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African American Spiritual Churches

Dr. Guillory teaches religion at the University of Rochester, but her first love is natural science. After receiving a B.A. in Chemistry, she taught high school science for several years. She draws inspiration from the sciences in her current research as a religion scholar. In her investigations of African American Spiritual Churches in New Orleans, Louisiana, Dr. Guillory describes a “dynamical self,” a fluid state of identity shifting between the individual and the collective. Her knowledge of chemistry directly influenced this theory.

The African American Spiritual Churches are combinatory religious sites, which blend Protestant, Catholic, Spiritualist, Haitian Voodoo, and Benin’s traditional Vodun practices. Female leadership and business management has been essential in the history of these churches. Dr. Guillory’s upcoming book draws on years of archival research, ethnographic observation, and oral history interviews to tell the story of these churches from 1920 to the present day. Hurricane Katrina looms large in this story. Most of the physical churches were destroyed in the flooding — or the former inhabitants were not allowed to return as the government began eminent domain proceedings. Yet this religious community endures. Guillory is one of the first scholars to work with the Spiritual Churches, whose affairs remain largely private. Our interview concludes with a discussion of anthropological ethics and practice — how to earn the trust of a community, and how to tell someone else’s story without “stealing” that story.

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

African American Spiritual Churches

Podcast with Margarita Simon Guillory (29 January 2018).

Interviewed by Dan Gorman

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Guillory_-_African_American_Spiritual_Churches_1.1

 

Dan Gorman (DG): Professor Margarita Guillory, thank you for joining us today.

Margarita Guillory (MG): No problem. Thank you for inviting me.

DG: And today we’re going to be talking about your new book on African American Spiritual Churches in New Orleans. Although, I’ve been reading your book proposal. I understand the final title has changed.

MG: Yes, instead of More Than Conjurers being the primary title, it’s now the secondary title. So it’s Spiritual and Social Transformation in African American Spiritual Churches: More than Conjurers.

DG: So, perhaps the reverse order of what you wanted originally?

MG: Yes! But for marketing purposes, More than Conjurers took second place. They really believe that they can market the book better with the Spiritual Churches being in the primary title.

DG: Now, just so people have some brief background – is this what you wrote your dissertation about?

MG: My dissertation was actually based upon ethnographic research pulled from spiritual churches in New Orleans. However, the dissertation was a little bit more theoretical, in that it focussed on the ways in which spiritualists in New Orleans utilise rituals and altars – both personal and public altars – to articulate a complex form of subjectivity that I sort of coined in the dissertation, called the “dynamical self”. So the dissertation was little bit more theoretical. I sort-of was able to use the dissertation to write a peer review article and two edited volume essays. However, it was a little narrow for the publisher’s taste. So I sort-of had to rework . . . . I wrote an entire new book, basically!

DG: I see. So when you mention the idea of the dynamical self, it brings to mind the grandiose theatrical aspect of religious worship. I mean, you could say there’s a dynamic self in many religions. But what’s unique about the way that people express their religious beliefs in these churches?

MG: I would say that the way in which I saw the “dynamic” is this sort of fluidity. Within the dissertation I sort of expand upon this fluid conception of the dynamic – and it’s called the dynamical self. But the dynamical self is this identity form that is sort-of the simultaneous expression of both a public collective identity, based upon association with shared qualities with the grou, but it’s also the construction of a personal identity form that’s based upon one’s uniqueness. And this is a theory that . . . . I didn’t go into these communities with this theory. This theory was really formulated based upon the data that I collected from the communities. So it’s totally the reverse. I went in with no sort-of expectation of what I would actually find. I just thought the communities were really, really interesting. And the data yielded the theory.

DG: So, a data-derived argument, rather than a data-driven argument.

MG: Exactly, exactly.

DG: Now, you came into Religious Studies . . . it’s sort of a second career in some ways. You were a high school science teacher, originally. So, how did your first background in natural science . . . how did that inform how you approached the study of religion?

MG: That’s a great question. And it’s a question that I’m asked quite frequently when people find out that I have a Bachelors in Chemistry. I have a profound love of the physical sciences, specifically Chemistry. You know, Chemistry has allowed me to . . . it has armed me and equipped me with a particular interpretive lens. The dynamical self, even though it’s derived upon the data that I retrieved from these Spiritual Churches in New Orleans, it’s really based upon this equilibrium state that sort-of occurs when you look at certain chemical reactions. So the theory – while based on the data that I retrieved from these churches – the way that I sort of nuanced it, was based upon chemical formulations of just basic equations, something that you’d learn in general Chemistry. So science just gives me a unique lens to view religion. Does that answer your question?

DG: I think so. I think I’m curious to know, do you identify as a Humanist or do you identify as a Social Scientist?

MG: Oh. I don’t like to be placed in a box! I think I am a unique scholar in that way, that I still sort-of follow some of the general trends that are going on in Chemistry, I have a great relationship with a couple of Chemists, even on our campus (5:00). I do use sociological and anthropological approaches to the study of religion. And I do consider myself a Humanist. So in that way, I think I’m sort of like a quilt. Which can be problematic for some people, but it works for me. This is why I can have these really collaborative interdisciplinary projects with people across disciplines and not feel uncomfortable. Because I feel like a piece of me as a scholar is vetted in these multiple disciples.

DG: Which brings me back to your book, when the publisher releases it in a few weeks, what . . . not genre – we know it’s a non-fiction monograph – but, the little stamp on the top cover that says what genre it is and what topic: how is it being sold? Is it history? Is it religion?

MG: Yes. Very good question. It has multiple genres. Because the book I wrote, like I said: a lot of the data that I collected while doing research for the dissertation will be used, but the approach is different. It’s different than the dissertation. The book basically examines the socio-political activities and the spiritual-therapeutic elements that are found in the Spiritual Churches in a really, in a coalescing sort of way. And so, in that way, because the book is political – looking at the political and social activism of these churches – and because it looks at the therapeutic function of these churches, the sort-of tag lines will be history – because I start with the first church in the 1920s and by the end of the book, the chapter on Post Katrina Spiritual Churches – so it’s historical but it’s also being publicised as religion in society. So you see that sort-of band where the sociology is also coming in. So they have marketed it in a variety of fields. Interestingly, they’ve even promoted it in what we would call like “Africana Religions”, So if you do a google search with my name under Voodoo or Hoodoo, my book will actually pop up. So they really cast a wide net when publicising the book.

DG: So I suppose the next question is, what is a Spiritual Church? Aren’t all churches spiritual?

MG: That’s a great question. African American Spiritual Churches that I research are a blended religious group. And I like that term “blended”. And what they’ve done, they have conjoined all of these various elements from institutionalised religions – and I’ll talk about them in just a moment – and they’ve created their own, unique religion. Specifically, the Spiritual Churches in New Orleans have conjoined Protestant traditions with a focus on Pentecostalism; they draw from their worship style. Catholicism is a major bedrock in spiritual churches in New Orleans, just because Catholicism is still the predominant religion that’s practised in New Orleans, in particular, and Louisiana, in general. They also incorporate American Spiritualism: the ability to communicate with the dead, that was birthed in Western New York, in Hydesville; and they also sort of conjoin and mix into their faith Hoodoo and Voodoo. And this notion of Voodoo is derived directly from Haitian Vodou. So when you look at sort of their belief system, and their ritual practices, you can see a little of all of these religions.

DG: So when we talk about Hoodoo – this was sort of an older white term used to describe it in some cases. I’m thinking of sort-of 1920s, white attempts to understand black religion. But Voodoo itself is sort of a combinative thing. You’ve got influences of Islam, Native American and Caribbean religions, Christianity. And, of course, there’s a longstanding debate in the study of African American religions: are these religions more – quote unquote – “African” or are they more “American”? Do you have any thoughts on that?

MG: Well I would say, if we specifically look at the system of Voodoo and I mean V-o-o-d-o-o, I would totally say that that is an American religion (10:00). It is a blended religion that is primarily based – even though you have these other elements like Christianity – it’s primarily based upon Haitian Vodou, V-o-d-o-u, that Haitian immigrants who emigrated very early to New Orleans after the Haitian Revolution. A large population of Haitians immigrated to New Orleans and they took with them the religion. So, even though you have these other elements in Louisianan voodoo, the backbone of that religion is Haitian Vodou. And, of course, we know that Haitian Vodou -o-u- was derived from this combination of Catholicism but it comes directly from Benin.

DG: In West Africa?

MG: Exactly: Vodun. So, in that way, once the Vodou sort-of lands in New Orleans, in the South East, yes, it becomes this syncretic – and that’s not the term I like to use – but this sort-of blended type of religious tradition.

DG: So let’s walk through the genealogy from the top, then, beginning in Benin in West Africa. So this would be what kind of religion there? Are we talking about Islam or are we talking about traditional spiritual beliefs?

MG: So, Benin Vodun is an indigenous religion. It is a combination of – and that word might be seen as maybe a little charged – but it is sort-of a combination of the traditional religions that are being practised in Benin. But the scholarly term for it becomes Vodun.

DG: I see. So, then when slaves were brought to Haiti those indigenous religions are brought there. And then they encounter Spanish and French Catholicism, depending which side of the island they’re on.

MG: Exactly, yes.

DG: And then that finally goes to America, where you have the collisions that you’re describing.

MG: Right. Particularly in New Orleans.

DG: So how big a population are we talking about?

MG: That’s hard for me to say, like, quantitatively.

DG: Hundreds? Thousands?

MG: That’s hard for me to say quantitatively, off the cuff. But I could definitely have these sort of conversations, qualitatively. But that’s sort-of tough to derive. We can sort-of search and crunch the numbers but those numbers would be hard to derive.

DG: So let’s talk about some of the churches you studied, then. Were they packed to the gills on a Sunday?

MG: What’s interesting: pre –Katrina, the churches were packed. You had fifty-plus churches. Post-Katrina, those fifty-plus churches dwindled down to two churches in New Orleans.

DG: Is that because of population displacement?

MG: That’s part of the problem. So, part of the problem would be population displacement. And seventy percent of the fifty-plus churches that were operating in New Orleans pre-Katrina were located in the 9th Ward.

DG: (Whistles)

MG: So they were destroyed. And the last chapter of my book sort-of talks about that. The ways in which not only were some of them structurally destroyed but, because of some very difficult economical and political and structural changes that occurred in post-Katrina New Orleans, the lands of these churches – even if they were in a position where they could have restored the church – they were taken, and they were converted to green spaces.

DG: So was that eminent domain?

MG: Eminent domain. Many of the churches – I calculate about forty percent of the churches that were located in post-Katrina 9th Ward – were sort-of taken back by the City, via eminent domain.

DG: I see.

MG: So, there are multiple factors sort-of feeding into why these churches have dwindled down to two.

DG: Has gentrification also occurred?

MG: In the higher elevated levels of 9th Ward, gentrification is now occurring. They sort-of called this area Holy Cross. They built a school, they have a private developer that’s coming in. And I’m saying higher elevation, but it’s still below sea level! But it’s higher than the dominant part of the 9th Ward. It’s being gentrified.

DG: So they’re pushing out the poorer, mostly African American . . .

MG: Well they never let them back in, really. Because they never built . . . . In the 9th Ward, for people who did choose to come back they had no businesses, no stores. I think within the last two years they might have a health clinic. So the infrastructure wasn’t rebuilt for people to come back (15:00). So we can argue, was this intentional? Was this: “We’re going to let the 9th Ward return to nature so it can sort-of serve as the buffer, or the retention land, for other parts of New Orleans? So they won’t flood if we have another major storm, and if we have the breaching of the levees?” So it becomes very . . . and I try to unpack that in chapter five of my book. The ways in which the changing landscape around Spiritual Churches . . . . If you look at the changing landscape of spiritual churches it tells us a lot about other landscapes and shifting landscapes in New Orleans: demographic landscapes, social landscapes, economic landscapes, political landscapes. If you just focus on the Spiritual Churches we can see all of these sorts of dynamics that are going on, post-Katrina.

DG: So I’m assuming that the flood water has destroyed substantial amounts of material culture: archives . . .

MG: Oh, definitely.

DG: So what’s left? I mean, were you working in people’s attics, were you working in libraries?

MG: So no, actually, what was interesting is: when I first went to New Orleans it was in, maybe 2010, and many of the churches were still standing. They were in horrible condition, but they were still filled with all the material culture – covered in all sorts of mould and everything else. And of course I was in those places. So, some of the spiritual leaders who were really respected leaders in the city: Bishop Jackson, Bishop Stokes. He came from Detroit,to give me a tour. So before they began to tear these structures down . . . . Like, these structures are no longer standing in 2017 but I had the fortune to go while they were still there. Not only was I able to see what was in the inside, I took photos of the inside, I took photos of the outside. I do plan on publishing a book of photos of the before and after, so people can actually see what is happening in New Orleans, still today.

DG: But Spiritualists tend to be quite private. How did you gain this access? And this is something I’ve talked about in my past interviews: Douglas Brooks studying . . . . The only way to study some Hindu rituals is to gain the trust and become part of the community. Or Candy Gunther-Brown, who I spoke to – watching Evangelical yoga, but not participating. How did you get access to these communities?

MG: Well actually, one of the first scholars to publish a comprehensive work on Spiritual churches of New Orleans is Claude Jacobs. He’s now retired. He was at the University of Michigan. Him and my adviser at the time, Dr Anthony Pinn who’s also done some work on Spiritual Churches, they basically . . . . He went to Dr Jacobs and told him, “I have a student who’s interested in the Spiritual Churches.” And I was introduced to Archbishop William Stokes who has now passed on – as the Spiritualists say – to the other side. And it was through him. Because he had been a part of the Spiritual Churches. So he came to Houston – we flew him to Houston – and he and I basically spent two weeks together in Houston, just getting to know one another. I took him to different archives, I interviewed him. And so, basically, it was through him. But we had to sort-of . . . . He had to decide, in those two weeks, whether he was going to trust me, and actually introduce me and open the door or not. So, I guess, at the end of the two weeks – considering I’d published . . . like eighty percent of my scholarships is on Spiritual Churches – I must have gained his trust. Because he was coming from Detroit, he said he would be really excited about introducing me to people in New Orleans. So I won a Ford Dissertation Fellowship and I was able to pay for his travel and we spent a summer – this is how I actually first thought of it – we spent a summer in New Orleans together. And it was remarkable.

DG: Generating trust. . .

MG: Generating trust, and because

DG: . . . that you’re not stealing their stories.

MG: Exactly. And because he did not . . . . Because he had been a part of the Spiritual Churches, by that time over five decades, people trusted him. And they knew that he wouldn’t just bring, you know, anyone into the community that wasn’t going to sort-of take their religion and do something with it, in a really fundamental positive way (20:00).

DG: That’s the line between being curious and then between past scholars, who basically were stealing.

MG: Exactly. And I invested a lot of time. So this was like the groundwork. I wasn’t even really collecting data at this point. I was just building relationships. So, you asked me how did I get in – because they are very secretive. This is why there hasn’t been a lot of scholarship surrounding spiritual churches, because some people have mishandled what they’ve given the scholar. So I had to spend quite a bit of time building relationships. But once I’d built those relationships it was like the floodgates opened. They were so excited about sharing their faith with me.

DG: Professor Guillory, we’re almost out of time. I’d like to ask briefly: several of the early chapters in your book focus on female leaders in the church. Women like Mother Leafy Anderson. Could you just speak briefly about female leadership in the churches?

MG: I can. This is why I like the book that I’ve published, instead of turning the dissertation into a book. This book really highlights the political savviness, the entrepreneurial spirit of women in New Orleans, specifically from the early 1920s through the 1940s. These were women, women like Mother Leafy Anderson, Mother Catherine Seals, these were women who not only purchased property, but they built structures from the ground up. For instance Mother Leafy Anderson, she built her church from the ground up, property that she purchased, and the organisation that actually financed the building of her very lovely church for the 1920s, was the Italian Homestead Association. If you go and look at the history of the Italian Homestead Association in New Orleans they were not freely giving money to African Americans to build businesses and structure. That wasn’t their social function. They were committed to Italians, and Sicilians in particular, who were coming into New Orleans, actually utilising them as a pipeline to build and to invest in these communities. So it was really interesting that she was able to get them to finance . . . .

DG: And a completely different religion!

MG: Well what’s interesting is that her church – and I talk about this a bit in the book – was about thirty percent Sicilian.

DG: Well, that’s interesting! Which means the church was racially integrated in the1920s.

MG: It was. And also, Mother Catherine Seals, the manger was about twenty-five to thirty-five percent. We can’t get our hands wrapped around the exact number, but hers was also an integrated religious compound. And during her time there were segregation laws about cohabitation.

DG: And not only that, you had lynching!

MG: Exactly, exactly. And so these women – and this is what I love about the book – the book sort of highlights the courageous activities. And they were really savvy when it came to business, too. They had an entrepreneur sort-of model of earning money using a religion, in a way that was just . . . they were ahead of their time! They were like – I guess we would call them like our large megachurches today. They were like the megachurches of the 1920s, though the book really highlights the social activism and the ways in which these women also met the spiritual needs of the individuals, both black and white – which is amazing. The book sort-of talks about that, they were . . . . Yes, they wanted to be an anchor for the black community, but they also served the white population who were being marginalised by class and by ethnicity. They also served those populations as well.

DG: So just to wrap up, I’ll say that reminds me of – it’s a quite old book – but Arthur Fauset’s Black Gods of the Metropolis

MG: Yes!

DG: So, for those of our listeners who aren’t familiar, Arthur Fauset, an African American scholar wrote this book in the 1940s about the urban religions, mostly in Philadelphia. And these were – like your Spiritual Churches – many of them small groups led by women, and they’re exercising creativity in ways that white society doesn’t want to allow them. And so Fauset also discusses the idea of, you know, foreign religions being translated in America. So, clearly, these questions are still viable and thought-provoking seventy years later.

