and women of the United States is that you might see this as saying, “Oh well, religion is doing this.” It’s not social support via religion. It’s just religion. So last year I wrote a paper about this where I was discussing that it’s very frustrating talking about the benefits of religion when social support seems to be playing a major role in this. So, if you don’t mind I was going take an excerpt from that paper to help illustrate.

TC: Absolutely.

DS: I said, for example, “It is not difficult to imagine that persons who are active in chess clubs will have access to social support from their fellow members. Furthermore it is not unreasonable to imagine that more active members of chess clubs report better access to social support than less active members. However, if it were found that attendance at chess clubs was positively related to mammography it would be unusual for a researcher to frame these findings as ‘Chess enthusiasm promotes breast X-rays’. Instead, it would be likely argued that social support, which is accessible from any number of institutions including chess clubs, was responsible for increased screening behaviour. However in much of the existing religion and health literature a general benefit of social support, better screening in this case, appears to be presented as a specific benefit of religious activities.” And this is what I find very frustrating as a researcher: it would be shocking if going to church every week didn’t do something. But the important thing there is the social activity for it and not necessarily the religious angle for it. In fact there’s several studies where, when they’re controlling for social support – bringing in the relationship between religion and health, that relationship – the religion and health relationship goes to nothing. Because they’re controlling for social support. This doesn’t happen all the time. But it happens in several studies. And this is an important thing to consider. And finally I have one more point on this. I have one more quote on things that I find frustrating about the literature. It’s that even when researchers, when they work with looking at exclusively religious samples, they were . . . these are general samples, right? What they would do is they would describe everybody’s relationship between religion and health with a single type of consideration. So everyone got the same description of that relationship. So there was no real strong interest in looking at whether or not the relationship between religion and health was affected by other factors. Now researchers have tested moderation before. They find that, say, less-educated people tend to find a stronger benefit from religion and health.

TC: So we’re talking here about moderating factors being like level of education; maybe it only holds for lower or higher; or income, for example; or men versus women? Those kind of things. So I guess adding nuance to this “Religion is good for you!”

DS: The core thing, the frustrating thing is that when you’re looking at general samples you’re sampling people who are not religious, you’re sampling people who are not spiritual, you’re sampling people who are atheist, right? And there’s no reason to suspect that these people would value religion and spirituality to the same extent as someone who believes in God or is religious or spiritual. There should be no default assumption that these groups are equivalent to begin with. If you’re looking at say, sex-based differences like men versus women or males versus females you could say, “Well there’s no reason to suspect that one of these people would have a radically different relationship with religion.” They do not . . . their identity, or their moderating factor there, isn’t a religiously-slighted variable. If you’re looking at people who are atheist, though, that is something related to the very idea of religion and spirituality. If you’re looking at nonreligion that’s something that’s very much related to the idea, intrinsically, to religion and spirituality. But what had happened is that these previous studies they all treated everyone in the entire sample as having more or less the same expressed relationship between religion and health so they looked at sex as a moderating factor, age as a moderating factor, or education. But there was generally never any interest in looking at people who are not religious, whether or not they reported an equivalent relationship. So what the focus of my doctorate was on was looking at the idea of health outcomes and religious and spiritual beliefs and behaviours, but looking at whether or not people who were atheists, or nonreligious or not spiritual, whether or not they recorded a different linear relationship between those activities or beliefs and outcomes. And it turns out quite often they did. And quite often they reported a lower health score when they reported higher levels of religion and spirituality. So if you go to church, that’s fine (20:00). But you would, in this case, you would have to be religious really to see that same relationship. If you’re not religious and you’re attending church all the time, this has different health implications. So, problematically, if you’re saying that there is a monolithic relationship between religion and health you’re losing a lot of nuance there. Because religion and spirituality have benefits, but you have to have a religious and spiritual identity, which is conducive to you benefitting from those activities. So I jokingly say, “Well, my doctoral work, I got a PhD for saying ‘religion is healthy, but you’ve got to be religious to get that benefit.’” So it’s a kind of simplification, but no one had looked at that previously.

TC: And to add to this, I think that these are really important nuances particularly, again, in the domain of public policy and public health. For example, I’m thankful to have been a part of . . . they have different workshops put on by different places that have like week-long courses for private health care providers, government officials and so on, specifically informing them about the research on the relationship between religion, spirituality and health. And the takeaway from these . . . . They’re conducted very well, but there’s also, at the same time, a certain level of nuance that is just missing. And the takeaway message I hear when I’m in some of these presentations or venues or even reading books and chapters on religion and public health, is this kind-of assumption that since we now know . . . we’ve identified the . . . circumscribed the positive effects of religion here, well then: “Now that we’ve found the fountain of youth, let’s drink from it!”

DS: (Laughs)

TC: There’s almost this. . . . It’s not direct, and I’ve been very impressed in some of the more recent literature that has been taking into to consideration nonreligious concerns or saying, “We don’t know here . . .” but typically, it seems like there’s a blanket message that religion is good for a host of things, and we should use this; the government can grab a hold of this. And you’re saying that: “Kind-of . . . possibly . . . but . . !”

DS: Yes. Shockingly, there’s more nuance to this than “religion equals good health”. Because one of the things that really sticks out from the religion and health literature is when you look at people who are atheists, right? Atheists generally – we were discussing this prior to the show beginning. Atheists generally aren’t religious. They generally don’t go to church. They generally don’t score highly on religiosity measures. Atheists have really comparable health to believers. So if you . . . just logically, if you expect that high religiosity equals better health, then low religiosity should equal worse health. Atheists should be fairly unhealthy on average, just on that sort-of simplistic, somewhat reductionist perspective. But it’s not. It’s somewhat paradoxical. My colleague and I, Karen Hwang, we published paper called “The Healthy Heretic Paradox“, in which we looked at atheists who on the measures of health, using nationally representative data from America, we find that on average they tended to report comparable health to theists who were strong believers, despite the fact that they didn’t believe in God at all. So this showed there’s something of a fly in the ointment. Because if religion just uniformly benefits health, well people who are really not religious, like atheists, or they’re not – we’ll say atheists as the more extreme example – you wouldn’t really expect them to be healthy. But they are. Meaning that the description . . . it looks, at the very face value of it, that there’s something very wrong with how that relationship is being summarised.

TC: And I think there’s something fishy with the way that the relationship is interpreted both at the academic level and certainly bubbles up to policy and other things. What other studies have you conducted that speak to this, say, lack of nuance that was previously in the literature for this. And also I guess it would be strange to see . . . I can only think what the President of the US or different administrations what kind of flack they would take if they decided to prescribe kind-of atheism! Because it seems that people who did not believe in God more strongly had comparable health to the religious (25:00). So I was just kind-of interested in what other research and work you’ve conducted that can speak to this interesting . . . I don’t know if you want to call it a hydraulic relationship, maybe?

DS: Yes. Geez! I don’t know about the political thing, I’m not sure I feel comfortable answering whether or not the government should prescribe religious or atheistic beliefs. I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable with the government doing that. Regardless of whether or not they prescribed atheism or theism. As to the research, so what I generally do . . . my research uses pre-existing datasets from Statistics Canada, from the General Social Survey out of the University of Chicago. I think it’s the National Opinion and Research Council. I think they do those studies. Anyway, so it’s data that’s publicly available to any researcher who is interested in doing it and has the competence and statistics to do assessment. But I published a little more than half a dozen studies on the topic between religion and health. In each case I’m looking at: OK, well let’s look at how this actually relates, and let’s try and distinguish between people who believe versus not believe, in terms of these outcomes. In virtually all cases I found, it’s that often when there’s a really strong positive relationship between religion and health say for believers, you would find a moderating effect for whether or not someone was an atheist. I published a study with the Journal of Religion and Health in 2016 or 17, I can’t remember now. But it was looking at data from Ontario which is the largest province, population-wise, in Canada. And I found that people who go to church they tend to report better health but . . I think it was satisfaction in life, maybe. But if you’re looking at the nonreligious people recording the same level of attendance then what you see is a very different relationship. It actually reports a negative relationship. Now this isn’t to mean that going to church is bad. It’s just you need more nuance when you’re discussing these things, especially at a public policy level. Because it’s not this panacea that fixes everything.

TC: So it seems like there’s a heavy interpretation factor here, where on one end, you know, the general trend might be to say, “Oh, look at the positive effects of – to use the recurring example – church attendance, here.” But then we would not want to conclude for example that less-religious or nonreligious people should avoid church like the plagues, because it apparently, you know has a harmful impact on their health. What we’re talking about here is not necessarily I guess a causal relationship.

DS: No, no. I think if you made like a group of nonbelievers go to church … Besides the ethical issues with that, I don’t think . . . I wouldn’t immediately suspect that all of them would be miserable and report increases in depression, or whatever. But the problem is that when you’re looking at how the academic findings are used and discussed in the broader social lens, how they’re used to inform public policy, or the potential they have to influence policy, there’s discussion about including… you know, default assuming that you should discuss religion and spirituality in clinical therapy. So there’s a real-world consequence to this type of finding. And the problem is that if you’re looking at these relationships and you’re potentially treating it as “more religion better health”, you’re losing a lot of the nuance; you’re losing sight of the personal idea that perhaps some people aren’t religious because they really are opposed to religion. And forcing them to address those topics or discuss those topics may not be a super-positive thing for those groups of people.

TC: I was going to say, I also think it points, to some degree, to our problems with interpreting the positive findings on religion and health then. Because we don’t . . . I guess that was the comparison I was trying to get at then. We wouldn’t kind-of say that church attendance hurts less-religious people in the same way we say, “Look, people . . “ we’re willing to make that inference that people who attend more do better. We wouldn’t make it one case, but we do in the other. But they’re kind-of conceptually similar . . . is what I hear you saying?

DS: Yes. Yes. So like so if you’re looking at . . . this hearkens back to some of what I do with my doctoral work (30:00). But what happens when you look at say irreligious groups, when they report really low levels of attendance or religiosity – really, really low levels of that – if you compared their average health levels to religious groups who report very high levels of religiosity or attendance, those two relationships, they’re about at the same place. And in cases where they are, say, statistically different, so at p value less than .05, the associated effect size of that – so the actual magnitude of difference between the groups – is really, really small. And often it’s trivially small. So the convention for Cohen’s d , which is a measure of effect size (not to get too far into those academic things at this point!) But anything less than a Cohen’s d of 0.2 is usually seen as trivial. It’s not really something to talk about. And if you’re talking about a social activity or the sociocultural perspectives influencing some sort of health outcome and you’re saying it’s happening at a level of a Cohen’s d of less than 0.2, you’re talking about something that you probably can’t really observe in everyday life. And the underlying mechanism isn’t clear because we’re not sure if it’s social support driving the majority of this relationship or not or if it’s another factor. It’s really hard to talk about that and convey a strong sense of meaning to those findings. I mean it’s statistically significant but that doesn’t mean of clinical relevance or of clinical importance.

TC: I think though, one of the examples I usually use when I’m teaching students or talking about significance in general is, you know, the difference between let’s say a football player who weighs 200 pounds versus one who weighs 200.1lbs. One is significantly heavier than the other, but it would be very odd to kind-of say, “Well the other guy weighs . . . he weighs significantly more than I do. I’m going to have to rethink the game here.” You know. No!

DS: Especially with large population samples. Any difference will become statistically significant with enough people sampled. And the reason is because error term gets progressively smaller with the more people you talk to. So if you have, say, one group has an IQ of 100, another one has an IQ of 110.1. If you sample millions of people and you’re able to find that one mean is 100, the other mean is 100.1, because you’ve sampled so many people, what’s going to end up happening is that it will come out as statistically significant but the associated effect is so tiny, like, why even bother talking about it? And religion health research isn’t quite there – there are cases where it’s really beneficial if you’re talking about optimism and outlook after, say, surgery or something. You’ll see higher levels of optimism or you’re feeling cared for because you’re protected by God. You might see some specific benefits in very specific cases, but in terms of, like, at public policy level, or on a national health level, the differences are often quite small. Not always, but often.

TC: Kind-of wrapping this up, and bringing this towards the end, here . . . I’m interested in talking a little bit about how religion and spirituality are conceptualised here. Now I know, and I don’t want to beat a dead horse, per se . . . because one of the things I think the RSP prides itself on doing is deconstructing and exposing underlying structure and assumptions of precisely these kind of terms. But it’s something I think . . . well, public health professionals do not have extensive discussions about discursive practices, or what we would really mean when we use this word, or all the different things we’re lumping together! It’s the same with psychologists as well. It’s generally left to Religious Studies scholars and Humanities. So if you could, in closing here, kind-of bring us into perspective and how some of these studies conceptualise religion and spirituality and particularly from the vantage point of the nonreligious, right? Is it one of those things where everyone’s religious, you just have to find the right . . .?

DS: Personally, I’m not sure if there’s an academic consensus on this specifically. I’ve usually . . . concepts regarding religion tend to be better defined (35:00). So if you’re looking at say church attendance.

TC: Better defined than . . . ?

DS: Better than spirituality. So if you’re looking at assessments of attendance: “How often do you go to church?” – you can get a fairly objective assessment of that; “How often do you pray?” – you can get a fairly objective assessment of that. It’s self-reporting. You’re relying on people to provide you with data but that’s ok. But you can get a fairly objective standpoint. When you talk about religiosity you get into, what exactly does religiosity mean? There’s different conceptualisations of religiosity. One that people might be familiar with is intrinsic versus extrinsic. Intrinsic is, in a nutshell, religiosity because you see intrinsic values: with this religiosity you get something out of it, you see it’s rewarding or fulfilling in itself. Whereas extrinsic religiosity is kind-of treating religion as a means to an end. So it’s a tool in order to achieve a greater . . . So there’s kind-of some fuzziness around religiosity. But if you ask people how important they find religion is to them, or how religious do they see themselves you can tend to get a more or less consistent set of ways of assessing those specific behaviours or beliefs.

TC: I often also think that this gets us into kind-of “good religion” and “bad religion”. Particularly from a health perspective: there are consistently some negative social effects kind-of associated with varieties of fundamentalism. And it seems here that the same health professionals and researchers are keen to say, “Well, when we talk about religion we’re not meaning that kind – not the stuff that we think is bad for public health, or social cohesion.” Well, it depends on what we man by social cohesion, here. But I often notice that this gets into a good religion, versus bad. And so then that makes me think, “Well, aren’t you really just interested in things that are improving health or psychological wellbeing in general, instead of something religious per se?”

DS: Yes, and you can kind-of see this. This is more apparent within the spirituality literature, in my opinion. So if you’re looking at, say, just like pure religion it’s like, what do you believe? How often do you go to church? Are you religiously affiliated? You get fairly straightforward measures. People know what you’re talking about. People may disagree about whether or not this person’s a true member of this religious organisation, or whether or not they’re a member of that religious organisation. But there tends to be at least consensus on the idea of how you get to those questions. The spirituality literature, I find, is really vague about what that term means. And the way spirituality is assessed, it may not necessarily be intuitive for the laity. It’s just . . . it’s very, very broad in how it’s defined. So I wrote a paper for Skeptic a couple of years ago, where I point out some of the different definitions of spirituality. And one of them defines spirituality as “an inherent component of being human and is subjective, intangible and multi-dimensional”. That literally means anything you want it to mean! So, it doesn’t really matter if you and I are talking about spirituality. If you say “My aunt’s not religious but she’s spiritual,” I’m not sure exactly what you mean, but I understand what you’re trying to convey to me. But if researchers are talking about assessing spirituality they can’t just . . . “Oh yes, I totally know what you mean.” They actually have to quantify and describe and validate measures of spirituality. So when you see these validated measures or these assessments, you see a lot of questions in there that you may not – or at least I wouldn’t, and the people I’m talking to wouldn’t – see these as intrinsically spiritual. So there are questions like: “I accept others even when they do things that I think are wrong”, “I have a general sense of belonging”, “When I wrong someone I make an effort to apologise”. Those things are included as indicators of spirituality. And to me this is problematic on two different levels. One: this is, in a sense, gaming the system. You’ve chosen . . . or items are being chosen not because I see an obvious connection with spirituality. They might go together, there might be a reason for including these, that’s fine. These have been validated, I have no issue with that. I’m positive these researchers have done their due diligence and this is what has come out. But if you’re talking about spirituality with someone, you wouldn’t say like “Oh yes. When I wrong someone I apologise. That’s a spiritual thing.” Like, that’s a really select definition of spirituality (40:00). So if you’re finding that how well people are engaging socially is an intrinsic component of spirituality and you find that spirituality is related to health – well, yes. Social support and being able to interact, socially, well with other people is related to support. So it just is like a parallel . . . if you said that “I don’t smoke because it’s bad for me” and that’s a spiritual assessment and you find that people who score more highly on spirituality get less cancer, well, yeah! You’ve adjusted the framework of spirituality such that it includes not smoking. Well, of course that’s related to cancer rates, because that’s how that works! So the thing I find frustrating about the spirituality literature – and it’s a really interesting literature, people do genuinely good work in it – but it’s just the variability in what spirituality can mean. And the idea that you feel empowered, or you feel like you have purpose in life – that’s spirituality. I’ve never thought of those things as being spiritual before, like, prior to reading this literature. I’ve always just described that as, “Oh yes, I feel as if . . .I feel autonomy. I feel a sense of mastery.” So, when you’re connecting those measures of spirituality, or that definition of spirituality with health, I’m not shocked that that’s related to better health. But we already knew that from other fields. So my question is kind-of: if spirituality is doing something, what is the unique thing that spirituality is doing? How are you defining that? Is that a good . . . is that a reasonable definition that people would say, “Oh yeah, that’s definitely spirituality”? Or is this a hodge-podge of different areas that we’re just kind-of lumping together and saying it’s spirituality and saying, “Oh look, it’s ‘Spirituality – better health!’”

TC: Excellent. I was wondering if you had any kind-of summing up or parting phrase, or words, or thoughts for us on the relationship between religion, nonreligion and health?

DS: (Laughs).

TC: Something to send our Listeners away with? Something even more profound than what you’ve already said?

DS: I don’t know if I can go more profound! But religion is related to health. Like, correlationally we can establish that religion is related to health. If you’re religious and if you go to church, chances are you’re probably getting a benefit from it. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what the underlying mechanism is. If it’s the social support angle, if it’s because you have a better sense of coherency, is it because this really makes you feel like spiritually charged as a person? If you’re getting a benefit out of it, continue. Please continue doing it. Don’t be discouraged from not doing it. If you’re not religious and you are hearing all these things about, “Oh. Going to church is associated with better health,” the more elemental question you have to consider is, will this be good for you specifically? If most people are religious and most people benefit from going to church, fine! But that doesn’t incorporate everyone. So there has to be more nuance in the field. Religion is a wonderfully diverse, very complex socio-cultural construct. And chances are that its relationship with health is more complicated than a single edict of “Do more, be healthy!”

TC: Excellent. Dr David Speed, thank you for joining us on the Religious Studies Project.

DS: Thanks a lot for having me.


Citation Info: Speed, David and Thomas Coleman. 2019. “Nonreligion, Religion and Public Health”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 12 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/nonreligion-religion-and-public-health/

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Christian Beauty Pageants: Beauty is in the eye of the creator

By comparing the Miss Christian America pageant to other more well known pageants Miss USA and Miss America, Chelsea Belanger’s study provides a look at the intersections between religion, gender, and collective identity. Using Christian Smith’s ideas of subcultural identity, Belanger examines how the structure of the Miss Christian pageant helps develop a unique form of embodied religion.

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


Christian Beauty Pageants: Beauty is in the Eye of the Creator

Podcast with Chelsea Belanger (4 March 2019).

Interviewed by Kristeen Black.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Belanger_-_Christian_Beauty_Pageants_1.1

Kristeen Black (KB): We’re all aware of the Miss Universe Pageant, Miss USA Pageant, Miss America pageant. There’s various systems of beauty pageant but each are uniquely identifiable, different in some way. And my guest today is going to talk to us about Miss Christian America. Please welcome Chelsea Belanger.

Chelsea Belanger (CB): Hello.

KB: Would you like to introduce yourself? Tell me a little bit about your research background and what brought you to this topic.

CB: Sure. So my name is Chelsea Belinger. I’m a second year doctoral student at the University of Central Florida. I got my Bachelors and my Masters at the University of Texas at San Antonio. And my master’s thesis encompassed race, religion, gender and behavioural health. It was a qualitative study examining the relationship between religiosity and sexual health among devout African American college women. And so . . .

KB: Fascinating.

CB: It was fascinating research, which I take a lot of pride in. It was a lot of fun but what was really interesting is the creative way in which these women used their religious beliefs to navigate through their sexual decision making. One of the main kind-of key points that emerged from this research, with respect to autonomy over our bodies, is that while these women that I interviewed were devout Christians, they expressed that they have supportive views of women deciding what is best for their body – especially with respect to abortion. So while they supported abortion they expressed or articulated that they themselves would never have an abortion, because of their religious beliefs.

KB: I see. So that’s the way that they negotiated that space.

CB: Absolutely. That space in terms of their religion, their views, their practices, but also being a woman. Being an African American woman and having those rights. It was fascinating. It was just a fascinating study.

KB: And do you see that same kind of synchronicity coming about with the beauty pageants? That there’s this national sense of beauty or gender as well as individual . . . but then again, collective, on a religious basis?

CB: Right. So what we’ve seen with respect to beauty pageants is that there’s a lot of religion being done. Unfortunately there’s scant research on Christian beauty pageants. But beauty pageants overall, now I will say there’s lot of research on the Miss America pageant. But what’s interesting here is that there’s a multitude of different pageant systems, such as Miss USA and Miss Christian America, where this research has encompassed . . .

KB: And to be honest, I didn’t realise there was a Miss Christian America pageant.

CB: Me neither, before this research!

KB: Who knew?!

CB: Indeed. But that’s what makes it so fascinating. It’s that there are different pageant systems that can really accommodate to anybody’s needs, so to speak. So I think that’s what . . . there’s a major misconception in American Society that there is just Miss America pageant. And that’s not the case.

KB: OK. So which came first for you in your research question: the theory that you were looking at of, for instance, Christian Smith and maybe even Judith Butler; or this kind-of noticing the different types of pageants going on, and the religiosity associated with that?

CB: Well certainly this research is going to encompass a lot of what I’m doing for my dissertation. So, being a frequent viewer of beauty pageants, American beauty pageants, I was really inspired to focus on this area. Because there’s such limited research on beauty pageants and not just Miss America. So I really wanted to focus on . . . . Ok – what is it about beauty pageants and gender that I want to focus on? And religion is something that I love studying. So I really wanted to look at how religion was being used in these beauty pageants. So that was the foundation of the study. And then looking at what theoretical frameworks are most appropriate for the study. And that’s where I came across the cultural identity theory. Now I will say I had a lot of help with Dr John Borkowksi who helped me along this, who was also my thesis advisor.

KB: A great shout out! So tell me little bit more about that theory and how that helps.

CB: So I’m working on Christian Smith’s cultural identity theory, where religious subcultures balance the demand of cultural distinction and social engagements. So, in other words, looking at this negotiating mainstream values and religious values (5:00). So, with respect to this work, looking at Miss Christian America, it’s a beauty pageant. Women are competing in this pageant, very similar to mainstream secular pageants. But what makes it uniquely different are the structure but also the requirements for this pageant, as well. In terms of the structure, there is no swimsuit portion in the Miss Christian America, but rather a sportswear competition. So that’s kind of deviating from the mainstream. Whereas the mainstream pageant like Miss USA has a swimsuit portion of the competition. And with respect to the pageant requirements, for Miss Christian America we see that contestants in this pageant must be active in ministry. They also have to have reference letters from one pastor and a media ministry leader as well. Which makes them stand out significantly from the mainstream pageant. So we see with respect to the subcultural identity theory how religion is being practised in these pageants that may exhibit mainstream characteristics.

KB: So, for my ear, it sounds like it’s evangelically focussed because women in ministry is not available in every denomination.

CB: Yeah. Right. Right. And that’s what’s interesting about this particular pageant, it’s that . . . the way in which I was studying this beauty pageant, it seemed as though as long as the contestants identified as being a Christian – that was also kind of this requirement to represent this particular pageant – whereas the mainstream pageant, Miss USA, there is no religious component whatsoever, where you’re actively driven by your faith or not.

KB: So, one of the things that I found interesting is that I seem to hear this core relationship between fitness – so, having to wear sports attire and then being judged physically fit in that sense, but no pictures – but then also being judged as spiritually fit, being inner beauty. You mentioned something about this inner type of driven-ness, and religiosity. So is that something that you’ve found, this idea of fitness in some way . . .?

CB: Right. So I saw in terms of physical fitness, this particular Miss Christian America really reinforces the characteristics of a “godly woman”. And so with this idea of a sportswear, it’s just really maintaining modesty and you know foregoing any kind of cleavage that you might see in the swimsuit competition. So really reinforcing this inner beauty. What’s really interesting about the Miss Christian America is their mission statement. And it says “no” to swimsuits and vain beauty; “yes” to the word of God, prayer, praise worship and inner . . . it really reinforces that evangelical component.

KB: Ok, Great. Also, you mentioned seeing this type of religiousness, or godly woman being reflected in some way throughout the pageant. Tell me more about that.

CB: Yes. So again, what makes this pageant so unique is kind of the requirement, if you will. So for these contestants application form, contestants for this pageant have to name their church, the numbers of years in which they’ve attended this church, and attend weekly Bible study – so that was like a yes or no response. Also the competition categories that vary vastly with the mainstream pageants are outreach ministry presentations, Biblical question and answer . . .

KB: Oh, interesting!

CB: Which is like the onstage questions that you see in the mainstream. But this, particularly, is a Biblically-based question . . . and, again, the sportswear competition. Also what’s interesting is the title holder responsibilities that are encompassed. And again we see this comparative component where both pageants have responsibilities for their title holders. But what’s interesting about Miss Christian America is the Evangelicalism that she must partake in as a title holder, representing Miss Christian America. And in addition to that, that encompasses missionary work, upholding the morals and standards of Miss Christian America pageant. So again, maintaining or exuding those characteristics of a godly woman (10:00).

KB: So, do you see the part of that being a godly woman encompasses idealised gender roles and things like . . . with the Miss America pageant, you have to be never married, never given birth. Is that the same type of thing reinforced here?

CB: Yes, so we certainly see, in this research, we see a lot of comparisons with mainstream and secular pageants and this particular pageant, Miss Christian America. We see that both pageants, Miss USA and Miss Christian America really promote women’s confidence and self-esteem and the importance of community involvement. In addition to that we see a lot of overlap between the two competitions, such as the pageant interview with the panel of judges, the opening number which is commonly done in the beginning of the pageant: this is when you’re first introduced to the contestants on stage. There’s no talent competition in either one of these pageants. Whereas, in Miss America you see that there’s a talent competition. Now, going back to what you were saying in terms of never married, single, never given birth, those are two requirements of both pageants, Miss USA and Miss Christian America. The contestant has to be single, never married and the contestant also has to be natural born female. In addition to that, she cannot have given birth at any point. So those are really, those are just similar characteristics between the two. In addition to that, community involvement is very much reinforced in both these pageants. Title holders or the winners of these pageants win a crown and sash. And oftentimes you’ll see on their sash the title which they’re representing. So Miss USA, Miss Christian America. And again the title holder responsibilities which, as we talked about before, varies but still maintains those responsibilities.

KB: And you just mentioned a sash, and I had kind of this question . . . . In the Miss America pageant we’re used to seeing like Miss Texas and Miss South Carolina, do they identify in that type of way? Is it like Miss Lutheran? [Laughs].

CB: That is a great question. From what I saw, no. Again, and I can only go on what I’ve seen of the Miss Christian America pageant. I did not see if there were women that identified. . .if they identified as Lutheran, that’s what the sash would say as they competed. I didn’t see that, so I’m going to assume no. I could be corrected. But again, as long as you identify as being Christian and being involved in the Christian faith.

KB: So it’s really more of an umbrella type of identification.

CB: Exactly. That’s how I interpreted it.

KB: OK. And how is race represented in there?

CB: That’s an excellent question. So we’ve seen . . . historically, in an American beauty pageant, we’ve seen this pattern of white women typically competing, but also winning these pageants. What’s unique about this particular pageant is a large presence of African American women competing in Miss Christian America, from what I’ve seen on their website. And so there’s also kind of this difference between the two. Now certainly we’ve seen, over time, recently, the crowning of diverse women and really reinforcing diversity in mainstream beauty pageants. But this particular pageant, I’d say that there’s a larger population of African American women competing and representing in this pageant.

KB: Great. OK. And then, do you think that there is some kind of reflection going on in the pageant of what’s going on in mainstream society, about the rising Evangelicalism? Is that contributing? Do you have any sense of how big the pageant is? Has it been growing lately?

CB: Right. Over all, that’s a really good question that I don’t think I’m prepared to answer just yet.

KB: OK, that’s good!

CB: But my assumption is, is that you know . . . unfortunately, American society may view beauty pageants negatively. And I hope my research reinforces some sort of shift in perception of how we view beauty pageants. So I don’t know in terms of the enrolment or participation of these beauty pageants over time. But certainly, hopefully there’s a shift that shows that beauty queens are not just a pretty face. They’re so much more than that regardless of the beauty pageant that you’re competing in. There’s that community involvement. But also within the pageant it’s this sisterhood that’s being created. These bonds of relationship. But also with respect to religion, how’s religion essentially being done in these pageants (15:00)? And from my own experience, backstage is where you see a lot of these . . . of religion being practised. Whether you’re competing in a secular pageant or a Christian-driven pageant, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see competitors, just before getting on stage, praying with each other – regardless of your faith – but just praying that everything goes well, and praying with each other. Whereas, once you step out on stage, they’re then your competition! But once you step off there’s this sisterhood again. And I think that’s the importance of just participating in a beauty pageant. And yes, there’s the sash and the crown, but also the bond, the friendship, the confidence that can come your way. And competing in these pageants. I hope my work can really explore that.

KB: And that’s great, because I was kind of wondering about this idea of collective versus the individual. And religion is such a collective idea. And how could that be reconciled, or is that, like, just taken into account? Is there a way that that’s negotiated, somehow?

CB: Certainly, so we’ve seen, at least in the Miss America, it’s not uncommon to see title-holders talk about their faith, even though Miss America’s not a religious pageant. We’ve certainly seen over time how contestant representing their states may kind-of talk about their faith and how they practice their faith, so to speak. So certainly, I wouldn’t say it’s completely erased from secular pageants just because they don’t have a religiously-driven component in these pageants. Who is to say these women aren’t driven by their faith?

KB: Right. But it’s just not as apparent?

CB: It’s not as apparent. But certainly, I guess, it’s up to the contestant if they want to talk about their faith. And it certainly had been played in previous years.

KB: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered?

CB: With respect to this research?

KB: Right.

CB: So much. I think I’ve gained an even greater respect for pageants, just exploring a pageant. And I’m so intrigued by how religion is being displayed in the Miss Christian America pageant. Prior to this research I had never heard of the Miss Christian America pageant. But looking into it and seeing what they stand for, and just with the way in which they’re promoting their faith, you know, it’s intriguing. Especially for somebody that studies the sociology of religion. I’m intrigued by that. So and just seeing how they navigate through that negotiation of secular pageants. And what they’re going to take from those secular pageants and how they’re going to incorporate their unique component to facilitate their religion. It’s fascinating.

KB: Yeah. And I can imagine that some denominations might resonate differently. Like if you have a very idealised gender role type of model to follow, that might be a little different experience than one that’s a little more fluid?

CB: Right. Right. Certainly, you know, in beauty pageants, mainstream, what have you, you’re going to have to exhibit these particular gender roles in terms of the makeup and, you know, heels, and hair spray, and what have you. So I certainly see that being practised here. But I think it’s so much more than that. You know, in terms of this sisterhood that’s being created. But also, what’s being done for these contestants? Win or lose – which I don’t think there’s any losers in pageantry. You gain something. Whether it’s self-confidence, or whether its friendships, what have you, or just trying something new. Certainly there’s definitely these generals that are in place. But there’s so much more. So much more that can be taken out of this from this experience as well.

KB: Would you say that this could be a faith experience for some of them?

CB: I think so. I could be wrong. But in terms of the Miss Christian America, I think it could really reinforce, or it does reinforce that commitment to their faith and really strengthening their religious beliefs and practices with the outreach of ministry and, you know, one of the competition categories – like I said before – was this Biblical question and answer. So really preparing . . . because this is a competition. There’s a panel of judges. You’re going to be judged. So really just the preparations that are encompassed in this particular pageant. And how, you know . . . preparing for those categories, (20:00) but also strengthening one’s faith.

KB: And that’s kind-of how I . . . . Just listening to you talk about it, it seems like it could be a faith-enhancing or religious experience.

CB: Indeed.

KB: So maybe just going back to Christian Smith just for a minute: tell me a little bit about how you’re applying that theory.

CB: Right. So in looking at subcultural identity theory we’re looking at religious subcultures balancing the demands of cultural distinction and social engagement. So, how is the Miss Christian America negotiating this cultural distinction and cultural engagement, compared to a more secular pageant, Miss USA?

KB: So that’s why you’ve compared both of those pageants. I see.

CB: Yes. So this was really a comparative textual analysis between the two pageants. But in addition to that, we’re kind of looking at the unique religious identity compared to the broader secular pageants. So looking at that religious identity and what’s coming about that. But also looking at the Evangelicalism that’s been brought forth in this research. So looking at the truthfulness of the Bible, so looking at values of scriptures, how is that being displayed in the pageant? The influence of human nature, so looking at the mainstream culture, so going back to the swimsuit competition, and so forth, and then finally, the “born again” experience that’s really the salvation of such faith.

KB: Oh, interesting.

CB: So it’s really interesting how the pageant is negotiating these religious values and borrowing from mainstream beauty pageants. Something that I talked about in this presentation was this idea of this perception, or borrowing, of mainstream, and really using it and navigating through the religious values and the mainstream values. So again, that on stage question, right? But in the sense of the Biblical question and answer.

KB: So these two are really being interspersed rather than juxtaposed, is that . . . ?

CB: I think so. Absolutely. So again, just going back to how they’re very uniquely similar, but also vastly different. But in the end somebody’s going to be crowned the title holder. So they’re still similar in many ways but vastly different in other ways with respect to religion.

KB: Fascinating. So if anyone had a question, is there a way that they could contact you? Do you have . . . is your work published somewhere?

CB: Not as of yet. So this is actually going to be . . . this research is part of a larger research study that I’m doing to for my dissertation. So I’m really . . . not brainstorming. But I know I want to conduct this research into pageantry because when I began such scant literature was out there on pageantry. So I really want to change that. I’m inspired to change that. And I really want to maintain . . . . I’m a qualitative researcher – so I want to look at kind of the motivations, why women choose to compete in beauty pageants.

KB: Yes. Great question!

CB: I want to explore that. Is it to make friends? Is it to gain self-confidence? Is it to get scholarship money? Or is it just to win a crown? And there are so many ways that that can be reinforced. So I want to explore reasons why women choose to . . . but as a researcher that’s fascinated by religion I want to also look at, maybe, how religion is displayed. So I’m not really focussing on a particular pageant. But I really want to interview former title holders but also former beauty pageant contestants, as well. And just explore and investigate why they chose to compete. And then, were there any ways in which they used their religion through that experience? Whether it was praying right before going on stage, or carrying a cross, or wearing a cross while they competed? I really want to explore that.

KB: And see what that means, yes. So this is a whole new way to think of lived religion and experiencing religion.

CB: Indeed. And going back to your question before. Certainly, if anybody has a question they can reach out to me through email. My email is chelsea.belanger@knight.ucf.edu

KB: Ok. And we’ll post that on the website as well.

CB: Thank you.

KB: Thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been a pleasure.

CB: Likewise. Thank you for having me.

KB: We look forward to reading your book, once you turn your dissertation into a book (25:00).

CB: (Laughs) Yes I look forward to that one day, too.

KB: And I’ll re-interview you then!

CB: Yes. Sounds good. Thank you so much.

KB: Thank you, Chelsea.


Citation Info: Belanger, Chelsea and Kristeen Black. 2019. “Christian Beauty Pageants: Beauty is in the Eye of the Creator”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 4 March 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 February 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/christian-beauty-pageants-beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-creator/

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America’s Changing Religious Landscape

The religious landscape of the United States is changing dramatically. Americans must consider what it means to govern a nation of religious minorities. We interview Dr. Robert P. Jones, the founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. Jones discusses findings from PRRI’s national surveys on religion and public life, many of which are represented in the American Values Atlas. The data collected by PRRI reveal a number of surprising trends related to religion and its intersection with politics, voting patterns, age, race, immigration, and secularism in the United States. A few key findings highlighted in PRRI’s 2016 report on America’s changing religious identity and covered in this podcast: (1) white Christians now account for fewer than half of the public, (2) white evangelical Protestants are in decline, (3) non-Christian religious groups are growing, and (4) atheists and agnostics account for a minority of all religiously unaffiliated. We discuss the implications of these findings and more, and we briefly review the research methodologies utilized by PRRI.

 

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


America’s Changing Religious Landscape

Podcast with Robert P. Jones (18 February 2019).

Interviewed by Benjamin P. Marcus

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Jones_-_America_s_Changing__Religious_Landscape_1.1

Benjamin P. Marcus (BM): My guest today is Robert P. Jones the founding CEO of PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) and a leading scholar and commentator on religion, culture and politics. He’s the author of The End of White Christian America, two other books, and numerous peer reviewed book chapters and articles. Dr Jones serves as the co-chair of the national steering committee for the Religion and Politics section at the American Academy of Religion. He’s a past-member of the editorial boards for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and Politics and Religion, the journal of the American Political Science Association. He holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Edinburgh University, an M.Div. from South-Western Baptist Theological Seminary, and B.S. in Computing Science and Mathematics from Mississippi College. Today we’ll be discussing PRRI’s 2018 reports about what’s happening with the religious landscape in the United States. We’ll look at the demographic changes in the country that might help explain the political climate that we find ourselves in today. Hello, Dr Jones – and welcome to the Religious Studies Project! I’d like to begin by asking a really broad question: what’s happening with religion in the US today?

Robert P. Jones (RJ): Well, it’s a great question. A lot is happening. And I think that is the story – that we’ve been experiencing a great deal of religious change, really since the 1990’s, but it’s been accelerated in the last decade. So just to give you a couple of, I think, relevant stats: one is the percentage of white Christians in the country has been declining, fairly precipitously, in the last ten years. And in particular we’ve gone – in the US – from being a majority white Christian nation, to one that is no longer a majority white Christian nation. And it’s happened fairly rapidly. If you go back to just 2008, the country was fifty-four percent white and Christian. And when I wrote my book, The End of White Christian America, I was working on 2014 data. And that number had dropped from fifty-four percent to forty-five, and that was a significant drop. But we’ve been continuing to track data since 2014 and that number’s down to forty-one percent, now. So we’ve looked at a thirteen percentage-point drop just since 2008 – so over the last decade, in the percentage of white Christians in the country. That’s come with an uptick in the religiously unaffiliated category. So if you just go back to the 1990s those numbers are in single digits: five, six percent in the 1990s. Our last data, 2017 data, is showing twenty-five percent of the public. And among young people it’s forty percent of the public. So this is a real sea-change in the country. Going from mostly a white Protestant country in 1993. That was actually the last year the country was white and Protestant. But even if you take all white Christians together – Protestant, Catholics, Orthodox, Non-denominational and denominational together – that number today is only forty-one percent. And that’s a real shift for the country.

BM: Wow. I have a number of questions from that. One is this category of “Nones” – n-o-n-e-s – people who are unaffiliated. Many people think that that’s a pretty homogeneous category of atheists and agnostics. But from what I understand that’s not the case. Is that right?

RJ: That’s right. Atheists and agnostics actually only make up only a minority of that category of a quarter of the US population. And the rest of them are kind of a mixed bag. When we’ve looked underneath the hood, there’s kind of two other groups in there. There’s one group that looks . . . that we’ve just broadly labelled “secular” in some of our reporting, that looks broadly like a cross-section of the country. But there’s another group in there that we’ve actually dubbed “unattached believers”. And that group looks, on many measures of religiosity – like, “How often do you pray?”, “How often do you attend religious services?”, “Do you believe in God?”, those kind of questions – they look like religious Americans, even though they refuse the category and won’t identify with any particular religious group. That group tends to be less white, more African American or Latino. And they tend to be younger. And so it’s a very interesting group. I think, as a whole, this group has moved so fast now that it is a very diverse group. I mean, after all, it’s a quarter of Americans, so that is a big, big group that we’re talking about, now.

BM: Wow. And does that seem to be concentrated in the sort-of Godless coasts? Or is that happening across the United States? Are we seeing a decrease in white Christian presence – not only in the middle of the country, but also in the coasts? Or is it happening in certain places?

RJ: Yeah. This is a great question. This is definitely not a bi-coastal urban phenomenon. One project that the PRRI started back in 2013 is called the American Values Atlas. And we actually have this online – for any of your Listeners who want to go check it out – it’s ava.prri.org. And what we did is, we started realising that we had enough data every year that, if we were careful about combining it, we could actually map the religious demography of every state in the country, and also the top thirty metro areas in the country (5:00). So you can go online right now and you can compare Iowa to California, for example. And you can go back in time as well. And one of the things that you see there is, if you go back ten years to today, virtually everywhere is experiencing these changes. So it’s not just New York and California, or Texas, but it’s Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota – each of these states has experienced, for example, approximately a ten percentage-point drop in the number of white Christians in their population over this last decade.

BM: Wow. Are there any states or cities that jump out at you as sort-of a surprising religious demography? Or maybe the majority religious community is not what you’d expect? Or the second biggest community is not what you’d expect?

RP: Well we still see some history at play. We still see Rhode Island as one of the most Catholic states in the country, for example. And we still see the South heavily evangelical. So you can see the . . . . You can see the religious history still there. But we are . . . it is starting to mix up. Even though you can see these historic, I guess, centres. But you can also see the shifts happening there, as well. So even in Rhode Island you’re getting an uptick in the religiously unaffiliated, and more Protestants than you had in the past. And in the evangelical South you’re getting more Latino Protestants and Latino Catholics as a result of immigration, and changing migration patterns in the South.

BM: A few times, already, you’ve mentioned the history of the United States; you’ve mentioned, not only religious communities, but also mentioning markers of race and ethnicity, patterns of immigration. Can you tell me more about the relationship between religion, race or ethnicity and the United States, and how that shows up in the data?

RJ: Well it’s . . . when I was working on the last book, race . . . it became just so clear. I mean, it’s something that I’ve known, but it became clear to me in a more poignant way, that . . . . For example: if you asked me in a sentence to summarise religious voting patterns, you can’t really talk about that without talking about race. So the short answer to that question is, in presidential elections, white Christians tend to favour Republican presidential candidates and non-white religious people – Christians or other religions and the religiously unaffiliated – tend to support Democratic candidates. So the kind-of lines of race – even class, to some extent – but the most dominant fault line in the religious landscape is really around white, non-Hispanic Christians and pretty much everyone else. You can see this cleavage on a whole range of issues.

MP: That’s so interesting. I had a professor in graduate school who used to say that you could accurately predict America’s voting patterns if you knew “four Rs”: race, region, religion and rank. And that’s something that I’ve thought about a lot. This relationship between these four Rs and how people vote. And the embeddedness of religion in American culture. Are there religious communities that are more diverse in rank or race, than others?

RJ: There are, but they tend to be the smaller ones. So, like, one of the more diverse groups in the country is Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example. They tend to be very racially and ethnically diverse – much more so than most other groups I can think of. But they, of course, are a very, very small group in the country. But it is a story of American religion that race has sorted and bifurcated religious communities to such an extent that you really can see these major cleavages, both in the denominational structure on the ground – in the way that they’re lived out and organised – but also in the macro-data. One of the reasons why, for example, social scientists – when we’re kind-of parsing data – tend to look at African American Protestants in one bucket and white evangelical Protestants in another bucket, is because, despite the fact that they share so many religious beliefs and practices – even hymns – when you look at how they behave, and their attitudes, and the political space, their race kind-of acts like a prism that just pushes them in completely different directions. So it’s hard to overstate, I think, the way that race has structured American religiosity.

BM: That’s so fascinating, and brings me to another question, which is: as you know, Religious Studies as a field has had a lot of trouble with the – quote-unquote –”world religions paradigm”. And the fact that we often sort people into religious communities based on these large groups: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus . . . And often when people teach about religion in schools, or in the media, we expect people to act in certain ways, or believe in certain ways, based on the group that they fall in (10:00). Is the research that you’re conducting showing that it’s more complicated than that? Or are there other ways that we should start thinking about religious identities, so that we’re not talking about these large world religions, but subsets, based on race, or ethnicity, or gender, or any other categories?

RJ: Yeah. Well, here I think we’ve got the push and the pull of the quantitative versus the qualitative study of religion. You know in the social sciences you need these categories. You need categories to sort people into, and they need to be big enough categories that you can actually conduct reliable statistical analysis on them, right? And so, if you’re doing a survey of a thousand people, you need these categories to be big enough to at least have, say at least 100 or so people in them. Otherwise your results start getting fairly unreliable, if you drop below that. On the other hand, you know, we all should just acknowledge that these are all sort-of human categories that have been constructed by social scientists to help us see things in different ways. They’re never perfect and they always do some kind of violence, actually, to the kind-of messy reality on the ground. We should always acknowledge that. On the other hand, you know, if we allowed for the uniqueness of every single congregation on the ground – which as everyone who’s ever served in a congregation knows that, like, if you move from one Southern Baptist congregation to another, it’s a really different world, even though they’re in the same denomination – if we stuck with that kind of granularity, which is really valuable, it would be really hard to come up and say anything broad about the group. So I think it is a real challenge. To me what matters is: can you test the category against lived reality? Right? And, is the category . . . I think it’s never the right question to say, for example, “Is the category of ‘white evangelical Protestant’, right?” – which has race, ethnicity, and kind-of religious identity all baked into one thing. It’s never the right question, I think, to say, “Is that a truthful category?” Or “Is it a right category?” I think the question, honestly is, “Is it a useful category for helping us understand the lived reality on the ground?” That means it should never be sacrosanct, it should be questionable. And we should be willing to look at, for example: what do all evangelicals look like, if we don’t just look at it by race? And then, how does that category help us see something interesting on the ground?

BM: Right. I want to pause a moment on this topic: white evangelical Protestants. We began by talking about the religious demography of the United States. I mentioned that we might be able to see something about our political landscape because of the religious landscape. What do we know about the political landscape and the influence of white evangelical Protestants? Are we putting too much emphasis on white evangelical Protestants to understand our current political moment, or are there other groups we should be looking at? What are your thoughts on that?

RJ: Well, it’s interesting. White evangelical Protestants, like other white Christians, have been declining in their percentage of the population. So, for example, if we go back again to the beginning of Barrack Obama’s tenure as president, his election, what we see is that white evangelicals – depending on the survey you look at – were around twenty-three, twenty-two percent of the population. And our last data has them down now to fifteen percent of the population. So they, like other white Christians, have been declining as a proportion of the population. But what makes them important, even as they decline, is that they have been so active on just one side of the partisan divide in the US. So unlike mainline Protestants or Catholics – who tend to be more divided in their partisan allegiances – even as this group has shrunk, they have still maintained their activity mostly on the Republican side of US politics. Which means that they have a very out-sized voice on that side of the partisan divide, and not so much among Democratic politics. But in Republican politics, they’re still a very powerful group to contend with if you’re a Republican politician. So I think they’re still very important. The other reason why the evangelicals are important is because of their strong support for President Trump. They voted about eight in ten for him in the 2016 election. As we’ve been tracking their favourability of President Trump, around his inauguration it was about two-thirds favourable. And it has gone up since then and has remained fairly steady around seven in ten support for the President throughout his presidency. So that remarkable stability is also really important for understanding them as a stalwart base. And, in fact, when we asked white evangelicals who said that they had a favourable view of President Trump’s job performance whether there was anything he could do to lose their support, nearly four in ten reported that: “No. There is virtually nothing that President Trump could do to lose our support.” (15:00)

BM: Wow.

RJ: So they are a very, very entrenched group in the Republican coalition – really a bedrock support of President Trump.

BM: Wow. That’s interesting, because on social media I see this idea floated by a number of people, based on mostly anecdotal evidence of young evangelicals that they’ve spoken to, that there’s a generational gap: that older evangelicals are stalwarts of President Trump, but that younger evangelicals might be moving away from that political affiliation – as well as certain key cornerstones of what many people think of as primary evangelical issues. Is that true? Is there a change in generation?

RJ: Well, I think there is that divide. But I think it’s a little bit different than that description. So if we go back ten years ago, I think that was more true than it is today. But it is true that young evangelicals have moved. But what they have moved from is from being evangelical to be unaffiliated. So they’ve actually exited the category over time. And we can see that a couple of ways in the data. For example, among young people today, only eight percent identify as white evangelical Protestant, right? And again that’s compared to about fifteen percent in the population. So young people are only half as likely to identify as evangelical as Americans overall. And when we look underneath the hood, and we look at the median age, for example, of white evangelicals over time, we see it creeping up. And the main reason for that is that, as they’ve lost members, they’re disproportionately losing members from their younger ranks. So what’s happening is, yes indeed, the young evangelicals of ten years ago have moved. But they’ve not moved over to be Democrats – or they might have – but they’ve mostly moved out of the whole category. They’ve stopped identifying as evangelical. And I think that’s the real shift. So if you’re looking for those people who were young evangelicals a decade ago, you should look for them in the unaffiliated category and not in the evangelical category. And what we’re seeing is that, among the young people who have stayed, the generational differences are now kind-of muted. Because the people who have stayed are actually people who hold views that are fairly consistent with older evangelicals. But the ones who had views, for example, that were in great tension – like on gay rights – have largely left the fold.