MG: A perfect ending! (25:00)

DG: So, I will ask, what’s the next project?

MG: Oh. The next project? African American Religion in the Digital Age. So, while I’m still publishing essays and peer-reviewed articles on Spiritual Churches, I’m sort of moving in the direction of digital religion. Specifically, I’m looking at the ways in which people of African descent are utilising technical advances to express multiple forms of religion. So I’m working on a chapter now on black humanism and black atheism, and the way in which it’s promoted among Millennials using social media platforms.

DG: Be careful, you’ll be getting into transhumanism next!

MG: I know! (Laughs)

DG: Professor Guillory, thank you very much.

MG: Thank you very much, Dan.

Citation Info: Guillory, Margarita and Dan Gorman. 2018. “African American Spiritual Churches”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 29 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 26 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/african-american-spiritual-churches/

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Drawn to the Gods – Religion, Comedy and Animated Television Programs

If you were asked to name the TV programs with the most religious content and references what would you name? 7th Heaven, Supernatural or perhaps Games of Thrones? How many of us would name animated television series such as The Simpsons, Family Guy or South Park? These television series are amongst the most religions on our screens. Indeed, 95% of The Simpsons episodes, 84% of Family Guy episodes, and 78% of South Park episodes contain explicit religious references. These animated comedy shows are critically influential in teaching viewers about religious people and religious institutions. The commentary created via the intersection between humour, satire, and religion in these TV shows, particularly in their own context of America, creates an interesting image of what it supposedly means to be a “good religious American”. In this podcast Associate Professor David Feltmate, author of Drawn to the Gods: Religion and Humor in The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy, chats to Breann Fallon about the manner in which these three television shows create a broad commentary on religion for the general public. Feltmate highlights the central place these animate programs have in the proliferation of ideas about the spiritual and the religious, as heavily consumed mediums of popular culture.

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

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

Drawn to the Gods: Religion, Comedy and Animated Television Programmes

Podcast with David Feltmate (11 December 2017).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Feltmate_-_Drawn_to_the_Gods_1.1

Breann Fallon (BF): If you were asked to name the TV programmes that were most religious, had the most religious content and references, which ones would you name? Seventh Heaven, maybe? Or Supernatural? Or perhaps Game of Thrones? Well, I was wondering how many of us would actually name The Simpsons, or Family Guy, or South Park. Because, did you know that 95% of Simpsons episode, 84% of Family Guy episodes and 78% of South Park episodes contain explicit religious references. These animated comedy shows are critically influential in teaching viewers about religious people and about religious institutions. The commentary created by the intersection between humour, satire and religion in these TV shows – and specifically their context of America, creates an interesting image of what is supposedly meant to be a good religious American. To discuss this topic today I have with me Associate Professor David Feltmate, the author of a fantastic new work entitled, Drawn to the Gods: Religion and Humour in the Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy. Dave is Associate Professor of Sociology at Auburn University at Montgomery. He received his PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Waterloo in 2011. His research areas include the Sociology of Religion, religion in popular culture, humour studies, social theory, new religious movements and religions and family. His book, Drawn to the Gods is available from New York University Press and is the topic of our discussion today. Thank you very much for joining us today, Dave.

David Feltmate (DF): Thank you for having me.

BF: So, I’m really interested in how this book came about. Why did you choose to write a book on The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy?

DF: So, this book really started in the winter of 2005. I was fresh out of my masters’ degree at Wilfrid Laurier University. I was living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. And I was teaching sessionally, like a lot of people do. And I was teaching a course on religion and popular culture. And I had set the course up. We did a week on Christianity in popular culture. So we’d do a crash course in Christianity and then an example of Christianity in pop culture, or whatever. And what I realised was, these classes had 65 students in them each: I would have three students that really paid attention every day, five students who would tune in for the topic of the day, and most people were just kind-of there to get credit and they weren’t paying attention. And I thought, well, Jeez there’s a lot of really interesting and relevant pop culture stuff. But the way that I started to get them to listen was, I would start quoting Simpsons references at them at the front of the room. And at the time, in Canada, there was a Canadian comedian named Brent Butt. And he said with a good cable package you can get three hours of The Simpsons every day. And he was pretty close to correct at that point in time. And so this stuff was just ubiquitous, everywhere. And that’s what drew students back in. They knew these religious references but they had no understanding of the religious traditions at all. They were just coming in and experiencing it for the first time. Which led me . . . because I knew I was going to go on and do a PhD, which I did at the University of Waterloo. And I said, “Well, they’ve got to have learned something, what did they learn? What were they being taught through these jokes?” So that’s what I went off to study. And so I wrote my dissertation on The Simpsons and that’s sort-of, the very early awkward stages of the book that’s there now. And my supervisor, Doug Cowan, I remembered distinctly, one day he said, “OK. Your dissertation is done, but it’s not a book yet. It needs comparative data.” “Well,” I said, “The obvious comparative data is South Park and Family Guy.” And now they kind of look like legacy programmes, but that’s where it came from. These shows were widely known, they were critically acclaimed and people are learning religious material from them. And I wanted to know what they were learning. And over time it evolved into: how were they learning this through humour? (5:00) Because a lot of the literature that I was reading on The Simpsons or South Park – there’s still not much written on Family Guy – I just found that people did not ask the question: why are these things funny? They simply worked on the assumption that they were. But I know people that don’t find them funny. So I had to ask, what is it about humour that enables people to transmit this information – transmit it in a humorous way – but why are they seeing these things as humorous? Because I know that some people are not going to. They’re either not going to get the joke, or they don’t think the joke is funny in the first place. So that’s where this book comes from: from teaching and thinking about what it means to talk about religion and religious diversity through humour.

BF: So in the book you talk about this idea of sort of using satire and comedy, and how that is bringing religion to a broad audience, and this idea of broad commentary and how this is really teaching the general public about religious people and religious institutions. And I thought we could talk about some specific examples before we sort of talk about the general takeaways from the book. And there are some really interesting examples in the book. I personally like the ones from The Simpsons because – I don’t think I watched every episode of the Simpsons, like you probably did, but I’m pretty close – I do really love the Simpsons. And I’ve watched a lot of Family Guy as well. I think it’s really interesting that you say there’s not a lot written on Family Guy, actually. Because I would have thought there would have been quite a lot on Family Guy, which is an interesting point on the side.

DF: Unless it’s exploded in the last year or so after the book was finished, and it was out there, and I just kind of need a break from reading all of the literature. No there really wasn’t a lot on Family Guy.

BF: Well, there’s a project for any RSP listeners who are looking for a little article to punch out there: Family Guy there for you! But I thought, maybe, we could start with your favourite example from any of the shows, maybe a new religious movement example? I thought maybe you could start with one of those?

DF: Oh man! Do I have a favourite? I don’t know if I have a favourite. I know I’ve watched “Homer the Heretic” the most, but that’s not a new religious movements example. Well, it depends on how you define new religious movements.

BF: That’s a great example anyway.

DF: Yes, well that’s the classic. That’s the sort of Simpsons’ religion urtext from Season Four. And it used to be that I could pretty much close my eyes and see that entire episode playing out before me. So the reason that I really love that one is that it encapsulates so much of what would become the running narratives of religion in the Simpsons. There’s this sort-of back and forth with Christianity. There’s an open display of Hinduism and Judaism, and all of these different kinds of religious traditions that are on display, and a part of this – a part of Springfield but also a part of the American fabric. Which when you consider that that episode was released in what, ’92 . . . ?

BF: It’s early.

DF: I think it’s ’92. Well it’s season four, but I want to say it’s November ‘92. Just a second, I’ve got the book here. It’s going to drive me nuts if I don’t . . . .

BF: The interesting thing about Homer the Heretic – correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s the one where he eats the chilli isn’t it?

DF: No that is . . . the name is in Spanish and I can’t remember, but it’s “The Mysterious Voyage of Homer: El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer”. And that one is Season Eight. Yes, that one’s a great one, too. I love Johnny Cash as the Coyote that offers spiritual wisdom. And Homer says, “Should I get rid of my possessions?” And the Coyote just laughs at him and says, “No. If anything you need more possessions. You don’t even have a computer.” (10:00) And, yeah, “Homer the Heretic” was ’92.

BF: So what happens in “Homer the Heretic”?

DF: So in “Homer the Heretic”, Homer decides, “I don’t want to go the Church,” one day. And he has the best morning of his life, and he attributes it all to not going to church. But Marge has dragged the kids to Church, and so there becomes this marital strife between the two of them over Homer not going to church. He says he forms his own religion, and so he starts doing things like – one of my favourite examples is that he calls into work from the bar and says that he can’t come in, because it’s a religious feast day. And he looks up… They say “What feast day?” and he sees a sign that says “Maximum occupancy” and he says “Maximum Occupancy”. “Click”. Those kinds of jokes really play on this ongoing sentiment in the United States that to be a good American you’ve got to be religious. And you see this come about all the time in political discourse in the USA, when people are talking about candidates. Atheists are among the most distrusted groups, in terms of large polls in the USA. And that’s still today. And this part of the discourse and debate around Donald Trump, is that people can’t figure out why Evangelicals continue to support, or came out to support Donald Trump when he’s so opposed to the kinds of values that they claim to represent, certainly, in all of his actions and everything he espouses to. And The Simpsons was sitting there 25 years ago now, saying, “Hey, this is okay. It’s okay for people to drop out of church.” Then God visits Homer in a dream and says to Homer, “You’ve forsaken my church.” And Homer says, “Well, I try to be a good person and I love my kids. I just want to sleep in on Sunday mornings.” And God listens to Homer for a minute, because Homer says, “Why should I spend every Sunday morning hearing about why I’m going to Hell?” And God goes “Hmm. You’ve got a point there. You know, some Sundays I’d rather just be watching football.” And Homer says, “So, I figure I should just try to live right and worship you in my own way.” And God says, “It’s a deal!” and then ascends into Heaven. And that’s really part of this larger spiritual-seeker narrative – the ability to pick and choose among different religious options – that has become part of the way that Sociologists of Religion, anyway, talk about the United States. And all of these religious options . . . . Like, I live in a city of 200,000 people, roughly. And there are close to a thousand churches in the area. And if you don’t like what’s going on in one of them you can literally. . . . I mean, I went to Church this morning and there’s a church across the street and another church in the parking lot. I was like: “It’s church row over here!” And if I didn’t like what was being said in my church, I could literally walk out the back door and in two minutes be in another service. And that’s just among Christian denominations! At least, now, I live in the American south, so it’s different than other parts of the country. The United States is different in its different regions. But that narrative of spiritual seeking, anyway, by the ‘90s had become part-and-parcel, part of the fabric of the United States of America. And that’s what I like about “Homer the Heretic”. It really introduces this spiritual-seeking – worshipping God in your own way, do what you want to do, that’s fine, just don’t try to impose it on anybody else – that I really found became the core of The Simpsons. So, I don’t know if it’s my favourite, because I love other episodes. I love “The Joy of Sect”, which is the Movementarians, which is just such a great name for a new religious movement. And, as I show in the book there are all these kinds of quick visual references to numerous new religious movements. So it works really well as a display of the cult stereotype. (15:00) And in South Park the Blametologists, as well, are like that. And I really like to study that because again at the University of Waterloo I was working with Douglas Cowan and Lorne Dawson. And people who study new religious movements would be familiar with those names. And I never went in to study new religious movements, I went in to do religion and popular culture, but I said, “Well I’m working with two of the top scholars in the world in new religious movements, I’d be an idiot not to pick this up and learn from them.” And what I found was that these shows were able . . . . Let me go back here a second. If you go into a classroom now and you ask people what a cult is, they’ll usually be able to give you some kind of idea, like it’s a bad religion, it’s a group of people who follow some leader and they don’t think for themselves, they’re often associated with dangerous kind of religions. And then I say, “OK, so you know all of this. How many of you have ever met somebody who’s in a cult?” And nobody raises their hand. Or I shouldn’t say that: I’ve had one person who knew somebody who was in a group that he considered a cult. And so I had to start asking, “Well, where you get this idea from?” And Joseph Laycock has a good article in The Journal of the American Academy of Religion on this as well, called “Where do they get those ideas?” So I don’t want to steal Joe’s thunder. What it was is, over time, these images and ideas about cults were repeated through mass media, through jokes, through television, to the point that you could create completely fictitious groups like the Movementarians, with numerous references to all of these other different groups like Rajneeshpuram is in there, certainly the Unification Church. There’s a mass marriage scene which is just . . . . I like to, in classes, take a picture of a Unification Church mass marriage, and that scene – just a screen shot – from The Simpsons and say, “Look! They’re almost identical!” And what it was, it was able to play on a legacy of particular framing in terms of fear. So that now, generations who have never really encountered some of these movements have a heuristic with which to interpret them. So I thought that was really relevant. That’s definitely one that I like.

BF: This idea of, you know, the TV show being the lens through which a generation can interpret religious people and religious institutions . . . .You said that the Simpsons was sort-of advocating this idea of spiritual-seeking. Do you think that’s the same for South Park and Family Guy or do you think they advocate something different?

DF: No, I think each one advocates its own thing. I think South Park is all about individual creativity.

BF: OK

DF: So, there’s a couple of South Park episodes: “Go God Go” and “Go God Go XII”, I think is the number. And that came out when Richard Dawkins released The God Delusion, and it was a best seller. I think The God Delusion is really the book that made this sort of Four Horseman of the New Atheists movement with Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett who had books out before Dawkins and then Christopher Hitchens who had one out afterwards. But I think The God Delusion is really the book that broke the tidal wave for all four books to become this kind of marker in time. And when it came it in the audio commentary Trey Parker and Matt Stone were talking about how Penn Jillett of Penn and Teller was saying , “You guys have got to come out as atheists,” or whatever. And Trey Parker’s going “But, I’m not an atheist. I don’t necessarily believe in God the way that other theists do . . .  .”  (20:00) But with South Park they don’t like organised religions, but where individual creativity is promoted, enhanced, allowed to flourish through religious expression, they really don’t have a problem with it. What they have a problem with are hypocrites, or people who say things that they just think are stupid. Right? So their feud with Scientology, versus how they treat Latter Day Saints, is a good example of that. The episode “All about the Mormons” from South Park, which has (sings) “Joseph Smith was called a prophet, dum dum dum dum dum.” And dum dum dum eventually turns into “This whole thing is dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb!” But the Mormons are the nicest people ever to come to South Park. And at the end of the episode, the Mormon kid, Gary, just looks at Stan and says, “All I ever wanted to do was be your friend, but you were too high and mighty for that. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy.” And I won’t finish that quote because there might be children listening at home. That, compared to the Scientology episode, “Trapped in the Closet”, which basically came out of . . . . They were asking, “Can we say Tom Cruise is gay?” And they say, “Well, no. That would be libel.” “Well, can we put him in a closet and have him refuse to come out of the closet?” “Yeah, you could do that.” Well, they did that, but they also ended up making fun of Scientology at the same time. And they were just vicious towards Scientology, saying that it’s a big fat global scam. Well that’s because they see the two different religions very differently. They don’t think Scientology produces good people the way that the Latter Day Saints do. And that’s where you can find – in those comparative nuances – is where I think you can find the real standards that South Park puts out there. And Family Guy? Family Guy is atheist. Seth MacFarlane has come out as a very prominent voice in atheist circles and early on in the programme there was . . . . So, the first three seasons of Family Guy there’s more willingness to play with the possibility that religious identities might be good things. But by the time you hit about Season Six or Seven, all the religious traditions are treated as stupid, and in some cases, very dangerous.

BF: That’s really interesting that the three project something completely different, because what people can take from them – you know, the images that they’re getting about religious people in religious institutions, that kind of broad commentary – is so varied. And that idea of, you know, spiritual-seeking is so varied. And one thing I found really interesting in the book were the examples about atheism and spiritual-but-not-religious in the three different TV shows. Because talking about, just then, the different, you know: The Simpsons as being spiritual-seeking and South Park as being this idea of creativity and then Family Guy as being atheist. Then their representation of atheism and as spiritual-but-not -religious in each show is very different. And I think it’s very interesting to see atheism and spiritual-but-not-religious in this context. Because I don’t necessarily know if it’s something that we see on TV a lot.