BM: Wow. It’s helpful to look at some of these assumptions or theories and test them against the data. So here’s another thing to test against the data. I’ve heard a lot about the resurgence or higher visibility of progressive Christians in the United States today. I know a lot of people are watching Reverend Barber’s movement for example. Does the data show increased religious affiliation, or a higher salience of religious identity among people who identify as progressive Christians today?

RJ: Well, what I would say is, it’s a little complicated. The last sort-of major study we did of this, where we looked at it very carefully, what we did see is among younger Americans under the age of thirty, there were more progressive Christians than there were conservative Christians. That’s true. It’s largely true, though, because of this phenomena we just talked about. That the ranks of evangelicals and other conservative, particularly white, Christians have thinned. And so as that has happened among the under-thirties, the relative ratio between progressive and conservative Christians has come more into balance. In fact, among those under thirty, there are more progressive Christians than there are conservative Christians. However, there’s one category that is more than either of those, and that is the religiously unaffiliated. Because many, many young people – forty percent of young people – are in that camp. So it’s notable, right, that that’s creeping up to be almost half of young people, claiming no religious affiliation whatsoever. That’s a really different thing, by the way, than we’ve ever seen in American public life. So if you take Baby Boomers back into their twenties . . . . And this is a question I get all the time: “Well, everyone’s more unaffiliated in their twenties, right? You’re single, maybe you’re moving around a lot, you’re changing jobs, you don’t have kids yet, maybe? So those are all things that lead you to be more transient, less rooted in a community or a community organisation like a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque. But what we find is, if we look at the historical data and take baby boomers back into their twenties, they’re still less than fifteen percent unaffiliated in their twenties. So that means that this generation is at least two-and-a-half times more unaffiliated than any generation that we have ever seen. So even if some of them – quote-unquote – “come back” as they have kids, and they settle down – they’re looking for stability in communities and integrating into community life and religious institutions are a way that people historically have done that (20:00) – even if a proportion of them do that, this will still be the most unaffiliated generation the country’s ever seen.

BM: What’s quite interesting to me is, when many people challenge the “secularisation thesis”, broadly, they often point to the United States as an outlier and say, “This is clearly a modern country that is highly religious and continues to be highly religious. So the secularisation thesis is debunked” – besides looking at other countries around the world that are highly religious. Does this data maybe put at least an asterisk by that and say, “Well, maybe we spoke a little too soon, and the US is becoming increasingly irreligious or unaffiliated?” What does that do for our understanding of the secularisation thesis?

RJ: Yes. It’s funny because we’ve got a UK audience here, so . . .

BM: And United States.

RJ: Yes, and US. But what’s funny about this is, when I give a talk in the US and I say, “Twenty-five percent of the country is now religiously unaffiliated and forty percent of young people are religiously unaffiliated”, there are gasps in the room. Because people are shocked that there’s that many people who claim no religious affiliation. If I give that same lecture in London, people would be shocked that there were that many people affiliated with religion. (Laughs).

BM: Right.

RJ: So I still think the US is a little bit different than Western Europe, for example, which is where it mostly gets compared. There’s still more religious vibrancy here. More religious experimentation, more effervescence, I think, in the religious space than there is in Western Europe, for sure. And there’s certainly not, I think, overall . . . . I think politicians here face pressure to say things like “God Bless America!” at the end of their speech, in the way British politicians certainly do not. If anything there’s the opposite pressure not to say anything overtly religious like that. So I still think there’s some difference here. But I do think what we’re seeing is, there is a shift here that is certainly more something in line with what we saw in the secularisation thesis. It’s not an absolute outlier. It’s certainly a lagger from some of the trends that we’ve seen in Western Europe. And I think we’ll have to wait and see. So far we don’t see any evidence of this upward trend in the religiously unaffiliated flat-lining. It keeps ticking up year, after year, after year.

BM: I appreciate your cautiousness not to prognosticate – is that the right word?

RJ: Yes! (Laughs).

BM: But I’m going to ask you to make some predictions. Can you look out, with your crystal ball, five, ten, fifteen years? Are there any trends that you think will continue? Or things that you think we should look out for, in the next decade or so?

RJ: Yes: Well, yeah. Just like the financial retirement planning things, you see at the bottom, “Last years past performance is no guarantee of future returns”?

BM: Right.

RJ: I think that’s kind of where we’re at on this! But with that caveat, I will say that a couple of pieces of evidence – just to continue the unaffiliated line here – we’re sing a couple of things that I think will mean that this should continue, at least for the near future. One is that we’re seeing unaffiliated people now marrying other unaffiliated people – seeking them out as marriage partners. That’s significant because one of the main things pulling people back into religious community, if they’ve become unaffiliated, is if they marry someone religious. They have that conversation, like: “OK. Well, I’m going to get married unless you pledge to raise the kids in the church” or “in the synagogue.” And I think there’s less and less of that happening. So I think that’s one less thing to kind-of pull people, at least some people, back into the fold. And you know, again, so far, we haven’t seen a single year in the last decade where that line has been flat. It keeps up-ticking every year. One thing I’ll say, that is pretty clear from the evidence, is that one of the reasons why this change on the ground is not quite translated into the political space yet, is because of different ways that different religious groups turn out and vote. So in the US context, the ballot box tends to act a bit like a time machine. And it takes us back about ten years to where the country was about ten years ago. So the electorate in this last election . . . if you map the electorate onto the general population, the election in 2016 looks about like the general population looked in 2006.

BM: OK. That’s interesting.

RJ: It takes us back about ten years. And that’s because white evangelicals, and older white Christians, turn out and vote at much higher rates. So they’re over-represented at the ballot box compared to where they are in the general population. (25:00) If we project that forward, what it means is, even though we’ve passed this threshold, for example, where the country’s no longer majority white and Christian, that will not be true at the ballot box until 2024. So we’re still two election cycles out from really seeing the demographic realities really hit at the ballot box.

BM: Well that’s a great place to pause on the content of all the things you’ve been finding. And I want to make sure we leave some time to talk about how you collect your data, to look behind the hood and look at the processes and how you set up your battery of questions. So could you tell us little bit more about that? What’s it like to run a major polling firm, and how do you do what you do?

RJ: Sure. Well it’s a lot of fun, first of all! It’s great to be able to sit around a table and say, “I wonder…X?” And, you know, think, “Well, that’s an empirical question. We can actually put that to the test.” And one of the things that PRRI have pledged to do . . . . So we’re a non-partisan, non-profit, independent research organisation. So, part of our charitable purpose is that we’re actually putting a lot of social science data back into the public domain. So one of the things we have made sure that we do is, we are very transparent. So every time we release something, we release the whole questionnaire. We hold onto the data sets for a year for internal purposes, for analysis, but after that we release the entire data set out into the public domain. So anyone can pull it up – at the Roper Center, they can pull it off of our website, and download, and do their own analysis of the data. So that’s part of our mission. In terms of how we collect it, we are dedicated, really, to doing full probability sampling of data. So all of our data is a random probability sample of the USs population. It’s all Americans. So even though we have an emphasis on mostly doing political party, and religion, and race, and other kinds of demographic breaks, we have full-bound samples of the entire population in all of our surveys here. And you know, we really do sit down, and we do our lit review, you know: the process where we look at other polls and what they have asked, and other trends we might want to check. But I think one of the things we are always trying to get at is the “Why” question. And so, not just the “What”, but the “whys”. We definitely want to know what people believe, but we also want to know what connects belief A with belief B, and belief C. What’s the underlying thing that drive them to connect those issues together? So that, I think, is part of the art of this, and I think what makes it, really, the most fun and the most worthwhile.

BM: It sounds so fun, in fact, that our Listeners might be wondering how they can get involved. So do you have any ideas for scholars out there who sit there and wonder if X,Y or Z about the American population . . .?Are there ways for them to try to do polling, or to reach out to your kind of organisations, to feed you ideas? Or what’s the process, if you’re a scholar in a university, for trying to find out some of this information at a national scale?

RJ: Well, there’s a couple of options. I mean, I get emails all the time – and I love getting emails all the time – saying, “Hey, have you thought about this?” And every now and then, there’s like “Oh man! That’s a great idea!” And if we have space, we can do it. So I would say, feel free to shoot us an email. And we certainly are interested in hearing what’s going on, and ideas that are out there. The other way is, we have formally partnered with a number of universities. So we were just . . . this past three years we did a three-wave study with Florida State University, looking at spirituality and its impact on voluntarism and other kinds of pro-social behaviours, trying to answer the question, “Does it make a difference if you’re religious or not, for how you actually behave in the world?” And trying to get at those kind of questions (30:00). We’ve partnered with the Brookings Institution and other kinds of think-tanks in this space. So I think it’s a little of both. We’ve done some individual kinds of things, but we’ve also worked on kind-of careful, multi-year, full-on collaborations with academic institutions.

BM: And your work is entirely focussed in the United States, is that right?

RJ: It is, yes. So we just do domestic religion, politics and culture.

BM: And do you consult with folks outside the United States who might be interested in this kind of work in other countries? Or do you have any partnerships? Or share ideas for best practices with organisations outside the US?

RJ: We’ve certainly been talking about this. We haven’t, so far, branched out beyond that. But it’s something we’d certainly be open to doing.

BM: Great. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today. I think this time really flew by for me. I enjoyed our conversation. I want to remind our Listeners that you can download all of the reports from the Public Religion Research Institute – PRRI – at prri.org. And if you’re looking for contact information for folks at the organisation you can find that on their website. And we encourage you to check out the American Values Atlas Project, which has a lot of the data that we’ve been speaking about today. So thank you again, Robby, for an excellent conversation. And I hope our Listeners enjoyed it as well.

RJ: Great, Thank you. Yes, it was a lot of fun.

BM: Thanks.


Citation Info: Jones, Robert P. and Benjamin P. Marcus. 2019. “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 18 February 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 2 February 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

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.

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.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Co-Dependency of Religion and the Secular

In our fifth editors’ pick, Marek Sullivan writes “Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!”

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 our new features co-editor, Marek Sullivan.

Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!

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, Pulp Fiction memorabilia, astronaut ice cream and more.

Sounds of the Underground

A Response to “Drone Metal Mysticism” by Owen Coggins

Francis Stewart

Read more

From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment”

Dr. Josephson-Storm’s first book, “The Invention of Religion in Japan,” discussed how, after Commodore Perry forcibly opened Japan to Europeans and Americans in 1853, the Meiji intelligentsia and government remade their country along Western lines. This meant inventing a term, shukyo, that was roughly analogous to the Western word “religion.” In other words, an artificial delineation between spiritual practices and other parts of society was introduced to Japan, as part of the quest to be “modern.” Another key aspect of religious modernization was the delineation of “proper” religions from “superstition” and “magic.”

Meanwhile, Japanese intellectuals who visited America and Europe realized that the Westerners were not as objective or rational — that is, disenchanted — as they claimed. In fact, many Americans and Europeans believed in Spiritualism, occultism, Theosophy, mesmerism, magnetism, herbal medicine, and other things that didn’t conform with proper religion (i.e., Christianity). “The Myth of Disenchantment,” Josephson-Storm’s second book, argues that, although Westerners conceived of a philosophical triad — science and Christianity in opposition to magic/Spiritualism/etc. — the triad obscured the ways in which people interacted with each other and blended religion, “magic,” and science. There were, and are, many strands of people with varying approaches to religion and modernity. In our interview, Josephson-Storm and I agree that (based on Josephson-Storm’s research) Western intellectual history is more like a river, with many concepts colliding with each other, than a stable triad or other spatial metaphor. Josephson-Storm argues that it is wrong to assume that the West has progressed beyond myth or magic; it is wrong to assume that religion never influences scientists; and it is wrong to think that major scientific figures avoided occultism, esotericism, Christianity, or other religious traditions.

We also discuss where we go in the study of religion, and in philosophy generally, in the wake of postmodernism. To interrogate categories like “religion” and “magic” and show their intellectual genealogy, as Josephson-Storm does, is to act in the vein of postmodernism, deconstruction, and other forms of critical theory / Continental Philosophy. But where do we go next? How do we frame our lives, since we cannot deconstruct things forever? Josephson-Storm proposes that we admit the constant reconstruction and manipulation of narratives, so that, instead of getting hung up on flawed categories of modernization or ripping apart arguments infinitely (beware fake news), we admit the world is filled with dynamic tension. If the past way of studying “civilized” religion versus “primitive” magic is wrong, and if we are honest about our personal biases and the limits of objectivity, then we might achieve a world that is more tolerant of different religions and a world in which scholars produce unconventional, but more accurate, studies of religion.

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, sleeveless t-shirts, chest expanders, and more.

A transcript of this podcast is available as a PDF, and has been pasted below.

For our previous podcast with Prof. Storm on “The Invention of Religion in Japan”, see here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-invention-of-religion-in-japan/

From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment” and Framing Religious Studies

Podcast with Jason Ā Josephson-Storm (14 May 2018).

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Daniel Gorman (DG): Good afternoon, Professor!

Jason Josephson-Storm (JJS): Good afternoon, Dan.

DG: So Jason Josephson-Storm is calling in today, from Williamstown, Massachusetts.

JJS: Indeed! The snowy part of the state, yes.

DG: And I’m sitting in my kitchen, and the snow hasn’t reached me yet.

JJS: Oh, right.

DG: Today we will be talking about your new book, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences, published last May, by the University of Chicago Press. But I think, before we get into that, we should tell our listeners where you’re from, historiographically. Your first book was set across the Pacific: The Invention of Religion in Japan.

JJS: Yes, indeed. My first book was my dissertation – a heavily revised dissertation – called The Invention of Religion in Japan. And it was basically about Japanese intellectuals encountering the category religion for the first time, in a set of trade treaties in the mid nineteenth century, and trying to figure out what the word religion meant. Because there wasn’t necessarily an equivalent translation term for religion in Japanese. And they had no clear idea what – if anything, in Japan – was a religion, or counted as the category religion. And in that book I traced how the category religion was debated and articulated in Japan, and how Japanese thinkers came to see that the term was embedded in a set of contrasts. On the one hand, with religion and science as putative opposites, and the other as religion and superstition, as another imposing term. And to figure out one, you had to figure out the other. At least that’s what Japanese thinkers ended up deciding. And they ended up coining a completely new vocabulary of new terms, in Japanese. For example, like the term shūkyō for religion, or kagaku for science, that didn’t exist before this encounter with European thought. So yes, that was my dissertation. I did both sides of the encounter. Mostly I was looking at Japanese sources – Japanese thinkers looking to the West and then, in some cases in that book, I flipped the encounter and looked at Europeans writing about Japan in the same period. And looked at their mismatch of conceptual ideas and terms.

DG: If I remember correctly in The Invention of Religion in Japan, you talk about a few Japanese intellectuals who spend time studying in the United States?

JJS: Yes, that’s right, including thinkers like Mori Arinori who famously came to the United States – I think it was at Amherst College, actually – which is our arch-rival here, from Williams. [Editorial Note: See author’s correction below, from 18 May 2018 – “One small correction–Mori Arinori didn’t go to Amherst. I misspoke. He went to Brocton, New York, and spent a year living in a religious community established by spiritualist mystic Thomas Lake Harris and loosely based on the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The nineteenth century Japanese thinker who went to Amherst College, was Uchimura Kanzō. I discuss both men in The Invention of Religion in Japan.”] But I look at a number of Japanese intellectuals who travelled in the United States and wrote about their experiences there, definitely. And they tried to figure out the central edifices of Western thought. And this is a group of Japanese whose writings in the West has been historically less studied, because they studied weird things that don’t fit the story that Europeans like to tell about Europe. So they were considered to have got it wrong. But, actually, I think they had a lot of perceptive, interesting things to say. But that was the first book.

DG: I want to dig into that, a little bit. You were mentioning the story that Western Europeans are telling about themselves. And that’s an essential idea to The Myth of Disenchantment, your next book. What do you see as the story that they’re telling about themselves?

JJS: So, one of the things that the Europeans presented was an equation between their technological civilisation – in other words their guns and their boats and what-have-you – and their either cultural or intellectual traditions. And Europeans tended to tie them together and argue for the superiority and the fundamental connection between the two. So even though gunpowder was invented in China and the print press had its earlier formation, for example, in China (although we can’t see direct transition there) Europeans presented European technology as proof that European civilisation was superior, and they claimed, often, that European civilisation was superior for two competing reasons: either because European civilisation at that time was considered Christian, or they claimed that their civilisation was superior because it was more rational. But Japanese intellectuals encountering British culture were worried about: What is this Christianity? Is it uniform? And, particularly, they questioned the rationality of European thought. Versions of that were questions about the disenchantment narrative. So Europeans often claimed that their particular form of superiority came from the fact that they had disabused themselves of superstitions. But some Japanese thinkers noticed that . . . and this didn’t make it into the first book or the second book, but I’m publishing it elsewhere as an article. A bunch of Japanese thinkers, instead of seeing a disenchanted West, saw a West full of spiritualists, full of people believing in the Occult, full of Pentecostal religious revivals, full of people who believe in charms and the efficacy of talismans. So, in that respect, the presentation of the West – particularly Europe or America – as radically “other”, in terms of its lack of superstitions, didn’t make sense to them. They could see not only a disenchanted West but, in a way, a mystical West (5:00). And they saw a parallel, as they saw it, in European interest in things like x-rays and radioactivity. European science was populating the world with invisible forces and a number of European thinkers equated those . . . talked about spiritualism in terms of radioactivity or in terms of x-rays, or what have you. So one of the things that interested me early on was this interesting reading that Japanese thinkers produced about the West. The other things that they saw, or didn’t see, that I found interesting in that project were distinctions between philosophy and religion that they found to be really problematic. And the idea of a secular state was a construct that was, in many respects, mythical, or what-have-you. So that’s a lot about that book. Yes.

DG: What you’re suggesting is that with these Japanese intellectuals in the late 19th century – they’re looking and saying . . . with their connection between science and religion, they’re anticipating figures like Alfred North Whitehead.

JJS: You mean, who might see those two as having a different relationship?

DG: Yes. So, for instance, Whitehead is a mathematician but he’s talking about universal principals of the spirit. He’s making those connections. William James is using social science but he’s also interested in psychical phenomena. These individuals don’t fit neatly into the philosophical box you’re describing.

JJS: Yes, exactly. And I think they didn’t fit in a box from Japanese scholars, and they don’t fit that opposition. A lot of European scholars have put that opposition today. One of the grand myths that – to sort-of pivot to the next book – that I’m interrogating in The Myth of Disenchantment, is this notion of a necessary conflict between religion and science – which turns out to be a pervasive myth articulated, basically, in the 19th century in Europe and America. And it presumes that religion and science are necessarily in conflict. And there are a lot of interesting things we could say about, for example, Draper who is the first to talk about the conflict model, which he himself already uses as a Protestant anti-Catholic argument. Or we could say something about the number of scientists themselves who have not seen these two things in conflict, or whatever. But what I was really interested in, is how the categories of religion and science got articulated spaces, as terrains – to borrow something Peter Harrison later talked about, he uses that language – but to think how religion and science were defined in opposition. And one of thing that I notice . . . . And I’m sorry, if I get excited I talk too fast! So I’ll try and slow down a little bit. One of the things I noticed is that, conceptually, there was often a third term: not only were religion and science positioned in conflict, as part of this myth of a conflict model, but also often religion was seen as opposed to something – superstition – which was like the pseudo-religion, or the thing that looked like religion but is not religion, often described a superstition or magic. But similarly, science was also positioned in opposition to something called “pseudo-science”, which was also described as superstition or magic. So it seemed like the intellectual edifice that was being formulated in the 19th century was a triadic oppositional structure between, on the one hand, a conversation about the difference between religion and science, but also about religion and magic, or magic and science. And, in particular, areas that religion and science seemed to overlap were the most likely to be policed as illegitimate, as pseudo-science or as magic, or as . . . I’m thinking of things like psychical research, spiritualism, table-turning or what-have-you, that presented itself as a science, as a science of the dead . . .

DG: It satisfies neither group. Something like spiritualism, it satisfies neither the pure modernist, the scientist, and it doesn’t satisfy the Christians either.

JJS: Yes, often. Although there are a range of scientists who love spiritualism and a range of Christians or Quakers, or what-have-you that, as we know, were into spiritualism. But you’re right, that it didn’t fit the clean definitionary lines. But it became an object of attack from both sides. So one of the things that already motivated the transition between the two books was, I got interested in trying to figure out . . . if in Japan, in the 19th century, they were encountering these three categories as if they were already accomplished things: religion, science and magic or superstition. I was interested in how those three got formulated as three distinct categories in thought, and how much boundary work was going on in policing them – and also the ways that boundary work collapsed. And then, the other kind-of insight that motivated this second project is that a lot of the conversation about this third term – magic or spiritualism – connected itself up to a notion of modernity as such. So one of the central myths, that I think is still shared in much of the social sciences, is the notion of some grand periodisation called modernity. And the idea is that at a certain point – everybody disagrees about when, but it may the birth of the printing press, or industrialisation, or the Protestant Reformation, or what-have-you – there’s a rupture, after which we enter a period called modernity, but often modernity is described in terms of something called disenchantment (10:00). And that disenchantment is usually defined as an end of belief in spirit, or an end of belief in magic. But the problem is that, if you look at it – and I have a chapter that looks at the sociological evidence – people didn’t stop believing in spirits. Many Americans, arguably – depending upon how you define the categories – something like 75% of Americans hold onto some kind of paranormal or general belief in spirits, in ghosts, in angels, in demons, demons that possess people etc., psychical powers – all this stuff is really widespread – astrology, for example. So, you know, we might guess that the academy has more sceptics than other, but even then it’s not necessarily clear. It’s just there are different kinds of belief that people have. So it doesn’t look like contemporary America is disenchanted, according to those logics – or contemporary Western Europe. And what’s more, it turns out that the notion of modernity as itself disenchanted, was basically formulated in the 19th century. And this is a period where we hear about revival, about spiritualist séances, about the widespread birth of psychical research, and theosophy, and a whole bunch of other positions. So it turns out that – as I argue in this book, The Myth of Disenchantment –after looking at . . . . I started looking at these founding figures of this narrative of modernity as disenchantment, who are often the founders of many of our disciplines: founders of Sociology, or Psychology, or Psychoanalysis, or Philosophy, or Religious Studies. And I looked through their diaries and their letters, and I was able to locate them in the exact milieu where magic was, itself, being practised or believed. They hung out with spiritualists, or they themselves called their own project theosophy, and talked to these theosophists. So it looked, in a way, that the myth of magic departure was part and parcel of conversations of occultists as well as scholars of religion. So Helena Blavatsky, for example – the founder of the Theosophical Society – she described modernity in terms of the disenchantment, and said that the central feature of the West was that it had lost belief in magic – even as she wanted to return to India, and her hidden masters, to recoup the missing pieces! So it looked like the difference . . . normally disciplines like Sociology and Religious Studies describe themselves as disenchanting or secularising. But that becomes harder to countenance when you know that in the individual lives of a lot of these people – let’s say Sigmund Freud – they find themselves having the beliefs that they are, themselves, describing as archaic! So, what it means is that there is a way in which this very notion of modernity as disenchanted turns out to be a myth. And that turns out to be one of the many things I try to argue in the book. Basically, not only isn’t it true now, but it wasn’t true then. And we can see, if we look at the lives – the private lives – of all these thinkers, that they had all these kind-of, let’s say, heterodox, or complicated, or interesting, or enchanted beliefs themselves. So I think that’s one of the big pay-offs.

DG: Hang on! Sorry I want to get a word in, here!

JJS: Yes, sorry!

DG: So you mentioned that there’s a flood narrative, to say that there’s a triadic opposition of magic, Western Christianity and (science). If that’s a flawed model, and everything’s more fluid and, as you say, you have scientists like Curie and Max Müller who are going to séances, then what is the correct structure? Is there even a structure? Shall we get rid of this triad? Is it the tesseract, and multiple dimensions wrapping around itself, or what is it?

JJS: So, I think we tend to think of this triad as necessary and universal. But I think we’re wrong about that. What I ‘m not saying is that nobody believed in this triad but rather, in the process of constructing this triad, we carved out a much more complex, heterogeneous space and then made a bunch of arbitrary divisions around it. So one of the things I’m trying to do is challenge the presumption of that triad. I would agree that it needs to be unwoven, in a certain way. But that doesn’t mean that we deny that we’ve had this history. So one of the things that I’m really interested in is how we study – just to take a step back to these higher categories. So, we spend a bunch of time sitting in the horizon of these categories. So, let’s say, we spend much time thinking of religion as a universal, and then trying to define the features that religion has. What’s the definition of religion, and how is it in all sides, and in all cultures? I don’t think that . . . . That project has failed. My book isn’t the first to show this. Neither of my books is the first to show this. But there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the category of religion takes its primary relation to a particular period in Euro-American history and then is imposed, in a heavily negotiated and contested way, on the rest of the globe. But what I think we can do, as scholars, is then to not study the category as a universal thing, but study the category as it is articulated and the effects that it’s had. So we can trace this category as a kind of unfolding process or, what I like to call a “higher order assemblage”, and look at how various things are recruited into it. It’s like an unfolding process, like a stream. To take a metaphor, what I’m trying to do is, I’m kind-of . . . instead of a process physics – a process anthropology (15:00). And to look how these categories were historically conditioned and articulated within the implications of doing that. And that means that we have to look at ourselves as scholars within the categories themselves, and kind-of work them out. Anyway, this is stuff I’m working on for the next book. So I shouldn’t monologue any more about it! But I’m working on a book called Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism. And that’s exactly about: how do we work with, and study, these higher order categories. And how do we sort-of function without returning to the older discredited modernism, or turning into the word-play of postmodernism. And what I argue for is a kind of pride in “humble science” is one of my phrases. And I kind-of come up with a new philosophy of social science for a post-Kuhnian way of looking at the world as these kind-of aggregated processes. But I should step back, and return to this before I get carried away.

DG: There is a little bit to unpack there. Let’s begin with this idea of . . . I think one of the things we’re dancing around in this conversation is there is a difference between studying something, and there is a difference between practising it. So you mentioned, for instance, three are people in the 19th Century who believe in the triumvirate of magic, spiritualism and science – no excuse me I got the triumvirate wrong, the triumvirate is Christianity, Spiritualism and science: OK, take a step back to the present. . .

JJS: Or religion, science and magic, or whatever. Yes.

DG: So then, as a scholar looking back, you’re seeing the flowing river where it’s all intertwined and there is no simple static thing. So then let’s go to another level, ok? You’ve got the people in the past with the triad; you’ve got the people today, studying, saying, “No. I see a stream in which these people were functioning.” So what’s the next step? Where do we go if we’re saying that our narrative of modernity and postmodernity is flawed? What’s the next step for building a framework to understand this stuff? Because we still have to live with it in the present day.

JJS: So what I’m saying is, to locate ourselves within the horizon of temporality. So I mean, in that respect, one of the things that we have to do is recognise the limitedness of our own conceptual categories. I mean, now we’re really onto my third book stuff – so this is fun! But one of the things that we do is we have to recognise . . . . I should take a step back, and talk about the history of modernism and postmodernism, and then tell you . . . . So, one of the things that many academic disciplines were predicated on was the notion of concepts. That was essentially Aristotelian in its basic function. This is a notion of concepts as having necessary and sufficient conditions for membership. And what’s more, we thought that our concepts mapped on the world – that they cut up what the Greeks had called the “joints of nature” – in other words, looked at where nature divided things up. So that made natural kinds of distinctions. This is often called “natural kinds”. And we thought that if you could find necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in a given category, that you could identify its essence. And if you could say something about its essence you could begin to discover and develop, let’s say, robust or scientific knowledge about a subject. In the hard sciences we’ve already begun to challenge that notion of essences. And I think a lot of philosophy of science has already moved past the way that those conceptions or categories are articulated. But in the humanities we also had a crisis around this, because we discovered that many of our concepts no longer worked. The capacity to produce necessary and sufficient conditions for the category of religion turns out to have been a flawed process, etc. So the question then becomes . . . . Instead of thinking about nature as jointed, in the old fashioned way, we have to think of it in the way of a disjointed nature. And this is at least true. Even if you think that there is a distinction between natural kinds and human kinds, in which nature itself has joints, it’s pretty clear that human concepts don’t have the kinds of joints that we would like to project upon them. The joints that we have are historically contingent. So part of what we end up doing in studying is locating ourselves within our study – so this is a kind of reflexivity – and then focussing on how these conceptual categories were themselves constructed. But I’m aware that we’re getting away from . . .

DG: Yes. I feel like we’re moving beyond The Myth of Disenchantment to what comes after. We realised that the myth of disenchantment is flawed. And we’re also running out of time. So, we sketched out the theoretical terrain. But what struck me with this book is that, as much as we talk about the critical theory and the flawed basis of modernity, you’re showing an incredible range of material in, let’s see: German, French, English – you’re doing comparative linguistic work here, also.

SSJ: Yes.

DG: What is your . . . I mean, it almost sounds like a Larry King softball question, but I’m curious! What is your language training, to be able to do a book like this? Because it’s almost like you were doing the work of four books in one. You’re talking about German intellectual history, you talk about the Renaissance, you talk about Occultism, and Britain and America in the ’50s.

JJS: Yes, so I grew up bilingual with French and English, and I went to a French and English Educational school until I went to High School. And having basically tested out of High School French, I started Japanese in High School (20:00). And my mother was born in Germany. So I grew up also with sharing a lot of German. So I had, basically, those four – German is my weakest of those languages. I also spent some time in Barcelona, studying Spanish. And then I lived in France for a couple for years, and I lived in Japan and I lived in Germany. And when I was in Japan I studied Classical Chinese. So, basically, I have English, French, Spanish, German, Japanese and Classical Chinese. And then from Romance languages and Germanic languages you can get to other Romance and Germanic languages easily. And then, when I was here a few years ago at Williams, I did tutoring- I took and received tutoring from a classicist here, in Latin. So I was working on building my Latin. At the moment I’ve just started – I love languages – I’ve just started Biblical Hebrew. So in fact, what I’m going to go to in thirty minutes is my Hebrew lesson. But I just love languages! I mean, I just love them. I read in languages more than I speak with languages. I talk quickly and I like to be grammatical, and then I get tongue-tied if I try to speak. I speak all my languages better drunk, for example! But I love puzzling things out philologically. So that’s the kind of stuff that was in the background of this book. Yes.

DG: You also mentioned, in our conversation, the idea that there are moments in history – as you see it – sort-of these explosive junctures, that upset our models for understanding the world. You know, you can look at Japan: the arrival of the Westerners unsettles their way of not seeing a division between spirituality and nature. For Westerners: the atomic bomb, the discovery of the germ, the DNA – these sort of explosive moments. And I find it interesting that you started writing The Myth of Disenchantment after an explosive moment: the Fukishima disaster. So we’re talking about reflexivity, so I’m trying to situate you, Josephson-Storm, in the fields that you’re talking about. Where are you in the stream?

JJS: Oh well, that’s a big question! Do you want to know why I came to this particular project, when? Or do you want to hear about how I shifted from Japan to the Western European thing? Or I could go in so many different directions. That’s a good one.

DG: Well, let’s focus . . . . Since we’re talking about historical moments that upset the stream, that upset the models, for you I want to talk about the Fukishima thing. And how does that effect the way you conceive of religion?

JJS:I mean for me, as I mentioned at the beginning of this book, after I’d finished The Invention of Religion in Japan, before it had come to press, I was starting research on another project that was going to be called “Ghosts and Resurrections in Contemporary Japan”. And it was about the history of the notion of spirits, and about contemporary belief in talismans. And I was already making the argument that 19th and 20th century Japan wasn’t disenchanted. But then the incident . . . . You know, I’d already done a lot of research towards that project. And one of the things that tipped me the other way, just by chance of timing, was in Kyoto – I was on an early tenure sabbatical doing research. And I was actually at a tattoo parlour getting some tattoo work done, when the Fukishima incident happened. It was actually- the earthquake off at Tohuku. We didn’t know it was Fukishima, yet. And earthquakes aren’t uncommon in Japan. They’re pretty common. And we didn’t, right away, know how huge the effects were going to be. So, a lot of people in the tattoo parlour would just stop what we doing, and we were just watching the television screens. And I remember seeing the images of the tsunami, but not yet being aware of how tragic and disastrous it was going to be in terms of loss of human life. And one of the guys in the tattoo parlour was asking me about my research, and I started talking about, you know, asking people about their belief in talismans and ghosts and spirits and talking about that kind of thing. And there was one other non-Japanese person there. And when we were having this conversation this guy, who I think probably was from either Norway or Sweden or something like that, was like: “Oh, of course Japanese people believe in all these magical things. But that’s because Japan is a kind-of like mystical Asia, where people still believe in magic. But in the West people don’t believe in anything like that.” And I thought, the binary that was drawn – it was flawed. And, in particular – in part, we could say, autobiographically – it’s because my grandmother was a famous anthropologist, Felicitas Goodman, who herself went kind of . . . the term people used to describe her was “went native”. On a reservation in New Mexico, she started believing in the existence of spirits. And I remember, from growing up, her offering cornmeal to the ghosts when the sunrise came up, to the spirits and the ancestors and what have you – the spirits of the land (25:00). And I knew that a lot of people came from all over the world to attend these sessions that she gave on the reservation. So some of those famous sociologist, anthropologists and artists from Germany, from Mexico, from the Unites States. And so I was always . . . I felt a bit of an outsider to that community. But I greatly admired my grandmother who was one of my intellectual heroes, and one of the reasons I study religion. And so I knew, at least, she was strange – but she wasn’t that strange. And so this reinforced my sense that this binary between an enchanted Asia and disenchanted West, was itself a kind of mythical distinction. So that’s one of the things that gave birth to this project: to kind of look at Europe with the eyes of an outsider anthropologist – or look at Europe and America from this semi-outsider vantage point. And there’s where I think I saw a lot of things that I didn’t expect, perhaps. But clearly there was disaster. I was planning to go to Tokyo and it looked like Tokyo was . . . . You couldn’t get food, they were having to ship stuff into the city. I was looking online at radiation levels that were spiking, and I just thought it was probably . . . I wasn’t going to be able to get the kind of research that I was going to get done, done in Tokyo. So I went to Germany, where I was intending to go at some point after that, anyway. So the disaster, in a way, uprooted me. And I made sure that my Japanese friends were safe, and I tried to keep tabs on things. But I knew, you know like it wasn’t going to be conducive to. . . .You know – an American, rooting around in the archives, wasn’t going to be conducive to what was happening in Fukishima and Tokyo in that particular moment. So I went to Germany and then went through the German archives, basically. I was trying to beef up my German, so I started reading a lot of stuff in German then.

DG: We’ve gone around the world I think, three times at this point. I think the fact is that the stuff we’re talking about – we could go on about this for hours. But our listeners only have about half an hour. So, to wrap up: I think what I see as the contribution of your book, is that it’s identifying . . . instead of this singular, “us versus them”, science or Christian scientists (that’s two separate words, that’s Christian scientists not Christian Scientists, the religion) versus the spiritualist, by showing the fact that it’s more complicated. I saw a couple of different strands in your book. And I want you to critique me if you think I’ve got the wrong strands. You’ve got Christians who are scientist and spiritualist. You have scientists who are spiritualists. You have spiritualists who aren’t scientists but reject Christianity. So my point is: every single part of the triad, you could flip that a couple of different ways. And so, suddenly, you’ve got six or seven – I don’t know. . . . How many strands would you see, in the book, of how many different boxes people can fall into?

JJS: Yes, I didn’t organise it that way, but I did organise it around the birth of these different disciplines. So, I mean I think you’re right, even looking at the birth of these different disciplines, what I was interested in is the different ways that people navigated those categories. And you’re right, there are like a plurality. You could be pro-science, pro-magic; anti -science, anti-magic; pro-Christianity, pro-magic: anti Christianity, pro-magic. All of the possible options, and a much more pluralistic way than you would get if you bought the story that suggested that the central feature of modernity is that people no longer believed in spirits or magic.

DG: But what you’re talking about is also a more interesting story.

JJS: Yes. Thank you. Yes, I hope I highlight some interesting complexities and interesting figures. And I found a lot of stuff. I was surprised, you know, the amount of stuff that I found that was in diaries, or letters, or things that were lesser known works of a range of figures that really doesn’t fit our received impression of these people. But then, I look not just at the founders of academic disciplines but – for the sake of your readers – I look at a number of famous magicians and occultists and show how they were in dialogue with the academic world, more than people often supposed. So Aleister Crowley and Helena Blavatsky, for example, are two key examples. And then I do five hundred years of history. So, you know, basically it’s Francis Bacon, to the Vienna Positivists. So maybe not quite 500 years, but more like 400 years of history. It was a lot of stuff. It was a lot of fun. I had to leave out a lot.

DG: Yes. And I’ve seen some of those articles you published the one called, what’s it? “God’s Shadow” – the one about the founders of the study of religion who were also obsessed with ghosts.

JJS: Yes, totally. Indeed. So the book . . . there are lot of pieces that I had to cut out. Some of it has appeared in articles, and I have a bunch more of book chapters that will look at different pieces. But I’m trying to move off of that. But I just had so much and I had to cut it down for publishing purposes. So it’s a little bit tight in terms of the prose. But there’s a lot of evidence there, yes (30:00).

DG: So thank you, Dr Josephson-Storm. It’s been a very lively conversation!

JJS: Good to speak to you, too.

DG: And having gone from the triad, which is flawed, to the stream, which is interesting, I am interested to see what your theoretical book will say next. Because once you explode the streams – and living in an age of fake news where anything goes, I’m very interested in where the study of religion, and how we understand it, goes next.

JJS: Thank you. Yes, that’s what I’m working on, yes.

DG: If you come up with a good answer, let me know!

JJS: Yes, you’ll have to read the book, or interview me when the next one comes out. It’s under contract and I’m claiming I’m going to have it to the press by the end of 2019. So I have to come up with an answer by then, anyway! We’ll hope it’s a good one!

DG: Go test it on your undergrads!

JJS: Yes, totally.

DG: Thank you very much.

JJS: Good to speak to you. Thank you.

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.

Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Cliches

“Religions are belief systems”, “Religions are intrinsically violent”, “Religion is Bullshit”… these are just some of the pervasive cliches that we might hear from time to time in the English-speaking world about our central topic of discussion on the RSP, ‘religion’. In this podcast, Chris is joined by Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin, the editors of the recently published Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Cliches (Bloomsbury, 2017) to discuss these cliches, the ideological work that they do, how scholars could and should approach them, the construction of the book, and more.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for making this recording possible. The other cliches addressed in the book and/or covered in the podcast include:

* “Religion Makes People Moral”
* “Religion Concerns the Transcendent”
* “Religion is a Private Matter”
* “Religions are Mutually Exclusive”
* “I’m Spiritual but Not Religious”
* “Learning about Religion Leads to Tolerance”
* “Everyone has a Faith”

You can find a full list of contributors, and more about the book, on the publisher’s website: HERE.

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-Wear, previously enjoyed golf balls, and more.

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

Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés

Podcast with Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin (30 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Stoddard and Martin – Stereotyping Religion 1.1

Chris Cotter (CC): “Religions are belief systems.” “Religions are intrinsically violent.” “Religion is bullshit.” These are just some of the pervasive clichés that we might hear from time to time, in the English-speaking world, about our central topic of discussion on the RSP: religion. Joining me today to talk about a new book that’s coming out called Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin, neither of whom should be strangers to the Religious Studies Project. But, just to introduce them, Brad is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. He completed his dissertation at Florida State University and is currently revising his manuscript on Florida’s faith-based correctional institutions. He teaches American Religious History and the History of Christianity. And he’s primarily interested in religion and the law, religion in American prisons, and theory and method in the Study of Religion. And he’s currently serving as the president of our beneficent sponsors, the North American Association for the Study of Religion. And Craig Martin is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at St Thomas Aquinas College. And his research and teaching focuses on theoretical questions in the academic Study of Religion, typically related to discourse, ideology and power. And some of his books include, Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion and the Private Sphere; Capitalising Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie; and A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion. And he is currently the editor of a book series with Bloomsbury, titled Critiquing Religion: Discourse, Culture and Power, in which this book, Stereotyping Religion, appears. So, Brad and Craig – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project!

Brad Stoddard (BS): Thank you.

Craig Martin (CM): Thanks so much.

CC: And I should say that we are conversing via the wonders of Skype. So maybe – just to set the scene here for me – if you want to tell me, how did this book come to be? Why did it come to be? What’s the point here?

CM: Brad, can I field that one to begin with?

BS: I think you should!

CM: (Laughs.) So, the initial idea for this book project came to me when I was working on my dissertation at Syracuse University. I was thinking about all the stereotypes about religion that my students came into the class with, and that I found frustrating to know how to deal with – and not just students, but also friends and family members who would repeat these clichés. And it was like, I couldn’t think of an obvious scholarly source to point them to, to say, “OK. In a nutshell, here’s why scholars try to avoid this cliché.” So, through conversations with my friends Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi  . . . Schaefer’s now at – I’m going to get this wrong. He’s either at Penn State, or the University of Pennsylvania – I can’t remember which.

CC: (Laughs).

CM: But, I reached out to Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi and I said, “You know, I think we could write this book really quickly and easily, because we already know what we want to say about each of these stereotypes.” And we produced three chapters, and I graduated and moved away, and the thing just kind-of languished and was never picked up and continued. So a couple of years ago I was like, “You know, that really was a good idea for a book. There should be something on clichés and stereotypes.” So I reached out to Brad and said, “Hey, are you interested in helping me edit this?” And he jumped on board, and then we ran with it.

CC: Wonderful. And it’s really great when that sort of thing happens, when you get to revisit an idea that you had – and no one else has stolen it! Yes.

CM: (Laughs). Yes. Well in ten years of it sitting, nobody else stole the idea. And I think that the stereotypes we chose are so pervasive that we didn’t have any difficulty getting people to sign up for the project. People were immediately, “Oh yes! That’s a great idea. Can I address this one?” Or, “Can I address that one?” So, yes we were pleased with how quickly it came together, and how great our submitting authors were.

CC: On that note . . . . So, you say you found it quite easy to come up with the list of clichés: did you present a ready-made list and then try and find contributors? Or did contributors come to you with clichés they particularly wanted to write about? And were there ones that you had wanted to include, that you couldn’t?

BS: As I recall, Craig and I . . . when Craig approached me with the project we sat down, you know, over the phone or email and went back and forth to create a list of about ten clichés that we agreed on. And then we started looking for people to write about the individual clichés. And in conversations with the individual authors at least one or maybe two of the clichés changed, because the author would say, “Well that’s good – can I approach it from this angle” And of course, when it made sense, we gave the individual authors the freedom to run with the cliché. But the bulk of it, I think, came from a few conversations where Craig and I just identified: these are the main clichés we see in society and politics. These are the main clichés we encounter in class. And so we had this list of clichés – and it just changed a little bit, but for the most part we ran with our list.

CC: Fantastic. I’ll ask you in a moment to take me through a few of them. But, in the introduction you set out the context for the book, but also the context in which the clichés are operating. So you talk about liberal political theory, idealised Protestantism, secularisation theory and so on. Maybe you could – just for the listeners – lay out the context that we’re talking about, in which these stereotypes are operating?

CM: I think a lot of that stuff in the intro was from me. Because when we were finishing edits to the various chapters, and I was reading through them and thinking about, you know – would my students be able to follow these or not? Because we wanted this to be accessible at an undergraduate level. I realised a common theme that went throughout a majority of the chapters were those three things that you mentioned: liberal political discourse that says religion is a private matter, the discourses on secularism and the discourses on New Atheism. These didn’t pop up in every single chapter, but in a majority of ones. So I was like, you know: we should give some background to the consistent themes that were going to pop up as the reader moves through the book.

CC: Yes.

CM: So that’s why I used those in particular: because I thought that they would help the readers understand the chapters.

BS: The only thing that I would add to that – I think you also mention in that section anti-Catholic propaganda, or anti-Catholic Protestant propaganda, about religion being a private matter. Or some of the other clichés: that they have a Protestant bias built into them. And, of course, the colonial context. Those are two other factors that we saw as common themes in the history of the general clichés.

CM: Yes, for sure. Exactly.

CC: Fantastic. So, I’m wary of asking you pull out favourites or anything, because we’ll not have time to get through every cliché. But perhaps you could take us through one or two of them, and just show us some of the analysis in action?

BS: Do you have any ones you want to pull out, Craig?

CM: I’ll wait till after you go.

CC: (Laughs). I like that.

BS: I have a soft spot for Steven Ramey’s piece. Steven Ramey writes about religions being mutually exclusive. And I think Steven’s was the first . . . . The reason I have a soft spot for it: I think it was the first one that came back to us; he was the first to submit it, that is. And I read it and I thought, “This is exactly how I want this book to look.” So, Steven Ramey addresses the cliché that religions are mutually exclusive. And so he introduces the chapter with I think the opening sentence, “What is your religion? Check one box.” And this is something that all undergraduates have seen in some version, right? What is your religion? They get it here. They have the option to check that box when they apply for admission. So I know they’ve at least seen it once, but probably many times before. So he introduces the cliché. In the introduction he talks about how this is not . . . this cliché that religions are mutually exclusive is not just academic navel-gazing, but that there are real political and legal implications. And he addressed some of the legal and political implications. And he continues . . . . In the chapter he talks about places where you encounter this cliché. Where do we see it? We see it in popular culture. We see it in politics. We see it in Law. Of course, he doesn’t mention this, but for example in the work I do in prisons: when you’re an inmate in America you check “Which religion are you?” You have to check one. And in Florida, where I did the bulk of my research, you can only change your religion once every six months. And it dictates where you can move about in the prison, which groups you can attend, which study groups, which religious services. Steven doesn’t address that part, but these are some of the examples. Steven mentions different types of examples like this. You know, this idea that religions are mutually exclusive: it does have political and legal implications. So then he moves in, and he talks about the development, the historical development of the cliché. Talking about, of course, the European context in which the cliché emerged. He talks about the colonial context. I believe he mentions the Protestant Reformation. He talks about places like India, where the distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism is not as rigid as we would imply. Or some other Asian countries where Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism or even Shinto – these alleged, so-called separate religions – the boundaries are just so much more malleable. So, long-story-short, by the time you read Steven’s chapter you get the history of the cliché, you get the political work that it does, and you realise the areas of the world where that cliché becomes quite problematic.

CC: Exactly. And it’s worth noting, here, that the book isn’t attempting to sort-of put something in the place of these clichés. Because the opposite example of religions being mutually exclusive, would be that, I guess, religions are all one and the same – which is another one that is dealt with in the book. You’re not so much asking these authors to say, “This is wrong, and this is right.” You’re rather pointing out that clichés, in and of themselves, never tell the full picture and are always doing ideological work.

BS: That’s true. We highlight that in the introduction, where we make a point of saying that we want to make it clear the work is not to replace these old clichés with new generalisations about religion, or better generalisations about religion. Instead, we’re suggesting to the students, or to the readers, that any cliché about religion or any generalising statement can similarly be interrogated, historicised, etc.

CC: Fantastic. So, Craig, you’ve had a long time to think, there, about which you’re going to pick out!

CM: Well, I decided I can’t pick one. I think – there are so many great chapters in here, in my opinion.

CC: You’ll never hear the end of it if you pick . . . you know, whoever you pick!

CM: Yes. (Laughs). Well, ok

BS: Delete my answer, then!

CM: I really enjoyed Tenzan‘s chapter on learning about how religion leads to tolerance – in part because he did a bunch of research into Ninian Smart’s work that I didn’t have a lot of prior familiarity with. So I actually learned a lot about Ninian Smart by reading his chapter. You know, Ninian Smart reproduces a stereotype that if you learn about religion, or if we teach about religion in public schools or in colleges, then people will be more tolerant and accepting and forgiving of one another. And one of the things that I felt was really important about the book was that I felt that we needed to address how theses stereotypes appear not only in popular culture, but also in scholarly literature. And Tenzan just did a fantastic job of showing, you know, how even a sophisticated scholar like Ninian Smart reproduces some pretty blatant stereotypes. But I really thought he nailed Ninian Smart – that’s probably why I liked it so much.

CC: Yes. When I was reading it I did highlight three or four pages to come back to, the next time I have to teach about Ninian Smart.

CM: I had a chance to teach him in my Intro to Religious Studies class. I taught this book last semester. And literally, the day . . . . So, this was a 9 o’clock in the morning class, and we’d addressed Tenzan’s chapter that education about religion leads to tolerance. And then, literally a couple of hours later, one of my students who was in that class went to one of her other classes where they had a guest lecturer – who showed up to talk about how education about different religions leads to tolerance! So the student came back to me in office hours the next day and said, “You know, Professor, I was arguing with this presenter in my head, and I was pretty sure I won the argument, based on what we had learned in class earlier that day.”

CC: (Laughs).

CM: So it was fun to see . . . . You know, we addressed this cliché and then two hours later, literally, she encounters the cliché in the classroom. It’s fun!

CC: Fantastic. And we’ll talk, hopefully, before we finish about that experiment of using it in the classroom. But you’ve touched on, there, learning about religions leads to tolerance. That sounds like a quite a positive cliché. In one of the chapters, I think it was Matt Sheedy’s on religion being violent, he brought up Karen Armstrong, and others, insisting that proper religion is peaceful, and religion is a peaceful, nice thing. Is there a danger that by critiquing positive clichés we’re doing society a disservice? Or is there such a thing as a positive cliché?

CM: I want to answer this question pointing to what I think is an excellent book on phenomenology of religion, Tim Murphy‘s The Politics of Spirit. And in that book Murphy looks at the history of phenomenology, a lot of which puts a positive spin on religion: that religion is getting in touch with the transcendent; religion is a sort of happiness, etc. Phenomenology of religion tends to think positively about religion. But what Tim Murphy does is show that each one of those phenomenologists uses their rhetorical framework to rank religions and to denigrate some in relationship to others. So that someone like Rudolph Otto says, you know, religion is getting in touch with the transcendent, and that Christianity most beautifully gets us in touch with the transcendent. But, of course, Islam doesn’t do so well, and primitive religion is terrible at it. So I think that even the positive clichés . . . like Karen Armstrong – she also has a ranking system built into her framework. So that the things that she likes she can call authentic religion, and the things that she doesn’t like she can dismiss as inauthentic religion or political religion – or maybe, for her, political religion isn’t even religion. So perhaps it’s ok to bomb the ship in the Middle East, because they’re not good religious people, they’re bad religious people? So I think that even the positive clichés have the potential to be used in that kind of ranking system, where people can favour one and dismiss others. And that can often-times lead to what I consider to be negative effects.

CC: Absolutely. And, indeed, Leslie Dorrough Smith writes in the book about the idea of religion being about transcendence. And I pulled out this quote where she says that cliché can “simultaneously normalise the existence of the supernatural, identify an enemy, justify a political cause, amplify the seriousness of one’s position and unite a group of people under the banner of their own moral worth.” And that’s not even a complete list! So in that . . . . You hear, “Oh religion is just about the transcendent, the supernatural, the ineffable,” and it doesn’t sound harmful. But when you look at how it is deployed, it’s doing real ideological work. So let’s talk about the classroom setting, then. So, as I was saying earlier to you: this is certainly going to be a very useful resource when I’m coming to teaching – not only about Ninian Smart, but any time you casually mention these clichés – it’s going to be fantastic to just pick up the book and find a few examples. So I can see it being a really useful teaching resource, in that respect. But, Brad – you used it in the classroom, then. So how did that go down?

BS: Yes, I used this book in my Intro to Religious Studies class, where we start by reviewing the so-called canon of important or influential Religious Studies scholars, and then we supplement that with people who are omitted from the so-called canon. And then the benefit of that is that the students got a wide survey of theories about religions, approaches to religion, methods, methodologies, etc. And then we ended the semester by reading and discussing Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés. And since it was the first time I taught from the book, I organised it as this: we’d meet three days a week, and I asked groups of students to present for a half hour. And so, you had two or three students each presenting a chapter. And they presented for about twenty minutes, and then we’d open up for Q and A for about ten minutes or so. And then I had some closing comments at the end of the class. And what I like about it is that it allowed me to see what the students took from the book, and what I thought they omitted. And it led to some really good discussions, because the students thought…or the students said, “Yes. Some of the clichés that we’ve identified, I embrace them.” Pretty much the entire class! And so to have someone call them out, and point out the history, and point out the problems with it – it did a lot of work in the class. It helped the students, because it overturned some things that they had just taken for granted. And actually, on the last day of class, we discussed the entire book. And the students tended to agree – obviously they knew that I was one of the editors, so they weren’t going to say too many harsh criticisms; they weren’t going to criticise it too much! But they thought that it was nice to end the semester by addressing these clichés, for the simple fact that it changed the way they were thinking, or that they had thought about religion, you know, for their young adult life.

CC: Fantastic.

BS: Not to over-romanticise it, right?!

CC: Oh, no.

BS: But they did find value in it.

CC: Excellent. I can totally see myself, the next time I’m marking a pile of essays . . . . And you see these clichés coming up all the time. One that’s not in the book is, you know: “Religion has been around since the beginning of time . . .” They’ll sort-of begin with that. But plenty of other ones come up. And I can imagine, immediately, just copying in a URL to the chapter on the library website, for any of these – rather than having to spend my own time deconstructing it! Just say, “Read that chapter, and then come back and write it again.”

BS: That’s a good one! Craig, take note: we should include that in the next edition, if there is one!

CC: Yes! (Laughs). Well, if there’s another one: “Religion is a choice” – you always hear that. People choose to believe, or choose to have a certain religion. So, yes, I’m already filling up the next volume! I guess an obvious question that would come up on the RSP quite often, is: why religion, here? Obviously this is our area of interest. We teach courses on this. But could you do a similar book for say stereotyping sport, or stereotyping gender, or, you know – is religion particularly problematic?

BS: Yes, you could. And I hope other people do!

CC: (Laughs).

BS: So, I have a little more of a substantive response to that question.

All: (Laugh).

BS: I think that, yes, obviously you could write such a book about any subject matter: stereotyping politics, stereotyping gender, stereotyping race. What I think sets Religious Studies apart is the fact that post-structuralism reached Religious Studies twenty years later than it hit all those other fields. And the popularisation of post-structuralist approaches is lagging. I don’t know, apart from Malory Nye‘s intro book, in Russell McCutcheon’s new book, I don’t know of any introductory material in Religious Studies that actually comes from a critical, poststructuralist perspective. And I’m pretty sure that people have been teaching poststructuralism to undergrads since the 80s. So it’s time that we went ahead, and picked up our slack, and tried to catch up by having some undergraduate literature to present. I mean it’s not like post-structuralism is brand new. It’s 50 years old, now! Our introductory textbooks still tend to ignore those types of critical approaches.

CC: Yes. So there are disciplinary reasons why such a book may not be written, necessarily, in other fields. And then also, like it or not, “religion” – this constructed political category – is something that has a lot of power in the modern Western world. To write a book called, I don’t know, “Stereotyping Golf”, or “Stereotyping Stamp Collecting”, whilst it might be interesting . . . . Unfortunately, stereotypes about stamp collecting probably aren’t quite as pervasive, or potentially harmful, as these clichés about “religion”. Every time I say “religion” it’s in scare quotes. But we all know that. We are coming up on about 25 minutes, here. So I’ll be wanting to wrap up, fairly soon. And I’m going to close the interview with Rebekka King‘s close to the book. But I just wondered if there’s anything more on this topic of prevalent stereotypes about religion that you would like to say, or that you’d hoped you were going to say?

CM: I think I would just want to say thanks to Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi for working with me on this project in the ancient past, and thanks to Brad for joining the project when I decided to resurrect it. And also thanks to Lalle Pursglove at Bloomsbury publishing, for showing some interest in the idea and taking me up on the offer.

CC: Absolutely. And it’s brilliant to see the sort of critical religion approach applied in this sense, sort-of applied systematically to a variety of clichés that . . . . When I was reading it myself I was doing a lot of, “Well, yes. Yes, that makes sense.” But there were a lot of things that were thoughts that I’d had, but were never actually put down on paper. And lots of interesting examples, and plenty that I’d never thought of before. And I can see it being really useful, both for students and to point students to – and potentially to do the sort of thing that Brad did, sort-of structuring some teaching around it. So do check out the book, Listeners. It’s called Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés, edited by Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin. It came out in paperback immediately, so it’s nice and . . . It’s not a typical academic book price, so you can get your hands on it quite easily, hopefully. And you can find the full list of all the stereotypes and clichés . . . we’ll put them on the page with this podcast. I just wanted to end with Rebekka King’s chapter on “Religion is bullshit”. And she begins by talking about how even the desire to correct the statement “religion is bullshit” is, in itself, bullshit. And she closes the book with the following words, which I thought would be a nice way to end the episode: “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether or not religion is bullshit. The term is an empty signifier. What matters is your ability to weigh evidence, locate sources and pay critical attention to both your scholarly process and product. You may find yourself mired in shit, but at least you’ll be in good company.” And I hope you’ve been in good company today. Thanks so much Craig and Brad.

CM: Thank you.

BS: Thanks so much for having us. We appreciate it.

Citation Info: Stoddard, Brad, Craig Martin and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 30 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 25 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/stereotyping-religion-critical-approaches-to-pervasive-clichés/

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

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

Myth, Solidarity, and Post-Liberalism

With the rise of reactionary politics across the globe, it is arguably increasingly important for the academic community to give consideration to the prospects of developing and strengthening solidarity across apparent religious, political and economic differences. In this podcast, Chris speaks to Dr Timothy Stacey (University of Ottawa) about his forthcoming book, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division (Routledge, 2018), in which he asks how we can begin to imagine solidarity in the modern world, and challenges academics to be challenge the co-option of their work by being “better than those who seek to co-opt us.”

What is solidarity? What is liberalism? And post-liberalism? How does this relate to the problematic notion of post-secularity? To myth? To the ‘sacred’? And are we missing a trick by not paying attention to the mythic elements of secularity? These questions and more provide the narrative hooks throughout this interview, in which we hear some fascinating insights into Tim’s personal biography and his extensive field research in London, and challenge the aversion which some social scientists feel regarding normativity.

If you like what you hear, why not check out our previous podcasts on “The Sacred”, “The Post-Secular” and “Habermas, Religion and the Post-Secular”, as well as Tim’s ongoing Lived Religions Project with Fernande Pool, featuring many fascinating “interviews with ordinary people telling their unique story” livedreligionproject.com

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, banners, flags, teapots and more.

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

Myth, Solidarity and Post-Liberalism

Podcast with Timothy Stacey (9 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Stacey_-_Myth,_Solidarity_and_Post-Liberalism_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): Welcome to another episode of the Religious Studies Project. It’s the start of 2018 as I’m recording – although who knows when this is actually going to go out, because we’ve got such a backlog! I am here in Reading, on my way to Oxford. And I’m joined by Dr Tim Stacey. Hi Tim!

Timothy Stacey (TS): Hi.

CC: Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. Tim is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Ottawa, but has been in the UK for the festive period and our diaries and travel schedules managed to collide nicely! We’ll be hearing bout Tim’s research during the course of the interview, but the primary trigger for the interview is the forthcoming publication of his first monograph, with Routledge, later this year. That’s called, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division. And today we’re going to be talking a little bit about these notions of myth and solidarity, but also this key concept of post-liberalism. So, first of all, I’ve given a very brief introduction to you, Tim. But tell us, who are you? How have you got here?

TS: How have I . . . ?

CC: How have you got here? Why are you speaking to me?!

TS: Well, I guess I started off . . . I did my Masters at Nottingham, in Theology. And it was there – as I was listening to some really interesting arguments about virtue ethics, primarily from people like Alasdair Macintyre and Charles Taylor – that I felt very inspired by the stuff they were saying. But also, as an atheist myself, I kept asking, “How do I actually make this relevant to me, somebody who’s not actually a Christian?” And that was what triggered me moving from Theology into social scientific research. And so that triggered the PhD, which was about exploring possibilities for virtue ethics and notions of transcendence in a religiously plural society. And more recently the interest has turned to secular subjects, so that’s what I’m now in Vancouver exploring: what are the potentials for transcendence and solidarity amongst secular subjects?

CC: Fantastic! And we’ll be hearing more about that as this conversation ensues. So, set the scene for us then. The first couple of chapters of this book are exploring this notion of post-liberalism. But I don’t know that many of our listeners necessarily know what-on-earth that means! So perhaps you could, just for the sake . . . ? We know that we are in turbulent political times. There is a sort of reactionary politics happening all over the place. We’ve got these notions that there’s the political elites versus the ordinary masses, and everything. So, maybe, just take us through a chronological . . . . How have we got to this state? What is liberalism? And then, what is post-liberalism?

TS: Yes. Well, basically, the basic premise of the book is to follow this post-liberal argument. And the primary argument there is that, in a liberal secular society, we’ve lost a sense of the role of transcendence in forming social identity. So instead, we treat people as basically . . . both ideally, and also primarily motivated by rationality. And I suggest that we also tend to castigate those who appear to be irrational, whether that’s because of religion, ideology, parochialism, or simply a lack of education. And I think that comes up during the Brexit debate a lot as well. And the result, according to post-liberals, is two-fold. First: politics becomes technocratic and economics becomes instrumental. So, politics is less about building belonging and empowering people than it is about a university educated elite, delivering to social-scientifically construed need. And then, economics is less about reciprocity than it is about GDP. And then second: because of this, we increasingly see people retrenching in communities that they feel provide them with a sense of belonging and empowerment – communities of faith, race, nation, economic status. But then, kind of the . . . . (5:00) What inspired this book for me was that although post-liberalism gives, for me, a really exciting analysis of our current political problems, post-liberalism is itself as much a symptom of that as it is an analysis. By which I mean that it represents a retrenching in Christian notions of transcendence. And that simply doesn’t work for a society that is simultaneously – as I put it in the book – post-Christian, post-secular and religiously plural.

CC: Hmm.

TS: So that very long premise is actually the basis of this exploration, namely: to explore the relevance and role of transcendence in developing solidarity in the messy religious and non-religious landscape that we see before us, primarily in the western world. And I explored this by undertaking two years of ethnographic research with groups seeking to develop solidarity in London – which I kind-of identify as one of the most socially and economically liberal cities in the world, as well as being one of the most religiously and non-religiously diverse cities in the world. So, despite all that complexity, the actual answers the book provides I feel are quite simple. First, it says that despite the assumptions of liberal secularism and the dominance of this system within London for almost 300 years, the majority of people – both religious and non-religious – still do draw on transcendence in forming their social identity. In particular – and this is where I get to the notion of myth – they do this through myths. And that’s what I call stories of great events and characters that exemplify people’s ideals. And while for Christians that might be like the story of Christ or of the great Flood, for atheists that might be about, sometimes, Ghandi or Martin Luther King – figures who actually have some sort of religious background themselves – but also, just stories of their mum, or their dad, or their best friend, or a great heroic colleague that for them exemplified a virtuous way of living. And then the second point is that again – despite the assumptions of secular liberalism – actually, the role of the state doesn’t need to be this kind of principled distance from religion, or principled distance from ideology. Instead, we can actually imagine the role of the state less as an enforcer of a particular ideology – or else perhaps, in a liberal society, an enforcer of a lack of ideology – and instead we can think about it as a curator of the sharing of different ideologies. So that people can explore the virtues inherent in very different ways of living and see that, for instance, I might be somebody who is quite critical of Islam, but then I spend time trying to develop solidarity in a local setting with a Muslim. And it’s something as simple as seeing that they are good people that makes you realise, “Well, maybe Islam’s not so bad, either.” And then I began to see some really interesting processes of bricolage, like out-and-out atheists talking about how they were inspired by the story of Mohammed. And they would even talk about him as the “first community organiser”, for instance. So I found that really interesting. And then I get onto this idea of solidarity centres. So it’s actually the notion that the state will create these liberal spaces in which people of very different backgrounds come together to intentionally explore their ideas of how the world should be. And then, acting on that together: “Right. Ok, this is how the world should be. What are some policies, or things going on in our community that are stopping that from happening?” And that might be something like low wages, high house prices, or whatever, and then working together to solve those problems.

CC: Excellent. Well thanks for that fantastic introduction to the topic and, indeed, overview of the book. It really resonates with me, I can remember sitting with . . . you know there is this really common idea, particularly in the UK, that politics and religion don’t go together, you know. What was it? Alastair Campbell: “We don’t do God“. (10:00) And I can remember last semester, at Edinburgh, in a course on Religion in Modern Britain, sitting with my students in a tutorial and they were talking about whether a Muslim politician should be expected to act as a Muslim or to represent their constituents. And they all seemed to think that they shouldn’t be bringing religion into it, at all. And I tried to push and push: “But what other normative ways do we allow politicians to act” And they were: “gender”, “race”, “political party”, right? We have this conceit that they represent their whole constituency but they also have the sacred ideals of their political party that they hold higher than everything else. (Laughs).

TS: Absolutely.

CC: So, that’s just a little riff! So going right back to the beginning, then – in the book it was, maybe, 2011 when your research process was starting. How did you get into this massive area of research? And what pushed you?

TS: Well, yes. It was actually an incredibly strange and exciting journey for me. So, going back to Nottingham – I don’t know how well you know that university, but we’d have a lot of theological seminars in the staff club lounge, around leather armchairs. And that was my introduction to academia – talking about Alisdair Macintyre, and virtue ethics, and John Milbank, and theses radical critiques of modernity. And I was very excited by them. But as I said, I was troubled. And I wanted to work out, “Ok, is this relevant?” And I thought social science was the best way of working that out. But I was a theologian. So I arrived in London and my supervisor starts talking to me about this thing called “data”.

CC: (Laughs)

TS: “You need to go out and get data.” “Hmm, what is data, exactly?” And I spent a lot of time reading different kind of research methods books, and trying to understand exactly how I was going to explore this question of the link between transcendence and solidarity in a religiously plural society. But then, while that was happening – and this is a bit weird now! It kind-of matches with the personal: I’ve grown up all around the world, and I’ve never had any particular home. So when I was living in London for the first time, being in a place for more than a few years, I was thinking very hard to myself about what does it mean to be a part of my local community? And as I was simultaneously thinking about those two things – on the one hand data, and on the other my own desire to be involved in the community – the London riots happened. And I thought, “You know what? This is amazing. This is a great opportunity for me to be involved in the process of rebuilding Tottenham”, which is sort of where I was living – in response to this. So I came across this group called London Citizens, who wanted to do a citizens enquiry into the Tottenham riots. They basically do these things called “listening campaigns”, where they go out and basically ask members of the public: what is the main problem that you and your family face? That’s the first question. And the second question is always, what can you . . . and us – what can we together do about this? So it’s not like, “Ok what are your problems and shall we write to the local politician and tell them about it?” It’s “Let’s do something together. Let’s take direct action.” And it just suddenly clicked in my head. I was thinking about this word solidarity so theoretically. And then here were some people actually living it out, developing solidarity in a very real way, in my local area. And my first thought, really, when that happened was to say to myself, “Why am I even bothering to study this? I should just be doing it!”

CC: Yes.

TS: “I might as well just quit the PhD!” Then it occurred to me that actually taking action in this way could be my data. And I’d been reading stuff about post-secularity. And I realised London Citizens really is a kind of post-secular group. They’re a group that recognised the important role of religion in the public sphere. They, themselves, are somewhat inspired by a faith narrative, but the majority of the key organisers were non-religious. And so the way that they were able to so openly navigate faith and non-faith, and bring people together, was really exciting to me. (15:00) And then I thought, “You know what? The best way to explore the possibility for solidarity in this society that’s simultaneously Christian and secular and post-secular, is to work with a group that indicatively represents each one of those paradigms.” So then I started thinking, “OK, what are the key post-War paradigms for developing a sense of solidarity?” And you have, initially, the very strong connection between Christianity and the setting up of the welfare state. So I took one group that I felt represented that, which was at the time called the Christian Socialist Movement, but now is called Christians on the Left. Then I thought the next phase was secular ways of doing this, and in particular, a lot of money was being pumped into councils for voluntary service. So I started working with them, representing my secular organisation. Then in the ‘90s and early 2000s you had the multi-faith policy paradigm. So I thought, “OK, I need a group that represents that.” And then, going back to the start, London Citizens became my post-secular organisation. And that’s the story of how I got there.

CC: Excellent. And on the notion of post-secular, listeners, do check out our previous interview with Kevin Gray about that. I mean I think that you would agree with me as well, Tim, that it’s a problematic notion – the concept of post-secular.

TS: Absolutely, and indeed my current supervisor Lori Beaman insists that I stop using it! So . . .

CC: Well, it’s here to stay, perhaps! OK. And you organise the book then along these . . . you’ve got these three sections really, I guess, looking at pluralistic contexts, and then the state, these organisations, and then also capitalism. And any of those would be interesting to expand upon, but perhaps let’s think about this place of the notion of myth and transcendence. And then, maybe sort-of weave in these three strands.

TS: Mmm.

CC: So basically, one of your arguments is that these organisations all have varying relationships with the idea of transcendence and the construction of myth. So maybe you could just introduce the organisations there, to tell us about them and their relationship to this?

TS: Yes, OK. I mean the word myth, I primarily introduce – and I don’t know how helpful it really is . . . . What I was ultimately critiquing there was the sort of Habernasian notion that we are primarily motivated rationally. And, by introducing the term myth, I was trying to demonstrate the parity between religious and non-religious ways of relating to the world. So in doing that I then felt that I was able – by cutting through this kind of religious/secular binary – I was then able to start thinking about the role of the state as something very different: as not something that has to separate religion from politics, but instead can relate more reflexively towards the notion of myth.

CC: Yes. Throughout you use this phrase, “religious/secular, mythic/rational binary”. That’s your thing. So, yes, what’s going on there?

TS: Yes. So what I’m trying to say, basically, is that we end up having this notion that the religious is primarily mythic and the secular is primarily rational. And what I was trying to say is that both the religious and secular have very strong mythic elements to them. Primarily, I was not doing that as a means of . . . . There’s lot of research trying to demonstrate that religious belief can in fact be far more rational than we realise. I was, actually, trying to go the other way round and say that secularity can be a lot more mythic than we realise. And I wasn’t doing that in any way to put down secular people or secularity, but rather to say, “Well if we are primarily motivated through myth then we’re really missing a trick in how we motivate secular people.” (20:00) If we simply assume that they’re motivated by rationality alone, then we miss out on one of the most powerful ways of making people act in the world. And then you get back to the whole argument about Brexit and Trump and so on, which is that if we forget the role of mythic narrative in motivating people, then they become very vulnerable to just anyone who’s able to spin a good myth.

CC: And all you end up with is talking about economics and security, as you argue. Could give an example, maybe, of the kind of . . . . So we can all think of, I guess, a religion-related myth, perhaps. But what sort of – for want of a better word – secular myths are people motivated by?

TS: Well, one of these myths is actually the notion of the self-independent rational actor itself, right? Because that is a story that people are living by, primarily. It’s not actually this . . . In some sense, there’s this kind-of subtraction narrative to the understanding of secular identity that says: it’s an identity that is short of religious elements. But instead, what I’m trying to suggest is that secular people do live by myths, and rationality itself is one of those. And another one, for instance, is that of capitalism: the idea that says people are primarily motivated by financial incentive. So, basically, what the research seems to suggest is that there are clear secular myths, but these are primarily ones I feel that aren’t intentionally constructed by secular people. So they might be myths of rationality or myths of capitalism. And what I’m trying to explore now is: OK – but what are those deep, more intentionally constructed myths that can challenge a purely instrumental notion of politics or economics? In Vancouver it’s really interesting, because that’s coming from a lot of different places. So there’s myths of earth-based spiritualty – the sense that I, as a person, am intimately related to the world in the same way . . . there. This stuff wouldn’t necessarily work in London at all, but it’s very much derived from indigenous mythology as well. So the people don’t see themselves as any more important than the orca in the Pacific Ocean, for instance, or the salmon. So those myths – the telling of the stories of the orca and the salmon – actually become really important ways of challenging an instrumental approach to the land and the environment. So you have otherwise entirely secular people arguing against the construction of a pipeline, for instance, because of salmon. And at first, I have to say, I actually giggled a bit when I started getting these findings. Because it was just so out of context for what I’d grown up around in London and for what had come out of my previous research. But as I’ve been doing this ethnographic research there – and it’s always, as in this this book, very auto-ethnographic as well – I try and really immerse myself in the stories of people I’m studying. And, yes. Now I’ve come to be inspired by these stories of whales and salmon, and how they might be transformative in challenging a particular idea of, say, growth.

CC: Yes. And I imagine one could also, you know, even just thinking of what you get in the Marvel films – there’s a lot of myth in popular culture, as well, that you probably might easily and interestingly excavate.

TS: Absolutely. And people really do integrate that into their stories. It’s absolutely not out of place that people will talk to me about a Batman film, or something, when they’re trying to explain their belief in . . . I mean, one that comes up quite a lot in Spiderman is that: “With great power comes great responsibility”. And it seems almost laughable, in a way. But I think, the way that people sort-of suspend their disbelief in the cinema can be very similar to the way they might do in a church. (25:00) And those myths really do have power for people.

CC: And we’re already almost at the end of our time, which is excellent. I mean, not excellent – I just mean we’ve already covered a lot of ground! So, just to push on this – one of the key arguments I would see from your book is that rather than perhaps trying to find – you know, sitting people down and going “OK, you’re a Christian, you’re a Muslim, you’re an atheist, you’re a Buddhist. You’re never going to agree on these things, so it’s all pointless.” So, is the idea that everyone is constructing myths about, I don’t know, the better society, the greater good, the way they want things to progress and that by focussing on those, rather than the specifics, it might be a constructive way forward? Or . . . ?

TS: Yes, that’s true. But also there’s a very real sense in which I think, those settings need to be intentionally constructed in secular society. That’s a part of where my critique comes from. So you look at my analysis of Hackney CVS, for instance, I was suggesting that the secular people there had strong myths based on their parents who might be their heroes, or their colleagues. So their myths, in fact, were just telling the stories of their friends and family. And they were really inspiring and transformative for them. But what I noticed, what there was . . . there were a lack of intentional rituals within that organisation, for bringing those to the surface. And so they failed to really integrate them into their practice, and therefore failed to inspire much enthusiasm. And so, my feeling is that we need to actually deliberately create spaces where people can discuss these things. And so my example, when you talk about bringing Muslims and Jews and atheists together in a room, the best example I came across was the London Citizens. They would ask this very simple question: “We live in the world as it is – but there is a world as it should be. Please tell me some words that you associate with the world as it should be.”

CC: Mmm.

TS: So, that’s the first step – that you get people from these very different backgrounds together in a room, recognising: “Oh wow! That guy looks very different to me but, in fact, he seems to want the same idea of the perfect world that I want.” So that’s the first step. But then – once you’ve done that – you actually encourage people to draw on their own very different, idiosyncratic stories. So once they all recognise that this is the world as it should be, then they can, again, start talking about their particular myths – whether of Islam, or Christianity or of the more secular ones such as of a Socialist utopia, or . . . .

CC: Yes. And I’ve always found it . . . . I remember Craig Martin made this point in his Masking Hegemony, in 2010, I’ve always found it very strange that, yes – why would you expect people to be able to bracket off these aspects of their identity? Why not . . . we have this myth of the secular space that people enter and they bracket off . . . but, why not just everyone talk about it, talk about your myths, and talk about where you’re coming from? And then we can, maybe, move forward.

TR: Yes – the thing is though, it’s actually a much more honest way of being. Because if I understand where you’re coming from, I can actually hold you to account on the basis of that story that you’re telling.

CC: Yes. Just to indulge my curiosity here, listeners, this might go on slightly longer than usual. I’ve got three more questions I want to ask Tim.

TS: I’ll try and be brief in my answers.

CC: No, it’s good. First, the notion of the sacred here. So I know Gordon Lynch – in fact we spoke to Gordon Lynch a number of years ago about this concept – and Kim Knott and others have developed this notion of like the secular sacred, and things. So where does the role of the sacred – maybe it’s a non-ontological, non-religion inflected sacred – fit into the myths and into solidarity?

TS: Well, for one thing, I totally would have been happy to us the term sacred. (30:00) But I had two issues with that. One was that there was a lot of talk about it being non-negotiable. And I thought, “That’s exactly what I want to avoid with transcendence.” Because the very point is that we need people to negotiate. And the other issue is, I felt that a lot of that research was around what’s already sacred. It would be around pointing out some certain category had become a sacred one. Whereas, I was trying – rather than move backwards in that way – move forwards. So I got into discussions with people doing research around that, including Gordon Lynch and saying, “Well, actually, what I’m thinking about is: how do we develop a new sacred?” And I didn’t feel like people were all that interested in that, in those circles. And in that sense, alone, that word became tainted for me. And I wanted to try and think about it slightly differently. But otherwise, yes, it is very, very similar.

CC: Yes. They’re related. You can see clear overlaps. But clearly again, you’re stepping out into uncharted territory. On that note, then: “here at the Religious Studies Project”, our sort-of approach would probably map more onto the Critical Study of Religion, and when normativity comes up we tend to bristle a little bit. So, as we’ve been hearing there, you’re an engaged scholar. So, how do you personally navigate that sort of: “I’m doing this work which is – I guess – objective, but also trying to . . . .” You know.

TS: Well, yes. I think, the thing is that I have no qualms about saying that I am personally, and academically, fighting for a world in which there is more solidarity, in which people are willing to do things for one another without necessarily expecting something in return. I’m also quite happy to say that I was saddened by the rise of neoliberalism. And I saw that Christianity was very instrumental to the setting up of the welfare state, initially. And I was asking myself that question: what is that new metanarrative going to be, around which we can create more solidarity, and renew interest in social welfare? But the research itself is objective, in that sense that I’m totally open to what the answer to that may be. And that’s constantly evolving. And I think, in my current research, I would slightly challenge some of the assumptions that I had in the previous. But it’s all this objective, social scientific, critical research that interested me in religion in the first place. Because I’m only interested in religion incidentally. Because a lot of research seems to be demonstrating that something like religion, or the sacred, or whatever you want to call it, has a powerful effect on a sense of solidarity. So, for me, that’s my only very incidental interest in religion. It’s: “OK, if that’s true, then what does that look like in a society where none of us believe the same things anymore?”

CC: And my final question was going to be, what was the broader relevance of this to the academic study of religion? But I think you’ve just actually summarised that quite neatly in your final statement there. Unless you want to have a final push?

TS: Well the only thing I would say, without wanting to be preachy, is that I think there is a real danger that we can get stuck behind this social scientific lens that says, “I’m not allowed to be normative” when, in reality, we have to recognise the very things we choose to research are guided by our own normative principals. So I think, in the dangerous world that we currently live in, it’s time for academics to step up and say, “This is what I believe in, and I’m willing to work towards bringing it about.”

CC: Exactly. And in your own work as well, what you’re doing is not proposing a definitive: “This is the objective reality.” It’s: “We’re building . . . .” And you’ve expanded upon your own research. And you’ve changed your ideas. And we’re all part of a process, moving towards whatever . . . perfection – let’s say it!

TS: (Laughs)

CC: Well it’s been a pleasure speaking to you, Tim. Thanks, so much.

TS: (35:00) Thanks, so much, for having me on.

Citation Info: Stacey, Timothy and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Myth, Solidarity and Post-Liberalism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 2 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 29 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/myth-solidarity-and-post-liberalism/

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.

 

 

‘Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing

Toys, Rabbits, and Princess Diana – three things that may not seem at all connected. However, when one starts to question the notion of grief, bereavement, and death in the contemporary West, these three are more connected than appears. In this podcast, Breann Fallon interviews Professor Douglas Ezzy of the University of Tasmania on the power of symbols in creating relationships and world-repairing rituals in the context of grief and death. Ezzy discusses the misjudgments of Durkheim in his assessment of Australian Aboriginal symbols as well as the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit (1922), the death of Princess Diana, and his own interaction with symbols in this original take on grief and death. Here, the notions of ‘good’ grief, the use of ritual in creating ‘good’ grief, and the very notion of ‘religion’ bring to light the active role are able to play in dealing with death.

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, stuffed rabbits, Ramen, and more.

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

‘Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing

Podcast with Douglas Ezzy (5 March 2018).

Interviewed by Breanne Fallon.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Ezzy- Good Grief- Rituals of World Repairing 1.1

 

Breann Fallon (BF): How do we deal with death and grief in our contemporary contexts? Do we avoid talking about death and grief? Is there a possibility for ‘good’ grief? What role do symbols and rituals play in managing bereavement? To talk about this topic, I have with me today Professor Doug Ezzy of the University of Tasmania. He’s editor of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion and President of the Australian Association for the Study of Religion. His research on contemporary religion includes religious diversity, contemporary paganisms, and Christianity. His books include LGBT Christians, with Bronwyn Fielder, Reinventing Church with Helen and James Collins, Sex Death and Witchcraft: Teenage Witches with Helen Berger, and Qualitative Analysis. Thank you very much for joining us today,

Doulas Ezzy (DE): Thank you. It’s pleasure.

BF: To begin, I was hoping you could give us some context for this discussion about death and grieving in the contemporary world. Do we avoid it? Are we focussing on something else instead? What sort of context do you think we’re sitting in?

DE: I guess, for me, the first move to make is I’m struck by the way in which we’re not talking about the grief or the sadness associated with climate change. When I look forward, over the next few decades, they seem to me to be a time of dramatic loss. We’re already experiencing quite profound losses. You can talk about refugees and migration as a consequence of climate change or, more broadly, about species extinction – the rate of species extinction at the moment is extraordinary. And, you know, also the costs associated with the values of neoliberalism. So there’s a whole bunch of things that will lead to dramatic losses and I don’t see many responses, in our contemporary culture, to those things. It seems strange, or odd, or bizarre. Why are all these sad losses happening and we’re not responding to it? They just get noted, maybe. And then we move on. Like, for me – one quite personal one – I’m a Tasmanian, I was born there, I go back generations. For me, I have a profound sense of a relationship with Tasmania as a place. And there was some seaweed along the East Coast of Tasmania – a really large kelp forest that would cover large areas. And in the last few years they’ve gone. And that’s a product of the warming waters. And for me that’s really sad, because I used to swim in them, we used to fish in them. And they’re gone. So there’s this: “How do I make sense of that? How do I respond to that?” And that very personal experience is reflected in so much broader, cultural experience of loss and change that we’re not responding to. So, while I don’t think we’re a death-denying society, which some people sort-of talk about, I do think that there’s something odd going on with the way that we’re not responding to grief and loss.

BF: Right, so, when you say there’s something going on with the way we’re not responding to it, do you think we’re focussing on something else? Success perhaps?

DE: Yes. That’s right. So, I think that we’re part of a culture that has a sort of a “heroic success” mythology. And I think you see that both in religious culture and in business culture and – to a lesser extent – also in medical ways of understanding the self. So, for example, here in Australia, Hillsong is a really big, popular, Pentecostal Church. And my friend and colleague, Helen Collins, did a content analysis of their music. And what she found was that, in Hillsong, they never sing about grief, loss or sadness. The songs of Hillsong are all about love, and joy, and the Power of God leading you to a successful life. If you compare that with the Australian hymnbook, Jesus is there present with you, walking through the valley of death and through your difficult times. So our religious cultures tend to be ones that celebrate success and overcoming and joy. And they are afraid, or shy away from sadness and death and loss. You see the same sort of thing in economic business narratives where you talk about autobiographies, with Mary Burgan’s study of American bestselling autobiographies. And all the men’s stories in those biographies are stories about success. And there’s not much space for ambiguity or loss, or those sorts of things. And also in the business papers it’s all about success and overcoming and achievement. (5:00) So I think, while there are experiences and stories of loss – we still bury people – all those sorts of things are still there, I don’t think we’ve got very many constructive cultural resources for dealing with the experiences of loss that I see coming, that are already here. There’s something strange going on there – the tension between the two.

BF: There seems to be . . . you’re talking about in those business magazines, in particular, sort of a real focus on the “I” and the individual person. And I was wondering if that sort-of played into this?

DE: Yes. Look, there’s broader story there about how we understand ourselves in the “contemporary West” – In inverted commas – that tends to be very individualistic. And I think that, when we look to indigenous cultures; or the Buddhist concept of co-dependent arising; or social theory, like the interactionist tradition; or hermeneutics that talk about a more relational distributed understanding of the self. And so, I think that moving away from the heroic narrative, is also moving towards a more complex understanding of what it means to be human. So for me, my sociology, I can now call it a relational theory of religion. And there’s a whole bunch of people writing about that at the moment. I particularly like Graham Harvey’s Food, Sex and Strangers, but there’s bunch of other people who are trying to think about religion more as a relational practice and achievement, rather than about “individuals who believe”. So, we’ll get on to thinking about that loss and sadness. But certainly, for me, I think we need to think more in that way, and to think about religion in that way. Because, when we think about religion as a relational practice rather than individuals believing, then I think symbols – including symbols of sadness – play a different role. They’re not about individuals believing in a symbol that represents something – which is the sort of modernist and individualistic understanding of religion – rather, I think, about religious symbols as things that draw people into relationships. And so, for me, the interesting thing about how symbols operate in religious practice, is about what relationships they draw people into, rather than what beliefs or objects they represent.

BF: Yes. So do you have a key example of that that you, maybe, wanted to share with us?

DE: So, I could talk about Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, where he does like the churinga is the key ritual object that aboriginal Australians in the  rite that he talks about in The Elementary forms of Religious Life. The churinga is the symbol that he focusses on. And he says that the Aboriginals are mistaken or misguided because the churinga is fabricated, and therefore not real. And he thinks they’re delusional because they believe in the churinga. I think that completely misunderstands what’s going on there, with the churinga, for the Aboriginal. It’s not that they believe in the churinga. It’s that the churinga is an important part of their ritual, that articulates their relationship to the land. And I think Durkheim misunderstands the role of the churinga in the ritual. He says it really represents the tribe. And it probably does represent the tribe. But it articulates the relationship between the individual and the tribe, and the individual and the land. And when we understand symbols as articulating relationships and ethical responsibilities, they make sense. It doesn’t really make sense to say they’re delusional – they’re belief is wrong – because the symbol articulates relationship, so it’s not true or false in that sort-of modernist way. Rather it’s significant, or not significant, because it articulates relationship and draws people into relationships. So that’s how I think about symbols.

BF: You gave another really interesting example this morning. For those of you who are listening, we’re at the Australian Association and New Zealand Association for the Study of Religion Conference at the University of Notre Dame. And, this morning, you talked about The Velveteen Rabbit. And for me, having read the book, it was just a really fabulous example of what you’re talking about.

DE: So my dear friend, Professor Allan Kellehear, wrote a book called Experiences Near Death. And in that book he devotes a whole chapter to The Velveteen Rabbit, which is a children’s story from 1922, by Margery Williams (10:00). And in the story – for those of you who don’t know it – there’s a young boy who has a toy rabbit that he really loves. And the young boy gets scarlet fever and is ill for a number of weeks, and the adults decide that the toy rabbit is infected with germs and needs to be destroyed. And, in the story, rather than the rabbit being destroyed the rabbit becomes real, and goes and lives with the rabbits at the end of the garden. And it’s a beautiful story, because it’s a story about how a symbol – not really a religious symbol in this case, but a symbol – draws the child into a sense of confidence and love. It’s like the rabbit allows the young boy to feel like he’s still loved. And I think that’s really important and interesting. Rather than: does the rabbit really become real? I think that’s the wrong question to ask. You completely misunderstand what’s going on for the child and the relationship. Are we tricking the child? Deluding them with thought police? That’s to misunderstand. The rabbit articulates the confidence that the child will continue to be loved and cared for. And so, when you see the rabbit in that way, the idea that the rabbit becomes real is a story that draws the child into living more confidently and hopefully in the world. So the symbol operates to draw people into relationships. And I think that’s how symbols operate.

BF: Yes. I think that it’s a really amazing example of what you’re talking about in this idea of the rabbit being part of . . . I think the words you used were “world-repairing”

DE: Yes

BF: Were they the words you used?

DE: Yes. So, I think the idea of world-repairing . . .  I’m still trying to think through exactly what that means. Because, I think symbols’ subjunctive, if you like, which is the concept that Seligman and his associates, in Ritual and Its Consequences – they talk about the way in which religion has a subjunctive aspect to it. And I think symbols can be thought of that way, in the sense that they create an “as if”, and by performing and relating to them in that way they draw you into possible worlds. So, if you think of somebody whose parent dies, for example, the ritual and the symbol of believing in the afterlife, burying them in the earth – or whatever it is – is world-repairing in the sense that it allows you to live with that grief and loss. The grief and loss is still sad and still hurts, but it’s bearable somehow. And I think symbols operate to work with our emotions, with those parts of ourselves that it’s really hard to articulate. Because we’re not all cognitive and rational. We can’t always explain things, and what we believe. There are emotions, there are experiences that are powerful, that shape us in really important ways. And the way we work with them is symbolically, not necessarily cognitively. Yes, I mean you can go to therapy. And for some people that works. Great. But other people, we need symbols that allow us to work with those parts of our lives that we find it hard to articulate. So, the example that I gave in my talk was: I showed a picture of a toy rabbit that was given to my son when he was born. And the toy rabbit, for me . . . . It’s sat there on my bedside table now for abut ten years. My daughter created a little bed in a cardboard box. And the toy rabbit, for me, articulates or symbolizes my relationship with my children. I only really realised this when I wrote this paper. I’d been thinking about this rabbit and thinking, “Oh it’s just a toy, I’ll get rid of it.” But actually, no. It’s important to me. Reflecting on it, it articulates a bunch of things about the way that I relate to my children. So it’s important to me. So I think rabbits and toys, religious symbols, crosses or Buddhas – or whatever they are – they help us. The trick here . . . . There’s an awkward tension between what might sound like a moral project and what is a descriptive project. Because religion is a moral act. And if religion is a moral act, then I’m not necessarily saying “I think you should do . . .” I’m not making moral claims here. What I’m trying to do is describe what I see as a moral practice within religion. And I think religion, and religious symbols, articulate the possible (15:00). And when we don’t do that, that creates certain sorts of problems for us. If we don’t articulate the positive possible worlds, then we get drawn into angry or despairing or frustrating possible worlds.

BF: You gave some sort-of interesting examples to help us think about this, this morning. The one that really struck me – as somebody who didn’t live though it – was Diana’s death. Because I’ve never really understood the fascination with that, because I wasn’t alive. So, for me, that one has always been something I’ve never been able to understand – until you talked about it this morning. And the process of that grieving sort-of started to make a bit more sense to me.

DE: Oh good. Why did it make sense, can I ask?

BF: I think, for me, it was what you said about . . . you know, there’s that image with all the flowers in front of . . . I think it’s Kensington Palace. And just the act of laying the flowers. Those people didn’t really know Diana, but then they’ve gone to do that. And that act of . . . . They never knew her, but the act of laying the flowers would have made them – as you said – deal with that. And there’s kind of sense to it.

DE: Yes, so there’s whole literature on Diana and whether she was a goddess, or a false goddess. And there’s all sorts of critiques of her as a problematic representation of femininity, and that sort of stuff. But for a lot of people, the laying of the flowers, or the remembering of Diana . . . Diana becomes a symbol of their own experience of grief, or their own experience of loss of someone they’ve loved, or the way that they understand themselves as a woman. And so the practice allows themselves to articulate a really important experience of grief. Sometimes it has good outcomes, sometimes it has problematic aspects to it. But I think, for people who study religion, it’s really important to understand symbol as something that operates to articulate relationships and helps people articulate emotions, as well. I think it’s really interesting.

BF: Yes. I think it’s really fascinating, this idea of the ritual. There may be some people out there who kind-of have a problem with focussing so much on actions and not thought. Is there anything you want to say to them?

DE: Look, I don’t want to say beliefs are irrelevant. I think, for some people, beliefs clearly operate in really important and powerful ways – particularly in some forms of Protestant traditions, but also in other religious traditions. But I think the focus on belief often misunderstands a lot of what religious people do. Their religions become important because of the way they fit into our lives – the practices and the symbols and the rituals allow us to find ourselves, to build relationships. And the beliefs are sort-of secondary, or part of what’s going on, but they’re not primary. So I think this idea of religion as believing in something and then “perform”, misunderstands what’s going on.  I think that we find ourselves in relationships, we work out etiquettes and ways of relating to each other, and they’re articulated by symbols. And then we articulate beliefs and their legal frameworks, on top, that justify what we’re doing. So that’s the way that I’d see them.

BF: Yes. And I think you’ve given us so much to think about in terms of how we understand religion, and particularly in a modern context. The thing that really came up, to me, when you were talking this morning, was the idea of sort-of avoiding death by social media. Like keeping a person’s Facebook profile going after they die. This sort-of really complex way that we deal death in a modern context.

DE: Indeed.

BF: We’ve run out of time. So is there anything you wanted to just finish off with?

DE: Um. No. Thank you very much for the opportunity. And it’s been great.

BF: Thank you so much for talking to us today.

Citation Info: Ezzy, Douglas and Breann Fallon. 2018. “’Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 March 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 2 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/good-grief-rituals-of-world-repairing/

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.

A student response to “Hinduism”

Edinburgh Masters students respond to Will Sweetman on “Against Invention: A Richer History for ‘Hinduism'”

by Whitney Roth and Lauren Flynn

Read more

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

In this interview Associate Professor Will Sweetman talks to Thomas White about the idea that ‘Hinduism’ and many of the other terms we use to classify religions—including the term religion itself—are modern inventions, emerging out of nineteenth-century inter-cultural contact and European colonialism. Will argues against this critique, and to make his case he draws on historical sources that discuss ‘Hinduism’ both outside of the anglophone experience and long before the nineteenth century. Through identifying alternative, non-anglophone sources of cross-cultural, West-East encounters, where comparative religion is the subject of reflection and description, the concept of ‘Hinduism’ is presented as obtaining a much richer history than the ‘invention thesis’ allows. Such sources include accounts by German Protestant missionaries and those by Jesuits writing in Portuguese, as well as native, expository works by self-reporting Indian religious thinkers. Will argues that ‘Hinduism’ as a concept is older, broader, and indeed more internal to India, than is currently assumed, but this is frequently missed through an overemphasis on relatively late sources almost exclusively in English. The interview goes on to discuss the implications of this research – and endeavours similar to it – for the study of religion in general. The interview closes with a brief chat about Otago’s hosting of the IAHR Congress in 2020.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

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, Lancashire cheese, tiny dinosaur figurines, and more.

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

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

Podcast with Will Sweetman (19 February 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Sweetman_-_Against_Invention_-_A_richer_history_for__Hinduism__1.1

 

Thomas White (TW): Kiaora! And a warm welcome from the Otago University recording studios here in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, where I’m joined today by our very own Associate Professor, Will Sweetman. Professor Sweetman is an historian of religion, whose research focuses on the interactions between the religions of Asia and the West in the modern period, and has published three books and several academic articles that explore the historical and the theoretical aspects of the study of religion, with a theoretical focus on South Indian traditions. Will, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview and welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Will Sweetman (WS): My pleasure, thank you.

TW: Now, the topic I’m hoping to discuss today with you is what you described to me as a defence of the “ism” – with the particular ism in question being Hinduism. But perhaps, to ease our way in, we maybe should start at the beginning, or at least your academic beginning, as it were. So, Will, could you please describe your early training in the study of the history of religion and how this has shaped the trajectory of your research career?

WS: Sure. So it was very much a happy accident. I did my undergraduate degree at Lancaster, which is probably well-known to the listeners of this podcast, but it wasn’t to me. I had chosen to go to Lancaster to study Maths and Philosophy, and Religious Studies was . . . you were required to study a third subject in your first year. And for me, it was very much a toss-up between Religious Studies and Psychology. But the queues for Psychology were much longer!

TW: (Laughs)

WS: So I decided to choose Religious Studies, and really never looked back. So I switched to Philosophy and Religious Studies for the remainder of my degree. But what that meant was my understanding of the academic study of religion was shaped by that Lancaster tradition – which was open to all traditions and emphasised, really, none. And even though much of the work I did was, in fact, on the Christian tradition, because of my interest in Philosophy, and because there were papers in the Lancaster Religious Studies department that were focussed on . . . the paper was called: “Modern Religious and Atheistic Thought.” And it was focussed, really, on 18th century and after philosophical thinking about religion. My work was very much focussed on Western Christian thinkers and thought, coming out of that tradition. But I didn’t privilege that, in a way. Then when I went on, my initial aim was to do more philosophy of religion. And I went to Cambridge to do an MPhil in Philosophy of Religion and very quickly discovered that that wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. But partly because although Cambridge had a Religious Studies . . . the faculty of Divinity was teaching Theology and Religious studies, the assumptions were so different. And really, it was that jarring discovery that the Lancaster way was not the only way – because Lancaster really was my only experience of what it was to treat region in the academy. But at Cambridge it was very different, and that prompted in me the question: how did these two such different traditions emerge? And really, that led me to the 18th century and looking at foundational works, like Hume‘s Natural History of Religion – but how this naturalistic approach, that privileges no religious tradition, emerged. That in turn then led me to looking at the religions that were being studied – or the non-Christian or non-Western traditions that were being studied or discovered in Europe at that time. And because, I suppose, of the colonial expansion going on in India it was particularly Hinduism that was being discovered and discussed at that time. Which then led me to my doctoral work on the study of Hinduism and the conceptualisation of Hinduism from the 17th through to the 18th century. Originally, I intended to include the 19th century but . . .

TW: It got a bit too much?

WS: Yes – as many PhD students discover.

TW: Ok, great. It seem that you’ve got quite a personal narrative feeding into your research interests. In terms of the actual methods of the historical study of religion, particularly inter-religious contact, what would you say are the best habits of analysis, or the important things to watch out for when you’re engaging in such research?

WS: So for me, by temperament I think, as much as anything else – because I’m not really trained as a Historian, although that’s how I would describe myself – attention to the sources is absolutely paramount (5:00). And that means – particularly in the context of what we’re talking about, where most of my work is set, that is, the period of European expansion overseas, encounter with and study of Non-Western cultures – well, two things: first of all the European sources, but particularly, also, the sources on the other side. Now that’s always harder, I think, in . . . . There may be a few exceptions in some periods or highly literate cultures but certainly it’s much harder, generally, to recover the voice from the non-European side of the encounter. Harder but, I would say, not impossible. There are ways of doing it and it’s important, even though it’s difficult, not to short-cut that process. So there is a tendency, I think, even in the works of some scholars whose work otherwise I would admire . . . . I’m thinking here, particularly, of Urs Apps’ The Birth of Orientalism which is wonderful book, but he has a tendency to dismiss the sources that are described by Western scholars as their own inventions, to say that they simply made up the source: it doesn’t exist. Now that’s a possibility, but before you can say the source doesn’t exist, you have to do your damnedest to find out whether it does! And there is a particular example in my own work. This is an early 18th century Protestant German missionary who assembled a library of Tamil Sources, which he documented, he catalogued quite carefully, which is unusual for that period. More often, other similar writers – missionaries and others – would simply have done general term like: “in their books”. But he identifies the texts, and some of them are very well-known and it’s not difficult to identify them. But there’s one particular text which he said is the “most important of all Hindu texts”. It clearly isn’t. Particularly because there is no other reference to this text anywhere, so far as I can discover. I had the good fortune when I came to Otago to be given some research money that was pretty much . . . I didn’t have to compete very hard for it. I simply had to propose a project. So I proposed a project I thought nobody else would ever fund, which was a wild goose chase to go looking for this text.