DF: No. And for me one of the big things was . . . . So, I’m also trained as a Sociologist of Religion and in the United States, whenever a major survey of religious affiliation is released, so let’s say the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life releases a major survey, it gets boiled down to “the number of Christians versus everybody else” in media play. (25:00) And one of the things that I was noticing, really early on, is there’s almost a fight in political and popular culture in the United States over who owns the “unaffiliated”; who the unaffiliated are. Even that term is a problem because it assumes that they’re not just being themselves and their own distinct group, just like Christians and Jews and Muslims. And if you start looking at American religious statistics, there’s a couple of thousand different denominations that get lumped into different families for statistical purposes. But there was this real question, and I saw this coming from New Atheists, people like Domar, where he would claim that people who weren’t affiliated with religion were somehow atheists like him. And I started looking at the numbers and looking at what people in those groups were saying, and I went, “You know, spiritual-but-not-religious is really a catch-all category for all kinds of stuff.” In terms of what people are doing on the ground, it’s a very creative place, where two people would say, “Well, I’m spiritual, but not religious,” and the grounds you would have to compare what they’re doing is the fact that they both say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” And I think The Simpsons in one way, and South Park in another way, kind of capture that. And how they treat atheism in all three programmes is also distinct, right? Like South Park tends to treat atheists like they would other religious extremists. In one episode, “Red Hot Catholic Love”, which is on one hand about the Catholic sexual abuse scandals that were coming out of Boston at the time when that episode was released. When the people in town find out that the kids are being abused in the Catholic Church – not in the local Catholic Church but in the Catholic Church over all – they all decide to quit and become atheists. And one of the sub-plots in that episodes is that Cartman discovers that if you stuff food up your butt, you end up pooping out your mouth. And so, long story short, all the atheists, basically . . . . The surgeon general says, “Oh yes, this is a much healthier way to eat.” So all the atheists start shoving food up their butt and crapping out their mouths. And one of the punchlines in the episode is, Father Maxi, the Catholic priest says, “You just sit around spewing a bunch of crap out of your mouths”, while one of the atheist is busy literally crapping out his mouth. And that really, I think, is one of South Park’s attacks on atheism: they see it as too extreme. Going back to “Go God Go XII”, there’s really this sense that . . . . They’ve got this race of enlightened sea otters in the future and the Wise One comes out and says about Richard Dawkins, and I’m paraphrasing here: “He had some great ideas but that doesn’t mean that he was correct on everything. Maybe, just believing in God makes God exist.” And then all the other otters gang up and kill him. And in the future, you know atheists in those episodes, atheists are at war with each other over what all the atheists should call themselves. So it’s not like atheism solves the problem of religious violence, which is what a lot of atheists were claiming at the time – or at least prominent ones. So, yes. For me, anyway, in terms of writing the book, it was thinking about the ways that we can get people to think about atheists as atheists, and people who say they’re spiritual-but-not-religious as spiritual-but-not-religious. And maybe there’s some overlap in individuals, but maybe these should be two sort-of separate categories in the way that we start thinking about religious groups and publics, certainly within the United States. And you could speak better for the Australian situation than I can.

BF: (30:00) I think we probably should take a moment to talk about . . . . We’ve had all these really great examples about the different sort-of faiths in the TV shows that you bring up in the book. And I think there’s a lot that we could take away from the book as Religious Studies scholars or Sociologists, as well. What do you think the major take-aways from the book are?

DF: I think the first one is: popular culture is something you have to pay attention to. It should be part of the data of a Religious Studies education. In a lot of cases, we teach religion and popular culture as large cash-cow courses in universities, meant to kind-of pull students into the discipline and then get put into quote-unquote “real” coursework at upper levels. And I think that undervalues the work that’s going on, that popular culture producers are doing themselves. So, one of the first takeaways is: this is deep, detailed material. I read through the book and there are days when I go, “Oh man, why didn’t I include that example, or this example?” I threw out way more than I put in, which a lot of people will tell you about their books. So there’s still. . . . I’m done working on these three series. But hopefully, somebody else will pick it up and in four or five years go, “OK! There’s new material here!” Maybe there’s been a new direction taken. I mean, South Park, for the last two years has done really interesting serial episodes throughout their seasons that are completely different from the stuff they were doing when I was writing the book. And who knows? I mean, the next season could turn completely into a massive story arc in which a particular religion or combination of religious traditions become major players. And that could change the argument that I make about South Park. Because these are still ongoing programmes and South Park is able to change directions very quickly – depending on where Trey Parker and Matt Stone want to go – unlike The Simpsons and Family Guy, which are such big productions that trying to turn those ships at this point would be incredibly difficult. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is: jokes aren’t just jokes. . . would be the way that I would put it. Humour is grossly understudied as a means of transmitting religious information. And this is one of the arguments in the book that we haven’t talked about a whole lot. But I talk about religious satire as running on sort-of two different tracks in the book. There’s the sense of, it’s religious satire in that it’s jokes about groups that are considered religions. So there are Mormon jokes in there, there’s scientology jokes. There’s two chapters on all different types of Christians, there’s Jews, there’s Muslims, there’s Buddhist and Hindus, Native American religious traditions. Because that’s where the data was. But at the same time, I argue that the humour itself is doing this work of bringing people into, and here I use a modified version of William James’ definition of religion: socialising you into an unseen order. And that, to me, has become – for me personally – one of the major take-aways from this project; that humour itself really socialises people and audiences very quickly, but with a ton of information flying at you, into a particular worldview. And we don’t pay enough attention to the way that humour is doing that. (35:00) Humour is treated as something frivolous but, at least through working with this data, I found that it was far from just joking. I found it to be an incredibly powerful way of getting across that sense of “it’s funny because it’s true.” And this book is sort of written to say, “No, things are never funny because quote-unquote “they’re true”. It’s funny because people think they’re true. And what are the consequences of socialising people into a big picture of how religious diversity should work, based on the jokes that they tell about religious groups? So, I think those would be the two biggest . . . . There’s also this last one that I always find myself bringing out now because, yeah, I’ve been told I’m a crotchety old liberal arts professor even at the age of 35. But I really do think there’s something valuable to thinking through the stuff that we are consuming. A bad episode of The Simpsons will get millions, literally, more viewers than will ever read my book. Unless, by an act of God, this becomes some sort of international bestseller. And I’m sure University Press would love if that happened, I know I would! Sitting down, thinking critically, assessing why we find certain things funny, asking ourselves, what was actually portrayed in this episode? Why do I get this joke? Because one of the experiences that scholars of religion can bring to programmes like this is, if you have a history of studying anything in religious studies – let’s say you’re a specialist in reform Judaism – you know more about, Reform Judaism than I do, because I’m not a specialist at all. But you can sit down and you can ask: OK, when they portray Jews, how are they doing that? What images are they drawing upon? What additional information can I bring into this conversation to change the way that people would look at this joke, this data? What are the advantages and disadvantages? That old-fashioned critical thinking approach. And the reason that I really like the Simpsons and South Park far more than Family Guy is that I think the Simpsons and South Park have within them a spirit of keeping that critical thinking tradition alive, far more than Family Guy does. And you can do this just by turning on your TV. And I wrote this book, in part, for students in those religion and pop culture classes, those large classes where people will show them an episode of The Simpsons, or South Park, or Family Guy and you can learn to do this from the get go. And that’s a really important vital skill for sitting down and asking who you’re going to be as a person, as a citizen, in this world. Because, at least for me, for example, when I was much younger I would laugh at racist jokes, before I ever met people of different races. I grew up in a predominantly small town, white New Brunswick culture, although there was a large Native population nearby. And it was after meeting people from different backgrounds that I went back, and I thought about jokes that I used to laugh at, and I thought, “You know, they’re really not that funny, now that I know people that fit. So why did I laugh?” And I changed my behaviour accordingly. And thinking about laughter at jokes – why you laugh, what you’re doing when you laugh. Jokes transmit a ton of information, very quickly. (40:00) And the more you can think about them, and the better you can think about them, and the clearer you can think about them, the more you can understand the relationships that are going on in the society around you. And then you can start asking what you want to do with them. And that’s kind-of where I left the book at the end. I left it open-ended, in the sense that I want readers not to stop with the book. I want them to keep thinking after they’re done reading it. So that would be the third take-away.

BF: Well, I definitely found the book left me thinking about pop culture. And everything I watch now, you laugh and you think – you’re right – why did I laugh at that? Why is it funny? And, you know particularly with The Simpsons and South Park and Family Guy, there is so much thought that goes into every single episode. And I really think that, you know, the academy is really kind-of clicked onto the politics side of those shows. They’ve clicked onto the idea that they’re commenting about Trump, or they’re commenting about American politics. But they haven’t really clicked onto the idea that they really comment about religion. And I think you’ve really clicked onto that. And it’s something that we can go beyond those three shows and really look further into pop culture at things that, perhaps we thought – you know, I hope I can say this – things that we thought perhaps weren’t worthy of our time before; these shows were a bit low-brow and low-culture. But they’re actually bringing out these ideas that people are consuming en masse. And they are conveying these ideas about religion, and this broad commentary, that people are consuming en masse. So thank you so much for joining us today. There are so many things in this interview that we can take forward and we can think about and talk about. So thank you so much for joining us again, Dave.

DF: Thank you for having me.

Citation Info: Feltmate, David and Breann Fallon. 2017. “Drawn to the Gods: Religion, Comedy and Animated Television Programmes”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 11 December 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 8 December 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/drawn-to-the-gods-religion-comedy-and-animated-television-programmes/

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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.

“Communicating Religion”. Annual Conference of the EASR

A conference report by Hans Van Eyghen

Visiting your Alma Mater is always accompanied by mixed emotions. On the one hand you see familiar things you missed but on the other hand you’re confronted with downsides you hoped were a thing of the past. My visit to the KULeuven for the EASR conference had both, although the positives far outweighed the downsides. Read more

‘Modelling Religion’ and the Integration of the Sciences and the Humanities in the Bio-cultural Study of Religion

Following his Albert Moore Memorial Lecture at Otago University, celebrating 50 years of Religious Studies at Otago, Professor Wesley Wildman talks to Thomas White regarding the integration of the sciences and the humanities in his bio-cultural approach to the study of religion.

Wildman argues that the methods and knowledge of the empirical sciences, from evolutionary biology to neuroscience, are increasingly gaining authority in the study of religion. This is to be welcomed. Yet when scientists pursue the study of religion unassisted, they can often slip into simple category errors, or fail to recognise important contextual nuance. The expert collaboration of humanities scholars is essential for ensuring this new and growing area of scholarship remains conceptually rigorous and culturally informed. The two fields of academia must work together, but sometimes, institutional and ideological barriers can prevent such cooperation, not least regarding the use of ‘religion’ as a general category.

Tom_White,_Wesley_Wilding_27-Jul-2017

Tom White (left) and Wesley Wildman (right)

Wildman’s current project ‘Modelling Religion’ (which uses computer simulations to explore religious behaviour), offers a compelling case for Wildman’s mixed methods approach. Whilst also admitting the project’s limitations, Wildman explains how computer simulations of social and psychological processes can provide fresh input on long-standing, previously irresolvable theoretical debates in the study of religion. The interview finishes with Wildman speaking on the practical aspects of working on such mixed-method projects, including how younger scholars should prepare themselves should they wish to participate in similar research endeavours in future.

This podcast is sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes (Masters and PhD) in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of the RSP team have been through the Edinburgh RS programme, which comes highly recommended. Find out more 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, the movie Terminator 2, lollipops, and more.

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

Modelling Religion and the Integration of the Sciences and the Humanities in the Bio-cultural Study of Religion

Podcast with Wesley J. Wildman (9 October 2017).

Interviewed by Thomas White.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Wildman-_Modelling_Religion_1.1

Thomas White (TW): Hello. I’m here in Dunedin, on the South Island of New Zealand at Otago University’s recording studios, with Professor Wesley Wildman of Boston University. Yesterday evening we had the pleasure of Professor Wildman’s delivering the Albert Moore Memorial Lecture. That’s a lecture series celebrating fifty years of Religious Studies here at Otago University. The lecture title was “Integrating the Science and the Humanities in the Study of Religion”. Professor Wildman has written and co-edited numerous books and seemingly innumerous academic articles and  is the founding co-editor of the journal, Religion, Brain and Behaviour. He is also the founding director for the Centre for Mind and Culture. Presently Professor Wildman is also the Principal Investigator for the Modelling Religion Project, a sub-project under the umbrella of this Centre’s broader Simulating Religion Project. Professor Wildman, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Wesley Wildman (WW): Thanks, Tom.

TW: So, I’ll start my first question, if you don’t mind. Professor Wildman, I understand that you work in the relatively new field of cognitive science of religion. Could you please give a brief summary of basic methods and principles that characterise this approach to the study of religion?

WW: Sure. First of all , I’m a philosopher of religion by native orientation and I specialise in the scientific study of religion, generally. And I would describe the area of my work as in the bio-cultural study of religion rather than the cognitive science of religion. Cognitive science of religion – as a name for an activity – has become broader over time, having less to do, specifically, with cognitive science and more and more to do with integrating information coming from both the biological sciences and the sciences of culture. Most of the things that we care about in religion involve both the sciences of cognition and the sciences of culture. So we care about minds and brains and how they work, and we also care about the way these things in collectives produce emergent phenomena of great interest to us at the cultural level. Keeping both sides, culture and cognition together is crucial for being able to get anywhere in understanding these complex things. That’s why the Centre for Mind and Culture has the name that it has, to indicate that it’s bio-cultural in orientation. And the religion work that we do through the centre, which is done through the Institute for the Bio-cultural Study of Religion focuses on that phrase bio-cultural. Now the methods that you use, then, are extremely diverse. Because the sciences of cognition and culture cover a tremendous amount of territory. I don’t know if it’s worthwhile listing methods, but the point is sometimes you’re doing qualitative research that’s in-depth studies of groups of people, other times you’re doing demography or social science-type statistics gathering, still other times you’re working on interpretive aspects of the social sciences and Religious Studies. And on the other end, you’re doing neuro-science studies – maybe eye-tracking or neuro-imagining – or you’re doing psychological surveys, or you’re doing medical tests to see how people respond to various conditions that might be related to religion, and so forth. The point is that all of these methods are available and you use whichever is the most useful for making sense of the problem that you’ve decided to tackle. And the fundamental principal is that you tackle those problems in a bio-cultural way.

TW: Terrific. Thank you. That was a tremendously comprehensive response. That’s great. And of course, this ties very neatly into the topic of last night’s lecture: Integrating the Sciences and the Humanities in the Study of Religion. Could you, perhaps, please explain to our listeners your argument for why the Study of Religion really demands more engagement from an empirically scientific approach?

WW: One of the fascinating things about the study of religion is how fast the empirical sciences have been making their contributions. Usually, from outside of the traditional Humanities/ Religious Studies area, people are making contributions on religion coming from Anthropology departments, or Sociology, or Psychology, or Medicine. The largest area is Medicine, but the others are quite large as well. The growth of literature which uses scientific methods of the empirical kind has been phenomenal. And now, more than half of the literature produced in the study of religion every year comes from people who are using scientific methods. So, at the basic level, Religious Studies need to know about what is known about religion. And so much of that is coming from people who are using scientific methods. You can’t keep up with the field unless you know something about what’s happening on the scientific side of things. But there are other reasons as well. There’s a lot of particular problems or research trajectories within religious studies where if you don’t have the scientific input you’re really missing the point, in a certain sense. (5:00) For example, if you want to try and answer the question: “Where does religion come from?” Or, “Where does belief in ancestor ghosts come from?” Or whatever it is – any type of question having to do with origins – you cannot address that question responsibly unless you deal explicitly with evolutionary questions: evolution of cognition, evolution of social patterns, and so forth. Or, if you want to deal with questions like intense spiritual experiences, it’s impossible to deal with that question without paying some attention to the psychological sciences and what the neuro-sciences have to say about the way brains process information and produce subjectively intense experiences. So there are just a couple of examples. But the general argument there is that religion is extraordinarily complicated as an object of study. Lots of disciplines are involved. And if you limit yourself, somewhat arbitrarily, just to a certain subset of those disciplines, you’ll pay a price.

TW: Terrific. And I suppose this also ties into the other point you were making during your lecture where you were at pains to point out that an exclusively scientific approach is also, to some degree, equally weak and one that is lacking significant Humanities input is deeply problematic, too. Could you elaborate on that, perhaps, please?

WW: Certainly. There’s a fairly depressing experience that, as editors of Religion, Brain and Behaviour, we have quite often and that’s’ reading papers that don’t seem to benefit even a little bit from the history of the study of religion from the Humanities side. People operationalise religion in a way that makes zero sense against  the history of the debate of that question in Religious Studies. Or they have, what I would call “wooden” interpretations of something that’s extremely subtle such as, for example, the subjective experience of feeling guilty. That’s enormously complicated and you can get very wooden takes on that in scientific work at times. So you’ve got this problem that, when you just start deciding as a scientist that you’re going to study religion, and you’re not going to pay attention to the subtle readings, contextual sensitivity, historical awareness and so on that Humanities scholars bring to the study of religion, you end up reinventing the wheel: it’s not efficient and of course, you’re nowhere near as good in your interpretive skills as those people who’ve been generating the deepest understanding of religion for the past hundred years or so. So you just wind up reinventing the wheel badly. And it’s sad to see. What we stand for in Religion, Brain and Behaviour is trying to force people submitting journal articles to be excellent on both sides – or at least tolerably adequately aware of both sides of the Humanities and the Sciences.

TW: Terrific. So some very strong arguments here for greater collaboration between the two disciplines or the two areas of the academy. What would you say are the main challenges that are holding back collaboration between the Sciences and the Humanities in the study of religion, whether these be institutional or ideological?

WW: Yes, it’s not easy putting them together. I think the most important fact here about collaboration is that it is quite natural when it happens. People who actually wok on both sides . . . usually in teams, of course, because it’s difficult to be expert in both, right? So, you have Humanities people and Science people working together in teams. But those collaborations typically work brilliantly. So there doesn’t seem to be a conceptual issue once you actually get into it. But there are fairly significant impediments to getting started. The first thing is insecurity, I think, on the Humanities side: “I don’t know anything abut the Sciences. How can I do anything using the Sciences?” That comes partly, I think, from imagining that the Humanities person is supposed to be in complete individual control of everything that they do. But we’ve found that that’s not the way the best work happens. The best work happens in teams. So, what’s required is to learn how to work in teams. So: you represent an Area  Studies person – so you do South Asian Buddhism or something – you work with a cognitive psychologist. And the cognitive psychologist has to be open, just like you’re open to a collaboration, working together and you really get somewhere that way. So I would call that a practical problem, not an ideological problem. And it might be the largest impediment. (10:00) But there are ideological problems as well. There are people on the Humanities side – especially with the so-called “crisis of the Humanities” – that are deeply concerned about the way research universities are focussing all of their efforts, money and attention on the STEM subjects. And, of course, the Humanities get held in stasis or they shrink slowly over time, while that happens. And you can feel as though the prestige that you had in the university context has been turned over, against your will, to the happy scientists who hold the hegemony these days: the prestige in the university context. Therefore, you certainly don’t want to invite them into traditional Humanities territory as in the Humanities’ study of religion. That is an ideological argument. I think there’s a real concern, but the way to solve the problem isn’t to keep the Sciences out, because that interferes with the quality of the research. It’s to show that the Humanities are necessary for the Sciences to do excellent work. And that was the point I made in the previous question. That’s the way to defend the Humanities in the university. You can’t do excellent work in any field, including in the Sciences, unless the Humanities are active in helping people refine their interpretations, maintain their sensitivity to context – both cultural context and historical context. I do think there are ways of steering around that ideological worry about science taking over everything, by going on the attack and arguing that the Humanities are essential for excellent science. On the Science side there’s also an ideological thing that’s something more like neglect or arrogance: “We don’t even understand what those Humanities people are doing. We’re the ones who bring in all the money and do all the work, so we don’t need to pay any attention to them.” That’s just intellectual laziness. But the way to solve that is to confront scientists with their mistakes, with the superficiality of their analyses. And Humanities people are in a very good position to do that: to demonstrate their importance in the scientific endeavour. Once those two forms of ideological resistance are mitigated then there are fewer impediments to actually getting started on forming teams and doing research. And after that, it happens naturally.

TW: Terrific. And of course – thinking about the cultural nuances that need to be raised and brought to the attention of more scientifically practised academics – for me, this kind-of brings us toward the territory of religion as a cross-cultural category. A category that presumes to precisely and usefully identify beliefs, experiences and behaviours in various cultures, across the planet, with validity. And offer them as “of a kind”. And, of course, this has been critiqued by Fitzgerald, the Critical Religion Group formed at Sterling University and many others in the Asadian school. How does your approach seek to address, or respond to, both the concerns of analytic accuracy and ethicality underlying this critique – that the category of religion elides crucial cultural difference and reinforces colonial power structures?

WW: Well first, every category that human beings build is “built”. That sounds like it might be redundant, but it’s a very important point. Everything we do in the academic world, everything we do when we categorise anything, is built. Even species designations are built. The concept of a natural kind is a built concept or a socially constructed concept that actually is very difficult to realise in the crisp and clear way that it promises to be applied to the real world. So, we’re in a world where we build categories, we construct ideas and we apply them to things. Every single time we do that we’re going to be generalising. When we generalise, every sing time, there are going to be stress points where the generalisation does not fit the data. We need to be on the alert constantly, when we build categories, for the side effects of building them.We’re cognitively lazy creatures on the whole, so we tend to get deeply attached to the categories that we build, rather than to the phenomena that they’re intended to describe. That’s where we really start to have problems, because we’ve been attached to an abstraction that distorts the thing we’re trying to talk about. So, there has to be a constant conversation going on between the construction of a category on the one hand and the connection to details, contexts, periods, and so forth on the other hand. When that conversation’s going on you actually check the dangers of generalisation and, in a certain way, unleash generalisation and make it useful for the academic study of whatever it is that you’re looking at. (15:00) So that’s a general principal that I present in my theory of inquiry, which has to do with the legitimacy of generalisation and its dangers, and how to manage the dangers in order to make generalisation useful. So it’s against the background of that framework that I would say religion is a classic example of a category that’s socially constructed – sometimes to serve political purposes. But the generalisations that lead to distortions in the use of the word “religion” can also be checked, they can be criticised, they can be managed in a certain way. So that you can continue to make the generalisation, if there’s a reason to do so, and use the category of religion without ever falling prey to the delusional thinking associated with thinking that you didn’t build the category in the first place. Now the particular school you mentioned, I think, over-simplify the history of the concept of religion. Plato talked about religion and he was thinking comparatively when he did. Whenever there’s more than one who are doing something similar that we would be prepared to call religion now, there was stress to try to understand comparatively what was going on. You see this in Chinese debates between Confucians and Buddhists and Daoists in ancient China. And you see something similar in South Asian contexts. So people . . . whenever you’ve got any type of pluralistic setting with things that we might be prepared to call religion, you actually see the emergence of categorisations that allow people to say, “Well these things are ‘of a kind’.” It’s not just a colonialist invention. The latest version of it in the West has been a colonial invention – there’s no question about that. But that’s not the only way the word comes up, or the idea comes up in the history of human thought. Again, what’s happening there is people need to draw generalisations to understand complex things. And those generalisations will always distort, therefore they always need to be managed. The same principle applies today. We can keep using the word religion if we want, but we have to take responsibility for doing so. That’s where the ethical side of it comes in. It’s the taking responsibility for the generalisations that we use in academia and in the general discourse abut things in the world. Taking responsibility means checking what the distorting side effects might be of our use of language. And consequently making adjustments where necessary, and sometimes abandoning words altogether.

TW: Thank you. That’s  a formidable response. Now, let’s move on to your research that’s ongoing at the moment. As I mentioned earlier,you’re the principal investigator for the Modelling Religion Project which sits within the broader Simulating Religion Project, being run by the Centre for Mind and Culture. So, starting from the top, what does simulating religion entail? What does it offer? And what are it’s limits, if any?

WW: Well, it’s plainly limited! That’s a very good place to start, in fact. If you’re thinking about using computers to create models and run simulations in relation to religion, there’s a whole bunch of limits that need to be confessed, right up front. And the beautiful simplicity of a feeling of peace that someone has in a religious ritual – we can’t express that in a computer simulation, we just can’t. So there’s no point in trying to do that. So we’re already sharply aware of so much that we can’t do, when we try and use computer models to simulate religious social processes and psychological processes. If that was the only thing that mattered you’d never bother with computer engineering at all. You just wouldn’t go there. But it’s not the only thing that matters. There are a whole bunch of things for which computer modelling and simulation turn out to be extremely useful. So, you judge whether you use those techniques based on whether you can get anywhere with them. That’s practical. It’s a practical reason to use them. So we’re not trying to pursue any agenda here. We don’t have an ideological computers-will-take-over-the-world perspective – nothing like that! All we try to do is to use methods that are useful. Now, why would they be useful and in what contexts would they be useful? To begin with, it’s quite common to find academics fighting over things. They have got competing theories. And so often, the theories aren’t capable of being tested or even directly compared with one another. So you wind up having internal fights. Like, historians trying to decide about the spread of violence in the Radical Reformation. Did it come through congregational lineages? Or was it spread horizontally by firebrand travelling preachers, you know? Well, that fight’s been going on for hundreds of years. (20:00) Can you resolve a fight like that? Could you use computer analysis or other techniques to be able to resolve a fight like that? We found that you can. That you can build models of both horizontal transmission and vertical transmission of violence among Anabaptists and you can produce support for one of those hypotheses that’s stronger than support for the other. Now that doesn’t prove anything, but it shifts the burden of proof. And what we found, when we actually did this study, was that vertical transmission is stronger than horizontal transmission. So, if you’ve got an historian who wants to argue for horizontal transmission they have a larger burden now, because of the work that we did: a larger burden to show that they’re right, despite the fact that this group showed that vertical transmission is stronger. So that’s an example of bringing in a method when it’s useful, to help with an intractable enquiry. Other kinds of intractable enquiries are important as well. If you’re trying to think about the way people deal with religion in modernity: the way it arises; the way they have experiences; the way they have beliefs; the way secularisation impacts them; the way a thousand other factors – economics, healthcare – affects the way people operate religiously. If you want to understand that, there are an awful lot of theories out there that have been offered that do that. And some of them are conflicting with one another. For example, you got the Stark-style supply side economic-style theories of religion versus the demand side theories that are pursued by lots of other people. That conflict is a fight to death conflict. Is one of them going to be right and one of them going to be wrong? One of the brilliant things about computer modelling is that you can build models that incorporate both of these viewpoints together. Of course, not in the same respect, because there’s a genuine conflict between the two of them. But if you’ve got a supply and demand-type set up in your computer model it’s obvious that there could be demand factors and it’s obvious that there could be supply factors. There’s no problem putting them together. But you need a complex structure to express conceptually precisely what you mean by combining those two theories, so that you can see how they are actually – or could be actually – consistent with one another. After that, what you’ve got is a model that you could run against data. If you can produce better predictions of data using your combined model, then you’ve succeeded in transcending this fight to the death between supply side and demand side theories abut religion in modernity. So it’s when it’s useful that we go there. And when it’s not useful we don’t try.

TW: Great. It sounds like that there’s a lot of rich and important work to be done in that field. Where do you see the modelling approach in the study of religion transforming in the future? What do you think its ambitions ought to be?

WW: Well, for one thing, they should be modest. Because it’s a hard road. The collaboration involved in making this work is quite extreme, in a certain sense, because you need specialists associated with any particular model that you build: you need generalists who know about Religious Studies in general from a Humanities perspective, for example; you need computer engineers who are actually going to build models. So it’s hard to organise groups of people like that and it takes a lot of energy and actually, frankly, a lot of money to be able to pull it off. So the first thing is to be cautious about claiming that too much will change in the future. But there’s something about computer modelling that’s generative. It’s been called “the key to generative social science” because it generates new ways of thinking. It generates new hypotheses for testing and so forth. It produces results that are surprising, sometimes, that you weren’t ready for. Very often, coding low-level behaviours and interactions between simulated agents – like people – or sometimes groups of agents, but whatever. You’re coding at the lower level, how they relate to each other, how they think in their own minds, how they process information, how they communicate. And you validate that against experimental work in Psychology of Religion and Sociology of Religion and so forth. Then, when you run a simulation, these interactions combine in a complex system to produce emergent properties. Those emergent properties aren’t coded in at the bottom. They come out of the system. (25:00) And it’s the emergent properties, of course, that you really care about. Because the other things you’ve got high level data on – population data. So you can test the model to see whether the architecture you built at the low level is any good, by looking at what emergent features it produces.

TW: Can you give an example of something that you’ve worked on that represents that?

WW: Sure. Think about mutually escalating religious violence. Two groups that have religious impulses and they’re trying to . . . they use those impulses to motivate and to rationalise the violent behaviours that they engage in. Sometimes this produces mutual escalation: one groups hits, the other group hits back harder, and so forth, until you get to a certain threshold and then everyone takes a breather and calms down again, for a while. Well, we’ve been able to produce mutually escalating religious violence in a computer model. But not by programming it in. Rather, by defining relationships among people as they interact with one another – as in, insiders in their own group and outsider in a threatening, outside group. These programmed-in behaviours at the low level don’t predict anything at the high level. And yet, what we do get is mutually escalating violence with cool-down periods. That emergent feature of mutually escalating violence with cool-down periods can be compared to actual historical episodes. And we’ve used the Irish Troubles and the  Gujarat riots and various other things to try and make sense of what’s going on there. So that’s one of the pieces that’s in publication at the moment. What’s really going on there is that you’ve got a complex system in the real world that connects minds – lots of minds – and culture, say, emergent features such as violence. Those connections are very complex, too complex to understand analytically, so you use another complex system to model it. That is, you build a complex system in a computer to get a handle on the complex system in the real world. And that’s what produces generative social science: new hypotheses that you couldn’t get a hold of any other way. You can solve problems and tackle research problems using computers even in Religious Studies, that you can do in no other way.

TW: Great. Thank you very much, Professor Wildman. I’ll just finish with one final question. For younger scholars and students inspired by the application of computer technology – those digital natives that are coming up through their careers and the greater use of scientific approaches in the study of religion – what advice would you give to them, in terms of the skills and knowledge that they should really seek to be developing in preparation for a career in this field?

WW: When we look for collaborators, it’s easy for us to find people in computer engineering who have some interest in religion. They don’t know anything about the study of religion but they’re fascinated by religion even if they’re not personally religious. So, finding people who are excited to take on this kind of research turns out to be very easy. The danger there is that if someone is like that, and they run off and try to do that research by themselves, they’ll be operating in the dark. They won’t be aware of what Religious Studies really means from a Humanities point of view. So they really need to find collaborators. And on the other side, when people  . . . maybe they learned programming in high school and they’re coming through doing a PhD or a Master’s, or something, in Religious Studies, and they’re thinking “Oh, wouldn’t it be great to do modelling and simulation!”  . . . . It’s actually extremely technical, and just because they know a programming language, it might not be quite enough. They also need to make teams. In general, my advice is find teams: don’t suppose that you can be expert at everything but, rather, collaborate with people who can provide form of expertise that you don’t already possess. And you can contribute your own forms of expertise and learn a lot in the process. Now there are other things you can do, like look for high-level graduate training where you get trained on both sides. That does exist – it’s not very common but there are a few places that do that. But I think, fundamentally, anyone can get started on this so long as they’re thoughtful about finding team mates to work with. These days the scientific study of religion is a team sport.

TW: Inspiring stuff! Well thank you very much, Professor Wildman, for joining me this morning, and  I really enjoyed your lecture yesterday evening, and thank you very much for your time.

WW: My pleasure.

Citation info: Wildman, Wesley, J. 2017. “Modelling Religion and the Integration of the Sciences and the Humanities in the Bio-cultural Study of Religion” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 9 October 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 27 September 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/modelling-religion-and-the-humanities-in-the-bio-cultural-study-of-religion/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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University of Birmingham, UK

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Georgetown University, USA

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Seminar: The Reformation and the Arts around the North Sea

March 6, 2017

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AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation

This roundtable, in association with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, considers the impact of recent technological advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics on religion, religious conceptions of the world, and the human. It draws attention to how such advances push religion beyond how it has been commonly defined and considered.

1389397212614In March 2016 ‘AlphaGo’, a Google/Deepmind programme, defeated an international champion at the Chinese game ‘Go’ in a five game match. This victory was, by current understandings of AI, a vast leap forward towards a future that could contain human-like technological entities, technology-like humans, and embodied machines. As corporations like Google invest heavily in technological and theoretical developments leading towards further, effective advances – a new ‘AI Summer’ – we can also see that hopes, and fears, about what AI and robotics will bring humanity are gaining pace, leading to new speculations and expectations, even amidst those who would position themselves as non-religious.

Speculations include Transhumanist and Singularitarian teleological and eschatological schemes, assumptions about the theistic inclinations of thinking machines, the impact of the non-human on our conception of the uniqueness of human life and consciousness, and the moral boundary work of secular technologists in relation to their construct, ‘religion’. New religious impulses in the face of advancing technology have been largely ignored by the institutions founded to consider the philosophical, ethical and societal meanings of AI and robotics. This roundtable is an initial conversation on this topic, with the intention for further discussion and publications.

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, tin foil hats, Jeff Goldblum custom water proof shower curtains, and more.

Religion, Science and Evolutionary Theory

science-religionScience and evolution in Muslim societies is a complicated topic. Among the public, what does evolution mean? Whats does evolution stand for? Is there a ‘Muslim view’ on evolution? In this podcast, Stephen Jones interviews Salman Hameed about recent research on Muslim perceptions of science and evolution.

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, Darwin fish stickers, Primordial Soup and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com.

Religion, Spirituality, and Addiction Recovery

What is the relationship between ‘religion’, ‘spirituality’, ‘addiction’ and ‘addiction recovery’? What are we meaning by ‘addiction’? Is it socially constructed? Why are we even talking about a relationship between these concepts? Can religion be conceptualized as an addiction? how might a specifically Religious Studies approach help us to productively engage with this particularly sensitive area? And, as ever, how might we go about conducting such research? These are just a few of the questions discussed in today’s podcast, where Chris speaks with Dr Wendy Dossett of the University of Chester, UK.

Be sure to take a peek at some of Wendy’s other scholarship, like the book Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study 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, flowers, tea tree oil, and more.

Podcasts

African American Spiritual Churches

Dr. Guillory teaches religion at the University of Rochester, but her first love is natural science. After receiving a B.A. in Chemistry, she taught high school science for several years. She draws inspiration from the sciences in her current research as a religion scholar. In her investigations of African American Spiritual Churches in New Orleans, Louisiana, Dr. Guillory describes a “dynamical self,” a fluid state of identity shifting between the individual and the collective. Her knowledge of chemistry directly influenced this theory.

The African American Spiritual Churches are combinatory religious sites, which blend Protestant, Catholic, Spiritualist, Haitian Voodoo, and Benin’s traditional Vodun practices. Female leadership and business management has been essential in the history of these churches. Dr. Guillory’s upcoming book draws on years of archival research, ethnographic observation, and oral history interviews to tell the story of these churches from 1920 to the present day. Hurricane Katrina looms large in this story. Most of the physical churches were destroyed in the flooding — or the former inhabitants were not allowed to return as the government began eminent domain proceedings. Yet this religious community endures. Guillory is one of the first scholars to work with the Spiritual Churches, whose affairs remain largely private. Our interview concludes with a discussion of anthropological ethics and practice — how to earn the trust of a community, and how to tell someone else’s story without “stealing” that story.

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, comic books, Haitian rum, and more.

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

African American Spiritual Churches

Podcast with Margarita Simon Guillory (29 January 2018).

Interviewed by Dan Gorman

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Guillory_-_African_American_Spiritual_Churches_1.1

 

Dan Gorman (DG): Professor Margarita Guillory, thank you for joining us today.

Margarita Guillory (MG): No problem. Thank you for inviting me.

DG: And today we’re going to be talking about your new book on African American Spiritual Churches in New Orleans. Although, I’ve been reading your book proposal. I understand the final title has changed.

MG: Yes, instead of More Than Conjurers being the primary title, it’s now the secondary title. So it’s Spiritual and Social Transformation in African American Spiritual Churches: More than Conjurers.

DG: So, perhaps the reverse order of what you wanted originally?

MG: Yes! But for marketing purposes, More than Conjurers took second place. They really believe that they can market the book better with the Spiritual Churches being in the primary title.

DG: Now, just so people have some brief background – is this what you wrote your dissertation about?