TW: Yes.

WS: And courtesy of a brilliant research assistant, Ilakkuvan, who worked with me – a young Tamil Scholar. It took him about ten or twelve months going through archives very diligently and he found the source. So it is possible to recover the source. And it’s not the most important text. It was wrongly evaluated. But it was the most important text for this particular missionary. And by reading this source we can see what he’s doing with it, and how that’s shaping his own account of Hinduism. Which is, undoubtedly, shaped by his Protestant, Christian presupposition.

TW: So this is the missionary, Bartholomew?

WS: Ziegenbalg. Sorry. So it’s still . . . It is fed through his Christian presuppositions, but it isn’t sheer invention. He is following a text. And what’s interesting about this text is that it’s a basically monotheistic text. So when Ziegenbalg describes Hindus as monotheist this is not only a relic of Christian assumptions about the natural light of reason and a universal revelation, but the result of his close reading of a text – so we can now follow him, and read that text, and discover. . . . So that’s what I would say is the key to this: attention to those sources. On the European side of the encounter, I would also . . . I regularly bemoan the fact that because the sources are thickest in the 19th century, and because the vast majority of people who work – particularly Indian scholars, but not only – are Anglophone: that’s all they read, is English sources. And it’s really important, I think, to look at sources in other European languages. And there are, of course, people looking at those languages. I’ve recently started using Portuguese sources which are the most amazing mine of material. And they have been read, but largely they’ve been read by Portuguese scholars who tend to publish in Portuguese. Not exclusively, there are exceptions to that. So I would say that going beyond the Anglophone sources – or rather, the failure to go beyond the Anglophone sources is a particular problem in much of the historiography of colonial encounters of religion (10:00). Again, there are exceptions, but as a generalisation.

TW: So the importance of linguistic analysis, and making sure that you’re covering all the different cultural, colonial experiences of the European adventure. Perhaps relating to this, at the start of your book: Mapping Religion, Hinduism and the Study of Indian Religions 1600-1776, published in 2003, you equated the dominant history of religion in India as a “Just So Story”. What did you mean by this?

WS: So a “Just So Story”, as I’m sure you know, is Kipling’s stories of “How the Leopard got his Spots”, and so on. And I think there are a couple of accounts of how many of the terms that we are familiar with in the study of religion, how those terms came to be used. So, in the case of Hinduism, there’s a popular account that this was a matter of divide and rule: that the British, by dividing Muslims from Hindus were able to dominate both – set them against each other. Or there’s another story, which I first heard from one of my teachers at Lancaster, which was that the missionaries needed an opponent. They were used to systematic debates, and therefore they constructed an opponent with whom they could have a debate. Now what’s “Just So” about these stories is that though it could have happened like that, that may be how it happened, there’s no evidence that it did. Or, I would say that obviously there’s a grain of truth in both of those stories, but the real story is much more complicated, and involves, again, patient attention to the sources. So again, in that book, what I trace is how the emergence of the concept of Hinduism as a single pan-Indian religion, distinct from Buddhism and Jainism in particular, emerges – at least in part – from experience of Europeans in India and attention to texts. So the question of the spread of Hinduism as a religion throughout India, but confined to India – and therefore different from similar-looking or outwardly-similar religious traditions elsewhere in Asia – partly arose from Europeans observing phenomena like pan-Indian pilgrimage. There are pilgrims from the North of India coming to the major pilgrimage sites in the South. Or that some of the  . . . . For example, the mythology of Krishna: much of it is set in North India, but there were Europeans reading the mythology of Krishna in South India, in South Indian texts, in Tamil Sources, which describe Krishna in places in North India. So it was on the basis of this that Europeans began to connect phenomena of Hinduism in different parts of India. And then, the opposite part of the question is: what do you exclude? And again it was from looking at Indian sources that Europeans decided that Buddhism and Jainism were regarded as more-or-less beyond the pale. And again, if you look at South Indian religious sources, the Tamil texts are very clear. There’s one Tamil author who devotes one verse in each of his poems to denouncing the “filthy Jains”, and the “heretic Buddhists”. And it was through attention to these sources that Europeans worked out that there was a dividing line here, somewhere. There may well have been  . . . And no doubt this idea was consolidated by the practice of censuses by the British. And there was a degree of the other Just So Story that I mentioned, of the missionaries seeking an opponent: so, using Indian sources saying, “Not all Indians agree with us. The Buddhists disagree with you. They say the Veda is idol worship.” So there’s a grain of truth in those stories. But the full story is more interesting, I think. And it also shows a greater degree of Indian agency in the production of these classifications – or if not directly “agency”, at least “input”.

TW: So, the argument that Hinduism is actually a far more coherent, or far more collected systems of rituals, beliefs and institutions than perhaps the “Hinduisms narrative” presents. How do these arguments sit, perhaps, within more current debate about religion and the public space in India? Is there a way that this kind of scholarship can speak to contemporary issues, perhaps regarding the BJP or Hindutva or other current religious public sphere issues taking place in India at present?(15:00)

WS: It’s an interesting question. And there is a danger, I think, that arguing for a greater coherence in Hinduism will give succour to those who argue that Hinduism is the Indian religion and there should be no other. But there’s also a danger – and you can see this in the works of some modern Hindutva ideologues or thinkers, who present the critique of the idea of Hinduism as an attack on Hinduism. So, “You’re trying to tell us that our religion doesn’t exist.” So in a way, those who – not for that reason of course – but who have attempted to deconstruct the idea of Hinduism are also able to, or are in danger of giving succour to those who want to say, “See. The West is out to destroy you. Hinduism we need to unify and rise up!” So the dangers are. . . . So I guess, in the end, you can’t control how your ideas are going to be used. Some unusual people have cited my work in ways that don’t or were never part of my intention. But that’s . . . you can’t control that. You have to go where the sources lead you. And it’s not an argument, I think, to say, “We shouldn’t say this because it might be used in a way that’s not to our liking.”

TW: Yes. I’m finding similar questions and challenges in relation to my research in Fiji, in terms of: where do these ideas feed into other political agendas? But I think you’re right. You just have to go where the sources take you. Now, as I understand it, you’ve been collecting case studies regarding the conceptualisation of religion, or world religion-type concepts in pre-colonial and colonial encounters outside of India. Can you tell us a little about this?

WS: Yes, so this isn’t really something that I’ve done consciously. But I guess, over the last ten years or so, I have done little more than pay attention to where I have seen arguments similar to my own being made in the case of other traditions. And, for a while now, I’ve thought that it would be interesting to do some kind of survey or compilation of the kinds of evidence that’s being presented, and look at what that is telling us about – or what that suggests about – this broader critique of the formation of the “isms”. So I’ll be giving a paper at the Stephen Berkvitz has recently published an article challenging this idea that you find in the work of people like Philip Almond and others, that Buddhism was a 19th  century invention based on the study of text. And he’s showing that no, very clearly in the 16th and 17th century Portuguese, mostly Jesuits were communicating with each other across Asia, or travelling in some cases. So Loís Fróis, a 16th century Jesuit, spent a lot of time in India and then went to Japan. And he understood the connections between India and Japan, and the trajectory of Buddhism from one to the other (20:00). From the other perspective, or the other direction, Eva Pascal has recently written about Franciscan friars coming from the Philippines into Thailand or Siam and engaging with Buddhism. And again, like Fróis, who described Buddhism as a religion, making the same analogy. So that’s one set of case studies. There’s another which is looking, perhaps, more at indigenous understandings of this. So this would be the work, I’m think here of Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst who’s looked at Islamic South Asian Sources, which not only classify religions in a way that’s not dissimilar to the supposedly modern Western way in which we classify religions, but she’s also shown that the very scholars in the 19th century to whom this classification is usually attributed were influenced by . . . they were reading these sources. So Abu’l-Fazl– a Muslim intellectual, a Mughal intellectual, who describes the religions of India, was being studied intently by British scholars in the middle of the 19th century. And then finally – and again you could see that, the Mughal Empire, as a form of cross-cultural encounter, even though it’s an Empire. But there are even, on a deeper level, indigenous accounts. And here I’m thinking mostly of the work of Andrew Nicholson and his book, Unifying Hinduism. So he looks at pre-modern doxographies, from as early as the 6th Century, in India, which are concerned with classifying the different schools of thought that there are. And so these are not all Hindu, there are Buddhist and Jain texts and, perhaps, particularly Buddhist and Jain sources were interesting in this. But what’s very interesting is that he shows that toward the slightly later texts, but still very much pre-modern, there is a kind of coalescing of an idea of an āstika – so, texts that affirm the Vedas: a unification of . . . it’s not quite what we might call Hinduism,  but it’s not a million miles from it either. So, hence the title of his book is Unifying Hinduism. And again, this is not a reaction to either Muslim or Western incursions or colonial structures, it’s something coming from within the tradition and within different schools of thought within the Indian tradition. So, I think, there are some other older works as well, Michael Pye’s work on Tominaga Nakamoto – again pre-European influence – a Japanese intellectual discussing the three religions, san jiao, in China: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism . And again, coming up with a generic concept that’s not unlike the concept of religion which is supposedly invented, like everything else, in the 19th century.

TW: OK, Well, the argument seems to be that the use of the term religion is older, broader, transects outsider/insider distinctions. Does that mean that scholars of religion are safe? Can we rest easy? Are we no longer at risk from the conceptual tools of our analysis?

WS: I think the approach that I would take to this is to say that it’s better the devil you know. So the work that’s been done in deconstructing historicising the concept of religion is by no means valueless. I’m not saying we should discard that, and go back to a happy sense that this is a natural kind and it emerges from the world unproblematically. But I think the proposals from some scholars that we should replace religion with some other term – I mean, you go all the way back to Cantwell Smith and, I think, “cumulative traditions”, or Timothy Fitzgerald has made various proposals of things that we might . . . . The problem is that those terms are no less the result of our attempts to construct reality in accordance with our presuppositions. So the advantage, to my mind, of terms like religion and Hinduism is that we are now – because of the work of these scholars who’ve deconstructed them – much more keenly aware of their limitations. And I don’t think that they are applicable in every circumstance. So, I think there are scholars who’ve done ethnographic work on sites in India, where you will have people coming to a particular site which is, or might formerly have been described as Hindu, and what they’re showing is this label is very problematic (25:00). And the kinds of people who are coming to those sites aren’t, maybe, clearly identified, or can be labelled as Hindu, or Muslim, or Christian in some cases. And I would agree, in that context, the label Hinduism is perhaps not useful. But that doesn’t mean there’s no context in which it is useful. So it’s always a matter of what the context is, what the purpose is for us. I think one of the things that strikes me as a little bit odd, is – and again this is something I’ve kept track of over the years – is the number of times you will hear a speaker, or at the beginning of a book somebody will deconstruct the term Hinduism. And having cleared their throat and covered their bases with this term will then go on to use the term with exactly the same referent as the supposedly pre-critical scholars who used this. So, Donald Lopez had a nice joke about this. He said you could spot scholars of Hinduism by their over-developed pectoral muscles, from continually having to make “scare quotes” in the air . . .

TW: (Laughs)

WS: …every time they used the word Hinduism! But the point is, that they continue to use the word Hinduism and the scare quotes were there. So, I think we can and we should continue to use the term, and the danger of replacing it, or of replacing religion with some other term– because those terms haven’t been so thoroughly deconstructed – is we would be tempted to think of them as more closely corresponding to some actual reality and less constructed, in a way in which they aren’t really.

TW: Yes. That’s also a lot of heavy lifting to go and create these new terms, and try to describe how they can kind of convey meanings that aren’t subject to the same problems as previously.

WS: I think the other dimension here is that precisely because of their history, these terms have a purchase beyond the academy that we can’t ignore. And so this is sometimes described as, you know, people in Religious Studies sawing off the branch on which they sit. Now, if it were the case that there was a compelling argument for discarding the term and disbanding departments of the study of religion, our own financial self-interest wouldn’t be a reason to retain the term. But there are other reasons, as I’ve tried to explain, why I think we should. And given that, if we are to speak to the public sphere, we need to do so in ways that are intelligible. And talking about cumulative traditions or hierarchical structures simply doesn’t cut it.

TW: It doesn’t communicate.

WS: And we can go on to complicate what those terms mean, but we would be ill-advised, I think, to abandon them from that point of view, as well.

TW: Yes. I agree. I do agree. OK. Last question, Will. We’ve been talking about the historical study of religion and its importance to the broader discipline of Religious Studies and its methodologies. Now in 2020 the International Association for the History of Religion will host its next World Congress here in Dunedin. Now, as head of department for Religion and Theology at Otago, I’d imagine you’ve already started to think through what you hope this might look like, or what ambitions you might have for the event. Can you share some early thoughts that you might have on this, please?

WS: Sure. I think there’s a lot of reasons for doing this. Some of my colleagues think I’m mad for even contemplating it! But I think there’s a lot of benefits that I see in this. I mean, one of the primary aims is to share this wonderful part of the world with scholars from all over the world, and we hope many will come. And I think we should be honest about the fact that that’s a reason why many people will come! Because New Zealand is a wonderful place and it will be great to share it. But it’s also, for me, the other side of that is Religious Studies in New Zealand, as it is in many parts of the world, is a relatively small, and in some cases embattled discipline. We have lost departments of Religious Studies even in the short time that I’ve been in New Zealand. And those that do exist are small, for the most part, and not exactly directly threatened, but not as secure as they’d like to be. So I hope that hosting an event of this sort will help in a host of ways to consolidate the discipline here (30:00): to create visibility both internationally – for work that’s been done in New Zealand – but also within New Zealand, to bring to the attention of our academic colleagues and people more broadly, also, what the academic study of religion is. That’s a constant battle. New Zealand is a country where religion is – I would compare it often . . . . For many people what your religion is, or religion at all is about as much interest as whether you prefer strawberry or chocolate ice-cream. There’s a kind of apathy toward religion. Not always, but. . . . And I think, demonstrating the importance of what we do by bringing the best scholars from around the world to talk about what they’re doing, and why the study of religion is important will be important.  And also it will give our graduate students . . .  . We’re a remote location, we don’t get an opportunity to interact with these people. So it will be a once in a lifetime opportunity, I think, for younger scholars in New Zealand to really see the scope of what’s going on overseas and to interact personally with those people. There’s something irreplaceable about that opportunity which, I think, young scholars in New Zealand don’t have as much as scholars in other parts of the world.

TW: Thank you, Will. Well, on that rather optimistic and forward-looking note I think we’ll draw this interview to a close. But thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and expertise with us.

WS: Thank you. And we look forward to seeing you all in 2020!

TW: Indeed! Thank you.

Citation Info: Sweetman, Will and Thomas White. 2018. “Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/against-invention-a richer-history-for-hinduism/

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Podcasts

When Religion Is Not Religion: Inside Religious Studies’ Fight for Religious Literacy in the Public Sphere

After wrapping up a Q&A session at a public conference where I presented on the topic of Islam and Christian-Muslim relations to a largely evangelical Christian audience, an older man who was sitting in the back approached me at the podium.

Rather nonchalantly, he asked, “You do know that the Constitution wasn’t written for Muslims, right?”

As we talked, he elaborated on his opinion that the concept of religious freedom does not apply to Islam and Muslims because, he said matter-of-factly, “Islam is not a religion.” At the time, it seemed to me a fringe theory cooked up in the dark corners of the internet or in 6am greasy-spoon breakfast meet-ups.

In short, I could not really believe — given my own biases — that people could actually think that the First Amendment and its promise of religious freedom did not extend to Islam and Muslims in the U.S.

However, far from fringe political theory or radical cultural posturing, this view has found its way into legal briefs, court cases, and political contexts in recent years. In fact, these legal and political perspectives are the fodder for Asma Uddin’s new book When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom.

In this work, Uddin points out that many Americans insist that the religious liberty they so quickly claim for Christianity or Judaism (or other religions beyond the nation’s so-called “Judeo-Christian” heritage) does not extend to Islam and Muslims in the U.S.

Concerned that the loss of liberty for Muslims means a loss of liberties for all, Uddin surveys an alarming amount of politicized legal and social battles over whether or not Islam can be considered a “religion” and whether, by extension, Muslims should be afforded the same human rights and constitutional protections that others claim. Weaving together her legal expertise and personal perspective as an American Muslim, Uddin makes the case that despite today’s fraught culture wars, there is a path forward for defending religious liberty for Muslims in the U.S. that can – and should – appeal to those of multiple faith perspectives or none at all.

As I listened to her interview about the book and its ramifications on the Religious Studies Project, I not only appreciated her balanced and thorough approach to this topic, but found myself wanting to focus on three points that she touched on in the talk: 1) the ways in which “religion” is defined in the public sphere; 2) whether or not we should listen to “fringe” Islamophobes and their rhetoric on religion; and 3) thinking about “when Christianity is not a religion.”

1)  Definitions of “religion” in the public sphere.

Discussing how “religion” is defined in the courts, Uddin referenced how the majority of cases she reviewed contained definitions that reminded her of Paul Tillich’s: religion as “ultimate concern.”

The debate over what constitutes the category of “religion” has been lively in the field of religious studies over the proceeding decades since Tillich’s work and many within the discipline have landed on “definitions” that are highly critical of “religion” as a sui generis phenomenon (a la Jonathan Z. Smith and Russell T. McCutcheon). Others have turned to definitions that seek to address religion in terms of globalization in the late-modern era (Thomas Tweed) or from a materialist perspective (Manuel Vásquez). Suffice it to say, these are not the only definitions of religion – or of the field of religious studies – that are out there right now, but they point to the fact that definitions of religion abound.

Despite the robust conversation about “religion” and its referents in the field of religious studies, the general public’s interpretations of religion remain reified in the past or overly influenced by a Judeo-Christian frame.

Therefore, when public figures make comments about what does or does not constitute a “religion,” the greater populace relies on fairly outdated definitions of religion by which to respond to such claims.

For example, the current head of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and President of the Family Research Council, Tony Perkins wrote:

only 16 percent of Islam is a religion — the rest is a combination of military, judicial, economic, and political system. Christianity, by comparison, isn’t a judicial or economic code — but a faith. So to suggest that we would be imposing some sort of religious test on Muslims is inaccurate. Sharia is not a religion in the context of the First Amendment.

This is exactly the kind of rhetoric Uddin addresses in her work. However, it is concerning that conversations around Islam being “only 16% religion” can gain such steam because of a general religious illiteracy or an overly Judeo-Christian conceptualization of what “religion” is. While Uddin does more than a fair job of deconstructing claims such as Perkins’, there remains a lot more work for those of us in religious studies.

We must humbly admit that we have largely failed in communicating the potent and helpful conversations we have had in the academy over the last decades to a wider public. Our discussions about religion as a construct have not been widely disseminated. While we may feel that such conversations are meant for the academic study of religion proper, I would argue that helping the wider public see that religion is more convention than “thing” would help address the constructions that frame Islam as “only 16% religion.” Furthermore, if we could successfully engage the public in this discussion about definitions, they might well become the best critics of the ways in which the term “religion” is constructed in popular parlance or politics.

Rather than dismiss the various definitions of “religion” that exist in the public sphere – or solely critique them in academic circles, conferences, and publications – scholars of religion should focus our energies in articulating proper responses to the definitions that are at work in the world and invite the wider public into seeing “religion” as a construct rather than a definitively defined category to apply to such things as Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. Uddin’s work helps prod us in such a direction.

2) Do we have to listen to “Islamophobes?” 

Such a move presumes that scholars of religion engage with the mainstream public in broad, but meaningful ways. This also means listening to supposedly “fringe” groups and their ideas about religion.

Uddin makes the provocative point that her research involved taking the claims about Islam not being a religion seriously. We might do well to take up her cue in order to better confront and critique such opinions.

Thus, when an individual such as the man at the conference I referenced earlier claims that “Islam is not a religion, but a political doctrine and form of government” we must take the time to not only listen, but parse out what this means. Where does such a view come from? How has it become operational in the lives of those who claim it? Why is it such a powerful perspective? Where, when, and how did it move from the margins to the putative center of public discourse?

Paying attention to such fringe opinions would help us better apperceive and address how wider publics give rise to the legal opinions, cases, and briefs that Uddin addresses in her work.

For example, in my current research I am aiming to go beyond the legal, state, and extreme social expressions of global Islamophobia to understand its social mechanizations and manifestations in quotidian contexts through an ethnographic study of “everyday Islamophobia.”

Rather than seeking to normalize such behavior, listening to “Islamophobes” can help scholars of religion better critique such perspectives and postures toward the “religious other.”

3) When Christianity is not a religion

While listening to and reading Uddin, I could not help but think about how one could make the argument that the political ideologies among Christians in the U.S. could also – by the very rules that lead to the conclusion that “Islam is not a religion” – be used to make the case that Christianity is not a religion either.

Christianity in the U.S., particularly in its specifically politicized evangelical varieties, could be seen as not only a set of religious beliefs and practices, but explicitly political doctrines that seek to shape social behavior through a combination of laws and penalties, not only by God, but by the state. According to the opinion that frames Islam as not a religion because of these very characteristics, one could argue that Christianity is not a religion either, but a form of government.

Let me be clear: I am not trying to say that Christianity or Islam (or any other “religion” for that matter) is not a “religion.” However, this rumination on whether Christianity should be considered a “religion” in light of the very arguments that make Islam not so in certain circles helps point us back to the very important task before religion scholars presented in this response to Uddin’s work.

First, scholars of religion must do a better job of discussing and addressing the many ways that “religion” is defined as a category in the public sphere. The helpful and powerful debate that we have had over preceding decades can, and should, benefit popular and political disputes over religious freedom and human rights. This is not only important for Muslims, but for people of any religion or no religion in particular. Debates over religious freedom in the U.S. and abroad are not going to go away any time soon. Confusion over what constitutes religion cannot be left to the wayside by scholars of religion or simply as a phenomenon to be studied. Religious studies scholars should insert themselves into the conversation.

Second, entering into these conversations and introducing the wider public to religion as a construct more than a sui generis category will not only require appealing to more progressive circles that might be more supple to our ideas, but also the conservative communities that espouse the very perspectives Uddin addresses in her work and that we might find ourselves highly critical of. While listening does not necessarily mean condoning, it does require a more humble and interpersonal engagement of attitudes we might often avoid or critique from a distance.

Uddin has done a great job in opening up such an avenue for other scholars. We would do well to follow in her footsteps. There remains much work to be done.

Science Fiction, Video Games, and Religion

Science fiction and video games have come to the forefront of a new global resurgence, with the popularity reaching record numbers in regards to cinema, and video games. From classic science fiction, to sandbox video games that require hundreds of hours to complete fully, religiosity can be utilised and attached to certain actions, places, characters, and stories. This podcast explores what feature religion plays within an attachment to science fiction and video games, how seekers attach meaning, and seek belief in things that are ‘out of this world,’ as a means of both escapism, and hope of the future.

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, Skyrim, The Witcher, and more.


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


Science Fiction, Video Games, and Religion

Podcast with Benn Banasik and Tara Smith (27 May 2019).

Interviewed by Raymond Radford.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Banasik_and_Smith_-_Science_Fiction_Video_Games_and_Religion_1.1

 

Raymond Radford (RR): My name is Ray Radford. I am the social media editor of the RSP. And today we have a couple of my fellow PhD candidates along with me: Benn Banasik and Tara Smith. Hi Guys!

Tara Smith (TS): OK. How’s it going?

Benn Banasik (BB): Hi.

RR: So do you want to tell us a little bit about your dissertations?

BB: Sure! Ladies first!

TS: Oh, OK. Yes, let’s jump straight in. So I’m doing my PhD on science fiction as social fiction. I’m interested in the religious aspect incorporated within science fiction. And I’m doing some interviews in America at the Nebula science fiction conference, which I’m hoping to sort-of see how much writers are incorporating their own social concerns for the future into the work that they’re writing. I did my honours on Frank Herbert’s Dune, focussing on the eco-religious aspects of that. And yes, so I guess religion is incorporated in a lot of different aspects in the work I’m looking at. But so is science fiction as a genre, as well.

BB: Yes. So I did my honours focussing on Origen of Alexandria and the Jewish elements of his work. So I was looking at Jewish and Christian interrelations and interactions within the third and fourth century. That led me into looking at apophatic theory, and getting really deep into that, particularly from the Christian perspective, but also from the Jewish perspective. My PhD topic is taking those elements – unending aspects of theological engagement with God – and investigating video games through that lens. So, looking at the perpetual journey of video games and video gaming as a religious endeavour, and what that actually means for people. So I’m doing some social surveys looking at people’s interactions in video game space, as well as people who interact with religion – whatever that means today, and that’s a negotiated term – and then synchronising their responses to see if there are any similarities. And then doing more of the theoretical work in the background, as well.

RR: I like that it’s a bit of step from Origen to video games!

BB: It’s a negotiated step!

RR: Yeah. It’s very tentative, I like it. In case you haven’t been able to guess, in today’s podcast we’re going to be focussing on religion, video games, science fiction, popular culture and just the way that these are all entwined within . . . those who look for them or seek to get something out of them . . . I guess is a good way of explaining it. Quick question: have you guys read the Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke?

TS: I’ve got it on my bookshelf, but I’ve got a big, big pile and I’m hoping to get to it. I know it’s been on a lot of lists of things to read.

BB: I have not.

RR: Well it’s the . . . I was thinking about it earlier this morning. And it’s basically a group of monks in Tibet writing down the nine billion names of God because they think that when that happens that God will destroy the universe or, you know, everything will become fulfilled and then the universe will end. So they get to a point and they go, “Oh, this is going to take too long. So they rent a computer from a couple of Americans. The Americans come in and three months later it’s done. The Americans are like, “Oh it’s not going to happen. The computer’s not going to write down all these names of God. And then they’ll blame us when nothing happens.” And then it ends with them looking up and the stars are blinking out.

All: (Laughter)

RR: I thought that was a good analogy of how religion and technology can work together, especially in classic science fiction – which is where you’re looking, Tara.

TS: Yes, definitely. There’s a few . . . there are so many works of science fiction, and technology is such a key theme. One of my favourites is HG Wells’ The Time Machine, and just how he develops . . . it’s one of the first mentions of a time machine – a classic science fiction trope – and transporting somebody to the future. And it’s such a good story because you have, you know, the classic inventor and he’s thrown into this world of these two human races which are basically the sort-of English bourgeois class. And it’s taken to the nth degree, where they’ve formed two different species – the Eloi and the Morlocks.

RR: Yes.

TS: And they sort-of . . . it’s just such a funny little quirky exploration of, you know, how races . . . not races, but how some classes could develop in the future (5:00). And I feel like there’s a real little comic element to that as well. But just how . . . what a good story it is.

BB: I think that’s an interesting thing and this is where your and my PhD’s actually interact, here. And that’s the way that we think about religion in general, and how it interacts with other gaming, social media and technology in that regard. So that element of religion inside Sci-Fi, I can see some similarities in that regard for Second Life. Where you have people that are creating elements of a worldly environment inside a digital space. So people purchase off spots of land actually in Second Life. And there’s been lots of words written about Second Life. Probably more words written about Second Life than actual players of Second Life. Because it’s not actually that popular anymore. Nevertheless, it is interesting see that human interaction in an open space. . . and given the freedom, people set up farms, work places and religious institutions. And they are largely representative of things which happen in the real world, or best practices which people try to aim for in the real world. And I see that through Sci-Fi, as well.

TS: Yes, what’s interesting is they opt for quite mundane realities, you know? If you’re given an option to be an avatar you can do anything you want. And what people want to do is they want to keep farming, and they want to just keep living and forming relationships. You kind-of would imagine that they’d choose something a bit more out of this world. The sort-of everyday is what they like to recreate in those realities.

BB: It’s things like FarmVille

RR: Or Farming Simulator. These things that you can get now which are just simulating the real in virtual reality.

BB: So, for me, those elements and Stardew Valley is one of those games that I’m studying as part of my PhD. And I’ve asked people to engage with this survey. And it’s been my most popular survey, as well.

RR: Maybe you just want to explain Stardew Valley?

BB: OK. So for those who haven’t interacted with it, it is a farming simulator. You’re transported to a farm which is in your family, and you’re given the space to do whatever you like. You can construct fences and have animals, or you can till the fields. And there’s different seasons. And you can interact with people in the village that is close by. And you can also do fishing other mundane tasks. It’s this perpetual engagement with this space, though, that I think actually quantitates a religious experience. But that’s outside of what the first grouping of religion and technology is that I see. The first one being religion inside the technology. That aspect of creating a church in Second Life is not the same engagement which someone would have by hoeing the fields in their little farm, inside Stardew Valley. That’s a different experience. And it quantitates a different response. And it’s different. Both of those architectures don’t have ends. So they’re both spaces to involve, but it’s about what the player does in those spaces. Second Life is more of an open field. And games like Elder Scrolls or Sky Room, they’re closed environments. So you have these religions that are actually represented in those spaces, and they may be made up. From that, I think we have Sci-Fi in religion. So it can come outside of the computer.

TS: Yes. And you can really see some example of that in science fiction. Some examples that come to mind is obviously Frank Herbert’s Dune, which is just such a rich tapestry of different religions. I mean, I think he sort-of identified himself a little bit as a Zen Buddhist. So you have these sort-of very clear Zen ideas, but then also very overt references to Islamic religion. You’ve got other eco-religious sort-of aspects to it. And so many different examples. And I think that’s so interesting, as a reader, is you try and navigate the space of so many different philosophies and ideas. And I think Frank Herbert really just wanted you to try and work it out. And I think, in his books, he really tries to get you to question sort-of where you want to take the book, and who you think the goodies and the baddies are. And he doesn’t really spell it out. And I think that’s why they’re such a good series. (10:00) And the other example, of course, is Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, which is about the Martian, Valentine, who sort-of comes on earth, and creates his own church – the Church of All Worlds. Which is this very sort-of sixties, free love, sort-of pagan church. Which is such a contrast to the religious, very strict kind-of world he finds himself in. And he kind-of creates this space. And then it’s actually being used and created in religion outside of the novels: Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and Morning Glory. I think they’re based in America, and they have concepts they’ve borrowed from books like “grok” kin which is a term in the book used in the water rituals – they do their own sort-of water rituals. And they call themselves water kin. They’re called “Nests” that they group themselves in. And all these sort of things are borrowed from novels, but they’ve obviously taken it as their own, and sort-of brought their own very pagan, probably even more pagan aspects to it, and created their own little religion. I think that’s just so interesting, where you have science fiction directly impacting religion in that. But there’s also, of course, religion in the novels itself. So you’ve got these two ways that it’s diverging.

RR: Let’s just go back to Heinlein, for a second. Because writing something like that, in the 1960s – especially 1960s America, was completely antithetical to the standards and practices, if you will, of American society at the time. Which brings us to the idea that science fiction is social fiction. So you know, he’s sort-of writing this idea that in the future, possibly, we have comradery and free love. And we’re not being jack-booted into oblivion by fascist governments or anything like that – which a lot of 1960s science fiction was about – apocalyptic, and all that kind of thing. So do you think some social aspects of society influence . . .?

TS: Oh, definitely. Of course. I think that’s a huge impact. You obviously write to what your surroundings are. But I think science fiction uses our social fictions. Because it’s set in the future – and all of these works are set quite far into the future – the writers can sort-of explore new ways of looking at . . . and that’s why you have utopias and dystopias. You can look at completely different, new ways of thinking and taking of the world to a different place. And that’s why I think it’s so powerful. And, in terms of religion, you can imagine different ways of how religion might look in the future. And with technology, you can see maybe how technology could be used, taken to it’s very most extreme view – sort-of as warning and as a guide. That’s why science fiction is so useful. And probably with gaming you see similar aspects of the reality and real life impacting fiction. And the lines are getting blurred. And with technology. Our kind-of idea of having distinct categories is sort-of dissolving.

BB: True. I think and we’re talking about this intermediary space between religion and Sci-Fi, or Sci-Fi, technology and religion. And there are elements that are in both. My thesis looks at the religious endeavour of the technology. So there is actually a third category we can look at. But to flow into that second category, you have elements, now, of technology and Sci-Fi being implemented in religions. And they’re commonly done. We had the Pope App that was launched, which has the “Click to Pray”. And Pope Francis was actually launching the app – he’s a bit of a technophobe, (self-) admittedly, a technophobe – and he asked the priest next to him whether he’d actually done it by clicking the prayer, making sure that he actually prayed at that point. Which is quite jovial I think! There is an android monk who has been created. And you can go, and the monk then offers constant prayers. And you have different elements of technology which is enabling people to practise their religions in unique and different ways. What I think that you can see, and where this crossover is, is the elements of religions that are from Sci-Fi or from technological basis, becoming religions in themselves. So the Church of All Worlds, yes, is a good example. Jedi – I know that there was protest religion for the census four years ago (15:00). The numbers dropped off but there are certain people that do practice what is known as . . .

RR: There are registered temples in the United Kingdom, I believe.

BB: Yeah. And the sociological aspect of . . . I guess our department in a university and Western universities in general, is that we have to take people for what their words are. And if they say they are practising a religion and “We believe that we are practising a religion”, who are we to question that? So they are seen as equal footing. But what I think is interesting is the technological element, or the video gaming element as a religious endeavour in itself. And Sci-Fi actually as religious endeavour, and using those texts as religious texts.

TS: Definitely. Especially if we see science fiction as technology itself. As a definition you could call fiction and science fiction technology, just the reading of it. Because I think the definition of technology is like – we probably should have . . .

RR: I think the definition of technology is the same as the definition of religion. It’s different to whoever’s discussing it, I guess. And that’s the big problem with Religious Studies is that it’s a different meaning to everybody.

BB: That’s true. Whether we’re using mundane tools or super computers creating digital spaces to deal with . . . they are both outside of the human experience, in its unique and abstract from. So if we think of it in that regard. So, myself as a human: how do I interact with the world? And my choice is – me, myself – is to sit at home and play video games, occasionally, when I get time. But involving ourselves in some sort of experience using a tool. That is, in itself, a technology. And I think that’s the boundary. And that’s all we can say about it. Because otherwise you get drawn into, “Well, is a Dolo Matrix computer system actually as equal technology as something as an iphone today?

TS: Yeah. I guess I’d want to just say that science fiction can be used as a tool almost like a form of technology, itself. And if we’re looking at science fiction like that, I think we can connect. We have similarities in our PhD topics and what we’re interested in. And that science fiction can be used both as a guide to these developments of technology . . . in the sense of, when we’re exploring topics like AI and cloning and looking back at the writers who were already thinking about this sort-of fifty years ago, and trying to project that into the future. That’s such a useful tool for us. But also science fiction being used as a way of shifting perception. And this is Darko Suvin’s definition of estrangement. So, good science fiction creates a sense of a new reality, a new perception, a new way of thinking. And that’s what I think is the key for science fiction, is really shifting what we think. And by setting new social realities in the future – whether  that’s exploring different ways of looking at gender, different ways of looking religion – it’s allowing us to really shift our perception, and grow as a civilisation, and that’s what I think the key is.

RR: I think one of the really good things about science fiction is it actually provides us a glossary for terms for technology now. So things like when Arthur C Clarke first used the term satellite, it hadn’t been used before. And now we are all calling these things orbiting the earth satellites. But even things like when Steve Jobs first announced the ipad, or the iphone, he was calling it a “magic tablet”, because you were essentially using your finger like a wand. And sort-of taking these terms from literature and them importing them into technology.

BB: It’s a very . . . that speech which Jobs gave at that Apple conference and there’s the ipod

RR: The ipod – even earlier! Yes

BB: So that was where he pulled out the ipod and is talking about the beautiful cover art and how to actually listen to sounds and everything like that. But that element of talking about the finger touching onto the screen, or touching onto the dial at the time – so the circular dial – and being able to choose different things. And then the glass screen being fitted afterwards. It’s a really charismatic performance which he actually is creating. And it blurs the lines of, you know, a traditional religion, into that regard (20:00). And there’s people that have written on this: the dress code that he’d apply . . .

RR: Oh, the turtle neck?

BB: Turtle neck, the black, and speaking in certain ways, no visible microphones and this sort-of darkened room but a crowded audience, so you have that sense of being drawn into something like a church. It’s very organised. And it’s quite amazing seeing that line of technology almost manifesting itself into a religion and religious experience.

TS: Definitely. It’s like all the geek culture now is becoming like sort-of what we are in science fiction and gaming, the geek culture – not exclusively, but I mean that how we make meaning and how we connect to the world is really changing I feel. And it doesn’t make it any more or less religious. It’s still people still getting sort-of a religious experience doesn’t always have to be what we typically understand religion for. And I think that’s why, as studies of religion students, our definition is constantly trying to change and fit into new paradigms. And I think that’s what – not everyone agrees – but I think that what is important to have different ideas and trying to constantly rethink what we think is technically religion. And not dismiss things that don’t necessarily fit into what we thought.

BB: I agree and that’s a large part of my PhD, actually, is going to engage with, “What is religious experience?” And so William James actually coined that phrase, and uses religious experience in a certain way. And he’s using that on the basis of quoting from people like Tolstoy which then Albert Camus, and later writers, actually engage with as well. I actually think there is a misreading here that we – as people that are studying theology or philosophy or religious studies or religion in general – we’ve actually taken a lot for granted. And it needs to go back and look at what these writers are talking about. So where Tolstoy, in My Confession, he paints the picture of being in the well and hanging from the sides of the well, seeing a snake that is about to bite your hand. And then there’s this little sapling with some sap that’s dripping forth almost a honey. What do you do in that experience? Do you fall? Do you accept that you’re going to fall? Do you try and fight on? Or do you joyously eat the sap and accept that that is going to be your lot in life? Camus and Tolstoy, they’re engaging with these things – this absurdism of accepting your lot in life, and actually engaging with it as much as you can, and doing the best that you can in that space. That’s where I see these similarities of religious experience of somebody who plays that Stardew Valley, as to someone who’s sitting in the church pews, or engaging with pilgrimage and going to the mountaintops. And I can see the same languages being used with these different people. Now it’s not every person that’s going to get that experience. I don’t think that the casual gamer who’s jumping on line to play with their friends, playing Call of Duty or whatever the game is, is going experience that. Nor do I think that games like Mario Parties, which are a social event, may give you those feelings. They may, but it is not necessarily the case that every person that engages with reading Sci-Fi is going to have the divine experiences of questioning what it is to be human and what it is for reality. But some texts definitely do. And some games definitely do.

RR: I think a lot of the text where it comes down to questioning reality, or questioning what it is to be human, comes down to if the book is really well-written you can sortof start thinking about that. But I think it’s something else where the book starts giving you religious fervour. Sort-of like . . ., trying to think of a good example . . .those sort of books where . . . things like Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, which gives a good example of the internet, being written in 1993, is sort-of the next precursor to Neuromancer to explore the ideas of virtual reality, and all that kind of thing. But I don’t see any religions being made around it, or it being held up in high esteem as . . . . I think it’s up there with Dune (25:00). It’s one of my favourite books. But that concept of religion and technology is, yeah, I think it’s sort-of . . . people pick and choose what they want to take from that, I think.

BB: Yeah. Well there is curation of course. But I think that if . . . and what my study is finding is you ask people set questions – and I’m asking people the same questions if they’re from this religious experience and they identity as religious, or they identify as players of Elite, or Stardew Valley. And we just copy and paste out the names of religious experience to playing Elite. And you find the responses are very similar. Which means that there is something that people are getting out of this that it is quite religious.

RR: I just want to quickly ask Tara . . .because you haven’t done your research part of it yet. You’re going over to America, as you said, in a couple of weeks to ask people questions. Is there anything in particular you feel that you want to get out of them?

TS: I guess I just want to see some awareness . . . and I think that’s going to be with writers that are writing specular fiction; that they are trying to create a force of social change for the good. I think that there’s a certain . . . and it’s not all writers, but I think a lot of science fiction writers, especially, are trying to create a better world through their writing. And I think that’s a unique aspect of science fiction

RR: People like Kim Stanley Robinson with the environmentalist message.

TS: Exactly, yes. And so what I want to do, there’s a few things that I’m looking at. I’m looking at AI, I’m looking at environment, I’m looking at interplanetary travel, so there’s a few themes that I’m looking at. But I’m just trying to see: if they’re concerned about climate change, is that being reflected in their writing? And I think that obviously it will. But I just want some sort of confirmation that young writers – and I’ll probably get a range a people at Nebula, so all different periods of their writing experience – but that’s like a real . . . . That it’s sort-of at the forefront of their writing. And I think it will be. And that’s why I think it’s such a unique genre. Because it’s concerned with the same questions that philosophies are concerned with: “Who are we?”; “Why are we here?”; and also, making the world better. And I think you’d be hard-pressed to find people who don’t want to make the world a better place. And we’re in such an era the moment where people are feeling very fatigued and very depressed with the kind-of state of affairs. And I feel like that’s why it’s so important.

RR: Do you think things like science fiction and video games give people the hope . . . that they find themselves doing these things in order to better feel better about things, about the world? Give some form of meaning, some form of credence?

TS: You mean like escapism?

RR: Escapism, yeah.

TS: Sort-of, but I also think more of a warning. Speculative fiction that’s set in the future and shows a very bleak . . . where technology’s gone totally terrible, and it’s like this very bleak world, we can go: “Ok. Should we, maybe, alter the way that we’re progressing with artificial intelligence? In reality, can we do some measures to try and, maybe, not get to that place? Or how can we change the way we interact with Facebook or our iphones, to maybe then impact the future? And that’s what I’m hoping science fiction . . . . What I think science fiction does is it also acts as a warning – not just that escapism from reality. That’s definitely an aspect of it, but also a warning in the dystopia of what our realities could become.

RR: Yes. Benn?

BB: Yes! (Laughter) I think . . .

RR: Because I’ve got to admit I’m very much a video game player and I play for a multitude of reasons. None of them are religious – it’s usually to avoid other people.

BB: And that’s, I think, where most people do find themselves engaging with this space. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that you cannot get the same experience there that someone who is having an openly religious experience is. So they can be one and the same. I’m not necessarily concerned or even really interested in why people engage with video gaming or religion. Because I think that becomes a whole quagmire of thought, based on family background, social background, and then you have to almost get into the psychology of someone who is engaging that way (30:00). All I’m interested in is flat-lining the approach. So classifying people as: you’re either playing, or you’re not playing these games. And I then asked the question well, “Why are you playing these games? Why are you continually playing a game which is meant to only have a ten or twenty hour engagement? Why have you played that for four or five hundred hours? Why do you continue to play World of Warcraft?” Once you’ve got to the end, you’ve got your character maxed out, and you’re one of the toughest in your group. And, yes, you perform in a certain role in a team environment. But it brings people back. It’s not physically possible to finish every element in a lot of these games. And they are sand boxes, many of them. But some of them aren’t. And this is the interesting thing. There’s people that have played games which are meant to be coin-crunchers – arcade experience games, that you’re meant to only play for two or three minutes, and then you give way to the next person at the arcade to put another quarter in there, and that’s what those games are developed with – people that play those games for eighteen to twenty hours at a time on a single credit. Nibbler for example. It’s not a great game. It’s a snake that is going round a field constantly – same type of field. That’s not a great experience, it looks like, from someone who stands back. But people try and do that because they’re trying to get the world record. But they’re returning to it constantly, because they’re obviously enjoying that experience. Otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it. And that, I think, is really interesting. Where you can have what looks like a very mundane task, and it gives that sort-of perpetual feeling of engagement. And it keeps drawing people back, over and over again. If I can share a quote?

RR: Yes, please.

BB: So this started off on a Tumblr site and it’s been copied across to a website. And it’s called Journey Stories. And the user Jitterfish shared this, which I thought was quite interesting. It’s about Journey the video game. So Journey is a game where you are a cloaked avatar. So you’re a cloaked figure that appears in a vast dessert landscape. And you don’t see anything, except for a light on a hill in the distance. And there’s very little actually in the field of play, initially. And it draws you to constantly march towards . . .

RR: It’s very linear.

BB: Yes – very, very linear. You do interact with another person in the game. So it’s not – spoiler alert! It’s a ten year-old game, I think we can spoil it! The other person that appears in the game is actually another user who is playing the game at the same time, somewhere else in the world. So it’s a live experience. And it’s not initially clear that you have that experience. Now, Jenova Chen actually studies flow, studies philosophy, writes a little bit about religious experience in that regard, but not so much. But he was interested in creating this experience where he’d engaged with users in a very limited way. So you only have a set tone, so you can set off this tone. And that’s it in the game. So you can jump, set off a tone and walk. Very, very limited. So Jitterfish writes: “Is it possible to have a religious experience in a video game? Because I just danced for twenty minutes with a complete stranger in the final level of Journey. When we got to the end I learned that the final part of the mountain, just before you walk into the light, if you run into your companion and jump you can fly into the air. We synchronised our jumps until we were floating above the light, twirling and dancing and laughing. And I just – I don’t even know, man. I’m crying. So many feels! Carlos G. Nice, if you’re reading this, you’re amazing.”

RR: It’s kind-of sweet.

BB: And that for me is – it is a very sweet experience. And I have had very similar experience, playing the game, where I walked and played with someone from the beginning to the end of the game. It’s only happened once since I’ve played it, and I’ve played it a number of times through. And then you float back to the beginning and you lose connection with that person. So, yes, there is this interaction that you’re getting which is a divine experience. And that is quite magnificent for a game to actually give you that experience.

RR: I guess that brings me to my last thing I want to talk about, and that is perception of reality within video games (35:00). Because I mean, that’s quite a nice story here. Journey is, what, five hours long?

BB: Not even that. It can be two to three. And that’s if you go all the way through it.

RR: But for that two or three hours, that’s your reality. Where do you see technology, video games, science fiction sort-of leading in regards to reality?

BB: I think with the freedom of human experience now being shaken, and what it actually means to be human, it gives people a place for free expression – this is video games. So the expression . . . I think the narrative is interesting, which is given to players, and given these choices. So if you play Last of Us or something like that, this is quite an amazing experience. But they are somewhat a “choose your own adventure” game. Maybe a little bit more complex, but generally that’s what they are. The experiences where players push that boundary can be in linear experiences, but generally it is in these sandbox, larger games, where people break that narrative and then exist within the space. That’s what I find fascinating. And that I think is something unique to our generations now, where we’re looking at technology, in this regard, as a place where we can go home and interact in those environments –and “be the best that we can”, to take the Pokémon phrase! And that very best that we can may not necessarily mean that I am even known by my name as Benn, anymore. It may be that I’ve taken on a persona, and am existing in this space, and am free to do so because of the limitations being removed. And then that pulls onto things that people like William Bainbridge, who has a background in Theology, looks at world of Warcraft in that regard, actually spoke about how his sister has passed away, and in creating an avatar and naming that avatar after her, and engaging with that avatar, and imagining a persona of her experience in there, that really opens up possibilities of what gaming can actually provide.

TS: Yes. I think science fiction is such a useful way of exploring different realities and new realities and I mean when I was I think about fifteen was when I read Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker and his Last and First Men. And they were just such big perception shifts for me. And I just remember in Star Maker – and I’ve written an essay on it since then – but this massive cosmic journey that you take through all these different universes and worlds, and you meet all these different alien lives, so different from yours. You’ve got these amazing creatures that he creates. And the whole purpose of the journey is to meet the Star Maker and meet who created all this life. And you get this feeling of this real, depressed . . . all these civilisations that can’t quite reach this perfect state. They just can’t quite get there. And this big quest. And you know, towards the end, the actual meaning of the Star Maker is not what you expected. You end up coming back a bit disappointed. And you return back to – the character’s unnamed – but you return to this grassy hill in England in the dark, looking up at the stars. And you sort-of feel this sense of awe, but also a little bit of this sense of loss. And the two things that Stapledon gives you – as a final conclusion, two pillars that we can really rely on – is a sense of community and a connection with people, and the sense of this cosmic awe and the striving to know that, even if we never reach that. And I think that really fits in well, Benn, with your perpetual journeying and also those two elements in Journey that you talked about: doing the Journey with somebody else, and that kind of connection with another person; and also this striving for something that you never really can get. And those two features are just such a sweet little reminder of what, I think, is this way that this profound effect that reading good science fiction and playing good games can have on you as an individual.

BB: Totally.

RR: I think we may have to leave it there. Benn, Tara – thank you very much!

TS: Thank you.

BB: Thank you (40:00)


Citation Info: Banasik, Benn, Tara Smith and Raymond Radford. 2019. “Science Fiction, Video Games and Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27 May 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 22 May 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/science-fiction-video-games-and-religion/

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Demystifying the Study of Religion

In this podcast we have a group discussion about Russell McCutcheon’s new book, Religion in Theory and Practice: Demystifying the Field for Burgeoning Academics. Joining us on the podcast is not only the author himself, but two young scholars who also contributed to the book, Matt Sheedy and Tara Baldrick-Morrone.