MG: My dissertation was actually based upon ethnographic research pulled from spiritual churches in New Orleans. However, the dissertation was a little bit more theoretical, in that it focussed on the ways in which spiritualists in New Orleans utilise rituals and altars – both personal and public altars – to articulate a complex form of subjectivity that I sort of coined in the dissertation, called the “dynamical self”. So the dissertation was little bit more theoretical. I sort-of was able to use the dissertation to write a peer review article and two edited volume essays. However, it was a little narrow for the publisher’s taste. So I sort-of had to rework . . . . I wrote an entire new book, basically!

DG: I see. So when you mention the idea of the dynamical self, it brings to mind the grandiose theatrical aspect of religious worship. I mean, you could say there’s a dynamic self in many religions. But what’s unique about the way that people express their religious beliefs in these churches?

MG: I would say that the way in which I saw the “dynamic” is this sort of fluidity. Within the dissertation I sort of expand upon this fluid conception of the dynamic – and it’s called the dynamical self. But the dynamical self is this identity form that is sort-of the simultaneous expression of both a public collective identity, based upon association with shared qualities with the grou, but it’s also the construction of a personal identity form that’s based upon one’s uniqueness. And this is a theory that . . . . I didn’t go into these communities with this theory. This theory was really formulated based upon the data that I collected from the communities. So it’s totally the reverse. I went in with no sort-of expectation of what I would actually find. I just thought the communities were really, really interesting. And the data yielded the theory.

DG: So, a data-derived argument, rather than a data-driven argument.

MG: Exactly, exactly.

DG: Now, you came into Religious Studies . . . it’s sort of a second career in some ways. You were a high school science teacher, originally. So, how did your first background in natural science . . . how did that inform how you approached the study of religion?

MG: That’s a great question. And it’s a question that I’m asked quite frequently when people find out that I have a Bachelors in Chemistry. I have a profound love of the physical sciences, specifically Chemistry. You know, Chemistry has allowed me to . . . it has armed me and equipped me with a particular interpretive lens. The dynamical self, even though it’s derived upon the data that I retrieved from these Spiritual Churches in New Orleans, it’s really based upon this equilibrium state that sort-of occurs when you look at certain chemical reactions. So the theory – while based on the data that I retrieved from these churches – the way that I sort of nuanced it, was based upon chemical formulations of just basic equations, something that you’d learn in general Chemistry. So science just gives me a unique lens to view religion. Does that answer your question?

DG: I think so. I think I’m curious to know, do you identify as a Humanist or do you identify as a Social Scientist?

MG: Oh. I don’t like to be placed in a box! I think I am a unique scholar in that way, that I still sort-of follow some of the general trends that are going on in Chemistry, I have a great relationship with a couple of Chemists, even on our campus (5:00). I do use sociological and anthropological approaches to the study of religion. And I do consider myself a Humanist. So in that way, I think I’m sort of like a quilt. Which can be problematic for some people, but it works for me. This is why I can have these really collaborative interdisciplinary projects with people across disciplines and not feel uncomfortable. Because I feel like a piece of me as a scholar is vetted in these multiple disciples.

DG: Which brings me back to your book, when the publisher releases it in a few weeks, what . . . not genre – we know it’s a non-fiction monograph – but, the little stamp on the top cover that says what genre it is and what topic: how is it being sold? Is it history? Is it religion?

MG: Yes. Very good question. It has multiple genres. Because the book I wrote, like I said: a lot of the data that I collected while doing research for the dissertation will be used, but the approach is different. It’s different than the dissertation. The book basically examines the socio-political activities and the spiritual-therapeutic elements that are found in the Spiritual Churches in a really, in a coalescing sort of way. And so, in that way, because the book is political – looking at the political and social activism of these churches – and because it looks at the therapeutic function of these churches, the sort-of tag lines will be history – because I start with the first church in the 1920s and by the end of the book, the chapter on Post Katrina Spiritual Churches – so it’s historical but it’s also being publicised as religion in society. So you see that sort-of band where the sociology is also coming in. So they have marketed it in a variety of fields. Interestingly, they’ve even promoted it in what we would call like “Africana Religions”, So if you do a google search with my name under Voodoo or Hoodoo, my book will actually pop up. So they really cast a wide net when publicising the book.

DG: So I suppose the next question is, what is a Spiritual Church? Aren’t all churches spiritual?

MG: That’s a great question. African American Spiritual Churches that I research are a blended religious group. And I like that term “blended”. And what they’ve done, they have conjoined all of these various elements from institutionalised religions – and I’ll talk about them in just a moment – and they’ve created their own, unique religion. Specifically, the Spiritual Churches in New Orleans have conjoined Protestant traditions with a focus on Pentecostalism; they draw from their worship style. Catholicism is a major bedrock in spiritual churches in New Orleans, just because Catholicism is still the predominant religion that’s practised in New Orleans, in particular, and Louisiana, in general. They also incorporate American Spiritualism: the ability to communicate with the dead, that was birthed in Western New York, in Hydesville; and they also sort of conjoin and mix into their faith Hoodoo and Voodoo. And this notion of Voodoo is derived directly from Haitian Vodou. So when you look at sort of their belief system, and their ritual practices, you can see a little of all of these religions.

DG: So when we talk about Hoodoo – this was sort of an older white term used to describe it in some cases. I’m thinking of sort-of 1920s, white attempts to understand black religion. But Voodoo itself is sort of a combinative thing. You’ve got influences of Islam, Native American and Caribbean religions, Christianity. And, of course, there’s a longstanding debate in the study of African American religions: are these religions more – quote unquote – “African” or are they more “American”? Do you have any thoughts on that?

MG: Well I would say, if we specifically look at the system of Voodoo and I mean V-o-o-d-o-o, I would totally say that that is an American religion (10:00). It is a blended religion that is primarily based – even though you have these other elements like Christianity – it’s primarily based upon Haitian Vodou, V-o-d-o-u, that Haitian immigrants who emigrated very early to New Orleans after the Haitian Revolution. A large population of Haitians immigrated to New Orleans and they took with them the religion. So, even though you have these other elements in Louisianan voodoo, the backbone of that religion is Haitian Vodou. And, of course, we know that Haitian Vodou -o-u- was derived from this combination of Catholicism but it comes directly from Benin.

DG: In West Africa?

MG: Exactly: Vodun. So, in that way, once the Vodou sort-of lands in New Orleans, in the South East, yes, it becomes this syncretic – and that’s not the term I like to use – but this sort-of blended type of religious tradition.

DG: So let’s walk through the genealogy from the top, then, beginning in Benin in West Africa. So this would be what kind of religion there? Are we talking about Islam or are we talking about traditional spiritual beliefs?

MG: So, Benin Vodun is an indigenous religion. It is a combination of – and that word might be seen as maybe a little charged – but it is sort-of a combination of the traditional religions that are being practised in Benin. But the scholarly term for it becomes Vodun.

DG: I see. So, then when slaves were brought to Haiti those indigenous religions are brought there. And then they encounter Spanish and French Catholicism, depending which side of the island they’re on.

MG: Exactly, yes.

DG: And then that finally goes to America, where you have the collisions that you’re describing.

MG: Right. Particularly in New Orleans.

DG: So how big a population are we talking about?

MG: That’s hard for me to say, like, quantitatively.

DG: Hundreds? Thousands?

MG: That’s hard for me to say quantitatively, off the cuff. But I could definitely have these sort of conversations, qualitatively. But that’s sort-of tough to derive. We can sort-of search and crunch the numbers but those numbers would be hard to derive.

DG: So let’s talk about some of the churches you studied, then. Were they packed to the gills on a Sunday?

MG: What’s interesting: pre –Katrina, the churches were packed. You had fifty-plus churches. Post-Katrina, those fifty-plus churches dwindled down to two churches in New Orleans.

DG: Is that because of population displacement?

MG: That’s part of the problem. So, part of the problem would be population displacement. And seventy percent of the fifty-plus churches that were operating in New Orleans pre-Katrina were located in the 9th Ward.

DG: (Whistles)

MG: So they were destroyed. And the last chapter of my book sort-of talks about that. The ways in which not only were some of them structurally destroyed but, because of some very difficult economical and political and structural changes that occurred in post-Katrina New Orleans, the lands of these churches – even if they were in a position where they could have restored the church – they were taken, and they were converted to green spaces.

DG: So was that eminent domain?

MG: Eminent domain. Many of the churches – I calculate about forty percent of the churches that were located in post-Katrina 9th Ward – were sort-of taken back by the City, via eminent domain.

DG: I see.

MG: So, there are multiple factors sort-of feeding into why these churches have dwindled down to two.

DG: Has gentrification also occurred?

MG: In the higher elevated levels of 9th Ward, gentrification is now occurring. They sort-of called this area Holy Cross. They built a school, they have a private developer that’s coming in. And I’m saying higher elevation, but it’s still below sea level! But it’s higher than the dominant part of the 9th Ward. It’s being gentrified.

DG: So they’re pushing out the poorer, mostly African American . . .

MG: Well they never let them back in, really. Because they never built . . . . In the 9th Ward, for people who did choose to come back they had no businesses, no stores. I think within the last two years they might have a health clinic. So the infrastructure wasn’t rebuilt for people to come back (15:00). So we can argue, was this intentional? Was this: “We’re going to let the 9th Ward return to nature so it can sort-of serve as the buffer, or the retention land, for other parts of New Orleans? So they won’t flood if we have another major storm, and if we have the breaching of the levees?” So it becomes very . . . and I try to unpack that in chapter five of my book. The ways in which the changing landscape around Spiritual Churches . . . . If you look at the changing landscape of spiritual churches it tells us a lot about other landscapes and shifting landscapes in New Orleans: demographic landscapes, social landscapes, economic landscapes, political landscapes. If you just focus on the Spiritual Churches we can see all of these sorts of dynamics that are going on, post-Katrina.

DG: So I’m assuming that the flood water has destroyed substantial amounts of material culture: archives . . .

MG: Oh, definitely.

DG: So what’s left? I mean, were you working in people’s attics, were you working in libraries?

MG: So no, actually, what was interesting is: when I first went to New Orleans it was in, maybe 2010, and many of the churches were still standing. They were in horrible condition, but they were still filled with all the material culture – covered in all sorts of mould and everything else. And of course I was in those places. So, some of the spiritual leaders who were really respected leaders in the city: Bishop Jackson, Bishop Stokes. He came from Detroit,to give me a tour. So before they began to tear these structures down . . . . Like, these structures are no longer standing in 2017 but I had the fortune to go while they were still there. Not only was I able to see what was in the inside, I took photos of the inside, I took photos of the outside. I do plan on publishing a book of photos of the before and after, so people can actually see what is happening in New Orleans, still today.

DG: But Spiritualists tend to be quite private. How did you gain this access? And this is something I’ve talked about in my past interviews: Douglas Brooks studying . . . . The only way to study some Hindu rituals is to gain the trust and become part of the community. Or Candy Gunther-Brown, who I spoke to – watching Evangelical yoga, but not participating. How did you get access to these communities?

MG: Well actually, one of the first scholars to publish a comprehensive work on Spiritual churches of New Orleans is Claude Jacobs. He’s now retired. He was at the University of Michigan. Him and my adviser at the time, Dr Anthony Pinn who’s also done some work on Spiritual Churches, they basically . . . . He went to Dr Jacobs and told him, “I have a student who’s interested in the Spiritual Churches.” And I was introduced to Archbishop William Stokes who has now passed on – as the Spiritualists say – to the other side. And it was through him. Because he had been a part of the Spiritual Churches. So he came to Houston – we flew him to Houston – and he and I basically spent two weeks together in Houston, just getting to know one another. I took him to different archives, I interviewed him. And so, basically, it was through him. But we had to sort-of . . . . He had to decide, in those two weeks, whether he was going to trust me, and actually introduce me and open the door or not. So, I guess, at the end of the two weeks – considering I’d published . . . like eighty percent of my scholarships is on Spiritual Churches – I must have gained his trust. Because he was coming from Detroit, he said he would be really excited about introducing me to people in New Orleans. So I won a Ford Dissertation Fellowship and I was able to pay for his travel and we spent a summer – this is how I actually first thought of it – we spent a summer in New Orleans together. And it was remarkable.

DG: Generating trust. . .

MG: Generating trust, and because

DG: . . . that you’re not stealing their stories.

MG: Exactly. And because he did not . . . . Because he had been a part of the Spiritual Churches, by that time over five decades, people trusted him. And they knew that he wouldn’t just bring, you know, anyone into the community that wasn’t going to sort-of take their religion and do something with it, in a really fundamental positive way (20:00).

DG: That’s the line between being curious and then between past scholars, who basically were stealing.

MG: Exactly. And I invested a lot of time. So this was like the groundwork. I wasn’t even really collecting data at this point. I was just building relationships. So, you asked me how did I get in – because they are very secretive. This is why there hasn’t been a lot of scholarship surrounding spiritual churches, because some people have mishandled what they’ve given the scholar. So I had to spend quite a bit of time building relationships. But once I’d built those relationships it was like the floodgates opened. They were so excited about sharing their faith with me.

DG: Professor Guillory, we’re almost out of time. I’d like to ask briefly: several of the early chapters in your book focus on female leaders in the church. Women like Mother Leafy Anderson. Could you just speak briefly about female leadership in the churches?

MG: I can. This is why I like the book that I’ve published, instead of turning the dissertation into a book. This book really highlights the political savviness, the entrepreneurial spirit of women in New Orleans, specifically from the early 1920s through the 1940s. These were women, women like Mother Leafy Anderson, Mother Catherine Seals, these were women who not only purchased property, but they built structures from the ground up. For instance Mother Leafy Anderson, she built her church from the ground up, property that she purchased, and the organisation that actually financed the building of her very lovely church for the 1920s, was the Italian Homestead Association. If you go and look at the history of the Italian Homestead Association in New Orleans they were not freely giving money to African Americans to build businesses and structure. That wasn’t their social function. They were committed to Italians, and Sicilians in particular, who were coming into New Orleans, actually utilising them as a pipeline to build and to invest in these communities. So it was really interesting that she was able to get them to finance . . . .

DG: And a completely different religion!

MG: Well what’s interesting is that her church – and I talk about this a bit in the book – was about thirty percent Sicilian.

DG: Well, that’s interesting! Which means the church was racially integrated in the1920s.

MG: It was. And also, Mother Catherine Seals, the manger was about twenty-five to thirty-five percent. We can’t get our hands wrapped around the exact number, but hers was also an integrated religious compound. And during her time there were segregation laws about cohabitation.

DG: And not only that, you had lynching!

MG: Exactly, exactly. And so these women – and this is what I love about the book – the book sort of highlights the courageous activities. And they were really savvy when it came to business, too. They had an entrepreneur sort-of model of earning money using a religion, in a way that was just . . . they were ahead of their time! They were like – I guess we would call them like our large megachurches today. They were like the megachurches of the 1920s, though the book really highlights the social activism and the ways in which these women also met the spiritual needs of the individuals, both black and white – which is amazing. The book sort-of talks about that, they were . . . . Yes, they wanted to be an anchor for the black community, but they also served the white population who were being marginalised by class and by ethnicity. They also served those populations as well.

DG: So just to wrap up, I’ll say that reminds me of – it’s a quite old book – but Arthur Fauset’s Black Gods of the Metropolis

MG: Yes!

DG: So, for those of our listeners who aren’t familiar, Arthur Fauset, an African American scholar wrote this book in the 1940s about the urban religions, mostly in Philadelphia. And these were – like your Spiritual Churches – many of them small groups led by women, and they’re exercising creativity in ways that white society doesn’t want to allow them. And so Fauset also discusses the idea of, you know, foreign religions being translated in America. So, clearly, these questions are still viable and thought-provoking seventy years later.

MG: A perfect ending! (25:00)

DG: So, I will ask, what’s the next project?

MG: Oh. The next project? African American Religion in the Digital Age. So, while I’m still publishing essays and peer-reviewed articles on Spiritual Churches, I’m sort of moving in the direction of digital religion. Specifically, I’m looking at the ways in which people of African descent are utilising technical advances to express multiple forms of religion. So I’m working on a chapter now on black humanism and black atheism, and the way in which it’s promoted among Millennials using social media platforms.

DG: Be careful, you’ll be getting into transhumanism next!

MG: I know! (Laughs)

DG: Professor Guillory, thank you very much.

MG: Thank you very much, Dan.

Citation Info: Guillory, Margarita and Dan Gorman. 2018. “African American Spiritual Churches”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 29 January 2018. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 26 January 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/african-american-spiritual-churches/

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Drawn to the Gods – Religion, Comedy and Animated Television Programs

If you were asked to name the TV programs with the most religious content and references what would you name? 7th Heaven, Supernatural or perhaps Games of Thrones? How many of us would name animated television series such as The Simpsons, Family Guy or South Park? These television series are amongst the most religions on our screens. Indeed, 95% of The Simpsons episodes, 84% of Family Guy episodes, and 78% of South Park episodes contain explicit religious references. These animated comedy shows are critically influential in teaching viewers about religious people and religious institutions. The commentary created via the intersection between humour, satire, and religion in these TV shows, particularly in their own context of America, creates an interesting image of what it supposedly means to be a “good religious American”. In this podcast Associate Professor David Feltmate, author of Drawn to the Gods: Religion and Humor in The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy, chats to Breann Fallon about the manner in which these three television shows create a broad commentary on religion for the general public. Feltmate highlights the central place these animate programs have in the proliferation of ideas about the spiritual and the religious, as heavily consumed mediums of popular culture.

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

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

Drawn to the Gods: Religion, Comedy and Animated Television Programmes

Podcast with David Feltmate (11 December 2017).