This book is of particular interest to the RSP because it is not just another critical theory book on religion, but examines the practical sites where theory gets implemented and challenged at the university. Moreover, it specifically includes the perspective of early career scholars and the struggles they face as they navigate the sparse job market. In this interview we discuss what is included in the book, how it got put together, and some of the broader theoretical and practical issues it deals with. Topics discussed include how to construct an introductory course, the job market, contingent labor, the gap between what we learn as graduate students and what we are expected to teach once we are working in the field, as well as other issues.

 

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


Demystifying the Study of Religion

Podcast with Russell T. McCutcheon, Matt Sheedy and Tara Baldrick- Morrone (29 April 2019).

Interviewed by Tenzan Eaghll.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: McCutcheon_et_al._-_Demystifying_the_Study_of_Religion_1.1

 

Tenzan Eaghll: Hello. We are gathered here today, over the mighty inter-webs to discuss Russell McCutcheon’s latest book,Religion” in Theory and Practice: Demystifying the Field for Burgeoning Academics. Joining me is not only the author himself, Russell McCutcheon, but a couple of young scholars who contributed small pieces to the volume – Matt Sheedy and Tara Baldrick-Morrone. Russell McCutcheon probably needs no introduction to most of our Listeners but just for some of those who may be new, he is Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama. Matt Sheedy is visiting Professor of North American Studies at the University of Bonn. And Tara Baldrick-Morrone is a PhD candidate and instructor at the Department of Religion at Florida State University. Now part of what makes this book special, and why I wanted to include Matt and Tara in this podcast, is that it isn’t just another theory book about Religious Studies, but actively engages with questions about what it takes to make it as a scholar in today’s world. And there are about twenty other young scholars, including myself, who wrote short pieces for this book reflecting on some of the concerns and issues that young Religious Studies scholars face in the workplace today, as well as in their scholarship. So what I want to do is start with Russell and get a sense of what this book is all about, and then bring in Matt and Tara to the conversation and talk about their respective contributions and about some of the issues that burgeoning scholars face in the world today. Now, Russell – one of the first things that jumped out at me when I originally initially read the blurb for the book, on the back jacket, is that it is a bit of a follow-up to your previous book, Entanglements. So I was hoping you might start by summarising the general aim of the book for our Listeners, and saying something about how it relates to your previous work and how it differs.

Russell McCutcheon (RM): Sure. Thanks for wanting to talk about this. Entanglements was a collection – also with Equinox – of replies and rejoinders that I’ve been lucky enough to have – interactions with a variety of people – over the years in print. And those things all just sit somewhere and have a life of their own. And nobody knows they happen, if they don’t stumble across it. So I thought I’d pull all this together. But in pulling that together I wrote a fair bit of new material to open every one of the pieces and situate it, contextualise it – when was this given, why was it given. But in writing those, I explicitly tried to think of an earlier career reader who might not yet have had the luxury of doing these sorts of things, of talking to these sorts of people. Because latterly I’ve paid a fair bit of attention to job market issues, things that have been issues for decades in the Humanities, but have certainly hit a peak in the last five, ten years in North America at least – also in Europe now. So it occurred to me that that would be a good audience to write to, whatever anybody else did with it. So that was Entanglements, it certainly wasn’t a “how to” volume or anything. But then a review of Entanglements – and there have been many reviews – but a review of Entanglements written by Travis Cooper – who recently finished his PhD at Indiana, mainly I think in anthropology but also Religious Studies – he wrote a review of it and had some qualms with the book here and there. He said some nice things, he said some critical things. But I open the introduction to this set of pieces quoting his review, where he basically says, “Where’s the other senior career people in the file, writing things? Where are they? Why aren’t they writing things like this?” And that stuck in my head after the press sent me a copy of that review. And for a variety of reasons I’ve become an essayist. I didn’t set out to be an essayist, but I’ve turned into an essayist in my career. And so, periodically, I’ve collected together things that have been published, things that haven’t been published. And that was in my head. And his review line prompted me to think, “Well I have a number of things I’ve written – on the field, on teaching, on the intro course – that have not been pulled together, and a few that have not been published yet. And so that’s how his book came about. Thinking specifically to – in an even more explicit way – address a variety of career and professional issues with the earlier career person in mind. Whether they agree or not with how I study religion they’ll probably at least come across certain departmental or professional issues. So that was the logic of this book.

TE: OK, great. And maybe just to add to that, that the organisation of this book is also quite interesting. It’s divided into three sections: theory, in practice and then in praxis. Is there a particular rational for that division?

RM: Well I finished this book quite a long time ago, to be honest. Well over a year, a year-and-a-half ago. And presses all have their own publishing schedules. And the book originally had two sections. That’s the title: in theory and in practice (5:00). And my logic was, you’re looking for some . . . you know, it’s myth-making, right? You’re looking for some hindsight organisational principle to the pieces you’re pulling together. You think, in your head, that they’re related somehow. And I thought, “Well, a group of these are mainly about my interest in the category of religion, classification interests. But a number of these are a lot more practically concerned. They’re about . . . The Bulletin blog series, I repurposed a piece that I wrote there, and Matt was involved in commissioning that, right? But: “What do you tell people you do, when they ask you, as a scholar of religion?”; a piece that I originally did up at Chicago on practical choices you have to make in designing a curriculum syllabus . . . so there’s your practice. But because the piece was done so long ago and it had not moved to copy editing, that’s when it occurred to me that a whole bunch of these additional pieces where people had replied to something I wrote ten years ago on professionalisation issues, that what a perfect opportunity to get all these people – if they were interested – to get their pieces into print. I liked my theory/practice division and that’s when it occurred to me, “Well, yes: praxis! Why not? There’s the third section.” It’s certainly not praxis in the technical Marxist sense, but giving early career people – ABD people, or at least they were when they wrote this, not all of them still are – reflecting on their own situation in the light of some theses about the profession from a decade ago, seemed to have this very nice integration of theory and practice. This very nice sense of practically applied theory. And thus the structure of the book came about.

TE: One thing that I liked about the book, on reading it, is that it didn’t just say a lot of the familiar stuff that those of us who have read your other books, say, have come to know and expect from your work, such as your critique of the world religion paradigm and, say, tropes like the spiritual-but-not-religious notion. But it also had this really kind-of cool practice section where you almost were thinking through, in some of the essays, your own development as a teacher and scholar, and how you kind-of came to arrive at certain more critical positions, and give a nice reflection on the development of you and academics and Religious Studies in the field today. . . .

RM: Oh that’s very kind. You found some of those useful, then?

TE: Yes, I thought these was an interesting juxtaposition – because we didn’t’ just get the critique but how those critiques formed, and how they formed – particularly in the classroom in some of your reflections on teaching introduction classes. But I have a question on that, so I’ll get to that in a moment.

RM: Well one thing I could say, jumping off that, is that – I’ve written about this – I’ve long been frustrated by the classic division of labour between teaching and research. And, “My teaching gets in the way of my research”, which all kinds of people talk about that. Or on the other side, people will call themselves “teaching specialists”. I’ve never been sure exactly what that means to be honest. In other words, I’ve never met a teaching specialist who teaches more than I do, that teaches more different courses than I would. We all, generally, do about the same. That division of labour, wherever you side yourself, has always been frustrating. Because, at least in my experience, the things that I’ve taught in classes have been deeply consequential to my writing. I don’t know anyone who teaches something in a class that didn’t come from someone’s research, right? We read books, we use books in classes, and we do field work and talk about it in our class. So anything that draws attention to intimate cross-pollination between these, strikes me as an important thing.

RM: That’s one of the similarities between some of your essays and the works of, say, Jonathan Z. Smith, is that he often did the same thing: used essays as an occasion to reflect on the intersection between the two, teaching and theory.

RM: For me it was profoundly evident in my very first job. I was a full-time instructor at the University of Tennessee. I’ve written about this, when they asked me . . . . In a different book that’s come out, I reflect on this quite explicitly, to use Huston Smith’s world religions – The Religions of Man is originally the title – in one of my courses. And I didn’t know much about Huston Smith’s book. I kind-of knew a little bit about it – I’m writing my dissertation and I’m not paying attention to that particular Smith – and I used it. I had to use it. And the kind-of world religions critique someone like me would offer wasn’t present in the field. Then, not many people were thinking much about it. And at least for me, that particular experience – using the book I was told to use in classroom – played a crucial role in helping to cement a real dissatisfaction in the particular model that probably, prior to that, I hadn’t thought too much about (10:00). And thus Manufacturing Religion takes on a new character. There’s new examples used in that – specific things from Smith, used as instances of problems in the field. So it was a frustrating experience for me using the book, but it was only a frustrating experience for me as I used the book. And as I became familiar with that very popular model that a lot of other people were using. So again, that was fortuitous that they asked me to use that.

TE: This might work as a partial springboard to the next question, then. It’s one of the points you make in your introduction that I found interesting: many of the concerns about the current state of the field are not new, but have been of concern to young scholars for a number of years – including yourself, when you were a young scholar. I found this interesting, because it’s something that I hadn’t thought about when I was a grad student and heard everybody complaining about the lack of jobs and the current state of the Humanities. I would always kind-of wonder to what extent these struggles are all new, how new they were? And so I guess I wanted to throw that question out here, and ask you to expand a bit on what you think is new for young scholars in today’s climate and what is similar. Do we face new challenges or is it all the same-old . . .?

RM: I say, I think, a little bit in the introduction and then a little bit in the intro to the third part. Before Matt’s piece, in the third part of the book, I repeat this. I always find it frustrating the manner in which groups – who might otherwise have shared interest – consume each other in their critique. That I often now see conflicts between scholars more senior than myself – and I write about this a little bit in the book – and scholars much more junior to myself. And the two of them are quite critical of each other. On the one side I see almost a view of: “Suck it up! It’s all hard work.” And on the other side I see this view of: “You’re a privileged older person and you don’t really get how hard it is right now.” While I certainly understand that situation – at least from where I sit, being well between those generations. I’m fifty-seven, so I’m not a seventy year-old scholar. I got my PhD in ‘95. I started doing my PhD in about ‘88-‘89. I kind-of forget. So the generation that taught me, as opposed to the generation that are now getting PhDs, so I feel a little between those groups. And they strike me as having dramatically shared interests. They strike me as facing very similar problems, that there’s all kinds of people in their sixties and seventies and eighties – depending on how far back we go – who certainly just walked into jobs. Yes – at times, that happened. But if you ask scholars of those generations more about their own background you easily start to hear stories that are very identifiable with today. Today however, especially, you know, post 2008 budget collapse etc., it’s ramped up dramatically. It’s not just the 2008 budget collapse. At least here, in the United States, state budgets where education is largely funded, have been declining for decades, steadily, right? The proportion of state funds going to higher education. So, none of this just happened overnight. This has been a steady process. But when you add the post-2008 budget collapse it does seem to heighten it pretty dramatically. So I think they’re incredibly similar situations. But the magnitude of the situation now, it’s not difficult to see someone in a situation now thinking, perhaps rightly so, that it’s a change in kind. It is so heightened. So I guess again, the attempt was to try to get a number of people currently in that situation – the pieces in the last section of the book were written a few years ago, so some of those people’s situation has changed – to really get, to have a voice. And I don’t know that we’re here to convince people more senior than myself about anything. They’ll read this, they’re retired perhaps. But as least back to Travis Cooper, to really start thinking of those other senior people in the field. It’s not that like department chairs control universities. They’re largely the victims of funding decisions that happen elsewhere, too! But to think a little more constructively about contingent labour, about PhD programmes across the country: what should they be doing? How do we train students? What are we training them for? Let alone MA programmes? So if that starts a little bit more of a conversation that would be wonderful. It’s a long-overdue conversation, there’s tremendous interest probably against ever really having the conversation. That’s just the standard way. But I’m hopeful.

TE: Alright, that might be a good spot to turn to Matt and Tara. Their contributions were reflecting upon Russell’sTheses on Professionalization, which he originally wrote in 2007. So perhaps, Matt, you could start by saying something about your role as editor of The Bulletin (15:00), and how these responses to the “Theses on Professionalization” came together, and your specific response in the volume?

Matt Sheedy (MS): Yes. Well, thanks very much for this invite and the opportunity to talk about this sort-of interesting collaborative project. I was – past tense – editor for The Bulletin for the Study of Religion blog – that’s the blog portal of The Bulletin for the Study of Religion – from approximately 2012 to this past summer, 2018, as The Bulletin has had some transitions in terms of editor. And I don’t remember exactly how the idea for this came about, but Russ’s piece on professionalisation had circulated for quite some time since it was originally written. And it was something that was widely read and engaged with, and talked about. And so it became this opportunity – possibly seven, eight, nine years after the fact – to revisit some of the questions in the theses that he proposed, with early-career scholars who are trying to sort-of navigate the job market and deal with questions of professionalisation more generally. So, with a few suggestions from Russ and from people that I knew as editor at The Bulletin, I was able to bring together twenty-one early career scholars at various stages in their careers – some who were ABD (all but dissertation), some who had just finished their PhDs, some who were taking on visiting professorships and post-docs, and so forth, to reflect on the different questions from their own experience. So what’s really interesting about these responses is that it reflects a fairly broad range of scholars, dealing with similar sets of questions, in around the same time, with widely different experiences. You know, for me, when I was asked to bring all these together and it became this interesting project, the idea of turning this into a book came about through a variety of conversations. And that never fully took place for a variety of reasons. And the idea of turning these blog responses into a book was temporarily shelved. And then Russ came to me and said that he thought, if I was interested, that a portion of this book would be a good place to include these responses. Not only because they’re obviously theses responding to something that he had written, but because it reflects very much this idea of religion in theory and practice, and engaging the process of professionalisation; engaging young scholars. And it really worked out that way. Everyone was able to rethink their pieces, upwards of two years on from originally writing them, to get that published in this volume. For me, I talk about how – as Russ touched upon earlier – the 2008 economic crisis was really a crucial hinge in how a lot of us, at least, early career scholars had been thinking about this process of professionalisation. And whether or not, and to what extent, these problems were around and persisted in earlier generations. Certainly conversations, narratives about the crisis – not only in the broader economy but also in academia – really started to come to the fore, by my estimation. In the aftermath of things like the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, shortly after that in 2012-2013, one started to see regular articles appear in higher education (publications) and a variety of other forms, talking about younger academics having problems getting jobs, having problems making that transition. And, more generally, this idea that the economic crisis was finally coming to the academy. And the assumption here is that there was a bit of a lag, a bit of a delay, in terms of the impact and the effects on less and less people getting jobs. And for me, one of the things that I mention is the experiences of two scholars in particular, one of whom, Kelly J Baker, has a piece in the 21 pieces on professionalisation. She very publicly made the decision to walk away from academia and yet, at the same time, pursued her writing career that was related to her training in the study of religion, related to a lot of problems of being an academic, getting a job, the current job market, questions of gender and so forth. And she’s a really interesting example of someone who has made lemonade out of the lemons that she was given, so to speak. Another scholar that I mention is Kate Daley-Bailey, who was engaged with academic circles, certainly was working with Russ and Tara and a number of others as well. And she made an announcement as well, I think around 2014 – 2015 that she was leaving academia because there weren’t enough jobs for her as adjunct (20:00). And this sort-of struck me as a somewhat personal, or at least emblematic, instance of someone I knew who seemed to have all the sharps, all the skills, all the motivation to do this job and do it well, but had to walk away because of her own experience with those structural issues. And so those were a few of the things that I gesture to in the introduction. And I also bring together just sort-of an overview of the different themes that are talked about and covered in the 21 theses. As well as the changes that have taken place over the course of about 2 years: seeing certain people succeed, get tenure track positions. In other cases people remaining adjuncts, still working through their PhDs and in some cases scholars having left academia either temporarily or altogether. So it really struck me as microcosm bringing these 21 scholars together, of all of the different sort of experiences that one may encounter in this current academic market specifically related to the study of religion.

TE: That’s definitely one of the most interesting parts, having read them all when they were first initially published on The Bulletin and then reading them now, is kind-of the development of some of the responses over the couple of years. Initially I think, when everybody wrote, there was a lot more morbid tone in some of them – at least mine! Mine was very . . . when I first wrote it, it was very like “Everything’s hopeless!” But now my reflection, a couple of years on, is a little bit more nuanced. Throwing it to Tara, perhaps you could say something about your thesis and your response?

Tara Baldrick Morrone (TB-M): Sure. And thank you for asking about this. I responded to Thesis Number 6. And the general point of this thesis that Russ wrote is that simply getting a doctoral degree is no longer enough to obtain a full-time position in academia. And in my response I discussed how this has related to the hyper-professionalisation that has been occurring in the Humanities. That people like Frank Donoghue have written about The Last Professors. And the idea is that younger scholars, those still in graduate school, are expected to publish, to gain a lot of teaching experience while they are still students and as they are still working on their own coursework, in order to professionalise them so to speak, in order to obtain that tenure track job. And as Matt was talking about, that’s not always the case. You can sort-of fulfil all of these requirements and still not obtain a secure full-time position in academia – as the examples that he mentioned, Kate Daley Bailey and Kelly J Baker. And so I wanted to draw attention to this because this is one of the things that we’re all told. That if we do all of these extra things we can attain that position. And looking at the job numbers from the reports released by the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, the number of tenure track jobs have actually been decreasing. And that just is further evidence, I think, of those positions not being available.

TE: Yes, and the amount of grad students doubling in the process, which is those two colliding: the faculty tenure track positions decreasing and then the PhD applicants doubling and tripling. That creates a quandary. Yeah, definite strategies are needed and it’s so tricky once you get out in the workplace and you’re actually then responsible for even recruiting new MA students, like I am now in my current position. And you kind-of feel this burden. The department is asking you for more students and to promote the department, because they want the revenue from the students. But at the same time you know, like – what’s the end here? It’s just more PhD students on the job market. Now in my response to Russell’s “Theses on Professionalization”, I address the gap between what we study as grad students and what we’re expected to teach once we are working in the field (25:00). And I would like to extend that topic to both of you, Matt and Tara, for consideration. Since both of you are now teaching at the moment, I wonder if you’d be able to offer some reflection on the gap you have experienced between your, say, early dissertation and research topics and the actual content that you have been expected to teach. Have you found any conflict between these areas? And if so, how have you dealt with that? Maybe we could start with Matt?

MS: Well, for me I would say it’s very much a mixed bag. My training is in critical social theory, broadly speaking. I look at religion in the public sphere, focussed on the Frankfurt School and Habermas in particular. Its theories of post-secularism offer what I consider a very strong critique of that position. I have, for example, had to teach fairly generic on-the-books courses like ethics and world religions, among other classes, which – with only one exception, in the case of an online course – required me to follow a standard introductory text book. I’ve been very fortunate, apart from that, to have the opportunity to basically reimagine or redesign those courses when teaching them in person, in any way that I see fit. That’s been, I guess, gratuitous in my case, in my recent position in my second year as a visiting professor in a North American Studies department at the University of Bonn. It might be worth mentioning something briefly about that particular transaction. But getting hired on as a visiting professor there, again, now in my second year I have an opportunity to do a third year next year. I was given a complete autonomy to design whatever courses that I wanted. So I don’t have any a particular complaints in that regard. When I have continued to teach some of these course on-line, that’s when the constraints come in. I on one occasion had to teach text books that reflected the world religions paradigm. And on a personal level it might have some utility in getting you to constantly re-engage those ideas from my own work, moving forward. But pedagogically, it’s very limiting. So I have some issues with that. And the other broader point that I just wanted to mention was that in my current position in a department of North American Studies, I hadn’t really anticipated making that kind-of shift from Religious Studies. A friend sent me an application to this visiting professorship opportunity at the University of Bonn. And I gave it a casual glance and thought to myself, “Well, I’m a scholar of religion, a scholar of critical social theory, cultural studies, and these sort of things. I’m not really sure if that fits.” And my friend replied back, “Well, why not? You focus on North America, for the most part.” West, more generally. And I said, “OK, yeah. That’s a good point,” I sent in an application. And they were thrilled to get someone who focusses on North America and comes at it from the study of religion. So maybe to make a slight shift away from the doom and gloom and the negative stories often associated with these current academic market, for me at least, in this instance, I was able to transfer my skills to a slightly different department. And I came to realise very quickly that their own particular data set in this department of North American Studies may not be “religion” quote-unquote, but we share very similar theoretical backgrounds. So there are, certainly in my experience, and I know in the experience of others, opportunities like that to continue to professionalise, to get a post-doc, to get a visiting professorship and hopefully use that as a springboard to move forward. So I just wanted to put a shiny spin on that, in mentioning my experience.

TE: Shiny spins are always welcome! Tara, what is the gap that you have experienced between your dissertation and research topic, and your teaching experience?

TB-M: I am in the Religions of Western Antiquity track in my department and I have been trained as a historian of early Christianity, translating Greek and Latin and focussing mainly on second to sixth century CE. But there aren’t many courses, besides the intro to the New Testament course, that specifically focus on related issues. And so I’ve been teaching courses that my department needs me to teach. Some of those courses include introduction to world religions, a multicultural film course and gender in religion (30:00). And so I have attempted to make that teaching work for me, in a sense. So some of my earlier work has been on the world religions paradigm, presenting papers for example at NASR meetings about that along with Mike Graziano and Brad Stoddard. And also thinking about how I might teach other courses in similar manners – such as gender and religion which is what I’m doing right now. And so I can’t just focus on those areas that I have been trained in. I have to broaden my own research interest in order to teach my students about something other than the ancient world. So there is a gap there, but I think that I’ve made it work for me by pairing some of my research interests with other topics that I’m either nominally interested in, or that I think my students will be interested in.

TE: Great. Well, thank you very much Russell, and Matt, and Tara for joining us today. It was a great conversation.


Citation Info: McCutcheon, Russell T., Matt Sheedy, Tara Baldrick- Morrone and Tenzan Eaghll. 2019. “Demystifying the Study of Religion”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 29 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 23 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/demystifying-the-study-of-religion/

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.

Nonreligion, Religion, and Public Health

The link between religion/spirituality (RS) and health is a recurring theme in the empirical literature within the psychology and sociology of religion, medical studies, and other disciplines. Although this research is usually limited to correlational studies, RS is often interpreted to be an important causal factor in positive health outcomes. This has led some academics, NGO’s, and governments to argue that the putative health benefits of RS might be harnessed for public health and public policy more broadly. For example, the United States Army has recently launched a “spiritual health” program, and in the United Kingdom there is an ongoing debate about whether mindfulness meditation should be taught in schools. Government initiatives aside, what if the nonreligious are equally as healthy? In this podcast, Thomas J. Coleman III interviews Dr. David Speed on how research using nonreligious and nonbelieving samples problematizes some of the underlying assumptions of the relationship between RS and public health.

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 original Buns of Steel VHS tape, G.I. Joes, and more.


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


Nonreligion, Religion and Public Health

Podcast with David Speed (22 April 2019).

Interviewed by Thomas J. Coleman III.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Speed_-_Nonreligion,_Religion_and_Public_Health_1.1

Thomas Coleman (TC): Thank you for joining us today on the Religious Studies Project. I’m Thomas Coleman. And I have an interesting topic that I don’t believe we’ve broached before, on nonreligion and public health. And I have a special guest with us today to talk about this. But I kind-of wanted to provide the Listeners with a little bit of background first, before we introduce him. So the link between religion and public health is really a recurring theme in the empirical literature within the psychology of religion, public health, medical studies and other disciplines. This research is often limited to correlational studies because the procedures required to test these things experimentally are either unfeasible or raise serious ethical considerations. For example, as psychologists it’s really hard for us to figure out how we could validly manipulate someone’s nonreligious or religious identification, their beliefs or their behaviour, in a laboratory setting. And university ethics committees have a problem with us kind-of assigning people to the cancer condition for an experiment. So we can’t do that! But when many of these aforementioned correlational studies – some of which we’ll talk about in a second – identify a relationship between religion and improved health, religion is often interpreted to be an important causal factor. And in today’s podcast I’m pleased to have with us Dr David Speed who is an Assistant Professor at the University of New Brunswick. And his own research has applied a critical perspective to the religion and health literature, specifically focusing on how the nonreligious have comparable health to the religious. David, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

David Speed (DS): Hi Tommy. Thanks for having me.

TC: Excellent, excellent. So I was hoping we could have a little discussion along the lines of religion, nonreligion – kind-of the intersection on public health more generally – but also from the perspective of just psychological and individual’s health.

DS: Sure.

TC: And I know – just pointing out some further relevance for the Listeners here – in the US I think the Department of Defence has a multimillion dollar initiative looking at “spiritual fitness training“ and in screening of troops. And I can see David grimacing right now! But you know, this underscores an important fact that many governments and public health researchers are not simply interested in understanding or studying the relationships between religion and health, but actually using the purported benefits of religion and spirituality to shape public policy. And then, a last example here, I’m reminded, because I’ve been living in the UK off and on for the past two years, of how the United Kingdom has recently funded mindfulness meditation interventions I think in over two hundred county wide schools. So I’m excited to get down to a critical discussion about the nature of religion and health with you David and see where it goes.

DS: That sounds wonderful.

TC: So where does some of your own research fit in at the nexus between religion and nonreligion, and personal health and health in general?

DS: So I guess I can start with my dissertation. I started my PhD in 2011 and I graduated in 2015. And when I got accepted into my PhD programme I was told by my adviser I had to pick a health-related topic. And like many grad students I didn’t really know initially what to study. I knew I wanted a PhD but wasn’t sure what I wanted to study. And essentially, I got to the point where I was considering, well, if I could study anything, what would I want to study? And I had a pre-existing interest in atheism and in religion and so I was like, “I wonder how those things relate to health?” And so you go to the literature, as one does. And I immediately found literally hundreds of thousands of citations or references to various religions. So I thought “Well, ok. Obviously someone’s been very busy!” Because this was my first real exposure to it. And then I was like, “OK, well I’m curious how atheism fits into this.” And I found, I think, fewer than maybe a dozen papers, two dozen papers addressing atheism and health. So right away I knew that there, obviously, just on the numbers scale, atheism and health was under-studied (5:00). So I was curious about how atheism fits within the religion and health paradigm. And I started going through the literature. And over and over again you see this recurring set of findings that you’ve alluded to in your intro, that “Religion equals better health; religion equals better health.” So, going to church is good, being religious is good, prayer is good, meditation is good, spirituality is good, religious affiliation is good, belief in God is good, yadayadayada!

TC: So, could you give us a few examples there, though? Because I was very general about that – where these relationships appear.

DS: Sure, so if you’re looking at, say, church-based studies, you’ll find that religious congregants who attend church more frequently are more likely to report, say, lower levels of depression. They might report better perceived well-being. If you’re looking at national studies you might find that people with higher levels of church attendance report better happiness. It varies from country to country. There’s a cultural effect that happens. But a lot of the positive literature really centres around the US where religion tends to be more dominant. There’s a smaller proportion for Canada, and the UK, and other areas. But generally, a lot of these studies just kind-of recurrently suggest that if you go to church, or if you’re religious, you might be more likely to go for screening behaviours for cancers; if you’re religious you might be more likely to feel empowered; if you are religious, or if you believe in God, you are more likely to be comfortable in a situation where you have to face your own mortality. Something like that.

TC: And so you’re kind-of reviewing the literature, here, as you’re doing your doctoral studies. And you uncover this stuff, and what happens? What has happened since then? What did that prompt you to test, do, or dig in deeper?

DS: So as I’m going through the literature, there’s a few things that I start noticing kind-of simultaneously. And what it was is, you know, you read a few papers and you say, “Ok. People are saying that going to church is good. Ok that’s fine. Whatever. They’re generalising by accident.” But whatever. So you go through a few more and then you’re like “Wait a minute. Wait a minute.” So a lot of the studies – not all the studies, but a good chunk of the studies – they recruit from exclusively religious samples. So they’ll go to different church locations, they’ll ask congregants who are there, “How often do you go to church?”, “How happy are you?” and they’ll form a correlational relationship between these two ideas. And correlational research is not that. It’s difficult to make a causal argument with correlational data, but you can point to associations that are recurring. But if you are using an exclusively religious population in order to test something, you can’t generalise the benefits of whatever they’re doing to everyone, because not everyone’s part of that exclusive religious population. So if you sample like five Methodist churches in the Midwest, you can’t then say, “Well, everyone should go to church because of this sample.” You have to say, “Well, people who go to Methodist churches more frequently, congregants have better wellbeing.” That’s a fair conclusion. Now often the literature would say this in kind-of a round-about way. But they would often talk more broadly about the benefits of going to church, or the benefits of being religious, or prayer, or whatever. The other issue too is a lot of the research that is like large-scale is looking at outcomes that are intrinsically related to going to church frequently. So the classic one on this is slighting on the dependent variable. And self-rated health is one of the big benefits of being religious, or of scoring higher on measures of religion and spirituality or RS. So what researchers will do is go into say a religious organisation and they’ll say, “How often do you go to church?”, “How healthy do you think you are?” Or “Do you have any health issues?” They find that people who go to church more frequently report better perceived health and fewer health issues. Well, yes! Obviously! Because people who are really ill or people who have recurring health issues can’t get out and go to church frequently. That’s not shocking. It’s kind-of pointing out that, I don’t know, people who are going through some sort of medical treatment are somehow less healthy than people who don’t have to do that. Obviously they’re going through medical treatment because of the way they are, not because of some factor that’s driving the magic of that medical treatment! So this is a separate issue altogether is that if you’re slighting on the dependent variable, what essentially you’re going to do is that you’re limiting people who maybe on the lower end of that health, who would love to go to church more frequently but can’t (10:00). And the other issue with it – sorry I’m just rattling off a list of issues because this is my life!

TC: No. Perfect.

DS: Another one of the issues is that there was often a conflation of low religiosity with secularism. So it’s the idea that if you get really low levels of religiosity, so like: “I’m not religious, I don’t go to church, I don’t really pray”, the implicit conclusion or sometimes explicit conclusion of the researchers who do that kind of research would say, “Oh. These people embody secularism.” That is not an equivalent statement. The issue with that is, secularism is adhering to or taking specific positions on other topics, right? It’s not merely being apathetic towards religion, it’s endorsing other specific values that are more secular in nature. So there’s this conflation of low religiosity with secularism. So researchers will report, “You know religion’s healthier than secularism.” But they’re not assessing secularism the vast majority of the time. They’re just equating high secularism with low religiosity.

TC: And then we might say, more specifically, just secular nonreligious people per se. Because we’re used to, on the Religious Studies Project of course, taking a very critical approach to these terms. That’s something we don’t usually do in Psych of Religion although we should more. So just kind-of giving that to our Listeners as a blanket term here, you know, confusing people who probably self-identify as secular nonreligious with actually people who would identify as religious.

DS: Yes, absolutely. The biggest issue, though, for the research is that the mechanism driving the relationship between religion and health isn’t always clear. The big one that has the most support, I would argue is social support.

TC: Yes, I was going to say, what do mean by mechanism, here, in terms of driving? How does that work?

DS: Sure. So if you say that Advil is related to pain reduction, right? Advil is doing something – or Ibuprofen if we want to be non-brand specific – Ibuprofen is acting on your body in some biological way in order to produce the desired outcome. If the argument is that religion is connected with health, well, how is it connected with health? We can point at an association of high religion, high health, but why is that? What is the driving mechanism under-pinning that relationship? And arguably the strongest contender for that, from what I can see, is social support. And social support is associated with health. Social support is the perceived availability of resources around you from people. So I’m crying and I call my friend, will he or she console me? If I need money for rent until next week, will my friend have my back? If I really want to share about my day, will my wife humour me and listen to me talk about research for the 35th time that week? So that’s social support. So the more available social support a person has, and the higher degree of availability, the healthier they are. And this isn’t shocking. Like, having friends around you and having family and peers who you can rely on, that’s associated with good health. Religion’s associated with good health, this is true. But social support is also associated with religion. So people who are religious tend to report higher levels of social support. And to me this makes a lot of sense. Like, it would be astounding if you went to church on a weekly basis, or mosque on a weekly basis, or synagogue on a weekly basis and there was no social benefit to you. It would be astounding if that were the case. So the problem is . . . because the three of these things are inter-related, when you’re talking about social support. When we talk about religion benefitting health, a question that’s really important for researchers is “Why?” And if it’s social support, it gets more dicey about how we’re interpreting this then. Social support is a general benefit of social activities. It’s not a specific benefit of religion and spirituality.

TC: I was just going to get to asking that. Aren’t there some arguments that, maybe, religion is not the only source but, people might argue, a very good source of creating these social connections? How does that kind-of bode here? No – it’s not religion per se, but it is a really being driver of social connectedness?

DS: Sure. And I think that’s a very reasonable position to take. About half of my family I would describe as quite religious. They tend to go to church frequently. They tend to really enjoy church. But often they’re talking about. “So this happened in church . . .” or “So and so said this . . .” “I really like engaging with this person.” And it would be. . . . I think it’s a fantastic way of socialising with like-minded people. I think that’s wonderful (15:00). The problem is, is that the way this is presented within findings, and the way you often see justification for religious-oriented policy, say, like from government or from specific initiatives looking at improving spirituality in the fine young men and women of the United States is that you might see this as saying, “Oh well, religion is doing this.” It’s not social support via religion. It’s just religion. So last year I wrote a paper about this where I was discussing that it’s very frustrating talking about the benefits of religion when social support seems to be playing a major role in this. So, if you don’t mind I was going take an excerpt from that paper to help illustrate.

TC: Absolutely.

DS: I said, for example, “It is not difficult to imagine that persons who are active in chess clubs will have access to social support from their fellow members. Furthermore it is not unreasonable to imagine that more active members of chess clubs report better access to social support than less active members. However, if it were found that attendance at chess clubs was positively related to mammography it would be unusual for a researcher to frame these findings as ‘Chess enthusiasm promotes breast X-rays’. Instead, it would be likely argued that social support, which is accessible from any number of institutions including chess clubs, was responsible for increased screening behaviour. However in much of the existing religion and health literature a general benefit of social support, better screening in this case, appears to be presented as a specific benefit of religious activities.” And this is what I find very frustrating as a researcher: it would be shocking if going to church every week didn’t do something. But the important thing there is the social activity for it and not necessarily the religious angle for it. In fact there’s several studies where, when they’re controlling for social support – bringing in the relationship between religion and health, that relationship – the religion and health relationship goes to nothing. Because they’re controlling for social support. This doesn’t happen all the time. But it happens in several studies. And this is an important thing to consider. And finally I have one more point on this. I have one more quote on things that I find frustrating about the literature. It’s that even when researchers, when they work with looking at exclusively religious samples, they were . . . these are general samples, right? What they would do is they would describe everybody’s relationship between religion and health with a single type of consideration. So everyone got the same description of that relationship. So there was no real strong interest in looking at whether or not the relationship between religion and health was affected by other factors. Now researchers have tested moderation before. They find that, say, less-educated people tend to find a stronger benefit from religion and health.

TC: So we’re talking here about moderating factors being like level of education; maybe it only holds for lower or higher; or income, for example; or men versus women? Those kind of things. So I guess adding nuance to this “Religion is good for you!”

DS: The core thing, the frustrating thing is that when you’re looking at general samples you’re sampling people who are not religious, you’re sampling people who are not spiritual, you’re sampling people who are atheist, right? And there’s no reason to suspect that these people would value religion and spirituality to the same extent as someone who believes in God or is religious or spiritual. There should be no default assumption that these groups are equivalent to begin with. If you’re looking at say, sex-based differences like men versus women or males versus females you could say, “Well there’s no reason to suspect that one of these people would have a radically different relationship with religion.” They do not . . . their identity, or their moderating factor there, isn’t a religiously-slighted variable. If you’re looking at people who are atheist, though, that is something related to the very idea of religion and spirituality. If you’re looking at nonreligion that’s something that’s very much related to the idea, intrinsically, to religion and spirituality. But what had happened is that these previous studies they all treated everyone in the entire sample as having more or less the same expressed relationship between religion and health so they looked at sex as a moderating factor, age as a moderating factor, or education. But there was generally never any interest in looking at people who are not religious, whether or not they reported an equivalent relationship. So what the focus of my doctorate was on was looking at the idea of health outcomes and religious and spiritual beliefs and behaviours, but looking at whether or not people who were atheists, or nonreligious or not spiritual, whether or not they recorded a different linear relationship between those activities or beliefs and outcomes. And it turns out quite often they did. And quite often they reported a lower health score when they reported higher levels of religion and spirituality. So if you go to church, that’s fine (20:00). But you would, in this case, you would have to be religious really to see that same relationship. If you’re not religious and you’re attending church all the time, this has different health implications. So, problematically, if you’re saying that there is a monolithic relationship between religion and health you’re losing a lot of nuance there. Because religion and spirituality have benefits, but you have to have a religious and spiritual identity, which is conducive to you benefitting from those activities. So I jokingly say, “Well, my doctoral work, I got a PhD for saying ‘religion is healthy, but you’ve got to be religious to get that benefit.’” So it’s a kind of simplification, but no one had looked at that previously.

TC: And to add to this, I think that these are really important nuances particularly, again, in the domain of public policy and public health. For example, I’m thankful to have been a part of . . . they have different workshops put on by different places that have like week-long courses for private health care providers, government officials and so on, specifically informing them about the research on the relationship between religion, spirituality and health. And the takeaway from these . . . . They’re conducted very well, but there’s also, at the same time, a certain level of nuance that is just missing. And the takeaway message I hear when I’m in some of these presentations or venues or even reading books and chapters on religion and public health, is this kind-of assumption that since we now know . . . we’ve identified the . . . circumscribed the positive effects of religion here, well then: “Now that we’ve found the fountain of youth, let’s drink from it!”

DS: (Laughs)

TC: There’s almost this. . . . It’s not direct, and I’ve been very impressed in some of the more recent literature that has been taking into to consideration nonreligious concerns or saying, “We don’t know here . . .” but typically, it seems like there’s a blanket message that religion is good for a host of things, and we should use this; the government can grab a hold of this. And you’re saying that: “Kind-of . . . possibly . . . but . . !”

DS: Yes. Shockingly, there’s more nuance to this than “religion equals good health”. Because one of the things that really sticks out from the religion and health literature is when you look at people who are atheists, right? Atheists generally – we were discussing this prior to the show beginning. Atheists generally aren’t religious. They generally don’t go to church. They generally don’t score highly on religiosity measures. Atheists have really comparable health to believers. So if you . . . just logically, if you expect that high religiosity equals better health, then low religiosity should equal worse health. Atheists should be fairly unhealthy on average, just on that sort-of simplistic, somewhat reductionist perspective. But it’s not. It’s somewhat paradoxical. My colleague and I, Karen Hwang, we published paper called “The Healthy Heretic Paradox“, in which we looked at atheists who on the measures of health, using nationally representative data from America, we find that on average they tended to report comparable health to theists who were strong believers, despite the fact that they didn’t believe in God at all. So this showed there’s something of a fly in the ointment. Because if religion just uniformly benefits health, well people who are really not religious, like atheists, or they’re not – we’ll say atheists as the more extreme example – you wouldn’t really expect them to be healthy. But they are. Meaning that the description . . . it looks, at the very face value of it, that there’s something very wrong with how that relationship is being summarised.

TC: And I think there’s something fishy with the way that the relationship is interpreted both at the academic level and certainly bubbles up to policy and other things. What other studies have you conducted that speak to this, say, lack of nuance that was previously in the literature for this. And also I guess it would be strange to see . . . I can only think what the President of the US or different administrations what kind of flack they would take if they decided to prescribe kind-of atheism! Because it seems that people who did not believe in God more strongly had comparable health to the religious (25:00). So I was just kind-of interested in what other research and work you’ve conducted that can speak to this interesting . . . I don’t know if you want to call it a hydraulic relationship, maybe?

DS: Yes. Geez! I don’t know about the political thing, I’m not sure I feel comfortable answering whether or not the government should prescribe religious or atheistic beliefs. I certainly wouldn’t feel comfortable with the government doing that. Regardless of whether or not they prescribed atheism or theism. As to the research, so what I generally do . . . my research uses pre-existing datasets from Statistics Canada, from the General Social Survey out of the University of Chicago. I think it’s the National Opinion and Research Council. I think they do those studies. Anyway, so it’s data that’s publicly available to any researcher who is interested in doing it and has the competence and statistics to do assessment. But I published a little more than half a dozen studies on the topic between religion and health. In each case I’m looking at: OK, well let’s look at how this actually relates, and let’s try and distinguish between people who believe versus not believe, in terms of these outcomes. In virtually all cases I found, it’s that often when there’s a really strong positive relationship between religion and health say for believers, you would find a moderating effect for whether or not someone was an atheist. I published a study with the Journal of Religion and Health in 2016 or 17, I can’t remember now. But it was looking at data from Ontario which is the largest province, population-wise, in Canada. And I found that people who go to church they tend to report better health but . . I think it was satisfaction in life, maybe. But if you’re looking at the nonreligious people recording the same level of attendance then what you see is a very different relationship. It actually reports a negative relationship. Now this isn’t to mean that going to church is bad. It’s just you need more nuance when you’re discussing these things, especially at a public policy level. Because it’s not this panacea that fixes everything.

TC: So it seems like there’s a heavy interpretation factor here, where on one end, you know, the general trend might be to say, “Oh, look at the positive effects of – to use the recurring example – church attendance, here.” But then we would not want to conclude for example that less-religious or nonreligious people should avoid church like the plagues, because it apparently, you know has a harmful impact on their health. What we’re talking about here is not necessarily I guess a causal relationship.

DS: No, no. I think if you made like a group of nonbelievers go to church … Besides the ethical issues with that, I don’t think . . . I wouldn’t immediately suspect that all of them would be miserable and report increases in depression, or whatever. But the problem is that when you’re looking at how the academic findings are used and discussed in the broader social lens, how they’re used to inform public policy, or the potential they have to influence policy, there’s discussion about including… you know, default assuming that you should discuss religion and spirituality in clinical therapy. So there’s a real-world consequence to this type of finding. And the problem is that if you’re looking at these relationships and you’re potentially treating it as “more religion better health”, you’re losing a lot of the nuance; you’re losing sight of the personal idea that perhaps some people aren’t religious because they really are opposed to religion. And forcing them to address those topics or discuss those topics may not be a super-positive thing for those groups of people.

TC: I was going to say, I also think it points, to some degree, to our problems with interpreting the positive findings on religion and health then. Because we don’t . . . I guess that was the comparison I was trying to get at then. We wouldn’t kind-of say that church attendance hurts less-religious people in the same way we say, “Look, people . . “ we’re willing to make that inference that people who attend more do better. We wouldn’t make it one case, but we do in the other. But they’re kind-of conceptually similar . . . is what I hear you saying?

DS: Yes. Yes. So like so if you’re looking at . . . this hearkens back to some of what I do with my doctoral work (30:00). But what happens when you look at say irreligious groups, when they report really low levels of attendance or religiosity – really, really low levels of that – if you compared their average health levels to religious groups who report very high levels of religiosity or attendance, those two relationships, they’re about at the same place. And in cases where they are, say, statistically different, so at p value less than .05, the associated effect size of that – so the actual magnitude of difference between the groups – is really, really small. And often it’s trivially small. So the convention for Cohen’s d , which is a measure of effect size (not to get too far into those academic things at this point!) But anything less than a Cohen’s d of 0.2 is usually seen as trivial. It’s not really something to talk about. And if you’re talking about a social activity or the sociocultural perspectives influencing some sort of health outcome and you’re saying it’s happening at a level of a Cohen’s d of less than 0.2, you’re talking about something that you probably can’t really observe in everyday life. And the underlying mechanism isn’t clear because we’re not sure if it’s social support driving the majority of this relationship or not or if it’s another factor. It’s really hard to talk about that and convey a strong sense of meaning to those findings. I mean it’s statistically significant but that doesn’t mean of clinical relevance or of clinical importance.

TC: I think though, one of the examples I usually use when I’m teaching students or talking about significance in general is, you know, the difference between let’s say a football player who weighs 200 pounds versus one who weighs 200.1lbs. One is significantly heavier than the other, but it would be very odd to kind-of say, “Well the other guy weighs . . . he weighs significantly more than I do. I’m going to have to rethink the game here.” You know. No!

DS: Especially with large population samples. Any difference will become statistically significant with enough people sampled. And the reason is because error term gets progressively smaller with the more people you talk to. So if you have, say, one group has an IQ of 100, another one has an IQ of 110.1. If you sample millions of people and you’re able to find that one mean is 100, the other mean is 100.1, because you’ve sampled so many people, what’s going to end up happening is that it will come out as statistically significant but the associated effect is so tiny, like, why even bother talking about it? And religion health research isn’t quite there – there are cases where it’s really beneficial if you’re talking about optimism and outlook after, say, surgery or something. You’ll see higher levels of optimism or you’re feeling cared for because you’re protected by God. You might see some specific benefits in very specific cases, but in terms of, like, at public policy level, or on a national health level, the differences are often quite small. Not always, but often.

TC: Kind-of wrapping this up, and bringing this towards the end, here . . . I’m interested in talking a little bit about how religion and spirituality are conceptualised here. Now I know, and I don’t want to beat a dead horse, per se . . . because one of the things I think the RSP prides itself on doing is deconstructing and exposing underlying structure and assumptions of precisely these kind of terms. But it’s something I think . . . well, public health professionals do not have extensive discussions about discursive practices, or what we would really mean when we use this word, or all the different things we’re lumping together! It’s the same with psychologists as well. It’s generally left to Religious Studies scholars and Humanities. So if you could, in closing here, kind-of bring us into perspective and how some of these studies conceptualise religion and spirituality and particularly from the vantage point of the nonreligious, right? Is it one of those things where everyone’s religious, you just have to find the right . . .?

DS: Personally, I’m not sure if there’s an academic consensus on this specifically. I’ve usually . . . concepts regarding religion tend to be better defined (35:00). So if you’re looking at say church attendance.

TC: Better defined than . . . ?

DS: Better than spirituality. So if you’re looking at assessments of attendance: “How often do you go to church?” – you can get a fairly objective assessment of that; “How often do you pray?” – you can get a fairly objective assessment of that. It’s self-reporting. You’re relying on people to provide you with data but that’s ok. But you can get a fairly objective standpoint. When you talk about religiosity you get into, what exactly does religiosity mean? There’s different conceptualisations of religiosity. One that people might be familiar with is intrinsic versus extrinsic. Intrinsic is, in a nutshell, religiosity because you see intrinsic values: with this religiosity you get something out of it, you see it’s rewarding or fulfilling in itself. Whereas extrinsic religiosity is kind-of treating religion as a means to an end. So it’s a tool in order to achieve a greater . . . So there’s kind-of some fuzziness around religiosity. But if you ask people how important they find religion is to them, or how religious do they see themselves you can tend to get a more or less consistent set of ways of assessing those specific behaviours or beliefs.

TC: I often also think that this gets us into kind-of “good religion” and “bad religion”. Particularly from a health perspective: there are consistently some negative social effects kind-of associated with varieties of fundamentalism. And it seems here that the same health professionals and researchers are keen to say, “Well, when we talk about religion we’re not meaning that kind – not the stuff that we think is bad for public health, or social cohesion.” Well, it depends on what we man by social cohesion, here. But I often notice that this gets into a good religion, versus bad. And so then that makes me think, “Well, aren’t you really just interested in things that are improving health or psychological wellbeing in general, instead of something religious per se?”

DS: Yes, and you can kind-of see this. This is more apparent within the spirituality literature, in my opinion. So if you’re looking at, say, just like pure religion it’s like, what do you believe? How often do you go to church? Are you religiously affiliated? You get fairly straightforward measures. People know what you’re talking about. People may disagree about whether or not this person’s a true member of this religious organisation, or whether or not they’re a member of that religious organisation. But there tends to be at least consensus on the idea of how you get to those questions. The spirituality literature, I find, is really vague about what that term means. And the way spirituality is assessed, it may not necessarily be intuitive for the laity. It’s just . . . it’s very, very broad in how it’s defined. So I wrote a paper for Skeptic a couple of years ago, where I point out some of the different definitions of spirituality. And one of them defines spirituality as “an inherent component of being human and is subjective, intangible and multi-dimensional”. That literally means anything you want it to mean! So, it doesn’t really matter if you and I are talking about spirituality. If you say “My aunt’s not religious but she’s spiritual,” I’m not sure exactly what you mean, but I understand what you’re trying to convey to me. But if researchers are talking about assessing spirituality they can’t just . . . “Oh yes, I totally know what you mean.” They actually have to quantify and describe and validate measures of spirituality. So when you see these validated measures or these assessments, you see a lot of questions in there that you may not – or at least I wouldn’t, and the people I’m talking to wouldn’t – see these as intrinsically spiritual. So there are questions like: “I accept others even when they do things that I think are wrong”, “I have a general sense of belonging”, “When I wrong someone I make an effort to apologise”. Those things are included as indicators of spirituality. And to me this is problematic on two different levels. One: this is, in a sense, gaming the system. You’ve chosen . . . or items are being chosen not because I see an obvious connection with spirituality. They might go together, there might be a reason for including these, that’s fine. These have been validated, I have no issue with that. I’m positive these researchers have done their due diligence and this is what has come out. But if you’re talking about spirituality with someone, you wouldn’t say like “Oh yes. When I wrong someone I apologise. That’s a spiritual thing.” Like, that’s a really select definition of spirituality (40:00). So if you’re finding that how well people are engaging socially is an intrinsic component of spirituality and you find that spirituality is related to health – well, yes. Social support and being able to interact, socially, well with other people is related to support. So it just is like a parallel . . . if you said that “I don’t smoke because it’s bad for me” and that’s a spiritual assessment and you find that people who score more highly on spirituality get less cancer, well, yeah! You’ve adjusted the framework of spirituality such that it includes not smoking. Well, of course that’s related to cancer rates, because that’s how that works! So the thing I find frustrating about the spirituality literature – and it’s a really interesting literature, people do genuinely good work in it – but it’s just the variability in what spirituality can mean. And the idea that you feel empowered, or you feel like you have purpose in life – that’s spirituality. I’ve never thought of those things as being spiritual before, like, prior to reading this literature. I’ve always just described that as, “Oh yes, I feel as if . . .I feel autonomy. I feel a sense of mastery.” So, when you’re connecting those measures of spirituality, or that definition of spirituality with health, I’m not shocked that that’s related to better health. But we already knew that from other fields. So my question is kind-of: if spirituality is doing something, what is the unique thing that spirituality is doing? How are you defining that? Is that a good . . . is that a reasonable definition that people would say, “Oh yeah, that’s definitely spirituality”? Or is this a hodge-podge of different areas that we’re just kind-of lumping together and saying it’s spirituality and saying, “Oh look, it’s ‘Spirituality – better health!’”