Interviewed by Breann Fallon.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Feltmate_-_Drawn_to_the_Gods_1.1

Breann Fallon (BF): If you were asked to name the TV programmes that were most religious, had the most religious content and references, which ones would you name? Seventh Heaven, maybe? Or Supernatural? Or perhaps Game of Thrones? Well, I was wondering how many of us would actually name The Simpsons, or Family Guy, or South Park. Because, did you know that 95% of Simpsons episode, 84% of Family Guy episodes and 78% of South Park episodes contain explicit religious references. These animated comedy shows are critically influential in teaching viewers about religious people and about religious institutions. The commentary created by the intersection between humour, satire and religion in these TV shows – and specifically their context of America, creates an interesting image of what is supposedly meant to be a good religious American. To discuss this topic today I have with me Associate Professor David Feltmate, the author of a fantastic new work entitled, Drawn to the Gods: Religion and Humour in the Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy. Dave is Associate Professor of Sociology at Auburn University at Montgomery. He received his PhD in Religious Studies from the University of Waterloo in 2011. His research areas include the Sociology of Religion, religion in popular culture, humour studies, social theory, new religious movements and religions and family. His book, Drawn to the Gods is available from New York University Press and is the topic of our discussion today. Thank you very much for joining us today, Dave.

David Feltmate (DF): Thank you for having me.

BF: So, I’m really interested in how this book came about. Why did you choose to write a book on The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy?

DF: So, this book really started in the winter of 2005. I was fresh out of my masters’ degree at Wilfrid Laurier University. I was living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. And I was teaching sessionally, like a lot of people do. And I was teaching a course on religion and popular culture. And I had set the course up. We did a week on Christianity in popular culture. So we’d do a crash course in Christianity and then an example of Christianity in pop culture, or whatever. And what I realised was, these classes had 65 students in them each: I would have three students that really paid attention every day, five students who would tune in for the topic of the day, and most people were just kind-of there to get credit and they weren’t paying attention. And I thought, well, Jeez there’s a lot of really interesting and relevant pop culture stuff. But the way that I started to get them to listen was, I would start quoting Simpsons references at them at the front of the room. And at the time, in Canada, there was a Canadian comedian named Brent Butt. And he said with a good cable package you can get three hours of The Simpsons every day. And he was pretty close to correct at that point in time. And so this stuff was just ubiquitous, everywhere. And that’s what drew students back in. They knew these religious references but they had no understanding of the religious traditions at all. They were just coming in and experiencing it for the first time. Which led me . . . because I knew I was going to go on and do a PhD, which I did at the University of Waterloo. And I said, “Well, they’ve got to have learned something, what did they learn? What were they being taught through these jokes?” So that’s what I went off to study. And so I wrote my dissertation on The Simpsons and that’s sort-of, the very early awkward stages of the book that’s there now. And my supervisor, Doug Cowan, I remembered distinctly, one day he said, “OK. Your dissertation is done, but it’s not a book yet. It needs comparative data.” “Well,” I said, “The obvious comparative data is South Park and Family Guy.” And now they kind of look like legacy programmes, but that’s where it came from. These shows were widely known, they were critically acclaimed and people are learning religious material from them. And I wanted to know what they were learning. And over time it evolved into: how were they learning this through humour? (5:00) Because a lot of the literature that I was reading on The Simpsons or South Park – there’s still not much written on Family Guy – I just found that people did not ask the question: why are these things funny? They simply worked on the assumption that they were. But I know people that don’t find them funny. So I had to ask, what is it about humour that enables people to transmit this information – transmit it in a humorous way – but why are they seeing these things as humorous? Because I know that some people are not going to. They’re either not going to get the joke, or they don’t think the joke is funny in the first place. So that’s where this book comes from: from teaching and thinking about what it means to talk about religion and religious diversity through humour.

BF: So in the book you talk about this idea of sort of using satire and comedy, and how that is bringing religion to a broad audience, and this idea of broad commentary and how this is really teaching the general public about religious people and religious institutions. And I thought we could talk about some specific examples before we sort of talk about the general takeaways from the book. And there are some really interesting examples in the book. I personally like the ones from The Simpsons because – I don’t think I watched every episode of the Simpsons, like you probably did, but I’m pretty close – I do really love the Simpsons. And I’ve watched a lot of Family Guy as well. I think it’s really interesting that you say there’s not a lot written on Family Guy, actually. Because I would have thought there would have been quite a lot on Family Guy, which is an interesting point on the side.

DF: Unless it’s exploded in the last year or so after the book was finished, and it was out there, and I just kind of need a break from reading all of the literature. No there really wasn’t a lot on Family Guy.

BF: Well, there’s a project for any RSP listeners who are looking for a little article to punch out there: Family Guy there for you! But I thought, maybe, we could start with your favourite example from any of the shows, maybe a new religious movement example? I thought maybe you could start with one of those?

DF: Oh man! Do I have a favourite? I don’t know if I have a favourite. I know I’ve watched “Homer the Heretic” the most, but that’s not a new religious movements example. Well, it depends on how you define new religious movements.

BF: That’s a great example anyway.

DF: Yes, well that’s the classic. That’s the sort of Simpsons’ religion urtext from Season Four. And it used to be that I could pretty much close my eyes and see that entire episode playing out before me. So the reason that I really love that one is that it encapsulates so much of what would become the running narratives of religion in the Simpsons. There’s this sort-of back and forth with Christianity. There’s an open display of Hinduism and Judaism, and all of these different kinds of religious traditions that are on display, and a part of this – a part of Springfield but also a part of the American fabric. Which when you consider that that episode was released in what, ’92 . . . ?

BF: It’s early.

DF: I think it’s ’92. Well it’s season four, but I want to say it’s November ‘92. Just a second, I’ve got the book here. It’s going to drive me nuts if I don’t . . . .

BF: The interesting thing about Homer the Heretic – correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s the one where he eats the chilli isn’t it?

DF: No that is . . . the name is in Spanish and I can’t remember, but it’s “The Mysterious Voyage of Homer: El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer”. And that one is Season Eight. Yes, that one’s a great one, too. I love Johnny Cash as the Coyote that offers spiritual wisdom. And Homer says, “Should I get rid of my possessions?” And the Coyote just laughs at him and says, “No. If anything you need more possessions. You don’t even have a computer.” (10:00) And, yeah, “Homer the Heretic” was ’92.

BF: So what happens in “Homer the Heretic”?

DF: So in “Homer the Heretic”, Homer decides, “I don’t want to go the Church,” one day. And he has the best morning of his life, and he attributes it all to not going to church. But Marge has dragged the kids to Church, and so there becomes this marital strife between the two of them over Homer not going to church. He says he forms his own religion, and so he starts doing things like – one of my favourite examples is that he calls into work from the bar and says that he can’t come in, because it’s a religious feast day. And he looks up… They say “What feast day?” and he sees a sign that says “Maximum occupancy” and he says “Maximum Occupancy”. “Click”. Those kinds of jokes really play on this ongoing sentiment in the United States that to be a good American you’ve got to be religious. And you see this come about all the time in political discourse in the USA, when people are talking about candidates. Atheists are among the most distrusted groups, in terms of large polls in the USA. And that’s still today. And this part of the discourse and debate around Donald Trump, is that people can’t figure out why Evangelicals continue to support, or came out to support Donald Trump when he’s so opposed to the kinds of values that they claim to represent, certainly, in all of his actions and everything he espouses to. And The Simpsons was sitting there 25 years ago now, saying, “Hey, this is okay. It’s okay for people to drop out of church.” Then God visits Homer in a dream and says to Homer, “You’ve forsaken my church.” And Homer says, “Well, I try to be a good person and I love my kids. I just want to sleep in on Sunday mornings.” And God listens to Homer for a minute, because Homer says, “Why should I spend every Sunday morning hearing about why I’m going to Hell?” And God goes “Hmm. You’ve got a point there. You know, some Sundays I’d rather just be watching football.” And Homer says, “So, I figure I should just try to live right and worship you in my own way.” And God says, “It’s a deal!” and then ascends into Heaven. And that’s really part of this larger spiritual-seeker narrative – the ability to pick and choose among different religious options – that has become part of the way that Sociologists of Religion, anyway, talk about the United States. And all of these religious options . . . . Like, I live in a city of 200,000 people, roughly. And there are close to a thousand churches in the area. And if you don’t like what’s going on in one of them you can literally. . . . I mean, I went to Church this morning and there’s a church across the street and another church in the parking lot. I was like: “It’s church row over here!” And if I didn’t like what was being said in my church, I could literally walk out the back door and in two minutes be in another service. And that’s just among Christian denominations! At least, now, I live in the American south, so it’s different than other parts of the country. The United States is different in its different regions. But that narrative of spiritual seeking, anyway, by the ‘90s had become part-and-parcel, part of the fabric of the United States of America. And that’s what I like about “Homer the Heretic”. It really introduces this spiritual-seeking – worshipping God in your own way, do what you want to do, that’s fine, just don’t try to impose it on anybody else – that I really found became the core of The Simpsons. So, I don’t know if it’s my favourite, because I love other episodes. I love “The Joy of Sect”, which is the Movementarians, which is just such a great name for a new religious movement. And, as I show in the book there are all these kinds of quick visual references to numerous new religious movements. So it works really well as a display of the cult stereotype. (15:00) And in South Park the Blametologists, as well, are like that. And I really like to study that because again at the University of Waterloo I was working with Douglas Cowan and Lorne Dawson. And people who study new religious movements would be familiar with those names. And I never went in to study new religious movements, I went in to do religion and popular culture, but I said, “Well I’m working with two of the top scholars in the world in new religious movements, I’d be an idiot not to pick this up and learn from them.” And what I found was that these shows were able . . . . Let me go back here a second. If you go into a classroom now and you ask people what a cult is, they’ll usually be able to give you some kind of idea, like it’s a bad religion, it’s a group of people who follow some leader and they don’t think for themselves, they’re often associated with dangerous kind of religions. And then I say, “OK, so you know all of this. How many of you have ever met somebody who’s in a cult?” And nobody raises their hand. Or I shouldn’t say that: I’ve had one person who knew somebody who was in a group that he considered a cult. And so I had to start asking, “Well, where you get this idea from?” And Joseph Laycock has a good article in The Journal of the American Academy of Religion on this as well, called “Where do they get those ideas?” So I don’t want to steal Joe’s thunder. What it was is, over time, these images and ideas about cults were repeated through mass media, through jokes, through television, to the point that you could create completely fictitious groups like the Movementarians, with numerous references to all of these other different groups like Rajneeshpuram is in there, certainly the Unification Church. There’s a mass marriage scene which is just . . . . I like to, in classes, take a picture of a Unification Church mass marriage, and that scene – just a screen shot – from The Simpsons and say, “Look! They’re almost identical!” And what it was, it was able to play on a legacy of particular framing in terms of fear. So that now, generations who have never really encountered some of these movements have a heuristic with which to interpret them. So I thought that was really relevant. That’s definitely one that I like.

BF: This idea of, you know, the TV show being the lens through which a generation can interpret religious people and religious institutions . . . .You said that the Simpsons was sort-of advocating this idea of spiritual-seeking. Do you think that’s the same for South Park and Family Guy or do you think they advocate something different?

DF: No, I think each one advocates its own thing. I think South Park is all about individual creativity.

BF: OK

DF: So, there’s a couple of South Park episodes: “Go God Go” and “Go God Go XII”, I think is the number. And that came out when Richard Dawkins released The God Delusion, and it was a best seller. I think The God Delusion is really the book that made this sort of Four Horseman of the New Atheists movement with Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett who had books out before Dawkins and then Christopher Hitchens who had one out afterwards. But I think The God Delusion is really the book that broke the tidal wave for all four books to become this kind of marker in time. And when it came it in the audio commentary Trey Parker and Matt Stone were talking about how Penn Jillett of Penn and Teller was saying , “You guys have got to come out as atheists,” or whatever. And Trey Parker’s going “But, I’m not an atheist. I don’t necessarily believe in God the way that other theists do . . .  .”  (20:00) But with South Park they don’t like organised religions, but where individual creativity is promoted, enhanced, allowed to flourish through religious expression, they really don’t have a problem with it. What they have a problem with are hypocrites, or people who say things that they just think are stupid. Right? So their feud with Scientology, versus how they treat Latter Day Saints, is a good example of that. The episode “All about the Mormons” from South Park, which has (sings) “Joseph Smith was called a prophet, dum dum dum dum dum.” And dum dum dum eventually turns into “This whole thing is dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb!” But the Mormons are the nicest people ever to come to South Park. And at the end of the episode, the Mormon kid, Gary, just looks at Stan and says, “All I ever wanted to do was be your friend, but you were too high and mighty for that. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy.” And I won’t finish that quote because there might be children listening at home. That, compared to the Scientology episode, “Trapped in the Closet”, which basically came out of . . . . They were asking, “Can we say Tom Cruise is gay?” And they say, “Well, no. That would be libel.” “Well, can we put him in a closet and have him refuse to come out of the closet?” “Yeah, you could do that.” Well, they did that, but they also ended up making fun of Scientology at the same time. And they were just vicious towards Scientology, saying that it’s a big fat global scam. Well that’s because they see the two different religions very differently. They don’t think Scientology produces good people the way that the Latter Day Saints do. And that’s where you can find – in those comparative nuances – is where I think you can find the real standards that South Park puts out there. And Family Guy? Family Guy is atheist. Seth MacFarlane has come out as a very prominent voice in atheist circles and early on in the programme there was . . . . So, the first three seasons of Family Guy there’s more willingness to play with the possibility that religious identities might be good things. But by the time you hit about Season Six or Seven, all the religious traditions are treated as stupid, and in some cases, very dangerous.

BF: That’s really interesting that the three project something completely different, because what people can take from them – you know, the images that they’re getting about religious people in religious institutions, that kind of broad commentary – is so varied. And that idea of, you know, spiritual-seeking is so varied. And one thing I found really interesting in the book were the examples about atheism and spiritual-but-not-religious in the three different TV shows. Because talking about, just then, the different, you know: The Simpsons as being spiritual-seeking and South Park as being this idea of creativity and then Family Guy as being atheist. Then their representation of atheism and as spiritual-but-not -religious in each show is very different. And I think it’s very interesting to see atheism and spiritual-but-not-religious in this context. Because I don’t necessarily know if it’s something that we see on TV a lot.

DF: No. And for me one of the big things was . . . . So, I’m also trained as a Sociologist of Religion and in the United States, whenever a major survey of religious affiliation is released, so let’s say the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life releases a major survey, it gets boiled down to “the number of Christians versus everybody else” in media play. (25:00) And one of the things that I was noticing, really early on, is there’s almost a fight in political and popular culture in the United States over who owns the “unaffiliated”; who the unaffiliated are. Even that term is a problem because it assumes that they’re not just being themselves and their own distinct group, just like Christians and Jews and Muslims. And if you start looking at American religious statistics, there’s a couple of thousand different denominations that get lumped into different families for statistical purposes. But there was this real question, and I saw this coming from New Atheists, people like Domar, where he would claim that people who weren’t affiliated with religion were somehow atheists like him. And I started looking at the numbers and looking at what people in those groups were saying, and I went, “You know, spiritual-but-not-religious is really a catch-all category for all kinds of stuff.” In terms of what people are doing on the ground, it’s a very creative place, where two people would say, “Well, I’m spiritual, but not religious,” and the grounds you would have to compare what they’re doing is the fact that they both say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” And I think The Simpsons in one way, and South Park in another way, kind of capture that. And how they treat atheism in all three programmes is also distinct, right? Like South Park tends to treat atheists like they would other religious extremists. In one episode, “Red Hot Catholic Love”, which is on one hand about the Catholic sexual abuse scandals that were coming out of Boston at the time when that episode was released. When the people in town find out that the kids are being abused in the Catholic Church – not in the local Catholic Church but in the Catholic Church over all – they all decide to quit and become atheists. And one of the sub-plots in that episodes is that Cartman discovers that if you stuff food up your butt, you end up pooping out your mouth. And so, long story short, all the atheists, basically . . . . The surgeon general says, “Oh yes, this is a much healthier way to eat.” So all the atheists start shoving food up their butt and crapping out their mouths. And one of the punchlines in the episode is, Father Maxi, the Catholic priest says, “You just sit around spewing a bunch of crap out of your mouths”, while one of the atheist is busy literally crapping out his mouth. And that really, I think, is one of South Park’s attacks on atheism: they see it as too extreme. Going back to “Go God Go XII”, there’s really this sense that . . . . They’ve got this race of enlightened sea otters in the future and the Wise One comes out and says about Richard Dawkins, and I’m paraphrasing here: “He had some great ideas but that doesn’t mean that he was correct on everything. Maybe, just believing in God makes God exist.” And then all the other otters gang up and kill him. And in the future, you know atheists in those episodes, atheists are at war with each other over what all the atheists should call themselves. So it’s not like atheism solves the problem of religious violence, which is what a lot of atheists were claiming at the time – or at least prominent ones. So, yes. For me, anyway, in terms of writing the book, it was thinking about the ways that we can get people to think about atheists as atheists, and people who say they’re spiritual-but-not-religious as spiritual-but-not-religious. And maybe there’s some overlap in individuals, but maybe these should be two sort-of separate categories in the way that we start thinking about religious groups and publics, certainly within the United States. And you could speak better for the Australian situation than I can.

BF: (30:00) I think we probably should take a moment to talk about . . . . We’ve had all these really great examples about the different sort-of faiths in the TV shows that you bring up in the book. And I think there’s a lot that we could take away from the book as Religious Studies scholars or Sociologists, as well. What do you think the major take-aways from the book are?