TC: Excellent. I was wondering if you had any kind-of summing up or parting phrase, or words, or thoughts for us on the relationship between religion, nonreligion and health?

DS: (Laughs).

TC: Something to send our Listeners away with? Something even more profound than what you’ve already said?

DS: I don’t know if I can go more profound! But religion is related to health. Like, correlationally we can establish that religion is related to health. If you’re religious and if you go to church, chances are you’re probably getting a benefit from it. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what the underlying mechanism is. If it’s the social support angle, if it’s because you have a better sense of coherency, is it because this really makes you feel like spiritually charged as a person? If you’re getting a benefit out of it, continue. Please continue doing it. Don’t be discouraged from not doing it. If you’re not religious and you are hearing all these things about, “Oh. Going to church is associated with better health,” the more elemental question you have to consider is, will this be good for you specifically? If most people are religious and most people benefit from going to church, fine! But that doesn’t incorporate everyone. So there has to be more nuance in the field. Religion is a wonderfully diverse, very complex socio-cultural construct. And chances are that its relationship with health is more complicated than a single edict of “Do more, be healthy!”

TC: Excellent. Dr David Speed, thank you for joining us on the Religious Studies Project.

DS: Thanks a lot for having me.


Citation Info: Speed, David and Thomas Coleman. 2019. “Nonreligion, Religion and Public Health”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 22 April 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 12 April 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/nonreligion-religion-and-public-health/

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.

Christian Beauty Pageants: Beauty is in the eye of the creator

By comparing the Miss Christian America pageant to other more well known pageants Miss USA and Miss America, Chelsea Belanger’s study provides a look at the intersections between religion, gender, and collective identity. Using Christian Smith’s ideas of subcultural identity, Belanger examines how the structure of the Miss Christian pageant helps develop a unique form of embodied religion.

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


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


Christian Beauty Pageants: Beauty is in the Eye of the Creator

Podcast with Chelsea Belanger (4 March 2019).

Interviewed by Kristeen Black.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Belanger_-_Christian_Beauty_Pageants_1.1

Kristeen Black (KB): We’re all aware of the Miss Universe Pageant, Miss USA Pageant, Miss America pageant. There’s various systems of beauty pageant but each are uniquely identifiable, different in some way. And my guest today is going to talk to us about Miss Christian America. Please welcome Chelsea Belanger.

Chelsea Belanger (CB): Hello.

KB: Would you like to introduce yourself? Tell me a little bit about your research background and what brought you to this topic.

CB: Sure. So my name is Chelsea Belinger. I’m a second year doctoral student at the University of Central Florida. I got my Bachelors and my Masters at the University of Texas at San Antonio. And my master’s thesis encompassed race, religion, gender and behavioural health. It was a qualitative study examining the relationship between religiosity and sexual health among devout African American college women. And so . . .

KB: Fascinating.

CB: It was fascinating research, which I take a lot of pride in. It was a lot of fun but what was really interesting is the creative way in which these women used their religious beliefs to navigate through their sexual decision making. One of the main kind-of key points that emerged from this research, with respect to autonomy over our bodies, is that while these women that I interviewed were devout Christians, they expressed that they have supportive views of women deciding what is best for their body – especially with respect to abortion. So while they supported abortion they expressed or articulated that they themselves would never have an abortion, because of their religious beliefs.

KB: I see. So that’s the way that they negotiated that space.

CB: Absolutely. That space in terms of their religion, their views, their practices, but also being a woman. Being an African American woman and having those rights. It was fascinating. It was just a fascinating study.

KB: And do you see that same kind of synchronicity coming about with the beauty pageants? That there’s this national sense of beauty or gender as well as individual . . . but then again, collective, on a religious basis?

CB: Right. So what we’ve seen with respect to beauty pageants is that there’s a lot of religion being done. Unfortunately there’s scant research on Christian beauty pageants. But beauty pageants overall, now I will say there’s lot of research on the Miss America pageant. But what’s interesting here is that there’s a multitude of different pageant systems, such as Miss USA and Miss Christian America, where this research has encompassed . . .

KB: And to be honest, I didn’t realise there was a Miss Christian America pageant.

CB: Me neither, before this research!

KB: Who knew?!

CB: Indeed. But that’s what makes it so fascinating. It’s that there are different pageant systems that can really accommodate to anybody’s needs, so to speak. So I think that’s what . . . there’s a major misconception in American Society that there is just Miss America pageant. And that’s not the case.

KB: OK. So which came first for you in your research question: the theory that you were looking at of, for instance, Christian Smith and maybe even Judith Butler; or this kind-of noticing the different types of pageants going on, and the religiosity associated with that?

CB: Well certainly this research is going to encompass a lot of what I’m doing for my dissertation. So, being a frequent viewer of beauty pageants, American beauty pageants, I was really inspired to focus on this area. Because there’s such limited research on beauty pageants and not just Miss America. So I really wanted to focus on . . . . Ok – what is it about beauty pageants and gender that I want to focus on? And religion is something that I love studying. So I really wanted to look at how religion was being used in these beauty pageants. So that was the foundation of the study. And then looking at what theoretical frameworks are most appropriate for the study. And that’s where I came across the cultural identity theory. Now I will say I had a lot of help with Dr John Borkowksi who helped me along this, who was also my thesis advisor.

KB: A great shout out! So tell me little bit more about that theory and how that helps.

CB: So I’m working on Christian Smith’s cultural identity theory, where religious subcultures balance the demand of cultural distinction and social engagements. So, in other words, looking at this negotiating mainstream values and religious values (5:00). So, with respect to this work, looking at Miss Christian America, it’s a beauty pageant. Women are competing in this pageant, very similar to mainstream secular pageants. But what makes it uniquely different are the structure but also the requirements for this pageant, as well. In terms of the structure, there is no swimsuit portion in the Miss Christian America, but rather a sportswear competition. So that’s kind of deviating from the mainstream. Whereas the mainstream pageant like Miss USA has a swimsuit portion of the competition. And with respect to the pageant requirements, for Miss Christian America we see that contestants in this pageant must be active in ministry. They also have to have reference letters from one pastor and a media ministry leader as well. Which makes them stand out significantly from the mainstream pageant. So we see with respect to the subcultural identity theory how religion is being practised in these pageants that may exhibit mainstream characteristics.

KB: So, for my ear, it sounds like it’s evangelically focussed because women in ministry is not available in every denomination.

CB: Yeah. Right. Right. And that’s what’s interesting about this particular pageant, it’s that . . . the way in which I was studying this beauty pageant, it seemed as though as long as the contestants identified as being a Christian – that was also kind of this requirement to represent this particular pageant – whereas the mainstream pageant, Miss USA, there is no religious component whatsoever, where you’re actively driven by your faith or not.

KB: So, one of the things that I found interesting is that I seem to hear this core relationship between fitness – so, having to wear sports attire and then being judged physically fit in that sense, but no pictures – but then also being judged as spiritually fit, being inner beauty. You mentioned something about this inner type of driven-ness, and religiosity. So is that something that you’ve found, this idea of fitness in some way . . .?

CB: Right. So I saw in terms of physical fitness, this particular Miss Christian America really reinforces the characteristics of a “godly woman”. And so with this idea of a sportswear, it’s just really maintaining modesty and you know foregoing any kind of cleavage that you might see in the swimsuit competition. So really reinforcing this inner beauty. What’s really interesting about the Miss Christian America is their mission statement. And it says “no” to swimsuits and vain beauty; “yes” to the word of God, prayer, praise worship and inner . . . it really reinforces that evangelical component.

KB: Ok, Great. Also, you mentioned seeing this type of religiousness, or godly woman being reflected in some way throughout the pageant. Tell me more about that.

CB: Yes. So again, what makes this pageant so unique is kind of the requirement, if you will. So for these contestants application form, contestants for this pageant have to name their church, the numbers of years in which they’ve attended this church, and attend weekly Bible study – so that was like a yes or no response. Also the competition categories that vary vastly with the mainstream pageants are outreach ministry presentations, Biblical question and answer . . .

KB: Oh, interesting!

CB: Which is like the onstage questions that you see in the mainstream. But this, particularly, is a Biblically-based question . . . and, again, the sportswear competition. Also what’s interesting is the title holder responsibilities that are encompassed. And again we see this comparative component where both pageants have responsibilities for their title holders. But what’s interesting about Miss Christian America is the Evangelicalism that she must partake in as a title holder, representing Miss Christian America. And in addition to that, that encompasses missionary work, upholding the morals and standards of Miss Christian America pageant. So again, maintaining or exuding those characteristics of a godly woman (10:00).

KB: So, do you see the part of that being a godly woman encompasses idealised gender roles and things like . . . with the Miss America pageant, you have to be never married, never given birth. Is that the same type of thing reinforced here?

CB: Yes, so we certainly see, in this research, we see a lot of comparisons with mainstream and secular pageants and this particular pageant, Miss Christian America. We see that both pageants, Miss USA and Miss Christian America really promote women’s confidence and self-esteem and the importance of community involvement. In addition to that we see a lot of overlap between the two competitions, such as the pageant interview with the panel of judges, the opening number which is commonly done in the beginning of the pageant: this is when you’re first introduced to the contestants on stage. There’s no talent competition in either one of these pageants. Whereas, in Miss America you see that there’s a talent competition. Now, going back to what you were saying in terms of never married, single, never given birth, those are two requirements of both pageants, Miss USA and Miss Christian America. The contestant has to be single, never married and the contestant also has to be natural born female. In addition to that, she cannot have given birth at any point. So those are really, those are just similar characteristics between the two. In addition to that, community involvement is very much reinforced in both these pageants. Title holders or the winners of these pageants win a crown and sash. And oftentimes you’ll see on their sash the title which they’re representing. So Miss USA, Miss Christian America. And again the title holder responsibilities which, as we talked about before, varies but still maintains those responsibilities.

KB: And you just mentioned a sash, and I had kind of this question . . . . In the Miss America pageant we’re used to seeing like Miss Texas and Miss South Carolina, do they identify in that type of way? Is it like Miss Lutheran? [Laughs].

CB: That is a great question. From what I saw, no. Again, and I can only go on what I’ve seen of the Miss Christian America pageant. I did not see if there were women that identified. . .if they identified as Lutheran, that’s what the sash would say as they competed. I didn’t see that, so I’m going to assume no. I could be corrected. But again, as long as you identify as being Christian and being involved in the Christian faith.

KB: So it’s really more of an umbrella type of identification.

CB: Exactly. That’s how I interpreted it.

KB: OK. And how is race represented in there?

CB: That’s an excellent question. So we’ve seen . . . historically, in an American beauty pageant, we’ve seen this pattern of white women typically competing, but also winning these pageants. What’s unique about this particular pageant is a large presence of African American women competing in Miss Christian America, from what I’ve seen on their website. And so there’s also kind of this difference between the two. Now certainly we’ve seen, over time, recently, the crowning of diverse women and really reinforcing diversity in mainstream beauty pageants. But this particular pageant, I’d say that there’s a larger population of African American women competing and representing in this pageant.

KB: Great. OK. And then, do you think that there is some kind of reflection going on in the pageant of what’s going on in mainstream society, about the rising Evangelicalism? Is that contributing? Do you have any sense of how big the pageant is? Has it been growing lately?

CB: Right. Over all, that’s a really good question that I don’t think I’m prepared to answer just yet.

KB: OK, that’s good!

CB: But my assumption is, is that you know . . . unfortunately, American society may view beauty pageants negatively. And I hope my research reinforces some sort of shift in perception of how we view beauty pageants. So I don’t know in terms of the enrolment or participation of these beauty pageants over time. But certainly, hopefully there’s a shift that shows that beauty queens are not just a pretty face. They’re so much more than that regardless of the beauty pageant that you’re competing in. There’s that community involvement. But also within the pageant it’s this sisterhood that’s being created. These bonds of relationship. But also with respect to religion, how’s religion essentially being done in these pageants (15:00)? And from my own experience, backstage is where you see a lot of these . . . of religion being practised. Whether you’re competing in a secular pageant or a Christian-driven pageant, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see competitors, just before getting on stage, praying with each other – regardless of your faith – but just praying that everything goes well, and praying with each other. Whereas, once you step out on stage, they’re then your competition! But once you step off there’s this sisterhood again. And I think that’s the importance of just participating in a beauty pageant. And yes, there’s the sash and the crown, but also the bond, the friendship, the confidence that can come your way. And competing in these pageants. I hope my work can really explore that.

KB: And that’s great, because I was kind of wondering about this idea of collective versus the individual. And religion is such a collective idea. And how could that be reconciled, or is that, like, just taken into account? Is there a way that that’s negotiated, somehow?

CB: Certainly, so we’ve seen, at least in the Miss America, it’s not uncommon to see title-holders talk about their faith, even though Miss America’s not a religious pageant. We’ve certainly seen over time how contestant representing their states may kind-of talk about their faith and how they practice their faith, so to speak. So certainly, I wouldn’t say it’s completely erased from secular pageants just because they don’t have a religiously-driven component in these pageants. Who is to say these women aren’t driven by their faith?

KB: Right. But it’s just not as apparent?

CB: It’s not as apparent. But certainly, I guess, it’s up to the contestant if they want to talk about their faith. And it certainly had been played in previous years.

KB: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered?

CB: With respect to this research?

KB: Right.

CB: So much. I think I’ve gained an even greater respect for pageants, just exploring a pageant. And I’m so intrigued by how religion is being displayed in the Miss Christian America pageant. Prior to this research I had never heard of the Miss Christian America pageant. But looking into it and seeing what they stand for, and just with the way in which they’re promoting their faith, you know, it’s intriguing. Especially for somebody that studies the sociology of religion. I’m intrigued by that. So and just seeing how they navigate through that negotiation of secular pageants. And what they’re going to take from those secular pageants and how they’re going to incorporate their unique component to facilitate their religion. It’s fascinating.

KB: Yeah. And I can imagine that some denominations might resonate differently. Like if you have a very idealised gender role type of model to follow, that might be a little different experience than one that’s a little more fluid?

CB: Right. Right. Certainly, you know, in beauty pageants, mainstream, what have you, you’re going to have to exhibit these particular gender roles in terms of the makeup and, you know, heels, and hair spray, and what have you. So I certainly see that being practised here. But I think it’s so much more than that. You know, in terms of this sisterhood that’s being created. But also, what’s being done for these contestants? Win or lose – which I don’t think there’s any losers in pageantry. You gain something. Whether it’s self-confidence, or whether its friendships, what have you, or just trying something new. Certainly there’s definitely these generals that are in place. But there’s so much more. So much more that can be taken out of this from this experience as well.

KB: Would you say that this could be a faith experience for some of them?

CB: I think so. I could be wrong. But in terms of the Miss Christian America, I think it could really reinforce, or it does reinforce that commitment to their faith and really strengthening their religious beliefs and practices with the outreach of ministry and, you know, one of the competition categories – like I said before – was this Biblical question and answer. So really preparing . . . because this is a competition. There’s a panel of judges. You’re going to be judged. So really just the preparations that are encompassed in this particular pageant. And how, you know . . . preparing for those categories, (20:00) but also strengthening one’s faith.

KB: And that’s kind-of how I . . . . Just listening to you talk about it, it seems like it could be a faith-enhancing or religious experience.

CB: Indeed.

KB: So maybe just going back to Christian Smith just for a minute: tell me a little bit about how you’re applying that theory.

CB: Right. So in looking at subcultural identity theory we’re looking at religious subcultures balancing the demands of cultural distinction and social engagement. So, how is the Miss Christian America negotiating this cultural distinction and cultural engagement, compared to a more secular pageant, Miss USA?

KB: So that’s why you’ve compared both of those pageants. I see.

CB: Yes. So this was really a comparative textual analysis between the two pageants. But in addition to that, we’re kind of looking at the unique religious identity compared to the broader secular pageants. So looking at that religious identity and what’s coming about that. But also looking at the Evangelicalism that’s been brought forth in this research. So looking at the truthfulness of the Bible, so looking at values of scriptures, how is that being displayed in the pageant? The influence of human nature, so looking at the mainstream culture, so going back to the swimsuit competition, and so forth, and then finally, the “born again” experience that’s really the salvation of such faith.

KB: Oh, interesting.

CB: So it’s really interesting how the pageant is negotiating these religious values and borrowing from mainstream beauty pageants. Something that I talked about in this presentation was this idea of this perception, or borrowing, of mainstream, and really using it and navigating through the religious values and the mainstream values. So again, that on stage question, right? But in the sense of the Biblical question and answer.

KB: So these two are really being interspersed rather than juxtaposed, is that . . . ?

CB: I think so. Absolutely. So again, just going back to how they’re very uniquely similar, but also vastly different. But in the end somebody’s going to be crowned the title holder. So they’re still similar in many ways but vastly different in other ways with respect to religion.

KB: Fascinating. So if anyone had a question, is there a way that they could contact you? Do you have . . . is your work published somewhere?

CB: Not as of yet. So this is actually going to be . . . this research is part of a larger research study that I’m doing to for my dissertation. So I’m really . . . not brainstorming. But I know I want to conduct this research into pageantry because when I began such scant literature was out there on pageantry. So I really want to change that. I’m inspired to change that. And I really want to maintain . . . . I’m a qualitative researcher – so I want to look at kind of the motivations, why women choose to compete in beauty pageants.

KB: Yes. Great question!

CB: I want to explore that. Is it to make friends? Is it to gain self-confidence? Is it to get scholarship money? Or is it just to win a crown? And there are so many ways that that can be reinforced. So I want to explore reasons why women choose to . . . but as a researcher that’s fascinated by religion I want to also look at, maybe, how religion is displayed. So I’m not really focussing on a particular pageant. But I really want to interview former title holders but also former beauty pageant contestants, as well. And just explore and investigate why they chose to compete. And then, were there any ways in which they used their religion through that experience? Whether it was praying right before going on stage, or carrying a cross, or wearing a cross while they competed? I really want to explore that.

KB: And see what that means, yes. So this is a whole new way to think of lived religion and experiencing religion.

CB: Indeed. And going back to your question before. Certainly, if anybody has a question they can reach out to me through email. My email is chelsea.belanger@knight.ucf.edu

KB: Ok. And we’ll post that on the website as well.

CB: Thank you.

KB: Thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been a pleasure.

CB: Likewise. Thank you for having me.

KB: We look forward to reading your book, once you turn your dissertation into a book (25:00).

CB: (Laughs) Yes I look forward to that one day, too.

KB: And I’ll re-interview you then!

CB: Yes. Sounds good. Thank you so much.

KB: Thank you, Chelsea.


Citation Info: Belanger, Chelsea and Kristeen Black. 2019. “Christian Beauty Pageants: Beauty is in the Eye of the Creator”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 4 March 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 February 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/christian-beauty-pageants-beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-creator/

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.

America’s Changing Religious Landscape

The religious landscape of the United States is changing dramatically. Americans must consider what it means to govern a nation of religious minorities. We interview Dr. Robert P. Jones, the founding CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute. Jones discusses findings from PRRI’s national surveys on religion and public life, many of which are represented in the American Values Atlas. The data collected by PRRI reveal a number of surprising trends related to religion and its intersection with politics, voting patterns, age, race, immigration, and secularism in the United States. A few key findings highlighted in PRRI’s 2016 report on America’s changing religious identity and covered in this podcast: (1) white Christians now account for fewer than half of the public, (2) white evangelical Protestants are in decline, (3) non-Christian religious groups are growing, and (4) atheists and agnostics account for a minority of all religiously unaffiliated. We discuss the implications of these findings and more, and we briefly review the research methodologies utilized by PRRI.

 

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


America’s Changing Religious Landscape

Podcast with Robert P. Jones (18 February 2019).

Interviewed by Benjamin P. Marcus

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Jones_-_America_s_Changing__Religious_Landscape_1.1

Benjamin P. Marcus (BM): My guest today is Robert P. Jones the founding CEO of PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) and a leading scholar and commentator on religion, culture and politics. He’s the author of The End of White Christian America, two other books, and numerous peer reviewed book chapters and articles. Dr Jones serves as the co-chair of the national steering committee for the Religion and Politics section at the American Academy of Religion. He’s a past-member of the editorial boards for the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, and Politics and Religion, the journal of the American Political Science Association. He holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Edinburgh University, an M.Div. from South-Western Baptist Theological Seminary, and B.S. in Computing Science and Mathematics from Mississippi College. Today we’ll be discussing PRRI’s 2018 reports about what’s happening with the religious landscape in the United States. We’ll look at the demographic changes in the country that might help explain the political climate that we find ourselves in today. Hello, Dr Jones – and welcome to the Religious Studies Project! I’d like to begin by asking a really broad question: what’s happening with religion in the US today?

Robert P. Jones (RJ): Well, it’s a great question. A lot is happening. And I think that is the story – that we’ve been experiencing a great deal of religious change, really since the 1990’s, but it’s been accelerated in the last decade. So just to give you a couple of, I think, relevant stats: one is the percentage of white Christians in the country has been declining, fairly precipitously, in the last ten years. And in particular we’ve gone – in the US – from being a majority white Christian nation, to one that is no longer a majority white Christian nation. And it’s happened fairly rapidly. If you go back to just 2008, the country was fifty-four percent white and Christian. And when I wrote my book, The End of White Christian America, I was working on 2014 data. And that number had dropped from fifty-four percent to forty-five, and that was a significant drop. But we’ve been continuing to track data since 2014 and that number’s down to forty-one percent, now. So we’ve looked at a thirteen percentage-point drop just since 2008 – so over the last decade, in the percentage of white Christians in the country. That’s come with an uptick in the religiously unaffiliated category. So if you just go back to the 1990s those numbers are in single digits: five, six percent in the 1990s. Our last data, 2017 data, is showing twenty-five percent of the public. And among young people it’s forty percent of the public. So this is a real sea-change in the country. Going from mostly a white Protestant country in 1993. That was actually the last year the country was white and Protestant. But even if you take all white Christians together – Protestant, Catholics, Orthodox, Non-denominational and denominational together – that number today is only forty-one percent. And that’s a real shift for the country.

BM: Wow. I have a number of questions from that. One is this category of “Nones” – n-o-n-e-s – people who are unaffiliated. Many people think that that’s a pretty homogeneous category of atheists and agnostics. But from what I understand that’s not the case. Is that right?

RJ: That’s right. Atheists and agnostics actually only make up only a minority of that category of a quarter of the US population. And the rest of them are kind of a mixed bag. When we’ve looked underneath the hood, there’s kind of two other groups in there. There’s one group that looks . . . that we’ve just broadly labelled “secular” in some of our reporting, that looks broadly like a cross-section of the country. But there’s another group in there that we’ve actually dubbed “unattached believers”. And that group looks, on many measures of religiosity – like, “How often do you pray?”, “How often do you attend religious services?”, “Do you believe in God?”, those kind of questions – they look like religious Americans, even though they refuse the category and won’t identify with any particular religious group. That group tends to be less white, more African American or Latino. And they tend to be younger. And so it’s a very interesting group. I think, as a whole, this group has moved so fast now that it is a very diverse group. I mean, after all, it’s a quarter of Americans, so that is a big, big group that we’re talking about, now.

BM: Wow. And does that seem to be concentrated in the sort-of Godless coasts? Or is that happening across the United States? Are we seeing a decrease in white Christian presence – not only in the middle of the country, but also in the coasts? Or is it happening in certain places?

RJ: Yeah. This is a great question. This is definitely not a bi-coastal urban phenomenon. One project that the PRRI started back in 2013 is called the American Values Atlas. And we actually have this online – for any of your Listeners who want to go check it out – it’s ava.prri.org. And what we did is, we started realising that we had enough data every year that, if we were careful about combining it, we could actually map the religious demography of every state in the country, and also the top thirty metro areas in the country (5:00). So you can go online right now and you can compare Iowa to California, for example. And you can go back in time as well. And one of the things that you see there is, if you go back ten years to today, virtually everywhere is experiencing these changes. So it’s not just New York and California, or Texas, but it’s Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota – each of these states has experienced, for example, approximately a ten percentage-point drop in the number of white Christians in their population over this last decade.

BM: Wow. Are there any states or cities that jump out at you as sort-of a surprising religious demography? Or maybe the majority religious community is not what you’d expect? Or the second biggest community is not what you’d expect?

RP: Well we still see some history at play. We still see Rhode Island as one of the most Catholic states in the country, for example. And we still see the South heavily evangelical. So you can see the . . . . You can see the religious history still there. But we are . . . it is starting to mix up. Even though you can see these historic, I guess, centres. But you can also see the shifts happening there, as well. So even in Rhode Island you’re getting an uptick in the religiously unaffiliated, and more Protestants than you had in the past. And in the evangelical South you’re getting more Latino Protestants and Latino Catholics as a result of immigration, and changing migration patterns in the South.

BM: A few times, already, you’ve mentioned the history of the United States; you’ve mentioned, not only religious communities, but also mentioning markers of race and ethnicity, patterns of immigration. Can you tell me more about the relationship between religion, race or ethnicity and the United States, and how that shows up in the data?

RJ: Well it’s . . . when I was working on the last book, race . . . it became just so clear. I mean, it’s something that I’ve known, but it became clear to me in a more poignant way, that . . . . For example: if you asked me in a sentence to summarise religious voting patterns, you can’t really talk about that without talking about race. So the short answer to that question is, in presidential elections, white Christians tend to favour Republican presidential candidates and non-white religious people – Christians or other religions and the religiously unaffiliated – tend to support Democratic candidates. So the kind-of lines of race – even class, to some extent – but the most dominant fault line in the religious landscape is really around white, non-Hispanic Christians and pretty much everyone else. You can see this cleavage on a whole range of issues.

MP: That’s so interesting. I had a professor in graduate school who used to say that you could accurately predict America’s voting patterns if you knew “four Rs”: race, region, religion and rank. And that’s something that I’ve thought about a lot. This relationship between these four Rs and how people vote. And the embeddedness of religion in American culture. Are there religious communities that are more diverse in rank or race, than others?

RJ: There are, but they tend to be the smaller ones. So, like, one of the more diverse groups in the country is Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example. They tend to be very racially and ethnically diverse – much more so than most other groups I can think of. But they, of course, are a very, very small group in the country. But it is a story of American religion that race has sorted and bifurcated religious communities to such an extent that you really can see these major cleavages, both in the denominational structure on the ground – in the way that they’re lived out and organised – but also in the macro-data. One of the reasons why, for example, social scientists – when we’re kind-of parsing data – tend to look at African American Protestants in one bucket and white evangelical Protestants in another bucket, is because, despite the fact that they share so many religious beliefs and practices – even hymns – when you look at how they behave, and their attitudes, and the political space, their race kind-of acts like a prism that just pushes them in completely different directions. So it’s hard to overstate, I think, the way that race has structured American religiosity.

BM: That’s so fascinating, and brings me to another question, which is: as you know, Religious Studies as a field has had a lot of trouble with the – quote-unquote –”world religions paradigm”. And the fact that we often sort people into religious communities based on these large groups: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus . . . And often when people teach about religion in schools, or in the media, we expect people to act in certain ways, or believe in certain ways, based on the group that they fall in (10:00). Is the research that you’re conducting showing that it’s more complicated than that? Or are there other ways that we should start thinking about religious identities, so that we’re not talking about these large world religions, but subsets, based on race, or ethnicity, or gender, or any other categories?

RJ: Yeah. Well, here I think we’ve got the push and the pull of the quantitative versus the qualitative study of religion. You know in the social sciences you need these categories. You need categories to sort people into, and they need to be big enough categories that you can actually conduct reliable statistical analysis on them, right? And so, if you’re doing a survey of a thousand people, you need these categories to be big enough to at least have, say at least 100 or so people in them. Otherwise your results start getting fairly unreliable, if you drop below that. On the other hand, you know, we all should just acknowledge that these are all sort-of human categories that have been constructed by social scientists to help us see things in different ways. They’re never perfect and they always do some kind of violence, actually, to the kind-of messy reality on the ground. We should always acknowledge that. On the other hand, you know, if we allowed for the uniqueness of every single congregation on the ground – which as everyone who’s ever served in a congregation knows that, like, if you move from one Southern Baptist congregation to another, it’s a really different world, even though they’re in the same denomination – if we stuck with that kind of granularity, which is really valuable, it would be really hard to come up and say anything broad about the group. So I think it is a real challenge. To me what matters is: can you test the category against lived reality? Right? And, is the category . . . I think it’s never the right question to say, for example, “Is the category of ‘white evangelical Protestant’, right?” – which has race, ethnicity, and kind-of religious identity all baked into one thing. It’s never the right question, I think, to say, “Is that a truthful category?” Or “Is it a right category?” I think the question, honestly is, “Is it a useful category for helping us understand the lived reality on the ground?” That means it should never be sacrosanct, it should be questionable. And we should be willing to look at, for example: what do all evangelicals look like, if we don’t just look at it by race? And then, how does that category help us see something interesting on the ground?

BM: Right. I want to pause a moment on this topic: white evangelical Protestants. We began by talking about the religious demography of the United States. I mentioned that we might be able to see something about our political landscape because of the religious landscape. What do we know about the political landscape and the influence of white evangelical Protestants? Are we putting too much emphasis on white evangelical Protestants to understand our current political moment, or are there other groups we should be looking at? What are your thoughts on that?

RJ: Well, it’s interesting. White evangelical Protestants, like other white Christians, have been declining in their percentage of the population. So, for example, if we go back again to the beginning of Barrack Obama’s tenure as president, his election, what we see is that white evangelicals – depending on the survey you look at – were around twenty-three, twenty-two percent of the population. And our last data has them down now to fifteen percent of the population. So they, like other white Christians, have been declining as a proportion of the population. But what makes them important, even as they decline, is that they have been so active on just one side of the partisan divide in the US. So unlike mainline Protestants or Catholics – who tend to be more divided in their partisan allegiances – even as this group has shrunk, they have still maintained their activity mostly on the Republican side of US politics. Which means that they have a very out-sized voice on that side of the partisan divide, and not so much among Democratic politics. But in Republican politics, they’re still a very powerful group to contend with if you’re a Republican politician. So I think they’re still very important. The other reason why the evangelicals are important is because of their strong support for President Trump. They voted about eight in ten for him in the 2016 election. As we’ve been tracking their favourability of President Trump, around his inauguration it was about two-thirds favourable. And it has gone up since then and has remained fairly steady around seven in ten support for the President throughout his presidency. So that remarkable stability is also really important for understanding them as a stalwart base. And, in fact, when we asked white evangelicals who said that they had a favourable view of President Trump’s job performance whether there was anything he could do to lose their support, nearly four in ten reported that: “No. There is virtually nothing that President Trump could do to lose our support.” (15:00)

BM: Wow.

RJ: So they are a very, very entrenched group in the Republican coalition – really a bedrock support of President Trump.

BM: Wow. That’s interesting, because on social media I see this idea floated by a number of people, based on mostly anecdotal evidence of young evangelicals that they’ve spoken to, that there’s a generational gap: that older evangelicals are stalwarts of President Trump, but that younger evangelicals might be moving away from that political affiliation – as well as certain key cornerstones of what many people think of as primary evangelical issues. Is that true? Is there a change in generation?

RJ: Well, I think there is that divide. But I think it’s a little bit different than that description. So if we go back ten years ago, I think that was more true than it is today. But it is true that young evangelicals have moved. But what they have moved from is from being evangelical to be unaffiliated. So they’ve actually exited the category over time. And we can see that a couple of ways in the data. For example, among young people today, only eight percent identify as white evangelical Protestant, right? And again that’s compared to about fifteen percent in the population. So young people are only half as likely to identify as evangelical as Americans overall. And when we look underneath the hood, and we look at the median age, for example, of white evangelicals over time, we see it creeping up. And the main reason for that is that, as they’ve lost members, they’re disproportionately losing members from their younger ranks. So what’s happening is, yes indeed, the young evangelicals of ten years ago have moved. But they’ve not moved over to be Democrats – or they might have – but they’ve mostly moved out of the whole category. They’ve stopped identifying as evangelical. And I think that’s the real shift. So if you’re looking for those people who were young evangelicals a decade ago, you should look for them in the unaffiliated category and not in the evangelical category. And what we’re seeing is that, among the young people who have stayed, the generational differences are now kind-of muted. Because the people who have stayed are actually people who hold views that are fairly consistent with older evangelicals. But the ones who had views, for example, that were in great tension – like on gay rights – have largely left the fold.

BM: Wow. It’s helpful to look at some of these assumptions or theories and test them against the data. So here’s another thing to test against the data. I’ve heard a lot about the resurgence or higher visibility of progressive Christians in the United States today. I know a lot of people are watching Reverend Barber’s movement for example. Does the data show increased religious affiliation, or a higher salience of religious identity among people who identify as progressive Christians today?

RJ: Well, what I would say is, it’s a little complicated. The last sort-of major study we did of this, where we looked at it very carefully, what we did see is among younger Americans under the age of thirty, there were more progressive Christians than there were conservative Christians. That’s true. It’s largely true, though, because of this phenomena we just talked about. That the ranks of evangelicals and other conservative, particularly white, Christians have thinned. And so as that has happened among the under-thirties, the relative ratio between progressive and conservative Christians has come more into balance. In fact, among those under thirty, there are more progressive Christians than there are conservative Christians. However, there’s one category that is more than either of those, and that is the religiously unaffiliated. Because many, many young people – forty percent of young people – are in that camp. So it’s notable, right, that that’s creeping up to be almost half of young people, claiming no religious affiliation whatsoever. That’s a really different thing, by the way, than we’ve ever seen in American public life. So if you take Baby Boomers back into their twenties . . . . And this is a question I get all the time: “Well, everyone’s more unaffiliated in their twenties, right? You’re single, maybe you’re moving around a lot, you’re changing jobs, you don’t have kids yet, maybe? So those are all things that lead you to be more transient, less rooted in a community or a community organisation like a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque. But what we find is, if we look at the historical data and take baby boomers back into their twenties, they’re still less than fifteen percent unaffiliated in their twenties. So that means that this generation is at least two-and-a-half times more unaffiliated than any generation that we have ever seen. So even if some of them – quote-unquote – “come back” as they have kids, and they settle down – they’re looking for stability in communities and integrating into community life and religious institutions are a way that people historically have done that (20:00) – even if a proportion of them do that, this will still be the most unaffiliated generation the country’s ever seen.

BM: What’s quite interesting to me is, when many people challenge the “secularisation thesis”, broadly, they often point to the United States as an outlier and say, “This is clearly a modern country that is highly religious and continues to be highly religious. So the secularisation thesis is debunked” – besides looking at other countries around the world that are highly religious. Does this data maybe put at least an asterisk by that and say, “Well, maybe we spoke a little too soon, and the US is becoming increasingly irreligious or unaffiliated?” What does that do for our understanding of the secularisation thesis?

RJ: Yes. It’s funny because we’ve got a UK audience here, so . . .

BM: And United States.

RJ: Yes, and US. But what’s funny about this is, when I give a talk in the US and I say, “Twenty-five percent of the country is now religiously unaffiliated and forty percent of young people are religiously unaffiliated”, there are gasps in the room. Because people are shocked that there’s that many people who claim no religious affiliation. If I give that same lecture in London, people would be shocked that there were that many people affiliated with religion. (Laughs).

BM: Right.

RJ: So I still think the US is a little bit different than Western Europe, for example, which is where it mostly gets compared. There’s still more religious vibrancy here. More religious experimentation, more effervescence, I think, in the religious space than there is in Western Europe, for sure. And there’s certainly not, I think, overall . . . . I think politicians here face pressure to say things like “God Bless America!” at the end of their speech, in the way British politicians certainly do not. If anything there’s the opposite pressure not to say anything overtly religious like that. So I still think there’s some difference here. But I do think what we’re seeing is, there is a shift here that is certainly more something in line with what we saw in the secularisation thesis. It’s not an absolute outlier. It’s certainly a lagger from some of the trends that we’ve seen in Western Europe. And I think we’ll have to wait and see. So far we don’t see any evidence of this upward trend in the religiously unaffiliated flat-lining. It keeps ticking up year, after year, after year.

BM: I appreciate your cautiousness not to prognosticate – is that the right word?

RJ: Yes! (Laughs).

BM: But I’m going to ask you to make some predictions. Can you look out, with your crystal ball, five, ten, fifteen years? Are there any trends that you think will continue? Or things that you think we should look out for, in the next decade or so?

RJ: Yes: Well, yeah. Just like the financial retirement planning things, you see at the bottom, “Last years past performance is no guarantee of future returns”?

BM: Right.

RJ: I think that’s kind of where we’re at on this! But with that caveat, I will say that a couple of pieces of evidence – just to continue the unaffiliated line here – we’re sing a couple of things that I think will mean that this should continue, at least for the near future. One is that we’re seeing unaffiliated people now marrying other unaffiliated people – seeking them out as marriage partners. That’s significant because one of the main things pulling people back into religious community, if they’ve become unaffiliated, is if they marry someone religious. They have that conversation, like: “OK. Well, I’m going to get married unless you pledge to raise the kids in the church” or “in the synagogue.” And I think there’s less and less of that happening. So I think that’s one less thing to kind-of pull people, at least some people, back into the fold. And you know, again, so far, we haven’t seen a single year in the last decade where that line has been flat. It keeps up-ticking every year. One thing I’ll say, that is pretty clear from the evidence, is that one of the reasons why this change on the ground is not quite translated into the political space yet, is because of different ways that different religious groups turn out and vote. So in the US context, the ballot box tends to act a bit like a time machine. And it takes us back about ten years to where the country was about ten years ago. So the electorate in this last election . . . if you map the electorate onto the general population, the election in 2016 looks about like the general population looked in 2006.

BM: OK. That’s interesting.

RJ: It takes us back about ten years. And that’s because white evangelicals, and older white Christians, turn out and vote at much higher rates. So they’re over-represented at the ballot box compared to where they are in the general population. (25:00) If we project that forward, what it means is, even though we’ve passed this threshold, for example, where the country’s no longer majority white and Christian, that will not be true at the ballot box until 2024. So we’re still two election cycles out from really seeing the demographic realities really hit at the ballot box.

BM: Well that’s a great place to pause on the content of all the things you’ve been finding. And I want to make sure we leave some time to talk about how you collect your data, to look behind the hood and look at the processes and how you set up your battery of questions. So could you tell us little bit more about that? What’s it like to run a major polling firm, and how do you do what you do?

RJ: Sure. Well it’s a lot of fun, first of all! It’s great to be able to sit around a table and say, “I wonder…X?” And, you know, think, “Well, that’s an empirical question. We can actually put that to the test.” And one of the things that PRRI have pledged to do . . . . So we’re a non-partisan, non-profit, independent research organisation. So, part of our charitable purpose is that we’re actually putting a lot of social science data back into the public domain. So one of the things we have made sure that we do is, we are very transparent. So every time we release something, we release the whole questionnaire. We hold onto the data sets for a year for internal purposes, for analysis, but after that we release the entire data set out into the public domain. So anyone can pull it up – at the Roper Center, they can pull it off of our website, and download, and do their own analysis of the data. So that’s part of our mission. In terms of how we collect it, we are dedicated, really, to doing full probability sampling of data. So all of our data is a random probability sample of the USs population. It’s all Americans. So even though we have an emphasis on mostly doing political party, and religion, and race, and other kinds of demographic breaks, we have full-bound samples of the entire population in all of our surveys here. And you know, we really do sit down, and we do our lit review, you know: the process where we look at other polls and what they have asked, and other trends we might want to check. But I think one of the things we are always trying to get at is the “Why” question. And so, not just the “What”, but the “whys”. We definitely want to know what people believe, but we also want to know what connects belief A with belief B, and belief C. What’s the underlying thing that drive them to connect those issues together? So that, I think, is part of the art of this, and I think what makes it, really, the most fun and the most worthwhile.

BM: It sounds so fun, in fact, that our Listeners might be wondering how they can get involved. So do you have any ideas for scholars out there who sit there and wonder if X,Y or Z about the American population . . .?Are there ways for them to try to do polling, or to reach out to your kind of organisations, to feed you ideas? Or what’s the process, if you’re a scholar in a university, for trying to find out some of this information at a national scale?

RJ: Well, there’s a couple of options. I mean, I get emails all the time – and I love getting emails all the time – saying, “Hey, have you thought about this?” And every now and then, there’s like “Oh man! That’s a great idea!” And if we have space, we can do it. So I would say, feel free to shoot us an email. And we certainly are interested in hearing what’s going on, and ideas that are out there. The other way is, we have formally partnered with a number of universities. So we were just . . . this past three years we did a three-wave study with Florida State University, looking at spirituality and its impact on voluntarism and other kinds of pro-social behaviours, trying to answer the question, “Does it make a difference if you’re religious or not, for how you actually behave in the world?” And trying to get at those kind of questions (30:00). We’ve partnered with the Brookings Institution and other kinds of think-tanks in this space. So I think it’s a little of both. We’ve done some individual kinds of things, but we’ve also worked on kind-of careful, multi-year, full-on collaborations with academic institutions.

BM: And your work is entirely focussed in the United States, is that right?

RJ: It is, yes. So we just do domestic religion, politics and culture.

BM: And do you consult with folks outside the United States who might be interested in this kind of work in other countries? Or do you have any partnerships? Or share ideas for best practices with organisations outside the US?

RJ: We’ve certainly been talking about this. We haven’t, so far, branched out beyond that. But it’s something we’d certainly be open to doing.

BM: Great. Well, thank you so much for speaking with me today. I think this time really flew by for me. I enjoyed our conversation. I want to remind our Listeners that you can download all of the reports from the Public Religion Research Institute – PRRI – at prri.org. And if you’re looking for contact information for folks at the organisation you can find that on their website. And we encourage you to check out the American Values Atlas Project, which has a lot of the data that we’ve been speaking about today. So thank you again, Robby, for an excellent conversation. And I hope our Listeners enjoyed it as well.

RJ: Great, Thank you. Yes, it was a lot of fun.

BM: Thanks.


Citation Info: Jones, Robert P. and Benjamin P. Marcus. 2019. “America’s Changing Religious Landscape”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 18 February 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 2 February 2019. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

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.

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.

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: The Co-Dependency of Religion and the Secular

In our fifth editors’ pick, Marek Sullivan writes “Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!”

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 our new features co-editor, Marek Sullivan.

Few questions are as meta-reflexive as the question ‘Is secularism a world religion?’ It’s now established that secularism and religion are co-constitutive terms: the history of the category ‘religion’ is inseparable from the history of secularisation. But what happens when secularism is rethought as a mode or sub-category of one of its core progenies, ‘world religion’? Donovan Schaefer brings his background in critical theory and material religions to bear on this mind-bending question, leading us through the history of the secularisation thesis, the idea of ‘world religions’, the Protestant genealogy of secularism, and the urgency of parsing the academic study of secularism into historically and culturally differentiated variants. Despite the broad sweep of the interview, I was left wanting more!

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, Pulp Fiction memorabilia, astronaut ice cream and more.

Sounds of the Underground

A Response to “Drone Metal Mysticism” by Owen Coggins

Francis Stewart

Read more

From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment”

Dr. Josephson-Storm’s first book, “The Invention of Religion in Japan,” discussed how, after Commodore Perry forcibly opened Japan to Europeans and Americans in 1853, the Meiji intelligentsia and government remade their country along Western lines. This meant inventing a term, shukyo, that was roughly analogous to the Western word “religion.” In other words, an artificial delineation between spiritual practices and other parts of society was introduced to Japan, as part of the quest to be “modern.” Another key aspect of religious modernization was the delineation of “proper” religions from “superstition” and “magic.”

Meanwhile, Japanese intellectuals who visited America and Europe realized that the Westerners were not as objective or rational — that is, disenchanted — as they claimed. In fact, many Americans and Europeans believed in Spiritualism, occultism, Theosophy, mesmerism, magnetism, herbal medicine, and other things that didn’t conform with proper religion (i.e., Christianity). “The Myth of Disenchantment,” Josephson-Storm’s second book, argues that, although Westerners conceived of a philosophical triad — science and Christianity in opposition to magic/Spiritualism/etc. — the triad obscured the ways in which people interacted with each other and blended religion, “magic,” and science. There were, and are, many strands of people with varying approaches to religion and modernity. In our interview, Josephson-Storm and I agree that (based on Josephson-Storm’s research) Western intellectual history is more like a river, with many concepts colliding with each other, than a stable triad or other spatial metaphor. Josephson-Storm argues that it is wrong to assume that the West has progressed beyond myth or magic; it is wrong to assume that religion never influences scientists; and it is wrong to think that major scientific figures avoided occultism, esotericism, Christianity, or other religious traditions.

We also discuss where we go in the study of religion, and in philosophy generally, in the wake of postmodernism. To interrogate categories like “religion” and “magic” and show their intellectual genealogy, as Josephson-Storm does, is to act in the vein of postmodernism, deconstruction, and other forms of critical theory / Continental Philosophy. But where do we go next? How do we frame our lives, since we cannot deconstruct things forever? Josephson-Storm proposes that we admit the constant reconstruction and manipulation of narratives, so that, instead of getting hung up on flawed categories of modernization or ripping apart arguments infinitely (beware fake news), we admit the world is filled with dynamic tension. If the past way of studying “civilized” religion versus “primitive” magic is wrong, and if we are honest about our personal biases and the limits of objectivity, then we might achieve a world that is more tolerant of different religions and a world in which scholars produce unconventional, but more accurate, studies of religion.

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, sleeveless t-shirts, chest expanders, and more.

A transcript of this podcast is available as a PDF, and has been pasted below.

For our previous podcast with Prof. Storm on “The Invention of Religion in Japan”, see here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-invention-of-religion-in-japan/

From Static Categories to a River of Theories: “The Myth of Disenchantment” and Framing Religious Studies

Podcast with Jason Ā Josephson-Storm (14 May 2018).

Interviewed by Daniel Gorman Jr.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

 

Daniel Gorman (DG): Good afternoon, Professor!

Jason Josephson-Storm (JJS): Good afternoon, Dan.

DG: So Jason Josephson-Storm is calling in today, from Williamstown, Massachusetts.

JJS: Indeed! The snowy part of the state, yes.

DG: And I’m sitting in my kitchen, and the snow hasn’t reached me yet.

JJS: Oh, right.

DG: Today we will be talking about your new book, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences, published last May, by the University of Chicago Press. But I think, before we get into that, we should tell our listeners where you’re from, historiographically. Your first book was set across the Pacific: The Invention of Religion in Japan.

JJS: Yes, indeed. My first book was my dissertation – a heavily revised dissertation – called The Invention of Religion in Japan. And it was basically about Japanese intellectuals encountering the category religion for the first time, in a set of trade treaties in the mid nineteenth century, and trying to figure out what the word religion meant. Because there wasn’t necessarily an equivalent translation term for religion in Japanese. And they had no clear idea what – if anything, in Japan – was a religion, or counted as the category religion. And in that book I traced how the category religion was debated and articulated in Japan, and how Japanese thinkers came to see that the term was embedded in a set of contrasts. On the one hand, with religion and science as putative opposites, and the other as religion and superstition, as another imposing term. And to figure out one, you had to figure out the other. At least that’s what Japanese thinkers ended up deciding. And they ended up coining a completely new vocabulary of new terms, in Japanese. For example, like the term shūkyō for religion, or kagaku for science, that didn’t exist before this encounter with European thought. So yes, that was my dissertation. I did both sides of the encounter. Mostly I was looking at Japanese sources – Japanese thinkers looking to the West and then, in some cases in that book, I flipped the encounter and looked at Europeans writing about Japan in the same period. And looked at their mismatch of conceptual ideas and terms.

DG: If I remember correctly in The Invention of Religion in Japan, you talk about a few Japanese intellectuals who spend time studying in the United States?

JJS: Yes, that’s right, including thinkers like Mori Arinori who famously came to the United States – I think it was at Amherst College, actually – which is our arch-rival here, from Williams. [Editorial Note: See author’s correction below, from 18 May 2018 – “One small correction–Mori Arinori didn’t go to Amherst. I misspoke. He went to Brocton, New York, and spent a year living in a religious community established by spiritualist mystic Thomas Lake Harris and loosely based on the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg. The nineteenth century Japanese thinker who went to Amherst College, was Uchimura Kanzō. I discuss both men in The Invention of Religion in Japan.”] But I look at a number of Japanese intellectuals who travelled in the United States and wrote about their experiences there, definitely. And they tried to figure out the central edifices of Western thought. And this is a group of Japanese whose writings in the West has been historically less studied, because they studied weird things that don’t fit the story that Europeans like to tell about Europe. So they were considered to have got it wrong. But, actually, I think they had a lot of perceptive, interesting things to say. But that was the first book.

DG: I want to dig into that, a little bit. You were mentioning the story that Western Europeans are telling about themselves. And that’s an essential idea to The Myth of Disenchantment, your next book. What do you see as the story that they’re telling about themselves?