DF: I think the first one is: popular culture is something you have to pay attention to. It should be part of the data of a Religious Studies education. In a lot of cases, we teach religion and popular culture as large cash-cow courses in universities, meant to kind-of pull students into the discipline and then get put into quote-unquote “real” coursework at upper levels. And I think that undervalues the work that’s going on, that popular culture producers are doing themselves. So, one of the first takeaways is: this is deep, detailed material. I read through the book and there are days when I go, “Oh man, why didn’t I include that example, or this example?” I threw out way more than I put in, which a lot of people will tell you about their books. So there’s still. . . . I’m done working on these three series. But hopefully, somebody else will pick it up and in four or five years go, “OK! There’s new material here!” Maybe there’s been a new direction taken. I mean, South Park, for the last two years has done really interesting serial episodes throughout their seasons that are completely different from the stuff they were doing when I was writing the book. And who knows? I mean, the next season could turn completely into a massive story arc in which a particular religion or combination of religious traditions become major players. And that could change the argument that I make about South Park. Because these are still ongoing programmes and South Park is able to change directions very quickly – depending on where Trey Parker and Matt Stone want to go – unlike The Simpsons and Family Guy, which are such big productions that trying to turn those ships at this point would be incredibly difficult. So that’s the first thing. The second thing is: jokes aren’t just jokes. . . would be the way that I would put it. Humour is grossly understudied as a means of transmitting religious information. And this is one of the arguments in the book that we haven’t talked about a whole lot. But I talk about religious satire as running on sort-of two different tracks in the book. There’s the sense of, it’s religious satire in that it’s jokes about groups that are considered religions. So there are Mormon jokes in there, there’s scientology jokes. There’s two chapters on all different types of Christians, there’s Jews, there’s Muslims, there’s Buddhist and Hindus, Native American religious traditions. Because that’s where the data was. But at the same time, I argue that the humour itself is doing this work of bringing people into, and here I use a modified version of William James’ definition of religion: socialising you into an unseen order. And that, to me, has become – for me personally – one of the major take-aways from this project; that humour itself really socialises people and audiences very quickly, but with a ton of information flying at you, into a particular worldview. And we don’t pay enough attention to the way that humour is doing that. (35:00) Humour is treated as something frivolous but, at least through working with this data, I found that it was far from just joking. I found it to be an incredibly powerful way of getting across that sense of “it’s funny because it’s true.” And this book is sort of written to say, “No, things are never funny because quote-unquote “they’re true”. It’s funny because people think they’re true. And what are the consequences of socialising people into a big picture of how religious diversity should work, based on the jokes that they tell about religious groups? So, I think those would be the two biggest . . . . There’s also this last one that I always find myself bringing out now because, yeah, I’ve been told I’m a crotchety old liberal arts professor even at the age of 35. But I really do think there’s something valuable to thinking through the stuff that we are consuming. A bad episode of The Simpsons will get millions, literally, more viewers than will ever read my book. Unless, by an act of God, this becomes some sort of international bestseller. And I’m sure University Press would love if that happened, I know I would! Sitting down, thinking critically, assessing why we find certain things funny, asking ourselves, what was actually portrayed in this episode? Why do I get this joke? Because one of the experiences that scholars of religion can bring to programmes like this is, if you have a history of studying anything in religious studies – let’s say you’re a specialist in reform Judaism – you know more about, Reform Judaism than I do, because I’m not a specialist at all. But you can sit down and you can ask: OK, when they portray Jews, how are they doing that? What images are they drawing upon? What additional information can I bring into this conversation to change the way that people would look at this joke, this data? What are the advantages and disadvantages? That old-fashioned critical thinking approach. And the reason that I really like the Simpsons and South Park far more than Family Guy is that I think the Simpsons and South Park have within them a spirit of keeping that critical thinking tradition alive, far more than Family Guy does. And you can do this just by turning on your TV. And I wrote this book, in part, for students in those religion and pop culture classes, those large classes where people will show them an episode of The Simpsons, or South Park, or Family Guy and you can learn to do this from the get go. And that’s a really important vital skill for sitting down and asking who you’re going to be as a person, as a citizen, in this world. Because, at least for me, for example, when I was much younger I would laugh at racist jokes, before I ever met people of different races. I grew up in a predominantly small town, white New Brunswick culture, although there was a large Native population nearby. And it was after meeting people from different backgrounds that I went back, and I thought about jokes that I used to laugh at, and I thought, “You know, they’re really not that funny, now that I know people that fit. So why did I laugh?” And I changed my behaviour accordingly. And thinking about laughter at jokes – why you laugh, what you’re doing when you laugh. Jokes transmit a ton of information, very quickly. (40:00) And the more you can think about them, and the better you can think about them, and the clearer you can think about them, the more you can understand the relationships that are going on in the society around you. And then you can start asking what you want to do with them. And that’s kind-of where I left the book at the end. I left it open-ended, in the sense that I want readers not to stop with the book. I want them to keep thinking after they’re done reading it. So that would be the third take-away.

BF: Well, I definitely found the book left me thinking about pop culture. And everything I watch now, you laugh and you think – you’re right – why did I laugh at that? Why is it funny? And, you know particularly with The Simpsons and South Park and Family Guy, there is so much thought that goes into every single episode. And I really think that, you know, the academy is really kind-of clicked onto the politics side of those shows. They’ve clicked onto the idea that they’re commenting about Trump, or they’re commenting about American politics. But they haven’t really clicked onto the idea that they really comment about religion. And I think you’ve really clicked onto that. And it’s something that we can go beyond those three shows and really look further into pop culture at things that, perhaps we thought – you know, I hope I can say this – things that we thought perhaps weren’t worthy of our time before; these shows were a bit low-brow and low-culture. But they’re actually bringing out these ideas that people are consuming en masse. And they are conveying these ideas about religion, and this broad commentary, that people are consuming en masse. So thank you so much for joining us today. There are so many things in this interview that we can take forward and we can think about and talk about. So thank you so much for joining us again, Dave.

DF: Thank you for having me.

Citation Info: Feltmate, David and Breann Fallon. 2017. “Drawn to the Gods: Religion, Comedy and Animated Television Programmes”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 11 December 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 8 December 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/drawn-to-the-gods-religion-comedy-and-animated-television-programmes/

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“Communicating Religion”. Annual Conference of the EASR

A conference report by Hans Van Eyghen

Visiting your Alma Mater is always accompanied by mixed emotions. On the one hand you see familiar things you missed but on the other hand you’re confronted with downsides you hoped were a thing of the past. My visit to the KULeuven for the EASR conference had both, although the positives far outweighed the downsides. Read more

‘Modelling Religion’ and the Integration of the Sciences and the Humanities in the Bio-cultural Study of Religion

Following his Albert Moore Memorial Lecture at Otago University, celebrating 50 years of Religious Studies at Otago, Professor Wesley Wildman talks to Thomas White regarding the integration of the sciences and the humanities in his bio-cultural approach to the study of religion.

Wildman argues that the methods and knowledge of the empirical sciences, from evolutionary biology to neuroscience, are increasingly gaining authority in the study of religion. This is to be welcomed. Yet when scientists pursue the study of religion unassisted, they can often slip into simple category errors, or fail to recognise important contextual nuance. The expert collaboration of humanities scholars is essential for ensuring this new and growing area of scholarship remains conceptually rigorous and culturally informed. The two fields of academia must work together, but sometimes, institutional and ideological barriers can prevent such cooperation, not least regarding the use of ‘religion’ as a general category.

Tom_White,_Wesley_Wilding_27-Jul-2017

Tom White (left) and Wesley Wildman (right)

Wildman’s current project ‘Modelling Religion’ (which uses computer simulations to explore religious behaviour), offers a compelling case for Wildman’s mixed methods approach. Whilst also admitting the project’s limitations, Wildman explains how computer simulations of social and psychological processes can provide fresh input on long-standing, previously irresolvable theoretical debates in the study of religion. The interview finishes with Wildman speaking on the practical aspects of working on such mixed-method projects, including how younger scholars should prepare themselves should they wish to participate in similar research endeavours in future.

This podcast is sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes (Masters and PhD) in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of the RSP team have been through the Edinburgh RS programme, which comes highly recommended. Find out more 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, the movie Terminator 2, lollipops, and more.

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

Modelling Religion and the Integration of the Sciences and the Humanities in the Bio-cultural Study of Religion

Podcast with Wesley J. Wildman (9 October 2017).

Interviewed by Thomas White.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Wildman-_Modelling_Religion_1.1

Thomas White (TW): Hello. I’m here in Dunedin, on the South Island of New Zealand at Otago University’s recording studios, with Professor Wesley Wildman of Boston University. Yesterday evening we had the pleasure of Professor Wildman’s delivering the Albert Moore Memorial Lecture. That’s a lecture series celebrating fifty years of Religious Studies here at Otago University. The lecture title was “Integrating the Science and the Humanities in the Study of Religion”. Professor Wildman has written and co-edited numerous books and seemingly innumerous academic articles and  is the founding co-editor of the journal, Religion, Brain and Behaviour. He is also the founding director for the Centre for Mind and Culture. Presently Professor Wildman is also the Principal Investigator for the Modelling Religion Project, a sub-project under the umbrella of this Centre’s broader Simulating Religion Project. Professor Wildman, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

Wesley Wildman (WW): Thanks, Tom.

TW: So, I’ll start my first question, if you don’t mind. Professor Wildman, I understand that you work in the relatively new field of cognitive science of religion. Could you please give a brief summary of basic methods and principles that characterise this approach to the study of religion?

WW: Sure. First of all , I’m a philosopher of religion by native orientation and I specialise in the scientific study of religion, generally. And I would describe the area of my work as in the bio-cultural study of religion rather than the cognitive science of religion. Cognitive science of religion – as a name for an activity – has become broader over time, having less to do, specifically, with cognitive science and more and more to do with integrating information coming from both the biological sciences and the sciences of culture. Most of the things that we care about in religion involve both the sciences of cognition and the sciences of culture. So we care about minds and brains and how they work, and we also care about the way these things in collectives produce emergent phenomena of great interest to us at the cultural level. Keeping both sides, culture and cognition together is crucial for being able to get anywhere in understanding these complex things. That’s why the Centre for Mind and Culture has the name that it has, to indicate that it’s bio-cultural in orientation. And the religion work that we do through the centre, which is done through the Institute for the Bio-cultural Study of Religion focuses on that phrase bio-cultural. Now the methods that you use, then, are extremely diverse. Because the sciences of cognition and culture cover a tremendous amount of territory. I don’t know if it’s worthwhile listing methods, but the point is sometimes you’re doing qualitative research that’s in-depth studies of groups of people, other times you’re doing demography or social science-type statistics gathering, still other times you’re working on interpretive aspects of the social sciences and Religious Studies. And on the other end, you’re doing neuro-science studies – maybe eye-tracking or neuro-imagining – or you’re doing psychological surveys, or you’re doing medical tests to see how people respond to various conditions that might be related to religion, and so forth. The point is that all of these methods are available and you use whichever is the most useful for making sense of the problem that you’ve decided to tackle. And the fundamental principal is that you tackle those problems in a bio-cultural way.

TW: Terrific. Thank you. That was a tremendously comprehensive response. That’s great. And of course, this ties very neatly into the topic of last night’s lecture: Integrating the Sciences and the Humanities in the Study of Religion. Could you, perhaps, please explain to our listeners your argument for why the Study of Religion really demands more engagement from an empirically scientific approach?

WW: One of the fascinating things about the study of religion is how fast the empirical sciences have been making their contributions. Usually, from outside of the traditional Humanities/ Religious Studies area, people are making contributions on religion coming from Anthropology departments, or Sociology, or Psychology, or Medicine. The largest area is Medicine, but the others are quite large as well. The growth of literature which uses scientific methods of the empirical kind has been phenomenal. And now, more than half of the literature produced in the study of religion every year comes from people who are using scientific methods. So, at the basic level, Religious Studies need to know about what is known about religion. And so much of that is coming from people who are using scientific methods. You can’t keep up with the field unless you know something about what’s happening on the scientific side of things. But there are other reasons as well. There’s a lot of particular problems or research trajectories within religious studies where if you don’t have the scientific input you’re really missing the point, in a certain sense. (5:00) For example, if you want to try and answer the question: “Where does religion come from?” Or, “Where does belief in ancestor ghosts come from?” Or whatever it is – any type of question having to do with origins – you cannot address that question responsibly unless you deal explicitly with evolutionary questions: evolution of cognition, evolution of social patterns, and so forth. Or, if you want to deal with questions like intense spiritual experiences, it’s impossible to deal with that question without paying some attention to the psychological sciences and what the neuro-sciences have to say about the way brains process information and produce subjectively intense experiences. So there are just a couple of examples. But the general argument there is that religion is extraordinarily complicated as an object of study. Lots of disciplines are involved. And if you limit yourself, somewhat arbitrarily, just to a certain subset of those disciplines, you’ll pay a price.

TW: Terrific. And I suppose this also ties into the other point you were making during your lecture where you were at pains to point out that an exclusively scientific approach is also, to some degree, equally weak and one that is lacking significant Humanities input is deeply problematic, too. Could you elaborate on that, perhaps, please?

WW: Certainly. There’s a fairly depressing experience that, as editors of Religion, Brain and Behaviour, we have quite often and that’s’ reading papers that don’t seem to benefit even a little bit from the history of the study of religion from the Humanities side. People operationalise religion in a way that makes zero sense against  the history of the debate of that question in Religious Studies. Or they have, what I would call “wooden” interpretations of something that’s extremely subtle such as, for example, the subjective experience of feeling guilty. That’s enormously complicated and you can get very wooden takes on that in scientific work at times. So you’ve got this problem that, when you just start deciding as a scientist that you’re going to study religion, and you’re not going to pay attention to the subtle readings, contextual sensitivity, historical awareness and so on that Humanities scholars bring to the study of religion, you end up reinventing the wheel: it’s not efficient and of course, you’re nowhere near as good in your interpretive skills as those people who’ve been generating the deepest understanding of religion for the past hundred years or so. So you just wind up reinventing the wheel badly. And it’s sad to see. What we stand for in Religion, Brain and Behaviour is trying to force people submitting journal articles to be excellent on both sides – or at least tolerably adequately aware of both sides of the Humanities and the Sciences.

TW: Terrific. So some very strong arguments here for greater collaboration between the two disciplines or the two areas of the academy. What would you say are the main challenges that are holding back collaboration between the Sciences and the Humanities in the study of religion, whether these be institutional or ideological?

WW: Yes, it’s not easy putting them together. I think the most important fact here about collaboration is that it is quite natural when it happens. People who actually wok on both sides . . . usually in teams, of course, because it’s difficult to be expert in both, right? So, you have Humanities people and Science people working together in teams. But those collaborations typically work brilliantly. So there doesn’t seem to be a conceptual issue once you actually get into it. But there are fairly significant impediments to getting started. The first thing is insecurity, I think, on the Humanities side: “I don’t know anything abut the Sciences. How can I do anything using the Sciences?” That comes partly, I think, from imagining that the Humanities person is supposed to be in complete individual control of everything that they do. But we’ve found that that’s not the way the best work happens. The best work happens in teams. So, what’s required is to learn how to work in teams. So: you represent an Area  Studies person – so you do South Asian Buddhism or something – you work with a cognitive psychologist. And the cognitive psychologist has to be open, just like you’re open to a collaboration, working together and you really get somewhere that way. So I would call that a practical problem, not an ideological problem. And it might be the largest impediment. (10:00) But there are ideological problems as well. There are people on the Humanities side – especially with the so-called “crisis of the Humanities” – that are deeply concerned about the way research universities are focussing all of their efforts, money and attention on the STEM subjects. And, of course, the Humanities get held in stasis or they shrink slowly over time, while that happens. And you can feel as though the prestige that you had in the university context has been turned over, against your will, to the happy scientists who hold the hegemony these days: the prestige in the university context. Therefore, you certainly don’t want to invite them into traditional Humanities territory as in the Humanities’ study of religion. That is an ideological argument. I think there’s a real concern, but the way to solve the problem isn’t to keep the Sciences out, because that interferes with the quality of the research. It’s to show that the Humanities are necessary for the Sciences to do excellent work. And that was the point I made in the previous question. That’s the way to defend the Humanities in the university. You can’t do excellent work in any field, including in the Sciences, unless the Humanities are active in helping people refine their interpretations, maintain their sensitivity to context – both cultural context and historical context. I do think there are ways of steering around that ideological worry about science taking over everything, by going on the attack and arguing that the Humanities are essential for excellent science. On the Science side there’s also an ideological thing that’s something more like neglect or arrogance: “We don’t even understand what those Humanities people are doing. We’re the ones who bring in all the money and do all the work, so we don’t need to pay any attention to them.” That’s just intellectual laziness. But the way to solve that is to confront scientists with their mistakes, with the superficiality of their analyses. And Humanities people are in a very good position to do that: to demonstrate their importance in the scientific endeavour. Once those two forms of ideological resistance are mitigated then there are fewer impediments to actually getting started on forming teams and doing research. And after that, it happens naturally.

TW: Terrific. And of course – thinking about the cultural nuances that need to be raised and brought to the attention of more scientifically practised academics – for me, this kind-of brings us toward the territory of religion as a cross-cultural category. A category that presumes to precisely and usefully identify beliefs, experiences and behaviours in various cultures, across the planet, with validity. And offer them as “of a kind”. And, of course, this has been critiqued by Fitzgerald, the Critical Religion Group formed at Sterling University and many others in the Asadian school. How does your approach seek to address, or respond to, both the concerns of analytic accuracy and ethicality underlying this critique – that the category of religion elides crucial cultural difference and reinforces colonial power structures?