JJS: So, one of the things that the Europeans presented was an equation between their technological civilisation – in other words their guns and their boats and what-have-you – and their either cultural or intellectual traditions. And Europeans tended to tie them together and argue for the superiority and the fundamental connection between the two. So even though gunpowder was invented in China and the print press had its earlier formation, for example, in China (although we can’t see direct transition there) Europeans presented European technology as proof that European civilisation was superior, and they claimed, often, that European civilisation was superior for two competing reasons: either because European civilisation at that time was considered Christian, or they claimed that their civilisation was superior because it was more rational. But Japanese intellectuals encountering British culture were worried about: What is this Christianity? Is it uniform? And, particularly, they questioned the rationality of European thought. Versions of that were questions about the disenchantment narrative. So Europeans often claimed that their particular form of superiority came from the fact that they had disabused themselves of superstitions. But some Japanese thinkers noticed that . . . and this didn’t make it into the first book or the second book, but I’m publishing it elsewhere as an article. A bunch of Japanese thinkers, instead of seeing a disenchanted West, saw a West full of spiritualists, full of people believing in the Occult, full of Pentecostal religious revivals, full of people who believe in charms and the efficacy of talismans. So, in that respect, the presentation of the West – particularly Europe or America – as radically “other”, in terms of its lack of superstitions, didn’t make sense to them. They could see not only a disenchanted West but, in a way, a mystical West (5:00). And they saw a parallel, as they saw it, in European interest in things like x-rays and radioactivity. European science was populating the world with invisible forces and a number of European thinkers equated those . . . talked about spiritualism in terms of radioactivity or in terms of x-rays, or what have you. So one of the things that interested me early on was this interesting reading that Japanese thinkers produced about the West. The other things that they saw, or didn’t see, that I found interesting in that project were distinctions between philosophy and religion that they found to be really problematic. And the idea of a secular state was a construct that was, in many respects, mythical, or what-have-you. So that’s a lot about that book. Yes.

DG: What you’re suggesting is that with these Japanese intellectuals in the late 19th century – they’re looking and saying . . . with their connection between science and religion, they’re anticipating figures like Alfred North Whitehead.

JJS: You mean, who might see those two as having a different relationship?

DG: Yes. So, for instance, Whitehead is a mathematician but he’s talking about universal principals of the spirit. He’s making those connections. William James is using social science but he’s also interested in psychical phenomena. These individuals don’t fit neatly into the philosophical box you’re describing.

JJS: Yes, exactly. And I think they didn’t fit in a box from Japanese scholars, and they don’t fit that opposition. A lot of European scholars have put that opposition today. One of the grand myths that – to sort-of pivot to the next book – that I’m interrogating in The Myth of Disenchantment, is this notion of a necessary conflict between religion and science – which turns out to be a pervasive myth articulated, basically, in the 19th century in Europe and America. And it presumes that religion and science are necessarily in conflict. And there are a lot of interesting things we could say about, for example, Draper who is the first to talk about the conflict model, which he himself already uses as a Protestant anti-Catholic argument. Or we could say something about the number of scientists themselves who have not seen these two things in conflict, or whatever. But what I was really interested in, is how the categories of religion and science got articulated spaces, as terrains – to borrow something Peter Harrison later talked about, he uses that language – but to think how religion and science were defined in opposition. And one of thing that I notice . . . . And I’m sorry, if I get excited I talk too fast! So I’ll try and slow down a little bit. One of the things I noticed is that, conceptually, there was often a third term: not only were religion and science positioned in conflict, as part of this myth of a conflict model, but also often religion was seen as opposed to something – superstition – which was like the pseudo-religion, or the thing that looked like religion but is not religion, often described a superstition or magic. But similarly, science was also positioned in opposition to something called “pseudo-science”, which was also described as superstition or magic. So it seemed like the intellectual edifice that was being formulated in the 19th century was a triadic oppositional structure between, on the one hand, a conversation about the difference between religion and science, but also about religion and magic, or magic and science. And, in particular, areas that religion and science seemed to overlap were the most likely to be policed as illegitimate, as pseudo-science or as magic, or as . . . I’m thinking of things like psychical research, spiritualism, table-turning or what-have-you, that presented itself as a science, as a science of the dead . . .

DG: It satisfies neither group. Something like spiritualism, it satisfies neither the pure modernist, the scientist, and it doesn’t satisfy the Christians either.

JJS: Yes, often. Although there are a range of scientists who love spiritualism and a range of Christians or Quakers, or what-have-you that, as we know, were into spiritualism. But you’re right, that it didn’t fit the clean definitionary lines. But it became an object of attack from both sides. So one of the things that already motivated the transition between the two books was, I got interested in trying to figure out . . . if in Japan, in the 19th century, they were encountering these three categories as if they were already accomplished things: religion, science and magic or superstition. I was interested in how those three got formulated as three distinct categories in thought, and how much boundary work was going on in policing them – and also the ways that boundary work collapsed. And then, the other kind-of insight that motivated this second project is that a lot of the conversation about this third term – magic or spiritualism – connected itself up to a notion of modernity as such. So one of the central myths, that I think is still shared in much of the social sciences, is the notion of some grand periodisation called modernity. And the idea is that at a certain point – everybody disagrees about when, but it may the birth of the printing press, or industrialisation, or the Protestant Reformation, or what-have-you – there’s a rupture, after which we enter a period called modernity, but often modernity is described in terms of something called disenchantment (10:00). And that disenchantment is usually defined as an end of belief in spirit, or an end of belief in magic. But the problem is that, if you look at it – and I have a chapter that looks at the sociological evidence – people didn’t stop believing in spirits. Many Americans, arguably – depending upon how you define the categories – something like 75% of Americans hold onto some kind of paranormal or general belief in spirits, in ghosts, in angels, in demons, demons that possess people etc., psychical powers – all this stuff is really widespread – astrology, for example. So, you know, we might guess that the academy has more sceptics than other, but even then it’s not necessarily clear. It’s just there are different kinds of belief that people have. So it doesn’t look like contemporary America is disenchanted, according to those logics – or contemporary Western Europe. And what’s more, it turns out that the notion of modernity as itself disenchanted, was basically formulated in the 19th century. And this is a period where we hear about revival, about spiritualist séances, about the widespread birth of psychical research, and theosophy, and a whole bunch of other positions. So it turns out that – as I argue in this book, The Myth of Disenchantment –after looking at . . . . I started looking at these founding figures of this narrative of modernity as disenchantment, who are often the founders of many of our disciplines: founders of Sociology, or Psychology, or Psychoanalysis, or Philosophy, or Religious Studies. And I looked through their diaries and their letters, and I was able to locate them in the exact milieu where magic was, itself, being practised or believed. They hung out with spiritualists, or they themselves called their own project theosophy, and talked to these theosophists. So it looked, in a way, that the myth of magic departure was part and parcel of conversations of occultists as well as scholars of religion. So Helena Blavatsky, for example – the founder of the Theosophical Society – she described modernity in terms of the disenchantment, and said that the central feature of the West was that it had lost belief in magic – even as she wanted to return to India, and her hidden masters, to recoup the missing pieces! So it looked like the difference . . . normally disciplines like Sociology and Religious Studies describe themselves as disenchanting or secularising. But that becomes harder to countenance when you know that in the individual lives of a lot of these people – let’s say Sigmund Freud – they find themselves having the beliefs that they are, themselves, describing as archaic! So, what it means is that there is a way in which this very notion of modernity as disenchanted turns out to be a myth. And that turns out to be one of the many things I try to argue in the book. Basically, not only isn’t it true now, but it wasn’t true then. And we can see, if we look at the lives – the private lives – of all these thinkers, that they had all these kind-of, let’s say, heterodox, or complicated, or interesting, or enchanted beliefs themselves. So I think that’s one of the big pay-offs.

DG: Hang on! Sorry I want to get a word in, here!

JJS: Yes, sorry!

DG: So you mentioned that there’s a flood narrative, to say that there’s a triadic opposition of magic, Western Christianity and (science). If that’s a flawed model, and everything’s more fluid and, as you say, you have scientists like Curie and Max Müller who are going to séances, then what is the correct structure? Is there even a structure? Shall we get rid of this triad? Is it the tesseract, and multiple dimensions wrapping around itself, or what is it?

JJS: So, I think we tend to think of this triad as necessary and universal. But I think we’re wrong about that. What I ‘m not saying is that nobody believed in this triad but rather, in the process of constructing this triad, we carved out a much more complex, heterogeneous space and then made a bunch of arbitrary divisions around it. So one of the things I’m trying to do is challenge the presumption of that triad. I would agree that it needs to be unwoven, in a certain way. But that doesn’t mean that we deny that we’ve had this history. So one of the things that I’m really interested in is how we study – just to take a step back to these higher categories. So, we spend a bunch of time sitting in the horizon of these categories. So, let’s say, we spend much time thinking of religion as a universal, and then trying to define the features that religion has. What’s the definition of religion, and how is it in all sides, and in all cultures? I don’t think that . . . . That project has failed. My book isn’t the first to show this. Neither of my books is the first to show this. But there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that the category of religion takes its primary relation to a particular period in Euro-American history and then is imposed, in a heavily negotiated and contested way, on the rest of the globe. But what I think we can do, as scholars, is then to not study the category as a universal thing, but study the category as it is articulated and the effects that it’s had. So we can trace this category as a kind of unfolding process or, what I like to call a “higher order assemblage”, and look at how various things are recruited into it. It’s like an unfolding process, like a stream. To take a metaphor, what I’m trying to do is, I’m kind-of . . . instead of a process physics – a process anthropology (15:00). And to look how these categories were historically conditioned and articulated within the implications of doing that. And that means that we have to look at ourselves as scholars within the categories themselves, and kind-of work them out. Anyway, this is stuff I’m working on for the next book. So I shouldn’t monologue any more about it! But I’m working on a book called Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism. And that’s exactly about: how do we work with, and study, these higher order categories. And how do we sort-of function without returning to the older discredited modernism, or turning into the word-play of postmodernism. And what I argue for is a kind of pride in “humble science” is one of my phrases. And I kind-of come up with a new philosophy of social science for a post-Kuhnian way of looking at the world as these kind-of aggregated processes. But I should step back, and return to this before I get carried away.

DG: There is a little bit to unpack there. Let’s begin with this idea of . . . I think one of the things we’re dancing around in this conversation is there is a difference between studying something, and there is a difference between practising it. So you mentioned, for instance, three are people in the 19th Century who believe in the triumvirate of magic, spiritualism and science – no excuse me I got the triumvirate wrong, the triumvirate is Christianity, Spiritualism and science: OK, take a step back to the present. . .

JJS: Or religion, science and magic, or whatever. Yes.

DG: So then, as a scholar looking back, you’re seeing the flowing river where it’s all intertwined and there is no simple static thing. So then let’s go to another level, ok? You’ve got the people in the past with the triad; you’ve got the people today, studying, saying, “No. I see a stream in which these people were functioning.” So what’s the next step? Where do we go if we’re saying that our narrative of modernity and postmodernity is flawed? What’s the next step for building a framework to understand this stuff? Because we still have to live with it in the present day.

JJS: So what I’m saying is, to locate ourselves within the horizon of temporality. So I mean, in that respect, one of the things that we have to do is recognise the limitedness of our own conceptual categories. I mean, now we’re really onto my third book stuff – so this is fun! But one of the things that we do is we have to recognise . . . . I should take a step back, and talk about the history of modernism and postmodernism, and then tell you . . . . So, one of the things that many academic disciplines were predicated on was the notion of concepts. That was essentially Aristotelian in its basic function. This is a notion of concepts as having necessary and sufficient conditions for membership. And what’s more, we thought that our concepts mapped on the world – that they cut up what the Greeks had called the “joints of nature” – in other words, looked at where nature divided things up. So that made natural kinds of distinctions. This is often called “natural kinds”. And we thought that if you could find necessary and sufficient conditions for membership in a given category, that you could identify its essence. And if you could say something about its essence you could begin to discover and develop, let’s say, robust or scientific knowledge about a subject. In the hard sciences we’ve already begun to challenge that notion of essences. And I think a lot of philosophy of science has already moved past the way that those conceptions or categories are articulated. But in the humanities we also had a crisis around this, because we discovered that many of our concepts no longer worked. The capacity to produce necessary and sufficient conditions for the category of religion turns out to have been a flawed process, etc. So the question then becomes . . . . Instead of thinking about nature as jointed, in the old fashioned way, we have to think of it in the way of a disjointed nature. And this is at least true. Even if you think that there is a distinction between natural kinds and human kinds, in which nature itself has joints, it’s pretty clear that human concepts don’t have the kinds of joints that we would like to project upon them. The joints that we have are historically contingent. So part of what we end up doing in studying is locating ourselves within our study – so this is a kind of reflexivity – and then focussing on how these conceptual categories were themselves constructed. But I’m aware that we’re getting away from . . .

DG: Yes. I feel like we’re moving beyond The Myth of Disenchantment to what comes after. We realised that the myth of disenchantment is flawed. And we’re also running out of time. So, we sketched out the theoretical terrain. But what struck me with this book is that, as much as we talk about the critical theory and the flawed basis of modernity, you’re showing an incredible range of material in, let’s see: German, French, English – you’re doing comparative linguistic work here, also.

SSJ: Yes.

DG: What is your . . . I mean, it almost sounds like a Larry King softball question, but I’m curious! What is your language training, to be able to do a book like this? Because it’s almost like you were doing the work of four books in one. You’re talking about German intellectual history, you talk about the Renaissance, you talk about Occultism, and Britain and America in the ’50s.

JJS: Yes, so I grew up bilingual with French and English, and I went to a French and English Educational school until I went to High School. And having basically tested out of High School French, I started Japanese in High School (20:00). And my mother was born in Germany. So I grew up also with sharing a lot of German. So I had, basically, those four – German is my weakest of those languages. I also spent some time in Barcelona, studying Spanish. And then I lived in France for a couple for years, and I lived in Japan and I lived in Germany. And when I was in Japan I studied Classical Chinese. So, basically, I have English, French, Spanish, German, Japanese and Classical Chinese. And then from Romance languages and Germanic languages you can get to other Romance and Germanic languages easily. And then, when I was here a few years ago at Williams, I did tutoring- I took and received tutoring from a classicist here, in Latin. So I was working on building my Latin. At the moment I’ve just started – I love languages – I’ve just started Biblical Hebrew. So in fact, what I’m going to go to in thirty minutes is my Hebrew lesson. But I just love languages! I mean, I just love them. I read in languages more than I speak with languages. I talk quickly and I like to be grammatical, and then I get tongue-tied if I try to speak. I speak all my languages better drunk, for example! But I love puzzling things out philologically. So that’s the kind of stuff that was in the background of this book. Yes.

DG: You also mentioned, in our conversation, the idea that there are moments in history – as you see it – sort-of these explosive junctures, that upset our models for understanding the world. You know, you can look at Japan: the arrival of the Westerners unsettles their way of not seeing a division between spirituality and nature. For Westerners: the atomic bomb, the discovery of the germ, the DNA – these sort of explosive moments. And I find it interesting that you started writing The Myth of Disenchantment after an explosive moment: the Fukishima disaster. So we’re talking about reflexivity, so I’m trying to situate you, Josephson-Storm, in the fields that you’re talking about. Where are you in the stream?

JJS: Oh well, that’s a big question! Do you want to know why I came to this particular project, when? Or do you want to hear about how I shifted from Japan to the Western European thing? Or I could go in so many different directions. That’s a good one.

DG: Well, let’s focus . . . . Since we’re talking about historical moments that upset the stream, that upset the models, for you I want to talk about the Fukishima thing. And how does that effect the way you conceive of religion?

JJS:I mean for me, as I mentioned at the beginning of this book, after I’d finished The Invention of Religion in Japan, before it had come to press, I was starting research on another project that was going to be called “Ghosts and Resurrections in Contemporary Japan”. And it was about the history of the notion of spirits, and about contemporary belief in talismans. And I was already making the argument that 19th and 20th century Japan wasn’t disenchanted. But then the incident . . . . You know, I’d already done a lot of research towards that project. And one of the things that tipped me the other way, just by chance of timing, was in Kyoto – I was on an early tenure sabbatical doing research. And I was actually at a tattoo parlour getting some tattoo work done, when the Fukishima incident happened. It was actually- the earthquake off at Tohuku. We didn’t know it was Fukishima, yet. And earthquakes aren’t uncommon in Japan. They’re pretty common. And we didn’t, right away, know how huge the effects were going to be. So, a lot of people in the tattoo parlour would just stop what we doing, and we were just watching the television screens. And I remember seeing the images of the tsunami, but not yet being aware of how tragic and disastrous it was going to be in terms of loss of human life. And one of the guys in the tattoo parlour was asking me about my research, and I started talking about, you know, asking people about their belief in talismans and ghosts and spirits and talking about that kind of thing. And there was one other non-Japanese person there. And when we were having this conversation this guy, who I think probably was from either Norway or Sweden or something like that, was like: “Oh, of course Japanese people believe in all these magical things. But that’s because Japan is a kind-of like mystical Asia, where people still believe in magic. But in the West people don’t believe in anything like that.” And I thought, the binary that was drawn – it was flawed. And, in particular – in part, we could say, autobiographically – it’s because my grandmother was a famous anthropologist, Felicitas Goodman, who herself went kind of . . . the term people used to describe her was “went native”. On a reservation in New Mexico, she started believing in the existence of spirits. And I remember, from growing up, her offering cornmeal to the ghosts when the sunrise came up, to the spirits and the ancestors and what have you – the spirits of the land (25:00). And I knew that a lot of people came from all over the world to attend these sessions that she gave on the reservation. So some of those famous sociologist, anthropologists and artists from Germany, from Mexico, from the Unites States. And so I was always . . . I felt a bit of an outsider to that community. But I greatly admired my grandmother who was one of my intellectual heroes, and one of the reasons I study religion. And so I knew, at least, she was strange – but she wasn’t that strange. And so this reinforced my sense that this binary between an enchanted Asia and disenchanted West, was itself a kind of mythical distinction. So that’s one of the things that gave birth to this project: to kind of look at Europe with the eyes of an outsider anthropologist – or look at Europe and America from this semi-outsider vantage point. And there’s where I think I saw a lot of things that I didn’t expect, perhaps. But clearly there was disaster. I was planning to go to Tokyo and it looked like Tokyo was . . . . You couldn’t get food, they were having to ship stuff into the city. I was looking online at radiation levels that were spiking, and I just thought it was probably . . . I wasn’t going to be able to get the kind of research that I was going to get done, done in Tokyo. So I went to Germany, where I was intending to go at some point after that, anyway. So the disaster, in a way, uprooted me. And I made sure that my Japanese friends were safe, and I tried to keep tabs on things. But I knew, you know like it wasn’t going to be conducive to. . . .You know – an American, rooting around in the archives, wasn’t going to be conducive to what was happening in Fukishima and Tokyo in that particular moment. So I went to Germany and then went through the German archives, basically. I was trying to beef up my German, so I started reading a lot of stuff in German then.

DG: We’ve gone around the world I think, three times at this point. I think the fact is that the stuff we’re talking about – we could go on about this for hours. But our listeners only have about half an hour. So, to wrap up: I think what I see as the contribution of your book, is that it’s identifying . . . instead of this singular, “us versus them”, science or Christian scientists (that’s two separate words, that’s Christian scientists not Christian Scientists, the religion) versus the spiritualist, by showing the fact that it’s more complicated. I saw a couple of different strands in your book. And I want you to critique me if you think I’ve got the wrong strands. You’ve got Christians who are scientist and spiritualist. You have scientists who are spiritualists. You have spiritualists who aren’t scientists but reject Christianity. So my point is: every single part of the triad, you could flip that a couple of different ways. And so, suddenly, you’ve got six or seven – I don’t know. . . . How many strands would you see, in the book, of how many different boxes people can fall into?

JJS: Yes, I didn’t organise it that way, but I did organise it around the birth of these different disciplines. So, I mean I think you’re right, even looking at the birth of these different disciplines, what I was interested in is the different ways that people navigated those categories. And you’re right, there are like a plurality. You could be pro-science, pro-magic; anti -science, anti-magic; pro-Christianity, pro-magic: anti Christianity, pro-magic. All of the possible options, and a much more pluralistic way than you would get if you bought the story that suggested that the central feature of modernity is that people no longer believed in spirits or magic.

DG: But what you’re talking about is also a more interesting story.

JJS: Yes. Thank you. Yes, I hope I highlight some interesting complexities and interesting figures. And I found a lot of stuff. I was surprised, you know, the amount of stuff that I found that was in diaries, or letters, or things that were lesser known works of a range of figures that really doesn’t fit our received impression of these people. But then, I look not just at the founders of academic disciplines but – for the sake of your readers – I look at a number of famous magicians and occultists and show how they were in dialogue with the academic world, more than people often supposed. So Aleister Crowley and Helena Blavatsky, for example, are two key examples. And then I do five hundred years of history. So, you know, basically it’s Francis Bacon, to the Vienna Positivists. So maybe not quite 500 years, but more like 400 years of history. It was a lot of stuff. It was a lot of fun. I had to leave out a lot.

DG: Yes. And I’ve seen some of those articles you published the one called, what’s it? “God’s Shadow” – the one about the founders of the study of religion who were also obsessed with ghosts.

JJS: Yes, totally. Indeed. So the book . . . there are lot of pieces that I had to cut out. Some of it has appeared in articles, and I have a bunch more of book chapters that will look at different pieces. But I’m trying to move off of that. But I just had so much and I had to cut it down for publishing purposes. So it’s a little bit tight in terms of the prose. But there’s a lot of evidence there, yes (30:00).

DG: So thank you, Dr Josephson-Storm. It’s been a very lively conversation!

JJS: Good to speak to you, too.

DG: And having gone from the triad, which is flawed, to the stream, which is interesting, I am interested to see what your theoretical book will say next. Because once you explode the streams – and living in an age of fake news where anything goes, I’m very interested in where the study of religion, and how we understand it, goes next.

JJS: Thank you. Yes, that’s what I’m working on, yes.

DG: If you come up with a good answer, let me know!

JJS: Yes, you’ll have to read the book, or interview me when the next one comes out. It’s under contract and I’m claiming I’m going to have it to the press by the end of 2019. So I have to come up with an answer by then, anyway! We’ll hope it’s a good one!

DG: Go test it on your undergrads!

JJS: Yes, totally.

DG: Thank you very much.

JJS: Good to speak to you. Thank you.

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Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Cliches

“Religions are belief systems”, “Religions are intrinsically violent”, “Religion is Bullshit”… these are just some of the pervasive cliches that we might hear from time to time in the English-speaking world about our central topic of discussion on the RSP, ‘religion’. In this podcast, Chris is joined by Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin, the editors of the recently published Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Cliches (Bloomsbury, 2017) to discuss these cliches, the ideological work that they do, how scholars could and should approach them, the construction of the book, and more.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for making this recording possible. The other cliches addressed in the book and/or covered in the podcast include:

* “Religion Makes People Moral”
* “Religion Concerns the Transcendent”
* “Religion is a Private Matter”
* “Religions are Mutually Exclusive”
* “I’m Spiritual but Not Religious”
* “Learning about Religion Leads to Tolerance”
* “Everyone has a Faith”

You can find a full list of contributors, and more about the book, on the publisher’s website: HERE.

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-Wear, previously enjoyed golf balls, and more.

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

Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés

Podcast with Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin (30 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Stoddard and Martin – Stereotyping Religion 1.1

Chris Cotter (CC): “Religions are belief systems.” “Religions are intrinsically violent.” “Religion is bullshit.” These are just some of the pervasive clichés that we might hear from time to time, in the English-speaking world, about our central topic of discussion on the RSP: religion. Joining me today to talk about a new book that’s coming out called Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin, neither of whom should be strangers to the Religious Studies Project. But, just to introduce them, Brad is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. He completed his dissertation at Florida State University and is currently revising his manuscript on Florida’s faith-based correctional institutions. He teaches American Religious History and the History of Christianity. And he’s primarily interested in religion and the law, religion in American prisons, and theory and method in the Study of Religion. And he’s currently serving as the president of our beneficent sponsors, the North American Association for the Study of Religion. And Craig Martin is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at St Thomas Aquinas College. And his research and teaching focuses on theoretical questions in the academic Study of Religion, typically related to discourse, ideology and power. And some of his books include, Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion and the Private Sphere; Capitalising Religion: Ideology and the Opiate of the Bourgeoisie; and A Critical Introduction to the Study of Religion. And he is currently the editor of a book series with Bloomsbury, titled Critiquing Religion: Discourse, Culture and Power, in which this book, Stereotyping Religion, appears. So, Brad and Craig – welcome back to the Religious Studies Project!

Brad Stoddard (BS): Thank you.

Craig Martin (CM): Thanks so much.

CC: And I should say that we are conversing via the wonders of Skype. So maybe – just to set the scene here for me – if you want to tell me, how did this book come to be? Why did it come to be? What’s the point here?

CM: Brad, can I field that one to begin with?

BS: I think you should!

CM: (Laughs.) So, the initial idea for this book project came to me when I was working on my dissertation at Syracuse University. I was thinking about all the stereotypes about religion that my students came into the class with, and that I found frustrating to know how to deal with – and not just students, but also friends and family members who would repeat these clichés. And it was like, I couldn’t think of an obvious scholarly source to point them to, to say, “OK. In a nutshell, here’s why scholars try to avoid this cliché.” So, through conversations with my friends Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi  . . . Schaefer’s now at – I’m going to get this wrong. He’s either at Penn State, or the University of Pennsylvania – I can’t remember which.

CC: (Laughs).

CM: But, I reached out to Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi and I said, “You know, I think we could write this book really quickly and easily, because we already know what we want to say about each of these stereotypes.” And we produced three chapters, and I graduated and moved away, and the thing just kind-of languished and was never picked up and continued. So a couple of years ago I was like, “You know, that really was a good idea for a book. There should be something on clichés and stereotypes.” So I reached out to Brad and said, “Hey, are you interested in helping me edit this?” And he jumped on board, and then we ran with it.

CC: Wonderful. And it’s really great when that sort of thing happens, when you get to revisit an idea that you had – and no one else has stolen it! Yes.

CM: (Laughs). Yes. Well in ten years of it sitting, nobody else stole the idea. And I think that the stereotypes we chose are so pervasive that we didn’t have any difficulty getting people to sign up for the project. People were immediately, “Oh yes! That’s a great idea. Can I address this one?” Or, “Can I address that one?” So, yes we were pleased with how quickly it came together, and how great our submitting authors were.

CC: On that note . . . . So, you say you found it quite easy to come up with the list of clichés: did you present a ready-made list and then try and find contributors? Or did contributors come to you with clichés they particularly wanted to write about? And were there ones that you had wanted to include, that you couldn’t?

BS: As I recall, Craig and I . . . when Craig approached me with the project we sat down, you know, over the phone or email and went back and forth to create a list of about ten clichés that we agreed on. And then we started looking for people to write about the individual clichés. And in conversations with the individual authors at least one or maybe two of the clichés changed, because the author would say, “Well that’s good – can I approach it from this angle” And of course, when it made sense, we gave the individual authors the freedom to run with the cliché. But the bulk of it, I think, came from a few conversations where Craig and I just identified: these are the main clichés we see in society and politics. These are the main clichés we encounter in class. And so we had this list of clichés – and it just changed a little bit, but for the most part we ran with our list.

CC: Fantastic. I’ll ask you in a moment to take me through a few of them. But, in the introduction you set out the context for the book, but also the context in which the clichés are operating. So you talk about liberal political theory, idealised Protestantism, secularisation theory and so on. Maybe you could – just for the listeners – lay out the context that we’re talking about, in which these stereotypes are operating?

CM: I think a lot of that stuff in the intro was from me. Because when we were finishing edits to the various chapters, and I was reading through them and thinking about, you know – would my students be able to follow these or not? Because we wanted this to be accessible at an undergraduate level. I realised a common theme that went throughout a majority of the chapters were those three things that you mentioned: liberal political discourse that says religion is a private matter, the discourses on secularism and the discourses on New Atheism. These didn’t pop up in every single chapter, but in a majority of ones. So I was like, you know: we should give some background to the consistent themes that were going to pop up as the reader moves through the book.

CC: Yes.

CM: So that’s why I used those in particular: because I thought that they would help the readers understand the chapters.

BS: The only thing that I would add to that – I think you also mention in that section anti-Catholic propaganda, or anti-Catholic Protestant propaganda, about religion being a private matter. Or some of the other clichés: that they have a Protestant bias built into them. And, of course, the colonial context. Those are two other factors that we saw as common themes in the history of the general clichés.

CM: Yes, for sure. Exactly.

CC: Fantastic. So, I’m wary of asking you pull out favourites or anything, because we’ll not have time to get through every cliché. But perhaps you could take us through one or two of them, and just show us some of the analysis in action?

BS: Do you have any ones you want to pull out, Craig?

CM: I’ll wait till after you go.

CC: (Laughs). I like that.

BS: I have a soft spot for Steven Ramey’s piece. Steven Ramey writes about religions being mutually exclusive. And I think Steven’s was the first . . . . The reason I have a soft spot for it: I think it was the first one that came back to us; he was the first to submit it, that is. And I read it and I thought, “This is exactly how I want this book to look.” So, Steven Ramey addresses the cliché that religions are mutually exclusive. And so he introduces the chapter with I think the opening sentence, “What is your religion? Check one box.” And this is something that all undergraduates have seen in some version, right? What is your religion? They get it here. They have the option to check that box when they apply for admission. So I know they’ve at least seen it once, but probably many times before. So he introduces the cliché. In the introduction he talks about how this is not . . . this cliché that religions are mutually exclusive is not just academic navel-gazing, but that there are real political and legal implications. And he addressed some of the legal and political implications. And he continues . . . . In the chapter he talks about places where you encounter this cliché. Where do we see it? We see it in popular culture. We see it in politics. We see it in Law. Of course, he doesn’t mention this, but for example in the work I do in prisons: when you’re an inmate in America you check “Which religion are you?” You have to check one. And in Florida, where I did the bulk of my research, you can only change your religion once every six months. And it dictates where you can move about in the prison, which groups you can attend, which study groups, which religious services. Steven doesn’t address that part, but these are some of the examples. Steven mentions different types of examples like this. You know, this idea that religions are mutually exclusive: it does have political and legal implications. So then he moves in, and he talks about the development, the historical development of the cliché. Talking about, of course, the European context in which the cliché emerged. He talks about the colonial context. I believe he mentions the Protestant Reformation. He talks about places like India, where the distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism is not as rigid as we would imply. Or some other Asian countries where Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism or even Shinto – these alleged, so-called separate religions – the boundaries are just so much more malleable. So, long-story-short, by the time you read Steven’s chapter you get the history of the cliché, you get the political work that it does, and you realise the areas of the world where that cliché becomes quite problematic.

CC: Exactly. And it’s worth noting, here, that the book isn’t attempting to sort-of put something in the place of these clichés. Because the opposite example of religions being mutually exclusive, would be that, I guess, religions are all one and the same – which is another one that is dealt with in the book. You’re not so much asking these authors to say, “This is wrong, and this is right.” You’re rather pointing out that clichés, in and of themselves, never tell the full picture and are always doing ideological work.

BS: That’s true. We highlight that in the introduction, where we make a point of saying that we want to make it clear the work is not to replace these old clichés with new generalisations about religion, or better generalisations about religion. Instead, we’re suggesting to the students, or to the readers, that any cliché about religion or any generalising statement can similarly be interrogated, historicised, etc.

CC: Fantastic. So, Craig, you’ve had a long time to think, there, about which you’re going to pick out!

CM: Well, I decided I can’t pick one. I think – there are so many great chapters in here, in my opinion.

CC: You’ll never hear the end of it if you pick . . . you know, whoever you pick!

CM: Yes. (Laughs). Well, ok

BS: Delete my answer, then!

CM: I really enjoyed Tenzan‘s chapter on learning about how religion leads to tolerance – in part because he did a bunch of research into Ninian Smart’s work that I didn’t have a lot of prior familiarity with. So I actually learned a lot about Ninian Smart by reading his chapter. You know, Ninian Smart reproduces a stereotype that if you learn about religion, or if we teach about religion in public schools or in colleges, then people will be more tolerant and accepting and forgiving of one another. And one of the things that I felt was really important about the book was that I felt that we needed to address how theses stereotypes appear not only in popular culture, but also in scholarly literature. And Tenzan just did a fantastic job of showing, you know, how even a sophisticated scholar like Ninian Smart reproduces some pretty blatant stereotypes. But I really thought he nailed Ninian Smart – that’s probably why I liked it so much.

CC: Yes. When I was reading it I did highlight three or four pages to come back to, the next time I have to teach about Ninian Smart.

CM: I had a chance to teach him in my Intro to Religious Studies class. I taught this book last semester. And literally, the day . . . . So, this was a 9 o’clock in the morning class, and we’d addressed Tenzan’s chapter that education about religion leads to tolerance. And then, literally a couple of hours later, one of my students who was in that class went to one of her other classes where they had a guest lecturer – who showed up to talk about how education about different religions leads to tolerance! So the student came back to me in office hours the next day and said, “You know, Professor, I was arguing with this presenter in my head, and I was pretty sure I won the argument, based on what we had learned in class earlier that day.”

CC: (Laughs).

CM: So it was fun to see . . . . You know, we addressed this cliché and then two hours later, literally, she encounters the cliché in the classroom. It’s fun!

CC: Fantastic. And we’ll talk, hopefully, before we finish about that experiment of using it in the classroom. But you’ve touched on, there, learning about religions leads to tolerance. That sounds like a quite a positive cliché. In one of the chapters, I think it was Matt Sheedy’s on religion being violent, he brought up Karen Armstrong, and others, insisting that proper religion is peaceful, and religion is a peaceful, nice thing. Is there a danger that by critiquing positive clichés we’re doing society a disservice? Or is there such a thing as a positive cliché?

CM: I want to answer this question pointing to what I think is an excellent book on phenomenology of religion, Tim Murphy‘s The Politics of Spirit. And in that book Murphy looks at the history of phenomenology, a lot of which puts a positive spin on religion: that religion is getting in touch with the transcendent; religion is a sort of happiness, etc. Phenomenology of religion tends to think positively about religion. But what Tim Murphy does is show that each one of those phenomenologists uses their rhetorical framework to rank religions and to denigrate some in relationship to others. So that someone like Rudolph Otto says, you know, religion is getting in touch with the transcendent, and that Christianity most beautifully gets us in touch with the transcendent. But, of course, Islam doesn’t do so well, and primitive religion is terrible at it. So I think that even the positive clichés . . . like Karen Armstrong – she also has a ranking system built into her framework. So that the things that she likes she can call authentic religion, and the things that she doesn’t like she can dismiss as inauthentic religion or political religion – or maybe, for her, political religion isn’t even religion. So perhaps it’s ok to bomb the ship in the Middle East, because they’re not good religious people, they’re bad religious people? So I think that even the positive clichés have the potential to be used in that kind of ranking system, where people can favour one and dismiss others. And that can often-times lead to what I consider to be negative effects.

CC: Absolutely. And, indeed, Leslie Dorrough Smith writes in the book about the idea of religion being about transcendence. And I pulled out this quote where she says that cliché can “simultaneously normalise the existence of the supernatural, identify an enemy, justify a political cause, amplify the seriousness of one’s position and unite a group of people under the banner of their own moral worth.” And that’s not even a complete list! So in that . . . . You hear, “Oh religion is just about the transcendent, the supernatural, the ineffable,” and it doesn’t sound harmful. But when you look at how it is deployed, it’s doing real ideological work. So let’s talk about the classroom setting, then. So, as I was saying earlier to you: this is certainly going to be a very useful resource when I’m coming to teaching – not only about Ninian Smart, but any time you casually mention these clichés – it’s going to be fantastic to just pick up the book and find a few examples. So I can see it being a really useful teaching resource, in that respect. But, Brad – you used it in the classroom, then. So how did that go down?

BS: Yes, I used this book in my Intro to Religious Studies class, where we start by reviewing the so-called canon of important or influential Religious Studies scholars, and then we supplement that with people who are omitted from the so-called canon. And then the benefit of that is that the students got a wide survey of theories about religions, approaches to religion, methods, methodologies, etc. And then we ended the semester by reading and discussing Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés. And since it was the first time I taught from the book, I organised it as this: we’d meet three days a week, and I asked groups of students to present for a half hour. And so, you had two or three students each presenting a chapter. And they presented for about twenty minutes, and then we’d open up for Q and A for about ten minutes or so. And then I had some closing comments at the end of the class. And what I like about it is that it allowed me to see what the students took from the book, and what I thought they omitted. And it led to some really good discussions, because the students thought…or the students said, “Yes. Some of the clichés that we’ve identified, I embrace them.” Pretty much the entire class! And so to have someone call them out, and point out the history, and point out the problems with it – it did a lot of work in the class. It helped the students, because it overturned some things that they had just taken for granted. And actually, on the last day of class, we discussed the entire book. And the students tended to agree – obviously they knew that I was one of the editors, so they weren’t going to say too many harsh criticisms; they weren’t going to criticise it too much! But they thought that it was nice to end the semester by addressing these clichés, for the simple fact that it changed the way they were thinking, or that they had thought about religion, you know, for their young adult life.

CC: Fantastic.

BS: Not to over-romanticise it, right?!

CC: Oh, no.

BS: But they did find value in it.

CC: Excellent. I can totally see myself, the next time I’m marking a pile of essays . . . . And you see these clichés coming up all the time. One that’s not in the book is, you know: “Religion has been around since the beginning of time . . .” They’ll sort-of begin with that. But plenty of other ones come up. And I can imagine, immediately, just copying in a URL to the chapter on the library website, for any of these – rather than having to spend my own time deconstructing it! Just say, “Read that chapter, and then come back and write it again.”

BS: That’s a good one! Craig, take note: we should include that in the next edition, if there is one!

CC: Yes! (Laughs). Well, if there’s another one: “Religion is a choice” – you always hear that. People choose to believe, or choose to have a certain religion. So, yes, I’m already filling up the next volume! I guess an obvious question that would come up on the RSP quite often, is: why religion, here? Obviously this is our area of interest. We teach courses on this. But could you do a similar book for say stereotyping sport, or stereotyping gender, or, you know – is religion particularly problematic?

BS: Yes, you could. And I hope other people do!

CC: (Laughs).

BS: So, I have a little more of a substantive response to that question.

All: (Laugh).

BS: I think that, yes, obviously you could write such a book about any subject matter: stereotyping politics, stereotyping gender, stereotyping race. What I think sets Religious Studies apart is the fact that post-structuralism reached Religious Studies twenty years later than it hit all those other fields. And the popularisation of post-structuralist approaches is lagging. I don’t know, apart from Malory Nye‘s intro book, in Russell McCutcheon’s new book, I don’t know of any introductory material in Religious Studies that actually comes from a critical, poststructuralist perspective. And I’m pretty sure that people have been teaching poststructuralism to undergrads since the 80s. So it’s time that we went ahead, and picked up our slack, and tried to catch up by having some undergraduate literature to present. I mean it’s not like post-structuralism is brand new. It’s 50 years old, now! Our introductory textbooks still tend to ignore those types of critical approaches.

CC: Yes. So there are disciplinary reasons why such a book may not be written, necessarily, in other fields. And then also, like it or not, “religion” – this constructed political category – is something that has a lot of power in the modern Western world. To write a book called, I don’t know, “Stereotyping Golf”, or “Stereotyping Stamp Collecting”, whilst it might be interesting . . . . Unfortunately, stereotypes about stamp collecting probably aren’t quite as pervasive, or potentially harmful, as these clichés about “religion”. Every time I say “religion” it’s in scare quotes. But we all know that. We are coming up on about 25 minutes, here. So I’ll be wanting to wrap up, fairly soon. And I’m going to close the interview with Rebekka King‘s close to the book. But I just wondered if there’s anything more on this topic of prevalent stereotypes about religion that you would like to say, or that you’d hoped you were going to say?

CM: I think I would just want to say thanks to Donovan Schaefer and Jeremy Vecchi for working with me on this project in the ancient past, and thanks to Brad for joining the project when I decided to resurrect it. And also thanks to Lalle Pursglove at Bloomsbury publishing, for showing some interest in the idea and taking me up on the offer.

CC: Absolutely. And it’s brilliant to see the sort of critical religion approach applied in this sense, sort-of applied systematically to a variety of clichés that . . . . When I was reading it myself I was doing a lot of, “Well, yes. Yes, that makes sense.” But there were a lot of things that were thoughts that I’d had, but were never actually put down on paper. And lots of interesting examples, and plenty that I’d never thought of before. And I can see it being really useful, both for students and to point students to – and potentially to do the sort of thing that Brad did, sort-of structuring some teaching around it. So do check out the book, Listeners. It’s called Stereotyping Religion: Critiquing Clichés, edited by Brad Stoddard and Craig Martin. It came out in paperback immediately, so it’s nice and . . . It’s not a typical academic book price, so you can get your hands on it quite easily, hopefully. And you can find the full list of all the stereotypes and clichés . . . we’ll put them on the page with this podcast. I just wanted to end with Rebekka King’s chapter on “Religion is bullshit”. And she begins by talking about how even the desire to correct the statement “religion is bullshit” is, in itself, bullshit. And she closes the book with the following words, which I thought would be a nice way to end the episode: “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether or not religion is bullshit. The term is an empty signifier. What matters is your ability to weigh evidence, locate sources and pay critical attention to both your scholarly process and product. You may find yourself mired in shit, but at least you’ll be in good company.” And I hope you’ve been in good company today. Thanks so much Craig and Brad.

CM: Thank you.

BS: Thanks so much for having us. We appreciate it.

Citation Info: Stoddard, Brad, Craig Martin and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “Stereotyping Religion: Critical Approaches to Pervasive Clichés”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 30 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 25 April 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/stereotyping-religion-critical-approaches-to-pervasive-clichés/

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

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

Myth, Solidarity, and Post-Liberalism

With the rise of reactionary politics across the globe, it is arguably increasingly important for the academic community to give consideration to the prospects of developing and strengthening solidarity across apparent religious, political and economic differences. In this podcast, Chris speaks to Dr Timothy Stacey (University of Ottawa) about his forthcoming book, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division (Routledge, 2018), in which he asks how we can begin to imagine solidarity in the modern world, and challenges academics to be challenge the co-option of their work by being “better than those who seek to co-opt us.”

What is solidarity? What is liberalism? And post-liberalism? How does this relate to the problematic notion of post-secularity? To myth? To the ‘sacred’? And are we missing a trick by not paying attention to the mythic elements of secularity? These questions and more provide the narrative hooks throughout this interview, in which we hear some fascinating insights into Tim’s personal biography and his extensive field research in London, and challenge the aversion which some social scientists feel regarding normativity.

If you like what you hear, why not check out our previous podcasts on “The Sacred”, “The Post-Secular” and “Habermas, Religion and the Post-Secular”, as well as Tim’s ongoing Lived Religions Project with Fernande Pool, featuring many fascinating “interviews with ordinary people telling their unique story” livedreligionproject.com

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, banners, flags, teapots and more.

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

Myth, Solidarity and Post-Liberalism

Podcast with Timothy Stacey (9 April 2018).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Stacey_-_Myth,_Solidarity_and_Post-Liberalism_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): Welcome to another episode of the Religious Studies Project. It’s the start of 2018 as I’m recording – although who knows when this is actually going to go out, because we’ve got such a backlog! I am here in Reading, on my way to Oxford. And I’m joined by Dr Tim Stacey. Hi Tim!

Timothy Stacey (TS): Hi.

CC: Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. Tim is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Ottawa, but has been in the UK for the festive period and our diaries and travel schedules managed to collide nicely! We’ll be hearing bout Tim’s research during the course of the interview, but the primary trigger for the interview is the forthcoming publication of his first monograph, with Routledge, later this year. That’s called, Myth and Solidarity in the Modern World: Beyond Religious and Political Division. And today we’re going to be talking a little bit about these notions of myth and solidarity, but also this key concept of post-liberalism. So, first of all, I’ve given a very brief introduction to you, Tim. But tell us, who are you? How have you got here?

TS: How have I . . . ?

CC: How have you got here? Why are you speaking to me?!

TS: Well, I guess I started off . . . I did my Masters at Nottingham, in Theology. And it was there – as I was listening to some really interesting arguments about virtue ethics, primarily from people like Alasdair Macintyre and Charles Taylor – that I felt very inspired by the stuff they were saying. But also, as an atheist myself, I kept asking, “How do I actually make this relevant to me, somebody who’s not actually a Christian?” And that was what triggered me moving from Theology into social scientific research. And so that triggered the PhD, which was about exploring possibilities for virtue ethics and notions of transcendence in a religiously plural society. And more recently the interest has turned to secular subjects, so that’s what I’m now in Vancouver exploring: what are the potentials for transcendence and solidarity amongst secular subjects?

CC: Fantastic! And we’ll be hearing more about that as this conversation ensues. So, set the scene for us then. The first couple of chapters of this book are exploring this notion of post-liberalism. But I don’t know that many of our listeners necessarily know what-on-earth that means! So perhaps you could, just for the sake . . . ? We know that we are in turbulent political times. There is a sort of reactionary politics happening all over the place. We’ve got these notions that there’s the political elites versus the ordinary masses, and everything. So, maybe, just take us through a chronological . . . . How have we got to this state? What is liberalism? And then, what is post-liberalism?

TS: Yes. Well, basically, the basic premise of the book is to follow this post-liberal argument. And the primary argument there is that, in a liberal secular society, we’ve lost a sense of the role of transcendence in forming social identity. So instead, we treat people as basically . . . both ideally, and also primarily motivated by rationality. And I suggest that we also tend to castigate those who appear to be irrational, whether that’s because of religion, ideology, parochialism, or simply a lack of education. And I think that comes up during the Brexit debate a lot as well. And the result, according to post-liberals, is two-fold. First: politics becomes technocratic and economics becomes instrumental. So, politics is less about building belonging and empowering people than it is about a university educated elite, delivering to social-scientifically construed need. And then, economics is less about reciprocity than it is about GDP. And then second: because of this, we increasingly see people retrenching in communities that they feel provide them with a sense of belonging and empowerment – communities of faith, race, nation, economic status. But then, kind of the . . . . (5:00) What inspired this book for me was that although post-liberalism gives, for me, a really exciting analysis of our current political problems, post-liberalism is itself as much a symptom of that as it is an analysis. By which I mean that it represents a retrenching in Christian notions of transcendence. And that simply doesn’t work for a society that is simultaneously – as I put it in the book – post-Christian, post-secular and religiously plural.

CC: Hmm.

TS: So that very long premise is actually the basis of this exploration, namely: to explore the relevance and role of transcendence in developing solidarity in the messy religious and non-religious landscape that we see before us, primarily in the western world. And I explored this by undertaking two years of ethnographic research with groups seeking to develop solidarity in London – which I kind-of identify as one of the most socially and economically liberal cities in the world, as well as being one of the most religiously and non-religiously diverse cities in the world. So, despite all that complexity, the actual answers the book provides I feel are quite simple. First, it says that despite the assumptions of liberal secularism and the dominance of this system within London for almost 300 years, the majority of people – both religious and non-religious – still do draw on transcendence in forming their social identity. In particular – and this is where I get to the notion of myth – they do this through myths. And that’s what I call stories of great events and characters that exemplify people’s ideals. And while for Christians that might be like the story of Christ or of the great Flood, for atheists that might be about, sometimes, Ghandi or Martin Luther King – figures who actually have some sort of religious background themselves – but also, just stories of their mum, or their dad, or their best friend, or a great heroic colleague that for them exemplified a virtuous way of living. And then the second point is that again – despite the assumptions of secular liberalism – actually, the role of the state doesn’t need to be this kind of principled distance from religion, or principled distance from ideology. Instead, we can actually imagine the role of the state less as an enforcer of a particular ideology – or else perhaps, in a liberal society, an enforcer of a lack of ideology – and instead we can think about it as a curator of the sharing of different ideologies. So that people can explore the virtues inherent in very different ways of living and see that, for instance, I might be somebody who is quite critical of Islam, but then I spend time trying to develop solidarity in a local setting with a Muslim. And it’s something as simple as seeing that they are good people that makes you realise, “Well, maybe Islam’s not so bad, either.” And then I began to see some really interesting processes of bricolage, like out-and-out atheists talking about how they were inspired by the story of Mohammed. And they would even talk about him as the “first community organiser”, for instance. So I found that really interesting. And then I get onto this idea of solidarity centres. So it’s actually the notion that the state will create these liberal spaces in which people of very different backgrounds come together to intentionally explore their ideas of how the world should be. And then, acting on that together: “Right. Ok, this is how the world should be. What are some policies, or things going on in our community that are stopping that from happening?” And that might be something like low wages, high house prices, or whatever, and then working together to solve those problems.

CC: Excellent. Well thanks for that fantastic introduction to the topic and, indeed, overview of the book. It really resonates with me, I can remember sitting with . . . you know there is this really common idea, particularly in the UK, that politics and religion don’t go together, you know. What was it? Alastair Campbell: “We don’t do God“. (10:00) And I can remember last semester, at Edinburgh, in a course on Religion in Modern Britain, sitting with my students in a tutorial and they were talking about whether a Muslim politician should be expected to act as a Muslim or to represent their constituents. And they all seemed to think that they shouldn’t be bringing religion into it, at all. And I tried to push and push: “But what other normative ways do we allow politicians to act” And they were: “gender”, “race”, “political party”, right? We have this conceit that they represent their whole constituency but they also have the sacred ideals of their political party that they hold higher than everything else. (Laughs).