WW: Well first, every category that human beings build is “built”. That sounds like it might be redundant, but it’s a very important point. Everything we do in the academic world, everything we do when we categorise anything, is built. Even species designations are built. The concept of a natural kind is a built concept or a socially constructed concept that actually is very difficult to realise in the crisp and clear way that it promises to be applied to the real world. So, we’re in a world where we build categories, we construct ideas and we apply them to things. Every single time we do that we’re going to be generalising. When we generalise, every sing time, there are going to be stress points where the generalisation does not fit the data. We need to be on the alert constantly, when we build categories, for the side effects of building them.We’re cognitively lazy creatures on the whole, so we tend to get deeply attached to the categories that we build, rather than to the phenomena that they’re intended to describe. That’s where we really start to have problems, because we’ve been attached to an abstraction that distorts the thing we’re trying to talk about. So, there has to be a constant conversation going on between the construction of a category on the one hand and the connection to details, contexts, periods, and so forth on the other hand. When that conversation’s going on you actually check the dangers of generalisation and, in a certain way, unleash generalisation and make it useful for the academic study of whatever it is that you’re looking at. (15:00) So that’s a general principal that I present in my theory of inquiry, which has to do with the legitimacy of generalisation and its dangers, and how to manage the dangers in order to make generalisation useful. So it’s against the background of that framework that I would say religion is a classic example of a category that’s socially constructed – sometimes to serve political purposes. But the generalisations that lead to distortions in the use of the word “religion” can also be checked, they can be criticised, they can be managed in a certain way. So that you can continue to make the generalisation, if there’s a reason to do so, and use the category of religion without ever falling prey to the delusional thinking associated with thinking that you didn’t build the category in the first place. Now the particular school you mentioned, I think, over-simplify the history of the concept of religion. Plato talked about religion and he was thinking comparatively when he did. Whenever there’s more than one who are doing something similar that we would be prepared to call religion now, there was stress to try to understand comparatively what was going on. You see this in Chinese debates between Confucians and Buddhists and Daoists in ancient China. And you see something similar in South Asian contexts. So people . . . whenever you’ve got any type of pluralistic setting with things that we might be prepared to call religion, you actually see the emergence of categorisations that allow people to say, “Well these things are ‘of a kind’.” It’s not just a colonialist invention. The latest version of it in the West has been a colonial invention – there’s no question about that. But that’s not the only way the word comes up, or the idea comes up in the history of human thought. Again, what’s happening there is people need to draw generalisations to understand complex things. And those generalisations will always distort, therefore they always need to be managed. The same principle applies today. We can keep using the word religion if we want, but we have to take responsibility for doing so. That’s where the ethical side of it comes in. It’s the taking responsibility for the generalisations that we use in academia and in the general discourse abut things in the world. Taking responsibility means checking what the distorting side effects might be of our use of language. And consequently making adjustments where necessary, and sometimes abandoning words altogether.

TW: Thank you. That’s  a formidable response. Now, let’s move on to your research that’s ongoing at the moment. As I mentioned earlier,you’re the principal investigator for the Modelling Religion Project which sits within the broader Simulating Religion Project, being run by the Centre for Mind and Culture. So, starting from the top, what does simulating religion entail? What does it offer? And what are it’s limits, if any?

WW: Well, it’s plainly limited! That’s a very good place to start, in fact. If you’re thinking about using computers to create models and run simulations in relation to religion, there’s a whole bunch of limits that need to be confessed, right up front. And the beautiful simplicity of a feeling of peace that someone has in a religious ritual – we can’t express that in a computer simulation, we just can’t. So there’s no point in trying to do that. So we’re already sharply aware of so much that we can’t do, when we try and use computer models to simulate religious social processes and psychological processes. If that was the only thing that mattered you’d never bother with computer engineering at all. You just wouldn’t go there. But it’s not the only thing that matters. There are a whole bunch of things for which computer modelling and simulation turn out to be extremely useful. So, you judge whether you use those techniques based on whether you can get anywhere with them. That’s practical. It’s a practical reason to use them. So we’re not trying to pursue any agenda here. We don’t have an ideological computers-will-take-over-the-world perspective – nothing like that! All we try to do is to use methods that are useful. Now, why would they be useful and in what contexts would they be useful? To begin with, it’s quite common to find academics fighting over things. They have got competing theories. And so often, the theories aren’t capable of being tested or even directly compared with one another. So you wind up having internal fights. Like, historians trying to decide about the spread of violence in the Radical Reformation. Did it come through congregational lineages? Or was it spread horizontally by firebrand travelling preachers, you know? Well, that fight’s been going on for hundreds of years. (20:00) Can you resolve a fight like that? Could you use computer analysis or other techniques to be able to resolve a fight like that? We found that you can. That you can build models of both horizontal transmission and vertical transmission of violence among Anabaptists and you can produce support for one of those hypotheses that’s stronger than support for the other. Now that doesn’t prove anything, but it shifts the burden of proof. And what we found, when we actually did this study, was that vertical transmission is stronger than horizontal transmission. So, if you’ve got an historian who wants to argue for horizontal transmission they have a larger burden now, because of the work that we did: a larger burden to show that they’re right, despite the fact that this group showed that vertical transmission is stronger. So that’s an example of bringing in a method when it’s useful, to help with an intractable enquiry. Other kinds of intractable enquiries are important as well. If you’re trying to think about the way people deal with religion in modernity: the way it arises; the way they have experiences; the way they have beliefs; the way secularisation impacts them; the way a thousand other factors – economics, healthcare – affects the way people operate religiously. If you want to understand that, there are an awful lot of theories out there that have been offered that do that. And some of them are conflicting with one another. For example, you got the Stark-style supply side economic-style theories of religion versus the demand side theories that are pursued by lots of other people. That conflict is a fight to death conflict. Is one of them going to be right and one of them going to be wrong? One of the brilliant things about computer modelling is that you can build models that incorporate both of these viewpoints together. Of course, not in the same respect, because there’s a genuine conflict between the two of them. But if you’ve got a supply and demand-type set up in your computer model it’s obvious that there could be demand factors and it’s obvious that there could be supply factors. There’s no problem putting them together. But you need a complex structure to express conceptually precisely what you mean by combining those two theories, so that you can see how they are actually – or could be actually – consistent with one another. After that, what you’ve got is a model that you could run against data. If you can produce better predictions of data using your combined model, then you’ve succeeded in transcending this fight to the death between supply side and demand side theories abut religion in modernity. So it’s when it’s useful that we go there. And when it’s not useful we don’t try.

TW: Great. It sounds like that there’s a lot of rich and important work to be done in that field. Where do you see the modelling approach in the study of religion transforming in the future? What do you think its ambitions ought to be?

WW: Well, for one thing, they should be modest. Because it’s a hard road. The collaboration involved in making this work is quite extreme, in a certain sense, because you need specialists associated with any particular model that you build: you need generalists who know about Religious Studies in general from a Humanities perspective, for example; you need computer engineers who are actually going to build models. So it’s hard to organise groups of people like that and it takes a lot of energy and actually, frankly, a lot of money to be able to pull it off. So the first thing is to be cautious about claiming that too much will change in the future. But there’s something about computer modelling that’s generative. It’s been called “the key to generative social science” because it generates new ways of thinking. It generates new hypotheses for testing and so forth. It produces results that are surprising, sometimes, that you weren’t ready for. Very often, coding low-level behaviours and interactions between simulated agents – like people – or sometimes groups of agents, but whatever. You’re coding at the lower level, how they relate to each other, how they think in their own minds, how they process information, how they communicate. And you validate that against experimental work in Psychology of Religion and Sociology of Religion and so forth. Then, when you run a simulation, these interactions combine in a complex system to produce emergent properties. Those emergent properties aren’t coded in at the bottom. They come out of the system. (25:00) And it’s the emergent properties, of course, that you really care about. Because the other things you’ve got high level data on – population data. So you can test the model to see whether the architecture you built at the low level is any good, by looking at what emergent features it produces.

TW: Can you give an example of something that you’ve worked on that represents that?

WW: Sure. Think about mutually escalating religious violence. Two groups that have religious impulses and they’re trying to . . . they use those impulses to motivate and to rationalise the violent behaviours that they engage in. Sometimes this produces mutual escalation: one groups hits, the other group hits back harder, and so forth, until you get to a certain threshold and then everyone takes a breather and calms down again, for a while. Well, we’ve been able to produce mutually escalating religious violence in a computer model. But not by programming it in. Rather, by defining relationships among people as they interact with one another – as in, insiders in their own group and outsider in a threatening, outside group. These programmed-in behaviours at the low level don’t predict anything at the high level. And yet, what we do get is mutually escalating violence with cool-down periods. That emergent feature of mutually escalating violence with cool-down periods can be compared to actual historical episodes. And we’ve used the Irish Troubles and the  Gujarat riots and various other things to try and make sense of what’s going on there. So that’s one of the pieces that’s in publication at the moment. What’s really going on there is that you’ve got a complex system in the real world that connects minds – lots of minds – and culture, say, emergent features such as violence. Those connections are very complex, too complex to understand analytically, so you use another complex system to model it. That is, you build a complex system in a computer to get a handle on the complex system in the real world. And that’s what produces generative social science: new hypotheses that you couldn’t get a hold of any other way. You can solve problems and tackle research problems using computers even in Religious Studies, that you can do in no other way.

TW: Great. Thank you very much, Professor Wildman. I’ll just finish with one final question. For younger scholars and students inspired by the application of computer technology – those digital natives that are coming up through their careers and the greater use of scientific approaches in the study of religion – what advice would you give to them, in terms of the skills and knowledge that they should really seek to be developing in preparation for a career in this field?

WW: When we look for collaborators, it’s easy for us to find people in computer engineering who have some interest in religion. They don’t know anything about the study of religion but they’re fascinated by religion even if they’re not personally religious. So, finding people who are excited to take on this kind of research turns out to be very easy. The danger there is that if someone is like that, and they run off and try to do that research by themselves, they’ll be operating in the dark. They won’t be aware of what Religious Studies really means from a Humanities point of view. So they really need to find collaborators. And on the other side, when people  . . . maybe they learned programming in high school and they’re coming through doing a PhD or a Master’s, or something, in Religious Studies, and they’re thinking “Oh, wouldn’t it be great to do modelling and simulation!”  . . . . It’s actually extremely technical, and just because they know a programming language, it might not be quite enough. They also need to make teams. In general, my advice is find teams: don’t suppose that you can be expert at everything but, rather, collaborate with people who can provide form of expertise that you don’t already possess. And you can contribute your own forms of expertise and learn a lot in the process. Now there are other things you can do, like look for high-level graduate training where you get trained on both sides. That does exist – it’s not very common but there are a few places that do that. But I think, fundamentally, anyone can get started on this so long as they’re thoughtful about finding team mates to work with. These days the scientific study of religion is a team sport.

TW: Inspiring stuff! Well thank you very much, Professor Wildman, for joining me this morning, and  I really enjoyed your lecture yesterday evening, and thank you very much for your time.

WW: My pleasure.

Citation info: Wildman, Wesley, J. 2017. “Modelling Religion and the Integration of the Sciences and the Humanities in the Bio-cultural Study of Religion” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 9 October 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 27 September 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/modelling-religion-and-the-humanities-in-the-bio-cultural-study-of-religion/

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University Lecturer: Religion in International Relations

Leiden University, The Netherlands

Deadline: April 17, 2017

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EASR 2017 Bursaries

Deadline: May 18, 2017

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Religion, Gender, and Gender Violence

gender-violenceReligion and gender violence is, an undesirable yet critical area of research in the field of religious studies. Violence inflicted against people of all gender and sexual orientations comes in numerous forms, and is something to which many faiths are connected in some way. In this podcast Dr Caroline Blyth discusses her research on ‘theologies of rape’ and gender violence as enacted against males and masculinity, particularly within the Christian Church. Blyth also discusses her upcoming edited series Rape Culture, Gender Violence and Religion (edited with Dr Emily Colgan and Dr Katie Edwards). In latter part of the interview, Blythe is joined by a contributor to the series who discusses his experience in the LGBTI community and how that has impacted his academic work in the volume. The two also discuss their involvement with Hidden Perspectives at the University of Auckland, a project that provides a platform for LGBTI student voices within the Faculty of Arts teaching and research community.

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, Everlasting Gobstoppers, and more.

Religious Freedom in America: Theoretical Considerations

6a00d83451bab869e200e54f730ca48833-800wiReligious freedom is an inherently good thing, right? It’s a cherished idea that is easy for state governments to enact, no? In this interview, Finbarr Curtis questions both of these assertions. In The Production of American Religious Freedom, Curtis argues that religious freedom is a fluent and malleable concept that people deploy for various and competing reasons. Curtis uses several case studies to illustrate how the rhetoric of religious freedom has no coherent logic. This discussion has both legal and political implications, as it concludes that one of modernity’s most important concepts—religious freedom—is both unobtainable and undesirable.

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, apple pie, and more.

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


Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 14 February 2017

Exciting news!

You may now advertise with the Religious Studies Project!

Platforms include podcasts, web pages, opportunities digest, and social media.

Send an e-mail to editors@religiousstudiesproject.com to learn more!

Calls for papers

Conference: Society for Phenomenology and the Human Sciences

October 19–21, 2017

University of Memphis, USA

Deadline: May 1, 2017

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Conference: SSSR: Going Public: The Social Impact of Scientific Research on Religion

October 13–15, 2017

Washington, D.C., USA

Deadline: March 31, 2017

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Conference: Social Movements

April 10–12, 2017

Manchester Metropolitan University, UK

Deadline: March 31, 2017

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Conference: Heavenly Acts IV

May 8–9, 2017

University of Sheffield, UK

Deadline: March 31, 2017

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Conference: Religion(s) and Power(s)

October 5–6, 2017

Deadline: April 1, 2017

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Conference: The Life and Legacy of Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Movements in Scholarly Perspective

May 29–30, 2017

Antwerp, Belgium

Deadline: February 28, 2017

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Conference: Holism: Possibilities and problems

September 8–10, 2017

University of Essex, UK

New deadline: March 31, 2017

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Conference panel: RGS-IBS: Faith and the “practising” of social justice

August 29–September 1, 2017

London, UK

Deadline: February 8, 2017

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Journal: International Journal of Human Rights in Healthcare

Special issue: Negotiating Belief in Health and Social Care

Deadline: September 15, 2017

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Journal: Palgrave Communications

Special issue: Religion and poverty

Deadline: September 30, 2017

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Journal: Journal for Religion and Society in Central and Eastern Europe

Special issue: Religion and Non-religion in Contemporary Societies

Deadline: May 15, 2017

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Symposium: Islamic Studies and Middle Eastern Studies Post-graduate Symposium

May 18, 2017

University of Birmingham, UK

Deadline: February 22, 2017

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Symposium: The Cognition of Belief

June 2, 2017

Georgetown University, USA

Deadline: February 17, 2017

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Events

Seminar: The Reformation and the Arts around the North Sea

March 6, 2017

Bergen, Norway

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Summer school: “Critical Approaches to the Study of Religion and Gender: Postcolonial, Post-secular and Queer Perspectives”

May 17–21, 2017

Deadline: March 1, 2017

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Workshop: SOCREL: “Let’s get critical”

February 24, 2017

University of Westminster, UK

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Jobs and funding

Award: Early Career Awards

University of Kent / John Templeton Foundation

Deadline: June 1, 2017

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Professorship: History of Religions with focus on indigenous religions

The Arctic University of Tromsø, Norway

Deadline: March 3, 2017

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PhD position: Religion and morality policy: An analysis of the influence of religious groups during the implementation stage

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany

Deadline: March 1, 2017

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AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation

This roundtable, in association with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, considers the impact of recent technological advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics on religion, religious conceptions of the world, and the human. It draws attention to how such advances push religion beyond how it has been commonly defined and considered.

1389397212614In March 2016 ‘AlphaGo’, a Google/Deepmind programme, defeated an international champion at the Chinese game ‘Go’ in a five game match. This victory was, by current understandings of AI, a vast leap forward towards a future that could contain human-like technological entities, technology-like humans, and embodied machines. As corporations like Google invest heavily in technological and theoretical developments leading towards further, effective advances – a new ‘AI Summer’ – we can also see that hopes, and fears, about what AI and robotics will bring humanity are gaining pace, leading to new speculations and expectations, even amidst those who would position themselves as non-religious.

Speculations include Transhumanist and Singularitarian teleological and eschatological schemes, assumptions about the theistic inclinations of thinking machines, the impact of the non-human on our conception of the uniqueness of human life and consciousness, and the moral boundary work of secular technologists in relation to their construct, ‘religion’. New religious impulses in the face of advancing technology have been largely ignored by the institutions founded to consider the philosophical, ethical and societal meanings of AI and robotics. This roundtable is an initial conversation on this topic, with the intention for further discussion and publications.

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, tin foil hats, Jeff Goldblum custom water proof shower curtains, and more.

Religion, Science and Evolutionary Theory

science-religionScience and evolution in Muslim societies is a complicated topic. Among the public, what does evolution mean? Whats does evolution stand for? Is there a ‘Muslim view’ on evolution? In this podcast, Stephen Jones interviews Salman Hameed about recent research on Muslim perceptions of science and evolution.

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, Darwin fish stickers, Primordial Soup and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com.

Religion, Spirituality, and Addiction Recovery

What is the relationship between ‘religion’, ‘spirituality’, ‘addiction’ and ‘addiction recovery’? What are we meaning by ‘addiction’? Is it socially constructed? Why are we even talking about a relationship between these concepts? Can religion be conceptualized as an addiction? how might a specifically Religious Studies approach help us to productively engage with this particularly sensitive area? And, as ever, how might we go about conducting such research? These are just a few of the questions discussed in today’s podcast, where Chris speaks with Dr Wendy Dossett of the University of Chester, UK.

Be sure to take a peek at some of Wendy’s other scholarship, like the book Narrative and Reflexivity in the Study 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, flowers, tea tree oil, and more.