TS: Absolutely.

CC: So, that’s just a little riff! So going right back to the beginning, then – in the book it was, maybe, 2011 when your research process was starting. How did you get into this massive area of research? And what pushed you?

TS: Well, yes. It was actually an incredibly strange and exciting journey for me. So, going back to Nottingham – I don’t know how well you know that university, but we’d have a lot of theological seminars in the staff club lounge, around leather armchairs. And that was my introduction to academia – talking about Alisdair Macintyre, and virtue ethics, and John Milbank, and theses radical critiques of modernity. And I was very excited by them. But as I said, I was troubled. And I wanted to work out, “Ok, is this relevant?” And I thought social science was the best way of working that out. But I was a theologian. So I arrived in London and my supervisor starts talking to me about this thing called “data”.

CC: (Laughs)

TS: “You need to go out and get data.” “Hmm, what is data, exactly?” And I spent a lot of time reading different kind of research methods books, and trying to understand exactly how I was going to explore this question of the link between transcendence and solidarity in a religiously plural society. But then, while that was happening – and this is a bit weird now! It kind-of matches with the personal: I’ve grown up all around the world, and I’ve never had any particular home. So when I was living in London for the first time, being in a place for more than a few years, I was thinking very hard to myself about what does it mean to be a part of my local community? And as I was simultaneously thinking about those two things – on the one hand data, and on the other my own desire to be involved in the community – the London riots happened. And I thought, “You know what? This is amazing. This is a great opportunity for me to be involved in the process of rebuilding Tottenham”, which is sort of where I was living – in response to this. So I came across this group called London Citizens, who wanted to do a citizens enquiry into the Tottenham riots. They basically do these things called “listening campaigns”, where they go out and basically ask members of the public: what is the main problem that you and your family face? That’s the first question. And the second question is always, what can you . . . and us – what can we together do about this? So it’s not like, “Ok what are your problems and shall we write to the local politician and tell them about it?” It’s “Let’s do something together. Let’s take direct action.” And it just suddenly clicked in my head. I was thinking about this word solidarity so theoretically. And then here were some people actually living it out, developing solidarity in a very real way, in my local area. And my first thought, really, when that happened was to say to myself, “Why am I even bothering to study this? I should just be doing it!”

CC: Yes.

TS: “I might as well just quit the PhD!” Then it occurred to me that actually taking action in this way could be my data. And I’d been reading stuff about post-secularity. And I realised London Citizens really is a kind of post-secular group. They’re a group that recognised the important role of religion in the public sphere. They, themselves, are somewhat inspired by a faith narrative, but the majority of the key organisers were non-religious. And so the way that they were able to so openly navigate faith and non-faith, and bring people together, was really exciting to me. (15:00) And then I thought, “You know what? The best way to explore the possibility for solidarity in this society that’s simultaneously Christian and secular and post-secular, is to work with a group that indicatively represents each one of those paradigms.” So then I started thinking, “OK, what are the key post-War paradigms for developing a sense of solidarity?” And you have, initially, the very strong connection between Christianity and the setting up of the welfare state. So I took one group that I felt represented that, which was at the time called the Christian Socialist Movement, but now is called Christians on the Left. Then I thought the next phase was secular ways of doing this, and in particular, a lot of money was being pumped into councils for voluntary service. So I started working with them, representing my secular organisation. Then in the ‘90s and early 2000s you had the multi-faith policy paradigm. So I thought, “OK, I need a group that represents that.” And then, going back to the start, London Citizens became my post-secular organisation. And that’s the story of how I got there.

CC: Excellent. And on the notion of post-secular, listeners, do check out our previous interview with Kevin Gray about that. I mean I think that you would agree with me as well, Tim, that it’s a problematic notion – the concept of post-secular.

TS: Absolutely, and indeed my current supervisor Lori Beaman insists that I stop using it! So . . .

CC: Well, it’s here to stay, perhaps! OK. And you organise the book then along these . . . you’ve got these three sections really, I guess, looking at pluralistic contexts, and then the state, these organisations, and then also capitalism. And any of those would be interesting to expand upon, but perhaps let’s think about this place of the notion of myth and transcendence. And then, maybe sort-of weave in these three strands.

TS: Mmm.

CC: So basically, one of your arguments is that these organisations all have varying relationships with the idea of transcendence and the construction of myth. So maybe you could just introduce the organisations there, to tell us about them and their relationship to this?

TS: Yes, OK. I mean the word myth, I primarily introduce – and I don’t know how helpful it really is . . . . What I was ultimately critiquing there was the sort of Habernasian notion that we are primarily motivated rationally. And, by introducing the term myth, I was trying to demonstrate the parity between religious and non-religious ways of relating to the world. So in doing that I then felt that I was able – by cutting through this kind of religious/secular binary – I was then able to start thinking about the role of the state as something very different: as not something that has to separate religion from politics, but instead can relate more reflexively towards the notion of myth.

CC: Yes. Throughout you use this phrase, “religious/secular, mythic/rational binary”. That’s your thing. So, yes, what’s going on there?

TS: Yes. So what I’m trying to say, basically, is that we end up having this notion that the religious is primarily mythic and the secular is primarily rational. And what I was trying to say is that both the religious and secular have very strong mythic elements to them. Primarily, I was not doing that as a means of . . . . There’s lot of research trying to demonstrate that religious belief can in fact be far more rational than we realise. I was, actually, trying to go the other way round and say that secularity can be a lot more mythic than we realise. And I wasn’t doing that in any way to put down secular people or secularity, but rather to say, “Well if we are primarily motivated through myth then we’re really missing a trick in how we motivate secular people.” (20:00) If we simply assume that they’re motivated by rationality alone, then we miss out on one of the most powerful ways of making people act in the world. And then you get back to the whole argument about Brexit and Trump and so on, which is that if we forget the role of mythic narrative in motivating people, then they become very vulnerable to just anyone who’s able to spin a good myth.

CC: And all you end up with is talking about economics and security, as you argue. Could give an example, maybe, of the kind of . . . . So we can all think of, I guess, a religion-related myth, perhaps. But what sort of – for want of a better word – secular myths are people motivated by?

TS: Well, one of these myths is actually the notion of the self-independent rational actor itself, right? Because that is a story that people are living by, primarily. It’s not actually this . . . In some sense, there’s this kind-of subtraction narrative to the understanding of secular identity that says: it’s an identity that is short of religious elements. But instead, what I’m trying to suggest is that secular people do live by myths, and rationality itself is one of those. And another one, for instance, is that of capitalism: the idea that says people are primarily motivated by financial incentive. So, basically, what the research seems to suggest is that there are clear secular myths, but these are primarily ones I feel that aren’t intentionally constructed by secular people. So they might be myths of rationality or myths of capitalism. And what I’m trying to explore now is: OK – but what are those deep, more intentionally constructed myths that can challenge a purely instrumental notion of politics or economics? In Vancouver it’s really interesting, because that’s coming from a lot of different places. So there’s myths of earth-based spiritualty – the sense that I, as a person, am intimately related to the world in the same way . . . there. This stuff wouldn’t necessarily work in London at all, but it’s very much derived from indigenous mythology as well. So the people don’t see themselves as any more important than the orca in the Pacific Ocean, for instance, or the salmon. So those myths – the telling of the stories of the orca and the salmon – actually become really important ways of challenging an instrumental approach to the land and the environment. So you have otherwise entirely secular people arguing against the construction of a pipeline, for instance, because of salmon. And at first, I have to say, I actually giggled a bit when I started getting these findings. Because it was just so out of context for what I’d grown up around in London and for what had come out of my previous research. But as I’ve been doing this ethnographic research there – and it’s always, as in this this book, very auto-ethnographic as well – I try and really immerse myself in the stories of people I’m studying. And, yes. Now I’ve come to be inspired by these stories of whales and salmon, and how they might be transformative in challenging a particular idea of, say, growth.

CC: Yes. And I imagine one could also, you know, even just thinking of what you get in the Marvel films – there’s a lot of myth in popular culture, as well, that you probably might easily and interestingly excavate.

TS: Absolutely. And people really do integrate that into their stories. It’s absolutely not out of place that people will talk to me about a Batman film, or something, when they’re trying to explain their belief in . . . I mean, one that comes up quite a lot in Spiderman is that: “With great power comes great responsibility”. And it seems almost laughable, in a way. But I think, the way that people sort-of suspend their disbelief in the cinema can be very similar to the way they might do in a church. (25:00) And those myths really do have power for people.

CC: And we’re already almost at the end of our time, which is excellent. I mean, not excellent – I just mean we’ve already covered a lot of ground! So, just to push on this – one of the key arguments I would see from your book is that rather than perhaps trying to find – you know, sitting people down and going “OK, you’re a Christian, you’re a Muslim, you’re an atheist, you’re a Buddhist. You’re never going to agree on these things, so it’s all pointless.” So, is the idea that everyone is constructing myths about, I don’t know, the better society, the greater good, the way they want things to progress and that by focussing on those, rather than the specifics, it might be a constructive way forward? Or . . . ?

TS: Yes, that’s true. But also there’s a very real sense in which I think, those settings need to be intentionally constructed in secular society. That’s a part of where my critique comes from. So you look at my analysis of Hackney CVS, for instance, I was suggesting that the secular people there had strong myths based on their parents who might be their heroes, or their colleagues. So their myths, in fact, were just telling the stories of their friends and family. And they were really inspiring and transformative for them. But what I noticed, what there was . . . there were a lack of intentional rituals within that organisation, for bringing those to the surface. And so they failed to really integrate them into their practice, and therefore failed to inspire much enthusiasm. And so, my feeling is that we need to actually deliberately create spaces where people can discuss these things. And so my example, when you talk about bringing Muslims and Jews and atheists together in a room, the best example I came across was the London Citizens. They would ask this very simple question: “We live in the world as it is – but there is a world as it should be. Please tell me some words that you associate with the world as it should be.”

CC: Mmm.

TS: So, that’s the first step – that you get people from these very different backgrounds together in a room, recognising: “Oh wow! That guy looks very different to me but, in fact, he seems to want the same idea of the perfect world that I want.” So that’s the first step. But then – once you’ve done that – you actually encourage people to draw on their own very different, idiosyncratic stories. So once they all recognise that this is the world as it should be, then they can, again, start talking about their particular myths – whether of Islam, or Christianity or of the more secular ones such as of a Socialist utopia, or . . . .

CC: Yes. And I’ve always found it . . . . I remember Craig Martin made this point in his Masking Hegemony, in 2010, I’ve always found it very strange that, yes – why would you expect people to be able to bracket off these aspects of their identity? Why not . . . we have this myth of the secular space that people enter and they bracket off . . . but, why not just everyone talk about it, talk about your myths, and talk about where you’re coming from? And then we can, maybe, move forward.

TR: Yes – the thing is though, it’s actually a much more honest way of being. Because if I understand where you’re coming from, I can actually hold you to account on the basis of that story that you’re telling.

CC: Yes. Just to indulge my curiosity here, listeners, this might go on slightly longer than usual. I’ve got three more questions I want to ask Tim.

TS: I’ll try and be brief in my answers.

CC: No, it’s good. First, the notion of the sacred here. So I know Gordon Lynch – in fact we spoke to Gordon Lynch a number of years ago about this concept – and Kim Knott and others have developed this notion of like the secular sacred, and things. So where does the role of the sacred – maybe it’s a non-ontological, non-religion inflected sacred – fit into the myths and into solidarity?

TS: Well, for one thing, I totally would have been happy to us the term sacred. (30:00) But I had two issues with that. One was that there was a lot of talk about it being non-negotiable. And I thought, “That’s exactly what I want to avoid with transcendence.” Because the very point is that we need people to negotiate. And the other issue is, I felt that a lot of that research was around what’s already sacred. It would be around pointing out some certain category had become a sacred one. Whereas, I was trying – rather than move backwards in that way – move forwards. So I got into discussions with people doing research around that, including Gordon Lynch and saying, “Well, actually, what I’m thinking about is: how do we develop a new sacred?” And I didn’t feel like people were all that interested in that, in those circles. And in that sense, alone, that word became tainted for me. And I wanted to try and think about it slightly differently. But otherwise, yes, it is very, very similar.

CC: Yes. They’re related. You can see clear overlaps. But clearly again, you’re stepping out into uncharted territory. On that note, then: “here at the Religious Studies Project”, our sort-of approach would probably map more onto the Critical Study of Religion, and when normativity comes up we tend to bristle a little bit. So, as we’ve been hearing there, you’re an engaged scholar. So, how do you personally navigate that sort of: “I’m doing this work which is – I guess – objective, but also trying to . . . .” You know.

TS: Well, yes. I think, the thing is that I have no qualms about saying that I am personally, and academically, fighting for a world in which there is more solidarity, in which people are willing to do things for one another without necessarily expecting something in return. I’m also quite happy to say that I was saddened by the rise of neoliberalism. And I saw that Christianity was very instrumental to the setting up of the welfare state, initially. And I was asking myself that question: what is that new metanarrative going to be, around which we can create more solidarity, and renew interest in social welfare? But the research itself is objective, in that sense that I’m totally open to what the answer to that may be. And that’s constantly evolving. And I think, in my current research, I would slightly challenge some of the assumptions that I had in the previous. But it’s all this objective, social scientific, critical research that interested me in religion in the first place. Because I’m only interested in religion incidentally. Because a lot of research seems to be demonstrating that something like religion, or the sacred, or whatever you want to call it, has a powerful effect on a sense of solidarity. So, for me, that’s my only very incidental interest in religion. It’s: “OK, if that’s true, then what does that look like in a society where none of us believe the same things anymore?”

CC: And my final question was going to be, what was the broader relevance of this to the academic study of religion? But I think you’ve just actually summarised that quite neatly in your final statement there. Unless you want to have a final push?

TS: Well the only thing I would say, without wanting to be preachy, is that I think there is a real danger that we can get stuck behind this social scientific lens that says, “I’m not allowed to be normative” when, in reality, we have to recognise the very things we choose to research are guided by our own normative principals. So I think, in the dangerous world that we currently live in, it’s time for academics to step up and say, “This is what I believe in, and I’m willing to work towards bringing it about.”

CC: Exactly. And in your own work as well, what you’re doing is not proposing a definitive: “This is the objective reality.” It’s: “We’re building . . . .” And you’ve expanded upon your own research. And you’ve changed your ideas. And we’re all part of a process, moving towards whatever . . . perfection – let’s say it!

TS: (Laughs)

CC: Well it’s been a pleasure speaking to you, Tim. Thanks, so much.

TS: (35:00) Thanks, so much, for having me on.

Citation Info: Stacey, Timothy and Christopher Cotter. 2018. “’Myth, Solidarity and Post-Liberalism”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 2 April 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 29 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/myth-solidarity-and-post-liberalism/

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.

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‘Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing

Toys, Rabbits, and Princess Diana – three things that may not seem at all connected. However, when one starts to question the notion of grief, bereavement, and death in the contemporary West, these three are more connected than appears. In this podcast, Breann Fallon interviews Professor Douglas Ezzy of the University of Tasmania on the power of symbols in creating relationships and world-repairing rituals in the context of grief and death. Ezzy discusses the misjudgments of Durkheim in his assessment of Australian Aboriginal symbols as well as the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit (1922), the death of Princess Diana, and his own interaction with symbols in this original take on grief and death. Here, the notions of ‘good’ grief, the use of ritual in creating ‘good’ grief, and the very notion of ‘religion’ bring to light the active role are able to play in dealing with death.

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

‘Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing

Podcast with Douglas Ezzy (5 March 2018).

Interviewed by Breanne Fallon.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Ezzy- Good Grief- Rituals of World Repairing 1.1

 

Breann Fallon (BF): How do we deal with death and grief in our contemporary contexts? Do we avoid talking about death and grief? Is there a possibility for ‘good’ grief? What role do symbols and rituals play in managing bereavement? To talk about this topic, I have with me today Professor Doug Ezzy of the University of Tasmania. He’s editor of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion and President of the Australian Association for the Study of Religion. His research on contemporary religion includes religious diversity, contemporary paganisms, and Christianity. His books include LGBT Christians, with Bronwyn Fielder, Reinventing Church with Helen and James Collins, Sex Death and Witchcraft: Teenage Witches with Helen Berger, and Qualitative Analysis. Thank you very much for joining us today,

Doulas Ezzy (DE): Thank you. It’s pleasure.

BF: To begin, I was hoping you could give us some context for this discussion about death and grieving in the contemporary world. Do we avoid it? Are we focussing on something else instead? What sort of context do you think we’re sitting in?

DE: I guess, for me, the first move to make is I’m struck by the way in which we’re not talking about the grief or the sadness associated with climate change. When I look forward, over the next few decades, they seem to me to be a time of dramatic loss. We’re already experiencing quite profound losses. You can talk about refugees and migration as a consequence of climate change or, more broadly, about species extinction – the rate of species extinction at the moment is extraordinary. And, you know, also the costs associated with the values of neoliberalism. So there’s a whole bunch of things that will lead to dramatic losses and I don’t see many responses, in our contemporary culture, to those things. It seems strange, or odd, or bizarre. Why are all these sad losses happening and we’re not responding to it? They just get noted, maybe. And then we move on. Like, for me – one quite personal one – I’m a Tasmanian, I was born there, I go back generations. For me, I have a profound sense of a relationship with Tasmania as a place. And there was some seaweed along the East Coast of Tasmania – a really large kelp forest that would cover large areas. And in the last few years they’ve gone. And that’s a product of the warming waters. And for me that’s really sad, because I used to swim in them, we used to fish in them. And they’re gone. So there’s this: “How do I make sense of that? How do I respond to that?” And that very personal experience is reflected in so much broader, cultural experience of loss and change that we’re not responding to. So, while I don’t think we’re a death-denying society, which some people sort-of talk about, I do think that there’s something odd going on with the way that we’re not responding to grief and loss.

BF: Right, so, when you say there’s something going on with the way we’re not responding to it, do you think we’re focussing on something else? Success perhaps?

DE: Yes. That’s right. So, I think that we’re part of a culture that has a sort of a “heroic success” mythology. And I think you see that both in religious culture and in business culture and – to a lesser extent – also in medical ways of understanding the self. So, for example, here in Australia, Hillsong is a really big, popular, Pentecostal Church. And my friend and colleague, Helen Collins, did a content analysis of their music. And what she found was that, in Hillsong, they never sing about grief, loss or sadness. The songs of Hillsong are all about love, and joy, and the Power of God leading you to a successful life. If you compare that with the Australian hymnbook, Jesus is there present with you, walking through the valley of death and through your difficult times. So our religious cultures tend to be ones that celebrate success and overcoming and joy. And they are afraid, or shy away from sadness and death and loss. You see the same sort of thing in economic business narratives where you talk about autobiographies, with Mary Burgan’s study of American bestselling autobiographies. And all the men’s stories in those biographies are stories about success. And there’s not much space for ambiguity or loss, or those sorts of things. And also in the business papers it’s all about success and overcoming and achievement. (5:00) So I think, while there are experiences and stories of loss – we still bury people – all those sorts of things are still there, I don’t think we’ve got very many constructive cultural resources for dealing with the experiences of loss that I see coming, that are already here. There’s something strange going on there – the tension between the two.

BF: There seems to be . . . you’re talking about in those business magazines, in particular, sort of a real focus on the “I” and the individual person. And I was wondering if that sort-of played into this?

DE: Yes. Look, there’s broader story there about how we understand ourselves in the “contemporary West” – In inverted commas – that tends to be very individualistic. And I think that, when we look to indigenous cultures; or the Buddhist concept of co-dependent arising; or social theory, like the interactionist tradition; or hermeneutics that talk about a more relational distributed understanding of the self. And so, I think that moving away from the heroic narrative, is also moving towards a more complex understanding of what it means to be human. So for me, my sociology, I can now call it a relational theory of religion. And there’s a whole bunch of people writing about that at the moment. I particularly like Graham Harvey’s Food, Sex and Strangers, but there’s bunch of other people who are trying to think about religion more as a relational practice and achievement, rather than about “individuals who believe”. So, we’ll get on to thinking about that loss and sadness. But certainly, for me, I think we need to think more in that way, and to think about religion in that way. Because, when we think about religion as a relational practice rather than individuals believing, then I think symbols – including symbols of sadness – play a different role. They’re not about individuals believing in a symbol that represents something – which is the sort of modernist and individualistic understanding of religion – rather, I think, about religious symbols as things that draw people into relationships. And so, for me, the interesting thing about how symbols operate in religious practice, is about what relationships they draw people into, rather than what beliefs or objects they represent.

BF: Yes. So do you have a key example of that that you, maybe, wanted to share with us?

DE: So, I could talk about Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, where he does like the churinga is the key ritual object that aboriginal Australians in the  rite that he talks about in The Elementary forms of Religious Life. The churinga is the symbol that he focusses on. And he says that the Aboriginals are mistaken or misguided because the churinga is fabricated, and therefore not real. And he thinks they’re delusional because they believe in the churinga. I think that completely misunderstands what’s going on there, with the churinga, for the Aboriginal. It’s not that they believe in the churinga. It’s that the churinga is an important part of their ritual, that articulates their relationship to the land. And I think Durkheim misunderstands the role of the churinga in the ritual. He says it really represents the tribe. And it probably does represent the tribe. But it articulates the relationship between the individual and the tribe, and the individual and the land. And when we understand symbols as articulating relationships and ethical responsibilities, they make sense. It doesn’t really make sense to say they’re delusional – they’re belief is wrong – because the symbol articulates relationship, so it’s not true or false in that sort-of modernist way. Rather it’s significant, or not significant, because it articulates relationship and draws people into relationships. So that’s how I think about symbols.

BF: You gave another really interesting example this morning. For those of you who are listening, we’re at the Australian Association and New Zealand Association for the Study of Religion Conference at the University of Notre Dame. And, this morning, you talked about The Velveteen Rabbit. And for me, having read the book, it was just a really fabulous example of what you’re talking about.

DE: So my dear friend, Professor Allan Kellehear, wrote a book called Experiences Near Death. And in that book he devotes a whole chapter to The Velveteen Rabbit, which is a children’s story from 1922, by Margery Williams (10:00). And in the story – for those of you who don’t know it – there’s a young boy who has a toy rabbit that he really loves. And the young boy gets scarlet fever and is ill for a number of weeks, and the adults decide that the toy rabbit is infected with germs and needs to be destroyed. And, in the story, rather than the rabbit being destroyed the rabbit becomes real, and goes and lives with the rabbits at the end of the garden. And it’s a beautiful story, because it’s a story about how a symbol – not really a religious symbol in this case, but a symbol – draws the child into a sense of confidence and love. It’s like the rabbit allows the young boy to feel like he’s still loved. And I think that’s really important and interesting. Rather than: does the rabbit really become real? I think that’s the wrong question to ask. You completely misunderstand what’s going on for the child and the relationship. Are we tricking the child? Deluding them with thought police? That’s to misunderstand. The rabbit articulates the confidence that the child will continue to be loved and cared for. And so, when you see the rabbit in that way, the idea that the rabbit becomes real is a story that draws the child into living more confidently and hopefully in the world. So the symbol operates to draw people into relationships. And I think that’s how symbols operate.

BF: Yes. I think that it’s a really amazing example of what you’re talking about in this idea of the rabbit being part of . . . I think the words you used were “world-repairing”

DE: Yes

BF: Were they the words you used?

DE: Yes. So, I think the idea of world-repairing . . .  I’m still trying to think through exactly what that means. Because, I think symbols’ subjunctive, if you like, which is the concept that Seligman and his associates, in Ritual and Its Consequences – they talk about the way in which religion has a subjunctive aspect to it. And I think symbols can be thought of that way, in the sense that they create an “as if”, and by performing and relating to them in that way they draw you into possible worlds. So, if you think of somebody whose parent dies, for example, the ritual and the symbol of believing in the afterlife, burying them in the earth – or whatever it is – is world-repairing in the sense that it allows you to live with that grief and loss. The grief and loss is still sad and still hurts, but it’s bearable somehow. And I think symbols operate to work with our emotions, with those parts of ourselves that it’s really hard to articulate. Because we’re not all cognitive and rational. We can’t always explain things, and what we believe. There are emotions, there are experiences that are powerful, that shape us in really important ways. And the way we work with them is symbolically, not necessarily cognitively. Yes, I mean you can go to therapy. And for some people that works. Great. But other people, we need symbols that allow us to work with those parts of our lives that we find it hard to articulate. So, the example that I gave in my talk was: I showed a picture of a toy rabbit that was given to my son when he was born. And the toy rabbit, for me . . . . It’s sat there on my bedside table now for abut ten years. My daughter created a little bed in a cardboard box. And the toy rabbit, for me, articulates or symbolizes my relationship with my children. I only really realised this when I wrote this paper. I’d been thinking about this rabbit and thinking, “Oh it’s just a toy, I’ll get rid of it.” But actually, no. It’s important to me. Reflecting on it, it articulates a bunch of things about the way that I relate to my children. So it’s important to me. So I think rabbits and toys, religious symbols, crosses or Buddhas – or whatever they are – they help us. The trick here . . . . There’s an awkward tension between what might sound like a moral project and what is a descriptive project. Because religion is a moral act. And if religion is a moral act, then I’m not necessarily saying “I think you should do . . .” I’m not making moral claims here. What I’m trying to do is describe what I see as a moral practice within religion. And I think religion, and religious symbols, articulate the possible (15:00). And when we don’t do that, that creates certain sorts of problems for us. If we don’t articulate the positive possible worlds, then we get drawn into angry or despairing or frustrating possible worlds.

BF: You gave some sort-of interesting examples to help us think about this, this morning. The one that really struck me – as somebody who didn’t live though it – was Diana’s death. Because I’ve never really understood the fascination with that, because I wasn’t alive. So, for me, that one has always been something I’ve never been able to understand – until you talked about it this morning. And the process of that grieving sort-of started to make a bit more sense to me.

DE: Oh good. Why did it make sense, can I ask?

BF: I think, for me, it was what you said about . . . you know, there’s that image with all the flowers in front of . . . I think it’s Kensington Palace. And just the act of laying the flowers. Those people didn’t really know Diana, but then they’ve gone to do that. And that act of . . . . They never knew her, but the act of laying the flowers would have made them – as you said – deal with that. And there’s kind of sense to it.

DE: Yes, so there’s whole literature on Diana and whether she was a goddess, or a false goddess. And there’s all sorts of critiques of her as a problematic representation of femininity, and that sort of stuff. But for a lot of people, the laying of the flowers, or the remembering of Diana . . . Diana becomes a symbol of their own experience of grief, or their own experience of loss of someone they’ve loved, or the way that they understand themselves as a woman. And so the practice allows themselves to articulate a really important experience of grief. Sometimes it has good outcomes, sometimes it has problematic aspects to it. But I think, for people who study religion, it’s really important to understand symbol as something that operates to articulate relationships and helps people articulate emotions, as well. I think it’s really interesting.

BF: Yes. I think it’s really fascinating, this idea of the ritual. There may be some people out there who kind-of have a problem with focussing so much on actions and not thought. Is there anything you want to say to them?

DE: Look, I don’t want to say beliefs are irrelevant. I think, for some people, beliefs clearly operate in really important and powerful ways – particularly in some forms of Protestant traditions, but also in other religious traditions. But I think the focus on belief often misunderstands a lot of what religious people do. Their religions become important because of the way they fit into our lives – the practices and the symbols and the rituals allow us to find ourselves, to build relationships. And the beliefs are sort-of secondary, or part of what’s going on, but they’re not primary. So I think this idea of religion as believing in something and then “perform”, misunderstands what’s going on.  I think that we find ourselves in relationships, we work out etiquettes and ways of relating to each other, and they’re articulated by symbols. And then we articulate beliefs and their legal frameworks, on top, that justify what we’re doing. So that’s the way that I’d see them.

BF: Yes. And I think you’ve given us so much to think about in terms of how we understand religion, and particularly in a modern context. The thing that really came up, to me, when you were talking this morning, was the idea of sort-of avoiding death by social media. Like keeping a person’s Facebook profile going after they die. This sort-of really complex way that we deal death in a modern context.

DE: Indeed.

BF: We’ve run out of time. So is there anything you wanted to just finish off with?

DE: Um. No. Thank you very much for the opportunity. And it’s been great.

BF: Thank you so much for talking to us today.

Citation Info: Ezzy, Douglas and Breann Fallon. 2018. “’Good’ Grief? Rituals of World Repairing”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 5 March 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 2 March 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/good-grief-rituals-of-world-repairing/

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.

A student response to “Hinduism”

Edinburgh Masters students respond to Will Sweetman on “Against Invention: A Richer History for ‘Hinduism'”

by Whitney Roth and Lauren Flynn

Read more

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

In this interview Associate Professor Will Sweetman talks to Thomas White about the idea that ‘Hinduism’ and many of the other terms we use to classify religions—including the term religion itself—are modern inventions, emerging out of nineteenth-century inter-cultural contact and European colonialism. Will argues against this critique, and to make his case he draws on historical sources that discuss ‘Hinduism’ both outside of the anglophone experience and long before the nineteenth century. Through identifying alternative, non-anglophone sources of cross-cultural, West-East encounters, where comparative religion is the subject of reflection and description, the concept of ‘Hinduism’ is presented as obtaining a much richer history than the ‘invention thesis’ allows. Such sources include accounts by German Protestant missionaries and those by Jesuits writing in Portuguese, as well as native, expository works by self-reporting Indian religious thinkers. Will argues that ‘Hinduism’ as a concept is older, broader, and indeed more internal to India, than is currently assumed, but this is frequently missed through an overemphasis on relatively late sources almost exclusively in English. The interview goes on to discuss the implications of this research – and endeavours similar to it – for the study of religion in general. The interview closes with a brief chat about Otago’s hosting of the IAHR Congress in 2020.

*This week’s podcast is sponsored in part by, Cen SAMM. Through their collaboration with INFORM, they’ve created a searchable database of millenarian movements available online.*

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

Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’

Podcast with Will Sweetman (19 February 2018).

Interviewed by Thomas White

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Sweetman_-_Against_Invention_-_A_richer_history_for__Hinduism__1.1

 

Thomas White (TW): Kiaora! And a warm welcome from the Otago University recording studios here in Dunedin, on New Zealand’s South Island, where I’m joined today by our very own Associate Professor, Will Sweetman. Professor Sweetman is an historian of religion, whose research focuses on the interactions between the religions of Asia and the West in the modern period, and has published three books and several academic articles that explore the historical and the theoretical aspects of the study of religion, with a theoretical focus on South Indian traditions. Will, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview and welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Will Sweetman (WS): My pleasure, thank you.

TW: Now, the topic I’m hoping to discuss today with you is what you described to me as a defence of the “ism” – with the particular ism in question being Hinduism. But perhaps, to ease our way in, we maybe should start at the beginning, or at least your academic beginning, as it were. So, Will, could you please describe your early training in the study of the history of religion and how this has shaped the trajectory of your research career?

WS: Sure. So it was very much a happy accident. I did my undergraduate degree at Lancaster, which is probably well-known to the listeners of this podcast, but it wasn’t to me. I had chosen to go to Lancaster to study Maths and Philosophy, and Religious Studies was . . . you were required to study a third subject in your first year. And for me, it was very much a toss-up between Religious Studies and Psychology. But the queues for Psychology were much longer!

TW: (Laughs)

WS: So I decided to choose Religious Studies, and really never looked back. So I switched to Philosophy and Religious Studies for the remainder of my degree. But what that meant was my understanding of the academic study of religion was shaped by that Lancaster tradition – which was open to all traditions and emphasised, really, none. And even though much of the work I did was, in fact, on the Christian tradition, because of my interest in Philosophy, and because there were papers in the Lancaster Religious Studies department that were focussed on . . . the paper was called: “Modern Religious and Atheistic Thought.” And it was focussed, really, on 18th century and after philosophical thinking about religion. My work was very much focussed on Western Christian thinkers and thought, coming out of that tradition. But I didn’t privilege that, in a way. Then when I went on, my initial aim was to do more philosophy of religion. And I went to Cambridge to do an MPhil in Philosophy of Religion and very quickly discovered that that wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. But partly because although Cambridge had a Religious Studies . . . the faculty of Divinity was teaching Theology and Religious studies, the assumptions were so different. And really, it was that jarring discovery that the Lancaster way was not the only way – because Lancaster really was my only experience of what it was to treat region in the academy. But at Cambridge it was very different, and that prompted in me the question: how did these two such different traditions emerge? And really, that led me to the 18th century and looking at foundational works, like Hume‘s Natural History of Religion – but how this naturalistic approach, that privileges no religious tradition, emerged. That in turn then led me to looking at the religions that were being studied – or the non-Christian or non-Western traditions that were being studied or discovered in Europe at that time. And because, I suppose, of the colonial expansion going on in India it was particularly Hinduism that was being discovered and discussed at that time. Which then led me to my doctoral work on the study of Hinduism and the conceptualisation of Hinduism from the 17th through to the 18th century. Originally, I intended to include the 19th century but . . .

TW: It got a bit too much?

WS: Yes – as many PhD students discover.

TW: Ok, great. It seem that you’ve got quite a personal narrative feeding into your research interests. In terms of the actual methods of the historical study of religion, particularly inter-religious contact, what would you say are the best habits of analysis, or the important things to watch out for when you’re engaging in such research?

WS: So for me, by temperament I think, as much as anything else – because I’m not really trained as a Historian, although that’s how I would describe myself – attention to the sources is absolutely paramount (5:00). And that means – particularly in the context of what we’re talking about, where most of my work is set, that is, the period of European expansion overseas, encounter with and study of Non-Western cultures – well, two things: first of all the European sources, but particularly, also, the sources on the other side. Now that’s always harder, I think, in . . . . There may be a few exceptions in some periods or highly literate cultures but certainly it’s much harder, generally, to recover the voice from the non-European side of the encounter. Harder but, I would say, not impossible. There are ways of doing it and it’s important, even though it’s difficult, not to short-cut that process. So there is a tendency, I think, even in the works of some scholars whose work otherwise I would admire . . . . I’m thinking here, particularly, of Urs Apps’ The Birth of Orientalism which is wonderful book, but he has a tendency to dismiss the sources that are described by Western scholars as their own inventions, to say that they simply made up the source: it doesn’t exist. Now that’s a possibility, but before you can say the source doesn’t exist, you have to do your damnedest to find out whether it does! And there is a particular example in my own work. This is an early 18th century Protestant German missionary who assembled a library of Tamil Sources, which he documented, he catalogued quite carefully, which is unusual for that period. More often, other similar writers – missionaries and others – would simply have done general term like: “in their books”. But he identifies the texts, and some of them are very well-known and it’s not difficult to identify them. But there’s one particular text which he said is the “most important of all Hindu texts”. It clearly isn’t. Particularly because there is no other reference to this text anywhere, so far as I can discover. I had the good fortune when I came to Otago to be given some research money that was pretty much . . . I didn’t have to compete very hard for it. I simply had to propose a project. So I proposed a project I thought nobody else would ever fund, which was a wild goose chase to go looking for this text.

TW: Yes.

WS: And courtesy of a brilliant research assistant, Ilakkuvan, who worked with me – a young Tamil Scholar. It took him about ten or twelve months going through archives very diligently and he found the source. So it is possible to recover the source. And it’s not the most important text. It was wrongly evaluated. But it was the most important text for this particular missionary. And by reading this source we can see what he’s doing with it, and how that’s shaping his own account of Hinduism. Which is, undoubtedly, shaped by his Protestant, Christian presupposition.

TW: So this is the missionary, Bartholomew?

WS: Ziegenbalg. Sorry. So it’s still . . . It is fed through his Christian presuppositions, but it isn’t sheer invention. He is following a text. And what’s interesting about this text is that it’s a basically monotheistic text. So when Ziegenbalg describes Hindus as monotheist this is not only a relic of Christian assumptions about the natural light of reason and a universal revelation, but the result of his close reading of a text – so we can now follow him, and read that text, and discover. . . . So that’s what I would say is the key to this: attention to those sources. On the European side of the encounter, I would also . . . I regularly bemoan the fact that because the sources are thickest in the 19th century, and because the vast majority of people who work – particularly Indian scholars, but not only – are Anglophone: that’s all they read, is English sources. And it’s really important, I think, to look at sources in other European languages. And there are, of course, people looking at those languages. I’ve recently started using Portuguese sources which are the most amazing mine of material. And they have been read, but largely they’ve been read by Portuguese scholars who tend to publish in Portuguese. Not exclusively, there are exceptions to that. So I would say that going beyond the Anglophone sources – or rather, the failure to go beyond the Anglophone sources is a particular problem in much of the historiography of colonial encounters of religion (10:00). Again, there are exceptions, but as a generalisation.

TW: So the importance of linguistic analysis, and making sure that you’re covering all the different cultural, colonial experiences of the European adventure. Perhaps relating to this, at the start of your book: Mapping Religion, Hinduism and the Study of Indian Religions 1600-1776, published in 2003, you equated the dominant history of religion in India as a “Just So Story”. What did you mean by this?

WS: So a “Just So Story”, as I’m sure you know, is Kipling’s stories of “How the Leopard got his Spots”, and so on. And I think there are a couple of accounts of how many of the terms that we are familiar with in the study of religion, how those terms came to be used. So, in the case of Hinduism, there’s a popular account that this was a matter of divide and rule: that the British, by dividing Muslims from Hindus were able to dominate both – set them against each other. Or there’s another story, which I first heard from one of my teachers at Lancaster, which was that the missionaries needed an opponent. They were used to systematic debates, and therefore they constructed an opponent with whom they could have a debate. Now what’s “Just So” about these stories is that though it could have happened like that, that may be how it happened, there’s no evidence that it did. Or, I would say that obviously there’s a grain of truth in both of those stories, but the real story is much more complicated, and involves, again, patient attention to the sources. So again, in that book, what I trace is how the emergence of the concept of Hinduism as a single pan-Indian religion, distinct from Buddhism and Jainism in particular, emerges – at least in part – from experience of Europeans in India and attention to texts. So the question of the spread of Hinduism as a religion throughout India, but confined to India – and therefore different from similar-looking or outwardly-similar religious traditions elsewhere in Asia – partly arose from Europeans observing phenomena like pan-Indian pilgrimage. There are pilgrims from the North of India coming to the major pilgrimage sites in the South. Or that some of the  . . . . For example, the mythology of Krishna: much of it is set in North India, but there were Europeans reading the mythology of Krishna in South India, in South Indian texts, in Tamil Sources, which describe Krishna in places in North India. So it was on the basis of this that Europeans began to connect phenomena of Hinduism in different parts of India. And then, the opposite part of the question is: what do you exclude? And again it was from looking at Indian sources that Europeans decided that Buddhism and Jainism were regarded as more-or-less beyond the pale. And again, if you look at South Indian religious sources, the Tamil texts are very clear. There’s one Tamil author who devotes one verse in each of his poems to denouncing the “filthy Jains”, and the “heretic Buddhists”. And it was through attention to these sources that Europeans worked out that there was a dividing line here, somewhere. There may well have been  . . . And no doubt this idea was consolidated by the practice of censuses by the British. And there was a degree of the other Just So Story that I mentioned, of the missionaries seeking an opponent: so, using Indian sources saying, “Not all Indians agree with us. The Buddhists disagree with you. They say the Veda is idol worship.” So there’s a grain of truth in those stories. But the full story is more interesting, I think. And it also shows a greater degree of Indian agency in the production of these classifications – or if not directly “agency”, at least “input”.

TW: So, the argument that Hinduism is actually a far more coherent, or far more collected systems of rituals, beliefs and institutions than perhaps the “Hinduisms narrative” presents. How do these arguments sit, perhaps, within more current debate about religion and the public space in India? Is there a way that this kind of scholarship can speak to contemporary issues, perhaps regarding the BJP or Hindutva or other current religious public sphere issues taking place in India at present?(15:00)

WS: It’s an interesting question. And there is a danger, I think, that arguing for a greater coherence in Hinduism will give succour to those who argue that Hinduism is the Indian religion and there should be no other. But there’s also a danger – and you can see this in the works of some modern Hindutva ideologues or thinkers, who present the critique of the idea of Hinduism as an attack on Hinduism. So, “You’re trying to tell us that our religion doesn’t exist.” So in a way, those who – not for that reason of course – but who have attempted to deconstruct the idea of Hinduism are also able to, or are in danger of giving succour to those who want to say, “See. The West is out to destroy you. Hinduism we need to unify and rise up!” So the dangers are. . . . So I guess, in the end, you can’t control how your ideas are going to be used. Some unusual people have cited my work in ways that don’t or were never part of my intention. But that’s . . . you can’t control that. You have to go where the sources lead you. And it’s not an argument, I think, to say, “We shouldn’t say this because it might be used in a way that’s not to our liking.”

TW: Yes. I’m finding similar questions and challenges in relation to my research in Fiji, in terms of: where do these ideas feed into other political agendas? But I think you’re right. You just have to go where the sources take you. Now, as I understand it, you’ve been collecting case studies regarding the conceptualisation of religion, or world religion-type concepts in pre-colonial and colonial encounters outside of India. Can you tell us a little about this?

WS: Yes, so this isn’t really something that I’ve done consciously. But I guess, over the last ten years or so, I have done little more than pay attention to where I have seen arguments similar to my own being made in the case of other traditions. And, for a while now, I’ve thought that it would be interesting to do some kind of survey or compilation of the kinds of evidence that’s being presented, and look at what that is telling us about – or what that suggests about – this broader critique of the formation of the “isms”. So I’ll be giving a paper at the Stephen Berkvitz has recently published an article challenging this idea that you find in the work of people like Philip Almond and others, that Buddhism was a 19th  century invention based on the study of text. And he’s showing that no, very clearly in the 16th and 17th century Portuguese, mostly Jesuits were communicating with each other across Asia, or travelling in some cases. So Loís Fróis, a 16th century Jesuit, spent a lot of time in India and then went to Japan. And he understood the connections between India and Japan, and the trajectory of Buddhism from one to the other (20:00). From the other perspective, or the other direction, Eva Pascal has recently written about Franciscan friars coming from the Philippines into Thailand or Siam and engaging with Buddhism. And again, like Fróis, who described Buddhism as a religion, making the same analogy. So that’s one set of case studies. There’s another which is looking, perhaps, more at indigenous understandings of this. So this would be the work, I’m think here of Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst who’s looked at Islamic South Asian Sources, which not only classify religions in a way that’s not dissimilar to the supposedly modern Western way in which we classify religions, but she’s also shown that the very scholars in the 19th century to whom this classification is usually attributed were influenced by . . . they were reading these sources. So Abu’l-Fazl– a Muslim intellectual, a Mughal intellectual, who describes the religions of India, was being studied intently by British scholars in the middle of the 19th century. And then finally – and again you could see that, the Mughal Empire, as a form of cross-cultural encounter, even though it’s an Empire. But there are even, on a deeper level, indigenous accounts. And here I’m thinking mostly of the work of Andrew Nicholson and his book, Unifying Hinduism. So he looks at pre-modern doxographies, from as early as the 6th Century, in India, which are concerned with classifying the different schools of thought that there are. And so these are not all Hindu, there are Buddhist and Jain texts and, perhaps, particularly Buddhist and Jain sources were interesting in this. But what’s very interesting is that he shows that toward the slightly later texts, but still very much pre-modern, there is a kind of coalescing of an idea of an āstika – so, texts that affirm the Vedas: a unification of . . . it’s not quite what we might call Hinduism,  but it’s not a million miles from it either. So, hence the title of his book is Unifying Hinduism. And again, this is not a reaction to either Muslim or Western incursions or colonial structures, it’s something coming from within the tradition and within different schools of thought within the Indian tradition. So, I think, there are some other older works as well, Michael Pye’s work on Tominaga Nakamoto – again pre-European influence – a Japanese intellectual discussing the three religions, san jiao, in China: Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism . And again, coming up with a generic concept that’s not unlike the concept of religion which is supposedly invented, like everything else, in the 19th century.

TW: OK, Well, the argument seems to be that the use of the term religion is older, broader, transects outsider/insider distinctions. Does that mean that scholars of religion are safe? Can we rest easy? Are we no longer at risk from the conceptual tools of our analysis?

WS: I think the approach that I would take to this is to say that it’s better the devil you know. So the work that’s been done in deconstructing historicising the concept of religion is by no means valueless. I’m not saying we should discard that, and go back to a happy sense that this is a natural kind and it emerges from the world unproblematically. But I think the proposals from some scholars that we should replace religion with some other term – I mean, you go all the way back to Cantwell Smith and, I think, “cumulative traditions”, or Timothy Fitzgerald has made various proposals of things that we might . . . . The problem is that those terms are no less the result of our attempts to construct reality in accordance with our presuppositions. So the advantage, to my mind, of terms like religion and Hinduism is that we are now – because of the work of these scholars who’ve deconstructed them – much more keenly aware of their limitations. And I don’t think that they are applicable in every circumstance. So, I think there are scholars who’ve done ethnographic work on sites in India, where you will have people coming to a particular site which is, or might formerly have been described as Hindu, and what they’re showing is this label is very problematic (25:00). And the kinds of people who are coming to those sites aren’t, maybe, clearly identified, or can be labelled as Hindu, or Muslim, or Christian in some cases. And I would agree, in that context, the label Hinduism is perhaps not useful. But that doesn’t mean there’s no context in which it is useful. So it’s always a matter of what the context is, what the purpose is for us. I think one of the things that strikes me as a little bit odd, is – and again this is something I’ve kept track of over the years – is the number of times you will hear a speaker, or at the beginning of a book somebody will deconstruct the term Hinduism. And having cleared their throat and covered their bases with this term will then go on to use the term with exactly the same referent as the supposedly pre-critical scholars who used this. So, Donald Lopez had a nice joke about this. He said you could spot scholars of Hinduism by their over-developed pectoral muscles, from continually having to make “scare quotes” in the air . . .

TW: (Laughs)

WS: …every time they used the word Hinduism! But the point is, that they continue to use the word Hinduism and the scare quotes were there. So, I think we can and we should continue to use the term, and the danger of replacing it, or of replacing religion with some other term– because those terms haven’t been so thoroughly deconstructed – is we would be tempted to think of them as more closely corresponding to some actual reality and less constructed, in a way in which they aren’t really.

TW: Yes. That’s also a lot of heavy lifting to go and create these new terms, and try to describe how they can kind of convey meanings that aren’t subject to the same problems as previously.

WS: I think the other dimension here is that precisely because of their history, these terms have a purchase beyond the academy that we can’t ignore. And so this is sometimes described as, you know, people in Religious Studies sawing off the branch on which they sit. Now, if it were the case that there was a compelling argument for discarding the term and disbanding departments of the study of religion, our own financial self-interest wouldn’t be a reason to retain the term. But there are other reasons, as I’ve tried to explain, why I think we should. And given that, if we are to speak to the public sphere, we need to do so in ways that are intelligible. And talking about cumulative traditions or hierarchical structures simply doesn’t cut it.

TW: It doesn’t communicate.

WS: And we can go on to complicate what those terms mean, but we would be ill-advised, I think, to abandon them from that point of view, as well.

TW: Yes. I agree. I do agree. OK. Last question, Will. We’ve been talking about the historical study of religion and its importance to the broader discipline of Religious Studies and its methodologies. Now in 2020 the International Association for the History of Religion will host its next World Congress here in Dunedin. Now, as head of department for Religion and Theology at Otago, I’d imagine you’ve already started to think through what you hope this might look like, or what ambitions you might have for the event. Can you share some early thoughts that you might have on this, please?

WS: Sure. I think there’s a lot of reasons for doing this. Some of my colleagues think I’m mad for even contemplating it! But I think there’s a lot of benefits that I see in this. I mean, one of the primary aims is to share this wonderful part of the world with scholars from all over the world, and we hope many will come. And I think we should be honest about the fact that that’s a reason why many people will come! Because New Zealand is a wonderful place and it will be great to share it. But it’s also, for me, the other side of that is Religious Studies in New Zealand, as it is in many parts of the world, is a relatively small, and in some cases embattled discipline. We have lost departments of Religious Studies even in the short time that I’ve been in New Zealand. And those that do exist are small, for the most part, and not exactly directly threatened, but not as secure as they’d like to be. So I hope that hosting an event of this sort will help in a host of ways to consolidate the discipline here (30:00): to create visibility both internationally – for work that’s been done in New Zealand – but also within New Zealand, to bring to the attention of our academic colleagues and people more broadly, also, what the academic study of religion is. That’s a constant battle. New Zealand is a country where religion is – I would compare it often . . . . For many people what your religion is, or religion at all is about as much interest as whether you prefer strawberry or chocolate ice-cream. There’s a kind of apathy toward religion. Not always, but. . . . And I think, demonstrating the importance of what we do by bringing the best scholars from around the world to talk about what they’re doing, and why the study of religion is important will be important.  And also it will give our graduate students . . .  . We’re a remote location, we don’t get an opportunity to interact with these people. So it will be a once in a lifetime opportunity, I think, for younger scholars in New Zealand to really see the scope of what’s going on overseas and to interact personally with those people. There’s something irreplaceable about that opportunity which, I think, young scholars in New Zealand don’t have as much as scholars in other parts of the world.

TW: Thank you, Will. Well, on that rather optimistic and forward-looking note I think we’ll draw this interview to a close. But thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and expertise with us.

WS: Thank you. And we look forward to seeing you all in 2020!

TW: Indeed! Thank you.

Citation Info: Sweetman, Will and Thomas White. 2018. “Against Invention: A richer history for ‘Hinduism’”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 19 February 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 16 February 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/against-invention-a richer-history-for-hinduism/

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